The Dhammapada exploration – part 22: Nirayavagga


It’s Dhammapada-time again! This time we talk about Nirayavagga, the Abyss, the state of woe. In your typical carrot-and-stick duality, you would call this something like hell. Also, there’s some stuff about rebirth.

Again, rebirth is not understood as physical reincarnation by all brands of Buddhism. There is significant disagreement about this. If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of physical rebirth (I sure as hell am), rebirth is also be defined as the reconstruction of your illusion of self that happens from any moment to the next.

At any one time your brain holds a certain pattern and a synaptic configuration and whatnot, and that configuration makes you think you are you. But this structure is always changing. Your consciousness gets its image of itself and its surroundings from the sense organs in small snapshots, but it also stores (not like a tape recorder) a memory of many of the past configurations. That means that from moment to moment, you are reborn. The you that was a moment ago has given rise to the you that is now you in a series of interdependent events that started when your brain developed in utero. You will never be that you again. In that sense you are reborn every moment.

By your actions you can influence this rebirth. That’s also part of what all that kamma talk is about. Want some more about self as illusion? Watch Sam Harris give an explanation.

Buddhist philosophers figured that shit out millenia ago, and today’s science is also curious about some of those topics. Topics like free will is an illusion, the self is an illusion, time is an illusion, it’s all very trippy stuff and it’s no wonder that a bunch of ancient monks, bored silly by staring at walls for hours every week, dug into this first.

But now, let’s descend into hell!

306. The liar goes to the state of woe; also he who, having done (wrong), says, “I did not do it.” Men of base actions both, on departing they share the same destiny in the other world.

I also like Thanissaro Bhikku’s variation of this verse. Behold:

He goes to hell,
the one who asserts
what didn’t take place,
as does the one who,
having done,
says, ‘I didn’t.’
Both — low-acting people —
there become equal:
after death,
in the world beyond.

I encourage you to always read multiple translations of Buddhist texts if you can find them. See how Thanissaro Bhikku’s version keeps more of the poetic qualities and has a much cooler way to describe “liar”?

Even monumental works like the Shobogenzo have multiple translations, and as Brad Warner points out in Don’t Be A Jerk, not all translations even agree. Some of them use very politically correct language, and you might lose the raw power of the language that way. Therefore pick the translation you like best, and then still read the ones you don’t like that much to get a better sense of what was actually written. Either that or learn perfect Pali, Sanskrit or ancient Japanese.

307. There are many evil characters and uncontrolled men wearing the saffron robe. These wicked men will be born in states of woe because of their evil deeds.

Goes to show that you can still be a cunt even as a Buddhist monk.

308. It would be better to swallow a red-hot iron ball, blazing like fire, than as an immoral and uncontrolled monk to eat the alms of the people.

Yeah, this puts the punishment into perspective. Think of the pain! By comparison, the biblical Jesus is a little lamb, only suggesting that people are drowned in the sea with a millstone tied around their necks. Not to compare ancient texts here, Jesus, but you lose in the punishment department.

Of course the verse is only meant to show how bad being a shitty monk should be punished. It’s all in the mind. Just like little old ladies don’t go on rampages from reading ultraviolent Scandinavian crime books, this punishment is not meant to be taken literally. It’s all in the mind.

What, you didn’t notice the huge number of little old ladies that are today reading violence much harder than what’s in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy? If 18 year olds did the same, we’d have a scandal, I assure you.

309. Four misfortunes befall the reckless man who consorts with another’s wife: acquisition of demerit, disturbed sleep, ill-repute, and (rebirth in) states of woe.

I’d hope this to be the case. Truthfully, we can’t look at the minds of sleazy dishonest people. Maybe they are indeed punished by their own wrongdoings. That might require them to have a conscience. But just because they act despicably and don’t let on that they have a conscience doesn’t mean they don’t have one. And so they might be tormented by their wrong action.

310. Such a man acquires demerit and an unhappy birth in the future. Brief is the pleasure of the frightened man and woman, and the king imposes heavy punishment. Hence, let no man consort with another’s wife.

Well, except in swinger clubs and with mutual consent, I guess.

311. Just as kusa grass wrongly handled cuts the hand, even so, a recluse’s life wrongly lived drags one to states of woe.

Again I prefer Thanissaro’s version:

311. Just as sharp-bladed grass, if wrongly held, wounds the very hand that holds it — the contemplative life, if wrongly grasped, drags you down to hell.

A reiteration of the fact that just wearing a robe and sitting your ass in a monastery somewhere doesn’t automatically mean you’re full of merit and handling things correctly. You aren’t. You have to do the work inside your own mind.

312. Any loose act, any corrupt observance, any life of questionable celibacy — none of these bear much fruit.

313. If anything is to be done, let one do it with sustained vigor. A lax monastic life stirs up the dust of passions all the more.

Don’t be lazy! Get that ass up out of bed! Sweep the courtyard! I don’t care if you already had sweeping duty last time, that’s not the point! Sweep the courtyard! Peel the vegetables!

314. An evil deed is better left undone, for such a deed torments one afterwards. But a good deed is better done, doing which one repents not later.

Again I think this mostly just works if you have a conscience. Is Trump regretting anything? Not yet? Will he ever? We don’t know.

315. Just as a border city is closely guarded both within and without, even so, guard yourself. Do not let slip this opportunity (for spiritual growth). For those who let slip this opportunity grieve indeed when consigned to hell.

Take this as a metaphor. You’ll regret letting down your guard, becoming lazy, becoming weak in your meditation practice. If not now then perhaps the moment when you know you’re gonna die and when it’s too late to fix anything.

316. Those who are ashamed of what they should not be ashamed of, and are not ashamed of what they should be ashamed of — upholding false views, they go to states of woe.

317. Those who see something to fear where there is nothing to fear, and see nothing to fear where there is something to fear — upholding false views, they go to states of woe.

318. Those who imagine evil where there is none, and do not see evil where it is — upholding false views, they go to states of woe.

319. Those who discern the wrong as wrong and the right as right — upholding right views, they go to realms of bliss.

The wrongly righteous ones who never manage to clear up their false views and to work on finding truth, even though they are only misunderstanding things, will still go to the abyss. This seems harsh, but that’s Buddhism for you. You didn’t develop right view, and without right view there can be no right action, so the trick that Buddhism is doesn’t work.

Buddhism is the trick that gives you freedom from suffering. It’s nothing more and nothing less. But it requires all this work to get rid of delusions and see through to the core of what truly is. Gotta start with one step, maybe one day your journey gets you there.

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.


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