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.


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.


*The Tao Te Ching has similar comments about how the sage is not moved by praise or blame.

Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 5: The Immature/The Fool

I’m taking another journey through the Buddha’s lessons on the path of the Dharma (one way you could translate the title Dhammapada). A few years ago, I wrote posts on a handful of chapters, but I didn’t go over every chapter. This time, I’m challenging myself to post on every chapter and share them here.

The title of this chapter should give us pause, as it offers us an opportunity to confront some problems that come with the overlap and distinction of concepts and where those semantics may differ in a different language, particularly an ancient, Eastern language in comparison to a modern, Western one. As Fronsdal notes: “Bāla originally meant a young child who is not yet able to speak. It is therefore sometimes translated as “the childish” (Fronsdal, notes for chapter translation). Indeed, the first translation I read was by Easwaran, and he translated this as “immature”, a translation that I very much like, as it feels less judgmental and limited in scope than “childish” but also less static than “fool” or “foolish”. What I mean by this is that “fool” as it is used in English is a word that strikes me as a character trait — one that is more or less impossible to overcome. As I hope is clear by now, that kind of understanding of “human nature” (in itself a problematically laden term for us in this philosophical journey) runs contrary to the insights that the Buddha’s teachings are emphasizing for us: one of progressive development and training the mind through effort. I feel that “immature” fits this well, as it is an inherently developmental word. An immature person can mature with effort, and in this case, it’s an effort driven by a spark of insight about nirvana and slow growth into wisdom. I will not change all of the quotes to reflect this distinction below, but keep it in mind as we go through this chapter.

An interesting piece of counsel that appears in this chapter is about walking the path with others. For companions on the spiritual path, we want either mentors who can help teach us in the ways of wisdom or at least friends who share an equal interest and effort in attaining liberation from samsara:

If, while on your way,
You meet no one your equal or better,
Steadily continue on your way alone,
There is no fellowship with fools.
-Trans. Fronsdal (61)

Interestingly, this focus on inequality in the dynamics of companionship fit very well with Aristotle’s analysis of friendship, and while I don’t have the space to discuss that at length here, I’ve gone over it before in relation to romantic relationships in this post. Compare that to the current counsel, and also ponder the dynamics of inequality in a mentor/student relationship (clearly how better and lesser would work here) and how that would work in a relationship of one following the path. This counsel rings as potentially harsh when thought through — a kind of solitude is being advised as the best way for one putting the effort into reaching nirvana because clearly most people will not be equal or better, and hence, most will not warrant fellowship.

A fool conscious of her foolishness
Is to that extent wise,
But a fool who considers himself wise
Is the one to be called a fool.
-Trans. Fronsdal (63)

This resonates with another famous thinker from ancient Greece: Socrates. In Plato, he regularly is described as knowing that he knows nothing, and this is precisely why the oracle said he was the wisest in the land. If we twist the translation with “immature” and “immaturity” here rather than “fool” and “foolishness”, the meaning transforms into recognizing how much more room one has for growth of wisdom rather than how much one is a fool. By extension, this cuts through a problem in the term “wisdom” that exists in English. For myself, the distinction between “wisdom” and “knowledge” is usually vague at best in English and, depending on who is discussing the two, seems completely opaque at worst. If we think of this in terms of “maturity” though, it’s no longer related in any way to “knowing” a set of facts, like knowledge is. Instead, it’s the result of having grown aware. This makes it a process-oriented term, rather than a measurement of the data of knowing.

Much of the rest of this chapter has to do with pointing out how foolishness abides and thrives in not yet having felt the consequences of one’s actions. Here we see foolishness and wisdom in relation to karma. Karma is the Sanskrit term for action (kamma in the Pali of the Dhammapada). The key with action as it is meant with the term is that action brings consequences — there are entailed results, but unlike the determinism of the physics of reaction and counter-reaction — Newtonian motion in billiard balls — it’s more like the growth of a tree from a seed when the conditions are right for it to grow. It takes time sometimes for something to fully grow, and as such, the results of karma may take time to be felt and cause regret. That immature state (in terms of personal view and unrealized karma) may make the future regret of poor action completely unforeseen. This is the delusion of foolishness, of immaturity. A proper view of action sees how karma unfolds and how our actions will bring joy or regret. This is wisdom.


The final lines in this chapter make it clear that fools, or the immature, focus on the recognition of ego-fulfillment in action. They look to companions to praise them for their actions or follow their commands. This too is unwise. It’s a clinging to a self-identity, a glorification of it, not being aware of the ephemeral nature of the “self”, and even more so the temporary status of public recognition of the self. With this in mind, let us close again with the final line of the chapter, another poetic line that echoes the recommendation that we choose solitude rather than foolish companions and that we do not cling to recognition or any form of material gain:

The way to material gain is one thing,
The path to Nirvana another.
Knowing this, a monk who is the Buddha’s disciple
Should not delight in being venerated,
But cultivate solitude instead.
-Trans. Fronsdal (75)

May this bring insight about what wisdom is, how to approach it, and how to consider self and friendship on the spiritual path.


Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 4: Flowers

I’m taking another journey through the Buddha’s lessons on the path of the Dharma (one way you could translate the title Dhammapada). A few years ago, I wrote posts on a handful of chapters, but I didn’t go over every chapter. This time, I’m challenging myself to post on every chapter and share them here.

The title for this one and its associated metaphor are striking. I tried my best to succinctly unpack the meaning of this metaphor to encapsulate the meaning of this particular chapter. This is what I came up with: “flowers” is related to properly viewing and acting in the world. As a skilled gardener selects a flower, a follower of the Buddha who has caught sight of nirvana will select a well-taught Dharma-teaching. In other words, an insight of the goal of the end of suffering will lead to proper living in this world.

One who does not see things clearly will simply try to gather as many flowers as possible, which is lusting after sensory pleasures and clinging to them. Such people waste their lives, and continue along the samsaric path of further death and rebirth.


In contrast, one who sees that the body is ephemeral will live wisely and will not be drawn to Mara’s flowers — cutting them away, thereby becoming undetectable to Death. This undectability repeats in the chapter, and yet again, we have a great simile for how transitory the body is: it is like foam.

Instead of clinging obsessively to sensory pleasures, one with such wisdom doesn’t cling — moving from experience to experience, and living life with the skill of simply engaging. Our example: we should move like a bee moves from flower to flower, gently gathering nectar without harming the flowers.

All of this so far more or less reiterates the messages of the first 3 chapters. Where this chapter furthers and expands the teaching thus far is from lines 50 to 59.

Do not consider the faults of others
Or what they have or haven’t done.
Consider rather
What you yourself have or haven’t done.
-Trans. Fronsdal (50)

Here, we’re not only reminded that our efforts alone are the key to walking the path and realizing nirvana, but it’s further stated that in becoming a walker of the path, one should let go of the judgments of others’ shortcomings. This is the positive corollary of letting go of the hatred of victimhood in the first chapter:

“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.
-Trans. Fronsdal (3-4)

Furthermore, in focusing on your efforts, the chapter then lines out that not only your mind and your actions should be in alignment, as in other chapters, or your mind and your speech — your speech and your actions should be in alignment. Early Buddhist teachings focus on purifying mind, speech, and action, and that’s exemplified here.

Like a beautiful flower,
Brightly colored but lacking scent,
So are well-spoken words
Fruitless when not carried out.

Like a beautiful flower,
Brightly colored and with scent,
So are well-spoken words
Fruitful when carried out.

Just as from a heap of flowers
Many garlands can be made,
So, you, with your mortal life,
Should do many skillful things.
-Trans. Fronsdal (51-53)

Well-spoken words should lead to associated well-done actions. Otherwise, the words are empty, lifeless, and life in itself is empty, as it doesn’t amount to anything but another cycle of death and rebirth, lacking the beautiful scent of the garlands of the noble path.

There’s one more passage that is worth highlighting directly with a quote because it is simply beautiful, one of the most artful, poetic, and inspirational in the text so far. It is the closing lines of the chapter. We too shall close this commentary with them, pointing out only that once again we have the emphasis that nirvana can be found in the daily mess of the life we’re already in: even when surrounded by the common clinging and delusion, wisdom can grow and flourish.

As a sweet-smelling lotus
Pleasing to the heart
May grow in a heap of rubbish
Discarded along the highway,
So a disciple of the Fully Awakened One
Shines with wisdom
Amid the rubbish heap
Of blind, common people.
-Trans. Fronsdal (58-59)

May this help you grow wise amidst the challenges of delusion.


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)


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 2: Vigilance

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.

Vigilance is the path to the Deathless;
Negligence the path to death.
The vigilant do not die;
The negligent are as if already dead.
– Trans. Fronsdal (21)

Fronsdal’s notes on this cryptic and almost metaphysical sounding opening assisted me here. “The Deathless” are those who have achieved enlightenment. This term applies to them because they have stepped beyond the cycles of samsara’s rebirths, and as such, they no longer die and are no longer reborn. Thus, we have a necessary element of the Buddhist path. We might remember here that the Buddha is described as having only taught the Four Noble Truths regarding the nature of suffering and the path that cures suffering. Here we see that vigilance is the activity that sets the seeker on the path and keeps them on it.

All right, so this is crucial for us, but how does a practitioner actualize vigilance? What is one vigilant toward? What is falling into negligence? Without some clarification around these questions, the opening lines are still cryptic.

When I was writing my notes for this, I summed it up thusly for myself, thinking of the term “awakened” as another description for those who achieve greater wisdom in the path of liberation:
” One cannot remain awake if one allows the eyes to close again.”


We should think of this call to vigilance in relation to the first chapter in order for us to understand what we are being vigilant towards. With this opening in mind, it becomes clear that we are vigilant about keeping our mind, speech, and actions peaceful, and we guard ourselves against the passion, ill will, and delusion that pull the mind out of this peaceful state; finally, but importantly, we are vigilant about when we are clinging. Vigilance is the watchful mindfulness that keeps our engagement and perspective right, as outlined in the first chapter.

The effort of vigilance is fully fleshed out in three passages, back to back, just a bit below the opening lines of this chapter:

Absorbed in meditation, persevering
Always steadfast,
The wise touch Nirvana,
The ultimate rest from toil.

Glory grows for a person who is
Energetic and mindful,
Pure and considerate in action,
Restrained and vigilant,
And who lives the Dharma.

Through effort, vigilance,
Restraint, and self-control,
The wise person can become an island
No flood will overwhelm.
–Trans. Fronsdal (23-25)

Thus, vigilance is a mindful perseverance that includes or is directly associated with meditation, energy/effort, restraint, self-control, and considerate action. In vigilance, like said above in relation to the first chapter, one tries to be skillful in mind, speech, and action with emphasis on all of these key aspects for a noble walk along the path of Dharma.

May this help you better understand the vigilance needed to follow the Buddha way.


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.


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.


Quarrels — Defending Oneself

I had a moment last week when someone misinterpreted my behavior by interpreting it as driven by the worst of intentions. When I tried to explain, my explanation was batted away, and the person doubled down. It was very frustrating, and furthermore, this was done in a small space at work, so several other people overheard, and I was effectively publicly shamed (albeit on a small scale).

Even though I practice meditation, Buddhism, and study wisdom and skillful action regularly, this was a very difficult challenge for me to deal with — when feeling personally attacked, ideas of “who I am”, our ego, become activated, and we feel pressed to defend them. It’s an automatic fuse for an explosive reaction, and it’s very hard to defuse this and act mindfully. One may try to stop the ticking of these long-evolved self-defense mechanisms by stopping and creating logical rationales: “That doesn’t matter. I don’t know these people. I don’t care what she thinks about me. Etc…” These act as a stop-gap though. They may slow down the feelings a bit, but ultimately, the scenes and feelings of personal shaming, of the need to save face, can replay over and over again, on automatic. This is a perfect example of how clinging is at the root of samsara, how endemic it is to our day to day, and how it requires a strong dedication to the various aspects of the eightfold path to let go.

In the end, a day later, thinking of an example from Buddhist lore and reading a favorite passage in The Dhammapada allowed me to let go and see things without attachment.

The first is a famous story of a Zen monk from the feudal ages of Japan, Hakuin. He ran the local temple and was revered by the community. One day, a young, single woman gave birth to a baby, and she claimed that the monk was the father and took the baby to him. He accepted the baby with a flat expression on his face and said: “Is that so?”. He took care of the baby and didn’t respond to the public’s expressed disgust at his misconduct of having fathered a child while a monk — he lost his disciples and his reputation, but he took care and joy in raising the child. After some time, the mother confessed to her parents, explaining that Hakuin had not fathered the child. They went to him, apologized, and asked for the child back. Despite loving the child as his own, Hakuin gave the child back with a flat expression and the words: “Is that so?”

Hakuin is claimed to have written some famous koans, and is a revered ancestor in the Zen tradition. You can read a much more insightful and fuller description of this story here, if you find this interesting. The point is that things arise as they do, and the path of wisdom is to adapt to them, responsively, rather than reacting to them out of the defensive clinging of trying to avoid them. This is the Buddha’s way, and also, it fits with the wu wei of Taoism, which is fused into the traditions of Chan and its child, Zen, as well.

Furthermore, note the greatest gift in this story: the potential for this kind of insight is in the messy, drama-laden lives we’re already in the middle of everyday. Our practice is fueled by the surprises and circumstances that come from living in a world full of other sentient beings, all laden with their own problems and reactions. They provide the opportunity for us to exercise wise action at every turn. As another passage from the Lotus Sutra is broken down by Dogen Zenji: the Buddha lives in a burning house — i.e. nirvana is right here in the middle of everything we think we’re escaping by pursuing a practice of wisdom. It’s not separate — not two.


The passage from The Dhammapada that brought a refocusing of mind was:

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 (verses 5-6)

As a way to elucidate this, I compare this almost automatically in my mind to Stoicism which emphasizes that we’re all here very briefly, and that the only thing we can control is our own minds, as difficult as that might be. If one can see, even for a second, how transitory, how ephemeral, how impermanent you and your life is, then slights like this fall away as nothing, as moments of confusion. Only in that letting go of the reaction from something greater — from a position of realization above and beyond it, rather than reasons utilized as a sort of mental counter-force, violence against violence — can these automatic reactions be dispelled. Only wisdom deeply realized, at an emotional level, dispels this kind of confusion, and words like this do that for me. Quarrels driven by ego are actions of the the mind enwrapped in ignorance, a potent possibility for all of us that requires the constant practice of presence to see past. As one take of Dogen has it: delusion and enlightenment are two foci of experience. We can always pursue enlightenment, actualize it, but by so-doing, we do not leave behind our human delusion: another instance when we might bring forth the idea of a chiasm — not two.

May this help others let go of those reactions they automatically generate and cling to.


Note: I posted this quote in my last post too, and both of these have left me wanting to read The Dhammapada again. I started today and will try to write posts about each chapter in the text, as my previous posts on the book have been some of my most popular (and rightfully so for the fact that it’s such a wise book of the Buddha’s wisdom, not because of my own problematic attempts to explain it) — I hope to improve on those this time.

Living in the Light of Death

In a few days, it will be a year since my dad died. It’s been a very interesting and ponderous year. I’m reminded of the first book I read about existentialism, which explained the idea of an existential crisis in relation to Heidegger’s Being and Time as an event bringing a heightened awareness to our mortality in such a way that the experience of life is fundamentally altered for a period. That’s what this has been.

Of course, I have meditated on change at length prior to this. It’s evident in a large number of the posts here over the last few years, but being confronted with the situation of having to personally sort out one’s own story and relationship with mortality is different than cerebrally breaking down the sweeping, subtle, and slow changes of matter, mind, and heart.

Ironically enough, recently, I’ve been reading chapters in a meditation manual about meditating on change and death, and the writer/teacher emphasizes two phases to the sessions — one for thinking on ideas or images about change/death and the other to let the emotional depth of meaning really sink in and be understood, not just conceptually. This experience has been something like the second part of that process. For the last few years, I could have quoted on a whim a passage that struck me in the first translation of The Dhammapada that I read: “All states are without self*”, but what does that mean when a life ends? I’ve been slowly piecing that together over time.

I dream of him often. In the last few weeks, I can think of a time when he appeared in our lives again — a Doppelgänger, and I was the only one in my dream who remembered he had died and didn’t trust this imposter, and yet, I didn’t want to inflict loss on my family again by convincing them of the truth. In another, he wandered around a former city I lived in with me, but he had some sort of handicap and lacked the wit and mental acuity he had in life. I think I was imagining what his survival might have meant as a tradeoff, and it was tragic in other ways — “he” was still gone, but then again, all states are without self. Finally, I had a dream where he was a cold, heartless man, driven by greed. He was an ambitious entrepreneur, somewhat like the small business owner from my childhood but fully consumed by it as his only pursuit. He seemed dead to me in his cold grimace and methodical drive. This made me realize that there are other ways we describe people as dead — when their emotions seem to lack the humaneness of connection, of the passion and compassion of a beating heart, thumping out a song with the lives of others, always already around us. Just as change is a constant and identity is an abstraction, rather than an essence (“All states are without self”), we are always already born into a universe, billions of years old, on a small rock populated with other humans — as well as all their culture, history, language, minds, and hearts…

My dad in life was a warm man, very much unlike the cold, driven, hyper-capitalist in my last dream, but at this point, I don’t know how much more there is left of him other than the stories of those who remain. I hope to still learn from him like this in dreams and musings, and I hope that these thoughts of him continue to bring insights into what it means to live and how death is related to that living presence in this world. I can’t claim to understand what the process of life is about, as I’m convinced there isn’t some permanent essence, a soul, behind it, but going through all this has sharpened the sense of mystery to existence. In many ways everything has felt just as hazy and ethereal as a dream, and sometimes, I feel that I’m not sure if I’m dreaming of a butterfly or if I’m the butterfly dreaming of Z, so to speak, but I do as that meditation teacher suggests: rest in the looking — look in the resting. What else is there to do? I’m already in the thick of the mystery and there’s no way out. There’s only the ongoing path of being on the way.

A much more succinct passage from The Dhammapada’s opening chapter could get at the heart of all this much more quickly:

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.
– Chapter 1, (5-6), trans. Fronsdal

Maybe we’re better served by a statement about the nature of that mystery from The Heart Sutra:

‘Gate gate, paragate, parasangate, bodhi svaha.’

– Gone, gone, beyond gone, completely beyond gone, great awakening.***

May this provide comfort and camaraderie to others who experience the mystery of being.


*The point of this quote is that everything lacks essence. Another way I say this, riffing on Buddhism, is: “All composite things are impermanent, and all things are composites.” Our greatest spiritual battle is overcoming an unreflective, ego-protective sense in which we posit some permanent essence behind us, an unchanging self. I take this quote to mean that everything lacks essence and that “the self” is an emergent process, not a set entity. Here are a couple other translations of this passage to compare:

“All things in the world are insubstantial.” – trans. Ananda Maitreya

“All things are not-self.” – trans. Gil Fronsdal

The second translation is particularly exciting because one could possibly see the way that the Prajna Paramita tradition of emptiness (shunyata) is already indicated in these pithy remarks, and this particular quote also points to interdependence — if all things are not encompassed as a static entity in and of themselves, they’re in relationship with everything.

**Most translations say “love” or “loving-kindness” here instead of “non-hate”, and while those are more poetic, I prefer this more literal translation. The word has a negative prefix on hate, meaning the negation of hate, not another word that means the opposite. Negation in language can mean a returning to zero, so to speak, and I think that fits the meditation practice and ideas in the early texts better rather than telling people to react in the opposite. One must let go of the clinging and reactivity that gives rise to hatred. Only then can loving-kindness be cultivated as a new relationship with the world.

*** I pieced this together from reading several commentaries and translations.

Intricate Interdependence

Thich Nhat Hahn, the renowned Zen teacher, has described the Buddhist ideas of emptiness and interdependence (which he calls “interbeing”) by saying that to examine a flower, you have to see the existence and interconnection with the entire universe, indeed see its history as well:

A flower cannot be by herself alone. A flower has to “inter-be” with everything else that is called non-flower. That is what we call inter-being. You cannot be, you can only inter-be. The word inter-be can reveal more of the reality than the word “to be”. You cannot be by yourself alone, you have to inter-be with everything else. So the true nature of the flower is the nature of inter-being, the nature of no self. The flower is there, beautiful, fragrant, yes, but the flower is empty of a separate self. To be empty is not a negative note. Nagarjuna, of the second century, said that because of emptiness, everything becomes possible.

So a flower is described as empty. But I like to say it differently. A flower is empty only of a separate self, but a flower is full of everything else. The whole cosmos can be seen, can be identified, can be touched, in one flower. So to say that the flower is empty of a separate self also means that the flower is full of the cosmos. It’s the same thing. So you are of the same nature as a flower: you are empty of a separate self, but you are full of the cosmos. You are as wonderful as the cosmos, you are a manifestation of the cosmos. So non-self is another guide that Buddha offers us in order for us to successfully practice looking deeply. What does it mean to look deeply? Looking deeply means to look in such a way that the true nature of impermanence and non-self can reveal themselves to you. Looking into yourself, looking into the flower, you can touch the nature of impermanence and the nature of non-self, and if you can touch the nature of impermanence and non-self deeply, you can also touch the nature of nirvana, which is the Third Dharma Seal.
– Thich Nhat Hahn, The Island of Self; The Three Dharma Seals (retrieved here)

These concepts are so profound and simple yet so difficult to express. I feel like conceptual thought experiments can get us partway there, but to really feel the wonder of it takes some extra insight that is honed through meditation, as the consistent experience of seeing ourselves as separate things in a world of objects separate from ourselves limits and guides our normal, everyday perception. Meditation is needed to shake us out of this frame. In a sense, it takes a slowing of the discursive mind’s analytic thought processes to really just sense things as they are.

An example from my recent life: I came down one morning to make some coffee after having finished a morning meditation session. I picked up a knife from the drawer to scrape the coffee grounds off the sides of the grinder, and as I saw the knife and touched it, I suddenly was aware of its intricacy and the long history of civilization, development, and design behind it. Small bubbles protruded out along the edges of the hilt; these caught my eye, and I thought of the aesthetic design and metallurgy behind these decorations as well as how this wouldn’t have been mass-produced only a few generations ago. My mind exploded even further, thinking of recent books I’ve read about the history of the Earth’s mass extinctions and the epically long oceans of time that are behind the world we live in/on and the species that currently inhabit it, as well as how they’re related to this momentary brilliance of tool-making. These results of eons of evolution are both creator of the tool and the food for which the tool is utilized — neither of which would be without everything that came before. Even just a simple knife in my kitchen drawer implicates the entire history of the creation of knives, of buildings, of drawers, and other cultural conventions/industrial standards around design, metallurgy, and culinary etiquette as well as the entire development of civilization, the evolution of the human race, and all the forgotten biological and cosmic events that led up to now.

A few years back, I read a book that described the symbolism of the famous calligraphy circle from Zen Buddhism: the enso. The zen monk explained that it isn’t showing a border between inside and outside or a process of completion; rather, it’s supposed to indicate everything. All is buddha-nature. All is included. All is interdependently shown in the circle.


A fractal enso? Cosmic interdependence?

These concepts go against so much of our standard operating procedure of discernment, but there is great wisdom in the flash of insight that our independent distinctions are cuts between the intertwined chiasm (to borrow the wonderful term from Merleau-Ponty) that is existence (note: the etymological roots of “de-cide” are to cutting off or cutting away. The same applies to the German: “ent-scheiden”).

May this offer a flash of insight into interdependence to all who read it.


Life’s Vicissitudes — Letting Go

The “Memories” feed in Facebook brings back interesting moments that may otherwise fade. A couple days ago, a status from a few years back jerked me back into one of the most awful days of my life. Reading it, thinking back, and looking at the comments all left me with strong gratitude that things have changed, yet I could go back in my mind and in my feelings and remember how difficult it was to let go at the time and let change happen.

Other events in the last couple days bring the same to mind. All composite things are impermanent — and that means every experience we have in our lives and every aspect of our world, our bodies, and our minds will change. All of it. Things end even when they’re hard. Even when it hurts. However, what I’d like to share in looking back and at looking at other changes from afar is that there’s beauty in that as well. Even in something that seems sad or tragic, it can be a change that lets go of pain, hopelessness, or perceived meaninglessness.

To take a familiar metaphor from mythology — if fate is a thread that is weaved into a story, the end of a fated thing is the cutting of a thread, and that cut may hurt or be perceived as a violent stop — all endings are, in a way. However, it’s only in that end that the tapestry, the full story and beauty, can be completed, and sometimes that’s actually better than a thread that’s stretched so hard and thin that it’s fraying.


May this provide you perspective to accept the ups and downs of life’s vicissitudes.


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