The word Dhamma carries several meanings: the way things are, the laws of nature, the Buddha’s teachings, and sometimes more generally “phenomena”. The Buddha’s teachings are called Dhamma because they explain and describe the nature of things, the way things are, the way they operate.
In the traditional Pali chant there are five adjectives that describe the Dhamma. Sandiṭṭhiko (directly visible) we discussed in the previous post. The next one is akāliko – unaffected by time, or timeless. The Dhamma is so fundamental that it applies in all situations and at all times. It is akin to the laws of kamma (karma), which are in effect all the time. Whatever action we do, for good or ill, will bear results. Similarly, we can’t erase the past or make the future as we want it; we can only think, speak and act in the present. In a sense, the present is infinite, because it is the whole (potential) universe – it’s all we’ve got.
Ehipassiko, the third adjective applied to Dhamma, means “calling one to come and see”. Not only is Dhamma directly visible and timeless, but it is calling us to investigate. We wander around and around looking for answers to our dissatisfactions, while all along the Dhamma is right here, right now. This is it!
Opanayiko means leading onwards or leading inwards. If we accept the invitation to investigate things as they actually are (not as we wish they were) in the present, then the Dhamma will guide us on a path of discovery. We could repeatedly ask ourselves “what is this experience?”, “how is it now?”, “what is actually happening in the realm of sight and sound, sensation, taste and smell?”, “what is my mind doing?” or “what is changing right now?”.
In practice, this might mean that we pay close (but relaxed) attention to whatever we’re doing right now, whether it’s mundane or exciting, boring or absorbing. When thinking, we focus on what we’re thinking about, not wandering randomly from one thought stream to another. If the mind is restless, we recognize it as restless. If calm, we recognize it as calm. We observe that all experience is knowable only with the mind, whether the stimulus comes from a stubbed toe or a pleasant memory. If we keep track of the mind, with gentle persistence, we can see all experience coming and going through that gate.
Lastly paccattaṃ veditabbo viññūhī is a phrase that means “to be personally realized by the wise”. There is no point in trying to grasp the Dhamma intellectually. We can get clues from study and discussion, but the Dhamma can’t be accurately described, it can only be realized, or known for oneself. Whether briefly or more enduringly, when we see “Ah, that’s how it is!”, then we know the Dhamma.
We take refuge in the Dhamma by orienting ourselves in this way, using the Buddha’s teachings as a guide, and staying open to current experience.