- The Dhamma
- Dr. Sunthorn Plamintr
The meaning of Dhamma
Etymologically, the word Dhamma (Sanskrit: Dharma) is derived from the
root "dham," meaning "to uphold" or "to support," and the
commentary further explains that it is that which upholds or supports the practitioner (of
Dhamma) and prevents him or her from falling into evil states or birth in a woeful
Of all Buddhist terminology, the word Dhamma commands the widest, most comprehensive
meaning. There is nothing that does not come within the purview of this word. In fact, all
things, animate or inanimate, all phenomena, those that can be seen or felt and those
beyond our empirical perception, all conditioned and unconditioned states, can be included
in the term Dhamma. However, Dhamma as one of the Three Gems is that which is represented
by the teachings of the Buddha.
The late Venerable Buddhadasa, one of the most influential thinkers and Dhamma
exponents in contemporary Thailand, explains the meaning of the term by a fourfold
definition. According to this, Dhamma means (a) the state of nature as it is, (b) the laws
of nature, (c) the duties that must be performed in accordance with the laws of nature,
and (d) the results that are derived from the fulfillment of such duties. This definition,
he claims, represents the true and complete picture of Dhamma, and is inclusive of all
things which the term refers to.
Buddhadasa's explanation closely follows the pattern of the Four Noble Truths, found in
the very first discourse of the Buddha. The first Truth deals with dukkha
(suffering), a Pali term which characterizes all things that exist. Dukkha
represents the state of nature as it is, which is the first of the four definitions of
Dhamma. The second Truth deals with the cause of dukkha, comparable with the laws
of nature, for it is on the laws of nature that things (dukkha) arise, function,
and cease. The third Truth deals with the extinction of dukkha, a state of
complete freedom experienced as a result (fourth definition) of the efforts to fulfill the
duty of Dhamma. The fourth Truth deals with the path leading to the cessation of dukkha,
which is comparable to the third definition of Dhamma (duty to be fulfilled according to
the laws of nature). By treading the path of Dhamma (performing duties) one obtains
results proportionate to one's endeavor -- being free from dukkha.
Understanding the Dhamma in its broadest sense, according to the doctrine of the four
Noble Truths, helps us to see how closely it is related to our lives and how we can
perceive all aspects of our lives and activities in the light of the Dhamma. For example,
we can clearly see Dhamma in our experience of hunger, something very common in life.
Hunger is part of nature, a natural state of existence, which we feel the way it is (dukkha).
It arises, according to the laws of nature, from certain conditions -- namely, lack of
food. Nature further dictates that we must perform appropriate duties with regard to
hunger, that is, we take necessary actions according to the laws of nature (fourth Noble
Truth) by eating. As a result, hunger is appeased and we experience freedom from its pains
(third Noble Truth).
Of course, this is simply an analogy of how an ordinary experience may be perceived
from the perspective of the Dhamma. It does not specifically mean that eating constitutes
the fourth Noble Truth, nor is the extinction of physical hunger really the third Truth as
intended by the Buddha. The analogy demonstrates the practical purpose that understanding
the Dhamma in relation to our direct experiences, and in the light of the Four Noble
Truths, serves, especially since such an attitude enables us to live constantly in the
presence of the Dhamma itself. The fourfold definition of Dhamma points to the infinite
scope of the term as well as the inseparability of life and Dhamma.
Attributes of the Dhamma
There are six qualities attributed to the Dhamma in the Pali scriptures. These
virtuous qualities are described in the meditation technique known as Recollection of the
Dhamma (dhammanussati). Understanding these attributes also helps to increase
conviction and faith in the Dhamma.
The first attribute of the Dhamma is its comprehensive exposition by the Buddha, who
realized it through his direct experience. The Buddha's omniscience and boundless
compassion assure us of the validity and value of his teachings, which are "fine in
the beginning, fine in the middle, and fine in the end, complete with meanings and
principles for living a noble life leading to purity and complete freedom."
Secondly, the Dhamma is realizable through its practitioners' own efforts. Those who
practice the Buddha's teachings will see the Dhamma for themselves. They will derive the
full benefits of their own commitment and will thereby be convinced of the truth of the
Dhamma. Thus, there is no need to blindly believe in what is said by others.
The third attribute of Dhamma is expressed in the Pali term akalika, which is
translated either as "timeless" or "yielding immediate results." The
Dhamma is timeless because it transcends all temporal limitations; its truth is eternal.
The Dhamma is said to yield immediate results because its effects can be experienced at
each and every moment. The principle of conditionality, for instance, demonstrates how
each phenomenon is a conditioned and conditioning link in a continuous flux of
ever-changing events. Buddhist commentators also explain akalika as the immediate
attainment of results represented by the fruition consciousness (phalacitta) that
successively follows the path consciousness (maggacitta) in the psychological
process of transcendent realization. But this explanation is rather technical. In fact,
the commentators specifically assign all attributes of the Dhamma, except the first, to
transcendent experiences (lokuttaradhamma), although they can be more
conveniently understood in the light of mundane perception.
The fourth attribute of the Dhamma is ehipassika, usually rendered into
English as "come and see." This really means that the Dhamma is completely open
to investigation and verification. Because Dhamma is Truth, its worth and value do not
depend on belief or faith, but are open to thorough examination and reexamination by all
Truth seekers. The Buddha himself strongly advised his disciples not to blindly believe in
him, but to question and re-question until they were fully convinced of the teacher and
the teachings (the Dhamma). He further encouraged them to put the Dhamma to test by
practicing it, "just as a goldsmith tests the purity of his gold by cutting, rubbing,
and burning it."
Next, the Dhamma is said to lead to higher knowledge and the realization of Nibbana.
This quality makes the practice of Dhamma highly rewarding, for the ultimate realization
(of Dhamma) means the highest bliss and complete freedom from all suffering.
The sixth attribute of the Dhamma is an often quoted one. The Pali term for it is paccattam,
which means that the Dhamma as an experience is directly known through intuitive insight
and is thus a matter of personal knowledge. It is true that it can be heard from others,
but to really know the Dhamma, such secondhand knowledge is insufficient. A direct
experience is the most crucial factor in the realization of the Truth.
Direct experience is especially important where Nibbana is concerned. In our
normal day-to-day activities, even in the most ordinary matters, doubt and uncertainty
arise from time to time when we lack direct experience of the things we have to deal with.
Emotional sentiments also require personal experience to really understand, they cannot be
understood through logic or verbal explanation. With personal experience, doubt and
uncertainty disappear. The Dhamma is a matter of personal experience. Paccattam
implies wisdom or the ability to understand things deeply and correctly, according to
their true nature. Without a base of direct experience, doubt and uncertainty regarding
the Dhamma can still arise. But with paccattam, or self-realization, there is no
room for such doubts.
The preservation of the Buddha's teachings
The Buddha gave spontaneous discourses, attuned to particular listeners and
situations. Originally, these discourses were collectively referred to as Dhamma-Vinaya,
or the Doctrine and Discipline. They were memorized and preserved orally by the bhikkhus,
who consequently specialized in reciting certain sections of the discourses. For example,
Venerable Ananda, the Buddha's personal attendant for many years, was well-versed in the
doctrine (Dhamma), while Venerable Upali, another prominent disciple, was preeminent in
the discipline (Vinaya). The Buddha's teachings were preserved in this manner from one
generation of monks to another until they were committed into writing in Sri Lanka some
500 years after the Buddha's Parinibbana.
After the Buddha passed away, councils were held from time to time to discuss important
issues and pressing problems that had arisen within the Sangha. At such councils, the
Dhamma-Vinaya was recited to ensure its purity and authenticity. Finally, the teachings
were grouped together under three categories, collectively known as Tipitaka or
the Three Baskets.
The first is the Vinaya Pitaka, the 'basket' of Discipline, which deals with
rules and regulations laid down by the Buddha for monastic members. The second is the Sutta
(or Suttanta) Pitaka, the 'basket' of Discourses, which contains the
Buddha's many sermons or expositions of the Dhamma given to a wide range of listeners on
various occasions. The third is the Abhidhamma Pitaka, the 'basket' of Higher
Dhamma, which by and large discusses at great length the philosophical and psychological
aspects of the Buddha's teachings.
The Tipitaka is the most sacred literature of Buddhists, believed to contain
the words of the Buddha as preserved through the ages by his monk disciples. It is indeed
a colossal work, containing as many as 24.23 million characters in Thai script (many more
if written in Roman script). Together with the earlier commentaries written by his
disciples, not to mention the later ones, the whole collection of Buddhist classical
literature contains more than 61.4 million characters in Thai script. The Tipitaka
has been translated into many languages, and is widely read. A good part of the earlier
commentaries have also been translated from the Pali originals, some of which, like
Venerable Buddhaghosa's "Path of Purification" (Visuddhimagga), are
quite widely circulated and enjoy great popularity.
Lay study of the Tipitaka
Although the Tipitaka and its commentaries are a vast storehouse of
religious knowledge and spiritual experience, a layman need not despair of mastering the
subject. While it is true that a detailed study of the Tipitaka and other sacred
texts is a profound and time-consuming endeavor best left to specialists or monks, since
birth as a Buddhist and having access to the Dhamma is a rare privilege, no responsible
Buddhist should neglect this opportunity to get acquainted with the Buddha's teachings.
Despite family obligations and worldly concerns, lay Buddhists should endeavor to study
the Dhamma as much as they can, concentrating on those discourses that appeal to them and
are relevant to their needs. At the very least, some basic understanding of the religion
and how to practice it in daily life can be gained. It is within everyone's capacity to
accomplish this, and such efforts will be immensely rewarding, not only from the spiritual
point of view, but from the perspective of material success as well.
The five precepts, for example, are fundamental to all Buddhists, offering a practical
guideline for moral conduct. Then there are the four Noble Truths, the four Virtues of
Householders, the six Directions of a Householder's Obligations, the six Downfalls, the
seven Virtues of a Lay Buddhist, and numerous other teachings, which are quite accessible
to ordinary people and give clear indications of how a good and useful life can be led.
Following the path of Dhamma leads to happiness and freedom from the problems commonly
associated with an immoral life.
Buddhism is a religion of wisdom, and Buddhists should be wise enough to perceive the
value of the teaching and make a sincere effort to understand their religion. With
Buddhism widely available and access to Buddhist teachers and literature relatively easy
today, there is no excuse for Buddhists not becoming better informed in the Dhamma.
The Dhamma as refuge
A refuge provides shelter from danger. Naturally, this is something that all
beings need. Even wild animals need some form of protection or other, such as forests or
caves. Some people seek protection in wealth, believing that it can help solve their
problems; some seek protection from powerful people. There are also those who worship
deities in order to seek their protection and favor. Taking refuge (in the broadest sense
of the term) is therefore almost instinctual, a matter of survival for all sentient
beings. Human beings take refuge, seeking fulfillment of their material or emotional
needs, in accordance with their beliefs, consciously or otherwise. Some refuges are
sublime, some are gross, and others are just products of the imagination.
The Dhamma is a refuge par excellence. It provides true and lasting
protection, not false hope or temporary shelter. It provides happiness and security not
only in this life but the next, and even enables the attainment of the highest bliss of Nibbana.
But it is necessary to learn the proper way to take refuge in the Dhamma, and understand
how the Dhamma can be a true refuge. This may be better understood through an analogy:
A good medicine is useful to a patient only when it is taken properly. Even the best
cure will be as useless as any other concoction if this fact is not taken into account.
Likewise, the Dhamma can only be of true benefit when it is practiced properly. The Buddha
has been compared to a great physician, one who clearly diagnosed the spiritual ills of
humanity and prescribed the Dhamma as a remedy. Recognizing this fact, it is our duty to
follow that prescription and try earnestly to practice the Dhamma. Only then can the
Dhamma really become our refuge. Thus, even if the Buddha and the Dhamma are there,
ultimately it is each and every one of us who must make the effort, just as much as it
rests with the patient to seek treatment and take medicine for himself, notwithstanding
the availability of the best physician and the most efficacious medicine. There is a
saying in Jataka Nipata which is worth considering in this matter:
"If a sick man seeks not treatment even when a physician is at hand, the physician
is not to blame. In the same way, if a man is afflicted with the disease of defilements
but seeks not the help of the Buddha (does not practice Dhamma), then the Buddha is not to
Just as there are different types of medicines to suit different ailments, so are the
Buddha's discourses and the virtues to be cultivated according to his teachings many and
varied. Improper use of the Dhamma, based on ignorance or wrong view, may not produce the
desired results, so it is important to understand it correctly. For instance, hatred and
anger should be countered by love and kindness; excessive attachment to sensual pleasures
should be checked by constant reflection on the impermanent nature of things; greed and
selfishness should be countered with generosity and service to others; mental restlessness
should be corrected by the practice of concentration meditation; compassion should be
cultivated along side with wisdom, etc. In this way the Dhamma can be a true refuge.
To be protected by the Dhamma it is, therefore, essential to take the initiative in the
practice of the Dhamma. We must be open and receptive to the Dhamma. If we are willing to
practice the Dhamma in daily life by refraining, for instance, from evil or unskillful
actions, it is not difficult to see how the Dhamma will protect us from problems and
undesirable experiences and will help us to attain happiness and progress in life.
Is Buddhism a philosophy or an ethical system?
Terms like philosophy and ethics are used to designate certain disciplines of
human thought and behavior. These usually result from logic and speculative thinking, but
the Dhamma is the Truth discovered by the Buddha as a result of his supreme enlightenment.
The Dhamma is a way of life, a system of thought by which we live and on which we base our
moral conduct. Both philosophy and ethics can be found embodied in the Dhamma, but the
Dhamma covers a much wider scope.
When the Buddha taught the Dhamma, he did not intend it to be characterized as either
philosophy or ethics, he simply explained the Truth and the course of action to follow in
order to lead a happy and useful life. For example, the first discourse, given to a group
of five ascetics, begins with his warning against the two courses of practice that were in
vogue at that time, but which he considered to be useless, ignoble, and unprofitable.
These are the extremes of indulgence in sensual gratification and the practice of
self-mortification. Then he explained the Four Noble Truths, which represent the reality
of existence in all its aspects. Finally, he taught the Noble Eightfold Path, which is the
course of practice to realize the Dhamma. At the end of the discourse, one of the ascetics
is said to have attained to the higher knowledge known as the Eye of Truth (dhammacakkhu).
On another occasion, when the Blessed One saw a young man at a crossroads worshipping
and prostrating in different directions, he advised him that a nobler and better method of
worship was to properly perform one's duties toward other members of society. The Buddha
compared social relationships to the different directions which the young man had been
worshipping. According to the Buddha, the best way to worship them is by fulfilling one's
duties in the light of those relationships. Fulfilling one's duties is, in fact, the
highest form of worship.
The Buddha mentioned six kinds of relationship, which he compared to the six
directions. Accordingly, parents are compared to the eastern direction, teachers are
likened to the southern direction, spouse and children to the west, friends to the north,
servants and employees to the nadir, and monks to the zenith. To each of these people
there are certain duties to fulfill, and fulfilling them is by far a nobler kind of
worship. The Buddha also explained in detail the different duties that are inherent in
these six kinds of social relationships, beginning with how parents should care for their
children, and how the children should reciprocate their parents' love and kindness, and so
on and so forth.
It is true that certain discourses or teachings of the Dhamma may be deemed to come
within the scope of either philosophy or ethics and may be designated as such. However,
one needs to keep in mind that as far as the Dhamma is concerned, such designations are
immaterial and add nothing of value to the Buddha's teachings.
The universality of the Dhamma
Universality and timelessness are two most distinct characteristics of the
Dhamma. These two characteristics are based on the fact that the Dhamma is Truth itself,
not a set of theories or principles. It is therefore not subject to any spatial or
temporal limitations, like laws or conventions which are products of human invention.
If something is created, or claimed to have been created, the foundation of such
creation remains on shifting ground, and will therefore be subject to spatiotemporal
restrictions. The laws of one country, for instance, will become irrelevant in another
(spatial restriction); or what has been deemed appropriate at a certain point of time will
become inapplicable at another (temporal restriction). The same thing can be said of
cultures, traditions, or conventions, which are all human creations. Even religious
beliefs claimed to have been connected with God fall into this category and are not free
from the same weaknesses. They may serve certain purposes for some groups of people or for
some periods of time, but they lack the two important characteristics of universality and
timelessness, even if efforts have been made to claim them.
The Dhamma, on the other hand, is not created. When the Buddha proclaimed the Dhamma,
he did not invent it. What he did was simply proclaim the Truth, which he had realized
through his own efforts and wisdom. He did not imagine things, nor did he find it
necessary to claim God's grace in order to win followers. His teachings represent the
Truth, which is universal and timeless.
The Buddhist doctrine of conditionality states, for example, that all things and
phenomena are conditioned and interrelated; there is nothing that is not conditioned or is
absolute in itself. This is a simple statement of the Truth. Based on this are the law of
cause and effect, the law of kamma, and the law of dependent origination, which
are all different manifestations of the same Truth and which are, likewise, universal and
timeless. Even when the Buddha taught that all things are impermanent and are subject to
change, he was simply revealing the eternal Truth of existence, not his own imagination or
assumptions. On one occasion he said: "Whatever is of the nature to arise, that very
thing is of the nature to disappear." This is sometimes referred to as the law of
change, and it can easily be seen how this truth will remain forever valid, irrespective
of time and place. Such is the nature and quality of the Buddha's teachings.
Universality implies three fundamental characteristics: (1) the inclusion of all things
and phenomena, collectively or individually; (2) an all-embracing nature that transcends
limits without exception; and (3) being in existence or operation everywhere and under all
conditions. Thus, the universality of Dhamma means that all people, animals, deities, and
things, without exception, exist in the Dhamma and that the Dhamma exists and operates in
all of those phenomena. This is the omnipresent quality of the Dhamma, and it is important
to understand this clearly in order to be convinced of our unity with the Dhamma.
The timelessness of the Dhamma is also characterized by three attributes. First, it
implies an eternal state of being without beginning and end. If something is created, it
must necessarily have a beginning; and beginning consequently points to the other extreme,
which is the end of things so created. Whatever is subject to creation is, therefore,
never eternal. Secondly, timelessness means freedom from restriction in time. Thirdly,
timelessness denotes the fact that the Dhamma can be proved in its validity and
consistency under all temporal conditions, according to its own laws.
As the third attribute of the Dhamma, timelessness is expressed by the Pali term akalika,
which is rendered into English either as "timeless" or "yielding immediate
results." As has been pointed out, the Dhamma is eternal, beyond temporal conditions.
It is interpreted as yielding immediate results to demonstrate how it can be continually
experienced from moment to moment. Commentators construe timelessness to mean the
subsequent attainment of resultant consciousness as occurring in the mental process of
transcendent realization and represented by one of the four phalacitta (fruition
consciousness) that immediately follows the corresponding maggacitta (path
The Dhamma is therefore not bounded by space-time factors; it is practical and
applicable to all places and times, although it requires understanding and wisdom to put
its principles into practice and applied to real life situations.
Allowance for change
Before passing away, the Buddha authorized the Sangha to abrogate "minor
and lesser" disciplinary rules that they might consider inapplicable or irrelevant in
later times. He did not allow them to change or modify the Dhamma. This is another good
example of the axiom that whatever is created is always subject to space-time
considerations and, therefore, lacks the characteristics of universality and timelessness.
Because the Vinaya rules were formulated by the Buddha, he foresaw the need to rescind or
modify some of them in accordance with changing circumstances and later developments. That
is why he made his position clear to the assembly of disciples who were present at the
Great Demise. However, the Sangha made a collective decision at the First Council to
preserve them and try to keep them intact, out of their love and respect for the Buddha,
in order to prevent future indiscretions by individuals who might attempt to take
advantage of the Buddha's permission.
The Dhamma, on the other hand, was not something that the Buddha had formulated for his
disciples. It was revealed and proclaimed according to the Truth he had discovered. Thus
it requires neither abrogation nor modification to suit later opinions or philosophical
The essence of Dhamma
The Buddha declared the doctrine of Dependent Origination (Paticcasamuppada)
to be a very profound and difficult subject. Its profundity and difficulty rest on both
its theory and practice. In fact, soon after his enlightenment the Buddha spent a whole
week meditating on this particular Dhamma. This doctrine is one of the subjects the Buddha
often taught to his monks. Once Venerable Ananda casually remarked that it seemed easy to
understand, but the Buddha hastened to correct him with a clear warning :
"Say not so, Ananda, say not so! The doctrine of Dependent Origination is
profound, difficult to understand. Sentient beings, through not understanding this
doctrine proclaimed by me, are befuddled like a tangled and knotted ball of twine, or like
a disorderly heap of tangled threads, or an untended thicket of weeds, or like entangled
reeds. In such wise are those sentient beings ensnared, unable to liberate themselves from
Samsara, from suffering, and from the states of hell and downfall."
The doctrine of Dependent Origination was specifically recommended by the Buddha for
monks to study. It is one of the doctrines about which the Buddha had admonished his
followers not to be divided or contentious, and which he asserted would be "for the
great benefit of mankind, for the well-being of the world, and for the advantage of gods
The doctrine of Dependent Origination helps to clarify the Buddhist position concerning
the false view of a permanent self (atta). According to the teaching, nothing is
absolute, nothing is permanent, for all things arise, exist, and cease depending on causes
and conditions. Since all things are conditioned, interdependent, and interrelated, the
existence of a permanent self is a logical impossibility.
The principle underlying the doctrine of Dependent Origination has been succinctly
summarized by the Buddha in a formula of four sentences:
This is, that is (imasmim sati idam hoti);
This arising, that arises (imassuppada idam uppajjati);
This is not, that is not (imasmim asati idam na hoti);
This ceasing, that ceases (imassa nirodha idam nirujjhati).
This short formula covers the whole scope of existence and clearly demonstrates the
interrelationship of all things. Based on this principle of conditionality and
interdependence, the doctrine of Dependent Origination is explained in many different
forms. However, the best-known mode of exposition consists in the circle of twelve links
that are connected together by the law of conditionality:
1. Dependent on delusion are kamma-formations.
2. Dependent on kamma-formations is consciousness.
3. Dependent on consciousness are mental and physical phenomena.
4. Dependent on mental and physical phenomena are the six faculties of physical
sense-bases and mind.
5. Dependent on the six faculties is (sensorial and mental) contact.
6. Dependent on contact is feeling.
7. Dependent on feeling is craving (desire).
8. Dependent on craving is attachment (clinging).
9. Dependent on attachment is becoming.
10. Dependent on becoming is birth.
11. Dependent on birth are:
12. decay, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair.
The doctrine of Dependent Origination also clearly invalidates the concept of a first
cause. Each of the twelve links serves both as a conditioning as well as a conditioned
factor. When all things are interconnected and interdependent, as shown by the law of
conditionality, the idea of a first cause naturally becomes irrelevant. Following along
the same line of exposition, the Buddha also points out how the whole structure ceases to
be. Thus, dependent on the cessation of delusion, kamma-formations cease;
dependent on the cessation of kamma-formations, consciousness ceases; dependent
on the cessation of consciousness, mental and physical phenomena cease, etc.
The practical objective of the doctrine of Dependent Origination is to show how
suffering (dukkha) arises and how it can be brought to an end. Likewise, by
having a correct understanding of this teaching, we come to perceive how Samsara
arises and continues, and most importantly, how it can be ended. Nibbana is
attained through the cessation of Samsara. Having thoroughly penetrated the
doctrine of Dependent Origination, one learns how to completely unravel the knot of
suffering and become a true master of oneself. In this way, one becomes truly free and
The Buddha explained the Dhamma in many different ways to best suit his audience's
intellectual and spiritual maturity, but his teachings all point to the same Truth and
lead to the same goal.
In one of the verses in the Dhammapada, the Buddha has said: "Not to do evil; to
do good; and to purify the mind: this is the teaching of all Buddhas." This statement
is often cited as the heart of Buddhist practice. To follow the path of the Buddha is,
therefore, the giving up of what is morally unwholesome, the doing of which brings about
undesirable consequences. Observance of moral precepts laid down by the Buddha is one way
to put this principle into practice. In addition, one learns to do good by performing
wholesome actions, such as charity, social services, supporting one's parents, cultivation
of kindness and compassion, and so on. These two basic principles are of great value and
add to individual as well as social growth. But the spiritual effort needs to go one step
further. By purifying the mind, one moves up on the ladder of spiritual advancement and
experiences bliss and happiness on a higher level that is not readily accessible to
non-practitioners. Purification of the mind is achieved through meditation practice, which
is praised by the Buddha as one of the most direct ways to enlightenment. So these three
principles can be said to constitute the Buddhist modes of ethical practice, and we have
it from the Buddha himself that they also constitute the teachings of all Buddhas.
Elsewhere the Buddha proclaimed: "I teach nothing but dukkha
(unsatisfactoriness) and the extinction of dukkha." This statement is, of
course, made in the context of the Four Noble Truths, considered by most scholars to be
the central teaching of Buddhist philosophy. This is another example of how the one Dhamma
can be expressed in different ways. Those who understand the essence of the Dhamma will
see the unity of all the different doctrinal themes and how they are fundamentally
An integral part of the Four Noble Truths is the Noble Eightfold Path, which comprises
right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort,
right mindfulness, and right concentration. The three principles of abstention from evil,
doing what is good, and purification of mind can all fit into the framework of the Noble
Eightfold Path. We may even assert that they are the same things expressed differently. In
fact, like the threefold training of morality, concentration and wisdom, they are the
Noble Eightfold Path expressed in another way. Thus we can see the characteristic unity
and coherence in all of the Buddha's teachings.
As a religion, Buddhism gives much importance to the cultivation of mind and
mental faculties. Life consists of two closely interconnected components, the body and the
mind, which constantly demand our care and attention. Of these two, mind is said to be of
paramount importance for it is the very source of all actions that we do from birth to
death. We are what we think. Therefore, it is crucial that we have the right understanding
of our minds and know how to train them properly.
Mind is not as concrete and objective as the body, and most people give only little
concern to their minds, taking more interest in their physical forms and appearances. The
body is well-nourished, kept clean, and beautified, while the mind is almost totally
neglected. The Dhamma is nourishment for the mind; it cleanses the mind, and makes the
mind pleasant and beautiful. Just as an undernourished body is weak and becomes a seat of
disease, a mind starved of Dhamma is also weak and becomes a source of problems. Crime,
corruption, violence, and immoral behavior are some of the symptoms of a mind which is
uncared for, uncleansed, and unbeautified by the Dhamma. It is therefore important to
train the mind, and the best way to do this is through meditation.
Mental purification is not an end in itself, neither is it an activity separate from
real life situations. To practice meditation by no means necessitates giving up family,
leaving home, and retiring to a forest or a cave, although such would be ideal for a monk.
The process of mental purification itself necessarily involves a morally skillful
life-style and the practice of the other two principles of abstention from evil and doing
wholesome deeds. Thus it can be seen that this more refined practice has a direct bearing
on both individual and social well-being and is a truly beneficial commitment. Moreover,
an action which springs from a pure mind will naturally be free from evil and full of
wholesome qualities. A pure mind, indeed, is a natural and unlimited source of good
actions and benevolent deeds. Says the Buddha: "Mind is the forerunner of all mental
states, mind is their chief, they are all mind-made. If one speaks or acts with a pure
mind, then happiness follows one as a shadow its owner."
Thus, mental purification is not practiced solely for its own sake, but for individual
as well as social benefit. Its impact on personal behavior and society can be truly
The profundity of the Dhamma
Soon after the Buddha's enlightenment, as he was contemplating the Dhamma, its
sheer profundity became clear to him. He was assailed by doubt over whether it would not
be futile to expound the Dhamma to the world, enveloped as it is in the veil of ignorance
and overcome by greed and hatred. The Dhamma, reflected the Buddha, goes against the flow
of worldly thoughts and is difficult for people to accept. But out of wisdom and
compassion, he also perceived the different levels of people's intellectual and spiritual
maturity. Those "with less dust in their eyes," having less delusion and
defilements, would listen and understand, they would benefit from the Dhamma. Thus the
Buddha decided to begin the mission that eventually led to the establishment of the
Although the Dhamma is profound, it is not inaccessible. The fact that there have been
so many Arahants and noble disciples, thousands upon thousands of them, both during and
after the Buddha's time, stands as a testimony to the intelligibility and practicality of
the Dhamma. Through his skillful means, the Buddha placed the task of understanding the
Dhamma within reach of every interested person.
Moreover, the Buddha has provided us with an amazing variety of teachings to choose
from. Not only is there teaching for those intent on achieving the ultimate realization of
Nibbana, but there is more than enough teaching for those who are content to
remain involved in the ordinary business of mundane affairs. An opportunity is never
denied those who care to seek. If only we pay attention, we will see the Dhamma in
everything around us and in all existential realities. Even children are capable of
understanding the Dhamma, as very well demonstrated by the fact that during the time of
the Buddha quite a few children, as young as seven years of age, are reported to have
attained Arahantship. Certainly, the profundity of the Dhamma is no excuse for denying
yourself that which is best in life.
Many Buddhists see practicing the Dhamma as an act of merit making. Merits are
accumulated, for instance, by a charitable act, by observing precepts, or by practicing
meditation. Becoming an Arahant in the present life is never seen as a goal for such
people. Although such an attitude may not be considered the most ideal, yet such people
are following the path of Dhamma at their own pace. There is no reason why the path should
not be followed by those who wish to continue to practice as householders. On more than
one occasion, the Buddha eloquently praised his householder disciples, who were diligently
practicing the Dhamma by engaging in various meritorious activities. This should also be
an inspiration to those who find the Buddhist philosophy and the Dhamma practice on a
higher level somewhat daunting.
[Taken from Sunthorn Plamintr's Getting to Know Buddhism (Bangkok:
Buddhadhamma Foundation, 1994), pp. 63-82.]
Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for retyping