The ‘Dharma’ or ‘Dhamma’ or sometimes ‘Buddhadhamma’ is what Buddhists usually say when they’re talking about Buddhism.
Buddhism was a word developed by westerners – and non-Buddhist westerners at that.
It’s not a very good word really. Firstly it suggests that Buddhism is an ideology (an ‘-ism’) which isn’t really the case. And secondly, it suggests that the historical character known as ‘the Buddha’ is at the heart of it, in the same way that Christ is at the heart of Christianity.
Really, the Dharma/Dhamma is something you practice that leads to ‘spiritual’ benefit – and in the end that benefit is so fundamental that it has been called ‘awakening’. It’s as different from your everyday life as being awake is from being asleep.
You could say, then, that the Dharma is whatever leads towards that end.
The Dharma is whatever works
Your approach to practice loosens up quite a bit when you start to think about it in those terms.
Yes it makes sense to stick to traditional approaches when you’re starting out. Working within a tried and tested framework is quicker than trial and error. But once you have a feel for what effective practice is, you’ll find that you can incorporate ideas and practices and approaches that aren’t traditional Buddhism.
This is healthy, and in fact quite traditional. If you look at Theravadin Buddhism, then look at Zen and Pure Land, then look at Tibetan Buddhism, you may start to wonder what ‘Buddhism’ is anyway. The differences are stark – at least on a superficial level.
These differences arose because practitioners and teachers have always looked for ways to make Buddhism relevant to their lives. They use whatever cultural references are lying around, and weave them into a new kind of Buddhism that may appear very different from what went before it, but is still wholeheartedly the Dharma.
In the west, this is bound to happen too. These changes happen over centuries, we’ve had Buddhism in the west really only since the 60s. It first popped its head around the door maybe a hundred years ago, but didn’t take root in any way until quite a bit later.
So we’re in a period of experimentation. That happens in the Buddhist community as a whole (the Buddhist Geeks conference is a good example of a group of practitioners grappling with the intersection of Buddhism and contemporary western culture).
It also happens at an individual level. We come into contact with ideas and practices from outside of the Buddhist tradition that we find useful and we incorporate them into our practice. Ideas from the positive psychology movement and life and fitness coaching, for example, have helped many Buddhist practitioners in the west.
What have you found helps your practice?
The Meditator’s Handbook
Finally, I just wanted to give a little plug for my new e-book, The Meditator’s Handbook. If you’re looking to learn meditation, establish a regular practice, or take your regular practice deeper, this e-book will give you everything you need.