Recently I have been conducting a once a month study group in Oakland to cover everything from the Buddha’s basic teachings up to and including the Lotus Sūtra. We recently discussed the Dhammapada and I had a chance to again read various translations. I actually have a list of these translations and the other books we have covered and hope to cover on Amazon. My Amazon list includes my overall feeling about each translation. That can be found here.

Anyway, here are some lines from the Dhammapada (adapted from the translation by John Ross Carter and Mahinda Palihawadana) that I find especially noteworthy:

Chapter I

1. Preceded by mind are phenomena,

For them is mind supreme,

From mind have they sprung.

If, with mind polluted, one speaks or acts,

Thence suffering follows

As a wheel the draught ox’s foot.

2. Preceded by mind are phenomena,

For them is mind supreme,

From mind have they sprung.

If, with tranquil mind, one speaks or acts,

Thence ease follows

As a shadow that never departs.

That was from the translation by Thomas Cleary. Cleary comments: “The Buddhists Mahaparinirvana-sutra, or Scripture of the Absolute Nirvana, says, “Be master of your mind, do not be mastered by mind.” That was something Nichiren Shōnin frequently cited. Here is Buddhism in a nutshell. It is not about just being ethical or philosophical, it is not about worshipping a buddha or bodhisattva, it is not about just making good causes. It is about recognizing that our experience of life is a mental construct and that the way our mind is set will determine whether we experience life as heavenly or hellish, as a war of all against all, or as a gratuitous, selfless, and interdependent wonder where compassion is the most rewarding and authentic response. Life is the way our mind makes it appear to us, and based on that we will either act intelligently, maturely, and wisely, or we will react thoughtlessly and in unwholesome and inappropriate ways. Buddhism is about cultivating the mind and all else will follow for good or ill.

19. If one, though reciting much of texts,

Is not a doer thereof, a heedless man;

He, like a cowherd counting others’ cows,

Is not a partaker in the religions quest.

20. If one, though reciting little of texts,

Lives a life in accord with Dharma,

Having discarded passion, ill will, and unawareness,

Knowing full well, the mind well freed,

He, not grasping here, neither hereafter,

Is a partaker of the religious quest.

How many Buddhists are out there who think it sufficient to merely study texts for information (or fodder for debate) or just recite them as if they were magical spells? Clearly this is not what the Buddha intended for his teachings. Certainly the reading and consideration of the Buddha’s discourses are important for guiding and informing our practice, and even the ceremonial or ritual recital of sutras can be an act of  calming and focusing the mind (as well as helping us keep the verses we recite in mind). But the important thing is to deeply understand and apply the discourses.

Chapter III

42. What a foe may do to a foe,

Or a hater to a hater -

Far worse than that

The mind ill held may do to him.

43. Not mother, father, nor even other kinsmen,

May do that [good to him -]

Far better than that

The mind well held may do to him.

These lines also point to the preeminence of mind and how self-awareness and self-control are much more important than depending on other people or on having some imagined optimal situation in terms of one’s external environment. You can be your own worst enemy and you can also be your own best friend. Do not neglect to take care of your own mind.

Chapter IV

58. Just as in a heap of rubbish

Cast away on a roadside,

A lotus there could bloom,

Of sweet fragrance, pleasing the mind,

59. So amid the wretched, blinded ordinary folk,

Among them who have turned to rubbish,

The disciple of the Fully Awakened One

Shines surpassingly with wisdom.

These verses of course catch my eye because it uses the image of the lotus as an analogy. Beyond that the lesson is one that I wish more people (including myself) would take to heart. Remember the humanity of those you are inclined to look down upon due to your own prejudices and biases. Remember that there is far more to people than you can ever hope to see. Also, the wisest people and best teachers may be those who offer what they have learned for free and not the wealthy jet-set celebrity gurus who charge hundreds or thousands of dollars to attend their retreats. There may be people in your neighborhood who are far wiser and far more authentic offering to share their practice with others for nothing or next to nothing and who feel no need to set themselves up as gurus or awakened masters, who in fact know better than to engage in that kind of foolishness.

Chapter VII

97. Who has no faith, the ungrateful one,

The man who is a burglar,

Who has destroyed opportunities, ejected wish,

Truly he is a person supreme.

Most translations take this paradoxical verse and interpret it freely so that the paradox disappears. That annoys me, because this verse shows that play and paradox and the reversal of assumptions is not something confined to Zen but has been part of Buddhism from the beginning. Thankfully the Ross and Palihawadana translation presents it as it should appear. Here is what is meant – the person who knows for him or herself has no need of faith in a second or third-hand account. The word translated as “ungrateful” is a pun because it is also related to the word for “uncreated” – so the ungrateful person is really the one who recognizes the uncreated or empty nature of things (for which there would be no need to be grateful for some paltry created or conditioned impermanent gain). The word translated as “burglar” is also a pun because it can literally mean a “breaker of joints” and “joints” can refer to the links or fetters that tie a sentient being to the cycle of birth and death. Destroying opportunities refers to the destruction of the karmic activity that brings about the opportunities for rebirth in the realms of suffering. Ejecting wishes or hopes means that once awakened one has transcended such hopes and fears and is truly content.

Chapter VIII

102. And should one recite a hundred verses,

With words of no avail,

Better is one Dharma word,

Having heard which, one is pacified.

As a Nichiren Buddhist I can’t help think of the “one word” of Odaimoku (though really it is a title of seven Chinese characters) standing over and above all the other sūtras that can be recited (including the Lotus Sūtra itself). But again the important thing is this – are you really living that phrase and plumbing its deepest meaning in your life or just paying lip service, or even worse just using the phrase as a form of magical wishful thinking to avoid real introspection and application of the Dharma?

Chapter IX

127. That spot in the world is not found,

Neither in the sky nor in the ocean’s depths,

Nor having entered into a cleft in the mountains,

Where abiding, one would be released from the bad deed.

This sounds pretty fatalistic, but really I think the point is that you can’t escape responsibility for your actions no matter where you go. Buddhism is not about escapism or spiritual bypassing. It is about being realistic and dealing with yourself and life as it is.  You can’t just find some savior figure who will do it for you or take away the repercussions of your actions. Though there are buddhas and bodhisattvas in Buddhism who offer help, and though Buddhism does teach about no-self and pure lands, ultimately these are analogies and metaphors for opening ourselves up from our selfish myopic views to a greater reality where we will find resources that enable us to face our problems and resolve them.

Chapter XI

154. House-builder, you are seen!

The house you shall not build again!

Broken are your rafters, all,

Your roof beam destroyed.

Freedom from the habitual tendencies has the mind attained.

To the end of craving has it come.

This was supposedly said by the Buddha upon his awakening.  It was addressed to Mara, the devil like figure who personifies ignorance and all negative tendencies that prevent awakening and liberation. It also makes me think of the decrepit burning house in the Lotus Sūtra. The house here is conditioned existence and the roof-beam would be clinging to a “self” envisioned as a separate unchanging eternal existence. Such an idea or false sense of self is what keeps us self-centered and fretful about our fate and leads to the attachment and aversion that compels rebirth in the six lower realms (either from lifetime to lifetime or less literally from moment to moment).

Chapter XII

165.  By oneself is wrong done,

By oneself is one defiled.

By oneself wrong is not done,

By oneself, surely, is one cleansed.

One cannot purify another;

Purity and impurity are in oneself [alone].

So basically the Buddha is saying stop looking for a savior to depend on or do your inner work for you and stop blaming and scapegoating others.

Chapter XIII

170. As upon a bubble one would look,

As one would look upon a mirage,

The one considering the world thus,

King Death does not see.

Here we find the teaching of emptiness or at least the same similes used later in the Diamond Sūtra (chapter 32) and also used in the Samyutta Nikāya (22.95) to explain emptiness. It is not that phenomena don’t exist. If you experience something then it exists, but like a bubble or mirage it is not permanent or graspable. Phenomena appear or disappear in accordance with conditions. Phenomena are nothing more than a conglomeration of conditions in the first place. To reflect on this undercuts attachment and aversion (though recognizing the provisional existence of phenomena) and by doing that one overcomes even the fear of death because it is seen that there is no substantial world or even a substantial self that could ever have been graspable at all.

Chapter XIV

183. Refraining from all that is detrimental,

The attainment of what is wholesome,

The purification of one’s mind:

This is the instruction of Awakened Ones.

And here is Buddhism in a nutshell. Again notice the importance of mental purification. This goes beyond mere ethical considerations (though such are also considered as a prerequisite, for self-control is the basis for liberation). Here is a story from China using this verse that I am particularly fond of:

One day, the famous poet Bai Juyi asked the monk Niaowo about Buddhism: “How must I live my life so that I am completely at one with the Way?”

Niawo replied: “Avoid all evil and perform all good.”

Bai Juyi was not impressed by this and said, “Even a three-year-old knows that much.”

To which Niaowo retorted with: “A three-year-old may know it. But not even a one-hundred-year-old can do it.”

Chapter XX

277. When through wisdom one perceives,

“All conditioned phenomena are transient,”

Then one is detached as to misery.

This is the path of purity.

278. When through wisdom one perceives

“All conditioned phenomena are suffering,”

Then one is detached as to misery.

This is the path of purity.

279. When through wisdom one perceives,

“All phenomena are without self,”

Then one is detached as to misery.

This is the path of purity.

This is a recounting of the three marks that characterize the authentic teaching of the Buddha. The three marks are impermanence, suffering, and no-self. Any discourse that claims to be a teaching of the Buddha should be consistent with these. The three marks mean that all conditioned phenomena (sankhāras) are (1) impermanent and therefore (2) suffering (because unable to provide lasting satisfaction or ease), and that no fixed and abiding self can be found in any phenomena (dharmas) whether conditioned (like the sankhāras) or the unconditioned (like nirvāna) and when that is realized one attains liberation from suffering. I think the distinction made here in these three verses is sometimes lost. The unconditioned nirvāna is free of impermanence and suffering, one might say that it is even constant and blissful, but it is not a self (not a person, place, or thing) and therefore should not be made an object of clinging. It is what comes about when the impermanent, ultimately unsatisfying, and selfless nature of conditioned phenomena is realized and attachment and aversion drop away.

Chapter XXI

294. Having slain mother and father

And two kings of the warrior caste,

Having slain a kingdom together with the subordinate,

Without trembling the brahman goes.

295. Having slain mother and father

And two learned kings,

Having slain the tiger’s domain, as fifth,

Without trembling, the brahman goes.

Two more paradoxical verses that seem to praise violence but are really about slaying negativity and delusion. Here mother is craving, the mother of rebirth, and father is self-conceit. The two warrior kings represent the two false and extreme views of eternalism (that there is an eternal unchanging independent existence) and annhilationism (that there is not even a provisional existence). The kingdom represents the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination and passion is the subordinate or minister for the kingdom. The brahman represents the ideal person who is free of the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion. The two learned kings also represent eternalism and annihilationism, and the “tiger’s domain, as fifth” refers to the five hindrances to meditation practice – sensual craving, ill-will, drowsiness, restlessness, and debilitating doubt, where the tiger esp. represents the fifth, debilitating doubt which prevents one from even trying to practice.

Chapter XXIII

330. A life of solitude is better;

There is no companionship with the childish one.

With little exertion, like the elephant in the Mātanga forest,

Let one wander alone, and do no wrongs.

This is especially important for many Buddhists I have known who remain too long in dysfunctional organizations or practicing with negative people. If the people you are practicing with are hindering your practice or holding you back then have the strength to practice on your own. Trust your own judgment and don’t become dependent on gurus, masters, personality cults, and so on… At the same time, do look for healthy communities and fellow practitioners even if they are not famous gurus or international organization with gold toilet seats for their leaders.

Chapter XXIV

336. But whosoever in the world

Overcomes this childish craving, hard to get beyond,

From him sorrows fall away,

Like drops of water from a lotus leaf.

I just like this for the lotus imagery. Be in the world but not of it, let negativity and craving fall away.

339. For whom thirty-six streams,

Flowing to what is pleasing, are mighty,

That one, whose view is debased,

The currents, which are thoughts settled on passion, carry away.

Ever wonder why there are 108 small beads on a juzu (Buddhist rosary)? They represent 108 defilements that needs to be purified. The number 108 is arrived at in the following way: There are cravings for sensual pleasures, craving for continued existence, and craving for annihilation. These three can be multiplied by the six senses (the five physical senses and the mind as the mental sensory field) and so you have eighteen. The three kinds of craving can also be multiplied by the six objects corresponding to the six senses and so again you have eighteen. So together you have 18 kinds of craving in terms of the senses and 18 in terms of the objects and the total is 36. If these are multiplied by the three times periods of past, present and future you get 108. So 108 defilements represent the activity of craving throughout time in terms of our senses and their objects.

Chapter XXV

370. Let one cut away the five, relinquish the five,

And, especially, cultivate the five.

A bhikkhu who has gone beyond five attachments

Is called “One who has crossed the flood.”

This isn’t paradoxical but more of a playful riddle or perhaps a mnemonic. Here the five that are cut away are the five fetters that bind beings to rebirth within all the realms with the exception of the highest heaven in the realm of form and the heavens of the formless realm. They are (1) the view that there is an unchanging independent eternal self, (2) debilitating doubt that prevents one from taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and from practicing the teachings, (3) wrong view of rules and observances whereby one mistakenly thinks that mere external observances and ethics can enable one to be free of the cycle of birth and death, (4) sensual desire, and (5) ill-will. Those who have cut away these will only be liable to be reborn in the highest heaven of the realm of form.

The overcoming of these are milestones to look out for in one’s practice. Here is my understanding of them:

You become a “stream-enterer” or at least the bodhisattva equivalent if you can honestly say: (1) that you are free of the idea (though you may still feel it or feel wistful about it) that there is some substantial self that is permanent, unchanging, and separate from all other beings and things; (2) that you fully trust that the Buddha was truly awake to reality and thereby liberated from suffering, that the Dharma he taught will enable us to also attain liberation, and that there is a Sangha or community that has successfully passed his teachings on to you so that you can practice them; and (3) that you no longer rely on mere ethics or external ritual observances to overcome suffering or attain purification from defilement.

You become a “once-returner” or at least the bodhisattva equivalent if you can honestly say that (4) sensual craving and (5) ill-will no longer dominate your life. In other words you no longer are in danger of losing control or compromising your integrity because of ill-will or sensual craving, even though such feelings still rise up on occasion. They are still in your life but you have achieved sufficient spiritual maturity that you no longer give in to them.

You become a “non-returner” or at least the bodhisattva equivalent if you can honestly say that sensual craving and ill-will have totally been uprooted. Are there people like this? Perhaps. In the Tiantai view even the buddhas retain all the lower worlds. So perhaps from a Tiantai/Nichiren point of view this means that one has matured beyond such primitive reactions but still retains the ability to feel or at least understand them. Maybe at least Mr. Rogers was like this? He certainly seemed like it.

Relinquishing the five refers to the five more subtle fetters that keep one from becoming an arhat who will no longer ever be reborn in the six lower realms. These five are (1) desire to continue existing in the form realm heavens, (2) desire to continue existing in the formless realm heavens, (3) conceit, (4) restlessness, and (5) ignorance.

I understand this to mean that the arhat no longer has even the slightest wish to continue existing in even in a subtle or refined spiritual state. They are totally unselfconscious and so beyond conceit. They no longer feel the need to accomplish anything because all has been done that needs to be done on their part. They have also overcome the ignorance that perpetuates even a lingering sense of self or dualistic subject-object distinctions. I think, though, that a bodhisattva would also have accomplished this but also would see (as per the One Vehicle) that having no attachment to subtle states doesn’t mean that one would then have aversion for them. The bodhisattva would be free to enter or leave any state in any of the realms of becoming. Furthermore, the bodhisattva would be unselfconscious and content but in keeping with their skillful interactions with ignorant beings they would manifest active provisional embodiments or “selves” as needed. They would no longer even be afraid of ignorance. As Senchu Murano translated from chapter 14 of the Lotus Sūtra:

What are the proper practices the Bodhisattva-mahāsattva should perform? He should be patient, mild, and meek. He should not be rash, timorous, or attached to anything. He should see things as they are. He should not be attached to his non-attachment to anything. Nor should he be attached to his seeing things as they are. These are the proper practices the Bodhisattva-mahāsattva should perform.

The five things to cultivate are (1) faith (trust in the Thee Treasures), (2) energy (to apply oneself to practice), (3) mindfulness (to monitor one’s practice and life in general), (4) concentration (to attain  states of meditative focus, stability, and clarity), and (5) wisdom (to discern reality as it is and not as one wishes it to be).

The five attachments refer to greed, hatred, delusion, pride, and false views.

373. For a monk who has entered an empty house,

Whose mind is at peace,

Who perceives the Dharma fully,

There is delight unlike that of mortals.

More references to emptiness and houses as above. Which leads me to wonder – is there a burning house in the first place? See below:

Chapter XXVI

385. For whom the farther shore or the nearer shore

Or both does not exist,

Who is free of distress, unyoked,

That one I call a brahman.

See, this is the kind of thing I would only have expected from the Mahāyāna but here it is in the Dhammapada. The analogy of a near and far shore is about the difficulty of crossing from one side to the other and how this is like the spiritual difficulty of crossing from the “near shore” of deluded existence that comprises the six realms of rebirth and the “far shore” of nirvāna where one is liberated from rebirth. Here it is clearly stated that ultimately there is no such dichotomy, no far or near shore. The idea that one must cross from here to there is not a literal description of some objective metaphysical state of affairs but a skillful method to spur practice so that one can get free of the mindset that the grass is greener somewhere else.

401. Like water on a lotus petal,

Like a mustard seed on the point of an awl,

Who is not smeared with sensualities,

That one I call a brahman.

Another lotus analogy I would like to draw attention to.

421. For whom there is nothing

In front, behind, and in between,

The one, without anything, ungrasping,

That one I call a brahman.

Another excellent verse about emptiness and ungrasping.