The Dhammapada exploration – part 26: The Holy Man

Holy people, in religions, have it easy sometimes. In some they need to really work just one day a week, they have obedient little children doing most of the heavy lifting for them during service, and if they misbehave (or behave very well) they get sent to another part of the world for free and can explore that culture.

But Buddhism isn’t a religion, it has no rich organization overseeing things and no strict hierarchies. People in Buddhism, whether holy or not, should be working all the time. “Holy man” is also a shitty translation. What the Buddhist texts mean is “brahman”, in its original sense as used in India.

A brahman, be it woman or man, is highly accomplished in inner purity and self-control. Truly better than most. This isn’t something that you can simply learn in a Catholic priest seminary and then hang on your wall in the form of a certificate of ordination. This is something you work on for years, decades, maybe all your life without even attaining it.

So let’s hear about these interesting qualities in this twenty-sixth and final chapter of the Dhammapada.

383. Exert yourself, O holy man! Cut off the stream (of craving), and discard sense desires. Knowing the destruction of all the conditioned things, become, O holy man, the knower of the Uncreated (Nibbana)! [26]

384. When a holy man has reached the summit of two paths (meditative concentration and insight), he knows the truth and all his fetters fall away.

385. He for whom there is neither this shore nor the other shore, nor yet both, he who is free of cares and is unfettered — him do I call a holy man. [27]

386. He who is meditative, stainless and settled, whose work is done and who is free from cankers, having reached the highest goal — him do I call a holy man.

Let’s say you don’t buy into this Nibbana stuff. Even if that’s the case, you can recognize that such a person has attained something ultimate. The person’s cares and fears all disappear, they see things as they are without being torn this way or that, without being attached. It is a state of great contentment.

Sometimes in meditation, you can get a glimpse of what that feels like. I’m not sure if my definition is all kosher, but if the ultimately accomplished person exists in this state quasi-permanently, then I would be happy to call that Nibbana. What more could you wish for than absolute contentment?

387. The sun shines by day, the moon shines by night. The warrior shines in armor, the holy man shines in meditation. But the Buddha shines resplendent all day and all night.

388. Because he has discarded evil, he is called a holy man. Because he is serene in conduct, he is called a recluse. And because he has renounced his impurities, he is called a renunciate.

389. One should not strike a holy man, nor should a holy man, when struck, give way to anger. Shame on him who strikes a holy man, and more shame on him who gives way to anger.

I like how there isn’t any prescribed dogmatic punishment, just “shame on him”.

390. Nothing is better for a holy man than when he holds his mind back from what is endearing. To the extent the intent to harm wears away, to that extent does suffering subside.

391. He who does no evil in deed, word and thought, who is restrained in these three ways — him do I call a holy man.

392. Just as a brahman priest reveres his sacrificial fire, even so should one devoutly revere the person from whom one has learned the Dhamma taught by the Buddha.

Unless of course the person you learned from turns into an idiot and does foolish things later in life. But even then: Maybe the foolish things can exist in parallel to the good things. Brad Warner once wrote about his former (Japanese) teacher harboring very strong nationalist thoughts that Brad didn’t share. Yet the same teacher also taught the dhamma.

How is this possible, if strong attachment to opinions is something you’re supposed to get rid of? Well, we don’t know if the guy at some point rethought his opinions, or if they are even that strongly held. That’s something for that person to answer. But what he outwardly proved is that he can teach the dhamma.

393. Not by matted hair, nor by lineage, nor by birth does one become a holy man. But he in whom truth and righteousness exist — he is pure, he is a holy man.

394. What is the use of your matted hair, O witless man? What of your garment of antelope’s hide? Within you is the tangle (of passion); only outwardly do you cleanse yourself. [28]

395. The person who wears a robe made of rags, who is lean, with veins showing all over the body, and who meditates alone in the forest — him do I call a holy man.

I think this verse exists because at the time in India, there were a lot of charlatans masquerading as brahmans. Matting their hair into thick rastas, smearing their body with ash, doing all the things that achieved “holy” people of various belief systems also did at the time, but mostly so they could just beg and didn’t have to work. But outward appearance isn’t what matters. Inner accomplishment is.

Christian scriptures present a similar idea when Jesus at one point loses it and yells at the priests, calling them hypocrites and complaining that their cups and dishes are only shiny on the outside but dirty and grimy and unwashed on the inside. Clean up your own act first, fucking liar!

I don’t know what the Pharisees were like, maybe they were very thick and annoying people and thus warranted being yelled at, or maybe presenting them this way was a political move by the people who wrote the Bible and only applies to the era of 80 – 90 CE. But the basic idea is exactly the same as expressed in the Dhammapada. Ancient India had fake brahmans, the first-century Middle East had hypocrite Pharisees.

Also, note that the Dhammapada says lean, not emaciated. Total asceticism isn’t useful for your mental accomplishments. Be well-nourished but not overweight. A hungry mind can’t think right, and neither can it meditate properly.

And this also now leads us into the glorious Dhammapada finale! Get ready for firworks of holiness! Go, go, go!

396. I do not call him a holy man because of his lineage or high-born mother. If he is full of impeding attachments, he is just a supercilious man. But who is free from impediments and clinging — him do I call a holy man.

397. He who, having cut off all fetters, trembles no more, who has overcome all attachments and is emancipated — him do I call a holy man.

398. He who has cut off the thong (of hatred), the band (of craving), and the rope (of false views), together with the appurtenances (latent evil tendencies), he who has removed the crossbar (of ignorance) and is enlightened — him do I call a holy man.

399. He who without resentment endures abuse, beating and punishment; whose power, real might, is patience — him do I call a holy man.

400. He who is free from anger, is devout, virtuous, without craving, self-subdued and bears his final body — him do I call a holy man.

401. Like water on a lotus leaf, or a mustard seed on the point of a needle, he who does not cling to sensual pleasures — him do I call a holy man.

402. He who in this very life realizes for himself the end of suffering, who has laid aside the burden and become emancipated — him do I call a holy man.

403. He who has profound knowledge, who is wise, skilled in discerning the right or wrong path, and has reached the highest goal — him do I call a holy man.

404. He who holds aloof from householders and ascetics alike, and wanders about with no fixed abode and but few wants — him do I call a holy man.

405. He who has renounced violence towards all living beings, weak or strong, who neither kills nor causes others to kill — him do I call a holy man.

406. He who is friendly amidst the hostile, peaceful amidst the violent, and unattached amidst the attached — him do I call a holy man.

407. He whose lust and hatred, pride and hypocrisy have fallen off like a mustard seed from the point of a needle — him do I call a holy man.

408. He who utters gentle, instructive and truthful words, who imprecates none — him do I call a holy man.

409. He who in this world takes nothing that is not given to him, be it long or short, small or big, good or bad — him do I call a holy man.

410. He who wants nothing of either this world or the next, who is desire-free and emancipated — him do I call a holy man.

411. He who has no attachment, who through perfect knowledge is free from doubts and has plunged into the Deathless — him do I call a holy man.

412. He who in this world has transcended the ties of both merit and demerit, who is sorrowless, stainless and pure — him do I call a holy man.

413. He, who, like the moon, is spotless and pure, serene and clear, who has destroyed the delight in existence — him do I call a holy man.

414. He who, having traversed this miry, perilous and delusive round of existence, has crossed over and reached the other shore; who is meditative, calm, free from doubt, and, clinging to nothing, has attained to Nibbana — him do I call a holy man.

415. He who, having abandoned sensual pleasures, has renounced the household life and become a homeless one; has destroyed both sensual desire and continued existence — him do I call a holy man.

416. He who, having abandoned craving, has renounced the household life and become a homeless one, has destroyed both craving and continued existence — him do I call a holy man.

417. He who, casting off human bonds and transcending heavenly ties, is wholly delivered of all bondages — him do I call a holy man.

418. He who, having cast off likes and dislikes, has become tranquil, is rid of the substrata of existence and like a hero has conquered all the worlds — him do I call a holy man.

419. He who in every way knows the death and rebirth of all beings, and is totally detached, blessed and enlightened — him do I call a holy man.

420. He whose track no gods, no angels, no humans trace, the arahant who has destroyed all cankers — him do I call a holy man.

421. He who clings to nothing of the past, present and future, who has no attachment and holds on to nothing — him do I call a holy man.

422. He, the Noble, the Excellent, the Heroic, the Great Sage, the Conqueror, the Passionless, the Pure, the Enlightened one — him do I call a holy man.

423. He who knows his former births, who sees heaven and hell, who has reached the end of births and attained to the perfection of insight, the sage who has reached the summit of spiritual excellence — him do I call a holy man.

Whew! What a litany! A mind-orgasm! And not a single animal simile in the entire thing, so you know they were serious about this. But it’s also a great conclusion to a very readable part of Buddhist texts.

If you’ve paid attention during the previous 25 parts you will find nothing new in these lines. Just a repetition and a conclusion. And with this I also conclude this series. I hope you had fun exploring the Dhammapada with me, I hope you forgive me if I was spouting bullshit in my analysis (I honestly didn’t know better at the time, probably still don’t), and I really expect you to verify all these things on your own as well.

Reading list

If you want to know where to go from here, I can only suggest things that I’ve read myself. There may be better sources, but again, I urge you to discover them on your own.

I also suggest you read about the different branches of Buddhism. Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana are just coarse categorizations. You’ll find dozens of branches within that, such as Thai Forest Tradition, Pure Land, Zen or Tibetan, they are all different in their ways (but not really in their ends). So if this Zen stuff I’m talking about doesn’t fit you, that doesn’t mean you can’t find something fitting in the other schools.

Anyway, here’s my Zen starter reading list, accompanied by some general Buddhism stuff:

  • What the Buddha Taught, by Walpola Rahula
  • Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki
  • Hardcore Zen, by Brad Warner
  • Don’t be a Jerk, by Brad Warner

And some Thai Forest Tradition things I found very pleasing to read:

Podcasts and dhamma talks

Buddhism has developed a tradition of dhamma talks, more or less regular explanations about the dhamma taught at e.g. Zen centers. Here are some podcasts I like:

And with this I release you into that wild old world we have out there. Much success to you.


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