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The Central Conception of Buddhism and the Meaning of the Word “Dharma” by Fyodor Stcherbatsky

The conception of a dharma is the central point of the Buddhist doctrine. In the light of this conception, Buddhism discloses itself as a metaphysical theory developed out of one fundamental principle, viz. the idea that existence is an interplay of a plurality of matter, mind, and forces. These elements are technically called dharmas, a meaning which this word has in this system alone. Buddhism, accordingly, can be characterized as a system of radical pluralism: the elements alone are the realities, every combination of them is a mere name covering a plurality of separate elements. The moral teaching of a path toward final deliverance is not something additional or extraneous to this ontological doctrine, it is most intimately connected with it and, in fact, identical with it. — from The Central Conception of Buddhism and the Meaning of the Word “Dharma”


Fyodor Stcherbatsky (1866–1942) was a Russian anthropologist who specialized in the study of Indian culture. He is seen as the father of modern Western studies in Buddhism and contributed greatly to its popularity in the West. Praised by both Jawaharlal Nehru, first prime minister of India (1947–1964), and Rabindranath Tagore, the de facto poet laureate of India, Strcherbatsky remains the gateway through which Western scholars enter into Buddhist studies.

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The conception of a dharma is the central point of the Buddhist doctrine. In the light of this conception, Buddhism discloses itself as a metaphysical theory developed out of one fundamental principle, viz. the idea that existence is an interplay of a plurality of matter, mind, and forces. These elements are technically called dharmas, a meaning which this word has in this system alone. Buddhism, accordingly, can be characterized as a system of radical pluralism: the elements alone are the realities, every combination of them is a mere name covering a plurality of separate elements. The moral teaching of a path toward final deliverance is not something additional or extraneous to this ontological doctrine, it is most intimately connected with it and, in fact, identical with it. — from The Central Conception of Buddhism and the Meaning of the Word “Dharma”


Fyodor Stcherbatsky (1866–1942) was a Russian anthropologist who specialized in the study of Indian culture. He is seen as the father of modern Western studies in Buddhism and contributed greatly to its popularity in the West. Praised by both Jawaharlal Nehru, first prime minister of India (1947–1964), and Rabindranath Tagore, the de facto poet laureate of India, Strcherbatsky remains the gateway through which Western scholars enter into Buddhist studies.

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It is incorrect to say "a meaning which this word has in this system alone". The concept of Dharma predates Buddhism and exists in the Indic meme. Almost all traditions have dharma at its core. The Sanskrit word "Dharma" is complex and there is no direct translation available into English. The Pali equivalent is "Dhamma" and several ancient Buddhist texts were written in Pali. Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism all have the concept of Dharma. Quite often this word is wrongly translated as "religion" in English. Hence the thought of Hinduism, Buddhism or Jainism being religions in the minds of Western audience.

Jan. 2, 2011

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