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”

The Qu'ran reading experiment: Summary

I tried my best, but after over 100 pages of “you will burn in fire forever,” and very little in terms of wisdom, I don’t think the Qu’ran has earned more of my time. I’m glad that I don’t need to do extensive criticism of the book, because others have done that.

I went into this with as open a mind as I could, and I will research Islam more (just like  Jainism, Judaism, Bahá’í, Yazidi and Druze) but without the use of the Qu’ran. I deeply despise dogma in religions, and the Qu’ran is nothing if not full of it.

I have no doubt that there are Muslims who manage to interpret, twist, tweak and hack Islam into something that enriches their lives. I don’t think they can do this while actually also believing every word they read there. Although maybe they can, cognitive dissonance is not uncommon in religious people and it seems to bother them a lot less than it bothers me.

This journey for me is about understanding religious people, and I think despite reading the angry words of a punishing and hateful Allah, I think I now have a tiny inkling of what’s going on there. I see some elegance in what Islam can be, somewhere in the distance, and I sincerely hope so do all happy, cheerful Muslims.

Forced into Islam

It is said in some places of the Qu’ran that one submits to Islam voluntarily. At the same time we know that after the death of Muhammad, many wanted to leave Islam, but the remaining Muslims threatened and slaughtered them so they would remain Muslims. This is similar to how today, some Muslim nations place the death penalty on leaving Islam. And in the lands conquered by Muslims, people usually had the choice of being slaughtered, converting forcibly to Islam or becoming slaves of Muslim households.

How can this be such a good, peaceful, benevolent religion when it has to threaten those who want to leave with death? Wouldn’t a religion that is in itself fulfilling be so wonderful that you wouldn’t want to leave? There are many reasons to leave Islam. Why don’t they let people leave?

Of course the Christians weren’t any better, the choices when they conquered Europe were either to convert, to be killed or to leave the kingdom hoping that a neighboring king would grant asylum to a heretic. That was 500 years ago. Can Islam fast-forward itself into the now?

There will be blood

When reading about Muhammad’s life and the Qu’ran, I couldn’t help but notice that he lived in very bloodthirsty times and that he was quite happy to partake in the bloodshed when he thought it would be to his advantage.

Religion based on an exclusive worship of a single deity is a concept that is broken on so many levels that it’s hard to disentangle the mess, but let’s operate for now on some basic assumptions that these religions share:

  1. A single creator has created the universe.
  2. That creator has sometimes sent messages to prophets among humans (all of them male, but that’s another problem).

But, but, but!

  1. The monotheistic Abrahamic religions claim that there is an all-knowing creator that loves his creation and desperately needs to be loved back (or else throws a hissy fit and destroys or punishes believers and non-believers alike).
  2. Islam claims only they know the truth about this creator. Jews and Christians disagree. Everyone is mad at everyone else.
  3. Each religion through military and political power has tried to force the members of the other religions to believe what they believe. Sometimes they claim to have had divine aid from their creator (like the Muslims in the Battle of Badr) to prove that they are indeed the creator’s favorite people.
  4. This continues to this day, nearly two thousand years of bloodshed, torture, destruction and intolerance, plus self-loathing and family trouble for e.g. homosexual Muslims.

What benefit could possibly outweigh all this conflict? And how did we not manage to stop this for nearly 1500 years?

Muhammad ordered battles that killed an unknown number of innocents. In just one example, he slaughtered the people of Jurash behind the back of their ambassadors even though those had come to him respectfully for peace talks. He took sex slaves from the conquered tribes. He was an insatiable maniac bent on domination. And why? All for a better afterlife?

Did he really think that by force-converting everyone to his system he would be rewarding his victims, like the Spanish conquistadors thought they were helping indigenous children by baptising them before smashing their skulls open against the rocks?

As a Muslim I would ask myself: How much love and compassion can you learn from a warlord?

Sufi Islam

I think that there were some Muslims who asked themselves the same things and that weren’t happy with the horrors of religious doctrine either. I found a branch of Islam that adds warmth and exploration to the mix.

Sufi Islam also mixes a lot of meditation into its practice, and I have no doubt that some of the leading Sufi mystics have attained what the Buddhists call enlightenment or realization.

Sufi Muslims suffer under the whip of their Muslim brothers and sisters, maybe precisely because they dare to think for themselves. In some areas orthodox Muslims force-convert Sufis to one of the less flexible branches. Extremists destroy Sufi shrines and claim that Allah has ordered them to do so.

I personally find this infighting even worse than the Shi’a/Sunni schism because to me Sufism presents one of the most progressive elements within Islam, and this just goes to show how backwards the other branches are.

Meanwhile Sufis appear almost syncretic, are happy to co-meditate with Buddhists and open their practice even to those hated Jews, atheists, agnostics, anyone. If there is a noble, loving creator, wouldn’t such collaboration be precisely what he wants? And why so much intolerance for the Sufi Muslims by their own brothers and sisters? Does Islam always have to smother any attempts at opening it, at reform or integration?

I wasn’t born with the religious gene, so all I can do is watch from the outside. This saves me from some of the grief you have if you think you have to defend your god against all others. But it doesn’t immunize me against religion. After decades of watching all the major religions, all I feel is very sad for religious people.

 

Qu’ran reading experiment 4: Surah an-Nisā’

Please read the disclaimer on the first article in this series.

Surah 4 deals among other things with how to distribute the belongings of orphans. You shouldn’t steal them or embellish them, instead there are specific instructions for how to distribute them. This arose apparently because one of Muhammad’s many battles didn’t go quite as well as he’d hope and many Muslim children lost their parents.

There’s also a bit about how to deal with inheritance. Female children receive only half of what boys get. There are other instructions e.g. for how much surviving parents would receive. I have no clue if this was progressive (“wow, women get a full half of what men get!”) or par for the course of the time. But can you guess what happens if you don’t distribute things properly or if you steal from orphans? That’s right, Allah punishes you by roasting you in eternal fire.

Allah can forgive, though. It seems he can forgive adulterers (“unlawful sexual intercourse”) if they confess and regret what they’ve done (4:16-18). So finally some niceness is shining through all the grim burning and eternal fire, alḥamdulillāh! The Qu’ran also establishes that surviving male heirs have no right to marry the widow. And that if a man chooses a new wife and sends his former wife off with gifts, he cannot later reclaim those gifts. Plus, no marrying women who your fathers have already married before. Some bits about no marrying sisters, etc., and 4:25 seems to say that if you get very horny and can’t find a wife to marry freely, you can marry a slave girl instead of giving in to sin.

Of course this is all directed at men, no one asked the women what they think about it. In fact, the Qu’ran establishes with absolutely no margin for error or misinterpretation that “men are in charge of women” (4:34) (husbands are in charge of wives, not women in general). But at least  in this surah we have some instructions for (what was perceived as) good moral conduct.

Fun nugget of history, in Switzerland, even into the years of the early feminist movement, women had to have their husband’s signature to open a bank account. So the Qu’ran is no worse here.

Forgiveness and good advice

Also, hey, Allah forgives even more things. If you get rid of your major sins, your minor ones are to be stripped off as well. Could it be that the Qu’ran gets cheerful at this chapter? Yes, it does!

4:35 – 4:44 is a treasure trove of truly good avice! You should be nice to your neighbor, your friends, do good to your relatives, parents, your slaves! Do not be stingy with the things Allah has given you, but do not be boastful if you have plenty. Allah will repay you many times over for any good things you have done. You shouldn’t pray while intoxicated (wait until you know what you’re saying again – so much for forbidding alcohol, that’s not in the Qu’ran so far at least). Don’t come back from the toilet or having sex without washing your hands and face first, especially if you’re ill.

I’m not trying to take the piss, I’m genuinely impressed, there is some really good advice here. Of course the Buddhists had this same wisdom nearly a thousand years earlier, without having to create a punishing God-figure, but hey, good job anyway.

Of course at 4:46 the book is back to criticizing Jews, but let’s give the Qu’ran its moment of glory for a second here.

Back to the gory business

The interlude of love and happiness is brief, however. Surah 4 is actually home to some of the most gruesome threats of torture that I’ve read so far in the Qu’ran, and the book is full of threats of torture on every page. Get this:

4:56: Indeed, those who disbelieve in Our verses – We will drive them into a fire.
Every time their skins are roasted through We will replace them with other skins so they may taste the punishment. Indeed, God is ever Exalted in Might and Wise.

Wow. This is some tough shit. Hannibal Lector? A limp-wristed pussy in comparison to Allah’s magnificent torture methods. Then 4:74 says that if you fight in the cause of Allah and die, you will be rewarded richly (a previous verse in surah 2 said the same thing). It really is easy to see how someone who wants to set off a suicide bomb to kill unbelievers could take these verses as motivation. This book offers him a divine truth from Allah, and would Allah lie about this? Surely not. Surely there will be a reward. Surely western troops marching into Iraq can be seen as enemies of Allah that we need to defend against.

Allah does seem to have an interest in military campaigns:

4:84: So fight, [O Muhammad], in the cause of God; you are not held responsible
except for yourself. And encourage the believers [to join you] that perhaps God
will restrain the [military] might of those who disbelieve. And God is greater in might and stronger in [exemplary] punishment.

Fighting without accepting responsibility for your actions. Exemplary punishment. Yes, of course. Allah is just like Kim Jong-Un, then.

That’s as much as I can take. I am not making things up when I say that on almost every single page of the Qu’ran, you are threatened with eternal fire, death, damnation and punishment. I don’t want to read this anymore, it’s sickening. My next thing will be a summary of what I’ve read so far.

Qu'ran reading experiment 3: Surah Ale-‘Imrān

Please read the disclaimer on the first article in this series.

This surah is again directed at Christians, Jews and Muslims and establishes that the Jews and Christians have distorted their religions and should convert to Islam to follow the only truth. It doesn’t explain what that truth is, in what this truth might be better than some other theories. Instead, it threatens that people will be punished (by Allah, in the afterlife) if they don’t believe. It also says unbelievers will be “fuel for the fire”. Is that a threat against me?

Very nice. So instead of giving me solid advice, a functional theory or any sort of moral compass, the book threatens me with punishment and death simply for not believing what it says. And it hasn’t said anything so far except that Allah is best and everyone else is worth less than Muslims. That Islam is truth and everything else is distortion. Not a very convincing argument. Philosophers writing two thousand years earlier, both east and west of Mekkah and Medinah, have provided a much more convincing argument.

Continue reading “Qu'ran reading experiment 3: Surah Ale-‘Imrān”

Qu'ran reading experiment 2: Surah Al-Baqarah

Please read the disclaimer on the first article in this series.

The experiment slowed down because I didn’t check the length of the surahs before making my bold claims. If the others are as long as Surah Al-Baqarah, there’s no way I can do one per day. With the New Testament I also consulted a lot of secondary literature, historical information, theological analysis and the like, to slot the information into context.

I am not a theologian, but I can claim that while I was looking at the New Testament, I at least had a reasonable grasp of the geopolitical/theological problems of the years 30 – 600, the position of the Sadducees and the Pharisees, the Roman Empire and how a young Christianity fit into this. I also had some light background in early Greek philosophy and the theology that went with it.

With all this, you can’t afford to forget the medical issues of the self-appointed prophets, like the epileptic visions that converted St. Paul and the temporal lobe epilepsy and other mental complications Muhammad suffered from.

Continue reading “Qu'ran reading experiment 2: Surah Al-Baqarah”