When we speak of dharma we usually mean one of two things:
- the natural order of life, or
- the teachings of the Buddha.
The Sanskrit root of dharma is dhri and means to uphold or sustain. From this comes the idea of universal law or the laws of physics and nature – whatever it is that keeps this whole show on the road, so to speak. Dharma is at work on every level of existence: from the quantum vacuum and the elements, to animals and humans, our families, communities, and nations, all the way up to planetary systems and supernovas. Everything is regulated by the hidden order of Dharma, although we may find it hard to see or understand at times.
Dharma can also be seen working through our ideas of duty and ethics, our sense of what constitutes morally correct behaviour, and our sense of vocation. If you feel drawn to a particular path – you have to paint, or write, or make tiny crocheted hats for weasels – then that is your dharma, the thing you were born to do or be.
So dharma is the essential nature of all things: quarks and bosons, feelings and thoughts, ducks, trees, mountains and rivers, book clubs, governments, the Milky Way, the universe, and you.
Dharma also means the teachings of the Buddha, the way to achieve freedom from illusion and liberation from the wheel of karma and suffering. These teachings are a reflection of the natural order of the universe. The Buddha simply recognised what was true and the teachings arose from that realisation. There is no real separation between the two. The dharma and the teachings are one.
The idea of dharma is also related to the Taoist principle of living in harmony with the natural order of the universe. Tao means way or path and relates to the mystery that underpins all of reality. Tao is the source of all and the engine for keeping everything moving. But it is fundamentally mysterious, it cannot be grasped by the intellect – it can only be lived.
**Dhamma is the Pali spelling of Dharma, the language spoken by the Buddha.