The Dhammapada Introduction

Tonight, I will begin a series of Dharma talks based on the Dhammapada, a collection of the Buddha’s essential teachings in the form of 423 brief verses. To become more familiar with this collection, we will be reading a sampling of verses from selected chapters.

Buddhist scriptures are divided into three pitakas or baskets. One is the Vinaya Pitaka or “basket of disciplines,” containing rules of the monastic order. Another is the Abhidharma Pitaka or “basket of metaphysics,” comprised of documents that analyze Buddhist philosophy. The third and largest of these collections is the Sutra Pitaka or “basket of discourses,” which mostly consists of talks by the Buddha or his direct disciples. The Dhammapada is included in this third basket.

Unlike the sutras, which are full of stories, parables and lengthy instruction, the Dhammapada serves as a concise, practical guide for ethical living and self-liberation. Ananda Maitreya, a Theravada monk and scholar, stated, “If I were to recommend one book of all the Buddhist scriptures, it would be the Dhammapada. It contains all the wisdom of the Buddha. It’s all you need.”

Indian scholar and translator Eknath Easwaran surmises that the thematically arranged verses were compiled in the 6th century B.C. by disciples who wished to preserve what they had heard from the Buddha. For thousands of years devoted followers have memorized and chanted these poetic lines to connect with the Buddha’s transmission of universal truths.

Since the mid-19th century, when the Dhammapada was first translated from the Pali language, there have been over 50 translations, some more poetic and accurate than others. Although we will rely on Easwaran’s version (1983 & 2007), we’ll also look at some verses translated by Gil Fronsdal (2005), a Western Buddhist scholar and founding teacher of Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, CA.

According to Gil, the Dhammapada emphasizes two goals for spiritual living—the first focuses on attaining happiness and wellbeing in this life or future lives through practicing ethical precepts and virtuous actions. Verses pertaining to this goal may have been adapted from poetry, songs, and teachings already current in ancient India before and during the Buddha’s era. The second, uniquely Buddhist goal is liberation and entails purifying the mind of mental attachments and hindrances.

Gil observes that the compound title Dhammapada is difficult to translate. Dhamma and pada each have various meanings. Dhamma (or Dharma in Sanskrit) can mean religious teachings, truth, justice, or virtue. Pada means “foot” and by extension, footstep, path, place, or mental state. Pada can also refer to a line of verse, and by extension, a saying. Both Gil and Easwaran translate Dhammapada as “The Path of the Dharma (Truth).”

Easwaran adds that when Siddhartha Gautama (the future Buddha) was born, many Indians conceived of the natural world as governed by dharma or universal law. Dharma indicates that all things and events are part of an indivisible whole. In the sphere of human activity, dharma refers to behavior that is in harmony with that unity—sometimes expressed through acts of justice or through social and religious commitments. Dharma also means to be true to essential human qualities such as integrity, loyalty and compassion.

A common belief system in ancient India was that thoughts, words, and actions in harmony with dharma bring good karmic consequences and happiness, while selfish thoughts, words and actions bring unfavorable karma and suffering. After his enlightenment, the Buddha had compassion for the suffering of people whose minds were clouded by greed, hatred and delusion. He vowed, “To those who will listen, I will teach the dharma, and for those who follow it, the dharma will set them free.”

The Dhammapada points to attitudes and actions that value harmony and oneness with all living beings. An underlying theme of the Dhammapada is that our life is formed by our mind. Through right effort and meditation, it is possible to re-channel destructive ways of thinking and to deepen constructive channels of thought, which are reflected in how we act. The Dhammapada’s themes of self-mastery and freedom from clinging are as relevant today as they were in the Buddha’s era.

Although various verses address issues of monastic life or incorporate imagery of common village scenes that were familiar to the Buddha’s audiences in India, the teachings are relevant for lay practitioners today. In Gil’s view, a key message of the Dhammapada is not to avoid the mundane world or caring relationships, but to avoid attachment. Unlike moral commandments that demand blind obedience, the ethical guidelines in verse form are intended to cultivate inner and outer peace.

Gil notes that many of the themes are presented as dichotomies, or two sides of a distinction. He translates the title of the Dhammapada’s first chapter as “Dichotomies,” while Easwaran calls it “Twin Verses.” Here, ten pairs of verses describe options for human behavior, along with corresponding consequences. Each pair of verses guides practitioners to recognize choices in speech or action and to summon the will and discrimination to choose wisely. A pragmatic lesson is that thoughts, words and actions stemming from conditioned desires lead to only brief satisfaction. In contrast, more lasting contentment results from becoming aware of habitual impulses and then using right effort to act in wholesome ways.

As we review a selection of the paired verses, I will give specific examples of each principle. In the discussion afterwards, I’ll be interested in your own associations.

Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think. Suffering follows an evil thought as the wheels of a cart follow the oxen that draw it.

Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think.

Joy follows a pure thought like a shadow that never leaves.

 For instance, if my thoughts are full of worries about not having enough resources to share, I suffer by withholding gifts and by feeling separate from others.

On the other hand, when I decide to donate to the Houston Food Bank, I enjoy the generous impulse to help hungry people, and I sense our interconnection.

 “He was angry with me, he attacked me, he defeated me, he robbed me”—those who dwell on such thoughts will never be free from hatred.

“He was angry with me, he attacked me, he defeated me, he robbed me”—those who do not dwell on such thoughts will surely become free from hatred.

 When my thoughts focus on someone’s unskillful words or actions, I hold onto grudges and feel stuck in the past instead of flowing with life as it unfolds. For example, if I rehash how my father used to joke that meditation retreats are a waste of time, I am not mindful of the present moment. When I let go of such memories, I can bring compassionate attention to my dad, who is now a 94-year-old widower.

 For hatred can never put an end to hatred; love alone can.

This is an unalterable law.

People forget that their lives will end soon.

For those who remember, quarrels come to an end.

Here is Gil Fronsdal’s translation of the same lines:

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. (GF)

Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu lived according to the philosophy of these verses. During 27 years of solitary confinement, Mandela’s kind and respectful manner softened the hearts of his guards. In 1994, one of the guards sat in the front row to applaud when Mandela was inaugurated as president of South Africa. A year afterwards, Archbishop Tutu helped launch the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to gather evidence and uncover the truth about human rights violations that had occurred during the apartheid period. The goal was to heal the country’s wounds by listening to both victims and perpetrators rather than by prosecuting individuals for past crimes. In the process, many South Africans recognized that life was too short and precious to prolong hatred and resentment.

 As a strong wind blows down a weak tree, Mara the Tempter overwhelms weak people who, eating too much and working too little, are caught in the frantic pursuit of pleasure.
As the strongest wind cannot shake a mountain, Mara cannot shake those who are self-disciplined and full of faith.

 On mornings when there is nowhere to go during the pandemic, I wake up noticing the temptation to linger in bed. But as my body stretches and seeks a more comfortable position, I realize that I am growing restless. Starting the day with the disciplines of Metta and Qigong practice helps me to feel grounded and steady.

 Those who put on the saffron robe without purifying the mind, who lack truthfulness and self-control, are not fit to wear the saffron robe.

But those who have purified their minds, who are endowed with truth and self-control, are truly fit to wear the saffron robe.

Some sanghas that have fallen apart when the lead teacher has been deceitful or involved in relationships that misuse power or sexual energy. In 1988, when I recognized Jack Kornfield as my principal Dharma teacher, I was impressed by his honesty and self-discipline. During six years as an ordained monk, he had laid the groundwork for adhering to Buddhist precepts and for walking his talk.

The deluded, imagining trivial things to be vital to life, follow their vain fancies and never attain the highest knowledge.

But the wise, knowing what is trivial and what is vital, set their thoughts on the supreme goal and attain the highest knowledge.

 While homebound, I am more tempted than usual to check social media, which leads to dissatisfaction. On meditation retreats, I am content with no access to a cell phone or computer. The more concentrated my mind becomes, the less my mind is filled with cravings for things that do not bring lasting happiness.

 As the rain seeps through an ill-thatched hut, passion will seep through an untrained mind.
As rain cannot seep through a well-thatched hut, passion cannot seep through a well-trained mind.

The first time I attended a ten-day retreat, my mind was too restless to establish steady concentration. I developed a Vipassana crush on a man who sat near me in the meditation hall. Without knowing anything about him, I fantasized about our future friendship and our common interests. At the end of the retreat, when I greeted him, he was not interested in conversing.

On more recent retreats, I have practiced witnessing feelings of attraction or aversion towards fellow meditators without pursuing pleasant or unpleasant imaginary story lines about them. Increasingly, I value inner peace and concentration more than indulging in fantasies.

Those who recite many scriptures but fail to practice their teaching are like a cowherd counting another’s cows.

They do not share in the joys of the spiritual life.

But those who know few scriptures yet practice their teachings, overcoming all lust, hatred, and delusion, live with a pure mind in the highest wisdom.

They stand without external supports and share in the joys of the spiritual life.

 When Mark and I visited the Dalai Lama’s monastery in Dharamshala, India, we observed Tibetan monks chanting scriptures. To our surprise, some of the monks fell asleep during the recitations and did not seem committed to their practice. Yet, outside the monastery, some of the impoverished Tibetan refugees who had not learned the scriptures were devotedly practicing full body prostrations. Despite our cultural and language barriers, these practitioners gazed at us with kindness and transmitted inner peace and contentment.

 Comments questions, your own examples?