copyright Robert Ellis 2008

'The Trouble with Buddhism' Chapter 8

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Dharma trouble

The word “Dharma” in Buddhism can be translated “Law”,” Truth”, “Religion”, or “Doctrine”, and it means all of these things. In fact, the Dharma is simultaneously believed to be a universal truth that is eternally present, and the teaching of the Buddha or his followers, and any other "true" teaching. To Westerners bored with the precise distinctions of Western science or philosophy, this might seem enticingly ambiguous. However, it is also a recipe for confusion and a dangerous use of language. If you want people to believe what you say without critical examination, one way of doing so is to lead them to think that by definition it’s the truth – and if the word you use for truth is the same as the word you use for your doctrines, this is quite an easy slippage to fall into.


In this chapter I’m going to look in a bit more detail at the pros and cons of the different senses of Dharma and the ways they can be confused: first at the universal and particular senses of Dharma, then at the associated issue of relationships between Buddhism and other religions.

Click on the section summaries below for the full text of each section: (under construction)

a) Wasn't it true all the time?

The universality of Dharma and its separability from Buddhism is theoretically recognised by many Buddhists, but not put into practice. The teachings of the Buddhists tradition, which are specific to certain times and places, should not be confused with ultimate truth either theoretically, practically, or ritually. If we take this seriously, the Buddha is entirely contingent to the Dharma. If there are disputes amongst Buddhists about the universal principles of Dharma, then they should give priority to discussing and resolving these, rather than just falling back on tradition.

b) Putting it in context

The prioritisation of traditional Buddhist scriptures amongst Western Buddhists takes one specific cultural instance of the Dharma and confuses it with the universal. Fully contextual Dharma in each context is necessary, but cannot simply be borrowed from elsewhere. We should not go to the postmodernist extreme of denying the universal Dharma, but distinguish universality of method from the specific claims and recommendations made in each context.

c) Righteous Christians and holy Hindus

Separating universal from contextual Dharma also makes it possible to fully recognise the relative achievements of followers of other religions and philosophies, without abandoning belief in the possibility of moral justification. This justification does not come from religious or cultural background, but from the practice of the universal Middle Way. This point makes many Hindus and Christians better justified than many Buddhists.

d) Oversold tolerance

Buddhist claims to have a uniquely tolerant religion, proven in practice, are often exaggerated. Such claims often depend on a selective definition of who is 'Buddhist', on a comparison with Christianity that obscures the amount of intolerance in Buddhist history, or on a confusion of tolerance with passivity. That doesn't mean that the practice of the Middle Way might not provide a unique basis for tolerance in the future.


Continue to Chapter 9 'Sangha trouble' (index page)

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