Walking Along the Dhammapada — Chapter 17: Anger

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 key lesson to take away from this chapter that speaks to the greater spiritual path of Buddhism and The Dhammapada is that of self-control vs. reactivity. A wise, awakened one is liberated from the pain of as the Buddha puts it in the Fire Sermon the burning of the senses, passion, aversion, and ignorance. In other words, liberation is the extinguishing of clinging. This allows one to control one’s actions and act skillfully rather than being pulled along by our desirous and aversive reactions. This is the difference that’s listed in early lines:

Give up anger, give up conceit,
Pass beyond every fetter.
There is no suffering for one who possesses nothing,
Who doesn’t cling to body-and-mind.

The one who keeps anger in check as it arises,
As one would a careening chariot,
I call a charioteer.
Others are merely rein-holders.

The Dhammapada, 221-222, trans. Fronsdal

In other words, you can become liberated by observing yourself through mindfulness, letting go of reactions, acting well, and thereby becoming one who drives the chariot, rather than just being pulled along by the horses.

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This can be summarized in a term that came up in my other translation many times: “well-controlled”. That’s the aim. Ultimately, that control is liberation. It comes from wisdom, insight, and mindful engagement. Otherwise, we are just pulled along reactively by our impressions and reactions.

The only way beyond a reactive, conditioned, samsaric pull is to be ever wakeful, holding anger in check in body, speech, and mind. Liberation is and comes through holding the reactivity of conditioning in mind and then letting it go. It’s a seeing, releasing, and doing differently. Thus does one choose and thereby drive the chariot.


May this inspire effort to gain control of skillful action rather than mindless reaction.

Gassho!

Walking Along the Dhammapada — Chapter 16: The Dear/Affection

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’ll be honest – I find this chapter difficult. It’s difficult precisely because of questions I’m currently wrestling with in my own personal development. They’re also questions related to ongoing queries I have for Buddhism around the life of a householder vs. that of a monk. How does one handle the issue of attachment in the middle of a standard, nonmonastic life? It’s a problem in terms of finding balance and a Middle Way through the tangles of craving and clinging. The best I can come up with is seeing the attachments we have and letting them be without grabbing onto them with clinging and craving, but that is incredibly difficult to do, and that’s precisely why one is pressed to go into the freedom of a monastic life. This chapter has a very strong tone that doesn’t help me with these considerations at all, and like much of the oldest Buddhist teachings, it feels like one is only able to find liberation by leaving the life of the householder behind and severing all attachments.

This may all sound like some kind of philosophical knots over a non-issue, but one description of the founding of the practices of tantra in Buddhism precisely highlighted this issue (and unfortunately, it’s been years, so I can’t remember where I read it now). It was the legend of a king who asked the Buddha for practices to find enlightenment while still holding onto his sensual life, basically (surely a legend because tantra is one of those practices from other Asian spiritual traditions Hinduism/Bön that were fused with Buddhism as it grew and travelled).

In any case, let’s focus on one main passage here. This whole chapter really emphasizes that craving/clinging in its various guises keep one rooted in samsaric suffering. This fits with the Four Noble Truths. There is suffering. Suffering arises from tanha (craving/clinging). One can be liberated from suffering by ceasing the bond of tanha. There then is a path forward to realize this goal. This chapter emphasizes that aspect of tanha – we crave that which we desire. We crave for that which we don’t desire to not happen. In fact, whatever else doesn’t fit the desired or undesired is so separate from our affected awareness, that we just ignore it. These are the three poisons: desire, aversion, and ignorance. We can see in passages like this chapter that clinging/craving drives all three on a continuum of sorts. Think of it like a number line where – craving = aversion, 0 = ignorance, and + craving = desire. It’s worth mentioning here that the titles in my two translations point to this as well: “The Dear” – we cling to that which we hold dear; and “Affection” – affect, our emotional movements that pull us hither and yon in samsara, are driven by the clinging in the 3 poisons. There are several lines that point out these dynamics and then accentuate different versions of affection where it is at play and that such things should be avoided. The overall summary is captured in the final emphasis:

Craving gives rise to grief;
Craving gives rise to fear.
For someone released from craving
There is no grief;
And from where would come fear?

The Dhammapada, 216, trans. Fronsdal

In terms of my own struggles, I’m left thinking of these considerations, and I think the path is truly that of sitting in the midst of the swirl of affection, whatever arises, and seeing how there is the pull of desire and aversion as well as the lack of interest in ignorance. We can watch what comes up within our mind and try to respond skillfully rather than getting hooked into craving and the karma that arises from acting within it. What this means for myself in terms of relationships, my own stories, and an engaged life, is an ongoing investigation.

In relation to that little idea of karma, I love the closing lines in this second translation, where good deeds are presented as analogous to a seeker’s family who celebrate his return home into Nibbana. As such, we have yet again an emphasis on acting well from the stance of nonattachment at the end of this chapter admonishing the seeker to not cling.

When, after a long absence, a man safely returns home from afar, his relatives, friends, and well-wishers welcome him home on arrival.

As relatives welcome a dear one on arrival, even so his own good deeds will welcome the doer of good who has gone from this world to the next.

The Dhammapada, 219-220, trans. Buddharakkhita

May this bring others to recognize the role of clinging in samsara and get them to investigate its role in their lives.

Gassho!

Feeling Negativity, Leaning Into Compassion

Note: I feel that things have progressed since starting this post in ways that highlight some personal misunderstandings on one side and the very need for compassion and an open heart and how healing that is on the other – the message I started writing here last week. As such, I decided to finish the post with that message. So, even though the opening lines don’t feel current now, I still feel like this post should be completed and shared.


When we are rejected and shamed by those we care about, they are some of the hardest moments to be upright in a mindful practice. I’ve spun in this a lot recently. I will readily admit I’ve failed for the most part, rolling hard in my own patterns and stories, looking for a magic solution or reversal rather than calmly adapting to conditions with the equanimity of wisdom.

Although friends and articles on psychology and relationships have helped me, I have found a certain part of The Dhammapada to be crucial to healing. I’ve written here before of key passages in the first chapter of The Dhammapada regarding realization of mortality, hatred, peace, and quarrels (for instance, this post on a previous experience and this passage is still one of my most popular, even a couple years later). This passage has acted like an anchor, allowing me to transform my pain into understanding and empathy, rather than continuing to be pulled along by emotional reaction. I’d like to talk about this passage a bit again.

I recently downloaded a different translation of this by Acharya Buddharakhita that left me pondering this passage again. I’m going to share several lines and then make a small comparison.

“He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me” — those who harbour such thoughts do not still their hatred.

“He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me” — those who do not harbour such thoughts still their hatred.

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world; by non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is an eternal law.

There are those who do not realize one day we all must die. but those who realize this settle their quarrels.

The Dhammapada, Chapter 1: Verses 3-6; Trans. Buddharakkhita

“He abused me, attacked me, defeated me, robbed me!” For those carrying on like this, hatred does not end.

“She abused me, attacked me, defeated me, robbed me!” For those not carrying on like this, hatred ends.

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

Many do not realize we here must die. For those who realize this, quarrels end.

The Dhammapada, Chapter 1: Verses 3-6; Trans. Fronsdal

First of all, both of these follow the opening of this chapter’s focus on how mind shapes a happy life or a life of suffering. We’re shown an existential depth to this that we should recognize our transience, our mortality, and let go of the poison of animosity — the ultimate toxin of desire, aversion, and ignorance. It’s a colossal mental shift to let go of this kind of victimhood – the drama of our lives – but if we can see the passing nature of things, there’s an opportunity to make that shift and see things from a larger perspective. Second of all, I like the difference in how the end of these two selections are translated. One says “settle their quarrels”, emphasizing that the recognition of mortality is a motivator to take action, actualizing that my mind is not only my personal thoughts but my deeds based on those thoughts and those deeds in relation to others. There’s great wisdom in making a move to show that you hold no hatred for someone else and wish them well (I will return to this below). The other translation has it as “quarrels end” as though the realization of the mark of impermanence leads to an immediate washing away of negativity. I think this focuses on the power of the realization in a way that is incredibly poetic, but it does lack that extra element of action. I think this idea is best highlighted by thinking of both of these translations.

One of the basic forms of meditation in some of the Theraveda traditions is that of metta or “loving-kindness” meditation. I’ve actually read a book focused on this approach that argues it was all the Buddha claimed was needed for Enlightenment, and honestly, given passages like that in The Dhammapada above, I can understand that position, especially because I’ve had some of my strongest feelings of insight and compassion from doing metta meditation (as well as the similar, in my mind at least, Tibetan practice of tonglen).

The practice develops loving-kindness for oneself and expands it, offering it eventually to those who we see as hurtful to us. This, then, is a practice about letting go of the painful reactions to ourselves and others in our lives, and practicing it in earnest really can help open the heart and mind. I’ve linked the book I mentioned above and here again, The Path to Nibbana, and here is a shorter description of how to do the meditation. I’ve been trying to take time to do the meditation myself recently, but beyond that, I’ve been trying to take the intention of it, the version of the mantra of old that I have in my mind from practicing it in the past, and put it out there in the world where I can, even if I don’t sit and meditate today.

May you be happy.

May you be healthy.

May you be at peace.

May you live with ease.

I find when I approach the world with this mindset, I find more understanding for others and more love for myself and my own failures (of which, there are many). Recently, when I’ve felt hurt, I’ve tried my best to develop this mindset, and it has made everything much better, and ultimately, I feel like it may even heal the hearts of others a little — perhaps just that intention has some impact in the world.


May this inspire others to cultivate loving-kindness and compassion, especially when it feels difficult. May this help other see that our lives are short, and quarrels are misguided.

Gassho!

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.

Gassho!

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!

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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