The Dhammapada exploration – part 6: The wise

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 previous chapter was about fools, how foolish they are, and how not to associate with them if you want to develop virtues. So naturally, this chapter is about the wise!

76. Should one find a man who points out faults and who reproves, let him follow such a wise and sagacious person as one would a guide to hidden treasure. It is always better, and never worse, to cultivate such an association.

I guess the trick is in knowing whether you’re really dealing with a wise person or whether it’s just someone who makes themselves appear wise. But the next few verses clarify this a bit.

77. Let him admonish, instruct and shield one from wrong; he, indeed, is dear to the good and detestable to the evil.

So it has to be someone who prevents wrong from befalling you. Again not much help in the text for telling good from evil, but there are deliberations about this in the other suttas. The Majjhima Nikaya has some, for example. But I am no expert in the Tipitaka, if you’re looking for insight, do look there, but also search around for Buddhist teachers, read some of their lectures, listen to some of their dhammatalks. It will soon become obvious what they mean by it.

Since Buddhism does not believe in an absolute good and evil, it could also be that this verse’s meaning is more mundane. Don’t surround yourself with idiots and assholes. Here we are:

78. Do not associate with evil companions; do not seek the fellowship of the vile. Associate with the good friends; seek the fellowship of noble men.

If we suppose that the common meaning of evil and vile is what they’re aiming at here, yeah: Find good friends instead, solid people, reliable ones, smart ones who can give you good advice.

79. He who drinks deep the Dhamma lives happily with a tranquil mind. The wise man ever delights in the Dhamma made known by the Noble One (the Buddha).

80. Irrigators regulate the rivers; fletchers straighten the arrow shaft; carpenters shape the wood; the wise control themselves.

Ah, again the craftsperson reference! The Buddha loved those.

81. Just as a solid rock is not shaken by the storm, even so the wise are not affected by praise or blame.

What, praise too? But praise feels so good! That’s tough, huh? But what happens when you are praised? It feels nice. And after a while the feeling dissipates. Then maybe you feel that you are without praise, and you long for praise. This is attachment or clinging, just like any other. And the cycle of saṃsāra can only be broken when you let go of clinging. That means, especially, observing your mind and how it reaches for things like these.

In the same way, blame will fall from you like water drops from a lotus leaf. Or a head of cauliflower, if we want to be less dramatic. There isn’t one without the other, you can’t go soak up praise and repel blame, that’s not how it works. You must skillfully navigate both.

82. On hearing the Teachings, the wise become perfectly purified, like a lake deep, clear and still.

83. The good renounce (attachment for) everything. The virtuous do not prattle with a yearning for pleasures. The wise show no elation or depression when touched by happiness or sorrow.

This drives that point home some more.

84. He is indeed virtuous, wise, and righteous who neither for his own sake nor for the sake of another (does any wrong), who does not crave for sons, wealth, or kingdom, and does not desire success by unjust means.

Can you imagine a world where powerful politicians aren’t also corrupt liars?

85. Few among men are those who cross to the farther shore. The rest, the bulk of men, only run up and down the hither bank.

For another simile of crossing the river and arriving at the other shore, there is MN22. The Buddha compares the dhamma to a raft that one can use to cross the river (of ignorance of the truth of suffering, I guess?) and to reach the other side, the calm side, where there are no dangerous things like snakes or spiders or alligators or advertising executives. And to again hammer in the importance of non-attachment, the raft that served you so well and that you grew to like so much needs to be discarded on arrival. It serves no further purpose.

86. But those who act according to the perfectly taught Dhamma will cross the realm of Death, so difficult to cross.

87-88. Abandoning the dark way, let the wise man cultivate the bright path. Having gone from home to homelessness, let him yearn for that delight in detachment, so difficult to enjoy. Giving up sensual pleasures, with no attachment, let the wise man cleanse himself of defilements of the mind.

Again, you don’t need to become an ascetic. You have to recognize your mind’s inner workings. What is it that makes you desire those sense-pleasures? If you understand that these pleasures, like every other thing, arise and then inevitably cease, if you don’t get attached to them, that’s fine.

89. Those whose minds have reached full excellence in the factors of enlightenment, who, having renounced acquisitiveness, rejoice in not clinging to things — rid of cankers, glowing with wisdom, they have attained Nibbana in this very life.

Buddharakita explains the cankers thusly:

This verse describes the arahant, dealt with more fully in the following chapter. The “cankers” (asava) are the four basic defilements of sensual desire, desire for continued existence, false views and ignorance.

So next time we will hear about these arahants, these most accomplished, most noble of people. Are you curious?

The Dhammapada exploration – part 5: Fools

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.

I’m back with another chapter of the Dhammapada. This time on the great subject of fools!

60. Long is the night to the sleepless; long is the league to the weary. Long is worldly existence to fools who know not the Sublime Truth.

The sleepless is like the one who has not known the dhamma, does not know how to end the cycle of existence.

61. Should a seeker not find a companion who is better or equal, let him resolutely pursue a solitary course; there is no fellowship with the fool.

Seek the company of those equal to you, or better, wiser than you. If you can’t find any such people, it is better to stay alone.

62. The fool worries, thinking, “I have sons, I have wealth.” Indeed, when he himself is not his own, whence are sons, whence is wealth?

You do not even own your own self. It is a delusion. How can you “own” sons or money?

63. A fool who knows his foolishness is wise at least to that extent, but a fool who thinks himself wise is a fool indeed.

Do you recognize this one? “I don’t know much, but I know what I don’t know.” This verse might have inspired that.

64. Though all his life a fool associates with a wise man, he no more comprehends the Truth than a spoon tastes the flavor of the soup.

65. Though only for a moment a discerning person associates with a wise man, quickly he comprehends the Truth, just as the tongue tastes the flavor of the soup.

A fool will not even know what to look for, even if he spends his entire life in the company of a wise one. But a discerning person (I like that expression) can take in great teachings.

66. Fools of little wit are enemies unto themselves as they move about doing evil deeds, the fruits of which are bitter.

67. Ill done is that action of doing which one repents later, and the fruit of which one, weeping, reaps with tears.

Yeah. You idiot. You shouldn’t have done that in the first place!

68. Well done is that action of doing which one repents not later, and the fruit of which one reaps with delight and happiness.

69. So long as an evil deed has not ripened, the fool thinks it as sweet as honey. But when the evil deed ripens, the fool comes to grief.

This can even be applied to little, petty things. Remember when you gossiped about that workmate? How stupid he is? Remember how you then planted rumors about him? That felt great. You felt so much better than that person. Mwahaha. But then they fired the guy, even though the rumors were not true. How did you feel then?

70. Month after month a fool may eat his food with the tip of a blade of grass, but he still is not worth a sixteenth part of the those who have comprehended the Truth.

Subscribing to extreme asceticism won’t make you a wise one. You can almost stop eating, you can sleep on a rock, you can live in a cave, but wisdom comes not from these actions but from inside.

71. Truly, an evil deed committed does not immediately bear fruit, like milk that does not turn sour all at once. But smoldering, it follows the fool like fire covered by ashes.

72. To his own ruin the fool gains knowledge, for it cleaves his head and destroys his innate goodness.

Wrong learning can lead you down the wrong path and ultimately destroy you.

73. The fool seeks undeserved reputation, precedence among monks, authority over monasteries, and honor among householders.

74. “Let both laymen and monks think that it was done by me. In every work, great and small, let them follow me” — such is the ambition of the fool; thus his desire and pride increase.

75. One is the quest for worldly gain, and quite another is the path to Nibbana. Clearly understanding this, let not the monk, the disciple of the Buddha, be carried away by worldly acclaim, but develop detachment instead.

Well, all that was pretty straightforward now, wasn’t it? Did you like it?

The Dhammapada exploration – part 4: Flowers/Blossoms

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.

Let’s dive right into chapter 4, woohoo!

44. Who shall overcome this earth, this realm of Yama and this sphere of men and gods? Who shall bring to perfection the well-taught path of wisdom as an expert garland-maker would his floral design?

Yama is a sort of gatekeeper and judge of the hell realms, one who decides about which rebirth you get. This is uncomfortably close to the Abrahamic god-concept for me personally, and the only consolation I have is that Buddhist concepts of gods, hungry ghosts, hell-beings,  etc. are not beyond nature like in those religions, but part of our universe.

Continue reading “The Dhammapada exploration – part 4: Flowers/Blossoms”

The Dhammapada exploration – part 3: The Mind

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.

Now we’re getting to a juicy part, one of the most fertile subjects for Buddhists to talk about: the mind. We’ve seen some of this in part 1, where it was established that phenomena are mind-wrought. Since Buddhism often occupies itself with phenomena, here’s a whole chapter of the Dhammapada just about the mind. I’m using the Buddharakkhita translation this time, but just because Thanissaro’s is a bit hard to copy/paste from. Do read both versions if you’re interested, there is a link to Thanissaro’s on the page at Access to Insight.

Continue reading “The Dhammapada exploration – part 3: The Mind”

The Dhammapada exploration – part 2: Heedfulness

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.

New resources

I’d like to introduce some more useful resources for the Buddhist learner:

  • A very fast Pali dictionary. At some point in your studies you will develop a sort of suspicion of which Pali words translators meant when you read certain English words (“mind” and “heart” both pointing to mana is one example, but mana can also mean consciousness, so which one is it?).I find it sometimes helps to have multiple definitions of a word and reverse-engineering things from the original Pali can be enlightening. But don’t think that you have to do this to understand. Native English-speaking authors and teachers can drive those Pali points home just as well in English, even if English is lacking a lot of spiritual vocabulary.
  • Digital Dictionaries of South Asia Pali Dictionary.
  • Another Pali dictionary.
  • Treasury of Truth’s Illustrated Dhammapada. Next to being beautifully illustrated, it often gave me more concise explanations of the verses to work from than I could have found myself so easily.

Continue reading “The Dhammapada exploration – part 2: Heedfulness”

The Dhammapada exploration – introduction and part 1: Pairs

After my failed Qu’ran reading experiment I was asked whether I might want to do the same for Buddhist texts (which I know a little better). At first I wasn’t sure and referred people to Dr. Walpola Rahula’s “What the Buddha taught” and some of my favorite teachers like Ajahn Chah, Ajahn Amaro, Thich Nhat Hanh and Brad Warner. But then it struck me that it’s been more than ten years since I’ve last read the Dhammapada, one of the more easily understood canonical texts that is a good introduction for laypeople.

So, do you want to read it with me? It’s only 70-something pages of very large and sparse text.

Continue reading “The Dhammapada exploration – introduction and part 1: Pairs”