What Is the Dharma?

For Buddhists, the word “Dharma” is used to refer to the Buddha’s teachings, which help to bring us from our current state of confusion and unhappiness to a state of awareness and joy. Just as the English word “religion” comes from the Latin term “to bind together,” Dharma derives from the Sanskrit “dhr,” which means to firmly hold or support. Essentially, the Dharma firmly supports us by preventing us from falling to lower, unfortunate states of existence, where we would have to undergo uncontrollable suffering for a long time.
What is dharma

The Buddha’s First Dharma Teaching

When the Buddha attained enlightenment in Bodh Gaya more than 2,500 years ago, he was at first hesitant to teach the Dharma, fearing that it might be too deep and difficult to understand, or that people, infatuated with worldly enjoyments, simply would not be interested. In the early texts, it is said that Brahma, the creator of the universe, appeared before the Buddha and requested him to teach the Dharma in order to bring benefit to beings, as there certainly were some who would also be able to achieve enlightenment. With this, the Buddha gave his first Dharma teaching in Deer Park on the four noble truths, which form the framework of the entire Buddhist path, and which are still the foundation of all Buddhist traditions in the world today.

The first truth that the Buddha taught is that life is always dissatisfactory. No matter how happy we feel at any point in time, this state of happiness is unstable and temporary. This is universal – all of us experience this in our lives. Whatever happiness we have doesn’t last forever and can change to unhappiness at any moment. The second truth is that our unhappiness doesn’t really come from outside of us, but rather from our own attachment to getting what we want, and above all our unawareness of how everything really exists. The third truth states that it is possible to be free of all suffering and problems, and the fourth outlines a path, which if we follow, can help us attain liberation from all problems forever.

The Buddha’s Teachings Are Aimed at Eliminating Suffering

At the time of the Buddha, all of the Dharma teachings were given orally and committed to memory. They were passed down this way through several generations before they were compiled into manuscripts. Today, we are left with hundreds upon hundreds of sutras, texts with rules for the ordained followers of the Buddha and philosophical discourses, which together form what is known as the Tripitaka, or Three Baskets. According to tradition, it is sometimes said that, in total, the Buddha gave 84,000 Dharma teachings, which help to overcome our 84,000 disturbing emotions. Although the number might be arbitrary, it is a way of showing simply how many problems, frustrations, and types of suffering we have to endure, and the vast array of teachings that the Buddha gave to counter all of them.

In fact, all of the Buddha’s teachings are about overcoming suffering. The Buddha was not interested in metaphysical speculation, and even went as far as refusing to answer some questions regarding the self and universe because pondering these issues doesn’t bring us any closer to liberation. The Buddha looked at the human condition, saw that all of us suffer, and found a solution to this. This is why the Buddha is often likened to a doctor, and the Dharma teachings are compared to medicine. This medicine of the Dharma helps to solve all of our problems, once and for all.

While there are three jewels of refuge – the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha – it is the Dharma that is the actual refuge. While Buddhas teach the Dharma, they can’t miraculously eliminate our suffering by snapping their fingers. And while the Sangha can provide us with support and encouragement, they can’t force us to practice the Dharma. We have to actually study and engage in the Dharma ourselves: that is the only way out of suffering. In effect, we are our own saviors.

The Qualities of the Dharma

The Dharma has innumerable qualities, but we can say that the main qualities are, that:

  1. The Dharma is suited to many varied and different dispositions. Although Buddhism has taken on remarkably different forms in places like Thailand, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Japan and so on, the traditions all contain the core Buddhist teachings and are aimed at achieving liberation.
  2. The Dharma is based on logic. It asks us to look at our minds and everything we experience realistically. It isn’t dogmatic, requiring a belief in a god or gods, but rather asks us to question everything with logic. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been working with scientists for many years to look at key Buddhist concepts like consciousness and the mind, and Buddhists and scientists alike are learning from each other.
  3. The Dharma isn’t directed toward just one single problem, it is aimed at the root of all problems. If we were to have a terrible headache every day without fail, we could take an aspirin. Of course, that would help for a short while, but the headaches would just come back. If there were a pill that would provide permanent relief from our headaches, we would surely take it. The Dharma is like this, as it provides permanent relief not just to headaches, but all problems and suffering.


The Buddha is like a very skillful doctor who diagnoses our suffering and provides us with the best possible medicine, the Dharma. But it is up to take the medicine – or engage in Dharma practices – ourselves. No one can force us to do so, but when we truly see the benefits and peace of mind that the Dharma brings and how it really helps to eliminate all our problems, frustrations, and suffering, we will joyfully practice the Dharma to benefit both ourselves and all others.