Over the past weeks, we have discussed a number of chapters in Eknath Easwaran’s translation of the Dhammapada. Tonight, I’ll continue the dharma series about these key teachings of the Buddha with a sampling of verses from various chapters. Many of the themes seem uncannily relevant during the polarizing post-election upheaval. As you listen, note which verses speak to you.
A chapter called “Thousands” contains these memorable lines about right speech and the rewards of self-mastery:
Better than a speech of a thousand vain words
Is one thoughtful word which brings peace to the mind….
One who conquers himself is greater than another
who conquers a thousand times a thousand men on the battle field.
Be victorious over yourself and not over others.
Imagine how different election campaigns would be if politicians attempted to master themselves and to live with integrity instead of attacking one another.
While the Buddha emphasized that there is no permanent, solid self, the chapter titled “Self” celebrates the human capacity for right intention and will power:
Learn what is right, then teach others, as the wise do.
Before trying to guide others, be your own guide first.
It is hard to learn to guide oneself.
Your own self is your master; who else could it be?
With yourself well-controlled, you gain a master very hard to find.
*Reflection: What does it mean to master yourself? Consider the difference between rigid self-control and natural spontaneity that comes from self-mastery.
A chapter titled “Evil” teaches about karmic consequences:
If you do what is evil, do not repeat it or take pleasure in making it a habit.
An evil habit will cause nothing but suffering.
If you do what is good, keep repeating it and take pleasure in making it a habit.
A good habit will cause nothing but joy.
These lines are consistent with current neurological findings: as neuropsychologist Rick Hanson observes, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” The consequences matter: A habit of telling lies causes suffering by undermining trust, while a habit of speaking honestly leads to the joy of trustworthy relationships.
In the Dhammapada, the Buddha uses the image of filling a pot with drops of water that are evil or good to illustrate how our daily choices matter:
Let no one think lightly of evil and say to himself,
“Sorrow will not come to me.”
Little by little, a person becomes evil as a pot is filled with drops of water….
Let no one think lightly of good and say to himself,
“Joy will not come to me.”
Little by little, a person becomes good, as a pot is filled by drops of water.
For example, idle gossip may seem harmless, but there is a risk of hurting the feelings of someone who is not present. If they hear us gossip, friends and colleagues doubt that we will keep their communications private. Yet if we build a reputation for keeping confidentiality, we earn the joy of being respected.
In a chapter called “Punishment,” the Buddha describes how our harmful deeds and harsh words cause us suffering. His solution is to practice the dharma energetically to tame the mind. In one of his teachings, the Dalai Lama reminisces about being 16 years old when he started to study a Buddhist text about mental training and the nature of reality. At 73, he commented, “My understanding is still limited, and I am…fortunate to be able to study this book. Every day I learn one page—a thousand days, a thousand pages…. Learning to construct our mind takes time. If we make a continuous effort, without losing interest or determination, things will improve. Our eventual aim is the genuine experience of infinite altruism and [the] understanding of ultimate reality.” His Holiness conducts his life according to these lines in the Dhammapada:
As a well-trained horse needs no whip,
A well-trained mind needs no prodding from the world to be good.
When he teaches about aging, the Buddha likens the body to a decaying house and develops the themes of impermanence and character building:
Even the chariot of a king loses its glitter in the course of time;
So too the body loses its health and strength.
But goodness does not grow old with the passage of time.
A chapter called “The Awakened One” describes the Buddha’s central teachings:
Take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha,
And you will grasp the Four Noble Truths:
Suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering,
And the Noble Eightfold Path that takes you beyond suffering.
That is your best [and only] refuge. When you reach it, all sorrow falls away.
The Buddha taught about an internal state of abiding joy that does not depend on ever-changing external conditions:
Let us live in joy, never hating those who hate us.
Let us live in freedom, without hatred even among those who hate….
Let us live in joy, never attached among those who are selfishly attached.
Let us live in freedom even among those who are bound by selfish attachments….
Conquest breeds hatred, for the conquered live in sorrow.
Let us be neither conqueror nor conquered,
And live in peace and joy.
A chapter called “Pleasure” clarifies that what is pleasant contains seeds of what is unpleasant. What causes suffering is not pleasurable things or experiences themselves, but clinging to them and feeling aversion as they inevitably change.
Not seeing what is pleasant brings pain;
Seeing what is unpleasant brings pain.
Therefore, go beyond both pleasure and pain….
Don’t get selfishly attached to anything,
For trying to hold on to it will bring you pain.
When you have neither likes nor dislikes, you will be free.
When he taught about anger, the Buddha urged his disciples to cultivate gentleness, compassion and patience as antidotes. He was not referring to suppression but to channeling the raw power of anger into spiritual growth instead of reacting with destructive outbursts. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “I have learnt through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger,
and as heat conserved is transmuted into energy, even so our anger can be transmuted into a power that can move the world.” A couple of verses in this chapter follow:
Conquer anger through gentleness, unkindness through kindness,
And falsehood by truth. Be truthful; do not yield to anger…
Use your body for doing good, not for harm.
Train it to follow the dharma.
Use your tongue for doing good, not for harm.
Train it to speak kindly.
Use your mind for doing good, not for harm.
Train your mind in love.
The Buddha noted the liberty that comes from recognizing and accepting the three characteristics of life: impermanence, suffering, and the absence of a solid self:
All created things are transitory: those who realize this are freed from suffering.
This is the path that leads to pure wisdom.
All created beings are involved in sorrow; those who realize this are freed from suffering. This is the path that leads to pure wisdom.
All states are without self; those who realize this are freed from suffering.
This is the path that leads to pure wisdom.
According to Buddhist thought, hell, or what Easwaran translates as “the downward course,” is not a place of eternal damnation but a painful state of mind created by our unskillful thoughts, words and deeds. As Milton writes in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a heaven of hell or hell of heaven.” Once we take responsibility for causing harm, we can renew efforts to follow the dharma path and to live in harmony with all beings. Here are related verses in the Dhammapada:
Those who see wrong where there is none,
And do not see wrong where there is,
Follow false doctrines on the downward course.
But those who see wrong where there is wrong,
And see no wrong where there is none,
Follow true doctrines on the upward course.
One of the names for the Buddha was “the Great Elephant,” because he embodied that noble animal’s qualities of strength, endurance and intelligence. In his teaching, the Buddha used the analogy of a trained elephant, whose formidable power has been transformed into disciplined and dedicated service. In the Dhammapada’s chapter titled “Elephant,” one verse reads:
Be vigilant; guard your mind against negative thoughts.
Pull yourself out of bad ways as an elephant raises itself out of mud.
A chapter called “Thirst” contains some of the Buddha’s teachings about transforming egotistic cravings into a healthy desire for spiritual growth.
All human beings are subject to attachment and thirst for pleasure.
Hankering after these, they are caught in the cycle of birth and death.
Driven by this thirst, they run about frightened like a hunted hare,
Suffering more and more. Overcome this thirst and be free….
There is no gift better than the gift of the dharma,
No gift more sweet, no gift more joyful.
It puts an end to cravings and the sorrow they bring.
As we review this selection of verses, we see the wide range of themes the Buddha addressed in his teaching—all related to the benefits of following the dharma path.