Tonight, I’ll present the last of a series of dharma talks about the Dhammapada, the essential teachings of the Buddha in verse form. The final two chapters are titled “The Bhikkhu” and “The Brahmin” or “The Noble One.” Traditionally, brahmin refers to the highest, priestly caste of the Hindus. Yet the Buddha taught that neither wealth nor high caste but only spiritual discipline makes a true brahmin. Although the traditional meaning of a bhikkhu is a monastic who has renounced all possessions except a robe and a begging bowl, the Buddha uses the term more widely to apply to anyone who is wholeheartedly committed to the dharma path. A bhikkhu shows good will towards all beings and accepts with equanimity whatever life brings. These selected verses from the Dhammapada contain the Buddha’s advice to bhikkhus:
Train your eyes and ears; train your nose and tongue.
The senses are good friends when they are trained.
Train your body in deeds, train your tongue in words, train your mind in thoughts.
This training will take you beyond sorrow.
Training the sense doors means noticing what feeling tones arise so that we don’t cling to what’s pleasant, avoid or reject what’s unpleasant, and ignore what is neutral. When we move beyond reactivity to flow with life, we can focus on being of service in the world:
He is a true bhikkhu who has trained his hands, feet and speech to serve others.
He meditates deeply, is at peace with himself, and lives in joy.
Even the gods praise the bhikkhu who is contented
And lives a life of selfless service.
Free from the desire to possess people and things,
He does not grieve over what is not.
With friendship towards all and faith in the Buddha’s teachings,
He will reach the holy state where all is peace.
Learn to be wise, O bhikkhu! Train your senses; be contented.
Follow the teachings of the dharma and keep pure and noble friends.
Be a friend of all. Perform your duties well.
Then with your joy ever growing, you will put an end to sorrow.
Raise yourself by your own efforts, O bhikkhu; be your own critic.
Thus self-reliant and vigilant, you will live in joy.
Be your own master and protector.
Train your mind as a merchant trains his horse….
Full of light is the young bhikkhu who follows the dharma.
He lights up the world as the moon lights a cloudless sky.
All of us have the potential to develop the qualities of a bhikkhu. I think of Jarvis Masters, who grew up in foster care and institutions for delinquent teens after his father abandoned the family and his mother was addicted to drugs. Arrested for armed robbery, Jarvis was imprisoned in San Quentin at the age of nineteen. There, he was convicted of conspiring with a prisoner who fatally stabbed a guard. Although his accusers later recanted, Jarvis has been on death row since 1990.
Facing death motivated him to educate himself and to meditate. During decades of confinement, he became a serious Buddhist practitioner, generating inner peace and compassion for those around him. In such a tough, noisy environment, he built a reputation for defusing conflicts among prisoners, defending vulnerable inmates, instructing young prisoners in nonviolence, and even counseling a suicidal guard. Jarvis’s books Finding Freedom and That Bird Has My Wings testify that despite daunting outer circumstances, it is possible to free the mind and to commit to a bhikkhu’s life of non-harming and service.
Selected verses from the last chapter of the Dhammapada describe the qualities of a brahmin or a noble one:
Who is a true brahmin?
That one I call a brahmin who has trained the mind to be still and reached the supreme goal of life.
The sun shines in the day. The moon shines in the night.
The warrior shines in battle; the brahmin in meditation.
But day and night the Buddha shines in radiance of love for all.
That one I call a brahmin who is never angry,
Never causes harm to others even when harmed by them.
That one I call a brahmin who clings not to pleasure.
Do not cause sorrow to others; no more sorrow will come to you.
Traditional commentaries about these verses include a story about how the Buddha viewed anger. Some lay disciples of the venerable monk Sāriputta praised his great forbearance, saying that he never got angry. A certain Brahmin overheard their conversation and declared that he would make the elderly monk angry. While Sāriputta was walking for alms, the Brahmin used his fist to strike a hard blow on his back. The Venerable monk did not get angry at all, but just asked, “What was that?” and continued on his way, without so much as looking round.
At once, the Brahmin felt remorseful for what he had done and, prostrating himself at the Elder’s feet, begged him for forgiveness and offered to give him alms food. Sāriputta pardoned him, accepted his offer, and accompanied the Brahmin to his house. There, some bystanders, who were outraged by the man’s violence towards the monk, waited with sticks and clods of earth to beat and punish the offender. Sāriputta protected the Brahmin and lent him the alms bowl while confronting the hostile crowd. The monk asked calmly, “Did he strike you or me?” Then he stated, “I have pardoned him,” and he sent away the mob.
In Sāriputta’s monastic community, some expressed concerns that if aggressive troublemakers weren’t punished, they might attack other monks. But the Buddha praised the Elder Sāriputta for being patient and for promoting peace and harmony.
That one I call a brahmin who does not hurt others
With unkind acts, words or thoughts.
Both body and mind obey him.
That one I call a brahmin who walks in the footsteps of the Buddha.
Light your torch from the fire of his sacrifice.
Saffron robe and outward show do not make a brahmin,
But training of the mind and senses through practice of meditation.
Neither riches nor high caste make a brahmin.
Free yourself from selfish desires and you will become a brahmin.
The one I call a brahmin who fears neither prison nor death.
Such a one has the power of love no army can defeat.
The one I call a brahmin who has put aside weapons and renounced violence toward all creatures.
Such a one neither kills not helps others to kill.
The one I call a brahmin who is ever true, ever kind.
Such a one never asks what life can give, only “What can I give life?
That one I call a brahmin who is free from I, me and mine,
Who knows the rise and fall of life.
Such a one is awake and will not fall asleep again.
A contemporary lay person who exemplifies some of the qualities of a brahmin is Sir David Attenborough. He has been a naturalist for over fifty years, studying and filming animals and plants all over the world, warning humans that our consumerism and rampant destruction of natural resources are accelerating climate change. His numerous documentary films remind us of the fragile beauty, balance, and interconnectedness of life that depends on healthy jungles, mountains, grasslands, polar regions, oceans, and air currents.
At 93, he narrated his most recent documentary film, David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet. It depicts the joy of witnessing gorillas hugging their babies and tropical birds dancing in elaborate mating rituals. And it portrays the sorrow of witnessing wild territories shrinking and polar bear cubs starving without enough ice for productive hunting. Attenborough has dedicated his life to raising consciousness about nature’s wondrous diversity and motivating human beings to conserve and protect the intricate web that sustains us and all creatures.
*Historically or currently, who else might be considered a brahmin?
To refresh your memory, brahmins embody qualities of mindfulness, lovingkindness, nonviolence, unselfishness, honesty and generosity.