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and dependent arising (pratītya-samutpāda), but in some schools they do not play a prominent role and are superseded by other doctrines.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.
Etymologically, the term dharma is related to the Sanskrit root dhṛ, “to bear, hold, sustain, support.” It is translated in a variety of ways in English, including “law, doctrine, teaching, truth, duty, natural law, good qualities,” all of which convey some aspect of how it is used in Sanskrit literature, but no single English word adequately captures the range of meanings and nuances found in Indic texts. In Vedic literature there is a notion of a cosmic order that is maintained by proper human conduct and performance of rituals. This is most commonly associated with the term ṛta, “order,” but some Vedic texts use dharma to express this notion, and in later Brahmanical texts dharma gradually supplants ṛta as a designation for the cosmic order that is maintained by human actions, particularly rituals and sacrifices performed by the priestly Brahman caste and adherence to the duties of particular social groups. In the Pāli canon and in Mahāyāna texts, it is more often used to refer to the Buddha’s teaching, construed as universal truth, to the constituent elements of existence, and less frequently to good qualities developed by the Buddha (and sometimes his followers) through their religious practice. Keown 2007 provides a good short overview of the etymology of dharma and its connotations in early Buddhism; this article also has a succinct discussion of how dharma is understood in the scholastic abhidharma literature. Bond 1982 (cited under Theravāda) is a good discussion of hermeneutics in the Theravāda tradition. Snellgrove 1987 (cited under Mahāyāna) is the best overall treatment of doctrines from early Buddhism, Mahāyna, and Tantra. Carter 1978 discusses the Theravāda perspective on dharma and how it is interpreted in Sinhalese commentaries. Conze 1973 is a small book that concisely overviews a range of topics in Indian Buddhism. Harvey 1990 is a dependable account of early Buddhist doctrines and dharma theory. Horsch 2004 discusses how the term is used in a variety of early Indian texts. Jackson and Makransky 2000 contains a number of articles that explore various aspects of Buddhist doctrines as part of a project to develop a Buddhist theology. Takasaki 1987 is a somewhat dated and idiosyncratic discussion that contains some useful material. It should be noted for general readers that there is a Wikipedia entry on the term, but it provides a superficial overview of dharma.
Carter, John Ross. Dharma: Western Academic and Sinhalese Buddhist Interpretations: A Study of a Religious Concept. Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1978.
Begins with an excellent historical overview of interpretations of the concept among Western academics and then turns to its usages in the Pāli canon. Carter demonstrates the close linkage between the Buddha and the dharma and then traces how the concept is interpreted in Sinhalese commentaries.
Conze, Edward. Buddhist Thought in India. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1973.
Somewhat dated but still useful overview of early Buddhist doctrines (pp. 17–79) and dharma theory (pp. 80–118).
Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Excellent overview of the life of the Buddha and his teaching career, along with discussions of core doctrines (pp. 9–72), followed by overviews of early Buddhist schools and abhidharma (pp. 83–88).
Horsch, Paul. “From Creation Myth to World Law: The Early History of Dharma.”Journal of Indian Philosophy 32 (2004): 423–448. Translated by Jarrod L. Whitaker.
Mainly focuses on how dharma is construed in the Vedas and other non-Buddhist texts, but there is a good discussion of how this relates to Buddhism on pages 438–441.
Jackson, Roger, and John Makransky. Buddhist Theology: Critical Reflections by Contemporary Buddhist Scholars. Richmond, UK: Curzon, 2000.
Very uneven collection of articles that explore aspects of Buddhist doctrine in an attempt to speculate on what a “Buddhist theology” or “Buddhology” might look like. Some of these are insightful and shed new light on traditional doctrines, whereas others are less successful.
Keown, Damien. “Dharma.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Edited by Damien Keown and Charles S. Prebish, 271–280. London: Routledge, 2007.
Excellent short overview of the etymology and history of the term dharma and how it has been understood in various Buddhist traditions.
Takasaki, Jikido. An Introduction to Buddhism. Translated by Rolf W. Giebel. Tokyo: Toho Gakkai, 1987.
Now somewhat dated, but a good overview of Buddhist doctrines and history.
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