A wholly inadequate Medium trip through the Dhammapada
These are the words of the Buddha, transmitted over 2,600 years. This is a Dhammapada translated by A.W. Adikaram from the original Pali. I have included my comments which you should feel free to disregard.
I offer these words because they are good, but please understand that they are not sufficient to understand anything. The last verse will tell you why.
The first chapter of the Dhammapada is called The Pairs. These are matching verses, each teaching a lesson, usually from two sides. Each lesson is easy to understand, but would take years of meditation and awareness to put into practice.
1. All states have mind as their fore-runner; to them mind is supreme and of mind are they made. Therefore, if one, with defiled mind, speaks or acts, on account of that does suffering follow one as the wheel follows the foot of the wagon-bearer.
2. All states have mind as their fore-runner, the them mind is supreme and of mind are they made. Therefore, if one, with pacified mind, speaks or acts, on account of that does happiness follow one as the shadow that does not depart.
We experience the world as very real, but in fact it is all in our minds. Mind is fore-runner. Both the world and suffering are constructed in our brain. Yes there is an external world, but we only experience it through the hairs in our ears and cells in our eyes, processed by our brain. We only process a fraction of the information out there (just ask your dog what you’re missing). We call this experience reality, but it is in fact a simulation of reality, running on a time-delay inside the wet matter between your ears.
Test this out yourself. Just go to sleep and dream. You can generate an entire world and even people without any external stimuli at all. Life is but a dream.
The Buddha’s insight was that you can override this simulation. In higher, non-linguistic states he was able to not attach to anything in this life (good or bad). Thus his mind did not create the state we call suffering. Old age, sickness, and death still happened to him but he did not experience them as suffering.
This was his path. It’s almost impossible to follow, but not impossible.
3. "He abused me, he defeated me, he robbed me": the hatred of them, who harbour this thought, is not appeased
4. "He abused me, he defeated me, he robbed me": the hatred of them who do not harbor this thought, is appeased
Social reality — the most unreal reality of all — feels, paradoxically, the most real. We feel the need for revenge in a most physical way. Personally I’ve felt this in traffic — the most transient of interactions. Revenge has motivated art from the Ramayana to John Wick. Vengeance can feel dope, but only for an instant. It’s an ephemeral itch for an eternal scratch. Vengeance is both never-lasting and never-ending (re: Gangs Of Wasseypur, if you can spare five hours to really understand).
5. Hatred is never appeased by hatred; it is appeased by non-hatred. This is the eternal law.
6. "We do here perish": this the others do not understand. But if they do understand, their quarrels are thereby appeased.
The Buddha’s lesson here is very similar to Jesus saying ‘turn the other cheek’ 1,600 years later. Like any attachment, the attachment to past grievance leads only to suffering (for you). The very act of someone wronging you lives rent free in your head. It’s all taking up processing power in your brain. We think of events as external, as being imposed upon us from outside, but this is illusion. Every emotion is neurons firing in your own skull.
The Buddha says this is all somewhat pointless as we’re all going to die. The illusion will eventually stop running so there’s no point making ourselves miserable inside our own simulation. I think this all makes sense, but is nearly impossible to do. The dreamer doesn’t know they’re dreaming, and the waker doesn’t know they’re asleep. You can read it, understand it, and still not know.
7. Who lives looking for fair sights, uncontrolled in the senses, ignorant of restraint in food, lazy and devoid of endeavour; him Māra overpowers as the wind overpowers a weak tree.
8. Who lives not looking for fair sights, well controlled in the senses, conscious of restraint in food, confident and endeavouring; him Māra does not overpower as the wind overpowers not a rocky mountain.
While Buddhism is in one sense about mind over matter, it is vital to remember that it is a non-dualistic philosophy. The answer to many questions is both. Given that mind is matter (the grey matter of your brain), how you take care of your body affects how you think.
Hence the Dhammapada is full of advice on living a monastic life, but no commandments. It’s more of an if/then statement. If you want to get out of suffering, then do this. It’s a map, not a mandate.
The goal of Buddhism (as practiced) is clarity of mind, and — with the brain being in your body — this requires a certain discipline. Hence if you go on a meditation retreat they usually don’t serve food past noon (the original intermittent fasting is the monastic diet) and often maintain silence. You start the day at 5 or 6 AM meditating, then do chores, then meditate, and you try to be mindful in everything you do — from walking to eating to pooping. It’s frankly exhausting doing nothing.
9. Who, not free from stains, wears the stained cloth, is devoid of restraint and truth, he deserves not the stained cloth.
10. Who has thrown out the stains, is well established in the virtues, possesses restraint and truth, he indeed deserves the stained cloth.
Monks have become a caste in Buddhist countries (like Sri Lanka), and a strong political caste at that. Thus you cannot tell a true monk by their robes. In my experience it’s often the opposite, because the monks you see are likely to be corrupt, while the good monks are meditating in the forest where you can’t see them.
The monk in my family village used to drink and womanize and was generally awful. He was just a local thug in a robe. Another monk showed up at a family function in a Benz. Most of the monks in public are basically politicians, and usually racist.
And yet I still found Buddhism through monks. There are many monks actively following the path whom you can’t see, because they’re sitting in a forest, not saying anything. There are many lay Buddhists (many of them women) quietly meditating and being kind and chill. You just can’t tell who’s who by the robes. This seems to have been true in the Buddha’s time as well.
11. Viewing the non-essential as the essential and the essential as the non-essential they, nourished on false thinking, do not arrive at the essential.
12. Having known the essential as the essential and the non-essential as the non-essential, they, nourished on right thinking, do arrive at the essential.
The Buddha’s Axial-Age contemporary Confucius (Kongzi) hated nothing more than a ‘village worthy’, ie, someone esteemed by the worldly standards of their day. Chinese philosophers were also clear (independently) that what society valued was not what was valuable.
Worldly goods (wealth, power, praise) are all immaterial or indeed detrimental to a sage. The Buddha was a prince before he abandoned that to become, essentially, a beggar. And yet in that he found what was truly essential.
13. As a house ill-thatched the rain pierces through, so does lust pierce through the uncultivated mind.
14. As a house well-thatched the rain pierces through, so does lust not pierce through the well-cultivated mind.
As with diet, there are no strict conscriptions on sexuality in the Dhammapada. The teachings are again about a path (pada) more than a set of laws (Dhamma). A sign at the pool that says NO DIVING is not legally binding, it’s just telling you that it won’t end well. Much of the Dhammapada is like this. It is not that you’re a bad person for being lustful. The very idea of good and bad is dualistic. It’s just that being lustful leads to an uncultivated mind, and vice versa. This is the loop, the cycle, the wheel.
The Buddha’s entire point was breaking the wheel. You can understand this in terms of rebirth, but it also happens in this life, with each cycle of craving, attachment, and then suffering.
Good and evil
15. Here he grieves and he grieves hereafter; both here and there does the evil-doer grieve. He grieves and he suffers having seen the foulness of his deeds.
16. Here he is happy and he is happy hereafter; both here and there is the doer of pure deeds happy. He is happy and he is exceedingly happy having seen the purity of his deeds.
The Buddha simply identifies that there is suffering, that there is a way out of suffering, and this is a way. This is what is meant by a cultivated mind. A mind plagued with vengeance, hatred, pride or lust is not in this sense bad, and it’s not going to get punished by anything external. The deeds themselves are the punishment, and they carry their own punishment hereafter.
17. Here he suffers and he suffers hereafter; both here and there does the evil-doer suffer. "Evil has been done by me": (thinking) thus he suffers. More does he suffer having gone to an evil state.
18. Here he rejoices and he rejoices hereafter; both here and there does the doer of pure deeds rejoice. "Good has been done my me": (thinking) thus he rejoices. More does he rejoice having gone to a good state.
There is no clear concept of heaven or hell in the Dhammapada and little discussion of rebirth. These concepts have both become central to Buddhism as practiced, but the actual practice is very much about the here and now. The current breath across your nostrils.
When the Buddha is talking about the hereafter he is still talking about this life, just a bit after. It’s like eating fast food. You start to feel gluttonous while eating it, and feel ever worse after. If you eat something healthy it tastes good and you feel good for the rest of the day.
Religion often explains this as cause and effect, but Buddhism is about breaking this cycle entirely. Given that this messes with the entire simulation as we know it, it can’t really be put into words.
19. Though reciting much of the Collection, if a man, being intoxicated, does not act accordingly, he, like the cowherd that counts the cattle of others, does not become a sharer of the life of the recluse.
20. Though reciting only a little of the Collection, if (a man) conducts himself according to the Law, having done away with lust and ill-will and delusion, understands well, has his mind well-freed and clings to nothing here or hereafter, he indeed becomes a sharer of the life of the recluse.
The final lesson of this or any other chapter in the Dhammapada is that words are insufficient. Firstly, these words need to be read in Pali to be even vaguely correct. Second, any language inherently destroys meaning (up is not down). To really understand the path you have to walk it or, in this case, sit it, through meditation.
Again the Dhammapada is a path, it’s a map. It’s not the territory. You have to go there yourself, namely the infinite space behind your eyes. I have personally experienced this. I knew the words and ideas of Buddhism for years, but never actually understood it until I meditated. The true meaning of the Buddha’s words is actually written on the back of your eyelids, in words you cannot see.
This is the constant lesson of the Dhamma. The Dhamma is not enough. You cannot understand it through a series of Medium articles, you cannot understand it through reading A.W. Adikaram’s translation, you cannot even understand it through reading the original in Pali. It’s just a map. You have to go there yourself.
Please note that I am in no way qualified to guide you, but the monk I very briefly learned under, Bhante Gunaratne, has written an excellent practical guide to meditation here.