DT-Dhammapada-chapters 3 & 4-Mind & Flowers
As we continue our review of the Dhammapada, we will look at chapter 3, titled “Mind,” which examines the challenges and rewards of taming the mind, and chapter 4, titled “Flowers,” which presents metaphors about the dharma path.
Let us listen to Easwaran’s translation of verses in the third chapter before discussing their significance:
As an archer aims an arrow, the wise aim their restless thoughts,
hard to aim, hard to restrain.
As a fish hooked and left on the sand thrashes about in agony,
The mind being trained in meditation trembles all over,
Desperate to escape the hand of Mara.
Hard it is to train the mind,
Which goes where it likes and does what it wants.
But a trained mind brings health and happiness.
The wise can direct their thoughts,
Subtle and elusive, wherever they chose:
A trained mind brings health and happiness.
Those who can direct their thoughts,
Which are unsubstantial and wander so aimlessly,
Are freed from the bonds of Mara.
They are not wise whose thoughts are not steady and minds not serene,
Who do not know dharma, the law of life.
They are wise whose thoughts are steady and minds serene,
Unaffected by good and bad. They are awake and free from fear.
Remember this body is like a fragile clay pot.
Make your mind a fortress and conquer Mara with the weapon of wisdom.
Guard your conquest always.
Remember that this body will soon lie in the earth without life,
Without value, useless as a burned log.
More than those who hate you, more than all your enemies,
An undisciplined mind does greater harm.
More than your mother, more than your father,
More than all your family
A well-disciplined mind does greater good.
In his comments on these verses, Easwaran quotes Mahatma Gandhi, who declared that training the mind through meditation requires great patience, as if we were trying to empty the sea with a teacup. Easwaran describes the process of meditation: If we think of raw consciousness as clay shaped on the potter’s wheel of the mind, our habitual ways of thinking—desires, aversions, hopes and fears—take form and affect our behavior. Focused and sustained attention gradually soften those rigid forms until the clay becomes malleable. Freed from habits, the mind returns to its original clear, adaptable state.
The good news is that in any moment we can wake up. One night, as I was lost in thought while walking our dog, a frog surprised us by jumping across our path. The tiny amphibian reminded me to return to the present moment, and I had a direct experience of freedom.
The verses acknowledge the supreme difficulty of mental discipline. The Buddha compares the untrained, restless, distractable mind to a fish flailing out of water. He uses martial imagery and likens an experienced meditator to a skilled archer who focuses and aims the mind so that wholesome thoughts find their mark. The Buddha alerts us that life passes quickly, so that it is urgent to practice.
He warns that an undisciplined mind is unreliable and cannot help but cause harm.
In daily life, we see how uncontrolled greedy, angry, deluded thoughts lead to destruction and violent actions that divide rather than unite people. Yet clear-headed, compassionate individuals who have trained their minds can counter destructive impulses and make positive contributions to the community. Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg is one of those contributors. The IMH book club is benefiting from reading her latest work, Real Change, which describes how mindfulness can heal ourselves and the world.
Chapter four of the Dhammapada contains a variety of metaphors about flowers to teach Buddhist principles. As I read aloud the verses, I’ll refer to some traditional commentaries that clarify their meaning. The opening verses invite us to make a conscious choice to follow the dharma path towards awakening.
As a garland maker chooses the right flowers,
Choose the well-taught path of dharma
And go beyond the realms of death and of the gods.
As a garland maker chooses the right flowers,
Those who choose the well-taught path of dharma
Will go beyond the realms of death and of the gods.
Remembering that this body is like froth, of the nature of a mirage,
Break the flower-tipped arrows of Mara; never again will death touch you.
Just as the watery image of a mirage is an illusion, the solid durability of the body is an illusion. Remembering the body’s impermanence helps us resist temptation to pursue fleeting pleasures. The more we shed attachments, the better we can focus on awakening.
As a flood sweeps away a slumbering village,
Death sweeps away those who spend their lives gathering flowers,
Death sweeps them away while they are still gathering,
Caught in the pursuit of pleasure.
But the wise live without injuring nature,
As the bee drinks nectar without harming the flower.
Here the Buddha highlights the heedlessness of those who die while grasping at short-lived pleasures. Wise ones accept life just as it is, causing no harm and flowing in harmony with whatever arises naturally. Traditional commentaries relate this verse to the practice of early morning alms-rounds, when monks visit village homes for food. Like a bee sipping from flowers without damaging them, monks are careful not to take too much from poor families or from any one household. This teaching applies to our current concerns about living sustainably.
Do not give your attention to what others do or fail to do;
Give it to what you do or fail to do.
Commentaries on this verse refer to a story about an ascetic named Pathika who cursed one of his disciples after she expressed appreciation for the Buddha’s teachings. The Buddha advised the disciple not to be concerned about her mentor’s behavior, but to be mindful of only her own wholesome and unwholesome deeds. It is often easier to for us to notice others’ foibles than to recognize our own.
Like a lovely flower, full of color but lacking in fragrance,
Are the words of those who do not practice what they preach.
Like a lovely flower full of color and fragrance
Are the words of those who practice what they preach.
One who admonishes others to act virtuously but who does not act in accordance with one’s own words, speaks in vain. The words are as empty as a beautiful flower that has no scent. Only when one acts according to one’s speech do the words bear fruit. Here, I am reminded of Brayden Harrington, the 13-year-old who bravely persevered through bouts of stuttering to deliver a speech at the Democratic convention. The boy was inspired by Joe Biden, who coached him in techniques that had alleviated his own childhood stuttering habit.
Many garlands can be made from a heap of flowers.
Many good deeds can be done in this life.
Traditional commentaries about this verse include a dharma story about Visakha, a wealthy benefactress who sold a gem-encrusted cloak to raise money and build a monastery for the Buddha’s sangha. When the Buddha saw how happy and fulfilled she was by acting generously, he explained that she had done good deeds in the past, she was inclined to do so in the present, and would do so in the future–like continuing to create beautiful garlands from a pile of flowers.
The scent of flowers or sandalwood cannot travel against the wind,
But the fragrance of the good travels everywhere.
Neither sandalwood nor the “tagara” flower,
Neither lotus nor jasmine, can come near the fragrance of the good.
The tagara is a shrub whose flowers are used to make perfume. In the commentaries, there is a story about the Buddha’s cousin and disciple Ananda reflecting that all known scents of flowers and perfumes go only with the wind. He asked the Buddha, “Is there any scent at all that can go against the wind?” The Blessed One replied that a virtuous person builds repute that spreads everywhere, both with and against the wind. Unlike most short-lived aromas, virtue has the highest “scent” or reputation and lasts a long time in all directions.
Faint is the scent of sandalwood or the “tagara,”
But the fragrance of the good rises high to reach the gods.
Mara can never come near those who are good, earnest and enlightened.
A true follower of the Buddha shines among blind mortals
As a fragrant lotus, growing in the garbage by the roadside,
Brings joy to all who pass by.
One who follows the dharma path sees the truth clearly and is like a sweet-smelling lotus, which can grow in a dirty place without being stained by it. Devoted dharma practitioners like the Dalai Lama spread joy to all those they meet.
Thank you for your kind attention. Now we have time for comments and questions about the themes of “Mind” and “Flowers.”