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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.

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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!

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