dharmas: what’s in a name?

The Mind  |  The Tribe   |   Franklyn Wu  |   March 2, 2011, 12:57 pm

The Buddha urged his students to focus on their experiences, rather than trying to figure out the ultimate reason for their existence. “dharmas” are irreducible and basic units of our experience. Momentary and discrete, dharmas appear to be the objects of our cognitive awareness, but they also co-arise with the appearance of our cognitive awareness itself.

To illustrate this relationship, reflect on these points: As stimuli impress upon our senses, our cognitive awareness arises out of a discernment, or distinction of differences, in the stimuli. From this perspective, it might seem as though awareness were arising as a result of the discernment of distinct events. But the chain of cause and effect cannot be established so easily in this dualistic object-to-subject direction, as the contexts formed deep in our mind are what made these stimuli distinctive to us in the first place. Some might draw the conclusion that the underlying context of our perceiving consciousness is the primary cause of these distinctions. But the perceptual context itself is being constantly formed and re-formed by these distinction-drawing events. This is what we mean by “co-arising”. The events themselves, or the contextually distinctive phenomena that co-arise with our cognitive awareness, are what we call dharmas.

Distinctions create meaning through contextual comparisons between phenomena. In other words, meaning is created through the news of difference. “dharmas”, as distinctions in a sea of contexts, are collections of differences. Being a set of differences, dharmas have no spatial or temporal substance of their own. They are by definition relational. In other words, dharmas lack the “thingness” that one can place in space in time. Therefore, trying to define dharmas outside of their co-arising context is futile. Equivalently, because each dharma co-arises with our entire cognitive context, it also provides perspective on every corner of our consciousness. Each dharma is necessarily a unique set of comparisons, between the distinction-drawing events of the entire structure of our consciousness, and between all past, present and future dharmas that arise in our mind.

By extension, our experiences as made up by these irreducible units, are also temporary and discrete, and are meaningful to us as far as we created a structure to frame them and draw meaning from them. Made up of relational notions that lack spatial and temporal substance, our experiences also lack the essence and substance that we typically associate with them. However, they form the frame by which we identify and draw meaning in each moment.

To describe the meaning of dharmas is the purpose of this blog. The posts draw on genuine experiences of individuals with different backgrounds and voices. They are brief and discrete, and co-arise with the collective consciousness of our time to bring about the “news of difference.” To try to understand them out of context may not be helpful (and may even be harmful), but with an open mind one can look into these reflections to catch a glimpse of our absolute interconnectedness–to each other, to the world of beings, and to our environment.

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