HOW DO WE awaken to inner joy and peace, and a sense of the underlying unity of all? We do so by following the way of Dharma. Dharma is dynamic spiritual living— to live in such a way that meets and fulfils our present stage of development, and helps us on to the next stage. It sets in motion a progressive awakening of our higher potentialities so that we advance on the path of Self-realization and fulfil our highest destiny.
The word ‘Dharma’ has different shades of meaning according to context: the law of universal harmony; righteousness; duty; even religion itself. The Hindus call their religion the Sanatana Dharma, the eternal religion, or the eternal wisdom. The word is equally prominent in the teachings of the Buddha, where the Sanskrit word Dharma becomes the Pali word Dhamma. But the meaning is the same, and is equally broad and profound.
The Dhamma is the whole body of Buddhist teachings on inner development leading to nirvana, and on ethical living. ‘I take refuge in the Dhamma’ is one of the solemn utterances made by every Buddhist. In the Dhammapada it is called ‘the path to perfection’.
Religions sometimes give us commandments and rules where the underlying idea seems to be that if we please God in this life by fulfilling those obligations, he will reward us in an afterlife. But Dharma is something vital and immediate. It concerns our link, not with an outer God, but with our own deeper Self, and the uncovering of a light and peace that is usually concealed by our absorption in worldly life.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Dharma is called the nectar of immortality, because it leads to the recognition of the immortality of the Self.
Those devotees are most dear to Me who follow the nectar of the spiritual law (Dharma) as spoken of by Me; who have an unwavering faith; to whom I am the highest (value and goal) and who are ever devoted to Me. (12: 20)
The life of Dharma seems to be a lofty ideal, something that only serious students of religion would concern themselves with. Actually, the way of Dharma is as natural as the desire to breathe fresh air and avoid stale air, and what it involves can be simply expressed.
For example, the sage Shri Dada of Aligarh came to know of a primitive community who lived in the woods. They were branded as criminals and regarded by the people as dangerous and therefore shunned. Shri Dada visited the community, and when he stood before them, he sang a short song about Dharma:
What keeps the heavens from falling?
What supports the earth?
What causes the rain?
It is Dharma.
To speak the truth,
to be kind to all,
To be honest and gentle,
Remembering ever the holy name of Rama,
He became closely involved with these people, and he reminded his own followers:
Compassion is the basis of Dharma and the heart which is not moved by the sufferings of the people around it, is not a dharmic heart. When you approach such people, do so with a genuine feeling of love.
These are universal ideas at the core of all religions, of all true spiritual thought. The same principle is expressed in Blake’s ‘The Divine Image’, where the human-hearted virtues are seen as an expression of the divine:
For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.
…Where Mercy, Love and Pity dwell,
There God is dwelling too.
Dharma is not aimed at pleasing an outer God, but entering into harmony with our own higher nature, coming into tune with the Infinite within. Then, let us ask, what is the highest within us? This is signified in the lines of the Japanese Buddhist sage, Kobo Daishi:
The Buddhas in the innumerable Buddha-lands
Are nothing but the Buddha within our own soul.
To speak of the Buddha within our own soul means that the source of illumination and fulfilment is present at the core of our being. This is what is highest in us, what the Bible calls our divine image. It is the essential divinity that is the foundation of human nature. Yet it has to be uncovered, as it were, through following a path of inner enquiry and self-development. This is the unfoldment of the Dharma, which is consciously advanced as soon as we recognize that there is a course of life that leads to Self-realization, and we resolve to follow it.
The progress is, first, to imbue our mind with a sense of the underlying unity of all life, from which the qualities of compassion and goodwill naturally flow. These qualities reflect the nature of our true Self, which is one in all. With our mind thus attuned, our actions will be freed from their selfish motivation. They will function in harmony with the divine presence within us, which transcends individuality. Yet in its expression in the phenomenal world, this power ever works for the good of all. One who is sensitive to its promptings and obeys them, no longer acts from self-will, but as an agent or instrument in the service of the supreme power, which is one with our higher Self.
Our highest responsibility and most rewarding course, is to live according to Dharma. To understand what this means does not call for a deep study of philosophy. We have to learn to understand the contents of just one book that we always carry with us: the book of our own heart.
As we move forward in life, the workings of the law of Dharma make themselves felt as a certain pressure in our inner being. This pressure first manifests as restlessness. We find that whenever we push ourselves forward, driven by purely selfish motives, we may achieve a short sense of satisfaction, but not peace of mind. On the other hand, if we find ourselves acting in a genuinely thoughtful and unselfish way, perhaps even sacrificing a personal pleasure in order to help, or when we act without being troubled by thoughts of success or failure, we experience a kind of calmness and sense of well-being. Our awakening to the law of Dharma begins when we detect this pattern, which we will soon discover is a law emanating from our own higher being.
The Sufi master, Jalaluddin Rumi, in his Mathnawi, brings out this simple, but subtle principle, when he writes:
When you are aware of doing a good action, you obtain a feeling of spiritual life and joy;
And when a fault and evil deed issues from you, that feeling of life and rapture disappears. (Book VI, 3487-3488)
This is the law that tutors us, through our own personal experience, that to harm another is to harm oneself— not necessarily physically, but by causing a narrowing of our consciousness and a thickening of the veil that hides from us our higher nature.
Dharma means expansion of consciousness beyond self to infinity. As we take our stand on Dharma, we widen our understanding of self, so that it expands beyond identification with the body and mind, beyond family concerns, beyond partisanship with a club, party or country; beyond conventional religious orthodoxy. The path of Dharma will expand our consciousness until we know our true Self to be the Self of all and the only substantial reality.
This is an extract from Dharma and Illumination in Living Beyond Fear