The Dhammapada exploration – part 12: The self

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.

Last time we talked about death, so let’s go to a more cheerful subject: self. Or is it more cheerful? We’ll see!

157. If one holds oneself dear, one should diligently watch oneself. Let the wise man keep vigil during any of the three watches of the night.

The three watches are childhood, youth and old age. Those who cultivate virtue can better take care of and protect the self through all these stages.

158. One should first establish oneself in what is proper; then only should one instruct others. Thus the wise man will not be reproached.

If you don’t know what you’re talking about, don’t dispense it as wisdom.

159. One should do what one teaches others to do; if one would train others, one should be well controlled oneself. Difficult, indeed, is self-control.

Practice what you preach. This is such deeply wise advice and it works for any situation. Recently I’ve read that companies led by people who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk perform even more poorly than companies led by people who are themselves bad at work, but who are at least honest with their employees about that. Of course teams where the team leader was honest and hard-working turned out to also become honest and hard-working.

So this stuff works.

160. One truly is the protector of oneself; who else could the protector be? With oneself fully controlled, one gains a mastery that is hard to gain.

You can’t charge others with protecting you. If you have an alcohol problem, you can’t say “friends, please don’t allow me to drink at tonight’s party, I know I will lose control and be fucking drunk as hell and I’ll be insulting the host and trying to sleep with his husband”.

This control has to come from you. That’s why it’s self-control, duh.

161. The evil a witless man does by himself, born of himself and produced by himself, grinds him as a diamond grinds a hard gem.

Evil and unwise actions you perform will hafe an effect on you, sooner or later.

162. Just as a single creeper strangles the tree on which it grows, even so, a man who is exceedingly depraved harms himself as only an enemy might wish.

This is awesome. By not being skillful you strangle your own development. You’re your own worst enemy, you are able to be worse to yourself than even your worst enemy could be.

163. Easy to do are things that are bad and harmful to oneself. But exceedingly difficult to do are things that are good and beneficial.

No one said it’s gonna be easy to cultivate wisdom and right action. And this verse again tells you so. No easy peasy marching into paradise simply by believing in some savior or some prophet’s visions. The path is as difficult as it is wonderful.

164. Whoever, on account of perverted views, scorns the Teaching of the Perfected Ones, the Noble and Righteous Ones — that fool, like the bamboo, produces fruits only for self destruction.

If you speak out against the wisdom from a position of ignorance or perhaps even ill will, that will not benefit you. You foolish bamboo.

165. By oneself is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself is one made pure. Purity and impurity depend on oneself; no one can purify another.

This might ring a bell if you know humanism (in the sense of secular humanism). Buddhism is very much a human-centered philosophy. Everything is your responsibility and your responsibility alone. No interventionist gods, no shifting responsibility to your family.

Remember an earlier verse where it was said that you can’t even hold your own parents responsible for your fate? It’s like that. Some find it scary to have to rely only on yourself. Some call it egoistic, but is it egoistic to be self-reliant and responsible or is the inverse true? By being that way, you place no burden on anyone else. I find that to have nothing to do with egoism.

Of course we’ve already learned that according to Buddhist the ego, the self does not exist, we are non-self, anatta.

166. Let one not neglect one’s own welfare for the sake of another, however great. Clearly understanding one’s own welfare, let one be intent upon the good.

Thanissaro Bhikku has this as “Don’t sacrifice your own welfare for that of another.” Some interpretations take “welfare” to mean spiritual progress. So make sure your own progress is unhindered first, before helping others.

I interpret this also as taking care of your own life, a decent income and living quarters first before attempting to establish the same for others. If you’re struggling to pay the rent, even if your intentions are good, donating to the poor might not be a good idea at that point. It might be uplifting in the short term, but the next month you’ll have less, and before you know it you yourself will be in need of help from others.

Instead those who have already established stable conditions for themselves should share. There’s also nothing wrong with getting filthy rich (through decent means, of course) and then sharing a lot of that, even if you end up building factory after factory or office building after office building and if you are greatly successful. You share your own fortune by creating jobs, by keeping the cash flowing.

If you just buy yacht after yacht to feed your greed and indulge in many sense-pleasures, that would not be in the sense of the word in my opinion. But even being stinking filthy rich, you can be beneficial to society.

Look at Elon Musk, for example. I wouldn’t want to look too closely at how he established his fortune, but no one can deny that he creates a lot of jobs and has invested a great deal of money in furthering the advancement of the human race, he’s doing his share of attempting to save the planet.

Now you can say “But oh, what about all the displaced people from Eritrea, what about the hungry in refugee camps in Syria, how has Elon helped them? He hasn’t!” and you might be right, even though we don’t know if he donates to Médecins Sans Frontieres. This still does not diminish the value of his positive intentions.

Just like the Gates family with their Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It might be true that the foundation exists also to funnel donated money into primarily US companies by clever stock market trading. Thereby shareholder value is increased and it maybe drives this or that greedy CEO to orgasms. That might all be true. But Bill also seems to have a genuine interest in defeating malaria and in making sure a further ebola outbreak does not wipe out half the human race.

At least these parts of those intentions are good. They bear good kammic fruit. If shady means are utilized, well, then those bear bad kammic fruit. But I didn’t actually want to go there, I just wanted to give some examples of how egoism and selflessness are not always aligned in the way we commonly think.

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