The Dhammapada

The perfect guide for an imperfect Buddhist

The Dhammapada

When I travel, and I travel more than most people, I always carry two books in order to have something to read and think about in those down times which are inevitable in the distances I travel. One is always a narrative (fiction or nonfiction, I don’t differentiate much) because I love to get lost in stories.

But I always bring one other specific, short book which isn’t a narrative because it allows me to put what I’m observing (often, the lives of people far less fortunate than me) into a context I can recognize and respond to. It’s a prayer/philosophy/meditation/self-improvement/poetry book called The Dhammapada, a summary of Siddhartha’s teaching in verse form.

Remember that Buddhism was first transmitted by oral recitation and discussion. Because Siddhartha (the first Buddha) lived long enough to gather many people around him, they established a tradition of remembering and conveying his teachings to the Sangha (the monk-practitioners who would follow him). They, in turn, taught it to subsequent generations until it became possible to write it down.

The Dhammapada was meant to be a condensed formulation of the much wider and deeper series of Siddhartha’s dharma teachings. You don’t read the whole Bible at a church service; the preacher chooses stories that relate. Well, that’s what the Theravadan Buddhist monks did (whenever they did it), condensing Siddhartha’s ideas and creating the Dhammapada to convey to everyday people that the self-contained middle-way of Siddhartha’s Eightfold Noble Path was an ideal worth striving for, a path worth staying on.

Gil Fronsdal, the editor of my 2005 Shambhala Pocket Library edition, says in the afterword that the compilation of anthologized short-verse collections of Siddhartha’s teachings has gone on in various traditions of Buddhist study and practice such that there is no identifiable original from which all the others descended. And that makes many of them unique. Fronsdal’s is a translation of Pali, one of the languages spoken in Siddhartha’s world.

In his introduction, Fronsdal says, “The first two verses of the Dhammapada emphasize the power of the human mind in shaping our lives, and the importance and effectiveness of a person’s own actions and choices. This theme reappears throughout the text.”

Independence and confidence are two hallmarks of the Buddhist mind, able to sort through many stimuli and choose the right response. Verse #165 is, “By oneself alone one is purified.” This is a strange kind of call to the spiritual life, but what one is purified of in successful Buddhist practice is the interference of the self in awareness of the actual ebb and flow of universal reality. One becomes less perturbed because one knows that external circumstances needn’t distract us from knowledge and calm.

Verse #160 says, “With self-control, one gains a protector hard to obtain.” Both verses 160 and 165 are in the 12th chapter, entitled “Oneself.” In the Dhammapada, Siddhartha is exhorting people to remove the illusions from their understanding; illusions begin with self.

This process of disillusionment is referred to as “liberation,” which Fronsdal calls “a form of spiritual freedom that involves a radical personal change…[including] elimination or destruction of one’s mental defilements, attachments, and hindrances.”

The defilements and attachments and hindrances are actually the things that define the self. Once released from these, one thinks of oneself from an external position cooled to emotional variance, invulnerable to petty impulses, unaffected by change.

Fronsdal also says that the order of the chapters has no clearly stated logic. Scholars have opinions, but none is established as the reason. Still, I sense a movement toward perfection in the chapters, so that when I near the end of the book, around chapter 20, “The Path,” I see the way before me, most particularly as a writer: “The best of qualities is dispassion; and the best among gods and humans is the one with eyes to see.”

(I think of this as a less vulgar formulation of Hemingway’s “built-in shit detector.”)

So, the spiritual awareness that the Dhammapada offers is sustenance for the observational and communicative intellect dealing with existential yearning. If I can remove myself from my suffering, then I can be at ease and produce the kind of work I’ve always wanted, writing that helps people to identify and clarify and purify themselves.

Siddhartha’s ideas are not commandments, not proscriptions, but guidance, a way to organize the mind to respond to the cognitively dissonant stimuli of the modern-day world.

There may be those who say that Siddhartha’s exhortations are vague platitudes, like horoscopes that could mean anything to anybody. For example, in Chapter 25, “The Bhikkhu” (or the monk), it says, “If one is friendly by habit/And skillful in conduct/One will have much delight/And bring an end to suffering.”

But this admonishment indicates to me that the monk and the lay follower can each practice simple friendliness and find their lives improved by it. Compassion and wisdom are disciplines which must be practiced. Profundity lies in the simplicity.

I find I need regular reminding. And particularly when I’m on the road — tired, hungry, frustrated, caught up in my own issues — I find the detachment and tolerance encouraged in the Dhammapada to be the best antidote.

Y.S. Fing is a bad Buddhist. Nevertheless, he persists.

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