Why does "dhamma" translate "phenomenon" and what does it mean?

Please explain the meaning of the buddhist word “dhamma”. It is often translated as “phenomenon”. The phenomenon is usually represented as an image arising in the mind. We know that there is rupa-khandha in the world of gods-without-perception, but there is no experience of this rupa or anything else. If dhammas are experience, then the rupa of the devas without perception is not an pure experience of consciousness, but matter that exists outside the consciousness that knows it.

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I like the explanation of ‘dhamma’ in Wikipedia:

The word dharma has roots in the Sanskrit dhr-, which means to hold or to support, and is related to Latin firmus (firm, stable)… It is derived from an older Vedic Sanskrit n-stem dharman-, with a literal meaning of “bearer, supporter”, in a religious sense conceived as an aspect of Rta.[22]

In the Rigveda, the word appears as an n-stem, dhárman-, with a range of meanings encompassing “something established or firm” (in the literal sense of prods or poles). Figuratively, it means “sustainer” and “supporter”…

Keeping the above root meaning in mind, if we read the Suttas thoroughly, we will find the word ‘dhamma’ has different meanings in different contexts. Sometimes it means ‘phenomena’, other times it means ‘principles’ & ‘law’, other times it means ‘Teaching/Doctrine’, other times it means ‘practices’, etc. In Hinduism, for example, the most common meaning is ‘duty’.

When ‘dhamma’ is used to ‘represent an image arising in the mind’, these images are ‘mind objects’ or ‘sense objects known only by the mind’; therefore distinguished from the five physical sense objects.

‘The six classes of consciousness should be understood.’
‘Cha viññāṇakāyā veditabbā’ti—

That’s what I said, but why did I say it?
iti kho panetaṁ vuttaṁ. Kiñcetaṁ paṭicca vuttaṁ?

Eye consciousness arises dependent on the eye and sights.
Cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṁ,

Ear consciousness arises dependent on the ear and sounds.
sotañca paṭicca sadde ca uppajjati sotaviññāṇaṁ,

Nose consciousness arises dependent on the nose and smells.
ghānañca paṭicca gandhe ca uppajjati ghānaviññāṇaṁ,

Tongue consciousness arises dependent on the tongue and tastes.
jivhañca paṭicca rase ca uppajjati jivhāviññāṇaṁ,

Body consciousness arises dependent on the body and touches.
kāyañca paṭicca phoṭṭhabbe ca uppajjati kāyaviññāṇaṁ,

Mind consciousness arises dependent on the mind and thoughts/mind-objects.
manañca paṭicca dhamme ca uppajjati manoviññāṇaṁ.

‘The six classes of consciousness should be understood.’
‘Cha viññāṇakāyā veditabbā’ti—

That’s what I said, and this is why I said it.
iti yaṁ taṁ vuttaṁ, idametaṁ paṭicca vuttaṁ.

This is the third set of six.
Idaṁ tatiyaṁ chakkaṁ.

MN 148

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Okay, I’m interested in the context of 5 aggregates, 6 ayatanas and nibbana

In my personal interpretation:

  • 5 aggregates = phenomena ( Dhp 279)
  • The 4 mental aggregates = mind objects (MN 148)
  • 6 ayatanas = phenomena (AN 3.61)
  • 6th external ayatana = mind objects (MN 148)
  • Nibbana = a phenomena (MN 26)
  • Nibbana = a mind object (ayatana; Ud 8.1)
  • All of the above = Teachings

It’s also hard for them to see this thing; that is, the stilling of all activities, the letting go of all attachments, the ending of craving, fading away, cessation, extinguishment.

Idampi kho ṭhānaṁ duddasaṁ yadidaṁ—sabbasaṅkhārasamatho sabbūpadhipaṭinissaggo taṇhākkhayo virāgo nirodho nibbānaṁ.

And if I were to teach the Dhamma, others might not understand me, which would be wearying and troublesome for me.’

Ahañceva kho pana dhammaṁ deseyyaṁ, pare ca me na ājāneyyuṁ, so mamassa kilamatho, sā mamassa vihesā’ti.

MN 26

“There is, mendicants, that dimension where there is no earth, no water, no fire, no wind; no dimension of infinite space, no dimension of infinite consciousness, no dimension of nothingness, no dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; no this world, no other world, no moon or sun.

“Atthi, bhikkhave, tadāyatanaṁ, yattha neva pathavī, na āpo, na tejo, na vāyo, na ākāsānañcāyatanaṁ, na viññāṇañcāyatanaṁ, na ākiñcaññāyatanaṁ, na nevasaññānāsaññāyatanaṁ, nāyaṁ loko, na paraloko, na ubho candimasūriyā.

Ud 8.1

‘These are the six fields of contact’: this is the Dhamma I’ve taught …

Imāni cha phassāyatanānīti, bhikkhave, mayā dhammo desito aniggahito asaṅkiliṭṭho anupavajjo appaṭikuṭṭho samaṇehi brāhmaṇehi viññūhi.

‘These are the eighteen mental preoccupations’: this is the Dhamma I’ve taught …

Ime aṭṭhārasa manopavicārāti, bhikkhave, mayā dhammo desito aniggahito asaṅkiliṭṭho anupavajjo appaṭikuṭṭho samaṇehi brāhmaṇehi viññūhi.

AN 3.61

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Hi Nikolas,

Here is a glossary of how Bhikkhu Bodhi and Bhikkhu Sujato translated various words:

dhamma
Bodhi:
(1) untranslated: the Buddha’s teaching; (2) things, phenomena; (3) mental phenomena, (mental) states, mind-objects; (4) qualities; (5) principle, law; (6) having the nature of, subject to (as suffix)
Sujato:
(1) teaching (2) thing; (3) phenomena; (4) thoughts; (5) qualities; (6) principle, law; (7) liable to [as suffix]

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s Introduction from his MN translation:

DHAMMA

In his later translations Ven. Ñāṇamoli appears to have set himself two goals: to render virtually every Pali word into English (arahant and bodhisatta are rare exceptions); and to do so in obedience to a very rigorous standard of consistency. In effect the principle that guided his work was: one Pali word, one corresponding English word. This principle he also applied to his treatment of the multiplex word dhamma, of which he wrote elsewhere that “the need for unity in the rendering is so great as to be almost desperate” (Minor Readings and Illustrator, p. 331). He chose as his root rendering the word “idea,” which he attempted to deploy for the Pali word in all its diverse occurrences. Even when dhamma is used in the suttas to signify the Buddha’s teaching, he still remained faithful to his choice by translating it “the True Idea.”

Needless to say, this experiment was not successful. Recognising this, Ven. Khantipālo, in his edition of the ninety suttas, opted instead to retain the Pali word in most of its occurrences. This decision, however, seems to have been unnecessary when the relinquishment of the demand for strict consistency allows for smooth and reliable translation without loss of meaning. While the many different uses of the Pali word dhamma may originally have had some underlying connection of meaning, by the time of the Pali Canon such connection had already receded so far into the background as to be virtually irrelevant to the understanding of the texts. The commentaries ascribe at least ten different contextual meanings to the word as it occurs in the Canon and they do not try to read any philosophical significance into this variability of application. The goal of lucid translation therefore seems to require that the word be rendered differently according to its context, which generally makes the intended meaning clear.

In revising Ven. Ñāṇamoli’s translation I have retained the Pali word Dhamma only when it refers to the Buddha’s teaching, or in several cases to a rival teaching with which the Buddha’s is contrasted (as at MN 11.13 and MN 104.2). In its other uses the context has been allowed to decide the rendering. Thus when dhamma occurs in the plural as a general ontological reference term it has been rendered “things” (as at MN 1.2 and MN 2.5). When it acquires a more technical nuance, in the sense either of the phenomena of existence or of mental constituents, it has been rendered “states” (as at MN 64.9 and MN 111.4). This term, however, must be divested of its overtone of staticity, dhammas being events within a dynamic process, and it must also not be taken to refer to some persisting entity that undergoes the states, entities themselves being nothing but connected series of dhammas. The last two meanings of dhamma are not always separable in the texts and sometimes naturalness of English diction had to be used as the factor for deciding which should be selected.

As the fourth foundation of mindfulness and as the sixth external sense base (āyatana), dhamma has been rendered “mind-objects” (even here “ideas” is too narrow). In still other contexts it has been rendered as qualities (MN 15.3, MN 48.6) and teachings (MN 46.2, MN 47.3). When used as a suffix it acquires the idiomatic sense of “to be subject to” and so it has been translated, e.g., vipariṇāmadhamma as “subject to change.”

And from the SN translation:

DHAMMA

Rather than embark on the quest for a single English rendering that can capture all the meanings of this polyvalent Pāli word, I have settled for the more pragmatic approach of using different renderings intended to match its different applications.10 When the word denotes the Buddha’s teaching, I have retained the Pāli “Dhamma,” for even “teaching” fails to convey the idea that what the Buddha teaches as the Dhamma is not a system of thought original to himself but the fundamental principles of truth, virtue, and liberation discovered and taught by all Buddhas throughout beginningless time. This is the Dhamma venerated by the Buddhas of the past, present, and future, which they look upon as their own standard and guide (see 6:2). which they look upon as their own standard and guide (see 6:2). From an internal “emic” point of view, the Dhamma is thus more than a particular religious teaching that has appeared at a particular epoch of human history. It is the timeless law in which reality, truth, and righteousness are merged in a seamless unity, and also the conceptual expression of this law in a body of spiritual and ethical teachings leading to the highest goal, Nibbāna, which is likewise comprised by the Dhamma. The word “Dhamma,” however, can also signify teachings that deviate from the truth, including the erroneous doctrines of the “outside” teachers. Thus the Jain teacher Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta is said to “teach the Dhamma to his disciples” (IV 317,25)—certainly not the Buddha’s teaching.

In one passage I render Dhamma as “righteousness” (at the Se counterpart of IV 303,21). This is in the epithet dhammarājā used for a universal monarch, where “king of righteousness” fits better than “king of the Dhamma,” the significance the epithet has relative to the Buddha. The corresponding adjective, dhammika, is “righteous.”

When dhamma occurs as a general term of reference, often in the plural, I usually render it “things.” As such, the word does not bear the narrow sense of concrete material objects but includes literally every-thing, such as qualities, practices, acts, and relationships. Thus the four factors of stream-entry are, as dhammas, things; so too are the twelve factors of dependent origination, the five aggregates, the six pairs of sense bases, and the diverse practices leading to enlightenment. Used in the plural, dhammā can also mean teachings, and so I render it at III 225,9 foll., though the exact sense there is ambiguous and the word might also mean the things that are taught rather than the teachings about them. One expression occurring in two suttas (II 58,3–4; IV 328,21–22), iminā dhammena, can be most satisfactorily rendered “by this principle,” though here dhamma points to the Dhamma as the essential teaching. Again, at I 167,9 (= I 168,25, 173,10), we have dhamme sati, “when this principle exists,” a rule of conduct followed by the Buddha.

When plural dhammā acquires a more technical nuance, in contexts with ontological overtones, I render it “phenomena.” For instance, paṭicca-samuppannā dhammā are “dependently arisen phenomena” (II 26,7), and each of the five aggregates is loke lokadhamma, “a world-phenomenon in the world” that the Buddha has penetrated and taught (III 139,22 foll.). When the word takes on a more psychological hue, I render it “states.” The most common example of this is in the familiar pair kusalā dhammā, wholesome states, and akusalā dhammā, unwholesome states (found, for example, in the formula for right effort; V 9,17–27). The enlightenment factor dhammavicaya-sambojjhaṅga is said to be nurtured by giving careful attention to pairs of contrasting mental states (among them wholesome and unwholesome states; V 66,18), and thus I render it “the enlightenment factor of discrimination of states.” But since the dhammas investigated can also be the four objective supports of mindfulness (V 331–32), dhammavicaya might have been translated “discrimination of phenomena.” Sometimes dhammā signifies traits of character more persistent than transient mental states; in this context I render it “qualities,” e.g., Mahākassapa complains that the bhikkhus “have qualities which make them difficult to admonish” (II 204,3–4).

As a sense base and element, the dhammāyatana and dhammadhātu are the counterparts of the manāyatana, the mind base, and the manoviññāṇadhātu, the mind-consciousness element. The appropriate sense here would seem to be that of ideas and mental images, but the commentaries understand dhammas in these contexts to include not only the objects of consciousness but its concomitants as well. Thus I translate it “mental phenomena,” which is wide enough to encompass both these aspects of experience. As the fourth satipaṭṭhāna, objective base of mindfulness, dhammā is often translated “mind-objects.” So I rendered it in MLDB, but in retrospect this seems to me unsatisfactory. Of course, any existent can become an object of mind, and thus all dhammas in the fourth satipaṭṭhāna are necessarily mind-objects; but the latter term puts the focus in the wrong place. I now understand dhammas to be phenomena in general, but phenomena arranged in accordance with the categories of the Dhamma, the teaching, in such a way as to lead to a realization of the essential Dhamma embodied in the Four Noble Truths.

Finally, -dhamma as a suffix has the meaning “is subject to” or “has the nature of.” Thus all dependently arisen phenomena are “subject to destruction, vanishing, fading away, and cessation” (khayadhamma, vayadhamma, virāgadhamma, nirodhadhamma; II 26,9 foll.). The five aggregates are “of impermanent nature, of painful nature, of selfless nature” (aniccadhamma, dukkhadhamma, anattadhamma; III 195–96).

Unfortunately, the SN references use the PTS page numbers. You can locate these using
https://pts.dhamma-dana.de/

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In that context, I take dhammas to be sense-objects, including mind-objects. To put it crudely, dhammas are anything we can experience.

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What is confusing to me, is that in western philosophical traditions, that is literally the definition of the word phenomena. As opposed to noumena which is an object independent of experience. So why this distinction of mind-objects versus phenomena. Those are literally synonyms in English.

I think mind-objects are treated the same as sense-objects in the suttas, since mind is the sixth sense-base. So a thought or feeling is really no different to a sight or a sound, or whatever.

Some people do take a phenomenological approach to the suttas, which seems reasonable.
In the suttas, noumena are not really considered, except perhaps in the sense of the four great elements. Note that sense-objects are derived from the four great elements, ie “derived form”.

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Is it all that we can experience or all that we are experiencing (here and now)?

What we can experience can exist independently of us, and we experience it from time to time.

Sure. In the suttas dependent origination (conditionality) is presented as a way of sidestepping philosophical arguments about existence and non-existence, or realism v. idealism. The focus on phenomena is probably pragmatic.

the Martin answer is right. In Dhamma, a phenomena is any object of knowledge, physical or not.

The noumena of the Western Philosophy is born from the idea that there are existing objects outside the reason, although they could be accessed by means intuitions (intellectual, sensible, etc). In the Buddhist philosophy these descriptions would mean an attempt to explain the role of panna (wisdom) in the knowledge, which is profusely explained.

In the Western Philosophy this problem was dissected in depth by Kant and finally solved in a good degree with the metaphysics of Schopenhauer, who finally pointed to the non-individuation like the source of the mess. This solution (the only possible at all) was very similar to the anatta of the Buddhist metaphysics.
The works from this German philosopher were very influential at the beginning of 20th century, and his books were a main reading for the first western bhikkhus like Nyanatiloka Mahathera, Nyanaponika Thera and others.

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I see that dependent arising just confirms the realistic point. Since the phenomenon, being a pure impression, cannot influence anything. But real/material/objective forces can. they have power

Sure, and probably the EBTs present something closer to realism than idealism. So for example, eye-consciousness aries in dependence upon eye and visible form, where visible form is derived from the four great elements “out there”. Though the suttas are concerned with our reaction to eye-consciousness, and not really with how sense-objects like visible form arise.

Note that in the suttas dependent origination is specifically about the conditionality of suffering, and doesn’t necessarily have a wider application in the natural world.

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The point is that there are suttas in which the impermanence of the consciousness of the eye is derived from the impermanence of the object of the eye and of the eye itself. Moreover, impermanence is easier to investigate on the basis of gross matter. But observing the emergence and disappearance of material objects, I catch myself thinking that the impermanence of matter itself remains unobvious to me. and I only contemplate the image of matter in my mind. And it baffles me.

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I always thought that the Buddha combined realism and phenomenalism through dependent arising. Objects are known only through the mind. but without the objects themselves there would be no mind and its impressions. And so, they are intertwined and interdependent. Perhaps I do not understand the essence of the concept of phenomenalism. it eludes me.

It is said that phenomenalism does not discuss the nature of data (whether it be matter or subjective experience or a dream of a Brahman), but simply stating reality, the bare experience of something. As if this frees one from speculative thinking about the Self, the outside world, and so on.

But reliance on bare experience does not speak of the forces that existed before the experience, conditioned it and made it so unstable and uncontrollable. In general, there was confusion.

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Dhamma is a very ancient word, so we need to open our mind to a different philosophy to understand its meaning. I am human, my dhamma is my thoughts, ideas, concepts and so on that emerges from my mind. my idea drives me to change the physical world using my muscle strength and tools. this way my dhamma extends to the physical world. let’s assume i am a god, my mind is very strong, so whatever my thought emerges from my mind becomes something physical immediately, a physical reality. so really there’s no difference between what’s in the mind and what’s external, they are all dhamma. everything in this world are dhamma, this including anything physical or non-physical like rules and laws. they are all real, but not the ultimate reality because they are DO, whatever created will end. this implies an underlying philosophy of the ancient people that the physical reality is just the extension of the mind, or collective mind/consciousness. or in another words, whatever external are the manifestation of the mind. does this make sense? this is the way ancient people viewed the world, their philosophy, but becomes a bit strange to modern humans.

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The focus on the bare experience of phenomena seems pragmatic, because sights, sounds etc, can be directly known and examined.

thanks bhante. :pray: I think you are fully right. Specially because our culture (with education, etcetera) is a filter to understand the Reality, and established in our minds from childhood. At least I believe those ancient people were more advanced because they lacked of these borders in their minds.

It is good to note how the surpass of these limits is also the obsession of the present culture (with science, entertainment, etc), although without any exit beyond the speculations and science-fiction.
However, we are requested from our childhood to accept that situation, the rhythms imposed by our culture and the social device of knowledge to believe in what can be thinkable, possible or impossible. Many times this is an added wall to contemplate the Reality in Dhamma terms despite its founaments are more advanced.

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Yes, indeed they can invoke great powers easily with their minds. just they did things abominable, the whole civilization was terminated catastrophically. now with humans such confined, the breakout requires much more faith and knowledge and concentration strength of the mind, to view the world from outside of the box. this makes Buddha’s dhamma much more precious, to become a new person in a new future. I wish you happy!

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I’ve heard Dhamma translated as religious duty among other definitions Definitions for: dhamma (suttacentral.net). I never heard of it defined as phenomenon. The teaching of the khandhas are part of the Dhamma (I’m not sure what rupa is) but not the definition of Dhamma itself-unless someone can correct me?