The word Dharma probably has more meanings than any other term in the entire vocabulary of Buddhism. As the second of the three Refuges it has been variously translated as Law, Truth, Doctrine, Gospel, Teaching, Norm, and True Idea, all of which express some aspect of its total significance.
To the West the Dharma is known as Buddhism, and the question has often been asked whether it is a religion or a philosophy. The answer is that so long as religion is thought of in exclusively theistic terms and philosophy remains divorced from any kind of ethical and spiritual discipline, Buddhism is neither.
The general characteristics of the Dharma are summarized in an ancient stereotype formula which occurs repeatedly in the siitras and which is still widely used for liturgical purposes. The Dharma is well taught; it belongs to the Lord, not to any other teacher; its results, when it is put into practice, are visible in this very life; it is timeless; it invites the inquirer to come and see personally what it is like; it is progressive, leading from lower to higher states of existence, and it is to be understood by the wise each one for himself.
The Dharma consists of various doctrines or teachings. These represent neither speculative opinions nor generalizations from a limited range of spiritual experience, but are, for the Buddhist, conceptual formulations of the nature of existence as seen by a fully enlightened Being who, out of compassion, makes known to humanity the truth that he has discovered.
It is in this sense that Buddhism may be termed a revelation. According to the most ancient canonical accounts of a crucial episode, the truth, law, or principle which the Buddha perceived at the time of his Enlightenment-in the perception of which, indeed, that Enlightenment consisted-and which, on account of its abstruseness, he was at first reluctant to disclose to a passion-ridden generation, was that of the ‘conditionally co-producedness’ (paticca-samup- panna) of things. Conditioned Co-production is, therefore, the basic Buddhist doctrine, recognized and taught as such first by the Buddha and his immediate disciples and thereafter throughout the whole course of Buddhist history.
Questioned by Sariputra, then a non-Buddhist wanderer, only a few months after the Enlightenment, about his Master’s teaching, the Arhant Asvajit replies in a resounding verse that has echoed down the centuries as the credo of Buddhism: ‘The Tathagata has explained the origin of those things which proceed from a cause.
Their cessation too he has explained. This is the doctrine of the great Sramana. Elsewhere the Buddha clearly equates Conditioned Co-production with the Dharma and both with himself, saying: ‘He who sees Conditioned Co-production sees the Dharma; he who sees the Dharma sees the Buddha.’
As interpreted by the gifted early Buddhist nun Dhammadinna, whose views were fully endorsed by the Buddha with the remark that he had nothing further to add to them, the doctrine of Conditioned Co-production represents an all-inclusive reality that admits of two different trends of things in the whole of existence.
In one of them the reaction takes place in a cyclical order between two opposites, such as pleasure and pain, virtue and vice, good and evil. In the other the reaction takes place in a progressive order between two counterparts or complements, or between two things of the same genus, the succeeding factor augmenting the effect of the preceding one.
The Samsara or Round of Conditioned Existence represents the first trend. Herein, as depicted by the ‘Wheel of Life’, sentient beings under the influence of craving, hatred, and bewilderment revolve as gods, men, demons (asuras), animals, ghosts (pretas), and denizens of hell in accordance with the law of karma, and experience pleasure and pain.
The process is set forth briefly in the first and second of the Four Aryan Truths, the Truth of Suffering and the Truth of the Origin of Suffering, and at length in the full list of twelve nidanas or links, which is often, though wrongly, regarded as exhausting the entire content of Conditioned Co- production. Conditioned by spiritual ignorance (avidya) arise the karma- formations (samskara); conditioned by the karma-formations arises consciousness (vijnana); conditioned by consciousness arises name-and-form (nama-rupa); conditioned by name-and-form arise the six sense-fields (shaday- atana); conditioned by the six sense-fields arises contact (sparsa); conditioned by contact arises feeling (vedana); conditioned by feeling arises thirst (trishna); conditioned by thirst arises grasping (upadana); conditioned by grasping arises ‘becoming’ (bhava); conditioned by’ becoming’ arises birth (jati); and conditioned by birth arises decay-and-death (jaramarana), with sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair. These twelve links are distributed over three lifetimes, the first two belonging to the past life, the middle eight to the present, and the last two to the future.