Boleh Tahan ~ WHAT IS DHARMA?

IT WAS IN 1969 THAT I FIRST SAW the pearly glory of the Taj Mahal, and though I have been back several times since, I’ll never forget that time.

The gleaming domes and minarets are visible from afar, but awe and suspense mount as you get nearer to the vast walled compound. Entering the gate—itself a marvel—you gasp, for there, beyond the symmetry of the reflecting pool and geometrical gardens, shimmers the vision you’ve come to see. It seems so near that you feel you could reach out and touch the smooth white marble, but the tiny figures up against it remind you that it is actually still some distance away.

Walking reverently down the path, you reach the terrace and remove your sandals; the marble feels so cool; does it not absorb the sun’s heat? With heightened rapture, you approach the shrine, its walls inset with arabesques and floral motifs done in gemstones—agate, jade, turquoise, lapis lazuli—28 kinds of them, all told. Through the massive doorway you pass into the dim interior of the tomb, where a splendid sarcophagus hides the bones of Shah Jahan, beside those of his beloved wife, Mumtaz, to whom he had raised the mausoleum. The dome is so immense and lofty that the slightest noise causes an echo. In those days, there were fewer tourists, so I was able to enjoy this wonder in peace (it is different now, sad to say). I recall the thrill I felt to play a flute inside; the silvery sounds reverberated and lingered on the still, cool air!

The gardens of the Taj are alive with birds and animals. Green parrots screech their zigzag way between the trees, halting suddenly against trunk or limb; the ubiquitous crows caw hungrily, eyes keen for scraps of food; striped palm squirrels scamper hither and thither, tails twitching. Soaring high above, vultures effortlessly rise on the thermal currents, scanning the earth beneath for signs of death; on land, their ungainly bodies are repulsive, but in the air they are graceful masters of flight; the turn of a feather or twist of a wing tip sends them spiraling higher, or plunging swiftly; it’s fascinating to watch them until they are just tiny dots against the boundless blue. Nor are they alone in their airy realm; it is shared by other birds of prey: eagles, hawks and kites.

Security wasn’t as tight as it later became, so, with two friends—Laurie, from Sydney, and Bruce, from Edmonton—I stayed inside the gardens after closing time, though we knew it was not allowed (nice to break the law sometimes, isn’t it? We did no harm). Spreading our sleeping bags on the lawns, we settled down to watch. There, within the space of twelve hours, we were privileged to see the Taj change in different lights: sunset, rain, full moon, and sunrise—a pleasure few have had.

Countless people have tried to describe this marble poem, but words fail to do it justice; it is simply ineffable. Those who have never seen it themselves can’t get a clear idea of it from words; if you want to understand what people have been talking about and eulogizing for so long, there is no other way but to go and see. If you see only this in India, it is worth a visit, but of course, there are so many other marvelous places.

In this and other books, I have often used the word Dharma—and sometimes, Universal Dharma—so now, before someone who is not intimidated by words asks what it means, I will try to explain it. This is very difficult, and I feel like I’m digging my own grave, for it is rather amorphous. But, having used it, I am responsible for it, am I not? Please bear with me, as it is more something one feels than knows by intellect, and I must fumble for words to explain this word.

It is a word of many meanings, and often, we can get the meaning only from the context in which it is used. It means—to Hindus—duty or responsibility, according to one’s caste, high or low. It can mean teaching or doctrine, as in Buddha-Dharma or Hindu-Dharma. It can mean phenomena, as in things momentarily arising and passing away, like the images on a movie screen. It also stands for Truth or Reality, as in things that apply to everyone and everything, at any and every time, everywhere. It is in the latter sense that I usually use the word Dharma. If we talk about the Buddha’s teachings, we should be specific and say Buddha-Dharma, because there is a difference. Dharma is what the Buddha discovered as He sat under the tree that has, since then, been known as the Bodhi Tree, or Tree of Awakening. It was not called that before His Enlightenment, so it is a mistake to talk of Sakyamuni (or Siddhartha) going to sit under the Bodhi tree.

After His Enlightenment, the Buddha started to explain about what He had discovered, and His teachings are known as Buddha-Dharma.

There is a sutta (sutra, in Pali) called the Dhammaniyama Sutta, or The Discourse on the Fixed Law of Dharma. It concerns what is known as The Three Characteristics, and is as follows:

“Thus have I heard: At one time the Exalted One was staying at Savatthi in Prince Jeta’s Grove, in the Park of Anathapindika. Then the Exalted One spoke thus to the monks: “O monks”. Those monks replied to the Exalted One: “Lord”. The Exalted One then said: “Monks, whether there is the appearance of Tathagatas or there is not the appearance of Tathagatas, there is this established condition of Dhamma, this fixed law of Dhamma: All that is conditioned is Impermanent. That a Tathagata has fully awakened to, He fully understands. So, awakened and understanding, He announces it, points it out, declares, establishes, expounds, explains and clarifies that ‘All that is conditioned is Impermanent’.

“Monks, whether there is the appearance of Tathagatas or there is not the appearance of Tathagatas, there is this established condition of Dhamma, this fixed Law of Dhamma: ‘All that is conditioned is Dukkha’. That a Tathagata has fully awakened to, He fully understands. So, awakened and understanding, He announces it, points it out, declares, establishes, expounds, explains and clarifies that ‘All that is conditioned is Dukkha’.

“Monks, whether there is the appearance of Tathagatas or there is not the appearance of Tathagatas, there is this established condition of Dhamma, this fixed Law of Dhamma: ‘All dhammas are not-self’. That a Tathagata has fully awakened to, He fully understands. So, awakened and understanding, He announces it, points it out, declares, establishes, expounds, explains and clarifies that ‘All dhammas are not-self’”.

Thus spoke the Exalted One. Delighted, those monks rejoiced in what the Exalted One had said.

Before commenting on this passage, let me explain some of the unusual terms in it. Exalted One is an honorific used for the Buddha by others (another is Blessed One). Tathagata was a term He used to refer to Himself; it means: One Who Has Thus Gone. Anathapindika was a wealthy supporter of the Buddha. Dukkha means Suffering, Woe, or Unsatisfactoriness. Dhamma is the Pali form of the Sanskrit word Dharma; they have the same meaning. dhammas refer to phenomena—events or appearances. not-self means nothing has self-existence, nothing exists in and by itself, but only in dependence on other things; in other words, nothing is what it seems to be.

This Sutta makes it very clear that Dharma (or Dhamma), in its highest or Universal meaning, does not depend upon the Buddha—”Whether there is the appearance of Tathagatas or there is not the appearance of Tathagatas”. The Buddha has put Himself aside here and given Dharma center place. It is very important for us to understand this; Buddhism is not a personality cult.

Nothing comes from nothing, and nothing goes to nothing. We can add nothing to nor take anything away from the universe; things come into being as a result of certain causes, and likewise pass out of being. Like Lego bricks, from which so many different toys can be made, things are merely shuffled around, and new things formed from old. Recycling is not a new concept, but the way the universe functions.

Everything, animate and inanimate, is ruled by The Law of Cause-and-Effect; nothing is outside its sway. Because of it, everything changes; nothing remains the same (Impermanence); because of this, everything is Unsatisfactory (Dukkha); and nothing exists in and by itself (Not-self). What is outside the Three Characteristics? Is there anything else? No, not outside, but behind. Though they are negative propositions, they have positive aspects. It is not as gloomy as it seems to be. How can there be negative without positive? One implies the other.

What, then, is the positive aspect behind Change (Impermanence)? That which does not change; we call it the Absolute, but because we are prone to taking words for what they indicate and get stuck on the verbal level, we do not—cannot —talk much about it. It—like the positive aspects of the other two Characteristics—has to be experienced to be understood, just like the Taj Mahal, only moreso. We must experience the Absolute beyond Change, must experience the Bliss behind Dukkha, must experience who and what is behind everything that is not.

The experience—personal and direct—of these things reveals that everything is Dharma. And I have a feeling that eventually, when we look back from a higher vantage point and see things in clearer perspective, we might realize that everything is good, as everything has a part to play. (It reminds me of the words from an old song: “Even the bad times are good”). Everything, without exception, manifests or reflects Dharma—maybe we can even say, is Dharma. Dharma is impartial, and is not in the good without being in the bad; even things we call ‘bad’ are Dharma, for they are also effects of causes; everything is.

Unlike Buddhism and Buddha-Dharma, which had beginnings in time, Dharma does not come and go, begin or end; it is not subject to birth and death. Everything else—parents, children, friends, money, possessions, health, strength, power, position, even our body—will let us down, as they are subject to change, and therefore cannot be a true refuge; only that which is not subject to change can be a refuge.

Towards the end of His life, the Buddha’s aunt-and-foster-mother, Mahaprajapati, and Yasodhara (formerly His wife), who were both nuns and had attained enlightenment, came to see Him, knowing they were about to die. Mahaprajapati—who was, of course, a very old lady—came first, and thanked him for having given her the happiness of the Dharma, for her having been spiritually born through Him; for the Dharma having grown in her through Him; for her having drunk the Dharma milk from him; for her having plunged in and crossed over the Ocean of Becoming through Him—what a glorious thing it has been to be known as the mother of the Buddha, she said.

She went on: “I desire to die finally having put away this corpse. O Sorrow-ender, permit me”. The Buddha cheered her with Dharma and didn’t try to dissuade this grand old lady with false comfort, saying empty things like: “Oh, don’t talk like that. You are not going to die, but will live for many more years yet”. At that stage, fear of living and dying no longer exists.

Yasodhara later came for the same purpose: to take her leave of the Buddha. Addressing Him respectfully, she said she was seventy eight years old. The Buddha replied, “Yes, I know, and I’m eighty”.

She told Him she would die that night. But her tone was more self-reliant than that of Mahaprajapati. She didn’t ask His permission to die nor did she go to Him as her refuge. Instead, she said: “me saranam atthano” (“I am my own refuge”).

She came to thank Him because it was He who had shown her the way and given her the power. She had found what was in her mind, and which could be found only there.

From this it can be seen that there is no reason at all to regard the doctrine of the Buddha as pessimistic or gloomy merely because it rejects the idea of a personal, unchanging, immortal soul; it simply states how things are, with the aim of liberating us from things that prevent us seeing what we really are, which is far more than we think.

To return to and end with the question that started all this: What is Dharma?

Dharma is Law, Universal Law—Cause-and-Effect. This being so, perhaps the question can best be answered by asking: What is not Dharma?

“Herein, Monks, the yeoman farmer gets his field well ploughed ..... puts in his seed ..... lets the water in and turns it off quickly. These are his three urgent duties. Now, monks, that yeoman-farmer has no such magic power or authority as to say: ‘Let my crops spring up today. Tomorrow let them ear. On the following day let them ripen’. No. It is just the due season which makes them do this.

“Now, the monk has no such magic power or authority as to say: ‘Today, let my mind be released from the asavas (impurities) without grasping, or tomorrow, or the day after”.

The Buddha: Gradual Sayings 1.219.

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