Spiritual Glossary: Dharma

The word dharma has various meanings in different cultures, but in Buddhism it has two. As dharma it refers to cosmic law and the natural order of life, and as Dharma it refers to the teachings of the Buddha. But as we’ll see, these two things are not so far apart.

The Sanskrit root of dharma is dhri which means to uphold or sustain. From this comes the idea of universal law or the laws of physics and nature. Dharma is at work on every level of existence: from the quantum vacuum and the elements, to animals and humans, our families, communities, and nations, all the way up to planetary systems and supernovas. Everything is regulated by the hidden order of dharma, although we may find it hard to see or understand at times.

It can also be seen working through our ideas of duty and ethics, our sense of what constitutes morally correct behaviour, and our sense of vocation. If you feel drawn to a particular path – you have to paint, or write, or make tiny crocheted hats for weasels – then that’s your dharma, the thing you were born to do or be.

So dharma is the essential nature of all things: quarks and bosons, feelings and thoughts, ducks, trees, mountains and rivers, book clubs, governments, the Milky Way, the universe…and you.

Dharma also means the teachings of the Buddha: the way to achieve freedom from illusion and liberation from the wheel of karma and suffering. These teachings are a reflection of the natural order of the universe. The Buddha simply recognised what was true and the teachings arose from that realisation. There’s no real separation between the two. The dharma and the teachings are one.

The idea of dharma is also related to the Taoist principle of living in harmony with the natural order of the universe. Tao means way or path and relates to the mystery that underpins all of reality. Tao is the source of all and the engine for keeping everything moving. But it’s fundamentally mysterious: it can’t be grasped by the intellect – it can only be lived.

There’s also the dharmas – plural. These are the phenomena that make up your perception: what you’re thinking, feeling, sensing, and so on. Your perception is made up of multiple flashes of sense data, or phenomenon, that are constantly changing.

The whole of reality is like this too: constantly changing and becoming something else. It’s our attachment to this seething cauldron of change that causes suffering and keeps us pinned to the wheel of death and rebirth. Seeing into the nature of reality and accepting that you can’t control the dharmas is the way of the Buddha and the path to liberation.

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Image: Dharma wheel