Dhamma – Different Meanings Depending on the Context

Dhamma means teaching, and anudhamma means associated concepts. Even though dhamma could mean any teaching, it is commonly used to indicate Buddha’s teachings or “Buddha Dhamma.”

November 16, 2021; rewritten December 23, 2022


1. In the 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. It means “to follow Buddha Dhamma and associated concepts.”

  • The Pāli word dhammā­nu­dhammap­paṭi­patti is the combination of three words: dhamma, anudhamma, and paṭi­patti. Note that when two Pāli words are combined and have “a”‘s at the joint, those two “a”s become a long “a.” Thus, the combination of dhamma anudhamma leads to “dhammā­nu­dhamma.”
  • 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. See “Distortion of Pāli Keywords in Paṭicca Samuppāda.”
Different Types of Dhamma

2. Some people say, “I am learning Dhamma,” by which they mean, “I am learning Buddha Dhamma” or “Buddhism.”

  • But Dhamma is the generic word applicable to any teaching or principle or a “path one follows.”
  • If we need to be specific, “sath Dhamma” (pronounced “saddhamma“) to indicate “good” (“sath“) Dhamma. The opposite of that is “adhamma.”
  • Any teaching other than Buddha Dhamma teaches one how to “succeed in this world,” i.e., how to make money and live a happy life. Other “religious teachings” may teach how to be born in Deva or Brahma realms. They are “lokiya dhamma.”
  • But Buddha Dhamma teaches that it is impossible to remove future suffering via any of those ways. No matter how successful one can become, that success will end in death. The same holds for births in any heavenly realm. Any birth in this world ends in death.
  • Thus, Buddha Dhamma is saddhamma, and all other Dhamma in this world are adhamma. Of course, there are different levels of adhamma, as we will see below (#11.)

3. We can take an analogy to clarify. The Pāli generic word for “odor” is “gandha.” The words “sugandha” and “dugandha” must be used to indicate a pleasant or foul odor. 

  • However, it is common to use the word “gandha” to mean “dugandha” (the exact words are used in the Sinhala language too.)
  • Even in English, we say “it smells” to indicate a “bad odor.” However, “smell” means “odor.” To indicate a foul odor, we should say, “it smells bad,” just like when we say, “it smells good” to indicate a pleasing odor.
  • Thus, one must be aware of these common usages. In many cases, Buddha Dhamma is referred to as “Dhamma.”
Dhammo have rakkhati dhammacāriṁ

4. The verse, “Dhammo have rakkhati dhammacāriṁ” means “Dhamma will guide and protect those who follow Buddha Dhamma.”

  • The result of following a Buddha Dhamma is to be free of future rebirths with suffering. Thus, the goal is to be free of even a trace of suffering.
  • If one follows adhamma, one will end up in an apāya sooner or later. That is explained in Paṭicca Samuppāda.  
Adhamma and Saddhamma

5. “Dhamma Sutta (AN 10.182)” succinctly describes adhamma and saddhamma (note that the sutta uses “dhamma” to denote “saddhamma.”)

  • Adhamma are the dasa akusala: Pāṇātipātā, adinnādāna, kāmesumicchācāra, musāvāda, pisunā vācā, parusā vācā, samphappalāpa, abhijjhā, vyāpāda, micchā diṭṭhi. They are: “killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, slandering, harsh talk, empty talk, greed, hate, and wrong views.” 
  • The same sutta defines saddhamma as the avoidance of dasa akusala. 
  • There are subtle issues to discuss. But the above sutta provides the basic idea.
Anariyadhamma and Ariyadhamma

6. Sometimes, the words “anariya dhamma” and “Ariya dhamma” are used in place of adhamma and saddhamma

  • See, for example, “Ariyadhamma Sutta (AN 10.179).” 
  • As we can see, they are defined based on dasa akusala, the same way as adhamma and saddhamma.
  • Many other religions do not strictly teach avoiding killing animals. Furthermore, all other religions have several of the ten types of wrong views (micchā diṭṭhi.) Thus, only Buddha Dhamma is strictly saddhamma or Ariya dhamma.”
  • These and related concepts are described in many suttas, some of which are discussed in “Dasa Akusala/Dasa Kusala – Basis of Buddha Dhamma.” 
Asappurisa and Sappurisa

7. Those who follow saddhamma or Ariya dhamma are “sappurisa” (“sath” + “purisa.”) They are the eight types of Noble Persons (Ariyas) who are at or above the Sotapanna Anugāmi stage. 

  • That is evident in the “Sappurisadhamma Sutta (AN 10.192).” Another synonym for adhamma is introduced in that sutta, “asappurisadhamma,” indicating that an asappurisa engages in dasa akusala. The opposite, “sappurisadhamma,” is the same as “saddhamma.”
  • As we know, one of the four conditions to attain the Sotapanna stage is to associate with a sappurisa or “Sap­purisa­saṃ­sevo.” See #3 of “Four Conditions for Attaining Sōtapanna Magga/Phala.”
  • Thus, it is clear that a “sappurisa” is a Noble Person (Ariya), not merely a “good person” as translated in “Sappurisadhamma Sutta (AN 10.192).”
Why Are “Moral People” Not Included in “Sappurisa“?

8. We tend to think that most people are moral. But then there are cases where a person entirely accepted as a “moral person” commits a highly-immoral deed such as rape or taking a large bribe. 

  • Any person who has not attained at least the Sotapanna Anugāmi stage can be tempted to engage in an immoral deed. Anyone with sakkāya diṭṭhi can be triggered to commit an apāyagāmi deed (an action that can lead to rebirth in an apāya)!
  • This can be explained easily with an analysis of a citta vithi. A citta vithi runs based on an ārammaṇa. If the ārammaṇa is strong enough, the “decision to engage” is made at the vottapana citta and carried out with the subsequent javana citttās. Suppose the person has not overcome the first three saṁyojana (including sakkāya diṭṭhi). If the ārammaṇa is strong enough, the “decision to engage” is made within a split second, even without conscious decision-making. 
  • I have explained the basic process in “Avyākata Paṭicca Samuppāda for Vipāka Viññāṇa.” I plan to write more about that in the future.
Paṭicca Samuppāda Is Buddha Dhamma!

9. 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 the above verse, “Dhamma” refers to Buddha Dhamma or “saddhamma.”
  • In other words, Paṭicca Samuppāda is the same as Buddha Dhamma. It describes the Four Noble Truths.
  • See, for example, “Titthāyatana Sutta (AN 3.61).”
Dhamma and Anudhamma 

10. Dhamma is the “principle/main Dhamma,” and anudhamma refers to “minor/related Dhamma.”

  • Paṭicca Samuppāda is the Dhamma in Buddha Dhamma. See #9 above.
  • All other related teachings/concepts, like Tilakkhana, are anudhamma. 
  • There are four suttas, starting with the “Anudhamma Sutta (SN 22.39)” that describe various “anudhamma” like anicca, dukkha, and anatta.
All Other Dhamma Are Lokiya Dhamma

11. Regarding lokiya dhamma that sustains worldly entities, dasa akusala leads to rebirths in the four lowest realms (apāyās.) These are also called “pāpa kamma.” These are listed in the “Paṭhamaadhamma Sutta (AN 10.171)” as “killing living creatures, stealing, and sexual misconduct; speech that is false, divisive, harsh, or nonsensical; greed, ill will, and wrong view.”

  • The same sutta lists the avoidance of the above ten types as dhamma, i.e., “good dhamma.” 
  • Thus we can see that teachings in other religions have many “good dhamma” but also have “adhamma,” especially in terms of wrong views (e.g., the view of an eternal self/soul/ātman.)

12. Then what are the “anudhamma” in those cases of “lokiya dhamma“? There are three anudhamma associated with each (a)dhamma

  • For example, killing living beings is an adhamma. Helping others in killings, encouraging others to kill, and praising killings by others are the anudhamma associated with that adhamma. While personally making a killing is the worst, helping others to kill, encouraging others to kill, and praising killings by others also count as evil deeds and will have dire kammic consequences.
  • Avoiding killing living beings is a (good) dhamma. Not helping others in killings, not encouraging others to kill, and not praising killings by others are anudhamma and also count as “good deeds.” 
Lokiya Dhamma and Buddha Dhamma

13. Another way to categorize Dhamma is as “lokiya dhamma” and Buddha Dhamma.

  • Lokiya” means “belonging to this world of 31 realms. Dhammā (with a long “a”) that “bear things in this world” arise via Akusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda. See “What are Rūpa? – Dhammā are Rūpa too!We will discuss dhammā (with a long “a”) and the difference between Dhamma and dhammā in the next post.
  • As we know, that process starts with “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” and leads to “upādāna paccayā bhava” and “bhava paccayā jāti.” That is how anything in this world is born (jāti.)
  • To be precise, Akusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda explains how existences and rebirths arise due to the accumulation of “lokiya dhamma.” Some lokiya dhammas lead to rebirths in the “good realms;” teachings of other religions belong to this category. 
  • However, they also fall under the Akusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda, starting with “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra,” i.e., actions based on avijjā or ignorance of the Four Noble Truths. See “Saṅkhāra – What It Really Means.”

14. On the other hand, the Kusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda process starts with “kusala-mula paccayā saṅkhāra” and leads to “adhimokkha paccayā bhava” and “bhava paccayā jāti.” But here, only “Ariya jāti” can arise, i.e., only the eight types of Noble Persons are “born.” Of course, these “births” happen during a lifetime. For example, an average human can become a Sotapanna.

  • Comprehension of both versions of Paṭicca Samuppāda will lead to stopping future rebirths (bhava uddha = Buddha) and attaining Nibbāna. Thus, Buddha Dhamma means “Dhamma that leads to bhava uddha or stopping rebirths.” That is the “lokuttara dhamma,” or the deeper version of Dhamma.
Arahanthood Is Not Annihilation

15. Some people are terrified of “losing their existence” with Nibbāna. They ask, “Will I be annihilated/eradicated?” That question is asked with the wrong view of an “everlasting soul/ātman.”

  • Only a person with sakkāya diṭṭhi with raise that question. When one removes sakkāya diṭṭhi, one knows there is no “me” or “I” traversing the rebirth process. Rebirths are according to existing causes and conditions.
  • In any case, why worry if there is indeed an everlasting “I” or “me”? If that is the case, there should be no fear of losing something permanent.
  • There is nothing everlasting to be annihilated or eradicated! Anuloma PS leads to existences, and Paṭiloma PS leads to the stopping of that process; see “Paṭilōma Paṭicca Samuppāda – Key to Nibbāna.” Also, see “Yamaka Sutta (SN 22.85) – Arahanthood Is Not Annihilation but End of Suffering.”

16. However, the description in #15 DOES NOT say we do not exist. It is wrong to translate “anatta” as “no-self.” We do exist as long as we have ignorance (avijjā) and experience much more suffering than brief spans of happiness in the rebirth process. 

  • The Buddha pointed out that we commit immoral deeds and are born in suffering-filled realms BECAUSE of the wrong view and wrong perception of an everlasting soul/ātman. Avijjā (ignorance of Noble Truths/Paṭicca Samuppāda/Tilakkhana) is the cause of both.)
  • One gets rid of that wrong view (sakkāya diṭṭhi) at the Sotapanna stage. But the perception (saññā) of an everlasting soul/ātman goes away at the Arahant stage. Suffering stops entirely at the Parinibbāna (passing away) of the Arahant. See “Vipallāsa (Diṭṭhi, Saññā, Citta) Affect Saṅkhāra.”
  • As I emphasized in #15, one should not worry about “being annihilated” if their view of an everlasting soul/ātman is correct. But the Buddha proved with Paṭicca Samuppāda that such an everlasting entity does not exist. See “Paṭilōma Paṭicca Samuppāda – Key to Nibbāna.”
  • Reading and understanding all the posts linked above is essential if one has the desire and drive to comprehend Buddha Dhamma.
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