An Insider’s View of Dhammapada

This article is based on the views of the venerable Bhikku Bodhi of Forest Hermitage, Kandy, Sri Lanka, as expressed in his Introduction to a special edition of Dhammapada. The book has an English translation of the Dhammapada text provided by the venerable Sri Acharya Buddharakkhita of Mahabodhi Society Bangalore, India. It was published in 1986 by the Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, Taipei, Taiwan. The Dhammapada is known to be part of the Khuddaka Nikaya or Compact Collection of Tipitaka, the sacred Buddhist Scripture dating to the time of the Buddha himself. The respected Bhikku’s introduction as well as the portions of Dhammapada which he takes up for examination, both clearly symbolize the essence of the Buddha’s exemplary life, which consisted of

1.         a period of 29 years before the enquiry,

2.         a period of 6 years of enquiry culminating in enlightenment and

3.         a period of 45 years of sharing and living out the enlightenment with fellow human beings culminating in his Maha-Nibbana, while creating the first band of devoted  enquirers, the Sangha, whose efforts could take his message to other human beings when he was no longer physically available.

 

For Buddhists as well as other thinking persons who are interested in the Buddha’s views, it could be sobering to get away from the sophistications of knowledge and skills that have added on as dimensions to the practice of Buddhism, both Theravada and the newer Mahayana, and even away from the ultimate preoccupation of Nibbana itself. A part of the path to Nibbana, the part of the path of living properly in this birth and on this planet, which occupied 45 out of the 80 exemplary years of the enlightened one’s own life, should matter too, should it not? Human beings are here and now,  as clearly distinguishable individuals, also as parts of clearly identifiable groups co-existing with other groups, distinguishable not only on what they believe in and how they believe in it. Do they not need self-imposable rules of living, other than what state laws, societal mores, security restrictions and science texts can impose on them? Dhammapada could be one such available book of rules, apart from similar books that have come down from wise minds throughout the history of mankind, after man learned to communicate. It contains the thinking of a noble person, concerned with the sufferings of his fellow men. He had already inherited the thoughts of other earlier seers of his society, some of which did not seem to him to solve the basic problems of several of his fellowmen. His new thoughts had the merit of being the result of fully dedicated enquiry and enlightenment, and had not in his lifetime yet become the framework for a formal religion.

 

Here I stop airing my views and leave you with Sri Bhikku Bodhi. What follows is part quotation, part condensation and selection and a small part explanatory expansion, without however adding any view of my own. Naturally I do not quote his entire introduction to the book, as my target audience is different from his.

 

 

•        In its twenty-six chapters, Dhammapada spans multiple aspects of the Buddha’s teaching, (Dhamma), offering a variety of standpoints from which to gain a glimpse into the heart of the truth of Dhamma. The inspirational verses on the fundamentals of Dhamma are meant to be used as a basis for personal edification and instruction. As water, though one in essence, assumes different shapes due to the vessels into which it is poured, so the Dhamma to be practised by seekers of liberation takes on different forms in response to the different needs of the beings to be taught.

•        Three primary aims are met by the design of the teachings found in the Dhammapada, 1.human welfare here and now, 2. a favourable rebirth in the next life and 3. the attainment of the ultimate good, namely total liberation from cycles of birth and death, this last aim being twofold, having to do with both path and fruit.

•        Concrete human relations and interactions concern the first aim. In this sphere, man is guided to live at peace with himself and his fellowmen, to fulfill his family- and social responsibilities and to restrain conflict and violence, which infect the individual, society and the world. The guidelines could be the same as the basic ethical injunctions proposed by all major world religions, freed, however, from theistic moorings, and grounded upon two directly verifiable foundations: concern for one’s own integrity and happiness and welfare of others. ‘Sabbapaapassa akaranam, kusalassa upasampadaa, sacitta pariyodapanam, etam buddhaana saasanam’, says the 183rd verse, which is the fifth verse in the chapter called Buddhavagga, concerning the attributes and activities of a Buddha. The verse roughly translates to  ‘to avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one’s mind, this is what the Buddha teaches.’

•        One should avoid irritability in deed, word and thought and exercise self-control. Four verses (11th to 14th of the chapter on kodhavagga, namely anger, which are verses numbered 231-234 of the book) convey the above message. 231. ‘kaayappakopam rakkheyya, kaayena samvuto siyaa, kaayaduccaritam hitvaa, kaayena sucaritam care. Let a man guard himself against irritability in bodily action; let him be controlled in deed. Abandoning bodily misconduct let him practise good conduct in deed.  232. ‘vacipakopam rakkheyya, vaacaaya samvuto siyaa, vaciduccaritam hitvaa, vaacayaa sucaritam care.’ Let a man guard himself against irritability in speech; let him be controlled in speech. Abandoning verbal misconduct let him practise good conduct in speech. 233. Manopakopam rakkheyya, manasaa samvuto siyaa, manoduccaritam hitvaa, manasaa sucaritam care. Let a man guard himself against irritability in thought; let him be controlled in mind. Abandoning mental misconduct let him practice good conduct in thought. 234. kaayena samvutaa dhiraa, atho vaacayasamvutaa, manasaa samvutaa dhiraa, te ve suparisamvutaa. The wise are controlled in bodily action, controlled in speech and controlled in thought. They are truly well-controlled.

•        In addition, one is advised to practise the five precepts, which teach 1. abstinence from stealing, 2. avoiding committing adultery, 3. not speaking lies and not taking intoxicants, 4. treating all beings with kindness and compassion and 5. living honestly and righteously.

•        Instead of finding others’ faults, one should examine one’s own faults and make a continuing effort to remove one’s impurities, like a silversmith carefully purifying silver. Verses 50 and 239, namely the 7th verse of the chapter named pupphavagga, flowers and the 5th verse of the chapter named malavagga, impurity, talk about this. 50. ‘na paresam vilomaani, na paresam kataakatam, attano va avekkheyya, kataani akataani ca.’ Let none find fault with others; let none see the omissions and commissions of others. But let one see one’s own acts, done and left undone. 239. anupubbena medhaavi, thokathokam khane khane, kammaaro rajatasseva, niddhame malamattano. One by one, little by little, moment by moment, a wise man should remove his own impurities, as a smith removes the dross from silver. Meanwhile, there is no need for him to despair for past evil. For, listen to what verse 173, which is the 7th verse in the chapter lokavagga, world, says on the subject.173. ‘yassa paapam katam kammam, kusalena pithiyati, so  imam lokam pabhaaseti, abbhaa mutto va candimaa.’ He, who by good deeds covers the evil he has done, illuminates this world like the moon freed from the clouds.

•           The cause for rebirth is kamma. Kamma determines the sphere into which rebirth takes place, wholesome actions bringing rebirth in higher forms, unwholesome actions rebirth in lower forms. After yielding rebirth too, kamma continues to operate, governing further endowments and circumstances. A good rebirth is the second primary aim of man. To follow this ethical law, leading upwards, a man has to work at inner development, and earn higher rebirths and richer experiences of happiness and joy. It should be remembered however, that all states of existence in samsaara, even the lofty celestial abodes, are lacking in genuine worth: for they are all inherently impermanent, without any lasting substance, and are thus, for those who cling to them, potential bases for  suffering, which is the direct result of desire and more desire.

•           The third level of teaching found in the Dhammapada emerges out of the above realization and the resultant aspiration for final deliverance. The four Noble Truths provide the framework for this aim:

1.         The first truth concerns various forms of suffering and the unsatisfactory nature of existence itself, it being impermanent and without substance. ‘Sabbe sankhaara aniccaa ti; sabbe sankhaara dukkha ti.’ (from verse 277 and 278, verses 5&6 in the chapter maggavagga)

2.         The second truth is about the craving for pleasure and existence, which drives us through the round of rebirths, always bringing suffering in its trail. ‘Na kahaapana vassena, titti kaamesu vijjati,appassaadaa dukhaa kaamaa.’ (verse 186, verse8 in the chapter buddhavagga)

3.         The third truth declares that the destruction of craving issues in release from suffering. ‘Api dibbesu kaamesu ratim so naadigaccati, tanhakkhayarato hoti’(verse 187, verse 9 in the chapter buddhavagga)

4.       The fourth prescribes the means to gain release, namely the Noble Eightfold Path:

o          Right understanding

o          Right thought

o          Right speech

o          Right action

o          Right livelihood

o          Right effort

o          Right mindfulness and

o          Right concentration

 

•           The Noble Eightfold Path is arranged into three groups of training:

         Moral discipline,

         Concentration and

         Wisdom

 

Moral discipline helps one to keep the coarse forms of mental defilements under control.

Training in concentration calms, purifies and unifies the mind.

Training in wisdom climaxes in the deliverance of the mind.

 

Let me offer silent thanks to the respected Bhikku Bodhi and look again at the prescription assembled above. It seems to be sound ethical sense, independent of religious affiliation and abstract philosophical reflections. Except where it talks of karma (kamma) and rebirth, the parcel would be acceptable to right thinking people belonging to Abrahamic faiths as well. The concepts of karma and birth-death cycles are in fact found in Buddhist thought only because they reflect the wisdom of India’s ancient people. As is, of course, the related longing that the very wise are expected to have, for liberation from samsaara.

 

 

 

 

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