Advertisements

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.

badf9835667e563e49db86d57d978357

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.

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.

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.

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.