This is a series of articles I’m doing on one of the basic Buddhist texts, the Dhammapada. Read the rest of the articles in this series.
The Dhammapada touches on so many things, but weirdest for westerners is probably thinking about old age and death. We like to avoid that in our youth-obsessed culture.
So are you ready to get old, sick and die? I thought so! Here we go!
146. When this world is ever ablaze, why this laughter, why this jubilation? Shrouded in darkness, will you not see the light?
Thanissaro has this last bit as “Enveloped in darkness, don’t you look for a lamp?”
We have to stray a little to get this one. The flames are the flames of passion, the darkness is your ignorance. We are all easily engulfed by these flames. And I mean sense pleasures here. You are ignorant of the emptiness of these pleasures. But by developing wisdom (the light) you can see right through to the truth of their emptiness and no longer be attached (or engulfed by them).
147. Behold this body — a painted image, a mass of heaped up sores, infirm, full of hankering — of which nothing is lasting or stable!
148. Fully worn out is this body, a nest of disease, and fragile. This foul mass breaks up, for death is the end of life.
Yeah, you better get used to that. Some meditation practices also perform a body scan to make you more fully aware of the composition and the state of your body. Western meditation instructors have sometimes softened this up for the audiences, going through the pleasant bits (your tummy, your legs, your neck, maybe your squishy fun zone). But it is thought that the Buddha never meant for this to be so nice.
Instead you should also scan through what you might at first find unpleasant, your teeth with holes in them, your gall bladder, your anus and intestines, hair follicles and the glands in your skin that excrete grease and wax and make your skin glisten, fingernails, stomach and liver. This is all in a body. It is not good or bad in itself. Learn to recognize your whole body for what it is, and accept that it will grow frail.
Your fingers might start to tremble, your eyesight and hearing will worsen, your faculties will diminish. There is no wisdom in denying this. Trying not to think about it or to preserve eternal youth just leads to clinging to impermanent things, and that is one of the sources of suffering.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take care of your body. If anything, it might motivate you to care even more. But not overly so, do not become attached to an artificial beauty ideal. See the middle path here?
149. These dove-colored bones are like gourds that lie scattered about in autumn. Having seen them, how can one seek delight?
150. This city (body) is built of bones, plastered with flesh and blood; within are decay and death, pride and jealousy.
That’s what I’m talking about!
151. Even gorgeous royal chariots wear out, and indeed this body too wears out. But the Dhamma of the Good does not age; thus the Good make it known to the good.
Understanding the true nature of reality is wisdom and realization, it does not grow old even if the mind that has realized does.
152. The man of little learning grows old like a bull. He grows only in bulk, but, his wisdom does not grow.
153. Through many a birth in samsara have I wandered in vain, seeking the builder of this house (of life). Repeated birth is indeed suffering!
154. O house-builder, you are seen! You will not build this house again. For your rafters are broken and your ridgepole shattered. My mind has reached the Unconditioned; I have attained the destruction of craving.
The Buddha, having been enlightened (to the true nature of reality) and dependent origination, recognized that all his delusions were shattered, that he grasped the understanding of how things come to be and how they affect other things. It is said that verse 154 was spoken immediately after his enlightenment, so the powerful simile makes sense. It’d be one hell of a surprise for me if I suddenly knew these things and the power of this realization must be breathtaking.
155. Those who in youth have not led the holy life, or have failed to acquire wealth, languish like old cranes in the pond without fish.
156. Those who in youth have not lead the holy life, or have failed to acquire wealth, lie sighing over the past, like worn out arrows (shot from) a bow.
Now this should finally shut everyone up who thinks the Buddha did not concern himself with money matters. He even gave one of his disciples householding and budgeting advice, of course he knew about the importance of wealth.
But the deeper spiritual meaning is more interesting in these verses. If you don’t cultivate your wisdom when you’re young, it’ll be too late when you’re old. All you can do is sit by the fishless pond, catching nothing. All you have is regrets.
I realize some people find Buddhism dark, but I can only repeat once more that it’s not. It’s realistic to the extreme. It sets delusions on fire and cuts through them with a Poisoned Elven Katana of Slicing +1. For some this is scary. Yes, it can be scary, but scary things are usually only scary until you face them head-on.
If the impermanence and death topics inside Buddhism frighten you at the moment, just think about them some more, even meditate on them (in the second sense of the word). You’ll get to grips with it as soon as you’re ready for it. It’s also fine to take a break from learning at this point. Some people say Buddhism should be 50% study and 50% practice (meditation). So if you’re still with me on this ride but haven’t started meditating yet, perhaps now would be the right time.