Dharmas and the Self
[This article was revised and adapted from the Flatbed Zen Newsletter – available at our sister blog, The Flatbed Sutra Zen Blog]
Our usage of the term “dharma”
In Buddhist literature the term "dharma" has many meanings; its meaning in a particular instance is usually most clearly discerned by its context. The meaning of the term "dharma" concerning us here is one of the most common –– that is as a general signifier for distinct particularities, occasions, or entities; any specific datum that can be singled out, pointed to, imagined, etc. Thus, a human being is a dharma, so is a minute, a century, a unicorn, a flower, a phone call, a rock, a dream, a universe, and an imaginary friend. In short, the usage of the term “dharma” in this post is confined to its indication of particular things, beings, and instances.
Dharmas: The Fundamental Constituents of the Self
Dharmas (particularities) are the first thing with which Zen doctrine and methodology must be concerned. The Buddhist doctrine of emptiness (shunyata) is commonly regarded as the starting point for Buddhist study. The Buddhist teachings on emptiness elucidate the truth that all dharmas are empty of self (own being); thus, these teachings presuppose an understanding of the Buddhist notion of dharmas. It is the insight of dharmas as the most fundamental constituents of reality that the doctrine of emptiness accounts for; Buddhism affirms dharmas as the true nature of the world and self, and appeals to the teachings of emptiness to account for the reasoning thereof.
The self, or non-self (anatman), has been identified with dharmas since the earliest Buddhist teachings. This identification remains central in all Buddhist traditions. While details and emphasis regarding the nature of dharmas often varies widely among schools the fundamental insight is the same – the self is constituted of dharmas and is actualized by dharmas. In short, dharmas are not only what the world and the self is, they are the means whereby the world and the self manifest.
In experiencing the world of dharmas the self experiences itself; in truly recognizing this, the self verifies that she is of dharmas, and abides within dharmas – when dharmas are truly seen as dharmas the division between “self” and “other than self” is absent (i.e. reality ceases to be conceptually divided into “self” and “not-self”).
As the essence and form of the self and the other, dharmas are autochthonous; that is, dharmas originate in and inhabit the location and time in which they are experienced. The source of the self, then, is also its homeland; the myriad dharmas. The dynamics of the self-luminous, self-generating (autochthonous) nature of dharmas is comprehensively treated by Dogen’s teaching of “self-fulfilling samadhi.” The focus of the present post is that all dharmas are real and all realities are dharmas – thus dharmas are their own reason (dori), their own cause and effect, their own meaning, their own value.
This is, of course, inconsistent with the prevailing world view which has an inherent propensity to regard all manner of dharmas as mere representatives of a reality rather than reality itself. This is most apparent in notions about language; words, names, teachings, etc., which are commonly viewed as symbols that only represent, stand for, or point to “realities,” but lack intrinsic value in themselves. The same reasoning, however, is central in nearly every arena of human interest. This results from the almost universal acceptance of the “representation” theory of knowledge presupposed in nearly every field of modern science as well as those of the arts. Just as words, names, reports, etc. are regarded as mere representatives for “real” things, beings, or events (i.e. dharmas) in the (objective) world, so too perceptions of the world are regarded as representatives – reconstructions – of the “actual” objects (i.e. dharmas) that exist in the “real” world.
For example, according to the common view the flower seen is not the “real” flower but a re-presentation of it created by the mind (or brain) with data provided to by the senses, in addition to the mind’s own capacity to “fill in” gaps not provided by the senses due to inherent limitations of the sense organs (e.g. the eyeball’s limited peripheral range, physical blind spots, etc.).
There is no account offered for why it is that the mind (or brain) is “smart enough” to fill in the “rest of the picture,” but is not smart enough to “get the picture” without going through the effort of filling in gaps… And, for whom does the mind make all this effort to provide the “representation” to? Well, according to the scientific theory, the mind creates the representation to provide it to itself.
When, in addition to this naïve, irrational conception of knowledge, we consider the widely accepted notions about the nature of thought (and emotion), it is easy to see the reasons for the massive intellectual, emotional, and spiritual poverty of modern civilization. Where Buddhism regards thoughts as dharmas perceived by the mind (which is regarded by Buddhism as a sense organ), the common view regards thoughts as unique, even vastly different from other perceptions – where the common view regards the perception of a flower as not the “real” flower but at least a representation of a real flower, thoughts are not even considered as representing anything real. Further, in the modern world view the reality and reliability of thought is commonly subjected to serious doubt, and often regarded and treated as inherently misleading.
Now, if thoughts are unreliable, and language and perception do not present reality to us, what means could reliably provide any knowledge of the “real” world? Notice also; if thought were truly unreliable then any notion (i.e. thought) about our inability to perceive reality could not be trusted – moreover, if such a notion could be verified, it would, thereby, render itself unreliable!
The common world view misses the mark by presupposing that an “objective” world or universe exists independent of (and generally impervious to) subjective experience. The “representation” theory implies that human beings are forever barred from any direct experience of “reality” and therefore inexorably confined to speculating about the true nature of a world. The reality of the “objective” world, according to this notion, can only be inferred through the analysis of perceptions, assumed to “re-present” real objects of that world, constructed by the mind (or brain) from impressions that are assumed to be after-effects of the “real” world’s influence on the sense organs.
The Zen perspective is diametrically counter to the common view. Zen refuses to engage in mere hypothetical speculation, much less accept it as first principle of truth. More, Zen discourages such speculation by deriding the folly of unnecessarily entertaining conceptual notions that are inherently unverifiable, thus irrelevant. Recognizing that any “reality” existing independent of human perception would, by definition, have no influence on human existence, Zen exhorts us to focus on the one reality that is actually relevant to human existence. Zen calls our attention to the myriad dharmas – the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, tactile sensations, and thoughts – constituting the only reality that has ever actually been experienced; the world and the self being experienced here and now.
To recognize dharmas as the source, manifestation, and destination of the self and the world is to see the ultimate significance of even the most prosaic things, beings, and events. Corollary with this recognition is an intimacy of kinship with each and all dharmas – a natural identification with the world, a certain understanding that the self and the myriad dharmas are of one family.
In recognition of the primacy of dharmas, we strongly encourage practitioners to follow the guidance of the classic Zen masters who frequently return to, emphasize, and insist on the importance of maintaining awareness of the nature of dharmas and the implications of that nature. To this end, we now summarize the main points here observed concerning dharmas, and follow this with a few clarifications.
A dharma is a fundamental constituent of reality apart from which nothing exists; if it exists, it must be a dharma, and if it is a dharma, it must exist.
A dharma is an actual and particular instance of reality, an observable (i.e. intelligible) phenomenon in/of space and time.
A dharma is autochthonous, its origin is precisely the location and time (uji; existence-time) of its appearance; all things (i.e. the world and the self) have their source in dharmas, a dharma is its own source.
Some Clarifications Concerning the Nature Dharmas
To preclude some of the more common misunderstandings related to the points discussed, a few brief clarifications on the nature of dharmas is merited here.
First, the description of dharmas as the fundamental constituents of reality is meant unconditionally, thus, it does not leave open the possibility for the existence of a “force,” “essence,” or “nature” more fundamental than dharmas. Because dharmas are always particular, they are usually referred to in terms of “elements,” “constituents,” or “units,” rather than “natures,” “forces,” or “essences.” This usage of terms, however, should be regarded as undermining the primary significance qualifying dharmas as being “most fundamental.” The primary purpose of pointing out dharmas as the most fundamental elements of reality is to clarify that dharmas are not constituted of anything more fundamental than themselves. In short, dharmas are not “made up of” more basic elements or any subtler essence, nature, or force. Insofar as any essence, nature, or force is existent, it too must have its source in, and thus, be qualified as a particular dharma. The significant implication here is that as fundamental instances of reality, dharmas cannot be understood, explained, or defined by, or according to any “other” constituent whatsoever, elements or essences. In sum, dharmas are not made of anything other than what they are – dharmas are dharmas through and through.
Next, recognizing every phenomenon (i.e. every form, sound, smell, taste, feeling, and thought) as a dharma, and every dharma as an actual and particular instance of reality has several crucial implications. One, it makes it incumbent to regard every dharma as of equal status concerning the authenticity of its actuality (true nature); the import being a total absence of superiority and inferiority among dharmas concerning their true nature. Two, it renders as unnecessary any obligation to account for any evolutionary or developmental process whereby dharmas experience some form of progression or sophistication from a primordial or elementary condition; being “as they are” from the beginning, dharmas are impervious to reductionism from the start. Three, it puts an end to any and all debates involving speculative notions of unknowable realities or unverifiable laws and forces; if something really exists, it is a dharma, hence, an observable, intelligible phenomenon.
Finally, to acknowledge the truth of the autochthonous nature of dharmas is to recognize the fallacy of all forms of nominalism; no dharma can be the mere representative, symbol, or signifier of a reality other than itself. Every dharma, including words, names, ideas, perceptions, signs, mental images, and anything else that can described, pointed to, or singled out in any way is – as it is – an instance of existence-time, a manifest expression of Buddha. The import here is that dharmas are their own reason (dori), their own cause and effect, their own meaning, their own value.
I hope this is helpful.