What is Dhamma?

-06, Nov 2020


What is Dhamma?

The Sanskrit word Dharma (which is spelled Dhamma in the Pāli language) originally meant “the law of nature” or “the truth.” In today’s India, unfortunately, the word has lost its original meaning, and is mistakenly used to refer to “sect” or “sectarianism.” Using this theme as an introduction, in this discourse, Goenkaji explains that Vipassana meditation teaches how to live a life of pure Dharma—a life full of peace, harmony and goodwill for others.

What is Dharma? In the last 1500 to 2000 years, to its great misfortune, India lost the true meaning of the word ‘dharma.’ How indeed could one live according to its tenets when its very meaning was lost! To make matters worse many types of support, one could say crutches, were added to it. Various communities created their own respective dharma; hence there came about Buddhist dharma, Jain dharma, Hindu dharma, Christian dharma and so on. 

These sectarian terms were the crutches attached to Dharma, though it does not need any support. It gives support. But when these crutches arise, they take precedence and become prominent, while Dharma recedes into the background, unseen. To our great misfortune this is what happened. 

In ancient India, Dharma meant that which is imbibed, lived by – dhāretīti dhammam. That which arises on the surface of mind at a given moment was considered the dharma of the mind. What does the mind imbibe but its own nature, its own characteristics, that is its ‘dharma’. Dharma meant the characteristics, the nature of a particular element. Dharma, in the language of those days, was also called rit, meaning the law of nature. For instance, the nature or characteristic of fire is to burn and burn whoever comes in contact with it. The nature or characteristic of ice is to be cool and cool whoever comes in contact with it.

Dharma As Nature’s Law

We also say that it is nature’s law that all beings face death, illness and old age. The law of nature, in other words, was Dharma. Let us examine what the nature of the mind is. Whatever has arisen at this moment in my mind: anger, animosity, jealousy or arrogance for example. These are negativities that may arise from time to time, and as such have been called the nature of the mind, that is, the law, the Dharma of the mind. The great researchers of yore – the Rishis, Sages, Saints, Gurus, Arahants, Buddhas searched long and hard to find what was Dharma, or the nature of the mind. 

Any defilement, any negativity of anger, jealousy, or arrogance, when it arises, it results in tremendous heat and agitation within. This is its nature. It is inevitable. If anger has arisen within, then another part of nature, agitation, will follow as an inevitable result every single time. These defilements always arise coupled with agitation. This was called sahajat – meaning together; this misery arises along with its own consequence, its own effect every time. 

Let us understand this better – when burning coals are put in a container, these will burn the container before heating up the external environment. Anyone who comes near it will feel the heat. Similarly, if one keeps ice in a vessel, it will first cool the vessel before cooling the external environment. This is the unchangeable law of nature. 

Just like fire, when a person is angry, he first becomes the victim of his own anger before spreading vibrations of agitation and heat in the environment. All those who come in contact with this person feel the agitation. This is the expression or nature of a mind dwelling in ignorance manifesting itself. As soon as one distances oneself from the burning coals, the heat will subside. 

The Sages of yore, as mentioned earlier, realized the profound truth that when any defilement like jealousy, anger, arrogance etc. arise then it will inevitably burn them. If they put burning coals in their mental vessels, then the result can’t be anything but heat and agitation. At such times they behaved this way in ignorance not realizing the immutable law of the nature; since no one in their rightful mind would want to generate burning agitation for themselves.

A child in his ignorance does not know that fire burns and puts his hand on burning coals. Startled, he pulls his hand back. Curious, he again puts his hand on fire then pulls it back when it burns. This may be repeated a few times, until he finally realizes that this is fire, it burns and should never be touched. 

A child understands. But what do we do? We keep filling ourselves with more and more burning coals, burning ourselves and others. Sheer ignorance! When anger, jealousy, aversion, arrogance or some such defilement arises, it keeps multiplying within filling us with thoughts of the event or the person who was instrumental in its occurrence. We justify it to ourselves by saying, ‘Such and such happened which angered me, so it was not my fault. It is only natural that I became angry’. 

Natural indeed! You are angry with someone or some event which obstructed you from reaching your desired goal. Maybe, but the fact also is that you are burning yourself. You have not seen the heat within. The mind is only looking outwards. 

On the other hand, if instead of burning coals, cool ice is put in the vessel then it will result in soothing, calming coolness since ice will also follow its own nature to cool. The attributes of mind that carry cooling properties are loving-kindness, compassion, and joy in another’s happiness. All good habits have the integral nature of imparting cooling calmness to one’s self as well as to others around one. 

The science or technique of looking within was called Vipassana in ancient India. Though one needs to be aware of external reality, to observe within was rightly considered vital for one’s mental development; to watch the reactions that arise within due to certain events is one of the most important aspects of consciousness. The day we can truly see this truth, is when we start to understand pure Dharma without any crutches. 

‘Whenever I generate defilements in my mind, it inevitably results in agitation’; one begins to understand this absolute truth. After repeatedly watching this phenomena a few times, one also learns to watch this reality objectively. Which means initially one observes the event or events that take place outside and sees those events as the cause of his anger, jealousy, animosity etc. As he matures on the path, he disengages himself from events and focuses attention on what happens within when he gets angry. He begins to see that in such situations he burns with agitation and unhappiness. As he continues to watch within and understand this fundamental reality of Dharma, his nature and behaviour starts changing. He grows deeper into Dharma. 

He also learns that getting muddied with defilements is not Dharma. He also sees that awakening wholesome qualities like compassion, loving-kindness and joy in others’ joy is Dharma as he experiences serenity and peace upon generating such qualities. 

Dhāretīti dhammam – Dharma is that which is lived and imbibed. When one knows it at an experiential level the person becomes truly Dharmic. One knows well that if one lives with fire one will certainly burn and conversely, if one lives with ice, one will remain cool. Nothing can alter this phenomenon. This is rit, the universal law that governs all without exception; it does not differentiate between people belonging to different sects and communities, be they Hindu, Muslim or from any other community. 

The day we recognize this universal aspect of Dharma, that day humankind will make a quantum leap in human evolution. 

If one forgets this universal truth and persists in putting undue attention on external rites and rituals, then the work of self-evolution slows down, or indeed one moves further away from Dharma. 

Various sects and communities have their own rites and rituals, their way of dressing, their life philosophy and respective social customs which govern their lives. There is nothing wrong with that, but these social rituals and conventions are not Dharma! Investing all his time in rites and rituals, one may fool himself thinking that he is very Dharmic; but when he probes deeper within then he may see the reality of how far he has moved away from Dharma, from wisdom and knowledge–generating defilements, growing agitated, harming himself and disturbing others’ peace. 

Dharma is, as said earlier, universal, and has but one yardstick to check whether one is growing on the path; that is to see whether defilements are decreasing. This is the simple and only yardstick to measure Dharma by. Then whichever caste, sect or class one may belong to becomes immaterial once one understands the true and universal nature of Dharma.


With deep gratitude to Shri S N Goenka

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