The Dharma and the Path of Harmlessness

The Dharma and the Path of Harmlessness

By Gil Fronsdal

A wise person does not intend harm to self or to others.
A wise person intends benefit for self, for others, and for the whole world.
  — The Buddha

The full scope of Buddhist practice is conveyed through the word ‘Dharma.’ This
word has a number of meanings that depend on the context in which it is used.
Sometimes it refers to the teachings and practices of the Buddha, but its most
significant meaning is the natural truths, laws and processes of the path of practice
he taught. For many Buddhists the Dharma is the object of their greatest
commitment and devotion. It is a source of refuge, guidance, and ultimate meaning,
and, most importantly, it is what allows for the Liberation taught by the Buddha.

The Dharma is characterized by and expressed through non-harming, and the path
of the Buddha is a path of harmlessness. The Dharma of the Buddha can help us
discover a peace we only experience when we aren’t causing suffering to ourselves
or others. This peace is called Liberation or Awakening when it includes, if even for
a short time, a full cessation of suffering.

The Dharma is not something outside of oneself; it is not an external power working
through our lives. Nor is it something personal that we can claim as our own. It is
not a ‘thing’ that exists by itself. Rather, it is a process that exists only when
activated. Just as a fist appears only when we clench our hand, so the Dharma only
emerges when we behave in certain ways. However, unlike a fist, we don’t create
the Dharma directly; we create the conditions that allow it to appear.

The way the Dharma arises can be compared to floating in freshwater. When we
float, we may say the water supports us, but in fact the water alone is not sufficient
to keep us from drowning. If we don’t know how to float, and we thrash around in
fear or only relax and trust, the water won’t hold us up. Floating is a learned skill
that depends on our having both the intention to float and the skill. Once the skill is
mastered, being supported by the water can seem almost effortless. But since
floating safely does not depend only on our skill and intention, it doesn’t make sense
to take complete credit for it. The dynamic interplay of the water, our bodies,
intention, and skill creates the floating.

As a support for our lives, the Dharma is like the floating. It appears in the
interaction of the world, aspects of our human nature, and particular skills and
behaviors we live by. As such, the Dharma is neither separate from us nor
something we are solely responsible for. Just as part of the skill of floating is relaxing
and letting go of activities that interfere with floating, so too, the skill that allows the
Dharma to arise and support us includes letting go of what undermines that
support. But the Dharma is not found simply by letting go any more than floating
safely in water simply requires relaxing. Certain skills and intentions need to be
present for the Dharma to appear and to function. It is through the way we live that
the Dharma can have a role in our lives.

The essence of this way of life is a devotion to non-harming. It is all too easy to
harm others and ourselves with our thoughts, self-concepts and emotional reactions
and quite difficult to overcome the causes of these mental activities. For this reason,
it is important to have something that helps us minimize such harm and its causes.
For Buddhists this something is the Dharma.

An important Dharma teaching is the Four Noble Truths. These pragmatic
perspectives are based on a seemingly simple way of being in the world: if you stop
doing something that is causing harm, the harming ceases. What makes this
principle challenging are all the forms of self-harm which are not easy to stop.
Addictions to desires, compulsions toward anger, obsessions with fear, and
attachments to self can be so deeply rooted in the mind that they are hard to
recognize, let alone stop.

In Buddhist shorthand, these addictions, compulsions, obsessions, and attachments
are referred to as clinging or craving. When the contraction of clinging is pervasive
it leads to stress, which makes us vulnerable to such human instincts as fear,
aggression, and greed. When these qualities are activated it can be easy to behave in
ways that lead to further harm to ourselves or others. Buddhism emphasizes that
craving is a condition for further craving and that intentions to harm tend to
motivate more of the same.

In contrast, letting go of clinging creates conditions for further letting go, and non-
harming motivates more non-harming. Stress decreases with the lessening of
clinging which then leads to relaxed states of being. Calm and relaxed states, in turn,
activate our human instincts for empathy and caring and our capacities for
creativity and wisdom, all of which support our practice on the Buddhist path and
help bring forth the Dharma.

As for Dharma practice, it is helpful to appreciate that empathy, caring, attention,
and wisdom occur not only because we consciously decide to have them occur, but
also because conditions are in place to activate them. When we practice the Dharma
we create the conditions for the best of our personal qualities to function. As these
beneficial faculties are expressed more actively in our lives, we discover that our
lives are being supported by forces independent of our self-conscious efforts and
self-centered attachments. As these forces protect, guide and liberate, people often
feel increasing confidence in the power of the Dharma in their lives.

The Buddhist practices of non-harming that bring forth the Dharma in our lives are
encapsulated within the Eightfold Path. These eight practices include wise
understanding of what causes suffering, living ethically so we don’t cause harm, and
developing mental capacities such as mindfulness and concentration so that we can
let go of the deep mental roots of clinging. Initially, these are trainings we
intentionally undertake. With practice, these become less something we undertake
and more who we are. They become how we naturally act. When someone has fully
matured in the Dharma it is said they become the Eightfold Path, they become the

The more our practice reveals the Dharma, the less sense it makes to take credit for
the Dharma working through us, just as we don’t take credit for a refreshing breeze
on our palm when we open our fist. It is our task to open the fist in our heart so we
can be refreshed by the Dharma, by the winds of compassion, wisdom, and freedom.

First published October, 2010