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.

But now let’s dive in with chapter 2, Appamadavagga (Heedfulness):

21. Heedfulness is the path to the Deathless. Heedlessness is the path to death. The heedful die not. The heedless are as if dead already.

Deathless (Pali: amatta) does not mean to be immortal, it means to have awareness of the true nature of reality. It means Nibbāna. The cessation of suffering through breaking the cycle of rebirth (saṃsāra). If this whole rebirth thing is confusing for you, don’t worry. It might still be confusing after years of thinking about it. We don’t mean physical reincarnation here (never confuse rebirth with reincarnation), but a cycle of becoming that comes from clinging to things. If you manage to let go of the clinging, you exit the wheel of saṃsāra and attain Nibbāna.

Here is probably the right time to introduce the Four Noble Truths that the Buddha discovered. He postulates that life is dukkha (suffering, unsatisfactory, some translate it as stressful).  You are born, you experience suffering: birth, aging, sickness, old age and death. Only to be reborn into the same wheel of suffering.

How can we get rid of dukkha? For this we can look at the Four Noble Truths:

  1. The truth of suffering (dukkha)
  2. The truth of the cause of suffering (samudaya)
  3. The truth of the end of suffering (nirhodha)
  4. The truth of the path that frees us from suffering (magga)

Only when we know what causes something can we stop it. But I won’t go into more detail here, there’s plenty more in the same vein later on in the Dhammapada. For now just know that mindfulness, which combats heedlessness, is one of the steps on the Noble Eightfold Path. If you want to learn more, the Buddha provided some keywords that are excellent to use with search engines: Four Noble Truths, Noble Eightfold Path, Three Jewels.

Ajahn Sumedho (Thai Forest Tradition, Theravāda) has written an entire book on meditation towards deathlessness. I haven’t read it, but it’s there if you wish to.

22. Clearly understanding this excellence of heedfulness, the wise exult therein and enjoy the resort of the Noble Ones.

Heedfulness (appamatta) means being careful, diligent, alert and some other things. To me, this is intricately connected to mindfulness. We see in other texts that one of the principal reasons against getting drunk out of your skull or smoking a sack of weed is not that it might destroy your body, but that it leads to heedlessness.

Drunkenly chatting up a married coworker at that party, that wouldn’t have happened with proper heedfulness. Playing Hearthstone all night instead of finishing your dissertation, that wouldn’t have happened either.

Noble Ones are pure, perhaps enlightened people (not gods). The original word is arya. Not the “Sieg Heil!”-type aryans, but this is the same word that Adolf stole from eastern philosophy, just like he copied the swastika symbol.

23. The wise ones, ever meditative and steadfastly persevering, alone experience Nibbana, the incomparable freedom from bondage.

24. Ever grows the glory of him who is energetic, mindful and pure in conduct, discerning and self-controlled, righteous and heedful.

25. By effort and heedfulness, discipline and self-mastery, let the wise one make for himself an island which no flood can overwhelm.

26. The foolish and ignorant indulge in heedlessness, but the wise one keeps his heedfulness as his best treasure.

27. Do not give way to heedlessness. Do not indulge in sensual pleasures. Only the heedful and meditative attain great happiness.

Wow, several verses that don’t need explanation. Are you enjoying this yet?

Indulgence is a bit of a tricky subject for me. I take it to mean something deeper than just enjoying a cup of nice coffee. Clinging and indulgence are somewhat related: Let’s say I amass riches, buy three yachts, sail around the world chasing the tastiest gin and tonics and having loads of sex with prostitutes at every harbor. I’d say that’s indulgence.

Having that coffee while being mindful of how it got here, how someone had to get up early to pluck the coffee cherries, someone had to bring them to town, ship them to my country, sort out the bad ones, roast the good ones, design some packaging, ship it to the store where I bought it, driven there by a bus driver who safely took me and a whole group of people through town, that is not indulgence. To appreciate all the threads that had to come together for me to even be able to have that coffee, that can be an exercise in mindfulness.

But don’t get attached. If I never in my life have the opportunity to taste coffee again, I am still content. This is an exercise in detachment. I don’t claim that I am there yet, but this is what you’re setting yourself up for with serious practice. And the interesting thing is that it makes you happier, not sad.

Please don’t think that the Buddha advocated extreme asceticism. He didn’t. He tried it, and it’s not the solution. Instead, the Noble Eightfold Path has been walked by thousands or perhaps hundreds of thousands of people, and I’m pretty sure they would all say it beats asceticism.

So you can safely keep your belongings, you can play that old 70s progressive rock album on your precious audiophile turntable (I’m making fun of myself here as well, I have both of those things). Just don’t get attached.

28. Just as one upon the summit of a mountain beholds the groundlings, even so when the wise man casts away heedlessness by heedfulness and ascends the high tower of wisdom, this sorrowless sage beholds the sorrowing and foolish multitude.

29. Heedful among the heedless, wide-awake among the sleepy, the wise man advances like a swift horse leaving behind a weak jade.

30. By Heedfulness did Indra become the overlord of the gods. Heedfulness is ever praised, and heedlessness ever despised.

Since this is the first time we see a god mentioned, and Buddhism is non-theistic, even atheistic, how does this work?

Indra is an uncreated demiurge, not a universe-creator god as western religions would characterize gods. He does not live outside the universe. But he can serve as an example in this verse for how heedfulness can help even heavenly beings. Heedfulness is fit for gods, if you so will.

You can safely ignore all god-talk if you don’t like it, since the existence or non-existence of creator gods is completely irrelevant to Buddhism. The Rigvedic pantheon, being the dominant set of beliefs in the area at the time of the Buddha, is mentioned in Buddhist scripture, but not as an object of worship.

It’s full of many colorful deities and it can be appreciated for its art and creativity alone.The closest the vedic and Hindu religions have to a creator god is Brahma, but the Buddha explained that even Brahma was just suffering from a delusion that he is the creator of the universe.

Delusion is a common concept in Buddhism and much of the practice makes you realize that many of the things we feel that we know are just delusions.The universe may be infinite and eternal, or just one of those, or neither, the Buddha never answered these questions.

For me that shows that even as enlightened being, some questions can’t be answered just from looking at the mind. And thus the Buddha did not claim to know these things. This makes his teachings even more convincing for me, because others claimed to know precisely the origins and the end of the universe (the Jewish and Christian cosmology comes to mind) and their theories didn’t turn out to be very accurate so far.

To settle the god-thing for now, since we have more verses to check out today, here’s Dr. Walpola Rahula on the Buddha’s stance on that:

 Among the founders of religions the Buddha (if we are permitted to call him the founder of a religion in the popular sense of the term) was the only teacher who did not claim to be other than a human being, pure and simple. Other teachers were either God, or his incarnations in different forms, or inspired by him. The Buddha was not only a human being; he claimed no inspiration from any god or external power either. He attributed all his realization, attainments and achievements to human endeavour and human intelligence. A man and only a man can become Buddha. Every man has within himself the potentiality of becoming a Buddha, if he so wills it and endeavours. We can call the Buddha a man par excellence. He was so perfect in his ‘human-ness’ that he came to be regarded later in popular religion almost as ‘super-human’. Man’s position, according to Buddhism, is supreme. Man is his own master, and there is no higher being or power that sits in judgment over his destiny.

— Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught

Whew! Now that we read all that, let’s finish this! Here we go:

31. The monk who delights in heedfulness and looks with fear at heedlessness advances like fire, burning all fetters, small and large.

32. The monk who delights in heedfulness and looks with fear at heedlessness will not fall. He is close to Nibbana.

You don’t have to become a monk. But burning fetters like a big old fire, that sure sounds cool, doesn’t it?

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