What Does Dhamma Mean in Theravada Abhidhamma?

Except for the term Buddha, dhamma (Sanskrit: dharma) is undoubtedly the most important term in Buddhism, with the breath of meaning which is not easy to encompass. To support this claim, it suffices to look at the long list of scholarly works which deal with this topic in the limits of Theravada Buddhism, starting with the early endeavors made by Magdalene and Wilhelm Geiger1 and followed by F. Th. Stcherbatsky.2 Among the more recent attempts in explaining semantic richness of the term dhamma, some of them stand out. In his lengthy study, John Ross Carter did an interesting analysis of the ways the term was interpreted by the Western scholars: “For nearly a century and a half Western scholars have been aware of the term dhamma; they have pondered philological difficulties involved in the wide spectrum of meaning given to the term by Buddhists, and they have grappled with the implications suggested by the concept.”3 Further on, Richard Gombrich’s starting point is that ‘the Dharma’ of the Buddha is both the Buddha’s account describing his ‘experience’ and a message prescribing what to do about it.4 According to Karunadasa, “the term dhamma denotes not only the ultimate data of empirical existence but also the unconditioned state of Nibbana”.5 Finally, Rupert Rupert Gethin summarize various attempts at finding the best English equivalent for the term dhamma: “In many ways it might be the English word quality in its range of uses in both the singular and plural that provides the single best fit for dhamma in early Buddhism.”6

These and many other scholarly works generally group the meaning of the dhamma in four main semantic areas. The first one is the Buddha’s teachings, as it was expounded by the Teacher, but also in the form of the latter formulated texts that contain these teachings. Related to this is the second meaning, that of a truth or a natural law according to which this world operates. It was re-discovered by the Buddha and then in many different ways explained in his sermons. For example, in many places in the Canon it is described how, after preparing listeners by the gradual talk (anupubbī kathā) on giving, kindness and virtuous conduct, the Buddha reveals the Dhamma, the truth of all the Buddhas, formulated in the form of the four noble truths, but also in numerous other ways. Thirdly, as the last part of a compound, dhamma signify a “natural condition” (pakati) of something. For example, “subject to age” (jarādhamma)and many similar occasions in the suttas. Finally, the fourth meaning dhamma is used in the Nikāyas isbasic “mental or physical quality” and that brings us closer to the Abhidhammic understanding of the term.

Now if we narrow down the scope of our interest to the Theravada Abhidhamma, our topic starts to appear much more manageable. First, here we find dhamma theory as a corner stone of the whole Abhidhamma edifice. In their attempt to describe the nature of reality, authors of the canonical Abhidhamma works and their commentaries gave very specific meaning to the term dhamma, denoting it as the basic component of the phenomenal existence as a whole.

The key premise underpinning such an interpretation was the idea that the whole empirical existence is composed of basic units, labeled dhammas, which are not possible to reduce any further. This premise was actually a philosophical extension of the Buddha’s insight into the real nature of our everyday experience, behind which apparent appearance only bare, conditioned phenomenaoperate. The main task of the Abhidhammikas was to classify and describe all these dhammas and also explain causal relationships between them. It may be said that they did a quite thorough job, reducing the vastness of mental and physical experience to only four categories, labeled paramatha dhammas: 1. matter (rūpa), 2. consciousness (citta), 3. mental factors (cetasikas) and 4. uncondioned (nibbāna).

Thus, the term dhamma stands at the very beginning of the fist Abhidhamma book, showing how this term is crucial for the whole Abhidhamma project. Dhammasaṇgani starts with the matrix, a kind of table of contents of the further analysis:

[1] Kusalā dhammā (wholesome things)
Akusalā dhammā (unwholesome things)
Abyākatā dhammā (things without consequences).

[2] Sukhāya vedanāya sampayuttā dhammā (things connected with pleasant feeling)
Dukkhāya vedanāya sampayuttā dhammā (things connected with painful feeling)
Adukkham-asukhāya vedanāya sampayuttā dhammā (things connected with neither painful nor pleasant feeling)

[3] Vipākā dhammā (things with results)
Vipākadhammadhammā(things that have resultant nature)
Nevavipākanavipākadhammadhammā (things that are neither results nor have resultant nature)7

Abhidhammic understanding of dhammas as the basic constituents of the reality produced several disputes between Theravada and the other early schools of Buddhism in India and which were reflected in the Kathāvatthu (Points of Controversy). The main issue around all these polemics hinge is Theravada’s consistent rejection of all attempts, sometime more and sometime less open, to posit anything that would resemble of the permanent essence or atman. As an illustration, here great dispute with Sarvastivadins could be mentioned. In an attempt to explain those parts of Buddhist teachings that involve past and future, like the doctrine or kamma or rebirth, Sarvastivada thinkers found solution in postulating existence of not only present dhammas, but also past and future ones. This is the idea from which the name of their school was derived. Their conclusion was based on the fact that in Canon, as well as in commentaries all conditioned dhammas are described as tekālika (“belonging to the three times”) and the unconditioned nibbāna as kāla-mutta (“time-free”). They also assumed a distinction between phenomena, a form the dhammas appear to our senses, and their ideal mode of existence.

This idea seems similar to Plato’s allegory of the cave and the distinction between real objects and the shadows at the wall of the cave. As it is known, Plato’s ideas were criticized from the start, beginning with Democritus and then his follower Pyrrho. The same happened with Sarvastivadins’ theory of the dhammas belonging to all three divisions of time. Thus, Theravada critique found in the Katāvatthu points out that what they missed recognizing is that in all instances in the Canon, it is not ontological status of dhammas being confirmed, but purely the psychological one:

The very definition of past as “something that has ceased, that is departed, changed, gone away,” and the very definition of future as “something that is not yet born, not yet come to be, not yet come to pass, not happened, not befallen, is not manifested” excludes every possibility of the past and the future being considered as “existing.” If the term “to exist” is predicable of all the three divisions of time, the attributes of one become applicable to the other two as well. The pastness of the past, the presentness of the present, and the futureness of the future become equally applicable and hence mutually convertible, resulting in the complete obliteration of all distinctions between the three divisions of time.8

Being non-existent before and after their conditioned arising and ceasing, dhammas cannot be said to come into existence from somewhere and also to leave anywhere. Theravada scholastics also seem to go step further in the direction of realism and claimed that dhammas exist in a way that they are ultimate and possess their own particular characteristics. What is specific and important to notice here is that there is no difference between dhammas and their characteristics: the characteristics themselves are the dhammas. However, this “realness” is not some kind of independent existence, but a momentary one. As the dhammas depend on causes, they constantly appear and, when these causes are no more, cease to exist.

In the development of the Theravada dhamma theory one trend is clearly visible. Besides rearranging the old material from the suttas, some new elements were added on the way. For example, a property of femininity (itthindriya) was added for the description of the matter or the physical mind-base (hadaya-vatthu). Debates with competing schools were also led about the question of how real are individual beings and consequently the dhammas that constitute them. Theravada exegesis advocated position that while puggala is just a concept, the dhammas were considered real. On the other hand, especially mahāyāna schools like Madhyāmika or Yogācāra, opposed that on the basis of the argument that all the dhammas depend on the other dhammas to appear and thus exist only in the relationship with them.

Based on previous examination, it seems that between the time of suttas and the time of the Abhidhamma texts a whole evolution occured in defining and interpreting the basic terms by which the Buddhist teachers explained the teachings. The Buddha and his disciples were quite satisfied with the terms like khandha, āyatana or dhatu to describe the ultimate reality of the world they all lived in. Nevertheless, in the centuries after the Buddha passed away some old terms started to be assigned additional meanings in the permanent debate between Buddhists and the followers of the other spiritual traditions in India, as well as between various Buddhist schools themselves. One of such terms was dhamma, which was thus used to go one level deeper than the suttas and denote constituent elements of the khandas themselves.

1 Geiger (1920).
2 Stcherbatsky (1923).
3 Carter (1976), p. 662.
4 Gombrich (1996), pp. 34–36.
5 Karunadasa (2007), p. 29.
6 Gethin (2004) p. 537.
7 Anandajoti (2007).
8 Karunadasa (2005), p. 30.

1. Anandajoti Bhikkhu transl. (2007): Abhidhamma-Mātikā (The Matrix from the Abstract Teaching) (https://www.ancient-buddhist-texts.net/English-Texts/Abstract-Matrix/index.htm).
2. Carter, John Ross (1976): “Dhamma as a religious concept: A Brief Investigation of Its History in the Western Academic Tradition and its Centrality within the Sinhalese Theravāda Tradition”, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 44/4, p. 661-674.
3. Geiger, Magdelene and Wilhelm (1920): Pāli Dhamma vornehmlich in der kanonischen Literatur, Munich, Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.
4. Gethin, Rupert (2004): “He Who Sees Dhamma Sees Dhammas: Dhamma in Early Buddhism”, Journal of Indian Philosophy, Vol. 32 pp. 513-542.
5. Gombrich, Richard (1996): How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings. London: Athlone.
6. Karunadasa, Yakupitiyage (2005): Theravada Abhidhamma, Kandy, Buddhist Publication Society.
7. Karunadasa, Yakupitiyage (2007): The Dhamma Theory: Philosophical Cornerstone of the Abhidhamma, Wheel 412/413. Kandy, Buddhist Publication Society.
8. Stcherbatsky, Fyodor (1923): The Central Conception of Buddhism and the Meaning of the Word ‘dharma’, London, Royal Asiatic Society.

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