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founded by S. N. Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin

 

 

 

 

 

What is Dhamma?

Everyone talks about Dhamma but no one understands it.
Practicing purity of mind--this is true Dhamma.- S. N. Goenka

 

(The Sanskrit word Dharma (which is spelled Dhamma in the Pāli language) originally meant “the law of nature” or “the truth.” In today’s India, unfortunately, the word has lost its original meaning, and is mistakenly used to refer to “sect” or “sectarianism.” Using this theme as an introduction, in this below discourse, Goenkaji explains that Vipassana meditation teaches how to live a life of pure Dharma—a life full of peace, harmony and goodwill for others)

What is Dharma? In the last 1500 to 2000 years, to its great misfortune, India lost the true meaning of the word ‘dharma.’ How indeed could one live according to its tenets when its very meaning was lost! To make matters worse many types of support, one could say crutches, were added to it. Various communities created their own respective dharma; hence there came about Buddhist dharma, Jain dharma, Hindu dharma, Christian dharma and so on. 

These sectarian terms were the crutches attached to Dharma, though it does not need any support. It gives support. But when these crutches arise, they take precedence and become prominent, while Dharma recedes into the background, unseen. To our great misfortune this is what happened. 

In ancient India Dharma meant that which is imbibed, lived by – dhāretīti dhammam. That which arises on the surface of mind at a given moment was considered the dharma of the mind. What does the mind imbibe but its own nature, its own characteristics, that is its ‘dharma’. Dharma meant the characteristics, the nature of a particular element. Dharma in the language of those days was also called rit, meaning the law of nature. For instance, the nature or characteristic of fire is to burn and burn whoever comes in contact with it. The nature or characteristic of ice is to be cool and cool whoever comes in contact with it.


DHARMA AS NATURE’S LAW

We also say that it is nature’s law that all beings face death, illness and old age. The law of nature, in other words, was Dharma. Let us examine what the nature of the mind is. Whatever has arisen at this moment in my mind: anger, animosity, jealousy or arrogance for example. These are negativities that may arise from time to time, and as such have been called the nature of the mind, that is, the law, the Dharma of the mind. The great researchers of yore – the Rishis, Sages, Saints, Gurus, Arahants, Buddhas searched long and hard to find what was Dharma, or the nature of the mind. 

Any defilement, any negativity of anger, jealousy, or arrogance, when it arises, it results in tremendous heat and agitation within. This is its nature. It is inevitable. If anger has arisen within, then another part of nature, agitation, will follow as an inevitable result every single time. These defilements always arise coupled with agitation. This was called sahajat – meaning together; this misery arises along with its own consequence, its own effect every time. 

Let us understand this better – when burning coals are put in a container, these will burn the container before heating up the external environment. Anyone who comes near it will feel the heat. Similarly, if one keeps ice in a vessel, it will first cool the vessel before cooling the external environment. This is the unchangeable law of nature. 

Just like fire, when a person is angry, he first becomes the victim of his own anger before spreading vibrations of agitation and heat in the environment. All those who come in contact with this person feel the agitation. This is the expression or nature of a mind dwelling in ignorance manifesting itself. As soon as one distances oneself from the burning coals, the heat will subside. 

The Sages of yore, as mentioned earlier, realized the profound truth that when any defilement like jealousy, anger, arrogance etc. arise then it will inevitably burn them. If they put burning coals in their mental vessels, then the result can’t be anything but heat and agitation. At such times they behaved this way in ignorance not realizing the immutable law of the nature; since no one in their rightful mind would want to generate burning agitation for themselves.

A child in his ignorance does not know that fire burns and puts his hand on burning coals. Startled, he pulls his hand back. Curious, he again puts his hand on fire then pulls it back when it burns. This may be repeated a few times, until he finally realizes that this is fire, it burns and should never be touched. 

A child understands. But what do we do? We keep filling ourselves with more and more burning coals, burning ourselves and others. Sheer ignorance! When anger, jealousy, aversion, arrogance or some such defilement arises, it keeps multiplying within filling us with thoughts of the event or the person who was instrumental in its occurrence. We justify it to ourselves by saying, ‘Such and such happened which angered me, so it was not my fault. It is only natural that I became angry’. 

Natural indeed! You are angry with someone or some event which obstructed you from reaching your desired goal. Maybe, but the fact also is that you are burning yourself. You have not seen the heat within. The mind is only looking outwards. 

On the other hand, if instead of burning coals, cool ice is put in the vessel then it will result in soothing, calming coolness since ice will also follow its own nature to cool. The attributes of mind that carry cooling properties are loving-kindness, compassion, and joy in another’s happiness. All good habits have the integral nature of imparting cooling calmness to one’s self as well as to others around one. 

The science or technique of looking within was called Vipassana in ancient India. Though one needs to be aware of external reality, to observe within was rightly considered vital for one’s mental development; to watch the reactions that arise within due to certain events is one of the most important aspects of consciousness. The day we can truly see this truth, is when we start to understand pure Dharma without any crutches. 

‘Whenever I generate defilements in my mind, it inevitably results in agitation’; one begins to understand this absolute truth. After repeatedly watching this phenomena a few times, one also learns to watch this reality objectively. Which means initially one observes the event or events that take place outside and sees those events as the cause of his anger, jealousy, animosity etc. As he matures on the path, he disengages himself from events and focuses attention on what happens within when he gets angry. He begins to see that in such situations he burns with agitation and unhappiness. As he continues to watch within and understand this fundamental reality of Dharma, his nature and behaviour starts changing. He grows deeper into Dharma. 

He also learns that getting muddied with defilements is not Dharma. He also sees that awakening wholesome qualities like compassion, loving-kindness and joy in others’ joy is Dharma as he experiences serenity and peace upon generating such qualities. 

dhāretīti dhammam – Dharma is that which is lived and imbibed. When one knows it at an experiential level the person becomes trulyDharmic. One knows well that if one lives with fire one will certainly burn and conversely, if one lives with ice, one will remain cool. Nothing can alter this phenomenon. This is rit, the universal law that governs all without exception; it does not differentiate between people belonging to different sects and communities, be they Hindu, Muslim or from any other community. 

The day we recognize this universal aspect of Dharma, that day humankind will make a quantum leap in human evolution. 

If one forgets this universal truth and persists in putting undue attention on external rites and rituals, then the work of self-evolution slows down, or indeed one moves further away from Dharma. 

Various sects and communities have their own rites and rituals, their way of dressing, their life philosophy and respective social customs which govern their lives. There is nothing wrong with that, but these social rituals and conventions are not Dharma! Investing all his time in rites and rituals, one may fool himself thinking that he is very Dharmic; but when he probes deeper within then he may see the reality of how far he has moved away from Dharma, from wisdom and knowledge–generating defilements, growing agitated, harming himself and disturbing others’ peace. 

Dharma is, as said earlier, universal, and has but one yardstick to check whether one is growing on the path; that is to see whether defilements are decreasing. This is the simple and only yardstick to measure Dharma by. Then whichever caste, sect or class one may belong to becomes immaterial once one understands the true and universal nature of Dharma.


BE SELFISH IN THE TRUE SENSE

True Dharma teaches us to be selfish in its true sense. A person learns to watch himself in all situations, at all times; to see what has arisen on the mind at the given moment and how has it affected him. A truly selfish man understands where his best welfare lies and works accordingly. Such ‘selfishness’ has nothing to do with selfishness as it is commonly understood, where a person may cheat and lie to protect his interests. He may appear to be benefitting himself by being selfish in those moments, but he is actually working against his interests as he is harming himself by cheating and lying. A truly selfish man works towards his best welfare by growing in Dharma. 

If virtues of loving-kindness, compassion and goodwill for all are growing in him, then he is indeed taking care of his ‘selfish’ interest. But if negative values become predominant in him, then he is harming his self-interests and going against Dharma. 

Understanding this at an intellectual level is never enough. Hence the spiritually evolved Saints of this country exhorted others to safeguard their interests and see the truth, the reality within. Until one learns to look inside, whatever experiences one may have in the external world, will not prove to be meaningful. When one learns to explore within and see, then one discovers a true gem, one learns to live life as it is meant to be lived, meaningfully enriching oneself. Living in peace and joy, he can then be said to have learnt the art of living. 

Who doesn’t want this? Who indeed wants to burn in hellish fires of defilements? Of course no one does, but out of sheer force of habit, one persists in indulging in acts that make him and others around him unhappy. But when he turns his mind inwards and starts seeing within, he realises the futility of living with anxiety and agitation, making himself and others unhappy. 

However, constantly reacting with aversion towards the unwanted, and craving towards the wanted, the change does not come about with mere discourses, as habits are deeply rooted as we have become slaves of our desires. Change must come from within. What does one do for that? 

The Rishis of yore were seekers who explored the meaning of rit, or the law of nature, the law governing this entire universe. They did not search intellectually, externally; they searched within looking for answers. 

One of the ways that they found was that whenever aversion or a feeling of anger arises, one should shift one’s attention to something else; start drinking a glass of water or start counting 1-2-3-4. Shifting the attention of course proved to be helpful in making one feel better. Even starting to chant the name of one’s favourite Gods, Goddesses or one’s Guru eased up anger or negativity that may have arisen. 

The best way however to purify oneself of defilements was to understand the fundamental law that if you defile your mind, the nature will certainly punish you, and punish without delay. Conversely, if you purify the mind with virtuous thoughts and deeds, the reward too will follow without delay. There is absolutely no delay in the nature’s response; it is but an echo of one’s own thoughts and deeds. 

As a citizen of a nation, whichever nation one lives in, one follows its laws. If any law is broken, the punishment that is likely to follow may take time due to legal delays. One may even get away scot free and not have to suffer the consequences due to some legal error. But the law of nature or Dharma has no exceptions and no delays ever. Defilement in thought and action is automatically and immediately followed by agitation and anxiety, just as a good deed or good thought is immediately followed by the reward of peace and joy that inevitably follows. As soon as one begins to understand this at the experiential level, one’s nature and behaviour starts changing for the better. 

No one ever wants to live a life of misery but ignorantly one generates negativities again and again and becomes agitated. Even when the mind wanders idly, some defilements are being generated, thereby adding fuel to the burning fire within. Why does this happen? 

Listening to words of wisdom but not following them up with action is an exercise in futility. I too have performed rituals and spent years listening to discourses. These may help to awaken wisdom somewhat, but only briefly. For example, when someone near and dear has passed away and is being cremated there is always a moment of profound wisdom in us, “Oh, I too will one day end up like this on a burning pyre and nothing will accompany me, so of what use are these mindless worldly pursuits? Why be attached to this ‘I’ and this ‘mine’; why develop pride?” This is what is called ‘graveyard wisdom’, which has nothing but a temporary impact on the surface of the mind. As soon as one steps out of the cremation ground, our world with all its attachment of ‘me’ and ‘mine’ takes over. 

It has also been my experience, and that of thousands of others, that those who come here for mere intellectual analysis and understanding return empty handed. One may contemplate, “Oh, what is being said is so true! I should not defile my mind with negativities as it only makes me unhappy. Instead I should generate goodwill that contributes to my happiness and the happiness of others.” This effect on the listener is lost since no action follows which will change the old behaviour pattern of the mind. 

At times we may immerse ourselves in bhajans (religious songs), or japas (chants), or some other religious ritual, which all give some peace of mind making us feel good for a while. But this feeling too is short lived. 


LEVELS OF THE MIND 

In ancient times, the surface level of the mind was called parita citta, which means a small part of the mind. Whether this part of the mind generates positive or negative thoughts is of no relevance since the message that we give to our minds at this level barely penetrates the deeper mental level, if at all. It is in the inner part of the mind, the larger part of the mind, the subconscious mind, where the same old pattern of ignorance and darkness prevails. An unpleasant experience instantly results in a reaction of aversion and negativity. And a pleasant experience instantly results in a reaction of craving and attachment. This has been its nature for innumerable lifetimes. 

One may not believe in many lifetimes, yet he or she certainly believes in the existence of this lifetime and can see clearly that since early childhood one has been reactive. One also sees that whenever something undesirable takes place, or something desired does not take place, then aversion and agitation arise as an inevitable result. One has to come out of this. 


THE FOLLOWING THREE ARE THE MAJOR CONSTITUENTS OF DHAMMA:

1. Morality (sila)

The first constituent of Dhamma is morality, i.e. righteousness. Nearly all followers of various sects and doctrines prevailing during that time accepted the importance of morality.

I know this from my own experience because I was born and brought up in an orthodox Hindu family. The elders taught me the lesson of cultivating devotion to God. In the prayer to God taught to us by the teacher in school, we were instructed to pray to Him to."Take us in your refuge, make us virtuous".

The teacher in our school asked us not to commit any such deed by body or speech, which hurts or harms any being. Committing such an act is wrong conduct and not doing it is right conduct. In all traditions, the lesson of right conduct is taught from childhood onwards. So I can very well infer that when the Dhamma ambassadors of the Buddha set out on their journeys to spread his teachings and they first asked people to observe precepts of morality, there was no opposition to it from any quarter. These Dhamma ambassadors must have taught them that the thought of doing wholesome or unwholesome actions first arises in the mind. Then it gets manifested as deeds of speech and body. None of the wise men might have had any difficulty in accepting this truth also. For living a virtuous life, one has to certainly avoid committing misdeeds of body and speech. Although it is very necessary, it is very hard to free the mind from misdeeds.

It might not have been difficult for a common man of that time to understand that mind precedes all phenomena. All phenomena spring from mind. Mind matters most which is chief, and therefore everything is mind-made –  Mano-pubbangama dhamma, mano-settha, manomaya. It is necessary to purify the mind for purifying oneself. An action of speech or body performed with an impure mind is a misdeed, which harms one and also others. Similarly, an action performed with a pure mind is virtuous action beneficial to one and also to others. When the mind gets defiled the actions of body and speech also get defiled and their consequences cause suffering. As it is said –

“Manasa ce padutthena, bhasati va karoti va; Tato nam dukkhamanveti, cakkam'va vahato padam.”
-- If with an impure mind one performs any action of speech or body, then suffering follows that person as the cartwheel follows the foot of the draught animal. Similarly – When the mind is pure the actions of body and speech also become naturally pure and their results lead to happiness.

“Manasa ce pasannena, bhasati va karoti va; Tato nam sukhamanveti, chaya'va anapayini.”
-- If with a pure mind one performs any action of speech or body, then happiness follows that person as a shadow that never departs.

When these ambassadors of the Buddha taught people the way to become righteous by attaining control over their minds, then their actions of speech and body naturally became virtuous. Shadow that never departs.

2. Concentration of mind (Samadhi) –

It is necessary to attain control over mind for purifying one's actions of body and speech. When the mind is under control then only one can avoid committing misdeeds and tend to perform virtuous actions. For achieving concentration of mind observation of sila is a necessary condition.

Most of the Indians of those days gave importance to the attainment of control over mind and for this adopted several measures, some of which are still prevalent. For example-everyone has his own deity or god or goddess whom he reveres. He recites his or her name repeatedly so that he/she is pleased and makes his mind concentrated. However, this way of attaining concentration is not universal but sectarian because his/her god or goddess is not universally accepted by all.

The Dhamma sons of the Buddha did not seem to have created any controversy by contradicting such beliefs of the people. But, gradually this truth was established in their minds that one's liberation is in one's own hands. Instead of concentrating the mind and purifying it by taking support of anyone else, they must have realized that an individual is one's own master, who else can be his master? Atta hi attano natho, ko hi natho paro siya. They also must have realized that one's attaining good state or bad state is in one's own hands. -- Atta hi attano gati. Therefore, for improving one's condition, one has to make efforts at one's own level.

For attaining control over mind, the Dhamma ambassadors showed them the universal way. 'Keep on observing the flow of the normal breath coming in and going out naturally. As soon as the mind wanders away, bring it back to the awareness of the breath. No word should be repeated with the breath; no imaginary belief is to be combined with it. As the breath is coming in and going out naturally, just keep observing it as it is.'

Some people might have accepted this technique of self -reliance, while many might have given importance to the traditional way of achieving concentration. Those who took recourse to self -reliance in place of the traditional way might have turned to wisdom (Pañña).

3. Wisdom (Pañña) –

As one gets strengthened in the right concentration (samma samadhi) on the basis of normal, natural breath, one starts experiencing some sensation near the entrance of the nostrils. Then it starts spreading in the whole body. The truth which one thus realizes is due to one's own efforts. Therefore, it is not indirect knowledge. It is a knowledge gained through one's direct experience. Thus, it is called Prajña (wisdom – direct experiential knowledge).

As one worked more and more to develop concentration, one came to realize the three kinds of wisdom.

First is the 'heard wisdom' (srutmayi Pañña), which is the knowledge acquired by hearing from someone and accepting it with reverence.

Second is intellectual wisdom (Cintanamayi Pañña) which is gained by reflecting over what one has heard from others. When he finds it logical he accepts it. This is called intellectual knowledge gained at the intellectual level by reflection. But both of these are not wisdom in the right sense.

Third is 'experiential wisdom' (Bhavanamayi Pañña). This is right wisdom, which is the knowledge gained through one's own experience. Accepting something as true after hearing from others is not real knowledge. Nor reflecting over something found in a book as logical also is wisdom. The right wisdom is that knowledge which arises through one's own direct experience. It is not indirect knowledge, but it is one's own direct knowledge. Therefore, this is wisdom in the right sense.

For more discourses on Dhamma, delivered by Mr. S. N. Goenka, please click here