What is the Dharma?

by Gil Fronsdal

The Dhamma well proclaimed by me is clear,
open, evident, and free of patchwork
—The Buddha

The teachings of the Buddha are often referred to as the “Dharma.” This word is closely associated with “truth”—a truth that one can know for oneself. When he taught the essence of his Dharma, the Buddha consistently avoided metaphysical and speculative ideas in favor of practical teachings that serve the path of liberation. In being practical, he emphasized perspectives and practices that lead to the end of suffering. In referring to his teachings, he himself explicitly said, “I teach suffering and the end of the suffering.” His Dharma is also empirical in that it is something that can be experienced for oneself. He expressed this clearly by referring to the Dharma as “directly visible,” and by his frequent emphasis on knowing and seeing as integral to the path he taught. Believing, on the other hand, does not stand out as having a significant role in the Buddha’s core teachings.

In fact, when it comes to beliefs—at least those that could be called speculative views—the primary instruction the Buddha gave was to remove and uproot them. In a discussion where he contrasts his teaching with the speculative views others hold about the self, the world, and what happens after death, the Buddha stated,

The Buddha or a disciple of the Buddha [teaches] the Dhamma for the elimination of all speculative views, determinations, biases, adherences, and underlying tendencies, for the stilling of all mental constructs, for the relinquishing of all attachments, for the destruction of craving, for dispassion, for cessation, for Nibbana.
—Middle Length Discourse 22.20

Elsewhere he claims that he does not take any position on similar speculative views because doing so

Is not beneficial, does not belong to the basics of the holy life, does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana.
—Middle Length Discourse 63.8

What this means is that his teachings are pragmatically connected to a practice leading to the end of suffering, as well as something personally accessible and verifiable by our senses.

While the Buddha taught the Dharma in many different ways, we can get a clear sense of his primary teachings through the various summaries he gave. For example, the Dhammapada contains two verses in which he encapsulates “the teachings of the Buddhas.” The first states,

Doing no evil,
Engaging in what’s skillful,
And purifying one’s mind:
This is the teaching of the Buddhas.
(Verse 183)

Though it lacks details, this verse gives a general overview of the teachings in terms of what “Buddhas” encourage people to actually do. Rather than referring to religious tenets that one must learn, this verse emphasizes ethical actions one should or shouldn’t engage in. The important role of ethics—i.e., principles of conduct—is also represented by the second verse from the Dhammapada:

Not disparaging others, not causing injury,
Practicing restraint by the training rules,
Knowing moderation in food,
Dwelling in solitude,
And pursuing the higher states of mind,
This is the teaching of the Buddhas.
(Verse 185)

Both verses end with an instruction to develop the mind. The Buddha’s teachings are more than instructions in how to live in the world; they include teachings on cultivating qualities and states of mind that are beneficial for the ending of suffering.

This focus on mental development is seen in a teaching the Buddha gave to his foster mother, Mahapajapati, (the woman who raised him), when she asked him to teach the Dharma in brief. The Buddha replied:

As for those qualities of which you may know, “These dharmas lead to dispassion, not to passion; to being unfettered, not to being fettered; to simplifying, not to accumulating; to modesty, not to self-aggrandizement; to contentment, not to discontent; to independence, not to entanglement; to aroused persistence, not to laziness, to being unburdensome, not to being burdensome”: you may definitely hold, “This is the Dharma, this is the discipline, this is the Teacher’s instruction.”
—Numerical Discourses 8.53

In this passage the word “dharma” is used in two ways. In the first line “dharma” refers to qualities of mind and to practices one undertakes. In the last line it refers to the Buddha’s teachings, which is why the word is capitalized. This means that in the original language, the word dharma is easily associated with “teachings” that are concerned with developing the mind. The above quote can thus be paraphrased as follows:

The Buddha’s teaching and discipline (vinaya) are those things that lead to dispassion, being unfettered, simplicity, modesty, contentment, independence,persistence, and not being burdensome.

While this can be seen as a form of ethical teaching, it is also a teaching about doing those things that support the cultivation of a peaceful and liberated mind.

On another occasion when a confrontational person wishing to debate the Buddha asked him what he “proclaims,” the Buddha answered,

I assert and proclaim in such a way that one does not quarrel with anyone in the world… ; in such a way that concepts no longer underlie a person who abides free of sensual desire, perplexity, worry, and craving for any kind of identity.
—Middle Length Discourses 18.4

In saying this, the Buddha makes clear that he will not engage in a debate over teachings. Instead, his teachings focus on the possibility of freedom from concepts, desire, perplexity, worry, and craving. Not finding the Buddha’s statement a suitable topic for a debate, the aspiring disputant left.

The Buddha’s Dharma is something available for people to see for themselves. This is expressed succinctly and powerfully in a quote that has become a standard part of Buddhist liturgy:

The Dharma is well proclaimed by the Blessed One; it is visible here and now, immediate, inviting to be seen for oneself, onward leading, and to be personally realized by the wise.
—Middle Length Discourse 7.6

In the same discourse the Buddha explains that the way to gain unwavering confidence in the Dharma is by seeing in one’s own mind the presence of such afflictive states as covetousness, greed, ill will, anger, contempt, envy, and arrogance and then abandoning them. Knowing the mind is free of these states is how the Dharma is seen directly. This idea is also expressed in the following teaching of the Buddha:

When you know there is greed, hatred or delusion within you and when you know there is no greed, hatred or delusion within you then you know the Dharma is visible here and now, immediate, inviting to be seen for oneself, onward leading, and to be personally realized by the wise.
—Numerical Discourses 6.47

This suggests that writings about the Dharma, including this very article, only point to the Dharma; to really know the Dharma we must know our own mind.

Because Nibbana (Nirvana) is often presented as the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice, it’s interesting to consider the most straightforward explanation that the Buddha gave for Nibbana:

The destruction of greed, hatred, and delusion: this, friend, is called Nibbana.
—SN 38.1

Here there is no claim of understanding the ultimate nature of reality or having some privileged knowledge about transcendent states of consciousness. While the full destruction of the very human tendencies of greed, hatred, and delusion may seem difficult to accomplish, any diminishment or temporary cessation of these states is something we can know for ourselves; it is the Dharma visible in ourselves.

That the ultimate goal of the Dharma is indeed seen in the ending of the psychological forces of greed, hatred, and delusion in one’s own mind is reinforced by the various variations to the quote above:

The destruction of lust, hatred, and delusion: this is called the final goal of the holy life.
—SN 45.20
The destruction of greed, hatred, and delusion: this is called the unconditioned.—
—SN 42.1
The destruction of greed, hatred, and delusion: this is called the deathless.
—SN 45.7

Here we see that concepts such as “the unconditioned” and “the deathless” that lend themselves to mystical interpretations are clearly defined in psychological terms. There is nothing mysterious about the Dharma.

In studying the teachings of the Buddha we should keep in mind the core principles of his teaching of the Dharma. To be the Dharma, teachings must be something we can know for ourselves. The Dharma is realized through practices connected to the destruction of greed, hatred, and delusion—or, in other words, to letting go of all clinging, to peace, and to Nibbana.