When spelled with a capital “D,” Dharma means the law according to the Buddha, i.e., the Doctrine of Dependent Origination, the Four Noble Truths, the fourth of which is the Eightfold Path, and the other teachings found in the sutras.
When spelled with a lower case “d,” dharma means: “momentary elements of consciousness,” “a phenomenon or constituent factor of human experience,” or “the constituents of the entire material and mental world.” A not-very-helpful set of definitions, at first glance.
The sutras refer to the various dharma realms such as the hell realms, the realm of the hungry ghosts, and so on. Every sentient being experiences its reality in a deluded way in accordance with its dharma realm. The dharma realm of humans is obviously quite different from the dharma realm of animals – what’s it like to be a crocodile? – but those two dharma realms are so close that we can see and interact with the animals and they can see and interact with us. They are our dharma realm neighbors.
We learn and acquire wisdom from the Dharma. We also learn and acquire wisdom by observing all elements of the human dharma realm, the animal dharma realm, and as our cultivation matures, we learn from other dharma realms of which we become aware.
We can even learn from rocks and babbling brooks.
So big “D” dharma is the teachings of the Buddha and little “d” dharma is literally everything else that teaches us, i.e., “the constituents of the entire material and mental world.”
The Zen Practice Foundation invites all visitors of this site to improve this definition. Please contact us if you have an improved definition. Thank you!