Advertisements

Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 11: Old Age

I’m taking another journey through the Buddha’s lessons on the path of the Dharma (one way you could translate the title Dhammapada). A few years ago, I wrote posts on a handful of chapters, but I didn’t go over every chapter. This time, I’m challenging myself to post on every chapter and share them here.


This chapter feels very dark. The language ruminates on decay and death. It’s a visceral reminder of our mortality, a theme familiar from the other chapters, but here, it’s displayed in full gory detail. We can’t escape the topic with this imagery. It reveals the truth, no matter how we may try to cover it up.*

A question echoes in a couple early passages in why we take joy in this life, when we’re lost in the delusion of it all. In the visceral displays of mortality, I take the delight to be precisely that we don’t clearly see what it is to be a human being — an unfolding process that is impermanent, without underlying permanence, slowly decaying toward death. When we look at the bleached bones, we see ourselves and recognize that we should seek wisdom. To do otherwise is to grow old like an ox, as line 152 tells us: our body bloats but our insight into life remains small.

IMG_0052

Like the previous chapter, line 151 shows us that our actions upon others evoke reactions:

Even the splendid chariots of the royalty wear out.
So too does the body decay.
But the Dharma of the virtuous doesn’t decay
[For it is upheld when] the virtuous teach [it] to good people.
-Trans Fronsdal (151)

I take this to show that like the violence of striking the bell reverberates, our words can plant seeds in the minds of others that can come into fruition. In such a way, the Dharma is propagated by each one of us, and as a planted tree can grow beyond our meager lifetimes, our insights can grow and blossom long after we are gone.

Lines 153-154 make clear that the path to ending the cycle of birth, old age, and death is to end craving. In these lines, craving is revealed to be the self-builder. It’s our karmic nexus that continues the process of “self-ing”, of being born and dying in the cycles of samsara. Ending craving ends the cycle.

To close out the commentary on this chapter, I wanted to return to the opening line about delight amidst the fire:

Why the laughter, why the joy,
When flames are ever burning?
Surrounded by darkness,
Shouldn’t you search for light?
-Trans. Fronsdal (146)

I find this line doubly evocative. First it reminds me that an early sermon by the Buddha is called “The Fire Sermon” and was delivered to a group of new converts who had performed fire rituals. It speaks of  perception as being a blazing fire and finding liberation by seeking non-attachment. While this passage is not from the Fire Sermon (I checked at this wonderful resource I recently discovered), it reminds me of that message. Furthermore, I’m reminded of a much later part of the Buddhist tradition in which a parable is presented in The Lotus Sutra wherein a rich man coaxes his sons out of his burning house, the burning house that they are in, blithely ignorant of, as they focus on their toys at hand. He does this by lying to them about gifts he has outside (see more details here). There’s much more that could be said about this parable, but I’m caught by the point that we fail to see the ongoing flames of suffering we’re already in and how our behavior keeps us sitting in them, in the darkness.


May this point you towards insight to age wisely.

Gassho!

*Once again, this focus on vivid imagery of death, our sometimes disgusting corporeality, and how all is impermanent resonates with similar passages in the Stoic tradition.

Advertisements

Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 10: The Rod/Violence

I’m taking another journey through the Buddha’s lessons on the path of the Dharma (one way you could translate the title Dhammapada). A few years ago, I wrote posts on a handful of chapters, but I didn’t go over every chapter. This time, I’m challenging myself to post on every chapter and share them here.


In my commentaries, I’ve tried to focus on the Buddha’s proposed practice, one which might be called a cognitive-behavioral approach of sorts, of reframing ones mind as well as taking up new patterns of speech and action. I’ve tried to emphasize that the mindful approach to new spee hich and action help with the cultivation of the new wise frame of mind, and the wiser frame of mind helps with choosing and sticking to better, more wholesome forms of speech/action. For a refresher, see my commentary on the 1st chapter, which truly holds the structure of everything that comes after in terms of the path of Dharma presented by the Buddha.

We see this proposal of change lined out clearly in this chapter about the negative outcomes of violent mind, speech, and action. The opening lines tell us to reframe our mind for empathy. This cognitive reframing is done indirectly by appealing to the reader’s emotional experience rather than making a straightforward logical argument that you need to change the way your mind sees the world. We’re told that as we feel pain and suffering, so do all other things, so do not harm them. This is a key piece of what is later known as the “hinayana”, or what we might more respectfully call the early teachings of Buddhism: do not harm others. From cultivating empathy for them, we will choose not to speak harshly or act with violence. Precisely these, speech and action, are covered in the lines after the call to empathy.

In another call back to the first chapter’s lines about hatred ending through non-hatred, we’re given a key metaphor to our understanding of what the path is ultimately about.

If, like a broken bell,
You do not reverberate,
Then you have attained Nirvana
And no hostility is found in you.
-Trans. Fronsdal (134)

The end of the line previous to this points out that harsh speech generates harsh retaliation. This metaphor of the bell follows. The bell, then, indicates that much of our action is automatic, and the retaliation from the pain and threat imposed by another flows as a reaction as automatically as the bell rocks back and forth when we hit it. It’s almost a law of human psychology presented as similar to the causation seen in physics. Here then, we see that Nirvana truly is a breaking down of the standard, a taking away rather than an achievement of something on top of what we already have/do. In other metaphors, Nirvana is a blowing out of the burning fire that is our experience of the poisons and clinging; here, it’s a breaking of the bell that is our instrument of perceiving and reacting to samsaric stimuli. Notice, the broken bell isn’t numb to the strike. It simply doesn’t react by reverberating and ringing. It doesn’t retaliate.

IMG_7855

In order to break the bell, we must reframe our mind. This comes from recognizing the unwholesomeness of violence, hatred, and retaliation. Again, in the first chapter, we were told that one who blames others for hurting us is stuck in samsaric hatred that cycles onward; whereas, for one who does not blame and judge like this, hatred ends. So, finding empathy for others and not inflicting pain back, even when they do it to us, is the view we need in order to step beyond retaliation and end hatred. The path is about taming ourselves, shaping ourselves to react differently. We do this by utilizing the one true freedom we have: focusing our insight on a new perspective and mindfully attending to our speech and actions, over and over again, in order to cut off the automatic nature of our lives. This is liberation.

I will point out two final things in closing this discussion. First, line 144 has a list of the qualities that the one focusing on taming the mind, speech, and action in this way will have. Second, the final line reiterates the task of the sage from our previous chapter:

Irrigators guide water;
Fletchers shape arrows;
Carpenters fashion wood;
The well-practiced tame themselves.
-Trans. Fronsdal (145)


May this help you break the bell.

Gassho!

As a side-note, all of this talk about changing one’s reactions and getting beyond the seething anger of retaliation fits well with Nietzsche’s focus on “Ressentiment”. He also wrote that Buddhism was like a psychological cleansing of these sentiments, and I wonder if it was passages like this that brought that assessment. Deleuze’s book on him is great for this topic, if you’re interested in that as well.

Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 9: Evil

I’m taking another journey through the Buddha’s lessons on the path of the Dharma (one way you could translate the title Dhammapada). A few years ago, I wrote posts on a handful of chapters, but I didn’t go over every chapter. This time, I’m challenging myself to post on every chapter and share them here.


This chapter focuses on the negative consequences of unwholesome deeds: deeds driven by craving, desire, aversion, and ignorance. These are deeds that don’t aim towards peace and that don’t see the greater scope of the universe and our place in it. This chapter counsels us to act quickly in doing good deeds instead, as if one is lazy to take good action, it’s easier to fall into evil deeds.

We must remember that this all has to do with an understanding of the world and our lives as being driven by the negative cause and effect of karma. Remember the chapter on the fool: the negative results associated with an action may not seem like a big deal until they mature into full form. This is probably why it is easy to fall in the habit of doing evil: it truly seems harmless, as regret only comes much later in many instances.

However, the refrain of this chapter is that karma cannot be escaped. Evil deeds will bring unwholesome results, as will meritorious deeds bring wholesome ones. Furthermore, the bad karma of evil deeds will not only shackle one further to the cycles of birth and death, but furthermore, they’ll lead to worse rebirths: hell. Modern, Western Buddhism takes this as a psychological metaphor that one is reborn into ongoing negative experiences, painful ones, moment by moment as bad patterns strengthen through negative choices. This does fit with the shaping of mind as discussed in many chapters, especially the first, but I do think Buddhism in our Western, modernized interpretation does tend to wipe away the ancient beliefs that were part of the Buddha’s world. Perhaps the Buddha didn’t believe in such things, but I honestly doubt that, given the other literature of the early Buddhist canon. Shortened summary: I believe that these passages really do intend to say that you are reborn in a land of hell, rather than just speaking of psychological states.

file8611287524854

In contrast, positive deeds result in good results. This will lead slowly to better rebirths, and eventually, if we tame the mind fully and release the poisons and craving, we’ll reach Nirvana.

One of the most cryptic passages in the text so far comes in this chapter:

A hand that has no wounds
Can carry poison;
Poison does not enter without a wound.
There are no evil consequences
For one who does no evil.
-Trans. Fronsdal (124)

After reading this several times, I came to this interpretation: evil deeds wound the mind (remember the first chapter which introduces the path of training the mind and the subsequent lines that claim this is the task of the sage), and this wounded state allows the toxins to take hold. Evil deeds then cultivate a mind that continues to wound itself and at the same time open itself to the poisons which just wound it further: a vicious cycle. If a hand without wounds can carry the poisons, then a mind trained to a state of being fully healed, one well-steeped in meritorious action, will encounter the poisons (the metaphor seems to indicate they’re just there; they’re something we carry) but will not be harmed by them. They cannot take hold.

Let’s close this commentary with what I consider the best line of the chapter:

As a merchant
Carrying great wealth in a small caravan
Avoids a dangerous road;
As someone who loves life
Avoids poison
So should you avoid evil deeds.
-Trans. Fronsdal (123)


May this help you have hands that can carry the most toxic of poisons without it doing you any harm.

Gassho!

Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 8: Thousands

I’m taking another journey through the Buddha’s lessons on the path of the Dharma (one way you could translate the title Dhammapada). A few years ago, I wrote posts on a handful of chapters, but I didn’t go over every chapter. This time, I’m challenging myself to post on every chapter and share them here.


This chapter provides a long list of comparisons to make clear what our valued pursuits should be, in contrast to those of the time (and to our time as well). Here’s the list I compiled — simplified bullets even strengthen the message (plus, I did the math to make the numbers clearer):

  • 1 meaningful word > 1000 meaningless statements
  • 1 meaningful verse > 1000 meaningless verses
  • 1 line of Dharma > 100 meaningless verses
  • Self-conqueror > conqueror of 1,000,000 people
  • 1 moment of homage to a self-cultivated person > 1,200,000 rituals
  • 1 moment of homage to a self-cultivated person > 100 years tending ritual fire
  • Expressing respect to the upright > 4 times any sacrifice
  • 1 day of meditation > 100 years of unsettled mind
  • 1 day of meditation > 100 years of insightless life
  • 1 day of exertion > 100 years without effort
  • 1 day of insight into temporality > 100 years without insight
  • 1 day seeing Nirvana > 100 years without seeing Nirvana
  • 1 day seeing ultimate Dharma > 100 years without seeing ultimate Dharma

What are we to make out of this list? What does it teach us other than the Dharma is great and the value of meditation, exertion, insight, and wisdom and that one should cultivate oneself and honor those who have already done so? We’ve heard all of this so far.

I take three things from this list of “thousands”:

  1. How powerful these values are, and how much they truly empower through cultivation
    • Ask yourself: if 1 word is so valuable, how much more so then cultivating as many as possible?
  2. These passages are radically subversive
    • The lines about 1 moment being greater than 1,200,000 rituals and 100 years of tending a ritual fire
      • If one correct moment is worth more than all the effort in these far greater numbers, they are virtually worthless
      • Same goes for greater value of respect over sacrifice: respecting the Buddha is 4 times more valuable than any Hindu sacrifice
    • These are extreme attacks against the existing spiritual order of his day
  3. These lines are inspirational
    • When practice has seemed impossible to do well for me, these lines have shown that even 1 moment of presence in meditation is worth more than the rest of my day distracted in monkey mind

a6235f23acd262580b6c457dcbdb0123

I will close this commentary on the chapter with two of my favorite lines from it:

Greater in combat
Than a person who conquers
A thousand times a thousand people
Is the person who conquers herself.
-Trans. Fronsdal (103)

Better than a thousand meaningless statements
Is one meaningful word,
Which, having been heard,
Brings peace.
-Trans. Fronsdal (100)


May these words on the value of the correctly done and focused over the mass of thousands bring peace.

Gassho!

Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 7: The Arahant

I’m taking another journey through the Buddha’s lessons on the path of the Dharma (one way you could translate the title Dhammapada). A few years ago, I wrote posts on a handful of chapters, but I didn’t go over every chapter. This time, I’m challenging myself to post on every chapter and share them here.


The last 2 chapters provided insight on what wisdom is and which friendships would help one in cultivating it. This chapter explains what someone is like who has found liberation: someone who has made it to the other shore of nirvana and has fully realized that wisdom.

Although, much of what has been said before about good conduct that doesn’t cling to sensual pleasures, cleansing of the toxins, tamed senses, and the elimination of clinging are all familiar and precisely what the other chapters have advised to aim for as the path, this reiteration of the emphasis can get muddled. Some lines in this chapter make the key repeated message of the text fall out of focus, as they sound mystical, almost magical. They speak of the arahant as being hard to trace. However, we must not be confounded by these words. The arahant is someone who has realized nirvana: i.e. “whose field is the freedom of emptiness and signlessness”. They live in a way that recognizes that everything is transitory and without the permanent existence of an identity, in other words, everything is without self: anatta. Mahayana Buddhism will fully grasp upon this idea of sunnyata (emptiness) and lack of inherent identity and develop it to its fullest expression of wisdom later on in the Buddhist tradition, but the seeds of it are here in the resting place of one who has realized nirvana. It’s not that these people have stepped into a new metaphysical place; rather, they’ve recognized and have come to abide in the truth behind the delusion of what we experience all the time, precisely the world we live in. To come to the point, the key in these descriptions of “without trace” is that the arahant has reached nirvana and has thereby been liberated from the attributes of a “self” bound by karma.

To counter the confusion of those lines, let’s focus on lines 95-97 which I find to be absolutely powerful and beautiful:

For a person
Who, like the earth, is untroubled,
Who is well-practiced,
Who is like a pillar of Indra,
Who is like a lake without mud,
There is no more wandering.

Calm in mind, speech, and action,
And released through right understanding,
Such a person
Is fully at peace.

The person who
Has gone beyond faith,
Knows the Unmade,
Has severed the link,
Destroyed the potential [for rebirth],
And eliminated clinging
Is the ultimate person.
-Trans. Fronsdal (95-97)

file000558724422

Even though someone has lost the attributes of a karma-bound self, they act skillfully. They’ve tamed the mind — have succeeded in the task of taming themselves from the previous chapter. These lines give us a sense of what that well-honed skillful behavior looks like, and it ties all of this to the message of cleansing the mind of toxins, cultivating wholesome mind, speech, and action, and releasing clinging as the path that we’ve revisited time and again in these commentaries.

The qualities of this person are interesting in line 95. Let’s break them out briefly:

  1. stability: “untroubled” — by stability here, I mean something that isn’t constantly moving about, as I take from the simile of the earth
  2. well-practiced: Fronsdal’s notes make it clear that this is a word that literally means something like “good ritual”, so their behavior is a mindful, life-revering action that supports peace and insight
  3. firm: “like a pillar” — Fronsdal makes clear that this is a pillar that is buried deep in the ground, making it unmovable, and furthermore, it remains unconcerned if it receives veneration or not
  4. cleansed: “like a lake without mud” — later Buddhist traditions use metaphors like this to also represent not only something without defilements but something that reflects reality clearly

Let us ponder the peace of having attained the liberation of mind, speech, and action through this description of one who has realized it.


May this give you inspiration to step farther along the path of dhamma.

Gassho!

Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 6: The Sage/The Wise

I’m taking another journey through the Buddha’s lessons on the path of the Dharma (one way you could translate the title Dhammapada). A few years ago, I wrote posts on a handful of chapters, but I didn’t go over every chapter. This time, I’m challenging myself to post on every chapter and share them here.


The previous chapter opened with whom to avoid as a seeker; whereas, this chapter tells us which friendships we should cultivate. The basic advice is to value friends who teach us in what ways we could become wiser. A true spiritual friend to a walker of the path is one who will challenge us to be better, wiser.

Furthermore, the early lines of this chapter stand in contrast to the final lines of the last chapter. We shouldn’t cultivate relationships with fawning or subservient subordinates; rather, we should associate with ego-challenging equals or superiors. This is the path of wisdom.

After outlining proper companions and their role in awakening, the chapter states what the work of the wise is and relates it to this advice about relating to companions on the path:

Irrigators guide water;
Fletchers shape arrows;
Carpenters fashion wood;
Sages tame themselves.

As a solid mass of rock
Is not moved by the wind,
So a sage is unmoved
By praise or blame.*
-Trans. Fronsdal (80-81)

The tamer of mind doesn’t seek out (previous chapter) nor does she react to praise or blame. These are concerns that center on self and reputation. They are part of the engine of samsara. On the contrary, the sage seeks friends who assist in the task of cultivating wisdom. Again, as I discussed briefly in the last commentary, this fits well with Aristotle’s analysis of friendship. For him, true friends act as companions in developing our excellent qualities, our virtues, through practice and effort. These qualities are something developed over time through repetitive action, and that also makes his understanding of taming character similar to Buddhism. If interested in exploring further, see my discussion of his ideas of friendship here.

buddha_11x14

The rest of the chapter speaks about these virtues of the wise and how they take delight in developing them and in hearing the Dharma. This comes to its culmination with the reiteration of the focus of taming the mind from the first chapter: cleansing the mind of the three poisons and ending clinging:

Those who fully cultivate the Factors of Awakening,
Give up grasping,
Enjoy non-clinging,
And have destroyed the toxins,
Are luminous,
And completely liberated in this life.
-Trans. Fronsdal (89)

To close this discussion of the virtues of the wise, I’m including the whole footnote here by Fronsdal about some of the particulars in this passage, as it is helpful to understand the entire path as well as the set of qualities that one who tames the mind cultivates (i.e. the Factors of Awakening):

The Factors of Awakening are mindfulness, investigation of dharmas, effort, joy, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity. The personal cultivation of these factors was considered important in the spiritual practice by the Buddha. “Toxins” translates āsava, which is sometimes rendered as “effluents,” “intoxicants,” or “cankers.” It seems that the word originally meant both the intoxicating juice of a plant and the discharge from a sore. In the psychological meaning used in a Buddhist texts, it usually refers to the craving for sensuality, becoming or existence, views, and ignorance. “Having destroyed the āsavas” is the most common description of an arahant, a fully liberated person.
-Fronsdal (notes on translation)


May this help you choose excellent friendships that establish your best qualities in cultivating wisdom.

Gassho!

*The Tao Te Ching has similar comments about how the sage is not moved by praise or blame.

Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 5: The Immature/The Fool

I’m taking another journey through the Buddha’s lessons on the path of the Dharma (one way you could translate the title Dhammapada). A few years ago, I wrote posts on a handful of chapters, but I didn’t go over every chapter. This time, I’m challenging myself to post on every chapter and share them here.


The title of this chapter should give us pause, as it offers us an opportunity to confront some problems that come with the overlap and distinction of concepts and where those semantics may differ in a different language, particularly an ancient, Eastern language in comparison to a modern, Western one. As Fronsdal notes: “Bāla originally meant a young child who is not yet able to speak. It is therefore sometimes translated as “the childish” (Fronsdal, notes for chapter translation). Indeed, the first translation I read was by Easwaran, and he translated this as “immature”, a translation that I very much like, as it feels less judgmental and limited in scope than “childish” but also less static than “fool” or “foolish”. What I mean by this is that “fool” as it is used in English is a word that strikes me as a character trait — one that is more or less impossible to overcome. As I hope is clear by now, that kind of understanding of “human nature” (in itself a problematically laden term for us in this philosophical journey) runs contrary to the insights that the Buddha’s teachings are emphasizing for us: one of progressive development and training the mind through effort. I feel that “immature” fits this well, as it is an inherently developmental word. An immature person can mature with effort, and in this case, it’s an effort driven by a spark of insight about nirvana and slow growth into wisdom. I will not change all of the quotes to reflect this distinction below, but keep it in mind as we go through this chapter.

An interesting piece of counsel that appears in this chapter is about walking the path with others. For companions on the spiritual path, we want either mentors who can help teach us in the ways of wisdom or at least friends who share an equal interest and effort in attaining liberation from samsara:

If, while on your way,
You meet no one your equal or better,
Steadily continue on your way alone,
There is no fellowship with fools.
-Trans. Fronsdal (61)

Interestingly, this focus on inequality in the dynamics of companionship fit very well with Aristotle’s analysis of friendship, and while I don’t have the space to discuss that at length here, I’ve gone over it before in relation to romantic relationships in this post. Compare that to the current counsel, and also ponder the dynamics of inequality in a mentor/student relationship (clearly how better and lesser would work here) and how that would work in a relationship of one following the path. This counsel rings as potentially harsh when thought through — a kind of solitude is being advised as the best way for one putting the effort into reaching nirvana because clearly most people will not be equal or better, and hence, most will not warrant fellowship.

A fool conscious of her foolishness
Is to that extent wise,
But a fool who considers himself wise
Is the one to be called a fool.
-Trans. Fronsdal (63)

This resonates with another famous thinker from ancient Greece: Socrates. In Plato, he regularly is described as knowing that he knows nothing, and this is precisely why the oracle said he was the wisest in the land. If we twist the translation with “immature” and “immaturity” here rather than “fool” and “foolishness”, the meaning transforms into recognizing how much more room one has for growth of wisdom rather than how much one is a fool. By extension, this cuts through a problem in the term “wisdom” that exists in English. For myself, the distinction between “wisdom” and “knowledge” is usually vague at best in English and, depending on who is discussing the two, seems completely opaque at worst. If we think of this in terms of “maturity” though, it’s no longer related in any way to “knowing” a set of facts, like knowledge is. Instead, it’s the result of having grown aware. This makes it a process-oriented term, rather than a measurement of the data of knowing.

Much of the rest of this chapter has to do with pointing out how foolishness abides and thrives in not yet having felt the consequences of one’s actions. Here we see foolishness and wisdom in relation to karma. Karma is the Sanskrit term for action (kamma in the Pali of the Dhammapada). The key with action as it is meant with the term is that action brings consequences — there are entailed results, but unlike the determinism of the physics of reaction and counter-reaction — Newtonian motion in billiard balls — it’s more like the growth of a tree from a seed when the conditions are right for it to grow. It takes time sometimes for something to fully grow, and as such, the results of karma may take time to be felt and cause regret. That immature state (in terms of personal view and unrealized karma) may make the future regret of poor action completely unforeseen. This is the delusion of foolishness, of immaturity. A proper view of action sees how karma unfolds and how our actions will bring joy or regret. This is wisdom.

469899cb36f41fee3d17e594f4d6c0a5

The final lines in this chapter make it clear that fools, or the immature, focus on the recognition of ego-fulfillment in action. They look to companions to praise them for their actions or follow their commands. This too is unwise. It’s a clinging to a self-identity, a glorification of it, not being aware of the ephemeral nature of the “self”, and even more so the temporary status of public recognition of the self. With this in mind, let us close again with the final line of the chapter, another poetic line that echoes the recommendation that we choose solitude rather than foolish companions and that we do not cling to recognition or any form of material gain:

The way to material gain is one thing,
The path to Nirvana another.
Knowing this, a monk who is the Buddha’s disciple
Should not delight in being venerated,
But cultivate solitude instead.
-Trans. Fronsdal (75)


May this bring insight about what wisdom is, how to approach it, and how to consider self and friendship on the spiritual path.

Gassho!

Previous Older Entries