We have come to the last of the four foundations; mindfulness of Dharma (or Dhamma).
This it a multifaceted concept that is central to understanding Buddhism at large. In this Frame, we will start to unpack the various meanings in order to lay the foundation for transmuting the teachings into direct experience.
📖 Mindfulness of Citta
What is Dharma?
One meaning of Dharma is “Truth” with a capital T. This type of truth goes deeper than facts and propositional knowing. It points to a fundamental pattern of existence – a “universal law” that pervades all things.
The word is also used to refer to the teachings of the Buddha. He was teaching the Dharma, this natural principle. More specifically, we was teachings a method for realising this truth experientially – for knowing it directly. This experience has nothing to do with any particular religion or belief system. Daoists, for example, have their equivalence in the natural principle of the Dao. If fact, anyone who is genuinely transmitting universal truth is teaching Dharma.
The term is also used in a more personal sense. From this perspective, each of us have our own Dharma – our personal path – which is unique to our life and incarnation. Someone who is living their Dharma is living their lives in harmony with Truth, Dao.
Trust your own experience
Many spiritual teachings turn into dogma. Trusting scriptures and leaders more than our own experience is a recipe for disaster. This caution is beautifully expressed in the zen proverbs:
“Don’t confuse the finger pointing to the moon with the moon itself.”
“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”
Another powerful reminder of this is the Daoist phrase:
“The Dao that can be spoken is not the true Dao.”
The Buddha himself likened his teachings to a raft designed to help people cross a river. Once we have reached the further shore of awakening, we do not need to carry the raft on our back.
Any transmission or teaching of Dharma is valuable only to the degree that it helps us awaken.
With this in mind, let’s now return to the discourse on mindfulness.
In the context of mindfulness, Dhamma refers specifically to what we might call “universal contents of awareness”, or “categories of phenomena”. What does that mean, exactly?
Let us take hatred as an example. We all know what hatred feels like. It does not matter is we are a man or a woman, young or old, born in this country or that country, from that period of time or this period of time. It is the same hatred, and it has been experienced throughout the ages. It may have different triggers and stories attached, but the experience is the same. Hatred has the same effects on all of us – it leads to suffering.
The dharmas (categories of phenomena) do not depend on certain beliefs or religious identity. They are universal – part of the human experience. This is what makes the teaching so powerful.
The categories are:
The 5 hindrances – mental factors that get in the way of realising our inner essence.
The 5 aggregates – building blocks that creates and maintains our false sense of who we are.
The 6 senses – our entire sensory experience, including mental phenomena.
The 7 Factors of awakening – markers on the path that – when cultivated – lead to and accompany the awakening of mind.
The 4 noble truths – the Buddha’s framing of how we get caught in suffering and how to get out of it.
Transmuting the teachings
In a sense, this foundation encompasses the entire teachings of the Buddha. It includes the 4 noble truths, which includes the noble eightfold path, which includes the practice of mindfulness itself.
The teachings of the Buddha (“dharma”) is likened to a wheel, illustrating its circular nature
This brings us back to the original statement that dharma is a multifaceted concept that is central to Buddhism. But as we have seen throughout the path of mindfulness, the point is not intellectual understanding. The theory is there to support our practice. And through this forth foundation, we are invited to bring mindful contemplation to each of these categories. It is a bit like looking at a diamond through different facets. We are looking at the mind through the dharmas in order to discover the mind that is unobstructed and already free.
The point is to transmute the Dharma from conceptual understanding to direct experience. This process is what leads to freedom from suffering.
In the next frames we will go into the practice of each of the universal categories in turn, starting with the 5 hindrances.