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.


“Whatever arises”

This is another passage taken from a recent morning pages session. Again, I’ve skipped past some initial words to get to the insightful part.

So, I feel a bit tired this morning–also due to a couple extra hours at work last night. However, I’m glad to show up again today, no matter what arises. “Whatever arises” is a mantra I’ve had in mind a lot recently. Ultimately, I feel that it captures the liberation from samsara of the Buddha way. The Buddha resides in the burning house. The Buddha’s path doesn’t lead to some special place beyond the world we live in or transcend it through some sort of sleight of hand: appearing here but residing elsewhere. No, the Buddha experiences nirvana in samsara. He merely presides with joy, with loving-kindness, calm-abiding, no matter what arises. In explaining equanimity like this to friends, they misunderstood it as complacency. I understand why one might think that, but that’s not it. The Buddha is not telling us to not walk a path, to not cultivate certain ways or positions. Reading The Dhammapada quickly makes it clear that the Buddha way requires an ongoing engagement that prefers the greater joy over the lesser. However, a great part of this joy is in meeting the challenges of change and the snares of Mara with a peaceful smile–nonattachment to conditions being any particular way. Come what may; whatever arises.

It may be easy to rail against this again, but a look at the Tao Te Ching or even the Stoic works of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius would bring us to similar, if not the same, conclusions. Equanimity does not mean non-action or passivity: complacency. Imagine Buddha walking across India again and again for 45 years after his enlightenment, teaching everywhere he went. Imagine Marcus Aurelius writing his “Meditations” at night on the battlefront. Wu wei, the right action of skillful means, requires seeing reality as it is–the unfolding flux of Tao, emptiness’ dance–and flowing with that change without attachment. This is doing without doing: not forcing the world, rather acting along with whatever arises. It’s not inaction or reactivity; rather, it’s working in accordance with nature, a properly attuned action with Tao. This is a key to the Way of the Sage, the Way of the Buddha, and the Way of the Lover of Wisdom (a philosopher).


For comparisons with the comments on wu wei at the end, look at my posts on the Tao Te Ching, particularly: Tao a Day–Verse 8: In Accordance with Nature, Tao a Day–Verse 26: Inner Virtues, and Tao a Day–Verse 63: Doing without Doing.

May this inspire you to be at peace, whatever arises.


Mantra for Presence

One of the experiences that returns again and again in meditation is the flow of various thoughts.  At times, it can be difficult not to get swept away in the current of them all; rather than watching them wash by, rippling up and disappearing again, you can get pulled along and no longer see them as separate and impermanent. Getting carried away by them like this keeps them going and makes them seem solid, permanent things which are part of “me“.

Keeping a mindful presence is the challenge and boon of meditation. Returning the mind to breathing and sitting can save you from the ongoing rush of thoughts by opening some gaps–gaps of simple attentiveness and peaceful presence. One key to this in shamatha or shikantaza is labeling thoughts as “thinking” or more descriptively, “anger”, “lust”, “escapism”, etc. I’ve found that using the label “elsewhere” as a simple reminder that I’m not staying fully present here with my breath and body is effective. However, sometimes, a little more push can help. The other day, I came up with this mantra, repeating it in my mind when struggling with thoughts. It was quite helpful, and I thought it worth sharing:

Be a Buddha

As you think this line, let all of your conceptual resonance for “Buddha” (e.g. mindfulness, equanimity, presence, compassion, images of the easy smile, etc.) pull you back to practice. Try to embody these concepts as inspiration for you to return back to your breath and be present to it. Let yourself adopt that gentle smile. It’s very likely that you’ll find you can’t stop…

If you need further focus, say this as well:

Smile at Mara

Mara is the demon that tried to tempt the Buddha and smite him down in the story of his attainment of Enlightenment. Those difficulties we encounter in life can be greeted with a smile: acceptance and equanimity. This transforms the swords and arrows of Mara into flowers, as in the Buddha’s tale. The swords and arrows of our own mind as well as our own tempting thoughts can be metamorphosed into calm and peace–the basic goodness of mind can be recognized as a lotus opening within the rippling thoughts. In saying this line, realize that you don’t have to master the thoughts. Rather, open yourself to them. Surrender to them. Act through inaction. Smile at them. In letting them be and surrendering to their flow, you’ll find that they aren’t solid at all, and they really aren’t about “me”. Rather, your mind is that calm lotus, and the thoughts flow past, impermanent, fluid, ephemeral.

Be a Buddha
Smile at Mara

May these words bring your mind peace.


On the night on which he was to attain enlightenment, the Buddha sat under a tree. While he was sitting there, he was attacked by the forces of Mara. The story goes that they shot swords and arrows at him, and that their weapons turned into flowers.

What does this story mean? My understanding of it is that what we habitually regard as obstacles are not really our enemies, but rather our friends. What we call obstacles are really the way the world and our entire experience teach us where we’re stuck. What may appear to be an arrow or a sword we can actually experience as a flower. Whether we experience what happens to us an obstacle and enemy or as teacher and friend depends entirely on our perception of reality. It depends on our relationship with ourselves.–Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, p. 65