Traditional definitions of the term dhamma

By John Ross Carter
Philosophy East and West
July, 1976
p. 329-337

p. 329 Among the technical terms in the Theravaada Buddhist vocabulary perhaps none is so puzzling and comprehensive as the term dhamma. For some time Western scholars-philosophers, buddhologists, historians, philologists, historians of religion--have been considering this term, probing its denotations and connotations, occasionally becoming perplexed, often showing flashes of insight. Whereas a good deal has been written on what has come to be called Hindu dharma as a frame of reference for extrapolating patterns of ethical behavior in India, less has been done with the notion dhamma in the Theravaada Buddhist tradition. My intention in writing this brief article is not to become engaged here with the various interpretations offered for the many dimensions of meaning in the term dhamma, or to express an opinion on the meaning of the term in one or another passage, or to argue that the term first carried one meaning and then another in an early or later century. This task, of course, would require a monograph. Rather, I wish to place before the reader traditional commentarial definitions offered by Buddhists and drawn from Paali and Sinhalese Theravaada sources. This organizational plan was adopted for the following reasons: (l)sources hitherto published in Western languages have not provided a complete listing of passages in the Paali commentaries where the term dhamma is discussed in detail; (2) the work of Professor Wilhelm and Mrs. Magdalene Geiger (to be noted below) is limited to the meaning of the term in the canonical literature, with the exception of a brief passage in which some of the commentarial definitions are noted, and is no longer readily available; (3) the discussion of the term dhamma/dharma in Sinhalese Buddhist literature is, on the whole, unknown in the West; (4) one engaged in comparative studies, philosophical and religious, would have at hand, in a concise form, references to the passages to which one could turn to find the traditional definitions of the term; in short, one would have a lexical entry representing the standard definitions of the term that the Theravaada Buddhist tradition has maintained in the course of approximately two thousand years. Turning to a consideration of the traditional definitions of the term dhamma, one notes that the most complete work in a Western language dealing with the meaning of the term in the Paali canonical literature, from a philological perspective, is the impressive work by Magdalene and Wilhelm Geiger, Paali Dhamma: vornehmlich in der kanonischen Literatur.(1) Professor and Mrs. Geiger noted some Paali commentaries available at the time of their research and, on the basis --------------------- EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is designed to put at the disposal of scholars and philosophers undertaking comparative studies some reference materials that hopefully will enable them to work more readily with the difficult and significant concept of Dhamma in the Theravaada Buddhist tradition. The author hopes that this brief article will stimulate comparative philosophers to address questions that arise in any consideration of this concept with its wide range of meaning. John Ross Carter is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Colgate University, Hamilton, N.Y. p. 330 of comments recorded at DA.I.99. l ff., DhsA.38.23, and DhA.I.22 (New Edition, p.18, on Dhp. vs.1), structured five traditional meanings of the term.(2) (1) (DA., DhsA., DhA.) (2) desanaa (DA., DhA.) (3) hetu (DhsA.) (4) pariyatti(DA., DhsA., DhA.) (5) nissatta (DA., DhA.), nissatta-nijjiiva (DhsA.) The Geigers remarked that these five categories encompassed the principal meanings of dhamma. Being careful researchers, this husband and wife team did not overlook aadiisu (locative plural form of aadi, "etcetera," "and so forth"), a very important part of the commentarial discussion, and shared with the commentarial tradition an awareness that the five general categories did not exhaust the meaning and subtle nuances of the term.(3)In the course of their thorough work, more than fifty German terms as translations of the one Paali word dhamma were suggested. In 1923, approximately three years after the Geigers' Paali Dhamma had appeared, the fourth fascicle ("Cit--No") of the Paaii Text Society's dictionary became available. In their entry under dhamma, T. W. Rhys Davids and William Stede referred the reader to the study by Professor and Mrs. Geiger and noted, "The exhaustive monograph...reached the editors too late to be made use of for the Dictionary."(4) Rhys Davids and Stede referred to three passages in the commentaries, as had the Geigers, DA.I.99, DhsA.38, DhA.I.22 (New Edition, p. 18), and, similarly, provided their readers with over fifty English terms, concepts, for the one Paaii term dhamma.(5) These two admirable sources, drawing from three Paaii commentaries, provided the reader with five basic definitions--with aadi one might suggest six definitions--of the term dhammu. From the commentary on the Diigha-nikaaya (DA.), four definitions were recorded. This text mentions, "The word dhamma occurs with regard to quality [, meaning quality in the sense of virtuous, moral quality], teaching [desanaa], authoritative teaching [pariyatti conveys the meaning of that to be mastered, learned by heart], that without a living being [nissatta] and so forth."(6) As an example of dhamma's meaning, the DA. notes a verse drawn from the Theragaathaa: By no means are dhamma and adhamma of equal recompense. Adhamma leads to hell; dhamma causes the attainment of a good bourne.(7) To illustrate dhamma as desanaa this commentary gives the opening phrase of a popular passage characterizing dhamma: "`O bhikkhus I will teach you dhamma, which is admirable in its beginning' and so forth."(8) The commentary mentions a frequent refrain as an example of dhamma's meaning pariyatti: "Now then, a bhikkhu masters dhamma, that is, sutta [the discourses heard from the mouth p. 331 of the Buddha and passed down orally], geyya [sections to be chanted],' and so forth." For nissatta the commentary states, "`In this connection there are dhammas, there are aggregates [khandhus],' and so forth."(9) The Atthasaalinii (DhsA.), a commentary on the Dhammasa^nga.nii, also lists four meanings of dhamma.(10) It differs from DA. in that it substitutes hetu, "cause," for desanaa, "teaching," and adds the term nijjiivataa, "lifelessness," to nissatta. This commentary considers dhamma to mean hetu in the passage, "analysis of dhammn is knowledge with regard to cause [hetu]." The commentary on the Dhammapada (DhA.) follows closely the presentation of DA. and incorporates the term nijjiiva, using it as a synonym for nissatta.(11) The Sinhalese glossary on DhA., Dhampiyaa A.tuvaa G„.tapadaya (DAG) , p. 15, in elaborating the DhA. presentation regarding nissatta, nijjiiva, says, "`There are dhammas' means there are only dhammas because they are void in nature of self and that belonging to a self." The commentary on the Majjhima-nikaaya (MA.) gives a more comprehensive definition of dhamma than that noted by the Geigers and the PTSD. "Now this word dhamma appears as authoritative teaching [pariyatti], truth(s) [sacca], rapt concentration [samaadhi], wisdom [pa~n~naa], natural condition [pakati], inherent nature [sabhaava], voidness [su~n~nataa], merit [pu~n~na], vinaya violation, that is, an offense committed within the sa^ngha [aapatti], that to be known [~neyya] and so forth [aadi]."(12) To illustrate dhamma as "truths," MA. notes di.t.thadhammo, viditadhammo, "one who has seen dhamma, who has known dhamma." Interesting is the interpretation of dhamma as samaadhi. MA. quotes briefly from D.II.8 (or D.II.54) (13) a passage enumerating characteristics of the Bhagavans: "They were of such names, such lineages, such morals [eva.m-siilaa], such dhammas [eva.m-dhammaa], such wisdom [eva.m-pa~n~naa]...."(14) The triad--siila, samaadhi, pannaa--is often found in Paali literature and serves to hold together aspects of religious life. However, dhamma, in both singular and plural forms, is found apparently in the place of samaadhi.(15) MA. notes that dhamma so used has to do with samaadhi and the commentarial tradition appears to be consistent.(16) Quoting from the Jaataka, MA. notes a passage in which dhamma is to be understood as "wisdom." For whom there are these four dhammas, O Lord of monkeys, as in your case, Truth, dhamma [that is, pa~n~naa, "wisdom"], courage, liberality, He overcomes the visible [world].(17) Dhamma also means "natural condition" or "natural state" [pukati]. The subtle nuances between pakati and sabhaava, "inherent nature, " seem not of importance in interpreting one dimension of dhamma. MA.I. 17 quotes M.I. 161-162, jaatidhamma, "that having as dhamma birth," and glosses it with pakati. However, the same commentary, MA.II.170, notes regarding jaati- p. 332 dhamma at M.I.161-162, "jaatidhammo ti jaayanasabhaavo," "that having as dhamma birth means that having the inherent nature of arising."(18) Dhamma in such places as kusalaa dhammaa, "wholesome dhammas, " is used in the sense of sabhaava, "inherent nature," according to MA.I.17. Dhamma means su~n~nataa, "voidness," when it is said, "now in this case there are dhammas." Dhamma Is used in the sense of meritorious behavior (pu~n~na) when it is said, "Dhamma well lived brings ease."(19) In the phrase "two undetermined dhammas,"(20) dhamma is noted as aapatti, "vinaya violation or offense within the sa^ngha." Dhamma also is used to designate "that to be known" (~neyya), and when used in the plural, might be translated "knowables." To illustrate this meaning the MA. notes, "All dhammas come into focus by every means in the face of the knowledge of the Buddha, the Bhagavan."(21) The commentary on the Buddhava.msa(22) follows the definitions listed in MA. with only one alteration. Whereas in MA. "truths" is the second definition, BuA, places it last and is more explicit in stating catusaccadhammo, "dhamma that pertains to [the] four [noble] truths." The Dharmapradiipikaa (Dhpr.), a Sinhalese text written as a commentary on the Paali Mahaabodhiva.msa and dated from about A.D. 1200, provides twelve definitions for the word dhamma. Taking as an example passages where di.t.thadhamma pattadhamma occur, the author defines dhamma as the paths, fruits, and (23) Another definition, not thus far noted is vyavahaaraya, "that which is customary, proper."(24) A noteworthy variation on the meaning of dhamma in a particular passage in the canon is given in the Dhpr. A canonical passage speaks of the Bhagavans as being characterized by "such morals [eva.m-siilaa], such dhammas [eva.m-dhammaa], such wisdom [eva.m-pa~n~naa](25) The Paaii commentarial tradition interprets dhammaa here, in the plural, as having to do with samaadhi.(26) However, Dhpr. takes dhammas in such passages as referring to the natures of the Bhagavans.(27) In presenting the remainder of the definitions, the Dhpr. differs insignificantly from what has already been noted. Another list of definitions of dhamma is given concisely in the Abhidhaanappadiipikaa, a Paaii dictionary that probably preceded the Dhpr. by a few years.(28) Two more sources, both in Sinhalese, may be noted and their definitions given in order to bring the survey of the definitions up to relatively recent times. One source, the Abhidhaanappadiipikaasuuci, was written by W. Subhuuti nearly ninety years ago. It is a work explaining more fully the definitions given in the Abhidhaanappadiipikaa. The second source is the admirable Sinhalese dictionary, `Srii Suma.ngala `, compiled by the learned Welivi.tiyee Sorata approximately twenty years ago. The Abhidhaanappadiipikaa gives the compound sacccappakati as a definition of dhamma and Subhuuti takes sacca, in the compound, as "truth."(29) In his Abhidhaanappadiipikaasuuci, Subhuuti defines dhamma in terms of "truth" in the p. 333 singular: "[dhamma occurs] in the sense of `truth' in such passages as one having seen dhamma, having attained dhamma'."(30) The commentary on the Majjhima-nikaaya (MA.) speaks of "truths" in its listed definitions, and the commentary on the Buddhava.msa speaks of "dhamma that is the four truths," or "dhamma that pertains to [the] four [noble] truths."(31) Some Sinhalese sources had incorporated into their translation of the phrase.(32) Subhuuti adds several synonyms to our expanding list of definitions of dhamma: "constitution, quality, " (vikaara), "condition" (paccaya), "that which has arisen conditionally (paccayuppanna) , "object" (visaya), and "custom" (yutti), and as a separate term, nibbaana. These additions to the list of meanings, Subhuuti mentions, fall into the category of aadi, "etcetera, " noted in the Abhidhaanappadiipikaa.(33) Sorata, in his Sinhalese dictionary, gives additional terms in his list of definitions: "the noble path" (aaryamaarga), "the texts that are the three pi.takas" (tripi.takapaaliya), "good conduct" (sucaritaya), and "that which was spoken by the Buddha" (buddhabhaa.sitaya).(34) In concluding this survey I will list the definitions of the term dhamma given in the Paaii and Sinhalese Theravaada Buddhist sources consulted:(35) Code Numbers of Sources Consulted: DA. 1 MA . 4 Dhpr. 7 DhsA 2 BuA . 5 AbhidhpS. 8 DhA. 3 Abhidhp. 6 `Sssk. 9 buddhabhaa.sita "that which was spoken by the Buddha" 9 "quality, in the sense of virtuous, moral quality" desanaa "teaching" 1, 3, 7 pariyatti "authoritative teaching, texts" 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 nissatta "that without a living being" 1, 3, 6, 7, 8 nissatta-nijjiivataa "that without a living being- lifelessness" 2, 8, 9 su~n~nataa "emptiness, voidness": 4, 5, 9 hetu "cause" 2, 9 saccaani "truths" 4,6? catusaccadhamma "dhamma that pertains to [the] four [noble] truths" 5 sacca "truth" 6?, 8, 9 samaadhi "rapt concentration" 4, 5, 6, 8, 9 pa~n~na "wisdom" 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 pakati "natural condition" 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 sabhaava "inherent nature" 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 pu~n~naa "merit" 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 aapatti "an offense committed within the sa^ngha" 4, 5, 6, 8, 9 ~neyya "that to be known" 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 (aadi) "etcetera [that is, the scope of meaning of the term is not exhausted by the definitions listed]" 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 8 p. 334 naaya "proper manner, propriety" 6, 8, 9 aacaara "[proper] conduct" 6, 8, 9 "reason, cause" 6, 8, 9 maggaphalanibbaana "paths, fruits, and nibbaana" 7 ariyamagga (aaryamaarga) "noble path" 9 vyavahaara "that which is customary" 7 kusaladhamma "dhamma that pertains to what is wholesome" 7, 9 vikaara "constitution, quality" 8 paccaya "condition" 8 paccayasamuppanna "that which has arisen conditionally" 8 visaya "object" 8, 9 yutti "custom, fitness" 8, 9 nibbaana 9 tripi.takapaali "the texts that are the three pi.takas" 9 sucarita "good behavior, good conduct" 9 ABBREVIATIONS Except where full bibliographical information is noted, the Paaii texts are those issued by the Paaii Text Society in their standard editions. Abhidhp. Abhidhaanappadiipikaa nam Paalinigha.n.duva. Edited by Moragall‚ Siri ~Naa.nobhaasatissa Thera. Colombo: M. D. Gunasena, 1960. Abhidhaanappadiipikaa: or Dictionary, of the Paali Language. Edited by Waska.duwe Subhuuti, 2d ed. Colombo: Frank Luker, Acting Government Printer, 1883. AbhidhpS. Abhidhaanappadiipikaasuuci. Subhuuti, W. (Mahaa Thera), A Complete Index to the Abhidhaanappadiipikaa, with Explanatory and Grammatical Notes. Colombo: H. C. Cottle, Acting Government Printer, 1893. Bu. The Buddhava.msa BuA. Madhuratthavilaasinii nama Buddhava.msa.t- .thakathaa D. The Diigha.nikaaya DA. The Suma^ngala-vilaasinii: the commentary on the Diighanikaaya DAG Dahampiyaa A.tuvaa G„.tapadaya. Edited by Mada-Uyango.da Vimalakirti Thera and Nahinne Sominda Thera. Colombo: M.Dr. Gunasena, 1967. DhA. The Commentary on the Dhammapada: Dhammapada.t.thakathaa Dhp. The Dhammapada Dhpr. Dharmapradiipikaa. Edited by Baddeegama Vimalava.msa Thera, 2d ed. Colombo: M. D. Gunasena & Co., 1967. DhsA. The Atthasaalinii: the commentary on the Dhammasa^ Jaa. The Jaataka; Together with Its Commentary M. Majjhima-nikaaya p. 335 MA. Papa~ncasuudanii Majjhimanikaaya.t.thakathaa: the commentary on the Majjhima-nikaaya Mhbv. Mahaa-Bodhi-Va.msa Pm. Paramatthamanjuusaa of Bhadantaacariya Dhammapaala Thera: Or The Commentary of the Visuddhimagga. Vols. 1-3, edited by Morontu.duwe Dhammaananda Thera. Colombo: Mahaabodhi Press, 1928 (Vol. 1), 1930 (Vol. 2), 1949 (Vol. 3). P.ts Pa.tisambhidaamagga S. The Sa.myutta-nikaaya SA. Saarattha-ppakaasinii: the commentary on the Sa.myutta-nikaaya SdhRv. Saddharmaratnaavaliya. Edited by Kirialle ~Naa.navimala Thera. Colombo: M. D. Gunasena, 1961. Sn Sutta-Nipaata SnA. Sutta-Nipa