Dhammapada verse 251 (the real danger)

There is no fire like lust,
No grasping like hate,
No snare like delusion,
No river like craving. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

The composer of this verse knows from personal experience that the biggest dangers we face are not external but internal. We fear being struck by a person or vehicle, or being kidnapped or coerced; we are wary of falling into traps, to being tricked; and we avoid going into water that’s rushing so violently that it seems we could be swept away. However, most of those fears are projections and unlikely to befall us. Our own disproportionate or inappropriate desires and repulsions are the greater dangers.

Delusion is said to be the condition of being convinced that we understand something when we don’t. This is the snare referred to above, the trap that we often get caught up in. We can believe that someone (human or divine) is out to get us, that we are being unfairly targeted and punished. But everything that happens – everything – is the result of a whole complex of interrelated causes and conditions, most of them not personal. A driver looks away for a moment and causes a crash; a dog owner firmly believes that Fido would never attack another dog, until he does; a bit of rotten fruit passes inspection and food poisoning results; for no discernible reason, cancer, a neurological disease, or mental illness comes to an innocent person.

We are reluctant to be in a state of not-knowing, but most of the time, that is our true condition. Not only is the future closed to us, it is also nearly impossible to fully comprehend what is happening in and around us even now. Our consciousness is a wonderful thing, but it is limited; we are not, cannot be, omniscient. Humility is a virtue, and one that can free us from unnecessary strife. We can know what we are seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and thinking; we can know that we’re walking when walking, listening when listening, daydreaming when daydreaming, washing when washing. Our tendency to imagine we know what others are thinking is usually a delusion. 

It’s worth reflecting on delusion as a danger. Lust, craving, and anger are easily discernible in our experience. If we’ve got a modicum of mindfulness, we know when we are angry or desirous of something or someone, but we’re unlikely to notice delusion until something happens to contradict our fantasy, so we can simply reflect on the question: “what can I be certain of in this situation?”.

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Dhammapada verses 249-250 (envy vs. joy)

According to their faith,
According to their satisfaction,
People give.
This being the case,
If one is envious
Of the food and drink [given] to others,
One does not attain samādhi
By day or by night.
But by cutting out, uprooting and discarding
This [envious state]
One gains samādhi
By day or by night. (translated by Gil Fronsdal

Envy is the opposite of “joy in others’ good fortune”, or muditā, one of the four “Sublime States” or brahmavihāras in Buddhist thought. These four mental states are considered to be boundless, universally radiant and thoroughly wholesome. Unlimited well-wishing (mettā), compassion (karunā), and equanimity (upekkhā) are the other three sublime states. The key feature of each of these is that it is not directed at some individuals, excluding others. It falls “as the gentle rain” (thank you, Shakespeare) on all and sundry, without judgment, and without weighing up approval and disapproval.

This verse involves the relationship between ordained monastics who rely on gifts of food to live and the laypeople who give them their daily meals. It is a fundamental principle in Early Buddhist monastic life that monks and nuns “earn” their food by a steady effort to embody and refine their practice, both the ethical and the meditative skills. If they stray from that intention, it’s as if they are “stealing” food rather than accepting it from generous donors. 

So, in the order the verses above present the scenario, generous and well-meaning donors offer food. Since monks own only a few prescribed items, they have little opportunity to be greedy, but getting fed is a significant part of most days’ activity. Whatever food is offered  is accepted and consumed; there is no pick and choose (usually). We can see that the opportunity to envy the food that another monastic has been offered could (and apparently did) arise. 

It’s easy to imagine what an exercise in restraint it would be to not have any choice about what food one eats every day. Thinking about our own days, food may be a major source of comfort and pleasure. And yet, these verses draw a direct connection between the exercise of restraint with food and the ability to achieve deep states of concentration, of inner peace. So the monks and nuns (and we) are invited to notice when “food envy” comes up and to substitute its opposite, muditā, or sympathetic joy. 

If we suffer from envy in any sphere of life, we can consider its opposite; is it possible to celebrate others’ good fortune? Can we be happy for others who encounter success? Once we start sharing in others’ joy, we experience a boundlessly happy state of mind. We can learn to say “Great news, congratulations” or “I’m very happy for you”, and see how good it feels when we mean it. 

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Dhammapada verses 244-245 (the long game)

Easy is life
For someone without conscience,
Bold as a crow,
Obtrusive, deceitful, reckless, and corrupt.

Difficult is life
For someone with conscience,
Always searching for what’s pure,
Discerning, sincere, cautious, and clean-living. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

One way to take this pair of verses is that if we are careless, if we think what we do doesn’t matter, then we won’t worry about consequences or other peoples’ feelings, we’ll just do what immediately appeals to us. But if we do care, if we do believe that our actions of body, speech, and mind are significant for ourselves and others, then we must invest our energy in monitoring our activities and try to weigh up whether they are wholesome or unwholesome.

Of course, depending on our early training and natural inclination, we might be more or less conscious of this distinction. It’s not immediately obvious that letting our conscience be our guide can make our lives easier in long run. Even though there is an energetic cost to mindfully attending to what we do (and the consequences that follow), if, over time, we make an effort to move towards the beneficial and avoid the harmful, our lives will deliver less confusion and fewer obstacles.

Still, these verses point out that most of us are inclined not to take seriously the impact of our words and actions. Monitoring and restraining our behavior may seem too great an effort in many situations. In English-speaking cultures there tends to be a lot of support for selfishness, for grabbing what we can without regard for the damage this attitude can do. We need to be willing to “swim upstream”, to set aside a moment of pleasure for the quieter, deeper joy of doing the right thing. By paying attention to how we affect others (and consequently ourselves), day by day, succeeding and failing and trying again, we are playing the long game and the rewards will be commensurate.

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Dhammapada verse 241

Oral teachings become corrupted when not recited,
Homes are corrupted by inactivity,
Sloth corrupts [physical] beauty,
Negligence corrupts a guardian. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

This verse is rich with images about how to preserve and nurture the best in our everyday lives.

Oral teachings become corrupted when not recited
When this verse was composed, there were no generally available written spiritual instructions, and literacy was uncommon. The Buddha’s teachings were transmitted through group recitation and memorization. In modern terms we could say that unless we continually refresh our study of inspiring texts, we forget them, our minds wander and are less supported by remembering what’s important. For some of us, the most inspiring root texts come from the Pali canon, and a combination of reading, discussion, and listening to those with more experience brings the teachings to life.

Homes are corrupted by inactivity
Our homes can be a fertile nest for cultivating kindness, compassion, and understanding, but only if we give each other good quality attention. If we reserve our good behavior for people outside the home, neglecting those we live with, those important relationships wither and so do we.

Sloth corrupts [physical] beauty
Our physical beauty relies not only on the gifts that genetics endowed us with, but also on how we take care of ourselves. Fitness, grooming, and our demeanor are all factors in how others see us. Inner beauty, based on kindness and wisdom, is real, and we can always cultivate it. Even as we age, our presentation is more affected by our posture and facial expression than by our wrinkles. If we are confident, happy, and generous with our smiles, our aging bodies or other (perceived) impediments become less prominent.

Negligence corrupts a guardian
Negligence is the opposite of vigilance. Our inner development is like a garden; it requires continuous caring attention. A neglected garden quickly becomes overgrown with weeds and other plants. Likewise, if we don’t pay attention to the effects of our actions, our words, and intentions, greed and aversion can grow unopposed. Our own laziness with respect to what’s essential can do more damage to us than any outside force.

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Dhammapada verse 239

As a smith does with silver,
The wise person
Gradually,
Bit by bit,
Moment by moment,
Removes impurities from herself. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

This verse is in a chapter titled  “Impurities” or “Corruptions”, and now we get to the central metaphor. We could think of ourselves, and every human being, as an ore made up of various minerals, some of which are useful and desirable, and some of which are dross.

The impurities referred to can be any intention or action that stems from the roots of greed, hatred, and delusion, those inescapable sources of unwholesome desires and impulses inherent in all of us. We have our favored impurities; maybe irritability, sarcasm, lust, compulsion, confusion, etc. We can wear them away by noticing them as they arise, and in that moment chip away at them.

Like a silversmith purifying silver from ore, the process cannot be rushed. There is no shortcut; it takes patience. There is also the opportunity to practice self-forgiveness for our flaws, which in turn makes it easier to forgive others’ flaws.

With each phase of purification, the ratio of silver to dross is improved, that is, our wholesome roots – generosity, kindness, and clarity – radiate a bit more strongly. Each time we set aside a greedy or hateful thought or word, we are weakening the unwholesome roots and bringing a better version of ourselves into view. It’s not just appearances that are changing; our fundamental makeup is altered so that more and more often we are inclined to act based on wholesome intentions. This change is usually subtle but cumulative, so that over time we and the people who know us can observe it.

One way to look at the purification process is that simply by setting aside a greedy or angry impulse, our innately generous and kind nature is revealed. Ajahn Sumedho once said that one way to practice mettā is to dwell in non-aversion. Removing the obstacles that self-centered behavior present allows our fundamental goodness to shine through, to become apparent.

It would be worthwhile for each of us to assess where we are in this purification process. No one is a hopeless case; all of us have made some progress towards embodying the wholesome. How intentional is our process?

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Dhammapada verses 235-238 (the ultimate deadline)

You are now like a yellow leaf;
Yama’s henchmen are standing by.
You stand at the door of death
With no provisions for the journey.
Make an island for yourself.
Be quick in making effort. Be wise.
Unblemished, and with corruption removed,
You’ll enter the divine realms of the noble ones.

You are now at the end of life;
You are headed for Yama’s presence
With no resting place along the way,
No provisions for the journey.
Make an island for yourself.
Be quick in making effort. Be wise.
Unblemished, and with corruption removed,
You’ll experience birth and old age no more.

Yama is the god of the underworld, and both of these sets of verses remind us that death will come to everyone, even to us. Isn’t death the ultimate deadline? Whatever we hope to do in life, it needs to be done before then. The person being addressed here is probably older, but whether we are elderly or not, we could generate a sense of urgency to do what is important and to leave aside what is unimportant. The only protection we have from dying with regrets is our kindness and generosity, our acts of honesty and integrity, and our efforts to clarify our minds and go beyond delusion. Are we provisioning for our final journey with these preparations?

If we’re just starting to understand that there is only NOW to act, we might begin by trying to remedy any past wrongs we’ve committed, with apologies or reparations, or at least with a clear intention not to repeat previous mistakes. We can review our regular activities with an eye to whether they are wholesome or unwholesome; are they helping us to cultivate stronger “kindness muscles” or simply exercising our selfish intentions? Have we built periods of reflection into our days? Much of the work of “removing corruptions” lies just below the conscious level, and to find and mitigate it, we need to rely on our bodies and minds to give us feedback. Our intentions are reflected in our actions, words, and thoughts. Mindfulness, in sitting meditation, and in daily life, can help us to see more clearly where our intentions are leading us.

The image of making ourselves into islands seems to imply that there is an impending or currently existing storm and that we need to build up our important foundations so we aren’t swept away. If we don’t, we will surely drown in our own regrets when we see life coming to a close. 

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Dhammapada verses 231 – 234 (Restraint)

Guard against anger erupting in your body;
Be restrained with your body.
Letting go of bodily misconduct,
Practice good conduct with your body.

Guard against anger erupting in your speech;
Be restrained with your speech.
Letting go of verbal misconduct,
Practice good conduct with your speech.

Guard against anger erupting in your mind;
Be restrained with your mind.
Letting go of mental misconduct,
Practice good conduct with your mind.

The wise are restrained in body,
Restrained in speech.
The wise are restrained in mind.
They are fully restrained. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

Whew! The image of anger erupting brings Mt. Vesuvius to mind; it’s an apparently unstoppable force. We are encouraged to guard against letting go of the internal constraints that prevent us from spewing anger into the world.

The first three verses represent a progression from the grossest to the most refined forms of anger as we experience them. When anger is completely unrestrained we might hit or push or otherwise physically hurt another being. Recognizing this, we can pull back, remind ourselves that any harm done will come back to us with karmic force. Whatever the provocation, we will be better off stepping away, withdrawing and using non-confrontational strategies rather than rising to the bait.

Once we’ve eliminated expressing anger physically from our repertoire, we can work on keeping it from leaking out of our mouths. This has to do with staying tuned in to our intentions. Before we speak, we can check – what is the energetic source for these (planned) words? Is it kindness or roughness? Is it a request or a demand? Is it intended to be helpful or to push someone aside? Once again, restraint is our friend.

Lastly, even before we say something in anger, there is an angry thought in the mind. It could be brief or long-simmering. A regular meditation practice is particularly helpful with this level of investigation, though clues exist in our relationships with others. When we address other people, is our tone of voice gentle or harsh? Is our inner dialogue friendly or unfriendly? Do we rant? This mental monitoring is a lifelong process, but it is one in which we can bring about observable improvement. 

The last of these four verses recommends restraint, but in the context it is offered, we could say that it recommends mindfulness. In order to restrain our harmful impulses, we first have to notice them. When we see our intentions clearly, we are more likely to question their appropriateness, and more likely to make better choices about what to act on and what to deliberately set aside.

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Dhammapada verses 227 & 228

Ancient is this [saying], O Atula,
It is not just of today:
They find fault in one sitting silently,
They find fault in one speaking much,
They find fault in one speaking moderately.
No one in this world is not found at fault.

No person can be found
Who has been, is, or will be
Only criticized
Or only praised. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

We can’t win! No matter how hard we try, there will always be misunderstandings, people who are quick to judge, and there will always be misplaced praise and blame. If we understand this we won’t take every unkind word as a mortal wound and we won’t be persuaded by praise that we are indeed extraordinary and worthy of admiration from everyone. No one likes to be criticized, but some of us can bear it with more equanimity than others; and everyone likes to be praised, but the wise will always take it with a grain of salt.

Praise and blame are two of the eight “worldly winds”:

Praise and blame
Success and failure
Pleasure and pain
Fame and disrepute

They are called worldly winds because we can be buffeted about by them in the same way a tornado can uproot our foundation. Some would say that praise, success, pleasure, and fame are what life is about, and that blame, failure, pain and disrepute are to be avoided at all cost, or if not avoided then denied. And yet, it’s an absolute certainty that all of these experiences will come to us, in some form, at some time in our lives. Like the wind, they are unpredictable and ever-changing.

While we shouldn’t ignore everything that’s said by others, we should avoid over-sensitivity and not take harsh words too much to heart. We can weigh up criticisms for any grains of truth that we should be attending to, but only we can judge whether the “advice” is useful or not. If it is simply intended to hurt, we can put it aside.

When someone makes a great fuss over us, we can weigh it up in the same way and decide how seriously to take it. It’s nice to receive praise and thanks; it may affirm that we are doing something worthwhile. At the same time, we often do kind or good things and get no recognition at all. If we can keep our balance while experiencing all of these, we can be counted among the wise.

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Dhammapada verses 223 & 224

Conquer anger with non-anger;
Conquer wickedness with goodness;
Conquer stinginess with giving,
And a liar with the truth.

If one speaks the truth,
Is not angry,
And gives when asked, even when one has little,
Then one comes into the presence of the gods. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? All we have to do is be scrupulously truthful, curb our anger when it arises, and go with our generous inclinations. In the abstract, these are easy things to do, but it requires a deeply personal process to investigate our own actions and intentions. We have to be willing to keep our attention focused on what is happening in our bodies and minds so we can choose a wholesome course of action.

The verse covers both anger and wickedness from others and those same impulses within ourselves. When someone is angry – at us or someone or thing else – discomfort arises. How do we respond? When anger arises in ourselves, how do we handle it? The questions are not unrelated.

Similarly, if we observe someone behaving in a way we consider reprehensible, do we think “that’s something I would never do” or “if she can do that, I can do likewise”? Whether the unwholesome stimulus comes from outside or inside, the remedy is the same. As a wise friend once advised: “Go with the love”. We all have the potential, if we are mindful, to respond with compassion, to refuse to take negative energy personally. There is a choice, and in this is the training.

I want to pick up particularly on the question of generosity. Giving is the first virtue, the first lesson that the Buddha taught to laypeople. If we start our training by practicing letting go of what we cling to, what we hoard, many good things may follow.

A subscriber once asked, “Where can I donate?” My response was along these lines: The Dharma teachings are priceless and cannot be sold, they can only be freely given, but your generous impulse is admirable and should be encouraged. The highest expression of gratitude would be to put the teachings into practice in your own life. This is the very best way that we can repay all of our teachers.

Our lives can become our gifts to others. With every act of generosity, with every effort to refine our virtues and develop our minds, we are giving peace and encouragement to many sentient beings. Even telling the truth (kindly) and curbing our anger could be seen as acts of generosity. This is the path that we are on together.

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Dhammapada verse 222

The one who keeps anger in check as it arises,
As one would a careening chariot,
I call a charioteer.
Others are merely rein-holders. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

This image creates the sensation that we can sometimes get from our irritation or anger – that of animals out of control – but the animals are inside our own hearts. 

chariot-1151742_960_720

In this verse, we’re invited to train ourselves to understand, contain, and direct our strong emotions. Letting them run wild and free will usually lead to undesirable consequences.

It bears noting that some of us have more trouble with anger and its related emotions than others. People who lean in the direction of greed or lust are attracted by pretty or delicious things and are not so vulnerable to aversive feelings. But for those of us with an inclination to irritation, impatience, etc., it’s a constant challenge to let go of those reactions. However, even though aversive feelings are uncomfortable, they have the advantage of being more noticeable than the more socially acceptable inclination towards the acquisition of pleasant sensations or experiences. 

Still, everyone who’s not awakened gets annoyed from time to time. It’s a great opportunity to closely observe how anger arises and investigate the possibilities for handling the emotional moment. 

Many people will distinguish ordinary anger from “righteous anger”, but both affect us negatively. It may seem better to have a negative reaction to seeing someone suffer than to have a more egocentric motivation, but in either case we are unlikely to take beneficial action when we are in the grip of strong emotion. Only when we’ve calmed ourselves can we see clearly enough to figure out what might be helpful, including how to stand up for someone without making their situation worse. 

So how do we train ourselves to be a good charioteer rather than someone who simply holds the reins of our emotions loosely and hopes for the best? It starts with getting to know the beasts, that is, our moods. What is it that makes us angry? Is it possible to have another response? Sometimes avoidance can work; or generating compassion for someone doing harm without realizing it. Or we might check whether our response is fact-based and proportional. Sometimes all it takes is looking in another direction, away from the irritant; or walking away if necessary. In all cases we can try to broaden our focus to take in some of the causes stimulating our negative response. 

Often, it’s a simple case of not getting what we expected. We expect people to be thoughtful and reasonable, though often they are not. If we understand this basic principle, the noble truth of dukkha, many of our expectations will fade away. Once we accept that the world takes no notice of our preferences, we are free to face anything with wisdom. 

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