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.

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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!

On Communication: Affirmation and Clarity

Two very different conversations recently have made me ponder the importance of being clear with your expression about your intentions, beliefs, feelings, or values. There are many reasons for this, so let’s build up some clarity around this issue.

First of all, from the aspect of discussing complicated political issues, I’ve seen some convoluted rhetorical stances that ultimately can only be called disingenuous. If you rely on questioning other people’s positions as being too partisan while hiding the fact that you have no problem with a highly controversial position, do not be surprised that your subterfuge will only result in complete disavowal. Any good points you may have had were used merely as a rhetorical ploy, so the discussion is moot. If you’re going to be provocative, be forthright about it — affirm it. Then, you can create real dialogue. That dialogue must be based on the truth of admission of what your beliefs are and what your intentions are: i.e. it must be based on a hermeneutics of trust to be productive, otherwise it always risks doubt and dispersal. In fact, that’s the problem with a large swath of our news narratives today regarding politics; they’re based on a hermeneutics of suspicion, looking for hidden agendas, secret agents, and conspiracies. There may be truth to such critical analyses, but the problem happens when this style of meaning-finding reaches successively meta-levels of suspicion: the people behind the people behind the people are the real instigators of some ultimate evil plot! Unfortunately, this is necessary to a certain extent (political scientists and myself do find plenty of evidence for seeing oligarchy at play behind many machinations in current events), but it can get to conspiracy theory levels sometimes — thinking of some of the crazy stories of the “deep state” I’ve heard in the last year or so.

TLDR: if you want to have a meaningful discussion with others about a political issue, make clear your values, beliefs, and intentions. If you try to hide them while you merely attack and mock, you will be ridiculed all the more when your ulterior motives shine through, and even if you had some critically amazing points, they will mean nothing. Affirmation and clarity are needed in a conversation among equals.


Secondly, I heard a podcast recently that told the story of an odd relationship between a distant, disciplinarian mother and a stranger to the family in a traditional culture (seen as odd by her sons). The story ended with sadness amongst surviving family members of two generations regarding the reticence of expression — the mother never told her son she loved him, and the son only told his daughter once or twice. Having recently undergone the loss of my father, it made me stop and ponder the things I wish I asked him or told him. There are simply things I will never know but meant to ask for a long time, now mysteries washed away by the tides of time.

This has made me realize that mindful, clear expression needs to affirm the fact that we all die and could at any time. This authenticity, resoluteness in the face of death, if you want to be Heideggerean, should animate our language and interaction with those for whom we care. You never know if you will have another chance to say, “I love you!”, to tell someone to take care of themselves, to ask questions you may have held for years, or to resolve any nagging doubts from childhood. The chance to express, to question, to profess, to pacify, to let out, to let go in all the verbal ways possible, could disappear in a breath now, in the next moment. You never know. So please, make sure to reach out with your thoughts and feelings. Timing may be important, but life shouldn’t be lived as “Some day,” or “Maybe next time,” if you can say it now. Affirmation of ourselves, our values, and our purpose as well as expressive clarity are key to fulfilling intimacy in our connections with others.

With that, I’m adding three songs which have been pulling at many of the various feelings I have about my dad in the gamut of emotions that play through. Post-rock will always be the most expressive music to me for feelings, especially with no words to conceptually narrow the rawness. May it touch others’ hearts out there as some sort of clear expression of the depth of human experience.


On Memories

Here’s another philosophical entry from Morning Pages. This one jives on both hermeneutics (with some inspiration from my reading of the Tractatus by Wittgenstein as well) and Buddhism (at the end) with a final nod to some of the thoughts I encountered in David Loy’s The World is Made of Stories, a philosophical masterpiece of hermeneutics in its own rights. I hope that you enjoy and ponder your own experiences from this.


(The opening of the entry dealt with thinking back on an event from almost five years ago and memories of it.)

Trips into memory are so strange. I think that we can readily grab onto them too much. A memory is like a painting–an interpretation of a landscape and a moment of time. It’s a perspective–necessarily limited, and like a painting or a picture, the image itself fades with time, and our interaction with it now in the present is another interpretation. We see it from our current understanding, and it’s difficult to know/remember that our nostalgic reliving of a previous experience is an interpretation of an interpretation–not absolute, not complete. This is the beauty of it: our experience is artwork–a tapestry that is woven over and over again.

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Free image found at morguefile.com, like many others on this blog

Although it is a truth (I experience what I do; that is true), it is not the Truth. It’s not a science or an in-depth recording of the “facts” (we might point out here that even these are interpretations, but more methodical, at least). Understanding this can allow us to be more compassionate to ourselves and others. It can allow us the clarity to see our place in the universe… How can we find enlightenment if we are unfamiliar with the nature of our delusion? We can’t if we grasp with certainty and dogma onto the legitimacy of our perspective, our experience, as the Truth. We have to be open to see our story-ing and to try to see beyond it to other perspectives. Sometimes, revisiting a memory gives us just enough of a jolt of our current story in the act of juxtaposition that we are pulled beyond in just a moment… It’s not always the case that we cling to memories without the realization of interpretation; sometimes, they’re a reminder of just that–we are built of stories, all of them interpretations, all the way down…


 

May this help you see your memories and your experience with insight and wisdom.

Gassho!

 

Story-ing

Here’s another excerpt from Morning Pages that got to the heart of my walk along the Path of late.

Edit (7/27/15): I’m adding the end of a second and a third set of Morning Pages (excerpts) separated by second and third horizontal lines. They are both closely related to this post and add to it, extending the depth of the questions and ideas presented here.


That reminds me of story-ing. I finished, “The World is Made of Stories” last night. This small book is truly a seminal philosophical work presented in a simple style. I’m pulled back into hermeneutic analysis again. It’s refreshing.

I’m realizing that some of the most sound advice I ever provided was when I told my ex to be careful with the stories she told herself. She had some intense storying and revising of history. That led her down the path she’s on now, and I’m not sure whether she realizes all of this.

I don’t say these things in judgment. It’s not that her story is the “wrong” story, rather a story. All of our understanding is an interpretation–a story, and as all stories are, it is one that interprets things in a particular way, thereby drawing particular consequences. There’s nothing wrong about this, but each interpretation casts things in a particular way.

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We all tell and re-write our stories about ourselves. There’s nothing inauthentic to that. It’s a coming to grips with our place in the universe–a making sense. However, we should be aware of how we are creating a “self” through story.

I’m starting to think of the stories I’ve told myself, and I think with time, I’m moving away from standard ones. I’m moving towards those of the bodhisattva instead of the individual trying to get conditions just right for happiness.

Does that make all of my reading and writing a sort of narrative therapy? Perhaps it does. I’ve been gaining particular story-telling skills, stylistic usages, archetypes, and genres to help me re-story my-“self”.

The interesting thing about this as pointed out in the book several times is that this story is about unstorying, not-storying, de-selfing. The Buddhist path is about finding the “no-thing-ness” at the heart of existence that is the formlessness behind form–emptiness. The emptiness is the Truth to our existence and cannot be storied. It defies the personal security of identity built up in stories.

How do we balance that with living a storied existence? I’m not completely sure. That’s where the path of study and discipline continues to lead. I look forward to discussing that with others who walk this challenging Way, who tell this unique and beautiful Story.


I suppose that you could argue that this (the previous part of this entry talks about just writing whatever comes to the pen in jotting down Morning Pages) clears the mind as well. “The Artist’s Way” described it as though that were the case. There’s something to be said for this–letting juices flow and getting them all on paper. However, I think that simple expression doesn’t always make idle thoughts/feelings go away/come out for good. If they’re part of a larger pattern, expressing them as important could reinforce them.

We are storied beings, and the stories we tell ourselves can get stronger and more nuanced with repetition. Individuation is pushed as a boon in this culture–our story. However, this leads to our feelings of separation and loneliness. It’s a never-ending game to assert “my” existence. Samsara spins here, round and round.

So, ultimately, although I’ve tried to write simply and without intention toward pre-thought ends, I have tried to avoid letting this just be a space to spill out all my “me” stories–letting it instead be a place to express the ideas and discoveries that blossom as words run across the pages. The stories we tell are the patterns that bind. I try to let this be a space that is free of those patterns, but of course, at times, I throw these thoughts/difficulties/stories that I’m dealing with on the page. Sometimes, there’s much more difficulty to write around them than to simply write them.

Can this be done from simple awareness? Can it be an identification of the thoughts and stories at play without continuing them? “Thinking”? Can one freshly see that these stories are arising without clinging further to reactions which spin the story onward? Can these simply be mere thoughts passing by without becoming sold as solid, enduring truths? Can we experience this moment without clinging to “my” story?


As I hear the music, I think of “stories” again. We truly write the narrative of our lives for better or worse, yet we can’t control all of the elements–born prince or pauper, in America or Africa, raised in a religious community or by a small family of atheists–we can only control how we write our reaction to these elements–how we weave them together into our story. However, we tend to either overemphasize “My” Story–the aspect of myself in it–or act as though my interpretation is not part of it at all, as though meaning were just cast upon me–pre-written. In other words, we often overlook this act of story-ing and how it works in our lives. We then overlook how our stories are intertwined with myriad others. The world, our lives, are made of them.


May this make you aware of the “story” of “your” life and the deeper aspect that cannot be storied.

Gassho!

Heartbreak Wisdom Journal — Entry 4: Depression’s World

Heartbreak changes your entire experience. The world is literally different.

One of my favorite philosophers, Wittgenstein, said in his Tractatus (the following quote is my translation; I add the German original as a footnote to the post along with the original’s section number):

If good or bad willing changes the world, it can only change the limits of the world, not the facts; not that which can be expressed through language.
In short, the world must then through good or bad willing become an entirely different one. It must, so to speak, increase or decrease as a whole.
The world of the happy person is a different one than that of the unhappy person. [1]

Wittgenstein tells us here that the “world”–for him, the set of everything that is the case: the collection of all facts [2]–isn’t changed by a negative or positive perspective. Happiness doesn’t change the fact that 2+2=4, that water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, or that the shirt I’m wearing is blue. However, our experience of these facts as a whole, the world, changes in totality when we’re happy or sad–the limits of the world change. That same blue shirt is seen through two different sets of eyes, as it were.

This explication might beg the obvious question: “How could it be otherwise?” It may seem self-evident after the above discussion, but we regularly act as though those emotional states come from out there in the world rather than our own evaluation and reaction to it. We act as though emotions are just another fact amongst that totality of facts, not something that alters them as a particular perspective of the facts. Notice that I just pointed to the word “evaluation”. Wittgenstein would tell us that evaluation has nothing to do with the set of facts that is the world. Facts are facts. They can come in any order we want as the propositions that are the case. They don’t have any inherent value in themselves. There isn’t any inherent meaning or value to the fact that my shirt is blue. Evaluation stands outside the facts. [3]

This may seem an overly philosophical assertion for a post, so let’s put it differently with a quote from a Tibetan Buddhist:

The truth in this statement becomes clear when you pay attention to the inner processes that produce emotional states: you literally dream them up through a complex interaction of thoughts, images, bodily states, and sensations. Emotional reactivity does not originate “out there” in objects. It arises, is experienced, and ceases in you. [4]

This quote brings us back to a more grounded understanding of what has been said so far: the world out there is as it is, yet my reactions to it arise in myself–they are not part of the facts of all, no matter how much they feel to be, but they do change my experience of those facts. That blue shirt is neither hideous nor handsome in itself–those are evaluations, emotional reactions within me.

Now, to return to the emotion at hand: depression. Moods are the most pervasive of emotional filters which shape our experience of the world. They color not only one interaction or glance in the mirror of that blue shirt–they color everything. There’s wisdom to the saying: “seeing the world through rose-colored glasses”. This is what is really at stake with Wittgenstein’s final lines in the quote: The world of the happy person is different from that of an unhappy person. [5] Anyone who has undergone an experience of depression–and it is most definitely a going-under and something that is undergone without choice– will know that the world no longer is the same. Everything feels bereft of meaning, cold, foreign, lonely, empty, meaningless and/or pointless. In depression, all hopes have been dashed, and it appears both as though it was saccharine and naive to have ever hoped at all and that there is no reason to ever hope for anything again.

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Perhaps some would disagree with my description anchoring depression on the loss of hope, but I would describe the terrain of depression as a kingdom full of castles made of crushed hopes and dreams built upon the ground of hopelessness with a substrate of meaninglessness. Such a description fits well with both Beck’s cognitive triad–the depressed person’s view of self, world, and future become completely negative and hopeless of change–as well as the lived experience of time in depression–one of events coming forward and washing over you rather than actively moving towards your own goals and meanings. These are theories learned from my days as a psychology student, but the description and theories go along with my own personal experiences of depression as well.

The hopelessness of depression has a particular flavor in heartbreak. Not only does the world seem bleak, but in addition, there are constant points of comparison with another person, a life once had, a particular set of hopes and ideas lost. These comparisons can haunt entire days and wake you from deep sleep. Normal routines suddenly take on a dark glaze of loss that defies any attempt to ignore it or get around it. You might try to deny it through intensive storytelling or a rebound relationship or to distract yourself with booze or other means, or maybe, you won’t be able to try such coping behaviors at all and will instead spend night after night bawling your eyes out while watching movies on the couch. However, extreme measures are required to deny or ignore the loss of a person, the loss of a life–the world of one who is heartbroken is different than the world of one who is happy.

The heartbroken world is a dark and hopeless one, indeed, but the loss of hope offers the opportunity to approach life differently altogether. Hope and fear (they’re opposites and come together–two sides of the same coin. In hoping for something, I also carry fears of what the world will be like without that hope coming true) keep life in a game of ups and downs of samsara–a game of suffering through the attachment of desire and aversion. A broken heart allows the opportunity to develop a tender connection of compassion for the world outside of your own story of your hope and your fear. Put hope and fear aside and open yourself to the world just as it is rather than your evaluation of it. It’s truly a golden opportunity to realize authentic happiness rather than continuing to live in a world based on grasping for hopes and running from fears. This is the first steps of working with depression in practice and in stepping beyond its emotional terrain.


The word in Tibetan for hope is rewa; the word for fear is dopa. More commonly, the word re-dok is used, which combines the two. Hope and fear is a feeling with two sides. As long as there’s one, there’s always the other. This re-dok is the root of our pain. In the world of hope and fear, we always have to change the channel, change the temperature, change the music, because something is getting uneasy, something is getting restless, something is beginning to hurt, and we keep looking for alternatives.

In a nontheistic state of mind, abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning. You could even put “Abandon hope” on your refrigerator door instead of more conventional aspirations like “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better.”

Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something: they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment. We feel that someone else knows what’s going on, but that there’s something missing in us, and therefore something is lacking in our world.

Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look. That’s the compassionate thing to do. That’s the brave thing to do. We could smell that piece of shit. We could feel it; what is its texture, color, and shape?

We can explore the nature of that piece of shit. We can know the nature of dislike, shame, and embarrassment and not believe there’s something wrong with that. We can drop the fundamental hope that there is a better “me” who one day will emerge. We can’t just jump over ourselves as if we were not there. It’s better to take a straight look at all our hopes and fears. Then some kind of confidence in our basic sanity arises.

This is where renunciation enters the picture–renunciation of the hope that our experience could be different, renunciation of the hope that we could be better. [6]

May this help others find their own empowerment and open possibilities in the barren lands of depression.
Gassho


Previous Heartbreak Wisdom Journal Entry: Entry 3: Wounds
Next Heartbreak Wisdom Journal Entry: Entry 5: Depression – Experience & Practice

1 §6.43 Wenn das gute oder böse Wollen die Welt ändert, so kann es nur die Grenzen der Welt ändern, nicht die Tatsachen; nicht das, was durch die Sprache ausgedrückt werden kann.
Kurz, die Welt muß dann dadurch überhaupt eine andere werden. Sie muß sozusagen als Ganzes abnehmen oder zunehmen.
Die Welt des Glücklichen ist eine andere als die des Unglücklichen.
2 Tractatus–§1 Die Welt ist alles was der Fall ist. §1.1 Die Welt ist die Gesamtheit der Tatsachen, nicht der Dinge. §1.11 Die Welt ist durch die Tatsachen bestimmt und dadurch, daß es alle Tatsachen sind. §1.12 Denn, die Gesamtheit der Tatsachen bestimmt, was der Fall ist und auch, was alles nicht der Fall ist. (My translation: §1The world is everything that is the case. §1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not the totality of things. §1.11 The world is made certain through the facts and due to them being all the facts. §1.12 Because: the entirety of facts makes certain what is the case and what is not the case.)
3 See §6.4 and §6.41 of the Tractatus. I feel they are a bit too heady to include here.
4 Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche & Mark Dahlby, The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep, Kindle edition, loc. 1552.
5 For my fellow philosophers, compare all this with Heidegger’s discussions of Befindlichkeits–mood’s–impact on our understanding of the world in Being and Time.
6 Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart, pp. 40-41.