Moderator: Mahavihara moderator
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. 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). 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).
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.”
Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 10 guests