John Powers

in Buddhism

ISBN: 9780195393521
Published online September 2010 | | DOI:


Dharma (Pāli dhamma; East Asia: 法, pronounced fǎ in Mandarin, beop in Korean, hō in Japanese, and pháp in Vietnamese) is a Sanskrit word that has multiple meanings. It can refer to universal law, righteousness, social duties, good qualities, or subtle phenomena that are the constituent elements of all existence. These meanings are separable in theory, but are conceptually interconnected: the Buddha’s teachings express the true nature of reality; lead to development of good qualities; and accurately represent the constituent elements of the universe, how they operate, and how they affect the religious life. In Buddhist literature, dharma often refers to Buddhist teaching and practice in general. In this sense, dharma is used by Buddhists to encompass everything that was taught by the Buddha (or more precisely what a given tradition believes was spoken by him). For Buddhists, Buddhadharma accords with and describes universal truth and details a path to salvation through which one overcomes suffering (duḥkha) and escapes from cyclic existence (samsara). One indication of its importance for Buddhists is the fact that dharma is one of the “three refuges” (triśaraṇa) or “three jewels” (triratna) (along with the Buddha and the monastic community) on which Buddhists resolve to rely as part of the standard initiation into the faith. Every tradition of Buddhism has its own perspective on what constitutes the dharma, and there is considerable disagreement among Buddhists regarding what is the Buddha’s definitive thought (nītārtha) and what are merely provisional teachings of interpretable meaning (neyārtha) given in response to circumstances or for beings of inferior capacities. To further complicate the situation, as Buddhism spread beyond India to the far reaches of Asia, each region developed its own doctrines and practices, while also retaining some from the tradition’s Indian origins. Most Buddhist traditions would agree on the validity of such teachings as the four noble truths (ārya-satya), the eightfold noble path (āryāṣṭāṅga-mārga), and dependent arising (pratītya-samutpāda), but in some schools they do not play a prominent role and are superseded by other doctrines. Indian Buddhism is commonly divided into two main streams: Mahāyāna (“greater vehicle”) and Hīnayāna (“lesser vehicle,” a designation that is not accepted by those to whom it is applied). Each developed its own canons, which reflect the material their respective proponents considered to be the “word of the Buddha” (Buddha-vacana). A third canonical collection of texts commonly referred to as “tantras” began to appear in India around the end of the 7th century, and these represent a new version of the dharma that includes elements of the other two but has its own distinctive doctrines and practices.

Article.  4286 words. 

Subjects: Buddhism ; Tibetan Buddhism ; Zen Buddhism

Full text: subscription required

How to subscribeRecommend to my Librarian

Buy this work at Oxford University Press »