Today, I want to continue with a short explanation of the specific meanings of the term “dharma” in the Diamond Sutra.
Yesterday, I narrated a contemplation about baseballs to demonstrate how I understand the Diamond Sutra‘s insistence that named things are just names. In the process I explained the very general use of “dharma” in Buddhist texts: The separate concepts we have for the things we deal with in our everyday life, ranging from objects like baseballs to abstract things like skills, relationships, and professions. If you can name it and have a specific understanding of it, it’s a dharma. This is the meaning used in expressions like “all dharmas are empty.”
There are a couple more specific meanings of dharma found in the Diamond Sutra: Dharmas, laws, and notions.
The word “dharma” in Sanskrit is very general: It means a rule, pattern, or way that guides how things happens, how people behave, or how the mind understands its experience of life. As a result, it has different meanings in different contexts.
When dharma is translated as a proper noun “Dharma” it means a religious, secular, or professional doctrine or teaching that people use as a guide. The Buddha’s Dharma is the teaching and guidelines that Buddhists follow as a religious practice. The Dharmas of ordinary people would mean the ways of life among secular people. The Dharma of humans would mean the way of life of people in general compared to animals or mythical beings like the devas that live in the heavens. This is one use of the word dharma.
Dharma can also mean the rules and regulations created by humans to control each other’s behavior. I usually translate this use of dharma as “law” or “rule.” Dharma can mean laws that are enforced by governments, and it can mean the rules created by organizations, or even the informal “rules” of politeness. It could refer to a rule that you take your shoes off when entering a particular friend’s house.
A third meaning of dharma in the Diamond Sutra is the sixth type of sensation in Buddhist theory of experience: The mental sensation. There are the five bodily sensations: Sight, sound, odor, taste, and touch. Dharma is the term used for the sensations that happen in the mind’s eye when dreaming, imagining, thinking, or remembering things. I translate the term as “notions” for want of a better word in English because it runs a gamut of things like thoughts, emotions, decisions, mental imagery, etc. The baseball that we imagined holding in our hand yesterday was this type of dharma.