Advertisements

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!

Advertisements

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 3: The Mind

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 is both very straightforward and yet also not quite as easy to fully pull emphasis and focus out of as the two previous chapters. This became clear to me as I wrote down notes to create this post. You might reply: “It’s about training the mind, silly!” Sure — but how this is done and how it fits with what has already been said isn’t quite as directly expressed.

I jotted down some notes to get the flow of the chapters so far:

  • 1st Chapter: General overview of the path and the task of walking it
  • 2nd Chapter: Importance of vigilance/effort on path
  • 3rd Chapter: Returning to discussion of training the mind — the key to wisdom

The first few lines in this chapter speak about the difficulty of training the mind and how the untrained mind is pulled along in the cycles of samsara by the temptations of Mara. The untrained mind is the mind afflicted by clinging and the poisons of desire, aversion, and ignorance — the very things we lined out as what we would train our peaceful mind away from in the first chapter. There’s an iconic image of what the untrained mind feels like in these first few lines: a fish out of water, thrashing about on dry land. Those seeking awakening make the effort to watch and discipline this “subtle” and “flighty” thing, which without training flits about to wherever it wishes to go. The sage straightens these impulses out, like an arrowmaker straightening a shaft.

These ideas come to their fullest in lines 38 and 39:

For those who are unsteady of mind,
Who do not know true Dharma,
And whose serenity wavers,
Wisdom does not mature.

For one who is awake,
Whose mind isn’t overflowing,
Whose heart isn’t afflicted
And who has abandoned both merit and demerit,
Fear does not exist.
-Trans. Fronsdal (38-39)

In the commentary on the first chapter, I spoke about how we were provided with a model that could be approached from two directions, and ultimately, both ends of this have to be realized to become awakened: wisdom and skillful action. The idea is that even if not yet personally experienced with the insight of wisdom, practicing skillful actions will cultivate the mindset that will allow you to realize it. On the other side, I discussed particular mental and emotional views that had to be taken up in order to realize wisdom. Now, we are given three key necessities for wisdom to grow within a seeker: 1) a steady mind, 2) knowledge of the Dharma — we won’t break down this term too in-depth here, but let’s take it as “the way that things are” meant in a deep, existential and cosmological sense (the etymology of this word has to do with supporting — i.e. that which supports existence), 3) established serenity. In the paired line, contrasting ideas are given for each which emphasize the wise worldview in action: 1) awakeness — a steady mind that is vigilant, 2) “whose mind isn’t overflowing; whose heart isn’t afflicted” — Fronsdal’s notes clarify that this means not overflowing with lust and not afflicted with hate; we should also mention here that if my understanding of these languages is correct, heart and mind are not distinguished in them like in modern Western languages, rather the term for “mind” as the title of this chapter, citta, is more like “heart-mind” which indicates an understanding of consciousness as a holistic experience, not divided into rationality and emotion as separate things, 3) abandonment of the worldly concerns of recognition of merit — ironic because “merit” is regularly lauded in Buddhist traditions, but clearly, one who attains wisdom sees the emptiness in such concerns. Finally, for such a person, wisdom has not only matured, but fear has dropped away, presumably this reaction drops when wisdom’s clear perception of the way things are takes hold. So here again, we see the mindset of wisdom, the peaceful mind that we need to cultivate, and at the same time, we see the actions of a wise person, the actions we can use as an example — letting go of the poisons, not concerning ourselves about merit, and keeping vigilance to these efforts — in order to realize it. Once again, the path is something to be approached from both ends of generating wisdom and acting skillfully. They are an intertwined process of training the mind with the act of vigilance keeping us attentive and engaged in the right manner.

The transition of “Fear does not exist” to the tone of the next two lines should also give us pause:

Knowing this body to be like a clay pot,
Establishing this mind like a fortress,
One should battle Mara with the sword of insight,
Protecting what has been won,
Clinging to nothing.

All too soon this body
Will lie on the ground,
Cast aside, deprived of consciousness
Like a useless scrap of wood.
-Trans. Fronsdal (40-41)

8296cbeb1bcc7cb4165120f0c4cb1257

We’re reminded that the body is mortal — the root of the greatest fear that lies at the heart of our lives: death. Presumably, for those who no longer have fear, acceptance of mortality and proper relationship with it lead to this fear’s dispersal. Furthermore, there’s a thread that runs from lines 37 through to this culmination in 41. Fronsdal’s notes clarifiy that a word he translates as “hidden” in line 37 literally means “lying in a cave”: “The DhpA explains that the cave refers to the heart as the seat of consciousness and to the body made up of the four physical elements (earth, water, heat, and wind)” (Fronsdal, footnotes). The first few lines of the chapter described the hidden secretiveness and energetic subtlety of this heart-mind, 38-39 provided a full description of one who has found it and trained it, thereby indicating how we might find and train it, and now we’re reminded of the stakes of training the mind. The cave in which the heart-mind rests is actually more like a clay pot; in other words, it’s easily broken and not long-lasting. In recognizing the treasure at the heart of the cave — the heart-mind — and its role in our path out of samsara, we must build up defenses of it like a fortress, vigilantly protecting it from being lost to the poisons of Mara and by clinging to nothing in this life. After all, we’ve just been reminded that this life is fragile and ephemeral. How would it be wise to cling to anything? In the blink of an eye, our bodies will be empty husks*, with heart-mind no longer in the cave as the experience of consciousness. Again, how would it be wise to cling to anything? As you ponder this, remember the lines from the first chapter:

Many do not realize that
We here must die.
For those who realize this,
Quarrels end.
-Trans. Fronsdal (6)

To summarize this chapter, if we are ever to escape the thrashing of the untrained mind, the flopping fish on dry land, we must cultivate a serene mind through vigilance and effort. However, like our talk on non-hatred in the first chapter, this is a path of letting go of the reactive poisons, of clinging, and of concerning oneself with things like merit — those are how Mara gets the fish to thrash. Serenity isn’t achieved so much by a doing, as much as a non-doing, a letting go of the reactive patterns that drive us so that new insights may grow.


May this bring you to see the treasure that is your heart-mind and help you cultivate its serenity and steadiness!

*Once again, all of the language here about the body being “a useless scrap of wood” as well as guarding one’s mind like a fortress resonate well with Stoicism. I could readily see any of those lines coming up in an entry of Aurelius’ Meditations. I chose to put this as a footnote, so as not to pull us away from the conversation at hand, but I feel Stoicism is a Western tradition that finds many of the same points of departure as Buddhism and deserves its own interest and study.

Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 1: Dichotomies

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.


This chapter is often translated as “Twins” or something similar due to the structural format of presenting an unskillful and then skillful way of life, one by one. These comparisons are twinned together. I really like Fronsdal’s translation of the title as “Dichotomies” though, as it highlights that these aren’t twins in the sense of being identical; rather, they are paired opposites.

The other structural note for this chapter is that the matters of investigation for the dichotomies are indicated indirectly in the final lines: “passion, ill will, and delusion”. Interestingly, these could be a different way to say the three poisons that drive samsara: desire, aversion, and ignorance. As such, the twinned verses give us skillful means, intentions, and wisdom to address these three poisons.

The tone of the chapter is of vigilance and effort. This chapter is revealing what actions should be taken in order to cultivate yourself and cleanse your mind. This is no easy task. This first chapter always reminds me of Epictetus’ talks on Stoicism in which he clarifies that we have it within our power to manage our judgments — our interpretations and evaluations of the world we’re in and the events that happen within it. This is our chance for freedom even in the face of the most painful and challenging situations: we control how we comport ourselves and how we judge what happens. Even in Stoicism, as here in early Buddhism, this is very difficult, and this is precisely what the Buddha advises us to do as well: control our view of the world, our actions towards it, and our speech. In so doing, wholesome results follow.

Let’s look at the key to the teaching in this chapter — the first paired lines:

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a corrupted mind,
And suffering follows
As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a peaceful mind,
And happiness follows
Like a never-departing shadow.
– Trans. Fronsdal (1-2)

First, it’s laudable that Fronsdal translates this as “experience”, rather than actions, deeds, or something else. This translation emphasizes that mind is a constructive event happening within us — not only what we do but also what we perceive, feel, and interpret are all a construction of mind. Not only does this fit with the already discussed matters in Stoicism, but it also fits with cognitive psychology and hermeneutics as well. In cognitive psychology, our beliefs and values are a key part of how we take in and experience the world. In hermeneutics, the philosophy of what it is to understand, Heidegger is famous for having said in Being and Time: “All understanding is interpretation.” Likewise, here, our experience of the world is based on our mind’s view of it.

Furthermore, beyond experience, we have an emphasis on action and the results that come from it, this is karma. Karma means “action” in Sanskrit, and here we see that a peaceful view leads to skillful actions and happy results. The lesson is to cultivate those skillful actions and that positive view. This is a very simple formulation of how karma works in our lives to lead to better ones. This falls in with cognitive-behavioral therapy’s approach to shaping new behaviors through habit, and furthermore with findings regarding the neuroplastic brain changes made through repeated action. In other words, if we take the Buddha’s words to heart here and try to act with a peaceful mind (or at least act as one with a peaceful mind would), our way of being in the world grows and changes, changing ourselves, our view of the world, and our experience of it.

file000290153478

Cultivating the mind, speech, and action of a Buddha…

We could call the problem of this entire chapter the problem of our frame and our actions that we take from that frame. The counsel is to release the negative frame and act with wisdom. Only in releasing the negative frame and seeing things properly can we cultivate the change of walking the path. This is most evident in an early and oft-cited passage:

Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.

Many do not realize that
We here must die.
For those who realize this,
Quarrels end.
-Trans. Fronsdal (5-6)

Again, Fronsdal’s translation helps here by emphasizing “non-hate” rather than love, loving-kindness, etc. The Pali has a negation of hate, not a noun that means the opposite. This tells us something. To cultivate the new view, we need to let go of the values that fuel the old: the poison of hatred. Only then, can we generate loving-kindness.

Also, here we see that cognitive reframing of our beliefs about our life, the world, and our place in it requires seeing that we are impermanent and acting from that wisdom. This is arguably more than just a logical shift of rationale. It’s deeper — a holistic experience, emotional as well as logical, that we are mortal, one that grasps it in our very bones without covering it over.

To return to the structural note, this passage is a teaching on implementing the right view and action in regards to aversion — i.e. hatred, or as it is in the final lines, “ill will”. Other twinned verses speak about how unskillful relationship with desire leads to sloth and temptation into ongoing samsara and how improper understanding, i.e. delusion or ignorance, leads to valuing the wrong things in life.

Let’s look at those final lines to wrap all of this commentary together:

One who recites many teachings
But, being negligent, doesn’t act accordingly,
Like a cowherd counting others’ cows,
Does not attain the benefits of the contemplative life.

One who recites but a few teachings
Yet lives according to the Dharma,
Abandoning passion, ill will, and delusion,
Aware and with mind well freed,
Not clinging in this life or the next,
Attains the benefits of the contemplative life.
-Trans. Fronsdal (19-20)

These final lines show us that the experience of the peaceful mind is exemplified in the following: abandonment of the three poisons (passion, ill will, and delusion), cultivation of awareness, and liberation of mind. We’ve seen these throughout this chapter, but the key element that has not directly been stated up to this point but is crucial for the path of the Dharma is that of not clinging. What makes the poisons so destructive is that we cling to the way we want the world to be rather than being at peace with what it is. This is the core of the shift of view that we need to deeply experience in order to truly cultivate everything that is discussed in this opening chapter. Wisdom is said to be the key virtue in Buddhism beyond the others, and the insightful wisdom that allows us to accept and not cling is the necessary piece for us to achieve the benefits here. However, even without it, there is much to gain, and we can inch closer towards that wisdom by taking up the wholesome actions and speech of a peaceful mind, even if we haven’t realized wisdom just yet. The change of the Dharma can be approached from both directions: from the direction of practicing skillful action and from the direction of seeing things with deeper wisdom.


May this discussion of the Dhammapada lead you to a deeper engagement with wisdom and skillful action.

Gassho!

Path of the Dharma: Dhammapada – Chapter 12: “Self”

Disclaimer: This book has 26 chapters, and I highly recommend you get a copy and read them all. I’ve had to pick and choose, and in so doing, much is passed over. I only hope to emphasize what is key for getting to the other side, but even in my choices, it would be too long to write out each whole chapter, so I have to pick selections from them as well.


Learn what is right; then teach others as the wise do. Before trying to guide others, be your own guide first. It is hard to learn to guide oneself.

Your own self is your master; who else could be? With yourself well controlled, you gain a master hard to find. (Chapter 12, Verses 158-160)

Stephen Ruppenthal introduces this chapter in my translation with an analysis of how the Buddha does not specify his position on what the self is; he cites the Buddhist scholar/philosopher par excellence, Nagarjuna. The Buddha, indeed, does not posit: “The self is X”. However, both here and in the opening lines of the first verse, (“All that we are is the result of what we have thought” see my previous post on the first chapter here), the Buddha makes clear that the self is something that can be trained. As such, it is something that can change; thus, it follows the Buddha’s emphasis on impermanence as does all else. The Buddha does not posit here that there is no atman (a soul), but he does say that the self is something that can be trained, mastered, and he indicates that the spiritual path is one in which you master yourself. The Buddha doesn’t posit anything about the self’s nature, as that would go entirely against the point (i.e. positing something that “atman is”.). Rather, he indicates selflessness, or as is often described as the Buddha’s position: no-self. As he says later in chapter 20: “All states are without self; those who realize this are freed from suffering.” He displays to us that what we label self is not fixed or permanent, rather a dynamic process: one that can be trained and mastered. A permanent, unchanging thing is not open to such dynamism. A biography I have recently read about the Buddha expressed the subtleties of this stance very well:

This was the last thing Gautama wished to communicate. He believed that in this life we inherit the karmic consequences of our actions in past lifetimes, and that when we die, our future existence will depend on our moral state in this one. Having been brought up to believe implicitly in rebirth, this didn’t raise for Gautama or his listeners the metaphysical problems it brings to many who hear these ideas today. He was trying to get away from metaphysical abstractions and point people towards the kind of experience they could detect and observe. Of course, Gautama was saying, every person, including a Buddha, thinks, feels and experiences; the point is that how we think and feel shapes the kind of people we become in the future. The self, therefore, is a process and the task is to shape it. The wanderers should stop asking of life, ‘What is it?‘ or ‘Where is the true self?‘ They should look, instead, at their actual experience and ask, ‘How does it work?‘ Sue Hamilton succinctly encapsulates Gautama’s approach: ‘That you are is neither the question or in question: you need to forget even the issue of self-hood and understand instead how you work in a dependently originated world of experience.’ (Blomfield, Gautama Buddha: The Life and Teachings of the Awakened One, p. 151)

whirlpool-waves

The self is a process that changes with time like the flow of a river (read Hesse’s famous “Siddhartha”) or the waves ebbing and flowing on an ocean. Note: the flux of some processes can take a very, very long time–such as the erosion of a mountain. That does not make the mountain a permanent, solid entity…

In the quoted passage from Chapter 12, as elsewhere in the Dhammapada, the Buddha tells us to guide ourselves to develop our own wisdom (especially if no wise people are around to guide us–he clearly states it is better to go alone than follow the spiritually immature) and master our own minds. No one else can master them for us. This is the most fundamental aspect of the path–the aspect that wholly depends on our own efforts and no one else’s.

The evil done by the selfish crushes them as a diamond breaks a hard gem. As a vine overpowers a tree, evil overpowers those who do evil, trapping them in a situation that only their enemies would wish them to be in. Evil deeds, which harm the doer, are easy to do; good deeds are not so easy. (Chapter 12, Verses 161-163)

This injunction to not do evil comes right after the call to master the self. How are they connected and what exactly are we supposed to avoid? The answer could readily be seen in the twin verses of the opening chapter already discussed in my previous post. Self-mastery, the proper way to guide yourself, is to tame your thoughts in such a manner that will bring you away from sorrow and closer to joy beyond death–nirvana. It’s a taming that cultivates selfless thought–thought in accordance with the Eightfold Path, rather than the selfish thoughts that our mind is constantly lost in as untamed monkey mind. Selfless thought shapes the mind in a way that brings joy and nirvana. Selfish thought molds the mind in a way that brings sorrow and samsara.


May this help you see your “self” in a light that allows you to cultivate joy for yourself and others. May you be inspired to read through this great spiritual work and find the path to liberation from suffering. May you have the generosity, energy, discipline, patience, meditative insight, and wisdom to walk it.

Gassho.

Previous Older Entries