- 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 existence.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 blame."
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
Is Buddhism a philosophy or an ethical
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
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
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
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
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 and humans."
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
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 tremendous.
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 Buddhist religion.
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.
[Originally published in Sunthorn Plamintr's Getting to Know
Buddhism (Bangkok: Buddhadhamma Foundation, 1994), pp. 63-82.]
Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for
retyoing this article.