Buddha’s Teachings / What Is the Dharma?

What Is the Dhamma? (Dharma)

The Buddha’s Teaching – In His Own Words
Texts selected, arranged, and translated by Bhikkhu Ñānamoli

Narrator One. What is the “Dhamma” that was “well proclaimed” by the “Supreme Physicia n”? Is it an attempt to make a complete description of the world? Is it a metaphysical system?

First Voice. The Blessed One was once living at Sāvatthī in Jeta’s Grove. A deity called Rohitassa came to him late in the night, paid homage to him and asked: “Lord, the world’s end where one neither is born nor ages nor dies nor passes away nor reappears: is it possible to know or see or reach that by travelling there?”

“Friend, that there is a world’s end where one neither is born nor ages nor dies nor passes away nor reappears, which is to be known or seen or reached by travelling there—that I do not say. Yet I do not say that there is ending of suffering without reaching the world’s end. Rather it is in this fathom-long carcase with its perceptions and its mind that I describe the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world, and the way leading to the cessation of the world.

“It is utterly impossible To reach by walking the world’s end; But none escape from suffering Unless the world’s end has been reached. It is a Sage, a knower of the world, Who gets to the world’s end, and it is he By whom the holy life has been lived out; In knowing the world’s end he is at peace And hopes for neither this world nor the next.” SN 2:36; AN 4:46

The Blessed One was once living at Kosambī in a wood of siCsapā trees. He picked up a few leaves in his hand, and he asked the bhikkhus: “How do you conceive this, bhikkhus, which is more, the few leaves that I have picked up in my hand or those on the trees in the wood?”

“The leaves that the Blessed One has picked up in his hand are few, Lord; those in the wood are far more.”

“So too, bhikkhus, the things that I have known by direct knowledge are more: the things that I have told you are only a few. Why have I not told them? Because they bring no benefit, no advancement in the holy life, and because they do not lead to dispassion, to fading, to ceasing, to stilling, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna. That is why I have not told them. And what have I told you? ’This is suffering; this is the origin of suffering; this is the cessation of suffering; this is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.’ That is what I have told you. Why have I told it? Because it brings benefit, and advancement in the holy life, and because it leads to dispassion, to fading, to ceasing, to stilling, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna. So, bhikkhus, let your task be this: ’This is suffering, this is the origin of suffering, this the cessation of suffering, this is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.’” SN 56:31

Narrator One. It is not, then, an attempt to make some complete description of the world, either internal or external. Is it a metaphysical system—a consistent logical construction—and if so, what premiss is it based on?

First Voice. Once when the Blessed One had gone into Rājagaha for alms the naked ascetic Kassapa went up to him, and after greeting him, he said: “We would ask Master Gotama something, if Master Gotama would consent to give an answer.” — “It is not the time for questions, Kassapa; we are among houses.” He asked a second and a third time and received the same reply. Then he said: “It is not much we want to ask, Master Gotama.” — “Ask, then, Kassapa, whatever you like.”

“How is it, Master Gotama, is suffering of one’s own making?” — “Do not put it like that, Kassapa.” — “Then is suffering of another’s making? — “Do not put it like that, Kassapa.” — “Then is suffering both of one’s own and another’s making?” — “Do not put it like that, Kassapa.” — “Then is suffering neither of one’s own nor another’s making but fortuitous?” — “Do not put it like that, Kassapa.” — “Then is there no suffering?” — “It is not a fact that there is no suffering: there is suffering, Kassapa.” — “Then does Master Gotama neither know nor see suffering?” — “It is not a fact that I neither know nor see suffering: I both know and see suffering, Kassapa.” SN 12:17

Once too the wanderer Uttiya went to the Blessed One, and after greeting him, he sat down at one side. Then he asked: “How is it, Master Gotama, the world is eternal: is only that the truth and everything else wrong?” — “That is not answered by me, Uttiya.” — “Then the world is not eternal: is only that the truth and everything else wrong?” — “That too is not answered by me, Uttiya.” — “The world is finite: is only that the truth and everything else wrong?” — “That too is not answered by me, Uttiya.” — “Then the world is infinite: is only that the truth and everything else wrong?” — “That too is not answered by me, Uttiya.” — “The soul is the same as the body: is only that the truth and everything else wrong?” — “That too is not answered by me, Uttiya.” — “Then the soul is one and the body another: is only that the truth and everything else wrong?” — “That too is not answered by me, Uttiya.” — “After death a Perfect One is: is only that the truth and everything else wrong?” — “That too is not answered by me, Uttiya.” — “Then after death a Perfect One is not: is only that the truth and everything else wrong?” — “That too is not answered by me, Uttiya.” — “Then after death a Perfect One both is and is not: is only that the truth and everything else wrong?” — “That too is not answered by me, Uttiya.” — “Then after death a Perfect One neither is nor is not: is only that the truth and everything else wrong?” — “That too is not answered by me, Uttiya.”

“But why does Master Gotama decline to answer when I ask him these questions? What then is answered by Master Gotama?”

“I teach the Dhamma to disciples from direct knowledge, Uttiya, for the purification of beings, for surmounting sorrow and lamentation, for ending pain and grief, for attainment of the true goal, for realizing Nibbāna.”

“Master Gotama, does that Dhamma provide an outlet from suffering for all the world, or for half, or for a third?”

When this was said, the Blessed One remained silent.

Then the Venerable Ānanda thought: “The wanderer Uttiya must not conceive any such pernicious view as ’When the monk Gotama is asked a question peculiar to me and to no one else and he founders and does not answer, is it because he is unable?’ That would be long for his harm and suffering.” So he said to him: “Friend Uttiya, I shall give you a simile; for some wise men here get to know through a simile the meaning of what is said.

“Suppose a king had a city with strong ditches, ramparts and bastions, and a single gate, and he had a wise, clever, sagacious gate-keeper there who stopped those whom he did not know and admitted only those whom he knew; and since he had himself gone round the path encircling the city and had seen no gaps in the ramparts or any hole even big enough for a cat to pass through, he might conclude that living beings above a certain size must go in and out through the gate—so too, friend Uttiya, a Perfect One’s concern is not that ’All the world shall find an outlet by this, or a half, or a third,’ but rather that ’Whoever has found or finds or will find an outlet from the world of suffering, that is always done by abandoning the five hindrances (of desire for sensuality, ill will, lethargy-and-drowsiness, agitation-and-worry, and uncertainty), defilements that weaken understanding, and by maintaining in being the seven factors of enlightenment with minds well established on the four foundations of mindfulness.’

“Your question which you put to the Blessed One was framed in the wrong way; that was why the Blessed One did not answer it.” AN 10:95

On another occasion the wanderer Vacchagotta went to the Blessed One and exchanged greetings with him. Then he asked: “How is it, Master Gotama, does self exist?” When this was said, the Blessed One was silent. “How is it, then, Master Gotama, does self not exist?” And for a second time the Blessed One was silent. Then the wanderer Vacchagotta got up from his seat and went away. Not long after he had gone the Venerable Ānanda asked the Blessed One: “Lord, how is it that when the Blessed One was questioned he did not answer?”

“If, when I was asked ’Does self exist?’ I had answered ’Self exists,’ that would have been the belief of those who hold the theory of eternalism. And if, when I was asked ’Does self not exist?’ I had answered ’Self does not exist,’ that would have been the belief of those who hold the theory of annihilationism. Again, if, when asked ’Does self exist?’ I had answered ’Self exists,’ would that have been in conformity with my knowledge that all things are not-self? And if, when asked ’Does self not exist?’ I had answered ’Self does not exist,’ then confused as he already is, Ānanda, the wanderer Vacchagotta would have become still more confused, assuming: ’Surely then I had a self before and now have none.’” SN 44:10

At one time the Blessed One was living at Sāvatthī, and at that time a number of wandering monks and brahmans of various sects had gone into Sāvatthī for alms. They had differing views, opinions, and notions, and they relied for support on their differing views. There were some monks and brahmans who asserted and believed that “The world is eternal: only this is true, everything else is wrong,” and some who asserted and believed each of the other nine views. They quarreled, brawled, wrangled, and wounded each other with verbal darts: “The Dhamma is like this; the Dhamma is not like this! The Dhamma is not like this; the Dhamma is like this!”

Then a number of bhikkhus, on their return from their alms round, told the Blessed One about it. The Blessed One said: “Bhikkhus, there was once a certain king in Sāvatthi. He told a man: ’Come, man, get together all the men in Sāvatthī who have been born blind.’ — ’Yes, sire,’ he replied. And when he had done so, he told the king, who said, ’Then show them an elephant.’ He did so, saying, ’You men blind from birth, an elephant is like this,’ and he showed the elephant’s head to some and its ear to others and its tusk to others and its trunk to others and its body to others and its foot to others and its rump to others and its tail to others and the tuft at the end of its tail to others. Then he went to the king and told him what he had done.

“So the king went to the men blind from birth, and he asked them: ’Has an elephant been shown to you?’ — ’Yes, sire.’ — ’Then describe what the elephant is like.’ Now those who had been shown the head said ’Sire, the elephant is like a jar,’ and those shown the ear said ’It is like a winnowing basket,’ and those shown the tusk said ’It is like a post,’ and those shown the trunk said ’It is like a plough’s pole,’ and those shown the body said ’It is like a granary,’ and those shown the foot said ’It is like the base of a column,’ and those shown the rump said ’It is like a mortar,’ and those shown the tail said ’It is like a pestle,’ and those shown the tuft at the end of the tail said ’It is like a broom.’ They fought among themselves with their fists, crying: ’The elephant is like this; it is not like this! The elephant is not like this; it is like this!’ But the king was pleased.

“So too the wanderers of other sects are blind and eyeless. That is why they quarrel, brawl, wrangle, and wound each other with verbal darts: ’The Dhamma is like this; the Dhamma is not like this! The Dhamma is not like this; the Dhamma is like this!’” Ud 6:4

Narrator One. So it would appear to be a mistake to call the Buddha’s teaching either an attempt to describe the world completely or a metaphysical system built up by logic. Is it, then, an ethical commandment, a revealed religion of faith, or simply a stoical code of behaviour? Before an attempt can be made to find answers to those questions, some sort of a survey of the doctrines taught is needed. The material contained in the Discourses seems, in fact, to be rather in the nature of material for a map, for each to make his own map, but all oriented alike. These oriented descriptions of facets of experience, in fact, enable a person to estimate his position and judge for himself what he had better do.

The Discourses offer not so much a description as a set of overlapping descriptions. Close examination of existence finds always something of the qualities of the mirage and of the paradox behind the appearance. The ends can never be made quite to meet. The innumerable different facets presented in the Suttas with countless repetitions of certain of these facets in varying combinations and contexts remind one of a collection of air photographs from which maps are to be made. The facets in the Discourses are all oriented to cessation of suffering, the four points of their compass being the Four Noble Truths. Let us try to make a specimen map out of some of this material. In this case, since a start has to be made somewhere, we can start for our baseline with birth, which, like death, is to the ordinary man an everyday fact and at the same time an insoluble mystery.

There is No First Beginning

Narrator Two. Is consciousness conceivable without a past? Can it be said to have a beginning? First Voice. “Bhikkhus, the round is beginningless. Of the beings that travel and trudge through this round, shut in as they are by ignorance and fettered by craving, no first beginning is describable.” SN 15:1 “That both I and you have to travel and trudge through this long round is owing to our not discovering, not penetrating, four truths. What four? They are: (I) the noble truth of suffering, (II) the noble truth of the origin of suffering, (III) the noble truth of the cessation of suffering, and (IV) the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering.”