I’ve used the Sanskrit word dharma in establishing this blog’s identity.
Some may instantly think of “The Dharma Initiative” or Dharma & Greg. While the television series Lost did thump quite a range of pop-culturisms with little-or-no relevance to actual philosophic or spiritual traditions, the earlier situation-comedy featuring Jenna Elfman was based upon the acknowledged migration of bits of Eastern thought into the Hippie subculture of Western civilization.
Jenna’s character Dharma (raised by “hip” Sixties parents) was the New Age equivalent of the Holly Golightly character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s: living a self-helped lifestyle while guiding her button-downed stockbroker-husband Greg through many Lucy-like foibles, all the while applying range-free philosophies in late-20th Century Yuppie San Francisco. Viewers were granted easy access to laughable interpretations of Hindu and Buddhist thinking, such as karma, meditation, mantra, reincarnation, transmigration of the soul, as well as the burning of incense, and the practice of letting go!
The formal idea—dharma—comes from the ancient Indo-Aryan culture of South Asia; Sanskrit is one of the classic liturgical languages of India. The Vedas of Hinduism were written in an archaic form of the language four millennia ago. While at its origin the term designated the religious duty of a Hindu, it evolved to mean generally “religion,” and translates into English as “supporting principle(s)” or “law.” Gautama Sakyamuni Buddha sought wisdom and taught over two millennia ago within the Hindu culture; his sermons were described as “turning the wheel of dharma.” His Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path are the Buddhist Dharma, which is further supported by a manifold numbers of texts—principally the Sutras and Tantras.
As you have probably guessed, it’s just not as simple as all that!
In fact, as Westerners have delved into the Eastern back-story for more than a century, “dharma” has developed a multi-valent, velcro-like application to almost any discipline in the proverbial book. When the Tao of Physics was first published in the mid-Seventies (Saigon closed; the Bi-centennial and Star Wars opened), sub-atomic particles co-opted the status of dharma. Sakyamuni Buddha’s Enlightenment—which had described “reality” as a dependent-origination (pratitya samutpata) between mind, sensory perception, and phenomena—became a quantum physics metaphor for how the world of solid matter could possibly be 99.99% empty space within which a few untouchable, invisible waves or particles seem to dance.
So I offer this generalization: dharma is concept(s) that authentically venture description of a thing, an element, a principle, or an idea. Dharma is the fundamental hypothesis of anything—or everything. It is the current law—what is true. Many yoga practitioners will be horrified that I have placed the word “dharma” right next to “concept” in a sentence.
Well, dear friends, try to get over it.
Now is the time to peel away yet another petal of the artichoke.
Any word or idea is not the thing being described. But without the concept, is there any way to teach or guide? Sure, a Tantric teacher’s pointing-out transmission of insight is suppose to leap over the need for thinking about the dharma. However, I am not aware of any sudden-path spiritual system that abhors the support of gradual-path instructions and study.
Just how did the Buddha share his core insight? He described it as a co-arising, a dependent origination; he detailed the concept with elaborate explanations about mental activity and sensory stimulus. Sakyamuni Buddha addressed various groups of students with conceptual explanations, and answered many questions. And he passed on metaphors that we can compare to actual experience—this is the true authentic measure of any dharma: the experience of the mind.