Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 11: Old Age

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


This chapter feels very dark. The language ruminates on decay and death. It’s a visceral reminder of our mortality, a theme familiar from the other chapters, but here, it’s displayed in full gory detail. We can’t escape the topic with this imagery. It reveals the truth, no matter how we may try to cover it up.*

A question echoes in a couple early passages in why we take joy in this life, when we’re lost in the delusion of it all. In the visceral displays of mortality, I take the delight to be precisely that we don’t clearly see what it is to be a human being — an unfolding process that is impermanent, without underlying permanence, slowly decaying toward death. When we look at the bleached bones, we see ourselves and recognize that we should seek wisdom. To do otherwise is to grow old like an ox, as line 152 tells us: our body bloats but our insight into life remains small.

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Like the previous chapter, line 151 shows us that our actions upon others evoke reactions:

Even the splendid chariots of the royalty wear out.
So too does the body decay.
But the Dharma of the virtuous doesn’t decay
[For it is upheld when] the virtuous teach [it] to good people.
-Trans Fronsdal (151)

I take this to show that like the violence of striking the bell reverberates, our words can plant seeds in the minds of others that can come into fruition. In such a way, the Dharma is propagated by each one of us, and as a planted tree can grow beyond our meager lifetimes, our insights can grow and blossom long after we are gone.

Lines 153-154 make clear that the path to ending the cycle of birth, old age, and death is to end craving. In these lines, craving is revealed to be the self-builder. It’s our karmic nexus that continues the process of “self-ing”, of being born and dying in the cycles of samsara. Ending craving ends the cycle.

To close out the commentary on this chapter, I wanted to return to the opening line about delight amidst the fire:

Why the laughter, why the joy,
When flames are ever burning?
Surrounded by darkness,
Shouldn’t you search for light?
-Trans. Fronsdal (146)

I find this line doubly evocative. First it reminds me that an early sermon by the Buddha is called “The Fire Sermon” and was delivered to a group of new converts who had performed fire rituals. It speaks of  perception as being a blazing fire and finding liberation by seeking non-attachment. While this passage is not from the Fire Sermon (I checked at this wonderful resource I recently discovered), it reminds me of that message. Furthermore, I’m reminded of a much later part of the Buddhist tradition in which a parable is presented in The Lotus Sutra wherein a rich man coaxes his sons out of his burning house, the burning house that they are in, blithely ignorant of, as they focus on their toys at hand. He does this by lying to them about gifts he has outside (see more details here). There’s much more that could be said about this parable, but I’m caught by the point that we fail to see the ongoing flames of suffering we’re already in and how our behavior keeps us sitting in them, in the darkness.


May this point you towards insight to age wisely.

Gassho!

*Once again, this focus on vivid imagery of death, our sometimes disgusting corporeality, and how all is impermanent resonates with similar passages in the Stoic tradition.

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.

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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.

Gassho!


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.