This is part of a series reflecting on God-talk and Buddhist terminology. It is an opening to dialogue, not a final word on the subject.
One can find many nuances in the term Dharma and how it is used in Eastern thought. It has been described or defined as the teachings of the Buddha, a comforter or protector of those who follow the teachings of the Buddha, and as the fundamental axioms of reality which give rise to karma (cause and effect) and illuminate the nature of emptiness through the interdependence, no-self, and impermanence. And this isn't an exhaustive list.
But it is revealing.
The Bible and the Judeo-Christian tradition speaks of the law of God. This is sometimes misunderstood as short-hand for one of formulations of the Ten Commandments, or the various rules and admonitions found in Leviticus, or something along those lines. Yet the Old Testament prophets and the Gospel of Jesus affirm that this is not so. Even the summary Jesus gives of these rules and commandments--love God and your neighbor as yourself--is only a reflection of this deeper law of God. Or perhaps more accurately, a reflection of how to come to actually know the law of God.
I mean, after all, if God's law was something so straightforward, you might expect the Bible to be much shorter and simpler. Yet the law of God is simple and elusive. It cannot be defined in words, and can only be pointed at or hinted at through narratives. This will sound familiar to many Buddhists, with the rules and stories of the Bible pointing to the law just as the finger points to the moon. We mustn't make the mistake, as unfortunately so many have, of mistaking the finger for the moon. Or in this case, rules and commandment for the law of God.
A central divide between Buddhism and Abrahamic religions like Christianity is, naturally, what get's personified and how. Buddhism personifies compassion and listening with empathy to the cries of the world with Kuan Yin, while Christianity personifies it in the Virgin Mary. Comparing and contrasting these two figures is much more straight forward. Yet in Buddhism, cosmic law, cause and effect, impermanence, and the like are either not personified or personified in a weak and oblique way. In Christianity, these things become aspects of God.
Yet it is also true in Buddhism that the wisdom of the Dharma cannot be acquired or practiced simply be reading books or being clever. Buddhism is rife with stories of intellectuals and nobles who thought their intelligence or wealth would bring them closer to the Buddha's Dharma, and in the end they were shot down. They end up either resentful or they decide to humble themselves. One even takes the huge stack of books on Buddhism he has been carrying around and throws them into the fire! It is reported that after a blowing a lot of brilliant smoke, St. Augustine came to the same conclusion.
And of course the Bible is filled with these stories too, about arrogant people with amazing physical strength, prowess in battle, leadership in battle, wealth, or great intelligence who in the end realized that none of these things on their own could bring them any closer to the law of God, and in fact might tempt them further away from it. Nor does this problem go away even when Jesus is your teacher, as his disciples demonstrated, so that essentially the only way Jesus could really teach the law of God was to do so by example and to tell his would be students, "Follow me."
And so they did.
This was true of the Buddha as well. His cousin Ananda had an impressive memory and amazing reasoning skills, but according to the sutras this sometimes worked against him in truly grasping the Dharma as he always seemed a bit behind the curve of disciples such as Sariputra. A telling part of his biography is that it was his pure heart that would lead him beyond merely understanding the Dharma as an intellectual riddle.
St. Paul, typically mystical and hard to understand, at least confirms for us that to know the law of God we must know our hearts, because there is where God's law is written. For contemporary audiences, it must be born in mind that when a Buddhist sutra or Biblical text talks about the heart, they do not at all mean the seat of sentimentality. They are referring to the very core of one's being, the deepest interior of one's consciousness.
And this, of course, is where the tragedy of the legalists comes in, whether Christian, Buddhist, or otherwise. For them, it is the letter of rules and commandments that they cling to as the law, ignorant or in conflict with their hearts. This doesn't mean we should be dismissive of these rules, as they are intended to help provide a solid foundation for safely and effectively exploring the law in our hearts, but too often the letter becomes just another idol to be worshiped and feared.
This put such a different spin on so many passages about the law in the Bible, especially in the Psalter wherein the Psalmist talks about taking delight in the law. How many Christians really think of it that way as opposed to seeing such writing merely as reverential language? How many Buddhists truly delight in the Dharma? Because if the Bible or the sutras are to be taken seriously at all, if you aren't delighting in it, you don't know what it is!