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Dharma (P. dhamma; T. chos; C. fa; J. hō 法) has multiple usages within Buddhism. The most common usages refer to:

  • the teachings of the Buddha: these teachings are also traditionally refered to as saddharma ("true dharma"), buddhavacana ("word of the Buddha"), buddhadharma, and so on.
  • the constituents of reality (sometimes glossed as phenomena).

The term dharma is also used in Buddhist literature to refer to the doctrines of other traditions (e.g. "the dharma of that country").


The word dharma derives from the root word dhṛ, meaning "to uphold," "to maintain," "to support," "to sustain."[1] Buswell states, "In Buddhism, dharma has a number of distinct connotations. One of its most significant and common usages is to refer to "teachings" or "doctrines," whether they be Buddhist or non-Buddhist."[2] Traditionally, the dharma of the Buddha is often distinguished from non-Buddhist dharmas by using terms such as saddharma ("true dharma"), buddhadharma, and so on.

Referents for the term "dhama"

Ten referents from Vasubandhu

Ten referents for the word dharma are identified by the Indian scholar Vasubandhu in his text Vyākhyāyukti (Well Explained Reasoning). These referents are also cited by the Tibetan scholar Buton Rinchen Drub in his History of Buddhism.[1]

The ten referents (ten things dharma can refer to) are:

No. Referent[3] Description Sample usage[4]
1. jñeya What can be known or cognized (T. shes bya) "Dharmas are conditioned or unconditioned."
2. mārga The path to liberation "Dharma is completely pure view."
3. nirvana Complete enlightenment "I take refuge in the Dharma." (Where Dharma refers to complete enlightenment.)
4. manoviṣaya “Whatever is exclusively an object for the mind itself and does not depend on sense fields”;[1] aka "a mental object" "dharma basis"
5. puṇya aka "merit"; the accumulation of wholesome karma "They behaved in accord with the dharma"
6. āyus[5] (T. tshe) "this life" or "lifespan"; in this context, refers to "only having regard for this life"[1] "World beings are attached to this present life, worldly dharma."
7. Teachings of the Buddha These teachings are traditionally refered to as saddharma ("true dharma") or buddhavacana or buddhadharma or dharmapravacana (T. gsung rab) "The Dharma consists of Sutra, Vinaya, Abhidharma and so on."
8. That which is subject to change or aging A reference to material objects (Skt. bhautika; T. 'byung 'gyur) subject to change or aging[6] "This body is endowed with the dharma of aging."
9. niścaya (T. nges pa) Religious vows or rules "the four dharmas of a monk or nun."
10. nīti[7] (T. chos lugs) Worldly customs or spiritual traditions "the dharma of that country"

All of these referents relate to the sense of ‘holding’, which is the meaning of dhṛ, the root of the word dharma.[8]

The general usage in English for the typography of the term 'dharma' is to use an upper case when referring to Buddha's teachings, the path or the truth of cessation (cases 2, 3 & 7).[8]

Six referents from Rupert Gethin

Contemporary scholar Rupert Gethin states:

While different scholarly authors might identify fewer or more meanings, give more or less emphasis to a particular aspect of the early Buddhist understanding of dhamma, or present the relationship between the different meanings in different ways, there is a basic consensus in the range of meanings identified. While no particular writer presents the usage of the term dhamma in precisely the following terms, I think this consensus can be summed up by way of six basic meanings:
(1) the ‘teaching’ of the Buddha;
(2) ‘good conduct’ or ‘good behaviour’, in general, but also more specifically the putting into practice of the good conduct prescribed by the Buddha’s teaching and constituting the Buddhist path, namely keeping ethical precepts (sīla), developing calm and concentration (samatha, samādhi, jhāna), and insight and knowledge (vipassanā, paññā, vijjā) through the practice of meditation;
(3) the ‘truth’ realized by the practice of the Buddhist path;
(4) any particular ‘nature’ or ‘quality’ that something possesses;
(5) the underlying and objective ‘natural law or order’ of things which the Buddha has discerned;[9]
(6) a basic mental or physical ‘state’ or ‘thing’, a plurality of which, at least in the texts of the Abhidhamma, becomes explicitly to be conceived as in some sense constituting the ‘reality’ of the world or experience.[10]

"Dharma" as teachings of the Buddha

The sense of dharma as teaching of the Buddha is central to the Buddhist tradition.[2]

Traditionally, there are many terms that are used to refer to the teachings of the Buddha:

  • saddharma ("true dharma")
  • buddhavacana ("word of the buddha")
  • Buddhadharma
  • dharmavinaya - the term used by the Buddha to refer to what he taught; this refers to the vinaya teachings (vinaya) + all other types of teachings (dharma)[2]
  • dharmapravacana (T. gsung rab) - scriptures, excellent speech, etc.[11][12]
  • Buddha-sāsana - "the message, teaching, instruction or dispensation of the Buddha."[13]

Three jewels

In the sense of the Buddha's teachings, the Dharma constitutes one of the Three Jewels in which practitioners of Buddhism take refuge. The three jewels are:

  • the Buddha (can also be understood as buddhahood, i.e. enlightenment),
  • the Dharma (teachings and methods), and
  • the Sangha (the community of committed practitioners of the buddhadharma).

Eight qualities of the dharma

According to Maitreya's Sublime Continuum, of the Sanskrit Mahayana tradition, the Dharma has eight qualities of cessation and the path:


1) purity, since free from emotional obscurations
2) clarity, since free from cognitive obscurations
3) remedy, since it overcomes both obscurations


4) inconceivable, since beyond concepts
5) utterly peaceful, since it is free from karma and disturbing emotions
6) unfathomable, since individually cognized


7) cessation; and
8) the path.

Qualities of the Buddha (dharmakaya)

The auspicious qualities of the Buddha (physical, verbal or mental) are often referred to as the "dharmas of the Buddha."[2]

According to Buswell, in this context, the term dharmakaya "seems to have originally been meant to refer to the entire corpus (kaya) of the Buddha's transcendent qualities (dharma)."[2]

"Dharma" as constituents of reality

The term dharma, in the sense of "what can be known or cognized (Skt. jñeya)," is used to describe the constituents of reality, or phenomena.

These constituents of reality, or what is ultimately real, were explored in great detail in the teachings of the Abhidharma. In this context, the early Abhidharma scholars developed lists of what they believed to be the ultimate factors of existence, such as:

Later scholars, such as Nāgārjuna, questioned whether any "dharma" were ultimately existent. In the context of these later teachings, the term dharma as a referent to externally existing objects, is typically translated as "phenomena".


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Goodman 2020, Chapter 1.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. dharma.
  3. From "Goodman: 2020, Chapter 1" and "Rigpa Wiki, Ten meanings of dharma"
  4. All the examples are from "Goodman: 2020, Chapter 1"
  5. This spelling (āyus) is from Goodman; alternate spellings are āyuḥ (Buswell) and āyu (Rigpa wiki). All three sources use the same Tibetan term (tshe).
  6. Rigpa Wiki uses the Tibetan term 'byung 'gyur (Skt. bhautika) to refer to "what which is subject to change." Goodman uses the Sanskrit bhavana (T. sgom pa). Bhautika ( 'byung 'gyur) seems to make more sense in this context.
  7. Goodman uses the Sanskrit term nīti. Rigpa Wki uses the Sanskrit term dharmanīti. Both sources use the same Tibetan term (chos lugs).
  8. 8.0 8.1 RW icon height 18px.png Ten meanings of Dharma
  9. Gethin states: "A number of modern scholars and interpreters have thus suggested that dhamma signifies the natural law or order which the world or reality conforms to." However, Gethin suggests this interpretation is difficult to defend. He states it is hard to "cite passages where the translation ‘Natural Law’ or ‘Universal Law’ is clearly required by context and to be given preference over other translations."
  10. Gethin 2004.
  11. Rangjung a-circle30px.jpg gsung_rab
  12. RW icon height 18px.png Ten meanings of Dharma
  13. Horn 1997, p. 263.


External links

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