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!

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!