Walking Along the Dhammapada — Chapter 15: Happiness/Joy

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.

There is one clear message from the myriad examples here of those who are not happy: attachment keeps one from happiness. In a sense, this is one of the simplest ways we could summarize the Eightfold Path that leads us from samsara to Nirvana. The second of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is that the cause of dukkha, of samsara, is tanha – a thirst that is never quenched. This is what leads us to cling to all variety of desires, and it’s a thirst that can never be sated — even in the accomplishment of desires, there’s the knowledge that the moment is short-lived and impermanent, another limitation that breeds dukkha. In another sense, we could say this point about attachment is one of the greatest calls in Stoicism as well: the idea of affirming the situation you are in as the providence of fate — everything is just as it should be; we can only act our best within the situation we are in without being upset about that situation, our wins/losses/successes/failures, and even the potential of our death in this very instant. If we can let go of attachment, we can truly be at peace. This is a huge ask, obviously, but it’s just as obviously the end of the path. Nirvana is often described in these early Buddhist scriptures as an extinguishing. Think of the peace we would have if we weren’t burning with the fire of attachment.

Here are a few quotes to illustrate:

Ah, so happily we live,
We who have no attachments.
We shall feast on joy,
As do the Radiant Gods. — (200, trans. Fronsdal)

Victory gives birth to hate;
The defeated sleep in anguish.
Giving up both victory and defeat,
Those who have attained peace sleep happily. — (201, trans. Fronsdal)

Hunger is the foremost illness;
Sankharas the foremost suffering.
For one who knows this as it really is,
Nirvana is the foremost happiness.

Health is the foremost possession,
Contentment, the foremost wealth,
Trust, the foremost kinship,
And Nirvana, the foremost happiness. — (203 & 204, trans. Fronsdal)

There are two things I’d like to mention before closing up with one last key from this section. First, I’d point out that in some analyses I’ve read, the Four Noble Truths are structured as the same as medical diagnostics from ancient India — 1) a problem, 2) cause of problem, 3) prognosis, 4) cure (see here as an example for more detail). Chapters like this one get right in the midst of all these, summing them up in an eloquent way that pushes us directly to the goal of ending tanha and dukkha without discussing the Four Noble Truths directly and in detail. Second, I’m struck by the remark “Trust, the foremost kinship”. I’ve been reading about hermeneutics again in Western philosophy (well, Being and Time). Between that reading and recent conversations, I’m reminded that there are two broad stances towards understanding: a hermeneutics of trust and a hermeneutics of suspicion. This is something I pondered at length for my masters in clinical psychology, but it’s more generally important for us to consider how we approach others, the game of understanding, and our intentions. You can try to find hidden motives and agendas everywhere, or you can trust others to meet you in the middle and do their best of authentically create understanding together. The first can be dismissive, painful, and even toxic when you’re the target of it. The second is the only way to really foster an ongoing relationship of compassion. If your partner in understanding doesn’t warrant said trustful engagement, then there’s not much path forward to be had — there’s no kinship.

This consideration leads me to the last thing I’d point out about this chapter. The end tells us again to find spiritual friends, who have wisdom and exemplify this virtuous behavior. We should follow them forward on the path to peace: “As the moon follows the path of the stars” (208 — trans. Fronsdal). Here again, we’re told to find a good mentor, a guru, or a solid sangha to support us in this Dharma lesson.

May this discussion of the path of dhamma bring you the ability to cultivate peaceful happiness and find those who will walk along the way with you.


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