The Dhammapada exploration – part 19: The just/the judge

It’s Sunday, so it’s time to catch up on our Dhammapada reading! Buddhism gives some advice on judging, and as we’ve learned earlier, prejudice is particularly frowned upon. But Buddhism never goes into the “hey man, don’t judge!” hippie territory either. Instead, you should reflect on the proper things and in the proper way before reaching judgment on something or someone.

Now what are these proper ways? Let’s have a look.

256. Not by passing arbitrary judgments does a man become just; a wise man is he who investigates both right and wrong.

257. He who does not judge others arbitrarily, but passes judgment impartially according to the truth, that sagacious man is a guardian of law and is called just.

This is what I’d hope full-time professional judges have to do as well. But good judgment is not just for them! You can have some of that cake too, and you can claim it’s part of your Buddhist philosophy. You wouldn’t be lying.

258. One is not wise because one speaks much. He who is peaceable, friendly and fearless is called wise.

259. A man is not versed in Dhamma because he speaks much. He who, after hearing a little Dhamma, realizes its truth directly and is not heedless of it, is truly versed in the Dhamma.

In other places of the literature, you see sometimes (paraphrased): “if you have nothing valuable to add, you don’t need to say anything.” This seems to be in the same vein.

260. A monk is not an elder because his head is gray. He is but ripe in age, and he is called one grown old in vain.

261. One in whom there is truthfulness, virtue, inoffensiveness, restraint and self-mastery, who is free from defilements and is wise — he is truly called an Elder.

This neatly exposes some societal prejudice. Oh, the grey-haired middle-manager, he knows better how work needs to be done than the young office clerk with their head full of ideas. It’s not always this way around. Just aging won’t make you wise, practice (in all its senses, including that of meditation and self-improvement) will.

262. Not by mere eloquence nor by beauty of form does a man become accomplished, if he is jealous, selfish and deceitful.

263. But he in whom these are wholly destroyed, uprooted and extinct, and who has cast out hatred — that wise man is truly accomplished.

You need to attack these as well as other impurities before you can call yourself wise, and once you reach that point, you probably wouldn’t see the point of calling yourself wise. Others might call you that, but who are you to judge. See what I did there?

What? Did I ever claim to make good jokes?

264. Not by shaven head does a man who is indisciplined and untruthful become a monk. How can he who is full of desire and greed be a monk?

265. He who wholly subdues evil both small and great is called a monk, because he has overcome all evil.

266. He is not a monk just because he lives on others’ alms. Not by adopting outward form does one become a true monk.

267. Whoever here (in the Dispensation) lives a holy life, transcending both merit and demerit, and walks with understanding in this world — he is truly called a monk.

These verses are nice because they mean being a monk is mostly in your head, not related to outside appearances. Buddhism is very much an esoteric philosophy, in the eastern sense of the word, not to be confused with western esotericism. It is directed towards the inner sense-worlds. So some of us may be happy to hear they can accomplish what monks accomplish even living alone in a city. In fact, some passages say that he or she who achieves this while living the layperson’s life in a bustling and noise environment may even be more accomplished than the person who took the “easy” path of becoming a monk or nun.

But it’s also confusing sometimes that Buddhist teaching is not always clear about whether it is addressing things related only to monastic life or things that a layperson would have to adopt as well. Some authors (for example Dogen) spend a great number of pages detailing monastic order. Some, like the authors of the Dhammapada, mix and match things more easily.

Anyhow. Time to whip out the good old common sense. If you read Dogen’s Tenzo Kyokun (Instructions for the Chief Cook) you can probably figure out that this is very specific instruction for life in a monastery and probably doesn’t apply to you. If you read passages like Dhp 264-267 above, it should be clear that this can also apply to you as a lay practitioner.

268. Not by observing silence does one become a sage, if he be foolish and ignorant. But that man is wise who, as if holding a balance-scale accepts only the good.

269. The sage (thus) rejecting the evil, is truly a sage. Since he comprehends both (present and future) worlds, he is called a sage.

The future arises as result of previous actions. That’s how that future-gazing works.

270. He is not noble who injures living beings. He is called noble because he is harmless towards all living beings.

271-272. Not by rules and observances, not even by much learning, nor by gain of absorption, nor by a life of seclusion, nor by thinking, “I enjoy the bliss of renunciation, which is not experienced by the worldling” should you, O monks, rest content, until the utter destruction of cankers (Arahantship) is reached.

There you are. No one cares if you shave your head or wear saffron or black robes. Don’t go to a monastery and wear the monk or nun label with some wrong sense of pride. It isn’t about these outward things. The battle is in your head, and winning that battle is a much bigger achievement than being able to follow the head monk’s possibly ridiculous list of rules.

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.

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