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Dharma (Sanskrit: धर्म, Pali: dhamma, Hindi: Dharm) is a word from a root meaning "to hold up, to carry, to bear, to sustain",[1] with a great variety of meanings in the Dharmic religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism.

Dharma in Buddhism

In Buddhism, Dharma no longer has its more limited Hindu meaning of religious duty according to one's caste. Instead it has several levels of meaning including most commonly the teachings of the Buddha and of Buddhism.

1. Dharma with a capital D

"Dharma with a capital D". This refers to the methods (Five Schools) of teachings and practice or cultivation for becoming enlightened.

2. Dharmakaya - Tathagata Garbha - Dharma Dhatu as Source of the Universe

The word Dharma also represents the Buddhist conception of the "source", substratum, "womb" or "matrix" of the universe, which is referred to by the Sanskrit term "Garbha" as seen in one of the three Sanskrit words for the "ultimate": 1. "Dharmakaya", 2. "Tathagata Garbha" and 3. "Dharma Dhatu". These three words are all represented by the word "Dharma". These are the ultimate reality that one realizes at enlightenment. These three Sanskrit words (especially "Dharmakaya") is the closest concept that Mahayana Buddhism has that fairly closely resembles the Judeo-Christian "creator God" although it is not accepted by Theravada Buddhists and is not well known among most common Buddhists who are neither serious scholars nor practitioners of the religion. This is why both many non-Buddhists and liberal beginner "Buddhists in name only" (see RINO) especially in America, misunderstand Buddhism thinking it denies the existence of God or a primary causative being of the universe. Those who suggest this misconception have not studied Buddhist esoteric Sutra teachings on these three terms "Dharmakaya" - "Tathagata Garbha" - "Dharma Dhatu". These terms imply timeless, eternality, omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, inscrutability and immutability.

3. Dharma with a lowercase D - All Phenomena

  1. "All Phenomena": The various divisions of the mental and physical world that are part of the teaching.

In Buddhism, Dharma is used to refer to the teachings (scripture) as Sutra and Shastra (exegesis commentaries) of the Buddha (Sanskrit Buddhadharma). It has many shades of meaning, including ‘the spiritual path’, or ‘spirituality’ in general. It also refers to phenomena, meaning things and events. There are formally ten meanings of Dharma.

According to Dr. Ron Epstein, Ph.D, professor of Comparative Religions at Dharma Realm Buddhist University, "Dharma refers to all the methods of cultivation taught by the Buddha which lead to ultimate enlightenment (Sanskrit: "anuttarasamyaksambodhi"). They are means to an end, not an end in themselves. In other words, any aspect or division of the teaching. Dharma in this sense is an expedient distinction made for the sake of greater understanding. For example, the Five aggregates, the Six Perfections, and the Eighteen Realms are all dharmas."[2]

Ten Meanings of Dharma

There are ten meanings for the word Dharma according to the Buddhist monk Vasubandhu in his The Principles of Elucidation (Sanskrit Vyakhyayukti):

  1. An object of knowledge (Sanskrit jñeya),
  2. the path (marga),
  3. Nirvana,
  4. A mental object (manoviṣaya),
  5. Merit,
  6. Life (āyu),
  7. Teachings of the Buddha, or its scriptures (dharmapravacana),
  8. What is subject to age or change, i.e. material objects,
  9. Rules, laws or religious vows, and
  10. Spiritual traditions (dharmanīti).

All ten of these meansing are connected with the sense of ‘holding’, which is the meaning of dhṛ, the root of the word dharma.

The common English usage spelling of the word 'dharma' is to use uppercase when referring to Buddha's teachings, the path or the truth of cessation (meanings 2, 3 and 7 above).

Other Teachings

In Buddhism, followers adhere to these five principles of the dharma:

  • Listening: Only through listening can we understand good and evil.
  • Giving: Engaging in charity and selflessness reminds us that the Dharma is not intended for us alone, but it is to be shared with everyone.
  • Wisdom: One has to listen, contemplate and put into practice the Dharma. Then one may gain wisdom, and realize the truth.

Dharma in Hinduism

In Hinduism Dharma generally means a "duty", the opposite of nihilism. It means faith, belief, religion, and personal law - all at the same time. Its most generic sense is that of righteousness or duty. It also refers to an ethical way of living; it is the path one should follow to live rightly in accordance with Hindu philosophical principles. The old name for Vedic Hinduism is Sanatan Dharm, meaning eternal law.

Rules for Brahmin Priests & Monks:

  • Yamas: Restraints or Dont's
    1. Ahimsa - non-violence, non-injury, harmlessness
    2. Satya - truthfulness, honesty (non lying, non bragging, non embelishing)
    3. Asteya/Achurya - non-stealing, non-coveting, non-entering into debt, non-misappropriativeness
    4. Brahmacharya - restraint of senses(not giving into Pleasure)
    5. Kshama - forgiveness for the past, mercifull for historic sins, patience in the present
    6. Dhriti - steadfastness, overcoming non perseverance, fear, indecision; seeing each task through completion
    7. Daya - compassion; conquering callous, cruel and insensitive feelings toward all beings.
    8. Arjava - honesty, straightforwardness, renouncing deception and wrongdoing.
    9. Mitahara - moderate appetite, neither eating too much nor to little; nor consuming meat, fish, shellfish, fowl or eggs.
    10. Shaucha - purity, avoidance of impurity in body, mind and speech, cleanliness
    11. Aparigraha - non-possessiveness, non-greed, non-selfishness, non-acquisitiveness
  • Niyamas: Duties & Responsibilities or Do's
    1. Hri - remorse for misdeeds
    2. Santosha - contentment; being satisfied with the resources at hand - therefore not desiring more; peacefulness
    3. Dana - giving, without thought of reward
    4. Astikya - Faith, believing firmly in the Guru, believing firmly in the path to enlightenment, believing firmly in the religious scriptures
    5. Ishvarapujana - worship of the Lord, the cultivation of devotion through daily worship and meditation, the return to the source
    6. Siddhanta shravana - scriptural listening, studying the teachings and listening to the wise of one's lineage
    7. Mati - cognition, developing a spiritual will and intellect with the Guru's guidance
    8. Vrata - sacred vows, fulfilling religious vows, rules and observances faithfully
    9. Japa - recitation, chanting Religious scriptutes daily
    10. Tapas - austerity, spiritual discipline
    11. Swadhyaya - introspective self-study, spiritual study
    12. Ishwarapranidhana - self-surrender to god, offering of one's life to God

See also


  1. Sanskrit.org Definition
  2. Epstein, Ron, Buddhism A to Z. Burlingame, California: Buddhist Text Translation Society, 1999: pp. 54-55. This entire section is summarized from Buddhism A to Z
  3. Rigpa Shedra on Dharma Accessed January 3, 2014