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.

Now a nasty sideswipe because I’m still reeling from trying to decipher Islam: If you are Muslim you might be forbidden from exploring other ideas (at least that’s the strong impression the Qu’ran gives me) but if you’re not, or you’re brave, I can recommend skimming over some Buddhist concepts to anyone. If you take away nothing more than 10 minutes of meditation a day, you’ve already gained a lot and you’ll see it for yourself quite soon.


I am using a modern Dhammapada translation by Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, available for free from Buddhanet. Buddhanet also has other interesting resources, like an ebook library.

Another site you’ll frequently encounter when researching Buddhist information is Access to Insight. The full Buddhist canon has not been translated from the original Pali language yet, but Access to Insight offers large swathes of what’s already available.

Finally, if you need something like a sangha (a monastic community) to talk to, you can find it on Reddit’s /r/buddhism.

But now, let’s get to it:

1: Pairs (Yamakavagga)

1. Phenomena are preceded by the heart, ruled by the heart, made of the heart. If you speak or act with a corrupted heart, then suffering follows you — as the wheel of the cart, the track of the ox that pulls it.
2. Phenomena are preceded by the heart, ruled by the heart, made of the heart. If you speak or act with a calm, bright heart, then happiness follows you, like a shadow that never leaves.
The Pali word translated as “heart” (mana) can also mean “mind” and another popular translation (by Buddharakkhita) uses that word. In fact, it sometimes makes sense to view two different translations since the Pali language is full of double-meanings:
1. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.
2. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.

If we act with bad intentions, bad thoughts, unhappiness will result. Happiness results from thinking skilfully, performing good deeds. Something that can be scientifically proven, and that Buddhists knew from experience 2500 years ago. This gets me to something I like about Buddhism: It eagerly cooperates with science, it does not see science as the enemy like religions do. If something is utterly disproved by science, the Buddhist community would be more than willing to adapt. Some traditions perhaps more easily than others, but there would not be a backlash.

The good thing is that Buddhism is often right. Free will might not exist and your ego is an illusion. Consciousness is a series of snapshots and not a continuous switched-on state. You heard it first from the Buddha.

Let’s continue with the sutta:

3 – 6: ‘He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me’ — for those who brood on this, hostility isn’t stilled. ‘He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me’ — for those who don’t brood on this, hostility is stilled. Hostilities aren’t stilled through hostility, regardless. Hostilities are stilled through non-hostility: this, an unending truth. Unlike those who don’t realize that we’re here on the verge of perishing, those who do: their quarrels are stilled.

Forgive and forget. If you believe you’ve been wronged and brood on it, you will only feel worse. Life’s too short to hold a grudge. Aggression will only lead to more aggression. Recognize these concepts from somewhere? This verse also speaks out against lex talionis.

7 – 8: One who stays focused on the beautiful, is unrestrained with the senses, knowing no moderation in food, apathetic, unenergetic: Mara overcomes him as the wind, a weak tree. One who stays focused on the foul, is restrained with regard to the senses, knowing moderation in food, full of conviction & energy: Mara does not overcome him as the wind, a mountain of rock.

Mara is the tempter, the trickster, always there to persuade you to watch YouTube videos when you should be working on that blog post about Buddhism, always there to tell you that you need more riches, always there to let you know how much you’d enjoy that double chocolate mocha frappucino, but those are traps. Don’t fall into them.

Ajahn Amaro has an interesting dhamma talk about the concepts of Satan vs. Mara, if you’re interested.

9 – 10: He who, depraved, devoid of truthfulness & self-control, puts on the ochre robe, doesn’t deserve the ochre robe. But he who is free of depravity endowed with truthfulness & self-control, well-established in the precepts, truly deserves the ochre robe.

The robe is a monk’s, of course. Some people are unfit to wear the robes, they are not worthy inside no matter what they wear outside, and just wearing a robe doesn’t make you wise. But even the worst people can better themselves and are then welcome.

11 – 12: Those who regard non-essence as essence and see essence as non-, don’t get to the essence, ranging about in wrong resolves. But those who know essence as essence, and non-essence as non-, get to the essence, ranging about in right resolves.

You can only reach any spiritual goals if you are aware of the emptiness of material things and recognize them as such (are able to discern between the essential and non-essential).

13 – 14: As rain seeps into an ill-thatched hut, so passion, the undeveloped mind. As rain doesn’t seep into a well-thatched hut, so passion does not, the well-developed mind.

Passion here means something like indulgence. You can train your mind not to overly indulge. Meditating to try to see the true nature of reality is one way.

15 – 18: Here he grieves he grieves hereafter. In both worlds the wrong-doer grieves. He grieves, he’s afflicted, seeing the corruption of his deeds.

Here he rejoices he rejoices hereafter. In both worlds the merit-maker rejoices. He rejoices, is jubilant, seeing the purity of his deeds.

Here he’s tormented he’s tormented hereafter. In both worlds the wrong-doer’s tormented. He’s tormented at the thought, ‘I’ve done wrong.’ Having gone to a bad destination, he’s tormented all the more.

Here he delights he delights hereafter. In both worlds the merit-maker delights. He delights at the thought, ‘I’ve made merit.’ Having gone to a good destination, he delights all the more.

The fruit of good deeds, good thoughts, good action is contentment now and in future. The fruit of bad deeds, bad thoughts, bad action is torment now and in future. At first I thought all these repetitions and the “undersides” of the verses are stupid and nonsense, but after I got used to it, I found it rather cool. It helps to remember the verses, too. And you’ve seen nothing yet, in later segments of the Dhammapada there is a lot more of this going on.

19 -20: If he recites many teachings, but — heedless man — doesn’t do what they say, like a cowherd counting the cattle of others, he has no share in the contemplative life. If he recites next to nothing but follows the Dhamma in line with the Dhamma; abandoning passion, aversion, delusion; alert, his mind well-released, not clinging either here or hereafter: he has his share in the contemplative life.

Here’s something I’m very pleased with: Since the Pali canon numbers thousands of pages, I’m super-happy I won’t have to read them all. Once you understand the dhamma (the teaching, the wisdom) and actually follow it, this is great, you’re golden. To know it all by heart is useless if you can’t live it. I also like the simile “like a cowherd counting the cattle of others”. The Buddhist texts are full of witty similes and I’m sure they’re even more fun to read if you know the original Pali, as sometimes the authors hid jokes and puns in there.

So maybe that was your first encounter with something Buddhist. How are you liking it? I will strive to continue anyhow (perhaps every Sunday, but no promises) and I’m curious to know if this is new to you and what you think of it.

Buddha photo (CC) Pedro Travassos.

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