Ten referents for "dharma"

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Ten referents for the word dharma (T. chos kyi don bcu, ཆོས་ཀྱི་དོན་བཅུ་) are identified by Vasubandhu in his text Vyākhyāyukti (Well Explained Reasoning). These referents are also cited by Buton Rinchen Drub in his History of Buddhism.

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

No. Referent[1] Description Sample usage[2]
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”;[3] aka "a mental object" "dharma basis"
5. puṇya aka "merit"; the accumulation of wholesome karma "They behaved in accord with the dharma"
6. āyus[4] (T. tshe) "this life" or "lifespan"; in this context, refers to "only having regard for this life"[3] "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[5] "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[6] (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.[7]

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).[7]


  1. From "Goodman: 2020, Chapter 1" and "Rigpa Wiki, Ten meanings of dharma"
  2. All the examples are from "Goodman: 2020, Chapter 1"
  3. 3.0 3.1 Goodman 2020, Chapter 1.
  4. This spelling (āyus) is from Goodman; alternate spellings are āyuḥ (Buswell) and āyu (Rigpa wiki). All three sources use the same Tibetan term (tshe).
  5. 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.
  6. Goodman uses the Sanskrit term nīti. Rigpa Wki uses the Sanskrit term dharmanīti. Both sources use the same Tibetan term (chos lugs).
  7. 7.0 7.1 RW icon height 18px.png Ten meanings of Dharma


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