The word “dhamma” in Pali or “dharma” in Sanskrit means truth. Often, it is taken to refer to the ultimate or absolute truth – truth that is unchanging and timeless. This ultimate truth is also simultaneously taken to mean absolute, unchanging reality, which is in contrast with this ever-changing relative reality of a universe we live in.


So, we have two contrasting realities. The first is the absolute unchanging reality while the other is the ever-changing relative reality. It appears that the second reality springs forth from the first. So, absolute reality is the source, the field, the canvas on which relative reality unfolds from and unfolds onto.

The nature of the absolute is that it is unchanging and impersonal. The nature of the relative is that it is ever-changing and also impersonal. There are two components that make up the relative – mind and matter. Both of these are ever-changing. Both mental and material phenomena are also impersonal. These are their true nature.

If we are able to see this true nature of reality and live in accordance with it, then all experiences are free from suffering. All experiences are just as-is. We would be able to experience every phenomenon as ever-changing and impersonal. We would simply accept it as it truly is. This is the perspective of experience for those who are fully enlightened, for the arahants.

However, and unfortunately, that is not the case for us worldlings.

Instead, we experience everything from a limited perspective of the self – a self that sees everything as separate from itself. From this perspective, there is an “I” who sees, hears, smells, tastes, touches and thinks. There is an experiencer and what it experiences. Every experience becomes personal. It is through experiencing from this perspective that sufferings occur. The trade off is that there is also the experience of joy. After all, everything in this relative universe is relative to each other, conditioned by each other.


The relative universe exists relative to the absolute.

The relative universe has two essential realities – mind and matter. Mind is intangible relative to matter. Matter is tangible relative to mind. There is a whole spectrum of mind-only existence and matter-only existence, and everything in between that has both mind and matter in various degrees of combination. So we have entities that exist only as consciousness and we have entities that exist only as matter, without conscious awareness, and we have entities that exist with various degrees of mind and matter.

Everything in the relative universe exists relative to other things, dependent on other things, conditioned by other things. However, there are at least three important relative objects we need to pay extra attention to, mainly because they affect our lives and experiences in a big way.

The first is that all our experiences are relative to other experiences. None of our experiences are absolute truths. They are only relative truths – relative to our perspective. This brings to mind the experiences of the six blind men and the elephant. One of them touched the tail and claimed that the elephant is thin and long like a rope. Another touched the legs and claimed that an elephant is big and straight like a tree trunk. Yet another touched its ears and claimed that an elephant is flat and broad like a fan. None of them could experience the whole, thus was not able to truly know what an elephant is like. The same is true with our own experiences.

What we experience is limited by our own personal and localized perspective. Thus, what is true for us is not necessary the absolute truth, only relative truth.

The second is that all values are relative as well. There is no absolute value for the simple reason that values come from the perspective of the self. The impersonal universe does not value one thing over another. It regards everything is the same way – impersonal. This is the reason why “God” does not interfere with evil deeds or stops natural disasters or prevents war and famine.

In addition, values – as in everything else in this relative universe – change with time. A good example is the concept of beauty and fashion. What is seen as beautiful now was not so regarded in the past, nor will it be regarded as so in the future. Even solid tangible things do not have real values. For example, a diamond may be deem valuable for us but not so for aborigines living in a remote jungle.

The third is that all views are also relative. What is viewed as correct today may turn out to be wrong tomorrow. For example, at one time, people believe that the world is flat and that the sun and planets revolve around the earth. Today, we know that they were wrong.

Knowing this truth is important if we were to live in harmony with each other. We can then avoid the arrogant belief that only we are right and everyone else is wrong. This is especially true in today’s world where wars are fought over beliefs and in the name of religions. Admitting that no one has exclusive rights to absolute truth is the first step to dialogue and tolerance.

Going Beyond

So, if everything in this relative universe is relative, and there is no absolute, how do we reconcile with our need for being and doing good, and overcoming evil? Yet we know that every major religion teaches the concept of “good over evil”. Are they all wrong?

Well, they are not wrong.

The reality is that we can experience via the perspective of the self or we can experience life by going beyond the perspective of the self. This latter form is what the arahants experience, and it is free from sufferings.

However, in order to be able to attain this level of experiencing life that is beyond the self, we must first work through the self. This is not the same as denying the self, destroying or eliminating the self or even strengthening our belief in the self.

Working through the self requires that we first truly know the true nature of our self. For that to happen, we need a mind that is calm and concentrated so that it can clearly see things as they truly are. The prerequisite for attaining a calm and clear mind is a mind that is pure, thus the need for purification of the mind – for a mind that is free from hindrances, from disturbing and restless thoughts. Thus, we have to work through all defilements of the mind that is preventing us from having a clear and calm mind.

The prerequisite for purification of mind is a mind that is free from remorse and guilt, a mind that is glad and joyous. This is only attainable when we, from the perspective of the present self, are practicing virtuous thoughts, speeches and actions. Thus, the perfection of morality or virtues is a prerequisite to getting a mind that is absence of remorse and guilt, and filled with gladness and joy. Only then it is possible to attain the perfection of concentration and one-pointedness of mind, a stepping stone towards gaining perfection of knowing and seeing.

The complete path to mental purification and perfection of virtues, concentration and wisdom is spelled out in the Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha.

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