The Dhammapada exploration – part 6: The wise

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.

The previous chapter was about fools, how foolish they are, and how not to associate with them if you want to develop virtues. So naturally, this chapter is about the wise!

76. Should one find a man who points out faults and who reproves, let him follow such a wise and sagacious person as one would a guide to hidden treasure. It is always better, and never worse, to cultivate such an association.

I guess the trick is in knowing whether you’re really dealing with a wise person or whether it’s just someone who makes themselves appear wise. But the next few verses clarify this a bit.

77. Let him admonish, instruct and shield one from wrong; he, indeed, is dear to the good and detestable to the evil.

So it has to be someone who prevents wrong from befalling you. Again not much help in the text for telling good from evil, but there are deliberations about this in the other suttas. The Majjhima Nikaya has some, for example. But I am no expert in the Tipitaka, if you’re looking for insight, do look there, but also search around for Buddhist teachers, read some of their lectures, listen to some of their dhammatalks. It will soon become obvious what they mean by it.

Since Buddhism does not believe in an absolute good and evil, it could also be that this verse’s meaning is more mundane. Don’t surround yourself with idiots and assholes. Here we are:

78. Do not associate with evil companions; do not seek the fellowship of the vile. Associate with the good friends; seek the fellowship of noble men.

If we suppose that the common meaning of evil and vile is what they’re aiming at here, yeah: Find good friends instead, solid people, reliable ones, smart ones who can give you good advice.

79. He who drinks deep the Dhamma lives happily with a tranquil mind. The wise man ever delights in the Dhamma made known by the Noble One (the Buddha).

80. Irrigators regulate the rivers; fletchers straighten the arrow shaft; carpenters shape the wood; the wise control themselves.

Ah, again the craftsperson reference! The Buddha loved those.

81. Just as a solid rock is not shaken by the storm, even so the wise are not affected by praise or blame.

What, praise too? But praise feels so good! That’s tough, huh? But what happens when you are praised? It feels nice. And after a while the feeling dissipates. Then maybe you feel that you are without praise, and you long for praise. This is attachment or clinging, just like any other. And the cycle of saṃsāra can only be broken when you let go of clinging. That means, especially, observing your mind and how it reaches for things like these.

In the same way, blame will fall from you like water drops from a lotus leaf. Or a head of cauliflower, if we want to be less dramatic. There isn’t one without the other, you can’t go soak up praise and repel blame, that’s not how it works. You must skillfully navigate both.

82. On hearing the Teachings, the wise become perfectly purified, like a lake deep, clear and still.

83. The good renounce (attachment for) everything. The virtuous do not prattle with a yearning for pleasures. The wise show no elation or depression when touched by happiness or sorrow.

This drives that point home some more.

84. He is indeed virtuous, wise, and righteous who neither for his own sake nor for the sake of another (does any wrong), who does not crave for sons, wealth, or kingdom, and does not desire success by unjust means.

Can you imagine a world where powerful politicians aren’t also corrupt liars?

85. Few among men are those who cross to the farther shore. The rest, the bulk of men, only run up and down the hither bank.

For another simile of crossing the river and arriving at the other shore, there is MN22. The Buddha compares the dhamma to a raft that one can use to cross the river (of ignorance of the truth of suffering, I guess?) and to reach the other side, the calm side, where there are no dangerous things like snakes or spiders or alligators or advertising executives. And to again hammer in the importance of non-attachment, the raft that served you so well and that you grew to like so much needs to be discarded on arrival. It serves no further purpose.

86. But those who act according to the perfectly taught Dhamma will cross the realm of Death, so difficult to cross.

87-88. Abandoning the dark way, let the wise man cultivate the bright path. Having gone from home to homelessness, let him yearn for that delight in detachment, so difficult to enjoy. Giving up sensual pleasures, with no attachment, let the wise man cleanse himself of defilements of the mind.

Again, you don’t need to become an ascetic. You have to recognize your mind’s inner workings. What is it that makes you desire those sense-pleasures? If you understand that these pleasures, like every other thing, arise and then inevitably cease, if you don’t get attached to them, that’s fine.

89. Those whose minds have reached full excellence in the factors of enlightenment, who, having renounced acquisitiveness, rejoice in not clinging to things — rid of cankers, glowing with wisdom, they have attained Nibbana in this very life.

Buddharakita explains the cankers thusly:

This verse describes the arahant, dealt with more fully in the following chapter. The “cankers” (asava) are the four basic defilements of sensual desire, desire for continued existence, false views and ignorance.

So next time we will hear about these arahants, these most accomplished, most noble of people. Are you curious?

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