Dhammapada verses 167-169

Do not follow an inferior way;
Don’t live with negligence.
Do not follow a wrong view;
Don’t be engrossed in the world.

Rouse yourself! Don’t be negligent!
Live the Dharma, a life of good conduct.
One who lives the Dharma is happy
In this world and the next.

Live the Dharma, a life of good conduct.
Don’t live a life of bad conduct.
One who lives the Dharma is happy
In this world and the next. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

These are the opening verses of a chapter called The World, and they present us with a choice between living a negligent life and living the Dharma. In particular, the idea of being “engrossed in the world” implies that we don’t understand that there is an alternative to using only the physical world, and our likes and dislikes in that context, as our guide. Unless we meet with the Dharma (in some form) and are open to hearing this alternative perspective, we will be “negligent”.

What would “living the Dharma life” look like? There’s no way to tell what framework people are working from unless we observe them over a long period of time and in different situations. While their exteriors may vary wildly, people who are living the Dharma are essentially living with Right Intention, as described in the Buddha’s eightfold path. What are right intentions?

    1. Intention of renunciation (generous, limiting our greed)
    2. Intention of good will (countering attitudes of anger or hatred)
    3. Intention of harmlessness (substituting kind/compassionate words or deeds for cruel ones)

Do we recognize these intentions in ourselves? Can we think of a recent example from our own lives when we let go of a greedy intention, not because it was frustrated but because we could see that it would be better that way, for ourselves and others?

Have we purposely spoken kindly to someone who usually irritates us? Can we reliably call up kind or compassionate motivations when we’re presented with a situation that upsets us? Do we intentionally remind ourselves that it is preferable to speak and act kindly (or at least respectfully) to others, and and also to ourselves?

If we don’t undertake these intentions as a practice, it’s quite likely that we’ll be swept away with selfish concerns. The path of the Dharma, in this case the Buddha’s eightfold path, requires turning away from the seduction of being primarily or exclusively concerned with ourselves. Most of the cultures we live in promote making oneself happy, spoiling oneself, getting the “best life has to offer” for ourselves. It’s the objective of a commercial world to make us all rabid consumers rather than virtuous or patient. Have we deliberately chosen one path or the other?

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Dhammapada verse 166

Don’t give up your own welfare
For the sake of others’ welfare, however great.
Clearly know your own welfare
And be intent on the highest good. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

This verse has an obvious meaning and also includes a subtle point. Clearly we should not seriously damage ourselves in the service of others. It’s rare that we have the opportunity to sacrifice ourselves for the effective long-term benefit of another person. At the same time, some of us might become self-sacrificing to divert attention from our own needs, or because we’re reluctant to ask for help.

This dilemma can present itself to people in the position of carer. It may be hard to know when we are harming ourselves through taking on too much. Sometimes, rather than acknowledging our need for assistance, we can burn out and become a less caring person than is good for either party.

It’s not always clear where the line is between helping and being taken advantage of. Most of us have to cross the line in two directions to find out where the right balance is, both in offering and in asking.

Once, in a practice interview that was part of a weeklong meditation retreat, I complained that I was so worried about my step-daughter that meditation was difficult. Bhante Gunaratana held up his index finger and said: “You have one responsibility – to work out your own liberation.” That settled me down and was very helpful in establishing my priorities. Worrying about others is, by itself, never helpful. It takes thought and patience to understand how we can best support those we care about, but fretting is unproductive.

In general, generosity is a wholesome mind state, and we should welcome it. At the same time if we have difficulty establishing boundaries, some people will notice that and call on us for assistance beyond what is reasonable. We need to use wisdom, at whatever level we can access it, to find a healthy balance. A respected friend might help us to sort out facts and feelings; and mindfulness brings with it a willingness to learn and change. This is one way the Buddha’s eightfold path can work to guide us in the direction of liberation.

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Dammapada verse 165

Evil is done by oneself alone;
By oneself is one defiled.
Evil is avoided by oneself;
By oneself alone is one purified.
Purity and impurity depend on oneself:
No one can purify another. (translated by Gil Frondsal)

This popular verse was posted in the central room of the Theravadan monastery where I first became familiar with the monastic system and Buddhist teachings in general. It was particularly apt since I had previously tried to give away responsibility for my spiritual health and progress, an attempt which failed spectacularly.

“No one can purify another” – this is an important truth. Naturally enough, many of us have been reluctant to take responsibility for choosing a direction in life. We wish for the best or right way to be clear to us so we don’t have to keep making decisions and judgments that we feel ill-equipped to make. For many of us, our teens and twenties are a confusing and anxious time because we haven’t yet figured out who we are and where we want to go. If there’s a realistic shortcut to finding our direction in life, no one’s mentioned it yet. Instead, we try this and try that and see what happens. It’s a messy business, but the path we find through this process can last us through the remaining decades of our lives.

What is purity? Especially when paired with evil, both extremes may be difficult to perceive in the hustle of daily life. We recognize evil (purity perhaps less so) when we see it externally, in person or in fiction, but the purity and evil we need to keep track of are internal to each of us.

Purity and evil are not the same as pleasant and unpleasant feelings. There are pleasant feelings that can be wholesome or unwholesome, and unpleasant feelings can also be wholesome or unwholesome. We might find overindulgence in sense pleasures appealing, at least for a while, but overindulgence is by definition unwholesome. We might have a conversation that’s painful because it points out a moral failing of ours, but the realization that may come from such a conversation is profoundly wholesome; it can make us more whole.

On the other hand, when we experience a sense of deep peace or profound love, our grasping self may be set aside. We can breathe freely and we have a taste of liberation. And sometimes negative feelings are telling us to go in another direction. We could say that our pleasant and unpleasant sensations are initial signals, but we have to look more closely at what words and actions they are guiding us toward.

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Dhammapada verse 163

It’s easy to do what is not good
And things that harm oneself.
It’s very difficult to do
Things beneficial and good. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

Fact: Addictive behaviors are easy to surrender to – social media, food, drugs, alcohol, television, pornography. Not all addictions are equally unhealthy, but all of them divert our attention from what’s important.

Another fact: Developing and maintaining a meditation practice takes patience and perseverance. A few people feel the benefits quickly, but most of us must sit daily for weeks or months before perceiving any appreciable results. This is one reason the verse above says it’s difficult to do things that are beneficial and good.

Some beneficial things are easier to do than others. If someone asks us for help, we will usually provide it. If we have a pet and take good care of that being, it feels perfectly natural and pleasurable. Even if we enjoy cooking, the relentlessness of the need for it can dissuade us from preparing healthy meals regularly. Most of us struggle to establish and maintain an exercise regimen and activities that support mental health. For the great majority of us, creating wholesome habits takes more energy than sliding into unwholesome ones. We want to do the right or best thing, but it’s hard!

There are wise people who recognize this problem and are attempting to address it on a scientific level. Shinzen Young (https://www.shinzen.org/) has dedicated his life to helping as many people as possible experience the benefits of mindfulness practice. Quite a few of us have gained strength and wisdom from his teachings over the years. He is currently involved in a project called Sonication Enhanced Mindful Awareness (SEMA), at the University of Arizona’s Center for Consciousness Studies. The long-term goal of the project is to assist people in achieving meditative calm more quickly than would otherwise be possible. See https://semalab.arizona.edu/ for a 15 minute TedX video that summarizes this research. 

Remembering the Buddha’s five precepts for laypeople and using them as guides in our daily life can help us create healthy habits. Harmlessness, generosity, sexual restraint, truthfulness, and sobriety may seem to take the fun out of life, but as we learn when we practice with them, they anchor us in a wholesome relationship with the world and other people, which is ultimately more satisfying than brief thrills that might cause us to neglect our goals and duties. 


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Dhammapada verse 162

They who cover themselves with their own corrupt conduct,
Like a creeper covers a tree,
Do to themselves
What an enemy wishes for them. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. Even if we have real enemies, their power to hurt us is dwarfed by our own.

How do we hurt ourselves? There are so many ways, and we each have our own specialities. Some of us push ourselves too hard with work or exercise and damage our health. Some of us are harsh in our speech to ourselves and to others. Sometimes we may become so self-obsessed that the needs and responses of others become invisible to us; we become like a bull in a china shop, thrashing around and causing damage. There was a cartoon in the New Yorker magazine recently, set in a china shop (or maybe an antique store), and there was a bull serving a customer. Two people were in the foreground and the caption said, “You were right, when I hired him his behavior changed.” We can ask ourselves, are we like a being serving others or crashing around in frustration? 

Creepers are plants that persistently search out openings to grow into. If unchecked, they can destroy the fence or tree or building that they are growing over. Our own unwholesome instincts may do the same without our being aware of it. Greed or hatred can be so familiar that they feel like a necessary compulsion, almost the basis of our lives. But this is a false perception that the Buddha’s path can show us the way out of. Regardless of where we are starting from we may

…abstain from killing living beings, from taking what is not given, from misconduct in sensual pleasures, from false speech, from malicious speech, from harsh speech, and from gossip, and [we] may be uncovetous, have a mind without ill will, and hold right view. (from MN 96, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

Like many of the verses in the Dhammapada, this one is an invitation to self-examination.

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Dhammapada verse 161

By oneself is evil done.
Born of oneself, produced by oneself,
It grinds down those devoid of wisdom,
As a diamond grinds down a gem. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

The past is gone and the future is unreachable. The only time we have available to influence any karmic outcomes is now; the only power we’ve got over our own futures is in the decisions we make now about what we’ll do and say. In the vernacular, we don’t choose what cards we are dealt; we can only choose how we play them.

Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do good things (apparently) happen to bad people? There is very little we can know as to the why of things. Why do some people who smoke all their lives not develop lung cancer? Why do some people who have protected themselves from the sun all their lives develop skin cancer? The karma of these questions can include genetics, random influences, and a myriad of other factors that are invisible to us.

Given that there are no guarantees, what’s our best course? We know from the evidence that wholesome motives and actions will, on average, over time, produce good outcomes. If we are kind and thoughtful and diligent, we’ll develop meaningful friendships and honest working relationships. We also know that when we follow our less wholesome inclinations, we spend time with people who may not have our best interests at heart. We might take the easy path rather than the awkward one, thinking that we are avoiding difficult consequences, when in fact we may be creating unhealthy, or even dangerous, outcomes.

Because the whole complex of karmic causes and results involve different time scales and depths of intention, calculating outcomes is impossible for us. If we are wise, we’ll avoid doing anything that might be called evil because we’ve chosen to live a caring, fully-engaged life. The verse quoted above reminds us that while people may be kind or unkind to us, our actions of body and speech and mind are the primary determinants of whether we build our wisdom or wear it down.

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Dhammapada verse 160

Oneself, indeed, is one’s own protector.
What other protector could there be?
With self-control
One gains a protector hard to obtain. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

This simple verse can lead to a useful inquiry. What do we feel we need to be protected from? What are our fears and anxieties based on? While we may fear dangers from other people or situations, a lot of dukkha comes from our desire to avoid experiencing unpleasant thoughts and emotions.

Not facing up to our fears is childish behavior, an unthinking desire for a mother (or father) figure to protect us from harm and hurt. As adults, we take responsibility for our lives, and paradoxically, taking responsibility replaces our fears with purpose. 

Many of us are familiar with the extraordinary book by Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning. The wisdom in the book came directly from his thinking during and after his incarceration in the Nazi death camps during WWII, and his insights have served many people who have endured terrible suffering. Here are a few quotes from that book that are relevant to our verse for today:

  1. When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
  2. Everything can be taken from a man [sic] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
  3. Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Frankl also talks of salvation being through love. When things are not as we wish them to be, can we nonetheless embrace life fully? It might be as simple as choosing to accept an unpleasant fact. 

When the Buddha talks about protection in the Pali canon, he is clearly referring to the damage we can do through acting thoughtlessly, through causing harm, to ourselves and others. The positive result of purposeful restraint of our unwholesome impulses is freedom and joy. We can create a space for kindness to grow simply by taking care with our actions and words. We can make a prayer of our good intentions.

Even when we are afraid, we can ask ourselves: What are my options? What part of my self is threatened and how important is that? What do I have control over right now? Is it possible to keep quiet and wait to see what develops? Where, specifically, is the dukkha in this situation? Can we release the idea that something “shouldn’t be this way” and simply be with the way things are? This is the space between stimulus and response that Frankl referred to.

We protect ourselves by developing the path – the ethical trainings, the meditation practices, and applying wisdom wherever we can.


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Dhammapada verses 158 & 159

In first establishing himself
In what is proper
And only then teaching others,
The sage will not be stained. [i.e. one’s reputation will not be stained]

As one instructs others,
So should one do oneself:
Only the self-controlled should restrain others.
Truly, it’s hard to restrain oneself. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

“Do as I say, not as I do” is a losing strategy; it’s the equivalent of instructing others when our own knowledge is incomplete or wrong. Because these verses refer to self-control, they point to the question of how deeply we are established in our ethical standards. Do we show great attention to detail regarding our speech and actions? Do we avoid speaking when angry? Can we identify a beneficial motive in our hearts when we act?

It is generally true that actions speak louder than words, that is, how people behave in the world demonstrates their character better than what they might say in a particular situation. It’s often pointed out in the Pali canon that we can’t know people well unless we live closely with them for a long time, noticing how they behave in a variety of situations with different people. If we observed ourselves as another person might, what would we notice?

This lovely story about a Zen monk called Ryōkan illustrates the point that our actions are more powerful than words:

Ryōkan never preached to or reprimanded anyone. Once his brother asked Ryōkan to visit his house and speak to his delinquent son. Ryōkan came but did not say a word of admonition to the boy. He stayed overnight and prepared to leave the next morning. As the wayward nephew was lacing Ryōkan’s straw sandals, he felt a warm drop of water. Glancing up he saw Ryōkan looking down at him, his eyes full of tears. Ryōkan then returned home, and the nephew changed for the better.

Zen story from Soul Food, edited by Jack Kornfield and Christina Feldman (p. 81)

Few of us would know how to behave in such an awkward and challenging situation. The monk in the story did what he always does, showering people with love and compassion.

Still, we can take care not to get out in front of our own abilities, worldly or ethical, in our dealings with others. Meditation teachers are usually conscious of not teaching “from a book” but grounding our teaching in our own experience and understanding. We are all teachers in some ways and also all students in some ways. Remembering these two truths can help to keep us humble, open, and compassionate.

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Dhammapada verse 157

If one knew oneself to be precious,
One would guard oneself with care.
The sage will watch over herself
In any part of the night. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

In the Pali, “In any part of the night” refers to the three watches of the night, but we can infer that the recommendation to “watch over ourselves” is a full-time endeavor. What are we watching for? Ways that we might harm ourselves or that we might do harm to others, which would, as a result, harm us. Every wholesome act of body, speech, or mind benefits us and others; every unwholesome act of body, speech, or mind has a negative result for ourselves and others.

The Pali word translated here as “precious” also means “dear”. Here’s a relevant, classic story:

At Sāvatthī.

Now at that time King Pasenadi of Kosala was upstairs in the stilt longhouse together with Queen Mallikā.
Then the king said to the queen, “Mallikā, is there anyone more dear to you than yourself?”
“No, great king, there isn’t. But is there anyone more dear to you than yourself?”
“For me also, Mallikā, there’s no-one.”
Then King Pasenadi of Kosala came downstairs from the stilt longhouse, went to the Buddha, bowed, sat down to one side, and told him what had happened. Then, knowing the meaning of this, on that occasion the Buddha recited this verse:

“Having explored every quarter with the mind,
one finds no-one dearer than oneself.
Likewise for others, each holds themselves dear.
So one who loves themselves would not harm others.”
(from SN 3.8 translated by Sujato Bhikkhu)

This is a clear instruction that, even though we might forget it for a time, everyone else has the same sense we do that they are precious, worthy of protection; everyone else has the same instinct to avoid getting hurt. This fact in itself should persuade us that the last thing we want to do is harm anyone. Remembering that each of us is at the center of our own concerns, we recognize other beings as just as vulnerable, just as pain-averse as we are. We are all, in truth, precious, to ourselves and to others.

This verse is a poetic restatement of the first of the five precepts for laypeople: “I undertake the training rule to refrain from harming (striking/killing) other living beings.” We undertake the same precept to refrain from harming ourselves. When we commit to this training rule, we are not only guarding ourselves from actually striking out at others, we are also looking for ways to help, to nurture, and to protect other people. It’s an attitude that can make our lives sweeter than they otherwise would be.

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Dhammapada verses 155 & 156

Those who have neither lived the chaste life
Nor gained wealth in their youth*
Waste away like frail herons
In a lake devoid of fish.

Those who have neither lived the chaste life
Nor gained wealth in their youth
Lie around like [arrows misfired] from a bow,
Lamenting the past. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

*Gil’s note: In the Buddhist discourses, gaining wealth through ethical means was considered an appropriate goal for the laity.

These verses close out the chapter titled “Old Age”, so they are about the regret an older person might feel if she thinks her life has been wasted. Our biggest fear is, or should be, not doing what we could do (or have done) with our life. When we get to the end, it’s too late, and the habits of avoidance or escape leave us unprepared to face our own death.

“Build a meaningful life” is a message we find available all around us, though there aren’t many guides indicating what we should or might find valuable. Traveling the world can be one goal, but to what end? Accumulating money is another common concern, but for what?

Backing up, do we have a clear idea of what makes a life worthwhile? We can observe people we admire, whether we know them personally or not, to stimulate our own exploration. World leaders like Nelson Mandela can point us in a direction, but we must investigate and eventually discover what we sense is our place, our role, where we can find meaning. Some people find fulfillment in monastic life, some in family life, others in different forms of giving or teaching. Where does our curiosity point? What skills or relationships do we find most satisfying to develop?

It’s never too late to create a satisfying life. Whether we are young or old, whether we’ve been burdened by duties or not, or have taken a long detour into unwholesome habits, we can start right now, today, to turn in a wholesome direction. We can heal ourselves and help others; we can focus on specific social problems and find our own niche to support the good efforts of others; we can be responsible family and community members; we can cultivate our hearts and minds which naturally leads us to beneficial places for ourselves and others. If we ask ourselves the question, we can discover whether we’re spending our days in a way we consider worthwhile, that we won’t regret later.

It’s often said that we die in the same way that we live. If we are dissatisfied with our everyday life, we won’t be satisfied when it draws to a close. If we have done our best, learned from our mistakes, and been of service in some way, when we come to the end of our life we’ll know that we have, and have had, a good life.

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