Dhamma – Different Meanings Depending on the Context

November 16, 2021

Dhamma is a Pāli word that gives (seemingly) different meanings depending on the context. But those meanings are based on the root “to bear.”


1. In the previous post, “Yoniso Manasikāra and Paṭicca Samuppāda,” we discussed the four requirements for someone to attain the Sotapanna stage  There we discussed the first three requirements. The fourth is dhammā­nu­dhammap­paṭi­patti.

  • The Pāli word dhammā­nu­dhammap­paṭi­patti is the combination of three words: dhamma, anudhamma, and paṭi­patti.
  • Therefore, we need to discuss the words “dhamma” and “anudhamma.” As we will see, “dhamma” can have different meanings based on the context.
  • We have many examples in English where the same word gives different meanings based on the context. For example, the term “right” conveys unrelated things in “turn right” and “you are right.”
  • That is why it is dangerous to translate Pāli texts word-by-word, as commonly done these days. I have pointed out such issues with specific examples.
The Meaning of “Dhamma

2. “Dhamma” means “to bear.” This direct meaning is in verse, “manañca paṭicca dhamme ca uppajjāti manoviññāṇaṃ.”

  • Vipāka-bearing kammic energy” of a kamma stays in viññāṇa dhātu as “kamma bija” or “dhamma.”
  • Just like a rupa can bring in a sensory input via the five physical senses, dhammā can bring a sensory input (memory of a previous kamma) directly to the mind.
  • While the five types of rupa (vaṇṇa, sadda, gandha, rasa, phoṭṭhabba) belong to the “material world” made of suddhāṭṭhaka,  “dhammā” are below the suddhāṭṭhaka stage. As we know, a suddhāṭṭhaka is the smallest unit of matter in Buddha Dhamma (comparable to an atom or an elementary particle in modern science. However, a suddhāṭṭhaka is even smaller.)
  • Unlike the other five types of rupa, dhammā cannot be seen (anidassana) or touched/detected even with most sensitive instruments (appaṭigha) and detectable only with the mind (dhammāyatanapariyāpannaṁ).
  • That is explained in the last verse of “2.3.1. Tikanikkhepa” in Dhammasaṅgaṇī as, “yañca rūpaṁ anidassanaṁ appaṭighaṁ dhammāyatanapariyāpannaṁ; asaṅkhatā ca dhātu—ime dhammā anidassana appaṭighā.” 
  • Therefore, those dhammā bear the fruits of kamma! They can bring vipāka in the future.

3. All such dhammā generally appear in two forms: dhammā and adhammā

  • The word dhammā generally refers to “good dhammā.” Those that arise due to “bad kamma” are “adhammā.”
  • Dhamma Sutta (AN 10.182)” provides a direct explanation. “Killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, divisive, harsh, or idle speech, greed, ill will, and wrong view. Those ten are adhammā. Abstaining from such actions (and having the opposite mindset generating “good javana power”)  lead to dhammā.
  • However, both dhammā and adhammā belong to the dhammā category. It is just that adhammā bear the fruits of bad kamma” and dhammā “bear the fruits of good kamma.
  • The word “smell” indicates all types of odors, but if someone says “it smells,” that means it is a “bad odor.” That is the accepted usage. In the same way, dhammā usually means the “good type.”
Anudhamma at the Basic Level

4. Each of the ten types of dhamma falls into four categories. For example, concerning killing other living beings, it is not only abstaining from killing that counts as dhamma.

  • Not helping others in killings, not encouraging others to kill, and not praising killings by others also count as “good deeds” or dhamma. Those are the anudhamma.
  • In the same way, while killing is the worst adhamma in that category, helping others to kill, encouraging others to kill, and praising killings by others also count as evil deeds and will have dire kammic consequences.
Above Usage is the Basic Form – Completes the Mundane Eightfold Path

5. Abstaining from immoral deeds and cultivating moral acts is NECESSARY to facilitate the mundane eightfold path. That is to bear “moral dhamma” and NOT to bear “immoral adhamma.”

  • Cultivation of moral dhamma will help remove the ten types of micchā diṭṭhi.
  • Getting to that stage is NECESSARY to comprehend the deeper dhamma needed to get to the Sotapanna and higher levels of Nibbāna.
  • Of course, even after that, it is necessary to hear the deeper dhamma (Four Noble Truths/Tilakkhana/Paṭicca Samuppāda) from a Noble Person. As we have discussed, the first two conditions pertain to that.
Mundane Eightfold Path Has Similarities with Other Religions

6.  From #3 above, we can see that the mundane path has some common features with other world religions. However, even there, there are some drastic differences.

  • For example, other religions (except some versions of Hinduism) do not see a problem with killing animals.
  • All other religions teach a permanent heavenly existence (or permanent existence in Hell). That is one of the 10 types of wrong views (micchā diṭṭhi) in #5 above.
What Is the Deeper Buddha Dhamma?

7. As we can see, dhammā  arise due to “good or bad kamma.” Good kamma lead to good vipāka and bad kamma lead to bad vipāka. However, both types are associated with “this world.” 

  • In contrast, “Buddha Dhamma” is “bhava uddha dhamma.” It mainly refers to the teachings of the Buddha that lead to Nibbāna, i.e., the results (vipāka) of actions taken according to Buddha Dhamma lead to “stopping of future existence/rebirths.”
  • The word Buddha comes from “bhava” + “uddha “; here, “bhava” means “existence (in the 31 realms)” and “uddha” means “removal.” Therefore, a Buddha figures out how to stop the rebirth process and thus end future suffering.
  • Now the question is: What kind of “deeper dhamma” would lead to the stopping of the rebirth process and the permanent elimination of future suffering?
Paṭicca Samuppāda Is Buddha Dhamma!

8. The “Mahāhatthipadopama Sutta (MN 28)” ends with the statement, “Yō Paṭiccasamuppādam passati, so Dhammam passatiyo Dhammaṁ passati so paṭiccasamuppādaṁ passatī”ti.That means, “One who sees paṭicca samuppāda sees the Dhamma; one who sees the Dhamma sees paṭicca samuppāda.” To understand Buddha Dhamma, one needs to know how future suffering arises via the paṭicca samuppāda process.

  • In other words, Paṭicca Samuppāda is the same as Buddha Dhamma. To be precise, Akusala-mula Paṭicca Samuppāda explains how existences and rebirths arise due to the accumulation of “lokiya dhamma” or “good/bad dhamma” that we discussed in #2 and #3 above. As we know, those Paṭicca Samuppāda processes start with “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra,” i.e., actions based on avijjā or ignorance of the Four Noble Truths.  Thus, comprehension of Paṭicca Samuppāda will lead to the stopping of such processes. That is the “lokottara dhamma” or the deeper version.
  • Therefore, in many cases, “dhamma” (without the “long a”) refers to either version of Buddha Dhamma.
  • For example, “Dhammo ha ve rakkhati dhammacāriṁmeans, “Dhamma will protect those who follow (Buddha) Dhamma.”
Anudhamma at the Deeper Level – Tilakkhana

9. As we have already discussed, Paṭicca Samuppāda is closely related to Tilakkhana (anicca, dukkha, anatta.) Those are the three characteristics of this suffering-filled world (in the rebirth process.)

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