Dhamma and dhamma, same but different

Dhamma and dhamma

Is there any significant reason why the word Dhamma (teaching, doctrine) is the same word as dhamma (phenomena)?


[quote=“DaoYaoTao, post:1, topic:4813, full:true”]
Dhamma and dhamma

Is there any significant reason why the word Dhamma (teaching, doctrine) is the same word as dhamma (phenomena)?
[/quote]This may be a mere contrived platitude, but I contextualize this double-meaning this way: the Dhamma of dhamma. The Dhamma concerns itself with dhamma, and true understanding of dhamma is synonymous with true Dhamma.

That is just “folk Buddhism” from me. Perhaps someone else will have something better.

Both of these meanings, IMO, are linked by the fact that they are equivalent to the English term “principle”.

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The way I understand they both synonymous.
For example, gravity, right view, wrong view, Nibbana etc ar all Dhammas.
What Buddha taught was Dhamma which leads to free your mind from suffering.

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I have always liked this paper by Rupert Gethin on the various meanings of “dhamma.”


It’s one of those things that is so deeply embedded in the language it seems hard to parse out clearly.

In one sense, there’s obviously something about the notion of “truth” here. The “true” Teaching is a statement about the nature of “true” reality. But then, false teachings may also be a “dhamma”, so we have right and wrong dhammas.

The root meaning is dha to bear, and it shares this root with dhāraṇa, to “bear in mind”, i.e. memory. I suspect—and it is only a suspicion—that the notion of memory, in a culturally deep sense, is a unifying principle here.

In Vedic thought they have the notion of ṛta, which means “weather”. Now, observing the weather, we see patterns of change that, over time, can be seen to be somewhat regular; we call these “seasons”, which ṛta also comes to mean. By extension, it comes to apply to any regular pattern of observable phenomena, such as the astronomical cycles, birth-life-death, and so on.

To understand these things requires memory. It is a culturally acquired base of knowledge, learned and passed down through the ages. Such knowledge, or veda, preserves the essential information required for such essential functions as knowing the right time to plant, the right time to harvest, or when to offer up a sacrifice to the gods. All such things operate according to a natural system of law. Crucially, in Indic systems, even the gods are felt to be subject to these laws, unlike the western theistic systems, where God exists outside temporal laws. What this means is that ultimately our fate depends on understanding and gaining control over the laws of nature. Thus in order to flourish, we not only need to understand how the world is, but also what we should do: the “is” contains the “ought”.

Such cultural knowledge is passed down from elder to children in the lineages of the tribes. As the tribes evolve into nations, the knowledge becomes codified and fixed as set canons of text: the three Vedas. The work of remembering and transmitting such knowledge then becomes an intrinsic part of the identity and continuity of the culture.

In this cluster of ideas—natural phenomena that occur in predictable patterns; cultural knowledge of such; the passing down of such knowledge in fixed, memorized texts—we find many of the aspects of what we refer to as dhamma. While it seems that the emphasis on the word dhamma, and its widespread use for mental phenomena, was, if not invented by the Buddha, at least characteristic of him, I believe that the cluster of ideas it evokes emerges out of this set of cultural conditions.

In the west, the history of ideas followed a different trajectory, especially with the divorce of fact and value, the use of writing rather than memory for preserving information, and the focus on external rather than internal realities. The end result of this is that we find the cluster of ideas associated with the term dhamma to be confusing and requiring explanation, whereas in the Indic sphere it seems to have been taken for granted.


[quote=“DaoYaoTao, post:1, topic:4813”]
Is there any significant reason why the word Dhamma (teaching, doctrine) is the same word as dhamma (phenomena)?[/quote]

The word ‘dharma’ means ‘that which supports’.

dhṛ (see dhāreti) to hold, support: that which forms a foundation and upholds

Therefore, there are many kinds of dhamma which support human life, such as:

  • Phenomena or all things (sabbe dhamma), such as food to eat, oxygen to breathe, etc

“All things are not-self” — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification. Dhp 279

  • Mind objects

Dependent on the intellect & dhamma there arises consciousness at the intellect.

MN 148

  • Mental states, both skillful & unskillful. Unskillful states do not support the holy life but support ordinary life, such as a parent getting angry at a threat to their children.

Mind precedes all dhamma. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

Mind precedes all dhamma. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.

Dhp 1

I see no other dhamma which is as much a cause for arising of as-yet unarisen skilful dhammas and the decline of already arisen unskilful dhammas as heedfulness. When one is heedful, as-yet unarisen skilful dhammas will inevitably arise and unskilful dhammas that have already arisen will inevitably decline.

AN 1.58

  • Knowledge, truth & teachings, such as the laws of nature (dhamma-niyama)

Monks, whether or not there is the arising of Tathagatas, this property stands — this steadfastness of the Dhamma, this orderliness of the Dhamma: All conditioned things are impermanent. All conditioned things are unsatisfactory. All things are not-self. AN 3.136

  • Skillful practises

O Bhikkhus. The footprints of all land-bound creatures fit within the footprint of the elephant; the elephant’s footprint is said to be the supreme footprint in terms of size. Similarly all skilful dhammas have heedfulness as their base, converge within the bounds of heedfulness. Heedfulness may be said to be supreme amongst those dhammas.

AN 10.15

  • The path (­paṭi­pat­tā)

pabbajito vā sammāpaṭipanno sammā­paṭi­pat­tādhika­ra­ṇa­hetu ārādhako hoti ñāyaṃ dhammaṃ kusalan

Because of right practise, they attain the true way, the Dhamma that is wholesome

AN 2.40

  • Results of practises

This Dhamma that I have attained is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise. MN 26



Bhante, do you think there is any connection with the Latin-derived norm?

The SC dictionary entry for dhamma seems to link it to firmus and fretus:

Ved. dharma & dharman, the latter a formation like karman (see kamma for expln of subj. & obj. meanings); dhṛ; (see dhāreti) to hold support: that which forms a foundation and upholds constitution. Cp. Gr. χρόνος, Lat. firmus & fretus Lith. derme (treaty), cp. also Sk. dhariman form, constitution perhaps = Lat. forma, E. form



How come d became f ?!

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This slightly annotated copy of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s introductory material from his SN and MN translations may have some value. I added links to the suttas he uses as examples for easy reference:


I don’t know enough about it to say.

I’d suggest checking the more recent PIE dictionaries; the field is speculative enough anyway, and the information in the PTS is nearly 100 years old.

I assume there might be a decay from dh to voiced th to f, but I’m not sure.


I presume it was not d but rather dh. The Indo-European aspirated consonsants bh-, dh-, gh-, gwh- became f-, f-, h-, f respectively at the beginning of a word. This is important because Latin was always stressed on the first syllable during the earliest stages of its history, it was only during the Late Archaic, Early Classical periods that the stress was moved to where it was during Cicero’s times. As for the reasons for this process I would bet on the spirantization triggered by the presence of the aspiration. The Spanish intervocalic -g-, -d-, or -b- (as in pagar, nada, or pruebo) are not exactly pronounced as in English, French, German or Italian, even though I am not sure why it happened in Spanish. In the pre-written stage of Latin these sounds were possibly pronounced in a similar manner (e.g. d- could be pronounced as the English voice -th- in bathe), and it is not really that far to v- and f- from there (‘drink miwk in Suvvern London’). The fact that this sound change was not triggered in other positions within the words can be accounted for by the word-initial stress that ‘drew’ articulatory focus away from the consonants. Anyway, this is all conjecture :slight_smile:


Amazingly informative and helpful!

Indeed in Portugal’s Portuguese d sounds like th.

But still, I struggle to make sense of the transition, dh sounds so different to f or fr!

The Latin word calidum has become chaud in modern French - pronounced as [ʃo]. The changes, however, are fairly regular and easy to explain:

[kálidum] → [káldum] → [kald] → [tʃald] → [tʃaud] → [ʃaud] → [ʃod] → [ʃo]

The Ancient Indic bhavati has become hai in the Modern Hindi, etc. In other words, it doesn’t matter if something sounds a bit different :grin:

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[quote=“gnlaera, post:7, topic:4813”]
How come d became f ?!
[/quote]In a very similar way to how Bhagavā often becomes something like “Pakawa” (also with tonogenesis no less!) when Thais chant. The native morphology of the Thai language informs the pronunciation, unless one studies Pāli very hard. The same is true of English speakers, who often aspirate a lot of consonants they shouldn’t be when speaking Pāli (some English accents do not heavily aspirate consonants, some do, like the Queen’s English, for example).

As a further example, when America was first being colonized, the settlers had accents which were essentially a mix of British accents. The separation of these two populations caused their languages (in this case, as there has not been enough time, it is just an “accent” shift) to diverge, and American English went through many developments that British English did not (and vice-versa), such as the extreme weakening of the rhotic “R” in British English, when it appears at the end of a syllable, that is a development that British English underwent that is absent from most accents of American English.

The same processes at work which cause the British to say “cahn’t” (with a vowel that is perceived as “longer” by non-British speakers) and the Americans to say “can’t” (with a distinctly different vowel) also cause, over much more time, the differentiations and diversity of Indo-European languages to develop.

D(h) --> F might seem like an extreme shift in pronunciation, but it has had a very, very, very long time to shift so far. The two sounds, as others have pointed out, are closer than they seem.

Off-topic but interesting and relevant to this phonology sub-discussion: Another common English mistake (generated by the romanization systems of Sanskrit & Pāli orthography) is the freqeunt mispronunciation of the vowel indicated by the latin character “a”, in, for example, “Bhagavā”.

This is far closer to the English “u” in “put” than the “a” in “cat”.

Technically, the vowel is a near-open central unrounded vowel, represented in IPA by the character “ɐ”, but this sound does not occur in English, so English speakers, lacking extensive phonological ear training and exposure, cannot easily differentiate it from a general scwa (“ə”). This vowel, in Canadian English, is almost the same as the vowel in the word “put” or the first vowel in “regress”, so that is what informs my explanation above (incidentally, in Canadian English, the second vowel in “explanation” is also reduced to a schwa-like vowel).

So when speaking Pāli, if speakers pronounce the A’s closer to English U’s (obviously this advice is only useful to those who speak English natively), and retain the Ā’s-with-macrons as “regular” A’s, then one will be closer to better pronunciation.

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Could “the dhamma” encapsulate “the all” that the Buddha pointed to?

In his early life, the Buddha-to-be experienced the dead end of indulging in sense pleasures. In his wandering he developed various deep meditative practices to achieve some plane of existence or state of mind to transcend reality, but these too fell short. His extreme asceticism was another dead end.

Everything he was looking for was right there all along.

“Yet it is just within this fathom-long body, with its perception & intellect, that I declare that there is the cosmos, the origination of the cosmos, the cessation of the cosmos, and the path of practice leading to the cessation of the cosmos.” AN 4.45

As he was sitting there, he said to the Blessed One, “‘The Dhamma is visible here-&-now, the Dhamma is visible here-&-now,’ it is said. To what extent is the Dhamma visible here-&-now, timeless, inviting verification, pertinent, to be realized by the wise for themselves?”
“Very well, then, Sivaka, I will ask you a question in return. Answer as you see fit. What do you think: When greed is present within you, do you discern that ‘Greed is present within me’? And when greed is not present within you, do you discern that ‘Greed is not present within me’?”
“Yes, lord.”
“The fact that when greed is present within you, you discern that greed is present within you; and when greed is not present within you, you discern that greed is not present within you: that is one way in which the Dhamma is visible in the here-&-now, timeless, inviting verification, pertinent, to be realized by the wise for themselves.
“What do you think: When aversion is present within you… When delusion is present within you… When a greedy quality is present within you… When an aversive quality is present within you…
“What do you think: When a delusive quality is present within you, do you discern that ‘A delusive quality is present within me’? And when a delusive quality is not present within you, do you discern that ‘A delusive quality is not present within me’?”
“Yes, lord.”
“The fact that when a delusive quality is present within you, you discern that a delusive quality is present within you; and when a delusive quality is not present within you, you discern that a delusive quality is not present within you: that is one way in which the Dhamma is visible in the here-&-now, timeless, inviting verification, pertinent, to be realized by the wise for themselves.” AN 6.47

“Monastics, this is the path where all things come together as one, to purify sentient beings, to make an end of pain and sadness, to get past sorrow and lamentation, to reach the way, to witness Nibbāna; that is, the four kinds of mindfulness meditation. MN 10

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