The word dhamma, in its most general sense, is equivalent to 'thing'—i.e. whatever is distinct from anything else (see ANICCA). More precisely it is what a thing is in itself, as opposed to how it is;[a] it is the essence or nature of a thing—that is, a thing as a particular essence or nature distinct from all other essences or natures. Thus, if a thing is a solid pleasant shady tree for lying under that I now see, its nature is, precisely, that it is solid, that it is pleasant, that it is shady, that it is a tree for lying under, and that it is visible to me. The solid pleasant shady tree for lying under that I see is a thing, a nature, a dhamma. Furthermore, each item severally—the solidity, the pleasantness, the shadiness, and so on—is a thing, a nature, a dhamma, in that each is distinct from the others, even though here they may not be independent of one another. These dhammā, in the immediate experience, are all particular. When, however, the reflexive[b] attitude is adopted (as it is in satisampajañña, the normal state of one practising the Dhamma), the particular nature—the solid pleasant shady tree for lying under that I see—is, as it were, 'put in brackets' (Husserl's expression, though not quite his meaning of it), and we arrive at the nature of the particular nature. Instead of solid, pleasant, shady, tree for lying under, visible to me, and so on, we have matter (or substance), feeling, perception, determinations, consciousness, and all the various 'things' that the Suttas speak of. These things are of universal application—i.e. common to all particular natures (e.g. eye- consciousness is common to all things that have ever been, or are, or will be, visible to me)—and are the dhammā that make up the Dhamma. The Dhamma is thus the Nature of Things. And since this is what the Buddha teaches, it comes to mean also the Teaching, and dhammā are particular teachings. The word matter—'I will bear this matter in mind'—sometimes expresses the meaning of dhamma (though it will not do as a normal rendering).
Sabbe sankhārā aniccā; Sabbe sankhārā dukkhā; Sabbe dhammā anattā. ('All determinations are impermanent; All determinations are unpleasurable (suffering); All things are not-self.') Attā, 'self', is fundamentally a notion of mastery over things (cf. Majjhima iv,5 <M.i,231-2> & Khandha Samy. vi,7 <S.iii,66>). But this notion is entertained only if it is pleasurable,[c] and it is only pleasurable provided the mastery is assumed to be permanent; for a mastery—which is essentially a kind of absolute timelessness, an unmoved moving of things—that is undermined by impermanence is no mastery at all, but a mockery. Thus the regarding of a thing, a dhamma, as attā or 'self' can survive for only so long as the notion gives pleasure, and it only gives pleasure for so long as that dhamma can be considered as permanent (for the regarding of a thing as 'self' endows it with the illusion of a kind of super-stability in time). In itself, as a dhamma regarded as attā, its impermanence is not manifest (for it is pleasant to consider it as permanent); but when it is seen to be dependent upon other dhammā not considered to be permanent, its impermanence does then become manifest. To see impermanence in what is regarded as attā, one must emerge from the confines of the individual dhamma itself and see that it depends on what is impermanent. Thus sabbe sankhārā (not dhammā) aniccā is said, meaning 'All things that things (dhammā) depend on are impermanent'. A given dhamma, as a dhamma regarded as attā, is, on account of being so regarded, considered to be pleasant; but when it is seen to be dependent upon some other dhamma that, not being regarded as attā, is manifestly unpleasurable (owing to the invariable false perception of permanence, of super-stability, in one not free from asmimāna), then its own unpleasurableness becomes manifest. Thus sabbe sankhārā (not dhammā) dukkhā is said. When this is seen—i.e. when perception of permanence and pleasure is understood to be false --, the notion 'This dhamma is my attā' comes to an end, and is replaced by sabbe dhammā anattā. Note that it is the sotāpanna who, knowing and seeing that his perception of permanence and pleasure is false, is free from this notion of 'self', though not from the more subtle conceit '(I) am' (asmimāna);[d] but it is only the arahat who is entirely free from the (false) perception of permanence and pleasure, and 'for him' perception of impermanence is no longer unpleasurable. (See also A NOTE ON PATICCASAMUPPĀDA §12 & PARAMATTHA SACCA.)
[a] How a thing is, is a matter of structure, that is to say, of intentions (cetanā) or determinations (sankhārā). See CETANĀ. These are essentially negative, whereas dhamma is positive. [Back to text]
[b] This word is neither quite right nor quite wrong, but it is as good as any. See CETANĀ, MANO, and ATTĀ, and also FUNDAMENTAL STRUCTURE (where, in Part I, the possibility of reflexion is shown to be structurally justified). The possibility of reflexion depends upon the fact that all experience (the five khandhā or aggregates) is hierarchically ordered in different levels of generality (or particularity), going to infinity in both directions. This supports another hierarchy, as it were 'at right angles' to the original hierarchy. In immediacy, attention rests on the world. This requires no effort. In reflexion, attention moves back one step from the world in this second hierarchy. It does not, however, move back spontaneously: it requires to be pulled back by an intention that embraces both the ground level and the first step. This pulling back of attention is reflexive intention. A deliberate entering upon reflexion requires a further reflexive intention; for deliberate intention is intention to intend (or volition). Double attention is involved. But though, in immediacy, attention rests at ground level, the entire reflexive hierarchy remains 'potential' (it is there, but not attended to), and immediacy is always under potential reflexive observation (i.e. it is seen but not noticed). Another way of saying this is that the 'potential' reflexive hierarchy—which we might call pre-reflexive—is a hierarchy of consciousness (viññāna), not of awareness (sampajañña). For awareness, reflexive intention is necessary. [Back to text]
[c] This notion is pleasurable only if it is itself taken as permanent (it is my notion); thus it does not escape sankhāradukkha. But unless this notion is brought to an end there is no escape from sankhāradukkha. The linchpin is carried by the wheel as it turns; but so long as it carries the linchpin the wheel will turn. (That 'self' is spoken of here as a notion should not mislead the reader into supposing that a purely abstract idea, based upon faulty reasoning, is what is referred to. The puthujjana does not by any means experience his 'self' as an abstraction, and this because it is not rationally that notions of subjectivity are bound up with nescience (avijjā), but affectively. Reason comes in (when it comes in at all) only in the second place, to make what it can of a fait accompli. Avijjāsamphassajena bhikhave vedayitena phutthassa assutavato puthujjanassa, Asmī ti pi'ssa hoti, Ayam aham asmī ti pi'ssa hoti, Bhavissan ti pi'ssa hoti,... ('To the uninstructed commoner, monks, contacted by feeling born of nescience-contact, it occurs '(I) am', it occurs 'It is this that I am', it occurs 'I shall be',...') Khandha Samy. v,5 <S.iii,46>. And in Dīgha ii,2 <D.ii,66-8> it is in relation to feeling that the possible ways of regarding 'self' are discussed: Vedanā me attā ti; Na h'eva kho me vedanā attā, appatisamvedano me attā ti; Na h'eva kho me vedanā attā, no pi appatisamvedano me attā, attā me vediyati vedanādhammo hi me attā ti. ('My self is feeling; My self is not in fact feeling, my self is devoid of feeling; My self is not in fact feeling, but neither is my self devoid of feeling, my self feels, to feel is the nature of my self.') [Back to text]
[d] Manifest impermanence and unpleasurableness at a coarse level does not exclude (false) perception of permanence and pleasure at a fine level (indeed, manifest unpleasurableness requires false perception of permanence, as remarked above [this refers, of course, only to sankhāradukkha]). But the coarse notion of 'self' must be removed before the subtle conceit '(I) am' can go. What is not regarded as 'self' is more manifestly impermanent and unpleasurable (and, of course, not-'self') than what is so regarded. Therefore the indirect approach to dhammā by way of sankhārā. Avijjā cannot be pulled out like a nail: it must be unscrewed. See MAMA & SANKHĀRA. [Back to text]