The Dhammapada exploration – part 4: Flowers/Blossoms

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.

Let’s dive right into chapter 4, woohoo!

44. Who shall overcome this earth, this realm of Yama and this sphere of men and gods? Who shall bring to perfection the well-taught path of wisdom as an expert garland-maker would his floral design?

Yama is a sort of gatekeeper and judge of the hell realms, one who decides about which rebirth you get. This is uncomfortably close to the Abrahamic god-concept for me personally, and the only consolation I have is that Buddhist concepts of gods, hungry ghosts, hell-beings,  etc. are not beyond nature like in those religions, but part of our universe.

I take these concepts as nice images and illustrations. I like the concept of Naraka (hell-realms) because they thought of such detailed punishments, hot and cold realms, for example, and you get to suffer in various ways there, not just one hellfire. But I am still not sure what to make of Buddhist cosmology in general. If it floats your boat, that’s great. Know that deep down, it is not necessary for the practice, and the Buddha was not overly concerned with cosmology either.

I follow the Sōtō Zen school, which emphasizes pure practice, meditation, as primary means of realization. That is not to say that I would ever disrespect the other branches, some of which focus more on the ritual or the esoteric components of Buddhism. I’m pretty confident that no matter what your mindset, you will find a matching branch and school in Buddhism, and I leave it to you to find out which one is right for you. The Dhammapada which we discuss here is universally recognized in all traditions.

Anyhow, my personal god-anxiety aside, let’s go back to the verse: again we see a simile of a craftsperson, a garland-maker. The Buddha enjoyed using similes involving craftspeople, probably because he had great admiration for the honing of skills that is necessary to be a good one. So he uses the same in the teaching, it takes honing your mind to recognize the true nature of reality.

45. A striver-on-the path shall overcome this earth, this realm of Yama and this sphere of men and gods. The striver-on-the-path shall bring to perfection the well-taught path of wisdom, as an expert garland-maker would his floral design.

And now it’s revealed that, of course, it is those who are skillful in thought as a garland-maker is in fabricating garlands who overcome this earth (achieve realization).

About the striver-on-the-path, Bikkhu Bodhi gives us an explanation:

Striver-on-the path (sekha): One who has achieved any of the first three stages of supramundane attainment: a stream-enterer, once-returner, or non-returner.

The path is the Noble Eightfold Path, and its training/walking can be grouped into three groups: higher wisdom, higher virtue, and higher mentality/concentration (paññā, sīla, samādhi). Pyiadassi Thera has written a succinct explanation on these elements.

The four stages of enlightenment (after non-returner you would have the most noble arahant) are explained nicely on Wikipedia, so I won’t bore you with my version.

These things are direct realizations. They come not from teachings but from walking the path, from seeing it for yourself. There is no need to be brainwashed or convinced, because you will see. That’s also why sometimes the image of “opening of the dhamma-eye” is used for the first stage. What can be directly seen does not need to be taught.

46. Realizing that this body is like froth, penetrating its mirage-like nature, and plucking out Mara’s flower-tipped arrows of sensuality, go beyond sight of the King of Death!

It’s Mara again, my favorite demon. And once more we are faced with the reality of death and impermanence. Your body? Just a bag of bones, just a pile of froth, here and gone in no time. Don’t even get attached to it or to illusions of self.

You can go beyond Mara’s realm, Mara only sees his death-realm.

47. As a mighty flood sweeps away the sleeping village, so death carries away the person of distracted mind who only plucks the flowers (of pleasure).

48. The Destroyer brings under his sway the person of distracted mind who, insatiate in sense desires, only plucks the flowers (of pleasure).

This goes a bit hand in hand with the indulgence I mentioned earlier. If you get attached to pleasurable thoughts, pleasurable activities, comforts and ideas that would turn out to be delusions if penetrated. You will be so distracted with these pleasures, death will claim you and you will not have seen at all.

This is not to say that Buddhism doesn’t tolerate pleasure. The Buddha before his enlightenment tried both affluence (he was born into a rich household) and asceticism (it was popular at the time for religious practicioners to perform extreme forms of asceticism). He rejected both as invalid paths towards a better life.

So do enjoy sense-pleasures. But you will get to recognize that these pleasures don’t last forever, sooner or later they will cease, they are impermanent. So develop non-attachment to them.

49. As a bee gathers honey from the flower without injuring its color or fragrance, even so the sage goes on his alms-round in the village.

Monks went on an alms-rounds in villages near the monastery every morning, never in the afternoon, in order not to pester the people of the village all day long. The alms-rounds are to be peaceful and not disturb the villagers.

50. 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 undone.

Basically, don’t judge. Don’t care about what others do. Focus on yourself, improve yourself.

51. Like a beautiful flower full of color but without fragrance, even so, fruitless are the fair words of one who does not practice them.

52. Like a beautiful flower full of color and also fragrant, even so, fruitful are the fair words of one who practices them.

Practice what you preach.

53. As from a great heap of flowers many garlands can be made, even so should many good deeds be done by one born a mortal.

54. Not the sweet smell of flowers, not even the fragrance of sandal, tagara, or jasmine blows against the wind. But the fragrance of the virtuous blows against the wind. Truly the virtuous man pervades all directions with the fragrance of his virtue.

55. Of all the fragrances — sandal, tagara, blue lotus and jasmine — the fragrance of virtue is the sweetest.

56. Faint is the fragrance of tagara and sandal, but excellent is the fragrance of the virtuous, wafting even amongst the gods.

Wow. If we work hard our sweet fragrance may waft all around. How cool!

57. Mara never finds the path of the truly virtuous, who abide in heedfulness and are freed by perfect knowledge.

58. Upon a heap of rubbish in the road-side ditch blooms a lotus, fragrant and pleasing.

59. Even so, on the rubbish heap of blinded mortals the disciple of the Supremely Enlightened One shines resplendent in wisdom.

And he does so because he’s worked at increasing his own wisdom. Not just because he is a Buddhist, no, that is not so relevant. What’s relevant is cultivating wisdom. And of course if you do that, you get to outshine those who don’t.

Did you enjoy all the flower similes?

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