The Dhammapada exploration – part 23: Nagavagga

Long time no Dhammapada, but this article is here to fix that. If you’ve played a fantasy roleplaying game before, you’re now thinking, “Wow, ‘naga’, that surely means evil snake people! We’re going to meet the snake lords!” But I gotta disappoint you there. It seems naga also means elephant. This is still an important chapter on self control, let’s see why!

320. As an elephant in the battlefield withstands arrows shot from bows all around, even so shall I endure abuse. There are many, indeed, who lack virtue.

Boy, this one’s hard to follow sometimes. But there’s all sorts of practical stuff you can learn from it. I never found the Christian version (“turn the other cheek”) much use — in practice both will lead to a more peaceful encounter between someone who’s aggressive and someone who tries to defuse the aggression by not hitting back. But the Buddhist version has important extra information by the simile of the war elephant, some actual call to action instead of a plea for submission.

This elephant has been trained for years not to get nervous in battle, not to be touched by the chaos and bloodshed around it so that even when it gets attacked with arrows itself, it doesn’t freak out. It keeps everything under control. This is what you need to do with your mind. If you’re quick-tempered and easily lash out at perceived attackers, you need to invest a lot of time in learning the ins and outs of your mind, through meditation or otherwise, so that you can spot when unreasonable anger arises and stop it.

Reading the other half of that, if you’re not prone to aggression, you need to learn to see attacks by idiots as just what they are, attacks by idiots. Do not take the bait and hit back. This doesn’t mean that you can’t be firm when telling someone to stop, or that you have to take every sort of abuse like a punching bag. It just means that you have to stand above the arrows flung at you and not follow your mind’s unreasonable impulse to hit. Instead stay calm but strong, knowing that a fool may do foolish things to you, but he won’t turn you into a fool as well.

321. A tamed elephant is led into a crowd, and the king mounts a tamed elephant. Best among men is the subdued one who endures abuse.

322. Excellent are well-trained mules, thoroughbred Sindhu horses and noble tusker elephants. But better still is the man who has subdued himself.

Here’s some nice fluff to make all this work sound more appealing.

323. Not by these mounts, however, would one go to the Untrodden Land (Nibbana), as one who is self-tamed goes by his own tamed and well-controlled mind.

Ah, and here’s pointing right back at the work itself. You can’t just ride a mind-elephant into Nibbana (even though that’d look awesome!) You need to invest a shit-ton of work into taming your mind and perhaps achieving enlightenment, and then walk into Nibbana on your own two smelly feet.

324. Musty during rut, the tusker named Dhanapalaka is uncontrollable. Held in captivity, the tusker does not touch a morsel, but only longingly calls to mind the elephant forest.

I don’t really know what this verse is doing here. Poor Dhanapalaka misses his home and depressively doesn’t eat a thing. This seems not very related, but slightly similar, to the next verse:

325. When a man is sluggish and gluttonous, sleeping and rolling around in bed like a fat domestic pig, that sluggard undergoes rebirth again and again.

Hell yeah, it’s another call to get your lazy ass moving and working. I like how Buddhism never attributes any sort of revelation to an outside entity and never tells you to plead and beg to someone such as a god. The only being you can beg to help you is yourself.

326. Formerly this mind wandered about as it liked, where it wished and according to its pleasure, but now I shall thoroughly master it with wisdom as a mahout controls with his ankus an elephant in rut.

A mahout is an elephant keeper and an ankus is this uncomfy-looking implement.

327. Delight in heedfulness! Guard well your thoughts! Draw yourself out of this bog of evil, even as an elephant draws himself out of the mud.

Again some powerful imagery. Picture an elephant stuck in mud, pulling itself out with its trunk wrapped around a strong, fat tree branch. That is your mind pulling itself out of the bog of laziness and greed.

328. If for company you find a wise and prudent friend who leads a good life, you should, overcoming all impediments, keep his company joyously and mindfully.

We’ve had such reminders before, don’t keep bad company, it’ll only draw you down. But the next few verses have some elephant-related illustrations about this:

329. If for company you cannot find a wise and prudent friend who leads a good life, then, like a king who leaves behind a conquered kingdom, or like a lone elephant in the elephant forest, you should go your way alone.

330. Better it is to live alone; there is no fellowship with a fool. Live alone and do no evil; be carefree like an elephant in the elephant forest.

331. Good are friends when need arises; good is contentment with just what one has; good is merit when life is at an end, and good is the abandoning of all suffering (through Arahantship).

332. In this world, good it is to serve one’s mother, good it is to serve one’s father, good it is to serve the monks, and good it is to serve the holy men.

333. Good is virtue until life’s end, good is faith that is steadfast, good is the acquisition of wisdom, and good is the avoidance of evil.

Oh my. It’s all easier said than done. I’m quite surprised they didn’t tack on something like “Now get the slothful stinking pile of meat you call your body out of that comfy chair and start meditating already, you’re clearly wasting your time reading some stupid old Buddhist texts when you could be working.”

That’s precisely what I’ll go and do now. Feel free to join.

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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