Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 14: The Buddha/The Awakened One

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.

I wrote about this chapter last time around! Feel free to compare by reading the old one after the new one below.


Honestly, I find this to be one of the most powerful chapters in The Dhammpaada but also one of the easiest to get lost in; hopefully, this commentary will help others who feel the same.

Last time, I focused on the line that sets a tripartite focus of the Buddha’s teachings, which I’ll return to momentarily, but in reading this time, I see that this structure builds through examples and then culminates with this key insight:

One who delights in the ending of craving
Is a disciple of the Fully Awakened One.
-Trans. Fronsdal (187)

If we think back on the Buddha’s enlightenment and his subsequent first sermon, it was on the Four Noble Truths which teach that there is dukkha (suffering that’s always lingering in the background thoughout our lives — “suffering” isn’t quite a good translation, more the existential angst of never feeling complete; even greatest moments of joy have the sense that they could be better or will be over in the briefest of spans), that craving is the cause of dukkha, that there is a means to address this problem of craving/dukkha, and that this means is the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. This single line that I’ve chosen as the key of this passage is truly the entire teaching of the Buddha and the great victory of his spiritual quest. A true disciple that wants to take on this wisdom for his or her own sees and accepts this practice of ending craving. This is nirvana — which is not an addition of new experience or a reaching something; it’s an extinguishing of the flames of craving that burn in our heartmind all the time, thereby finding the peace that was there underneath all along (riffing that in a Chan/Zen direction somewhat).

Let’s see how this key unlocks the rest of the chapter. First, let’s look at that tripartite structure:

Doing no evil,
Engaging in what’s skillful,
And purifying one’s mind:
This is the teaching of the buddhas.
-Trans. Fronsdal (183)

This points to the various aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path. The 8 aspects of the path can be grouped into three categories (as I’ve read elsewhere) — morality, insight and wisdom. The lines after this speak of a follower not harming others. This is an action of morality, of “doing no evil”. Note that when one harms others, often this is done either out of ignorance or out of anger, and both of these are driven by a clinging to one’s “self” or at least one’s view of the world in relation to self. Next, we are told that a follower seeks moderation. This is both morality and insight, as moderation is “engaging in what’s skillful”. Acting skillfully counteracts the regular behaviors driven by craving in one’s conduct. Taking up the path and following precepts that specify moderate behaviors is taking guidance on how to limit one’s exposure to and temptation with craving, even though it is likely not clear to an initiate that that’s what is done through these new approaches to life, at least not at first. Next, we’re told that a follower will have recognition of judgments about sensual pleasures as continuing the samsaric cycle of dukkha. This is where insight into moderation, into skillful means, steps a step further into wisdom. This recognition is the culmination: purifying one’s mind. When one has reached this point, one will delight in the ending of craving, thereby being a full disciple of the Fully Awakened One — not just having interest in the path but fully walking it.

We can take this key to unlock the other crucial theme and movement of this chapter, that of the 3 refuges. After the development of the tripartite structure of the teaching of the buddhas along with the culmination in the delight of ending craving, there’s a passage about most people seeking refuge in remote and beautiful places out of fear. A follower of the Buddha, in contrast, knows that the supreme refuge is that of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Here, we have it more clearly stated that these refuges uphold the teaching of the Four Noble Truths, leading the practitioner to release from suffering. Other refuges cannot grant this freedom.

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I took an interesting note from this that isn’t explicitly stated. I had in mind a contrast to practices of Stoicism (which I’ve been reading about of late) that are similar. Marcus Aurelius actually has a quote in his Meditations that contrasts well with this in which he says that true refuge can be found within and can be accessed at any time to keep one’s mind and action straight with reason and virtue. Likewise, I see the triple refuge of Buddhism presented in this chapter to be an example that the work of Enlightenment is up to us (see my previous post on chapter 12) and is an internal journey of purifying the mind. The other two teachings of the buddhas of doing no evil and acting skillfully are completely intertwined preparations for purifying the mind, that’s precisely why the wisdom of delighting in ending craving is the culmination of morality and insight: one does not see it as clear wisdom at first, only after some practice of walking the path without fully understanding it.


May these words light the path of those who would follow the Fully Awakened One.

Gassho!

Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 13: The World

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 opening line to this chapter is the key for us to hold onto. Let’s look at it, and then I’ll go over the flow of the chapter.

Do not follow an inferior way;
Don’t live with negligence.
Do not follow a wrong view;
Don’t be engrossed in the world.
-Trans. Fronsdal (167)

I think the key word of warning here is “engrossed”. Fronsdal notes that this is a difficult word to translate as it isn’t really explained in the commentaries, seeming to mean: “something along the lines of both increasing and being attached” (Fronsdal – endnotes). Given these connotations and the ongoing message of breaking free from the shackles of clinging throughout The Dhammapada, I think that “engrossed” is a great word, and the truth is that the standard life of samsara is one of being engrossed — of clinging to worldly outcomes and possessions. It’s so deep and so all encompassing, that we generally can see no other way. In some ways, that’s precisely why the teachings regarding Dharma are so radical. One final note: being engrossed is a life of following a way that isn’t that of the Dharma, not being vigilant to waking up and maintaining the path, and having a wrong view of the world (the first three parts of this line).

I tried to make sense of the rest of the chapter’s relation to this message by summarizing each line. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Wake up!
  • Life of good conduct = a happy life
  • See the world as illusory and ephemeral (i.e. why are you clinging to it???)
  • Do not cling
  • Good action = recovery & illumination
  • Reiterated: good action = recovery & illumination
  • Most are blind to their engrossed life in the world
  • Wisdom frees from temptation/samsara (i.e. engrossment)
  • Slippery slope: breaking one precept (lying in this case) open’s one to greater unwholesome behavior
  • Generosity is a wise action
  • The path of the Dharma is greater than ruling the entire world

So, we could say that the path out of the engrossed life should begin with a focus on wise/wholesome/skillful action and an awareness that clinging is the root of our continuation of samsara. Generosity, then, is the perfect example of a wise action that counteracts clinging and illuminates the Dharma: it’s an action of not-clinging, of letting go of possessions to ease others. It’s also, although this is unstated, an exercise of interdependence — recognizing that we are not separate from the entirety of the world, and that in giving to help others, we are helping all. In a way, this reminds me of the much later Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen; we invert the power dynamics of our self-centered orbit by focusing on giving to others, thereby stepping forward on the Buddha’s path.

Compare those final ideas with the opening line again, and I believe you’ll find that this chapter, while seemingly meandering, is actually quite clear and is emphasizing a clear view of the samsaric world and how we should see it differently and act accordingly.

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May this help you develop the right view, vigilance, and adherence to a superior way so that you may realize the “fruits of stream entry”.

Gassho!

Running Scared – A Spiritual Experience

My breath huffs in and out as my feet plop on the cold pavement. The darkness envelops me like a lonely secret, and the cold reverberates through my muscle fibers, much more strongly than the earbuds in my ears. All this, however, is par for the course — the course that is distance running in the evening in the depths of fall. None of it occupies my mind or senses. Not really. They float in the periphery. Fear grasps all of my attention. My mind focuses on my left knee, which stiffly resists my attempts to run. The left leg clomps along, like an awkward log attached to my hip, rather than the supple motion of the other leg.

In recent months, I’ve returned to a running regimen for the first time in a while. It’s been a journey in and of itself, despite the relatively short time. As I’m much older than my young running enthusiast self of the past, I’m much more prone to injury, and I’ve fended off a few on the path towards a marathon. However, now, with about a month till the race, I’ve been hit with an injury that may force me to put up the shoes for a while. It started with tightness in my calf, which was handled by a new pair of shoes, but then that pain moved to my knee. Minor at first, it flared up near the end of a long training run recently, and since, I’ve had to move to ice, rest, a knee brace, and much care.

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Last night, I laced back on the shoes and tried to face the pain and the fear of this knee. I’m afraid that it will force me to stop running and miss the race — the goal that has pulled me along through the last few months. I’m also afraid that if I keep running that I’ll hurt the knee even worse and may never recover enough to have a really functional knee for these kinds of activities anymore. The plodding in the cold with many layers and the knee brace is a test. It’s a walk along a tightrope between these two fears. It’s also an existential journey where I look at my attachments to both body and ambition straight in the face — a spiritual delve into my internal darkness, alongside the darkness enveloping my body’s steps.

Thankfully, after years of working on mindfulness, I see my heartmind jump from concern to concern, being pulled along by attachments and stories. As I let them go and relax into the present moment of movement, of breath, my knee relaxes as well. I stop and stretch and readjust, but I also let go of all my plans and concerns. There is only this next step forward; come what may. The delusions of the rest merely pull away from that, and being with it is truly taking care. Sometimes, this care is recognizing the needs of the body and stopping before hurting it. Sometimes, its pushing to get up and move, feeling that the stiffness is superficial. Gratitude, vulnerability, and insight are the only things to grasp onto in the process.

Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 12: Oneself

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.

I wrote about this chapter last time around! Feel free to compare by reading the old one after the new one below.


The key of this chapter is that effort is up to us.* It can only be performed by oneself. This leads to the conclusion that even with a guru, the spiritual path is your journey. You’re the one who has to walk it, even though they may point out the way or walk alongside you.

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This message hones the lessons on the consequences of karma that have come up in other chapters and the focus on bettering our minds, speech, and actions. This is all done by your efforts. Hence, here, we’re told to see ourselves as precious and treat ourselves as a prized treasure by watching over ourselves — our minds, speech, and actions.

This is made most clear in line 165:

Evil is done by oneself alone;
By oneself is one defiled.
Evil is avoided by oneself;
By oneself alone is one purified.
Purity and impurity depend on oneself;
No one can purify another.
-Trans. Fronsdal (165)

Another interesting corollary of this focus on our own efforts is an exhortation to master ourselves before we try to improve others. This seems doubly wise, as our own efforts are what lead to our own improvement, and in the samsaric world, we spend much time and energy worrying about the shortcomings of others, an approach that causes drama and judgment in return. Unless we have overcome the same issues in ourselves or are making great effort and progress in doing so, others will see through the hypocrisy of telling them what to do while we slack on those same issues. All of this is made clearest in line 159**:

As one instructs others,
So should one do oneself;
Only the self-controlled should restrain others.
Truly, it’s hard to restrain oneself.
-Trans. Fronsdal (159)

The inversion of the key I’ve presented is that we harm ourselves. I’m not saying this with some mystical explaining away of what happens in the worst of human interaction: violence, hatred, rape, murder, etc. Clearly, one human being harms another in these. However, the Buddha is telling us that we have the karmic choice to do the truly lasting harm to our mind by holding onto hatred, resentment, fear, and emotional anguish in reaction to the events of our lives. As we’ve outlined previously in the commentary on chapters 1 and 10, blaming others leads to an ongoing emotional malaise and mental suffering. So, this inversion of the key leads us to understand that:

Liberation comes in recognizing that you can purify yourself and then doing it.

In the final line, the Buddha tells us to focus on our own welfare, not giving it up for others, and in closing out this commentary, I wanted to point out that he’s not advocating for a dog-eat-dog system of every man for himself; rather, he’s telling you to worry about waking up — to worry about your own greatest welfare of cultivating a pure mind***.


May this lead you to see yourself as precious by recognizing your own greatest welfare and the realization that it’s up to you to reach it.

Gassho!

*I picked this terminology to compare this chapter with Stoicism once again, as Epictetus holds that our reactions, our mind’s take of things is up to us. In many ways, that’s precisely what we’re being shown in this chapter.

**The hypocrisy element became clearer to me in reading the story behind this line at this resource.

***If this still seems a bit off as an understanding, I’ll remind you that in the stories of the Buddha’s previous lives (whether we take them to be true or not), there’s one in which he sacrificed his very life to feed his blood to two starving tigers. This is most certainly not some call to worry about “me, myself, and mine” above others in a more casual, modern sense. Look at this as well.

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.

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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.

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 one’s mind as well as taking up new patterns of speech and action. I’ve tried to emphasize that the mindful approach to new speech 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.

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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.

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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!

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