Customary, yes, but incorrect. Muta is the past participle of maññati/munāti, to think, and it means “thought, what is thought”. It’s a perfectly simple word, and there is no basis for translating as “sensed”. I’m honestly puzzled at why we still keep reading commentaries into the translations as if we don’t know what the text actually means. It does nothing but promote confusion.
To rely on Snp as a primary source for doctrine is, in my view, a mistake. It’s poetry. There is no reason to think the Snp, even the early parts of it, are any earlier than the bulk of the prose suttas. I am well aware that there are arguments to this effect. But they’re wrong, and elsewhere I’ve shown this in some detail.
The primary source of doctrinal understanding must always be the core prose suttas, especially the passages that are often repeated and regarded as the core of the Buddha’s message. It’s just back to front to try to throw out hundreds of central teaching passages on the basis of a few lines of poetry. Apart from anything else, these few texts simply don’t contain enough information, and in order to make sense of them you will need to rely on the much clearer teachings found in prose.
Having said which, first of all, don’t get too worried about the fact that one word has different meanings. This happens all the time. When we’re learning a language we tend to be more rigid and inflexible, but for native users words are used in all kinds of different ways, and they don’t even notice it.
That’s not to say that there isn’t an issue. There is, but it is not that dhamma has multiple meanings. That’s just a fact of the language. The problem is that some of those meanings are read into the suttas based on Abhidhamma ideas, which have conditioned our modern translators and from them, our ideas about the Dhamma as a whole. This is how interpretation works. You don’t throw out an early text. You “draw out” its meaning, which often means reading ambiguous words or passages in the sense that you want. It’s something that we all do, all the time, and we simply have to be vigilant about it.
Let’s look closer at some of the specific instances you cite. (If you could cite them with the standard SC references, that would make it much easier for people to check your references and follow your arguments.)
Consider the verses that you mention as 866, etc. (The Kalahavivada Sutta, verse 875 at Snp 4.11). The context matters here. The set of verses it discussing a complex series of interrelated causal processes. So the word dhamma here has a specifically causal sense to it. In dependent origination, at SN 12.20 there is a distinction between “dependent origination” and “dependently originated phenomena”, i.e. dhammas. In Snp 4.11 the same sense of dhamma is used.
So the verse as a whole reads:
Chando nu lokasmiṃ kutonidāno,
Vinicchayā cāpi kutopahūtā
Kodho mosavajjañca kathaṃkathā ca,
Ye vāpi dhammā samaṇena vuttā
Where does desire come from in the world?
And decision-making, where does that originate?
And anger, lying, and doubt,
the things also spoken of by the ascetic.
Something like that. But the syntax is obscure; are we to think of “anger, lying, and doubt, and other things spoken of by the ascetic”, or “such things spoken of by the ascetic as anger, lying, and doubt”? The answer to the question at Snp 4.11 verse 875 clarifies this to some degree:
Kodho mosavajjañca kathaṅkathā ca,
Etepi dhammā dvayameva sante;
Kathaṅkathī ñāṇapathāya sikkhe,
Ñatvā pavuttā samaṇena dhammā
Anger, lying, and doubt:
these things are also present because of [that] duality.
A doubting person should train in the ways of knowledge.
These things were spoken of by the ascetic after knowing them.
Okay, so here it seems that the dhammas are simply “anger, lying, and doubt”, not “anger, lying doubt, etc.”
As for the basic question, this verse is unusual in that it treats emotional qualities and deeds as dhammas on the same level. Usually—by which I mean, in the prose texts—these things are conceptually distinguished; they lie at different “levels”. An emotional quality such as anger may be a motivating force for lying. The verses sometimes don’t retain this level of clarity (in which respect they share something in common with the Upanishads.)
Normally, when dhamma is used to mean “teaching”, it’s used in the singular. Here, it’s plural, and in such cases I would normal use “things” or “qualities”. In the current case, as the meaning is vague and broad, I’d stick with “things”.
Remember the principle of least meaning. Since dhamma is an extremely common word, used in a large range of settings, it would not stick out like a specialized doctrinal term. It would be a natural and normal part of language, something that would pass by without notice.
Taking some of these lines by themselves, it might be tempting to translate dhamma as “teaching”. However, remember the context. It’s about what dhammas cause other dhammas. The teachings are not part of this causal flow, they are a description of it.
As for the use of “states” for dhamma, this is simply incorrect. There is no normal English meaning of “states” that corresponds with any of the meanings of dhamma; they don’t overlap at all. The very idea of this stems from the Abhidhamma notion of dhammas as fundamental units of existence, and it has no place in the suttas. In English, as opposed to Buddhist Hybrid English, a “mental state” is the overall condition of your mind at a certain time. This corresponds with Pali citta, not dhamma.
Dhamma in this sense means “the phenomenon of which you are aware, which provides a support for consciousness”, which is a completely different concept. In this context, which is mostly limited to the six senses, I would use “phenomena”. This is a technical term in philosophy meaning “that which appears or shows”. Or more specifically, from Google’s dictionary: “the object of a person’s perception; what the senses or the mind notice”.