You’ve heard this hip, spiritual term thrown around by yogis for a while. You’ve heard it thrown around by Buddhists the likes of Jack Kerouac, who wrote that ultimate hipster book The Dharma Bums.
You’ve likely even used it yourself. But what really is the inner, spiritual meaning and significance of this ancient Sanskrit word? And does it mean the same for everybody?
Most often, we think of the word Dharma, or Dhamma in Pali, to pertain to the teachings of the Buddha, or in Hinduism as the teachings of the Vedas. The Buddha, while completing his teachings, remarked, “Eśa dhamma sanantana, This is the eternal dharma.”
To live according to Dharma, it is said, means to live according to one’s religion, or to live according to universal law.
But since religions differ in so many fundamental ways, how is it possible that my Yoga Dharma—which I don’t even think of as a religion but instead of as a spiritual path—can be the same as your Buddhist Dharma? Or even your Christian Dharma? And does it really matter? Can’t we just celebrate the diversity of religions, of our spiritual points of view? Can’t we just agree to disagree?
It matters, I think, that we come to some common understanding of what spirituality, or religion, or Dharma is, because as long as I insist that my belief is different, or worse—better than yours—then we’re in deep trouble. And we’ve been in deep trouble for too long.
When people’s religions, people’s dharmas are threatened, then wars break out, wars with both words and swords. And soon the religious blood starts to flow.
And, frankly, at this time in the evolution of humanity, when fundamentalist religions are threatening our safety and sanity, we need to do better than that. We need to find a common ground, a perennial wisdom that can unify us beyond religious difference, practice and dogma. But is that possible?
We have already seen that representatives of both Yoga and Buddhist Dharma have the ability to speak a language of freedom and universal unity, a language that can bring us beyond dogmatic differences.
Vivekananda, the first Indian yogi to come to the West, spoke about religious universalism. He said: “The idea of an objective God is not untrue—in fact, every idea of God, and hence every religion, is true, as each is but a different stage in the journey….”
And if we venture even further into India’s past, the Rig Veda, the world’s earliest sacred scripture stated: “Ekam sat vipra bahauda vadanti,” which means: “to what is One, the sages give many names.” In other words, there’s only one common, universal, spiritual Truth which we approach in so many different ways and give so many different names.
The Dalai Lama says that “compassion” is that which unites all religions; that each religion share kindness and care toward other human beings as a common goal.
But back to the word Dharma, for I think it contains a clue to our real spiritual commonality. What does it actually mean?
The word Dharma actually means nature, property, law. Hence we can say that it is the nature or property of a flame to burn, the nature or property of a fish to swim, and thus the dharma of water to flow. But what is the nature or property of a human being? To seek pleasure, to seek happiness, to seek enlightenment!
Unlike plants and animals, whose dharma it is to follow the simple laws of nature, whose dharma is easily fulfilled (just look at your dog, or your cat!), our human dharma is more expansive, we want unlimited pleasure, unlimited happiness. Hence, say the sages of the old and new age, our dharma is the search for spiritual happiness, for enlightenment.
If we seek that ultimate happiness the way animals do, mainly through our simple needs of the flesh, mainly by satisfying our hedonistic needs for food, sex and freedom from fear, we are following svabhavik dharma, our animal dharma.
But how can we satisfy our cosmic needs for enlightenment, our infinite needs for union with God, with Spirit, with the Void, through these limited means? How can sexual satisfaction give us the ultimate high, that cosmic realization of our true Self, our ultimate freedom from samsara?
It cannot. Because we cannot satisfy an unlimited need for Pure Awareness, for Cosmic Consciousness, for God, for the Void through limited means.
Hence, there is also something called Bhagavat (Great) Dharma in Yoga, the Dharma or path of spirituality, the path of the real human Dharma. Because our need is greater than that of a plant or a dog, we seek ultimate freedom, we seek the Great Dharma. The Buddhists call this path simply Dharma, or Dhamma.
I think it is fair to say, then, that both Yogis and Buddhists share the same goal, share the same Dharma, share the same desire for enlightenment!
Yes, I know. I can hear the voices of protest: our paths are so different, even our final goal is different. But I do not think so. Our language may be different, our name for that ultimate state of enlightenment may be different, our practices may be different, but the ultimate goal is not different. Enlightenment is One for All. And that is our common Dharma.
“All religions are one,’ said the 17th century visionary poet William Blake. And he was a Christian! The 14th century Indian poet-guru Kabir, while fiercely anchored in yogic practice, spoke to the common spiritual heart of both the Hindu and Muslim faith.
Likewise, Aldous Huxley, who sought illumination in both psychedelics and yoga, found enough common evidence among the world’s mystics to declare that there is a perennial wisdom river that runs through all religions. One river that ends in the same universal sea.
And Huston Smith, the well-known philosopher of religions, said: “It is possible to climb life’s mountain from any side, but when the top is reached the trails converge.” The trails converge because human nature, human Dharma is the same: to satisfy our inner thirst for illumination.
That’s why we pray, do yoga, meditate, chant, prostrate, breathe slowly through one nose at-a-time. That’s why we write love poetry to God all night. That’s why we dance and whirl as if we’re perfectly and wildly free.
But not so fast you say. There are too many differences among us, too many philosophical and ritualistic divergences that do not converge in the same Dharmic sea.
I agree. And that is both the problem and the solution. “A clear-eyed understanding of our religious differences may be the best hope for promoting cooperation among different religions,” writes religion writer Don Harper.
Boston University religion scholar Stephen Prothero, author of God is Not One, protests this notion that all religions share a fundamental goal. Huston Smith is wrong, he says. Prothero also contradicts Swami Sivananda, who said, “The fundamentals or essentials of all religions are the same.”
To which Prothero replies, “This is a lovely sentiment, but it is untrue, disrespectful, and dangerous.” He thinks that the only way towards cooperation is by understanding our diversity, our differences.
I agree. I agree with both Huston Smith and Stephen Prothero. Dharma is not either/or. Dharma is yes/and. We need to see and promote both universal unity and tolerance. Because there is both unity and diversity in nature. And if Dharma represents natural law, the two wings of the Dharmic bird are called unity and diversity.
Or think of it as a Dharmic nest. While the sticks used to build my Yogic Dharma may point in quite different directions than those used to build your Buddhist Dharma, on the inside both nests are round and whole. On the inside they both hold and support the nondual grace of the Void, the nondual grace of Pure Consciousness.