Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 1: Dichotomies

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

I wrote about this chapter last time around! Feel free to compare by reading the old one after the new one below.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

file000290153478

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Gassho!

Path of the Dharma: Dhammapada – Chapter 1: “Twin Verses”

This opening chapter shows the way by pointing out the enlightened path and comparing it to the deluded path. The amazing thing about this opening passage is its balance between solid ethical philosophy/cognitive-behavioral psychology and more austerely poetic spiritual maxims. It’s pretty long, so I’ll only cover part of it, and I’ll go through that part in pieces.

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: we are formed and molded by our thoughts. Those whose minds are shaped by selfish thoughts cause misery when they speak or act. Sorrows roll over them as the wheels of a cart roll over the tracks of the bullock that draws it.

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: we are formed and molded by our thoughts. Those whose minds are shaped by selfless thoughts give joy whenever they speak or act. Joy follows them like a shadow that never leaves them. — Trans. Easwaran

This initial chapter is called “Twin Verses”, and the reason is clear here. We have the deluded and enlightened paths–samsara and nirvana–side by side, twinned in the same structure and style of explication.

IMG_1959

The first sentence is the same in both, and it reveals the importance of karma in a way that resonates with Western philosophy and cognitive psychology. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics couches virtuous (that is excellent) action in an ongoing awareness of oneself within a social landscape. This requires an ongoing examination of how I have been molded by my background–upbringing and origin–and how I am molding myself further with each thought and action. Another familiar parallel is cognitive-behavioral psychology, which is more or less the successor of a Stoic understanding of the mind. Our thoughts mold our perception of ourselves and the world. In that sense, all that we are and all that the world is are the thoughts that mold us/it. Therapy, then, becomes an engagement to change the thoughts that harm us and the related behaviors to those thoughts. With these comparisons, the relevance of the Buddha’s position for us from the West is made clear.

Our two paths are displayed before us, and this is where the Buddha goes dramatically beyond these familiar points of comparison. The deluded path of ongoing suffering is the path of selfish thoughts. This includes all the plans oriented on my own aggrandizement. Out of the just listed Western parallels, the Stoics would be the only ones to make this dramatic leap (I’m reminded here of Marcus Aurelius speaking of being a citizen of the Universe). Selfish thoughts, even those oriented toward my success, my story, and my truth, even when they don’t harm others, will lead ultimately to dukkha, i.e. suffering, discontent, and continual yearning.

Why? This is a path that continually tries to get beyond the inevitability of impermanence. It’s an ongoing attempt to rig the game just right to get me that happiness of success that will never dissipate, never change, never fade. If I try hard enough… If I plan thoroughly enough… If I get the conditions just right…

Notice how all these thoughts are turned inward. If the world gives to me just right, I will be happy. That is the crux: external conditions have to be right, whether following the path of avoiding pain or pursuing pleasure. The energy of this system goes from outside to inside, from the world to me, thus the inward nature of these thoughts. “I” become the focus and goal of thoughts set up toward making my life just perfect. Even if that perfection includes others, it’s still about my perfect life.

In comparison, the enlightened path is one of selfless thought (and action). Such people (at least attempt to) give joy to all in all their speech and action (that which follows from thought), and hence, they are regularly cultivating joy in situations. It follows them everywhere. This invites a larger discussion of Buddhist psychology and karma, but let’s put this simply: the first path keeps the selfish person in an ongoing chain of cause and effect. His or her actions bring consequences that maintain an enduring cycle of felt dissatisfaction and of fighting to be free of this dissatisfaction with subsequent action … which is ultimately not fully satisfying. Selfish thought leads to selfish action which leads to the karmic consequence of this never-ending cycle: samsara. The other path invites us to at least see the difference. Then, perhaps, we have a gap after selfish thoughts arise–before we speak or act on them. Realizing that they lead only to sorrow, we instead change our thoughts, speech, and actions to more selfless ones. With time, this practiced self-reflection becomes a new mold for our thoughts, and selfless thoughts come on their own. With such a shift, we attempt to give joy to all, attempting to help them find peace, happiness, and health (by inspiring them to step beyond sorrow-laden paths as well). With this, we first begin cultivating more positive chains of consequences (as if that’s a necessary motivation), and ultimately, we step beyond the cycle of ongoing dukkha–that karmic chain is broken.

Notice that this second passage focuses on the selfless person giving joy, not getting it. Here, we have the contrast that this path is not inward-oriented like the first, in the sense of seeing the world’s purpose as to give to me or for me to take from it. Instead, this is outward-oriented. My thoughts are aimed out from myself toward the joy of all. The energy of this system now moves from me outward, rather than the inward grasp of appropriation for self. Through such a step beyond concern about my own joy, beyond “I”, me, and mine, I paradoxically realize that very joy in myself.

Let these discussions open one other passage for consideration:

“He insulted me, he struck me, he cheated me, he robbed me”: those caught in resentful thoughts never find peace.

“He insulted me, he struck me, he cheated me, he robbed me”: those who give up resentful thoughts surely find peace.

For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love. This is an unalterable law. — Trans. Easwaran

Again, I’m reminded of Western philosophy in that one of Nietzsche’s greatest concerns is man’s propensity for “ressentiment”–more or less, resentment. The problem is precisely how inwardly driven this is–it’s literally a feeling again and again, a “re-sentir” (to feel again). This keeps us trapped and tortured, perpetually reactive, rather than vibrant, active, and creative. We get again and again, but we only get the pain of a stung mind, an envenomed heart. As in the passage of Thus Spake Zarathustra (II, 29–The Tarantulas), we feel the toxic bite of the tarantula, again and again, stagnant and rotting with emotional poison, and with Nietzsche, according to Deleuze, the problem is that this reactivity, this “feeling again”, lies throughout our entire human psychology. So the question becomes how do we step beyond this into that active state, rather than feeling reactivity everywhere?

To exemplify this problem, we can take another verse from chapter 18 of the Dhammapada:

There is no fire like lust, no jailer like hate, no snare like infatuation, no torrent like greed.

Notice that all of these are reactive evaluations–wanting to have what one does not have or jealousy of what someone else has (which is really another version of the same). In each, we become trapped in or tortured by reactivity. Hate, the jailer, is an instance of not wanting, and as such, it is wanting. It is not wanting a situation or person to be as he/she/it is, so it is wanting to have the world be completely different for me. (See my comments on love and hate in Love, Rebounds, and Relationships: Part 3 – Love and Metaphysics and also my comments on hope and fear in Reiki-The Five Precepts: 2nd Precept-Faith)

In comparison, the Buddha offers the selfless, enlightened path, one that is not stung by holding on to the continual, reactive poison of internalized wrong done to self:

For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love. This is an unalterable law.

To let go of the resentful thoughts, the bars of the prison of hate, we cannot negate that person or thing out there which has wronged me. This is the most basic impulse in us, but as Gandhi said: “An eye for an eye makes the world go blind.” Selfish action to escape pain, begets another and another, and moreover, it begets this same resentful and retaliatory (as with hatred) reactivity in others. The only way to get beyond this is to selflessly give–to love–rather than to selfishly take–to hate (remember that hate wants the world to be utterly different in a way more suitable to me; it is a wanting, and it can lead to the subsequent action of taking, through negation). This means even giving up the self-righteous thoughts of being wronged. You instead give yourself to the world, finding connection with it, finding the suffering in those who have “wronged” us, finding the compassion of an awakened heart.

IMG_9929_statue

In conclusion, let’s offer this passage of Red Pine’s translation of Verse 63 of the Tao Te Ching which I discussed in a recent post. These guiding words for the Sage go hand in hand with the Buddha’s words for the arhat who walks the selfless path of love, peace, and joy:

Act without acting
work without working
understand without understanding
great or small[,] many or few
repay each wrong with virtue
– Trans. Red Pine


May this inspire you to read the rest of this beautiful chapter and the whole book. May it show you the first steps on the selfless path, and may you begin to walk it towards joy, peace, and love.

Gassho!