Dharma & mindful meditation

In this brief talk, I would like to share a few thoughts about the word, ‘Dharma’ – a term that has many meanings, dependent upon the context in which it is used.

The word ‘Dharma’ is derived from the Sanskrit prefix, Dhr-, meaning, ‘to hold or to support.’ It therefore denotes ‘that which is established or firm,’ and hence ‘law,’ ‘firm principle’ or ‘correct understanding.’

According to the scholar, Rupert Gethin, ‘Dharma,’ is not an exclusively Buddhist term – it is used in many Indian schools of thought. In its widely used form, it denotes the underlying nature of things, the way things are. Within Buddhism this underlying nature includes both impermanence and interdependence – two qualities manifested by everything that exists, both physical and mental. Dharma, in this sense, also means ‘the truth about things’ – that is, correct understanding or wisdom. Dharma also refers to the way we should act if we are to live in harmony with the nature of things – from a Buddhist perspective this means learning how to act in clear awareness of, and in harmony with, impermanence and interdependence.

So, Dharma, refers to both the way things are, the true nature of things, and how we should act in order to be in harmony with how things are. Suffering, dissatisfaction and disturbance arise when we do not act in accordance with how things are. Wellbeing and peace arise when we do live in harmony with the nature of things.

Although Dharma can be described in talks and texts, understanding and realising Dharma cannot be learnt by scholarly and intellectual study alone. Gethin suggests that three modes of understanding or wisdom have to be cultivated if we are to learn how to think and act in accord with Dharma. Understanding and wisdom in this sense is denoted by the Sanskrit term, ‘prajna’ (or ‘panna’ in Pali). The three modes of understanding are: understanding through listening (‘sruta’); understanding through reflection (‘cinta’); and understanding through spiritual practice (‘bhavana’).

Bhavana includes both mindful meditation and other contemplative methods, and ethical conduct – seeking to reduce suffering (dukkha) and increase wellbeing and peace (sukha). What is implicit in this view of ‘understanding,’ is that learning and self-development consist of more than just absorbing information or deploying theoretical arguments. In Buddhism real understanding consists of realisation – the ability to ‘practice what one preaches’ – to be awake – to realise one’s ‘Buddha nature.’ That is, to live mindfully with care and compassion for all beings and for the planet we inhabit.

So, the purpose of the Buddha’s teaching is to correct misunderstanding about the nature of reality (Dharma) and to cure or reduce the suffering caused by such misunderstanding (avidyā). The vast literature of Buddhism, the descriptions of his teachings and commentaries on his teachings, is also referred to as ‘the dharma’ – the body of knowledge, teaching and practice aimed at reducing suffering and increasing wellbeing.

At the end of his life, and of his long career as a teacher, the Buddha gives to Ananda, his senior student and friend, a last reminder of the main elements of his teaching. The Buddha reminds Ananda that our primary source of knowledge and wisdom is our own experience – our most important teacher and resource is this embodied mind we call our ‘self.’ By being mindful of our body, feelings, mind and the world around us we can cultivate peace and wellbeing. Through our own experience we have to determine if what we are taught, and what we learn, enables us to live in harmony with how things are in the world (Dharma). Mindful meditation is the key method by which we can observe and realise the transience and interconnectedness of existence.

In another text in the Pali Canon, the Satipatthāna Sutra, the Buddha’s teaching is again summed up in the well-known ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ – that is, the contemplation of body, emotion, mind and sensation without craving or attachment.  In other words, the way to minimise suffering is to observe/contemplate how the world IS, without commentary, judgment or clinging – realising in oneself the transient and conditional nature of existence, and through this realisation developing peace of mind and compassion for oneself and for all beings. This is, according to the Buddha, the path to wellbeing – the Middle Way. The Buddha is emphasising the importance of mindful meditation as a method of enquiry and realisation – a way of coming to understand, and learning to live with, the comings and goings, and ups and downs, of life.

By learning how to be mindful, we learn how to live in harmony with the temporary, insubstantial and conditional nature of existence. The teachings of the Buddha, the Buddhist Dharma, provide one body of advice and practical methods to facilitate this learning. There are also very useful non-Buddhist teachings that help reduce dukkha or suffering and increase sukha or wellbeing. Wherever we find useful advice we should be open to it – always testing its effectiveness in the laboratory of our own experience.


Gethin, Rupert. 1998. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford University Press.