It’s great that you are practising the Anussatis, I personally believe they are a greatly undervalued as tools for making progress on the path. So, I want to reply in a way that emphasises the practice rather than an academic approach when doing Dhammānussati.
Remember that Dhammānussati is a contemplation, a recollection. This means that when we are exploring Dhamma in this context we are not we are not trying to see a textbook definition of “Dhamma”, we are not trying to force ourselves to suddenly have insight into dependent origination. We are not necessarily silent either, rather; it is a directed thinking practice, a pondering practice. So we are talking to our self a bit, remembering things we have heard, trying to make connections in our mind, and understand how all these things fit together.
When we contemplate in this way, we move beyond a theoretical understanding of Dhamma. We make the Buddha’s teaching more meaningful to ourselves because we are ‘synthesising’ it—to use an educational term—making sense of it in our own mind. This is important because so often we miss the stage of ‘pondering’ the Dhamma, which is what makes it authentic to our own experience and our personal understanding, and it’s also how we make the teachings stick in our mind long term.
This is how people would have learnt the Dhamma in the Buddha’s time; hearing a short teaching, contemplating it, pondering it, repeating it, memorising it, reciting it, really taking it to heart, and then seeing it for themselves and understanding it fully. We tend to miss such important steps these days, with our abundance of suttas online and in books full of teachings which we only half know, but mostly forget. We rarely take these teachings “inside” us by recollecting them or contemplating them deeply.
The Dhammānussati recollection is designed to lift the mind, especially to introduce joy into the mind. Once that happens, the thinking/contemplating/recollecting aspect falls away, being replaced by steady awareness of the various sequential stages mentioned in all the anussatis of joy, rapture, bodily tranquility, bliss, and samadhi which arise in dependence on each other, inspired by the contemplation of Dhamma.
In the context of Dhammānussati, the teachings is what we are recollecting. I think it’s a mistake to go looking for the Dhamma as a definition or some sort of insight aspect of Dhamma. Instead, we are specifically recollecting teachings we have heard.
A good example of this is seen in the Vimuttāyatana Sutta AN 5.26, where the Buddha discusses five opportunities for liberation:
- Hearing the Dhamma
- Teaching the Dhamma to others
- Reciting the Dhamma
- Pondering the Dhamma
- Using the teaching as a meditation object for samadhi and basis for wisdom
In each case, the meditator gets more and more famiiar with the meaning of the teaching and gains inspiration and joy from the teaching, leading to the same sequence of meditative states listed in the anussatis. This is the verse on pondering:
…the mendicant thinks about and considers the teaching in their heart, examining it with the mind as they learned and memorized it. That mendicant feels inspired by the meaning and the teaching in that Dhamma, no matter how they think about and consider it in their heart, examining it with the mind as they learned and memorized it. Feeling inspired, joy springs up… etc…
It’s this type of practice that we bring to Dhammānussati.
Sometimes the Dhamma is divided into three categories. I don’t know of any suttas where this is done, so it’s either abhidhamma or commentarial, but is interesting none-the-less:
Pariyatti — that which is to be studied (the teachings of dhammavinaya generally)
Patipatti — that which is to be practiced (sila, samadhi, panna, Noble Eightfold Path)
Pativedha — that which is to be penetrated and attained (path attainments)
Hope this helps!