The Dhammapada exploration – part 3: The Mind

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.

Now we’re getting to a juicy part, one of the most fertile subjects for Buddhists to talk about: the mind. We’ve seen some of this in part 1, where it was established that phenomena are mind-wrought. Since Buddhism often occupies itself with phenomena, here’s a whole chapter of the Dhammapada just about the mind. I’m using the Buddharakkhita translation this time, but just because Thanissaro’s is a bit hard to copy/paste from. Do read both versions if you’re interested, there is a link to Thanissaro’s on the page at Access to Insight.

33. Just as a fletcher straightens an arrow shaft, even so the discerning man straightens his mind — so fickle and unsteady, so difficult to guard.

Your mind is all over the place. In some texts, they call it the monkey-mind. Always nervous, always hunting for a sense-object to experience: Oh, a butterfly! Hey, did I leave the laundry in the dryer? What’s for dinner? I feel cold. Should’ve brought a jacket. Oh hey, why not see a movie? But which movie? Where’s the nearest bank machine, I think I need cash. Should I check if I have enough cash? Tomorrow’s Monday. Am I really happy in my job? That slut Becky, I won’t talk to her again, what she did is so stupid. Earthquake in Ecuador, those poor people. What did I say was for dinner again?

And so on, and so on. During meditation it’s jour job to observe this process, the arising of thoughts and sense-objects, so that you can tame your monkey-mind like a fletcher.. err.. tames an arrow. Sorry, analogies are gonna break down sooner or later.

But there is something to the theory, or the Buddha wouldn’t be called the “smartest psychologist” by some authors even today.

34. As a fish when pulled out of water and cast on land throbs and quivers, even so is this mind agitated. Hence should one abandon the realm of Mara.

It is normal for the mind to follow all sorts of impulses (planted by Mara, the tempter, we’ve heard about him before). Once you attempt to tame it, it doesn’t enjoy that very much, throbs like a fish out of water. The quiet buddha-mind does not feel natural to the monkey-mind. But you can overcome this.

35. Wonderful, indeed, it is to subdue the mind, so difficult to subdue, ever swift, and seizing whatever it desires. A tamed mind brings happiness.

36. Let the discerning man guard the mind, so difficult to detect and extremely subtle, seizing whatever it desires. A guarded mind brings happiness.

Those are self-explanatory and if you don’t believe this, try a month or so of daily meditation. You’ll already be able to feel the effects for yourself.

37. Dwelling in the cave (of the heart), the mind, without form, wanders far and alone. Those who subdue this mind are liberated from the bonds of Mara.

38. Wisdom never becomes perfect in one whose mind is not steadfast, who knows not the Good Teaching and whose faith wavers.

39. There is no fear for an awakened one, whose mind is not sodden (by lust) nor afflicted (by hate), and who has gone beyond both merit and demerit.

Going beyond merit and demerit is perhaps worth explaining. This term is sometimes used to mean good and bad kamma (Sanskrit: karma). If you’re not comfortable with “good” and “bad” (dualism and all), you can also refer to it as bright and dark kamma. There is also kamma that is both dark and bright at the same time.

But kamma is complicated, and I don’t want to go into it too much detail at this point because I’ve only grasped this and that, not all of it, and I don’t want to mislead you. Like many westerners, I grew up with pop culture references to kamma, and those came from a complete misunderstanding of the concept. I know that proper karma is not Seinfeld’s idea of karma. I’ve tried to straighten my idea of it, but I think I’m still not there.

Kamma just means action. You create your own kamma, always. It bears fruit immediately, or later, but it always bears fruit. Good, skillfull intention, thought and action creates good kamma. All this points again to the Noble Eightfold Path that we’ve seen before.

He or she who has attained arahantship (“become enlightened”) is incapable of creating new bright or dark kamma, so they have gone beyond merit and demerit. Maybe this article at Access to Insight helps a bit.

Finally, if you’re scientifically minded and want to put off kamma as esoteric nonsense, know that you can trust it at least as far as it has been proven. There are cases of entire companies becoming more productive and happier once they started a charity program. People who perform good actions with good intention live longer and healthier. I’m sure you’ll find a lot more studies and experiments that go into this.

40. Realizing that this body is as fragile as a clay pot, and fortifying this mind like a well-fortified city, fight out Mara with the sword of wisdom. Then, guarding the conquest, remain unattached.

Yes, one day your teeth will fall out, your voice will fail you, you’ll lose your hair. You’ll grow old, you’ll crack a bone, you’ll perhaps grow a cancer or two. Is this grim? Yes, perhaps, but it’s realistic.

But you can know, feel and experience this, by facing the true nature of reality you can drive out delusions, you can grow unattached to your self and also to your body. Detachment will make you happier.

41. Ere long, alas! this body will lie upon the earth, unheeded and lifeless, like a useless log.

Ah yes. And finally, you will die. No pampering.

42. Whatever harm an enemy may do to an enemy, or a hater to a hater, an ill-directed mind inflicts on oneself a greater harm.

Your mind can be your own greatest enemy. You see it when you grow jealous of someone and the jealousy makes you sick, when you fret about what others might think about your kinky fetish sex, when you compulsively check the stock market to see if you’re winning or losing.

43. Neither mother, father, nor any other relative can do one greater good than one’s own well-directed mind.

Your parents might have good intentions toward you and your siblings, if you are so lucky. But ultimately it is only your own honed mind that gives you the most benefits, no external force.

I hope all the death-talk didn’t put you off! See you next week, if all goes well, for part 4.

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