In both popular and academic usage it now seems normal if not normative to see “Dharma.” This pious orthography has dysfunctions both in the popular and academic realms, while also allowing self-help usages to propagate a social-norm, commodified spirituality, one that fits in without providing any alternative to that spirituality.
Popularly, “the dharma” has effectively become a synonym for God, or Universe, and is usually rendered as “the Dharma.” The pervasive suppression of difference created by Perennialism extends its effects in this fashion. After all, we are told (explicitly in some Perennialist writings or it is simply taken implicitly as true),
• there is only one Truth, and
• all religions are pointing to that singularity,
• so these are just different words for the same Reality.
In conversational usage it becomes a marker, a self-branding of a certain way of being spiritual without being religious. The term effectively becomes meaningless (an empty signifier) other than as a conversational affectation, a marker of self-identity by affiliation.
On the other hand one frequently encounters academics distinguishing between “the Dharma” as the teachings of the Buddha, usually implicitly Śākyamuni, and “dharmas” as the ultimate psycho-ontological constituents of existence. Oh, shades of Max Müller’s disease of language lurk dangerously close. English allows us to be way more precise in certain ways than other languages, including Sanskrit, which doesn’t have capitals (see Steve Collins on this), and this despite the commonplace that Sanskrit (or Tibetan) is more precise, a characterization that may be true of the psychological terminology available, but not necessarily generalizable.
But to distinguish between “Dharma” as the teachings, and “dharmas” as psycho-ontological elementals is to create an obscuring distinction. Both are rooted in the same semantic range (which is quite large, see Alf Hiltebeitel, Dharma: Its Early History in Law, Religion and Narrative, Oxford, 2011, which runs to about 750 pp.), but which I understand (as someone who thinks about Buddhist thought, and admittedly not as a Sanskritist) to be rooted in a common significance of what is actual. The claims based on this fundamental significance then are that: the Buddha spoke what is actual, the elemental constituents of psycho-ontology are actual, and so the significance is—prior to the obscuring distinction—fundamentally the same. The Buddha does not talk about “the Dharma” in the sense of some transcendent reality to which he had privileged access. He simply talked about what is actually the case. Indeed, this allows us to question whether what we are told the Buddha said is actually the case for us.
In the grey borderlands between popular and academic is the self-help usage, where Buddhist identity is often more pronounced, or more loudly announced. Here “the Dharma” as transcendent absolute becomes part of the rhetoric of the culture, but cloaks the same (tired) “spiritual” teachings that have been reworked for a century and a half. Ira P. Helderman (“Drawing the Boundaries between ‘Religion’ and ‘Secular’ in Psychotherapists’ Approaches to Buddhist Traditions in the United States,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 2016) has noted that kind of usage on the part of psychotherapeutic clinicians involved in the promotion of mindfulness. In response to a conference theme that asked “Rooting Ourselves or Uprooting Our Traditions?: Critical Conflicts in the Interface between Buddhist and Western Psychology,” one participant
answered the conference title’s question by concluding that it is not possible to fully “uproot [Buddhist] traditions.” He stated that there is indeed an essence to Buddhist teachings, what he called “the dharma,” the awareness of which will always be achieved if mindfulness is diligently practiced, regardless of the theoretical terms in which it is couched:
When we speak about the dharma as the sort of nature of things, the truth of how things happen, I’m not so concerned because it will remain untouched. We can’t do it any harm; it is durable; it is beyond form. (Helderman, 951–952)
Although there is a superficial similarity between the first part of the embedded quotation and the description of dharma as what is actual given above, the balance of the embedded quotation reveals the interpretation of “the dharma” as a transcendent, ahistorical ultimate, in other words as “the Dharma.” This usage identifies the dharma, in the phrase I created to get this idea across to my students, as something that is “absolute, eternal, permanent, unchanging.” (These are not four distinct characteristics, but fourfold rhetorical mashup intended to be understood as cumulatively expressing an attitude—which is why there is no “and.”) The participant quoted above evidences a kind of anti-intellectual Buddhism which, to adopt a now passé phrase, believes that “everything I needed to know about Buddhism I learned on my meditation cushion.”
The struggle to pay attention to one’s breath, the pain in one’s knees, the worry about a friend’s health, paying attention to one’s breath—these are all dharma. The imaginal absolute, “experience” of which the ego can claim as evidence of superiority, well, yes, is as itself an empty, impermanent, ephemeral, conditional concept also dharma.