Dharma:  The Phenomena of Buddhism
Western Civ

Research Report
Web Resources

Dharma is one of the most fundamental foundations of Buddhism.  It can be broken down into four distinct divisions.  Dharma is nature; in that, dharma is everything, mankind and man-made.  Nothing is supernatural, and this inquires that dharma is equal.  Dharma is the law of nature, and that includes the cosmic law.  It is the right for a person to do something or anything.  Dharma is duty, and there are two groups of duties.  Both explain the duties a person has and must follow.  The last part of dharma is the result, which is the ultimate goal of Buddhism.  That is where the person becomes enlightened.  Dharma is not easily definable, but it can be paralleled to Christianity in a way that the Western world can understand.
Historical Background

Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha, was probably born in the year 563 BC according to an Indian source, but there is controversy on the date because the Western world believes he was born much later (Schumann 17).  His mother died a week after his birth, leaving responsibility to his father.  His father, Suddhodana, “was governor of a province in the kingdom of Kosala” (Schumann 18).  That is most likely where Siddhartha received his title as a prince.  However, Suddhodana sheltered his son’s life.  He did not want Siddhartha to ever endure the pains of suffering; he did not even want his son to see another human being suffering.  Then, as Siddhartha grew older, dharma came into his life.  This happened when he saw suffering; and that was an old man, a sick man, and a dead man.

Gautama Siddhartha began to torture himself by barely eating enough food for his survival and practicing difficult breathing exercises.  He did this because he thought that he would find the truth, dharma.  He then realized that he could not find dharma without kamma, which is the understanding of consequential deeds (Schumann 20).  Siddhartha realized that the birth and termination of suffering came within oneself.  He then followed the Four Noble Truths: all life is suffering, suffering comes from desire, desire can be overcome, and it can be overcome by following the Eight-Fold Path.  It is believed that Gautama Siddhartha became enlightened at the age of thirty-five years old while sitting under a poplar-fig tree (Schumann 20).  He is the original Buddha, and his way of life unfolded the beginning of Buddhism, with the most important aspect being dharma.

Research Report

 Dharma is a phenomena, in that it has many meanings.  Everything is equal because everything is dharma. Dharma is righteousness, duty, morality, and culture.  All of this together is the definition of dharma.  Dharma can be broken down into four distinct divisions, which are all required for a Buddhist to reach the ultimate goal of realization, also known as the enlightenment.  First, dharma is nature.  It is everything, mankind and man-made.  There is nothing that is supernatural because everything is dharma, which inquires that everything is equal.  “Dharma is the state of mental and material existence” (Bahm 134).  It is beyond change.  “There can be no individuality in the true perception of dharma since dharma transcends all individuality” (Yun 1).  This means that through enlightenment, one can truly see dharma for what it is, not how it should be.  Master Lee defines dharma nature as having seven forms: “the harmonious integration of all forms, the land of perpetual peace and glory, the profound and miraculous nature of the spiritual body, the great path to liberation, the dharma succession of the patriarch, the mental seal of a bodhisattva, and the eight stages of mental cultivation.”  Once these seven forms are understood, then it is clear that one fully comprehends the meaning of dharma nature.

The second division of dharma is the law of nature.  No one really knows when or how that law came to be, but it has been said that one day it just came into existence (Wongsawang).  The law of nature tells people certain facts of life like why someone is born a girl or a boy.  The law of nature also includes the cosmic law.  It is the right for a person do something or anything.  “The actual functioning of things among themselves depends on the proper coexistence or harmony of the parts [all parts of everything] (Saunders 15).  Under the law of nature, there are six directions in which a person must look and treat with respect.  The first direction is front, and this would include one’s parents and all of one’s ancestors.  The second direction is behind, and this would be one’s spouse and his or her children.  The next is right; this would be one’s teacher, anyone who has helped along the way with his or her education.  Then, there is left, and this includes one’s siblings as well as friends and acquaintances.  The fifth direction is zenith, which is above, and this contains one’s spiritual teacher.  The last position is below; this embodies anyone in society that is lower that the individual standing in the middle of all of these directions (Wongsawang).  Following these directions with the proper respect enables one to follow the law of nature, and in following the law, this helps Buddhists to reach the state of nirvana.

The third part of dharma is duty.  There are two distinct groups of dharma duty.  The first consists of four kinds.  The number one duty here is to one’s environment.  The importance with this duty is based on the first division of dharma.  Everything is equal because everything is dharma.  A human being is of no more importance than a tree or bush or even a flower because nothing is superior.  The second kind of duty is to one’s body.  The body must be in the best health possible with proper resting, eating, hydration, and of course breathing.  Dharma cannot be fully understood if one does not have the appropriate respect required for one’s own body.  The third duty is mentality.  A person must be of right mind for the complete understanding of dharma because anything that inhibits thought prevents one from knowing dharma.  If one’s mind is not in the correct state, then one must try to solve their problems by seeing a psychiatrist.  There are also people suffering from cognitive disorders that still try to achieve the understanding of dharma.  “But with determination and hard work, even the retarded could make rapid achievements” (Welch 86).  No one was discouraged for trying to reach enlightenment because there was, and still is, spiritual guidance.  The last duty is spirituality.  This is where a person needs to be true to themselves.  They must have no envious feelings for his or her neighbors because then they are cheating themselves.

The second division of dharma duty is slightly different from the first.  Here, there are five duties, and the first is called Kula Dharma, which is one’s duty to his or her occupational group.  The second is Desa Dharma, which refers to a person’s duty to his or her nation.  Then  there is Matha Dharma, and that is the duty to one’s religion.  Next there is Gana Dharma; that is in reference to one’s society.  The last duty is known as Aapad Dharma, which is his or her duty in the face of danger (Hamilton-Parker 1).  These duties of dharma are on a broader level when compared to the ones above.  “All these duties have penalties for their violation.  Without these penalties organized life is impossible” (Hamilton-Parker 1).

The last division of dharma is the result.  The result is the ultimate goal of Buddhism, which is the realization or the enlightenment.  All aspects of dharma need to understood and respected in order for a person to reach this stage.  Buddhists believe that things are reincarnated as many times as it takes for one to experience the enlightenment.  Enlightenment is defined as the “ultimate promise of personal, spiritual liberation that transcends the material, psychological, and social confines of this world” (Queen 9).  Nirvana is the state in which a person can forgo enlightenment.  Nirvana is “a state of peace, devoid of passions and attachments; the condition of wisdom and compassion that is ‘gone far beyond’ mundane conditioning and comprehension; the sublime happiness that results from advanced ritual practice”(Queen 9).  Enlightenment is the ultimate understanding of dharma, which is the ultimate understanding of existence.  A Bodhisattva, the name a person receives once he or she has become enlightened, wants peace for him or herself and harmony for society.  A Bodhisattva can then offer spiritual guidance to those who are seeking the enlightenment.

Buddhism dharma can easily be paralleled to the Western version of Christianity.  Mr. Wongsawang explains that all religions are really only one religion with the commonality of three aspects: belief, wisdom, and effort.  Belief is the sincerity and sacrifice in which a person makes.  Wisdom is the understanding, and effort is the actions taken towards the right direction. Buddhism focuses on the three virtues in the order of wisdom, effort and then belief.  This can easily be understood because they have to have the knowledge to make the right actions, and they must have encountered the realization in order to have an experience to believe in. Christians follow the three virtues as the most important being belief, wisdom, and action. Christianity is based on the belief in the Bible.  One must believe that those events took place in order to understand the religion. 

The four divisions of Buddhism dharma can be related to Christianity. The number one aspect of dharma is nature, and that can be compared to Christianity as the body of God.  The law of nature can be compared to the spirit or the word of God.  The third part of dharma is duty, and that can be compared to Christianity’s duty to the Son of God.  The final part of dharma is the result.  The result can be compared to the Christians’ reward of God: the heaven afterlife (Wongsawang).  These comparative aspects of Buddhism and Christianity can better help one to better understand dharma.

Historical Significance

Dharma holds strong significantly in the historical perspective, but it also is of the utmost importance in today’s society.  Dharma is one of the most dominant foundations in the religion of Buddhism.  Its understanding helps a person to reach the realization in which is the ultimate goal of Buddhism.  The importance of dharma historically is no lesser or greater than its presence of today’s time.  Dharma is a way of life, in that it shows the person the right way to live his or her life so that they can become enlightened.  Following dharma has helped many people to reach the realization in the past, and it has yet to stop today.

Dharma emerged through the teachings of Gautama Siddhartha around 520 BC.  This is the time that Buddhism first emanated into a religion.  The break down of dharma is as follows: dharma nature, dharma the law of nature, dharma duty, and dharma the result.  The result, the enlightenment occurs when one lives his or her life through the way of trying to understand dharma and living life the way dharma intends. Buddhism is an important religion because it was the only commonality that held the eastern part of the world together in historic times.  Buddhism could not exist without dharma; therefore, dharma can be considered the most important foundation of Buddhism.


Bahm, A. J. Philosophy of the Buddha. New York: Capricorn Books, 1958.

Queen, Christopher S., ed. Sally B. King, ed. Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Saunders, E. Dale. Buddhism in Japan. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964.

Schumann, Hans Wolfgang. Buddhism: An Outline of Its Teachings and Schools. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1973.

Welch, Holmes. The Practice of Chinese Buddhism 1900 – 1950. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Wongsawang, Banyat. Personal Interview. 23 July 2002.

Web Resources

            This website provides information pertaining to the body of the Buddha and dharma.

            This website explains the seven statements of the aspect of dharma nature.

            This website presents information about the second division of dharma duty with the five duties.

              This website teaches that dharma never changes while practices of dharma do.

              This website provides definitions of Buddhist terms, along with dharma terms.

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