Buddhism A–Z
What is Dharma in Buddhism?
Buddha Expounding the Dharma, late 8th century, Sri Lanka, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

In Buddhism, the Sanskrit word dharma (in Pali, dhamma) has several meanings. It most commonly refers to the teachings of the Buddha, especially when rendered “buddhadharma.” Dharma, in this sense, is one of the Three Roots of Buddhism, along with Buddha, the teacher, and Sangha, the community. Together, they encapsulate the whole of Buddhism.

Dharma can refer to the nature of everything that is. It is not unusual to see dharma used as a synonym for “phenomenon,” as in “all dharmas are without self-essence.”  In this sense of the word, dharma includes the phenomenal world as it is, including the laws of nature and physics.

The word dharma comes from the most ancient religions of India. The earliest scriptures of Hinduism refer to the natural order of nature and the cosmos; some of that definition is retained in Buddhism as well. It comes from a Sanskrit root word that means “to hold” or “to maintain.” Dharma is sometimes rendered into English as “element,” “factor,” “law,” or “doctrine,” but none of those renderings is exactly right. 

When dharma refers to the teachings of the Buddha, the word includes both the teachings and the truth of the teachings. In this sense, dharma has three levels of meaning at once: the words of the Buddha, the practice of the teachings, and the attainment of enlightenment. It is teachings plus practice plus enlightenment. To a Buddhist, the words of the Buddha alone, without practice or understanding, would not be dharma. 

In essence, the dharma in Buddhism is both the path and the goal. It’s the method of practice recommended by the Buddha (e.g., the four noble truths, the eightfold path), the realization of enlightenment, and the very nature or reality. When one deeply understands and lives in accordance with the dharma, they are said to be living in harmony with the way things truly are, leading to liberation from suffering.

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Buddhism A–Z

Explore essential Buddhist terms, concepts, and traditions.