What Is and What Is Not the Dhamma 

There are those who search for authentic Buddhist teachings, Dhamma (Skt Dharma), and there are those that are willing to take anything they can get as long as it is cheap and easy. Those who do search for authenticity should consider the qualities of the teaching as well as the authenticity of the words themselves. According to the Buddha the Dhamma has eight qualities that demonstrate its authenticity. Teachings that are not Dhamma have eight but opposing qualities.

When Gotami, the Buddha’s stepmother asks Buddha to name the qualities she asked him how she could recognize real Dhamma and distinguish it from false teachings (Gotami Sutta). One influential Thai teacher has called this particular teaching “the constitution of Buddhism”. The eight principles are the standard by which any teaching, Buddhist or not, should be judged. The teaching is right in line with the Kalama Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya 3.65) and the teaching the Buddha gave to Rahula, his son (Majjhima Nikaya 61).

Let us examine the Sutta before discussing the points.

I have heard that at on one occasion the Blessed One was staying at Vesali, in the Peaked Roof Hall in the Great Forest.

Then Mahapajapati Gotami went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, stood to one side. As she was standing there she said to him: “It would be good, lord, if the Blessed One would teach me the Dhamma in brief such that, having heard the Dhamma from the Blessed One, I might dwell alone, secluded, heedful, ardent, & resolute.”

“Gotami, the qualities of which you may know, ‘These qualities lead:

to passion, not to dispassion; to being fettered, not to being unfettered; to accumulating, not to shedding; to self-aggrandizement, not to modesty; to discontent, not to contentment; to entanglement, not to seclusion; to laziness, not to aroused persistence; to being burdensome, not to being unburdensome’:

You may categorically hold, ‘This is not the Dhamma, this is not the Vinaya, this is not the Teacher’s instruction.’

“As for the qualities of which you may know, ‘These qualities lead:

to dispassion, not to passion; to being unfettered, not to being fettered; to shedding, not to accumulating; to modesty, not to self-aggrandizement; to contentment, not to discontent; to seclusion, not to entanglement; to aroused persistence, not to laziness; to being unburdensome, not to being burdensome’:

You may categorically hold, ‘This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher’s instruction.'”

That is what the Blessed One said. Gratified, Mahapajapati Gotami delighted at his words.

Anguttara Sutta 8.53, 

Gotami Sutta (To Gotami)

Translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

The first quality of authentic Dhamma is that leads to dispassion, not to passion. What is passion? One Pali word for passion is anusaya. This means “obsession” or an  “underlying tendency”. The etymology of anusaya means, “lying down with”. In common speech it is related to the verb anuseti which means, “to be obsessed”. This is a little different from the Western notion of “passion.’ We hold passion in high regard. Some people cannot live their lives without being impassioned about something, anything. They might even call it a higher calling. Passion is what motivates the Westerner. The Buddha was not speaking of motivation in this case. He was clearly referring to the obsession, that almost addictive thinking that takes us to places that are never really good for us.

There are seven classic obsessions to which the mind perpetually returns:

  • Obsession with sensual passion (kāma-rāganusaya),               
  • Resistance (patighanusaya), 
  • Views (ditthanusaya),
  • Uncertainty (vicikicchanusaya), 
  • Conceit (manusaya),
  • Passion for becoming (bhava-rāganusaya), and
  • Ignorance (avijjānusaya). 



The first obsession is with sensual passion. In the West that would necessarily bring sex to mind. Sensuousness is sexy, no? The Buddha again meant any sensual obsession, such as being an alcoholic, food-aholic, the need to be entertained, cravings that bring pleasure to the senses – cravings to avoid sensual displeasure.  The Pali kāma-rāganusaya breaks down as kāma meaning “love”. Kama was the name of the Hindu god of love and as such the wordkāma is masculine. The second part of the term rāganusaya is fairly evident. Anusaya as was mentioned is often translated as “passion” but has a meaning closer to “obsession.” In Buddhist literature, however, rāga was used to mean passion, love, and lust. In traditional Buddhist mythology, Rāga is the daughter of the demon Mara and embodies these qualities.

The word rāga comes into English as the word “rage” and incidentally, happens to be the name of the oldest known witch in Europe, the Lithuanian goddess Raga. She was also a noted vampire that sucked the life out of her victims. Apparently she ate infants, the innocent. By the way, she was the “horned goddess” indicating a healthy sexual appetite.

In the contemporary world we have seen many “religious” organizations imbued with the obsession of kāma-rāganusaya. This obsession is listed first possibly because it is not only the most obvious to the student but is also one of the most pervasive. Every religious sect from Anabaptist to Zen has experienced difficulties with this obsession. Everyone who has ever managed to go through puberty has fallen victim to this witch’s spell.

The obsession called bhava-rāganusaya, the passion to become seems like a reasonable passion to have. The word rāga appears again. Bhava means “become.” This is the passion to be, maybe not be who we are but to be something. You may be a middle-aged man obsessing over becoming a teen puck rock star, a parent desiring to live your life vicariously through your children, or a child who has a craving to be an adult. The craving to be something or somebody “special” is ubiquitous. The market place promotes it day in and day out. This is another witch devouring innocence.

While most of these obsessions seem obvious, resistance (patighanusaya) may be a somewhat ambiguous obsession to those of us living in the West. The modern American, for example, is all about resistance: resistance to change, resistance to authority, and resistance to growing up.When we see the word resistance we might think this means resistance to change or to the teachings. It goes further than that. 


Resistance in this case is more related to aversion, even aggression, and has a lot to do with being obsessed with anger. The word is often used to describe the latent tendency to be angry. Generally it means latent anger or hatred directed to an object or person. This is generally expressed through passive aggressive behavior. A child might be angry with her mother so she beats up her doll. Sometimes called “displacement”, and a child is a perfect example of this. Unfortunately the behavior is not limited to children, age seems to be no barrier to passive aggression, and in adults may become a form of neurosis as the feelings of latent anger and resentment accumulate over time. This underlying anger is one of the great causes of immoral behavior. Sometimes we think that passive aggressive behavior is a safe way of displaying dissatisfaction. We often forget that aggression is still aggression whether it is passive or active.

The Buddha further explains, “Monks, the All is aflame. What All is aflame? The eye is aflame. Forms are aflame. Consciousness at the eye is aflame. Contact at the eye is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging & death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs.” (Samyutta Nikaya 35.8)

In his work, The Natural Cure for Spiritual Disease, (Evolution/Liberation, 1991) Buddhadasa Bjikkhu says of manusaya, what the Buddha called conceit. If someone tells you you’re not yet human, please don’t get angry and please don’t feel sad. First you must look and see what it means to be human. So let’s look at “manusaya,” the Pali word for human being. This is a very good word for it has a very useful meaning. Manusaya means “lofty-minded one,” a mind high enough to be above all problems. Problems are like flood waters, but they can’t flood the lofty mind. When one’s mind is elevated to a high level, then we can say that one is a manusaya. The speaker isn’t sure where the English word “human being comes from. Our guess is that it must mean “high minded,” also. “Man” is probably related to mana (mind) and “hu” ought to mean “high.” So, human ought to mean “high-minded.”

The quote from Buddhadasa sounds like it should be correct. It is all over the Internet and has become part of the popular mythology of Buddhism. He is right about the word “man” being related to the Pali and Sanskrit term mana. It is there where the correctness ends. If Buddhadasa were right it would seem ridiculous to call manusaya an obsession to be avoided. Buddhadasa seems to have confused the term anusaya (obsession) with ayya(high, noble). It’s an easy mistake to make. In The Visuddhimagga (Path of Purity), the great commentary manusaya is used as “high-mindedness” regarding the self and translated as conceit. Buddhadasa’s interpretation cannot stand the test of the Dhamma any more than his interpretation of the hu + man can be taken to mean “high-minded.” “Hu” is actually related to “humid” referring to fluidity.


The second quality of Dhamma is that it leads to being unfettered, not to being fettered.  We usually think of these fetters as the defilements (kilesa). Defilements are thoughts that manifest the qualities of as lobha (passion or unskillful desire), dosa (aversion), and moha (delusion) in their myriad forms. These include such things as greed, malevolence, anger, malice, hypocrisy, arrogance, envy, miserliness, dishonesty, boastfulness, obstinacy, violence, pride, conceit, intoxication, and self-righteousness.

The Buddha took this even further when he discussed the fetters in the Sanyojana Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya 10.13). “There are these ten fetters. Which ten? Five lower fetters & five higher fetters. And which are the five lower fetters? Self-identity views, uncertainty, grasping at precepts & practices, sensual desire, and ill will. These are the five lower fetters. And which are the five higher fetters? Passion for form, passion for what is formless, conceit, restlessness, and ignorance. These are the five higher fetters. And these are the ten fetters.” These are all common human hallucinations. We all suffer from them until we awaken to reality.


The third quality is shedding,  the opposite of accumulating. This is the quality of getting rid of stuff. The Buddha is quite literal about this. The more we own the more we identify with ownership. A nun named Vimala said of herself, “Intoxicated with my complexion figure, beauty, & fame; haughty with youth, I despised other women. Adorning this body embellished to delude foolish men, I stood at the door to the brothel: a hunter with snare laid out. I showed off my ornaments, and revealed many a private part. I worked my manifold magic, laughing out loud at the crowd.  Today, wrapped in a double cloak, my head shaven, having wandered for alms, I sit at the foot of a tree and attain the state of no-thought. All ties — human & divine — have been cut. Having cast off all effluents, cooled am I, unbound.” (Therigata 5.2) In her youth Vimala was the personification of Raga until she heard the Dhamma. The lady was so beautiful the Buddha had to warn his monks not to get carried away with her beauty when she came to retreat. Yet, even so, she was able to get over herself. Even cute cheerleaders have trouble with that.


The next quality we read about is that the Dhamma leads to modesty, not to self-aggrandizement. The Dhamma is not for the immodest. “‘This Dhamma is for one who is modest, not for one who is self-aggrandizing.’ Thus was it said. With reference to what was it said? There is the case where a monk, being modest, does not want it to be known that ‘He is modest.’ Being content, he does not want it to be known that ‘He is content.’ Being reclusive, he does not want it to be known that ‘He is reclusive.’ His persistence being aroused, he does not want it to be known that ‘His persistence is aroused.’ His mindfulness being established, he does not want it to be known that ‘His mindfulness is established.’ His mind being centered, he does not want it to be known that ‘His mind is centered.’ Being endowed with discernment, he does not want it to be known that ‘He is endowed with discernment.’ Enjoying non-objectification, he does not want it to be known that ‘He is enjoying non-objectification.’ ‘This Dhamma is for one who is modest, not for one who is self-aggrandizing.’ Thus was it said, And with reference to this was it said.” (Anguttara Nikaya 8.30)

In everyday English, when referring to the Buddha’s teaching we capitalize Dhamma use and dhamma (small “d”) refer to different meanings of the term. Dhamma (big “D”) indicates truth, the Buddha’s teachings and how things are, whereas dhamma indicates experienced phenomena and objects. In Asian scripts there are no capitol letters, so the context is relied on to denote the meaning. The definition of Dhamma is important to know in this context. Dhamma has various meanings among them doctrine, nature, truth, the norm, morality, good conduct.

What the Buddha is implying is simple; modesty is the norm and essential to the Dhamma. The opposite of modesty is arrogance. Arrogance is not only unbecoming, but it is also based on an illusion. It is based on the illusion of an autonomous self. The first of the Eightfold Path is right view of which the Buddha said, “When a noble disciple has thus understood nutriment (dukkha or “suffering”), the origin of nutriment, the cessation of nutriment, and the way leading to the cessation of nutriment, he entirely abandons the underlying tendency to greed, he abolishes the underlying tendency to aversion, he extirpates the underlying tendency to the view and conceit ‘I am,’ and by abandoning ignorance and arousing true knowledge he here and now makes an end of suffering. In that way too a noble disciple is one of right view, whose view is straight, who has perfect confidence in the Dhamma and has arrived at this true Dhamma.” (Majjhima Nikaya 9 Sammaditthi Sutta: The Discourse on Right View) One who is arrogant cannot see clearly. “I know all I need to know about Buddhism.” Is a tone of voice heard from many Buddhist intellectuals, people that read about Buddhism but do not practice it is also heard among non-Buddhists who read commentaries about Buddhism written by other non-Buddhists. Unless one actually listens to, understands and practices the Dhamma, one cannot know what the Buddha really taught. Claiming one does when they do not is arrogance. It is every bit as deadly to the Way as the claim that “I am enlightened.” That is another form of arrogance.


The fifth quality is to contentment, not to suffer discontent and it seems self-evident. In the same Sutta quoted above the Buddha says, “‘This Dhamma is for one who is content, not for one who is discontent.’ Thus was it said. With reference to what was it said? There is the case where a monk is content with any old robe cloth at all, any old alms food, any old lodging, any old medicinal requisites for curing sickness at all. ‘This Dhamma is for one who is content, not for one who is discontent.’ Thus was it said. And with reference to this was it said.”

This quality of contentment is rare today. We live in a world that demands instant gratification. We are impatient when we feel discontent. It’s like that old joke, “God grant me patience. Now please.”

In Mahayana there is an expression. It is “Saha World”. It means “Candy Store World”. It’s a good expression because it describes our lifestyle, particularly in the Industrialized nations. There are so many goodies that we can enjoy. We feel that we can be content if we have enough of these sense candies in our life. Unfortunately, the satisfaction does not last long. We get bored with our toys and we get hungry for more candy. The practitioner should discover for himself or herself what they do not need to maintain contentment.

Incidentally, to show how important contentment is to Buddhist practice the Buddha said that contentment was needed to practice meditation. This is contrary to popular belief that meditation is the cause of contentment.  

SeclusionThe sixth quality of Dhamma leads to seclusion, not to entanglement. In the Upasaka Sutta (Udana 2.5) a lay follower was to visit the Buddha at the Anathapindka Monastery. The Buddha was pleased to see him and asked, “What took you so long?” The response was  

For a long time I have wanted to come see the Blessed One, lord, but being involved in one business affair after another, I have not been able to do so.”

Then, on realizing the significance of that, the Blessed One on that occasion exclaimed:

 How blissful it is, for one who has nothing

             who has mastered the Dhamma,

           is learned.

See how they suffer, those who have something,

             people bound in body

             with people.

The seclusion the Buddha is concerned with is not actually being a recluse or hermit. He is talking about mental seclusion. Being alone in one’s mind is comforting and leads to contentment as well. We often experience this in samatha meditation. When we are not alone we begin to crave or become averse to whatever is in our mind. A person who feels they have no friends becomes lonely just as a person who is missing their loved ones. When one is truly alone these feelings do not arise, there is nothing to cause them.


The seventh quality of Dhamma is that it leads to inspired persistence, not to laziness. Lack of effort is a sure sign of laziness. It is one of the most common causes of failure in any student of Dhamma. They become tired easily or they simply anticipate that they will be tired. Perhaps they become bored and cease their effort to entertain themselves as they lose the seclusion that previously enjoyed. It’s hard to stimulate one’s self because you would have to stop entertaining thoughts that have already arisen; but then, that’s the practice isn’t it.

The Buddha described three kinds of laziness. First there is the kind of laziness we all know: we don’t want to do anything, and we’d rather stay in bed half an hour later than get up and meditate. This kind of laziness is very common at retreat centers. After the initial excitement of being there wears off the laziness comes into the picture.

The second kind of laziness is the feeling that we are unworthy. This is the laziness of thinking, “I’m no good and I can’t do this. Other people can meditate, other people can be mindful, other people can be kind and generous in difficult situations, but I can’t, because I’m too stupid.” Or, alternatively, “I’m always an angry person;” “I’ve never been able to do anything in my life;” “I’ve always failed, and I’m bound to fail.” This is laziness.

The third kind of laziness is being busy with worldly things. We can always fill up the void of our time by keeping ever so busy. This is something that in recent times gets foisted on our children. Modern kids in America are made to be busy all the time. There are sports after school and activities almost 16 hours a day seven days a week. It is no wonder academic performance continues to decline and social dysfunction continues to rise. Being occupied may even make us feel virtuous. Usually it’s just a way of escape. When I tell people I am into meditation I often hear people said, “Don’t you think that meditation is an escape?” An escape from what? In meditation there is no TV, no radio, no newspapers, no one to talk to. Where can I go to escape? In meditation I am face-to-face with who I was and with who I was not. There was no escape.


The last quality the Buddha mentions of Dhamma is that it leads to being unburdensome, not to being burdensome.  “There is the case where a monk, reflecting appropriately, uses the robe simply to counteract cold, to counteract heat, to counteract the touch of flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, & reptiles; simply for the purpose of covering the parts of the body that cause shame.” (Sabbasava Sutta: All the Fermentations, Majjhima Nikaya 2)

To be unburdened is to be unburdened by thoughts and concerns. Once a very diligent student started asking the significance of numbers, “I see 33 and 27 everywhere. What does it mean?” We can become obsessed by almost anything. This is the burden we have to put down. He couldn’t put it down and eventually left the practice.

Another story illustrates this unburdening. Once an older monk and his novice were walking by a river. They saw a beautiful young woman who asked for help crossing the river. The older monk picked her up and carried her across the river. The novice was astounded. “How could he do that? He knows the rules are that a monk never touches a woman! He’s no master at all.” The older monk put the woman down on the other side of the river and the pair went on their way. The novice could not get the incident out of his mind. He grew more and more angry and cold toward the older monk. That night as they were going to sleep the older monk asked the novice what the matter was. The young man complained bitterly that the older monk had broken the rules and touched a woman. The older man smiled and said, “But at least I put her down. You are still carrying her.” 

The Dhamma is obvious when it is seen. It’s qualities are rich and satisfying. If it doesn’t lead to completeness then it isn’t Dhamma.

About Sensei Mui

Sensei Mui is a Buddhist monk who took formal refuge and bhikkhu ordination as a Theravada monk in Thailand during the early 1970s. Since those days he has both studied and was ordained in multiple Mahayana lineages. Today the main focus of his practice and teaching is from the Pure Land perspective. He currently acts as the Director and Administrator for Hongaku Jodo, an educational and practice oriented organization of Buddhist teachers of Dharma, pure and simple.
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