Dhammapada verses 335-336

Sorrow grows
Like grass after rain
For anyone overcome by this miserable craving
And clinging to the world.

Sorrow falls away
Like drops of water from a lotus
For anyone who overcomes this miserable craving
And clinging to the world. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

Continuing on with our exploration of craving: our impulse is to look away from this subject because we consider our likes and dislikes not as a problem but as the basis of a comfortable identity. We may not think of our desires as “miserable craving and clinging to the world”, but as the essence of who we are. The Buddha’s teachings invite us to see it in a different light.

Imagine being free of the impulse to get or get rid of things, which is our normal mode of functioning. The prospect that these invisible but compelling forces might disappear could make us feel exposed, bereft, or empty. But as Shinzen Young once said, emptiness is the expression of universal potential. If our opinions and preferences can be reduced or removed, the air of freedom can waft through. Who knows what we may discover if we are fully present without an agenda?

Sorrow in this context could be a few different things. If we are obsessed with craving, we are unlikely to be satisfied, and frustration at being unable to fulfill our desires may increase our general unhappiness. Even if we successfully satisfy a particular craving, each instance of need, whether it leads to fulfillment or frustration, has the effect of increasing the hold that this process has over us. Think of the character Gollum in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy; he is a complete example of a being consumed  by craving.


Of course, all of us have desires and wishes that are both wholesome and unwholesome. We are being encouraged to clearly and dispassionately investigate the energetic phenomenon that is craving within our own bodies and minds. How does it work? What physical sensations are associated? Is there a thought pattern we can identify?

Based on our own attitudes towards our cravings and how we manage our desires, sorrow (or frustration or unhappiness) can either grow like weeds after rain, or can drop away, as water does from a waxy lotus petal.

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Dhammapada verse 334

The craving of a person who lives negligently
Spreads like a creeping* vine.
Such a person leaps ever onward,
Like a monkey seeking fruit in the forest. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

*In a footnote Gil says that the Pali word here refers to a creeping vine which eventually strangles the tree it grows on.

Craving may make us feel as if we are in control, but the truth is that if we live without awareness, we are under the control of our craving. In the verse above, we are the tree and the vine is our craving. 

It’s worth thinking about what in our experience craving refers to. In Pali, the word is taṇhā, whose primary meaning is thirst, or (from the Pali English Dictionary [PED]) “tormented by hunger & thirst”. This is not a passing fancy, it is a feeling that’s urgent, possibly a compulsion.

For most of us kāma-taṇhā (craving for sensual pleasures) is the dominant and most workable form of craving. Taṇhā sneaks in when our mindfulness is lax, and it distorts our thinking. It’s as if we tune in to the “craving channel” of consciousness and continue grasping at things that we think will bring us satisfaction. As soon as we acquire one form of sensual pleasure, its intensity fades and we start scanning the (metaphorical) horizon for our next target. 

There’s an important underlying concept here: [from the PED] taṇhā is a state of mind that leads to rebirth. … In the Chain of Causation (D ii. 34) we are told how Taṇhā arises — when the sense organs come into contact with the outside world there follow sensation and feeling, & these (if, as elsewhere stated, there is no mastery over them) result in Taṇhā.

This is specifically how we can recognize and abandon our craving before it strangles us. It starts with moment to moment awareness of what our mind is doing; is it at peace or agitated? What is our present level of dissatisfaction and to what do we attribute it? If we are cold, we notice and put on a sweater or blanket; if we are tired, we rest if we can. These are fairly neutral examples, but some things are harder to notice. We might want the attention or approval of a particular person; we might covet something we see, or want an experience that is inaccessible to us. Advertising is based on stimulating in us a desire that we didn’t previously have, and we are not invulnerable to these influences.

Right at the point of contact we have the opportunity to notice, at the simplest level, our liking and not liking. Awareness of that feeling, which one friend calls the “vedanā meter”, registers whether we are experiencing desire, aversion, or indifference, and how strongly we are responding to the contact (or thought). If we attach our mindfulness to the present, we can be aware of the reading on our “vedanā meter” and remind ourselves that these feelings are constantly changing and temporary. If we maintain awareness of vedanā as it rises and passes away in our minds, we will be able to prevent its conversion into clinging. Herein lies a key to our everyday freedom.


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Dhammapada 331-333 (Happiness)

Happiness is having friends when need arises.
Happiness is contentment with whatever there is.
Happiness is merit at the end of one’s life.
Happiness is the abandoning of all suffering.

In the world, respect for one’s mother is happiness,
As is respect for one’s father.
In the world, respect for renunciants is happiness,
As is respect for brahmins.

Happiness is virtue lasting through old age.
Happiness is steadfast faith.
Happiness is the attainment of wisdom.
Not doing evil is happiness. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

The Pali word sukhā is here interpreted as happiness, but other translators have chosen  “It is good” and “It’s a blessing” for these verses. Sukhā is one of those Pali words that can’t be converted directly into English in a way that conveys its full meaning. 

At the risk of over-explaining, this is from the Wikipedia entry for sukhā:
According to Monier-Williams (1964), the etymology of sukha is “said to be su [‘good’] + kha [‘aperture’] and to mean originally ‘having a good axle-hole'”. … Sukha is juxtaposed with dukha (Sanskrit; Pali: dukkha; often translated as “suffering”).

So, if the cart ride is bumpy because the central (axle) hole in a wheel is not smooth, that’s dukkha. If it is smooth, we get a good ride and that’s sukkhā. This is a pretty good analogy for when things seem to be going in a manner we like and when they’re not. These verses are packed with descriptions of how we can enjoy a happy life. Do we have a friend when need arises? How about before the need arises? These are not unrelated questions. Do we give attention to cultivating reliable, trusting relationships?

The key line may be “contentment with whatever there is”. I remember a time during my working life when I was frustrated with my boss and a friend asked me, “How would it be different if you accepted him exactly as he is?” It took me a few seconds to realize that that was exactly what I needed to do, rather than expecting him to behave in a way that was uncharacteristic. When things or relationships are inconvenient can we accept them as they are instead of immediately thinking or saying that they shouldn’t be this way? Contentment comes from acceptance of the imperfections and flaws in ourselves and others, and in all of our situations.

Regarding others with respect can also be a source of joy. If we are lucky enough to have parents or parental figures who have supported and helped us, it is right that we respond with steady affection and good will. Spiritual leaders and teachers we admire are worthy of our time and attention and support. 

Virtue, faith, and wisdom are packed into the last verse as sources of happiness. We would do well to commit ourselves to these aspects of the path if we want to clear away doubts and feel well-settled in our own hearts. 

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Dhamapada verses 328 – 330

If you find an intelligent companion,
A fellow traveler
A sage of good conduct,
You should travel together,
Delighted and mindful,
Overcoming all dangers.

If you do not find an intelligent companion,
A fellow traveler,
Of good conduct and wise,
Travel alone,
Like a king renouncing a conquered kingdom,
Like the elephant Matanga in the forest.

There is no companionship with a fool;
It is better to go alone.
Travel alone, at ease, doing no evil
Like the elephant Mantanga in the forest. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

According to the commentaries, Matanga was an elephant that grew tired of being part of a herd and kept to himself. It’s a handy metaphor, although Matanga was unlikely to have chosen the solitary life in order to pursue virtuous behavior and meditation, which is what these verses recommend, in the absence of wise companions.

We need to look in both directions, inward and outward. Do we have companions who are intelligent, of good conduct, wise? And could these adjectives be applied to us?

There are many reasons why people might be attracted to us, but are they substantive reasons? Is it our impeccable conduct and wisdom that draws other people to us? Here’s a hint: if we’ve attracted a crowd, it’s unlikely to be because of our humility and wise words. It is no small matter to cultivate a circle of friends who are dedicated to a wholesome path. In the Buddha’s time, his followers were all (at least publicly) committed to the eight-fold path. In our time, the opportunities for noble companionship are less obvious. Even Buddhist communities (like all others) tend to have their quirks and limitations, though some of them can be very nourishing environments.

We can always start with ourselves. In what ways are we trying to become more complete, integrated humans? Do we practice to refine the five precepts – harmlessness, giving, sexual integrity, truthfulness, and sobriety – or at least one of them? Have we cultivated the ability to listen? Can we feel compassion towards others, even those whom we don’t know?

Sometimes religious communities other than Buddhist ones can support the growth of these wholesome qualities (sometimes not). Special mention should go to the Unitarian Universalists, and Ethical Culture Societies. Not everyone has access to a spiritual community they find supportive and aligned (enough) with their own goals, but it’s worth investigating what is available.

An alternative is to start one’s own group. It could be a study group or a meditation group, or even a reading group with a particular focus. Peer-led groups that start in peoples’ homes is a time-honored model for pursuing one’s goals.

Cultivating wholesome habits is a reliable path towards becoming a noble companion, and towards finding like-minded friends. We shouldn’t give up too easily and become hermits; there are good people everywhere.

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Dhammapada verses 326 & 327

In the past, this mind went wandering
Where it wished, as it liked, and as it pleased.
Now I will retrain it wisely,
As an elephant keeper does an elephant in rut.

Delight in vigilance.
Protect your own mind.
Lift yourself from a bad course
Like a tusker sunk in mud. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

These verses follow on nicely from the previous. We move from the image of a hog to an elephant learning to obey and to pull itself out of trouble. But the real subject of these verses is the mind and how it works. Admittedly the idea of letting the mind winder aimlessly has its appeal, especially if we are feeling confined in some way. It may seem natural to leave the mind undirected, and for periods of time, we need to let our thoughts roam. But as the sage Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.”

As humans we understand that life is not infinitely long and that we are responsible for steering our minds in wholesome or unwholesome directions. The instructions in these verses are “Delight in vigilance” and “Protect your own mind”, which are clear enough to follow without being too prescriptive.

We can start protecting our own minds by becoming aware of what we are exposing ourselves to. Within a work environment, we may have limited options, but we can always lean towards understanding and accepting others as they are and working with each situation as it presents itself. With our less structured time, we have a wider range of choices, regarding physical activities, study, entertainments, social connections, etc. Probably the most important factor is who we spend the majority of our time with, whether it’s a partner or friend, a teacher or a pet. Who are the people we value most? The Buddha puts a lot of emphasis on “noble friendship”, meaning being aware of who brings out the best in us and cultivating those friendships.

“Delighting in vigilance” may seem like a tall order, basically describing the enjoyment of self-discipline. But if we think of discipline not as punishment but as training in honesty, kindness, or thoughtfulness, the proposition may feel less onerous. As we become more aware of our inclinations and choices, we might have a sense of growing autonomy, and this can be a source of delight.

If we have been “in a bad course” and were able to lift ourselves out of it, this can be a major source of faith in ourselves. People who have overcome hardships embody an admirable strength and might make excellent friends, supportive of what’s best in us. It would be wise to reflect on where we stand with respect to our hopes and dreams and whether revising or updating them is due.

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Dhammapada verse 325

The sluggish and gluttonous simpleton
Who sleeps and rolls about
Like a fat, grain-fed hog
Is reborn again and again. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

It is certainly unpleasant to think that we could be like a hog, seeking only the sensual gratifications of eating and sleeping, but sloth and greed are temptations to all of us at some point. Looking at others we may think that they have the perfect life, doing as they please with no apparent effort. But if we extend the metaphor to the idea of being reborn again and again, the picture starts to resemble the movie “Ground Hog Day”. Are we doing the same thing day after day, seeking pleasure with no other goal and no visible progress?

The Buddha’s eightfold path starts with Right View, and we might as well start there, too. What would motivate us to begin the work of investigating and refining our inner lives? Can we generate an image of a purpose-filled life that is directed towards non-material gain? Have we encountered such a person either in real life or in literature or public life? Can we imagine ourselves becoming such a person?

Some of us might be motivated not by the idea of becoming fully awakened but simply by the intention to pull ourselves out of confusion. When we first turn our attention inward, it may not be an inviting prospect. The untrained mind is something like a wild animal, the “monkey mind” that most meditators experience when they attempt to establish a practice. This is the critical juncture when our good intentions may fade, and many of us have to start over repeatedly because it appears that the content of our minds is too frightening or confusing or unmanageable. But eventually there’s nothing to do but admit the truth and approach it in a practical way. By attempting, again and again, to train the mind to follow the in and out movements of our breathing (or to follow another neutral object of meditation), eventually we learn that we are trainable. Like someone who wants to become a runner, the first several outings may seem hopeless, but even a week’s determination yields results.

Once we start to believe that we have some control over the direction our mind takes, many things become possible. We can turn our attention inward and reflect, through reading, listening to wise counsel, talking with friends, or journaling: what are the inner sources of disturbance to our peace? We can’t change overnight; when a major issue becomes a minor one, other difficulties become apparent. Even after many years, when we’ve refined our thinking and behavior in significant ways, subtle obstacles appear. Ignorance and dukkha are lifetime challenges, but isn’t it better to recognize and work with them than to let them rule our lives?

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Dhammapada 322-323

Excellent are tamed mules,
Thoroughbreds, horses of the Indus valley,
Tusked elephants and great elephants.
But even more excellent
Are people who have tamed themselves.

Not by means of these animals could one go
To that place not gone to,
Where a self-tamed person goes
By means of a well-tamed, disciplined self. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

Anyone who has tried to train a puppy knows that taming an animal takes patience and persistence. We can only assume that the same principle applies to mules, horses, and elephants. There is no shortcut to curbing an animal’s wild instincts; patience, kindness, and even love is required. Are humans so different? Very unlucky children do not get boundaries set within their families; they grow up feeling they aren’t entitled to security and love. For those of us who did grow up in safe and caring environments, it’s up to us as adults to continue the training.

The second verse tells us in poetic form that there’s no animal that can ferry us to awakening. Even a dedicated guru cannot carry her students to enlightenment, she can only point the way. When we begin our spiritual journey we naturally lean on teachers and wise friends to help us. At some point, however, we need to guide our progress independently and our teachers become our friends on the path. In fact, every person and situation we encounter may become our teacher.

Only we know for sure what situations induce a resistant or rebellious mindstate in us. A friend recently sent this quote from Ajahn Chah: “Anything which is troubling you, anything which is irritating you, THAT is your teacher”. This is an all-purpose directive; we have to look to ourselves to recognize our biggest obstacle, our tightest clinging. Of course, the problem could be in the domain of greed rather than aversion; both are indicators of where we need to focus our attention.

In his book “An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics” Peter Harvey points out:

By contrast with the Christian emphasis on not holding ill-will against someone, the Buddhist, particularly Theravada, emphasis is on not holding it within oneself, because of its harmful effects.

As the Dhammapada verse 42 says:
Whatever an enemy may do to an enemy,
Or haters, one to another,
Far worse is the harm
From one’s own wrongly directed mind.

Can we tell the difference? Can we let go of our envy or anger or other destructive feeling towards another person, not because they deserve it but because we don’t deserve to carry poison in our hearts? This is one powerful method for taming ourselves.

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Dhammapada verses 320-321

As an elephant in battle
Endures an arrow shot from a bow,
So will I endure verbal abuse;
Many people, indeed, lack virtue.

The tamed elephant is the one
They take into a crowd.
The tamed elephant is the one
The king mounts.
Best among humans is the tamed person
Who endures verbal abuse. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

These two verses lay out a colorful analogy. An elephant has thick skin and is not much bothered by an arrow; in the same way, we can have thick skin by learning not to take things personally, even verbal abuse. If we are being unfairly abused, can we endure it without feeling wounded? Can we understand that one who speaks abusively to others is the one who has the problem? As the verse states, many people lack virtue and are therefore prone to blaming others and lashing out.

[from SN 7.2 translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu] I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Rajagaha in the Bamboo Grove, the Squirrels’ Sanctuary. Then the brahman Akkosaka Bharadvaja heard that a brahman of the Bharadvaja clan had gone forth from the home life into homelessness in the presence of the Blessed One. Angered & displeased, he went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, insulted & cursed him with rude, harsh words.

When this was said, the Blessed One said to him: “What do you think, brahman: Do friends & colleagues, relatives & kinsmen come to you as guests?”

“Yes, Master Gotama, sometimes friends & colleagues, relatives & kinsmen come to me as guests.”

“And what do you think: Do you serve them with staple & non-staple foods & delicacies?”

“Yes, sometimes I serve them with staple & non-staple foods & delicacies.”

“And if they don’t accept them, to whom do those foods belong?”

“If they don’t accept them, Master Gotama, those foods are all mine.”

“In the same way, brahman, that with which you have insulted me, who is not insulting; that with which you have taunted me, who is not taunting; that with which you have berated me, who is not berating: that I don’t accept from you. It’s all yours, brahman. It’s all yours.

“Whoever returns insult to one who is insulting, returns taunts to one who is taunting, returns a berating to one who is berating, is said to be eating together, sharing company, with that person. But I am neither eating together nor sharing your company, brahman. It’s all yours. It’s all yours.”

This was such a powerful lesson that the interlocutor, Akkosa Baradvaja, responded by joining the Buddha’s order where he reached full awakening.

The concept of taming ourselves is repeated regularly in the Pali canon. If we are non- (or less) reactive, we can go anywhere without fear. We can be in a crowd or meet powerful people with confidence. Our self-assurance is an asset wherever we go.

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Dhammapada verses 316-319

Ashamed of what’s not shameful
And not ashamed of what is,
Those who take up wrong views
Go to a bad rebirth.

Seeing danger in what’s not dangerous
And not seeing danger in what is,
Those who take up wrong views
Go to a bad rebirth.

Finding fault in what’s not a fault
And seeing no fault in what is,
Those who take up wrong views
Go to a bad rebirth.

But knowing fault as fault,
And the faultless as the faultless,
Those who take up right views
Go to a good rebirth. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

These are the final four verses from a chapter titled “Hell”. I’ve omitted the first ten because they are mostly directed at monastics who act in a corrupt way and are consequently of limited relevance to lay life.

Since most of the Dhammapada verses can be used as instructions for us to examine and improve our intentions, actions, and wisdom, we should first look to our own development. But we can also recognize in others when a wrong view leads to harmful intentions and actions. Observing wisdom (or the lack of it) in others is a supportive guide for our own efforts.

These verses are summarized in the third line of each verse: “Those who take up wrong/right views”, acknowledging that if we do not understand what makes an action shameful or dangerous or otherwise faulty, we are like to perform actions that are not beneficial for ourselves and others.

Whether you believe that rebirth refers to (1) literal rebirth in another body after death or (2) the changing modes of self-perception that go on throughout our lives, the principle remains: Right View leads to Right Action, which leads to a better place (mentally and/or physically) than views and actions based on distorted or mistaken perceptions.

The Buddha’s teachings on ethical behavior clearly outline a way to live that will bring about social harmony if we follow them. Both our behavior and our intentions can be monitored as we try to discern where they come from and what their results are. It’s an active practice that encompasses our assumptions, our fears, our habits (good and bad), and our awareness of what principles we are trying to live by.

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Dhammapada verses 304-305

From afar, good people shine
Like the Himalaya mountains.
Close up, bad people disappear
Like arrows shot into the night.

Sitting alone, resting alone, walking alone,
Untiring and alone,
Whoever has tamed oneself
Will find delight in the forest. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

These verses close the chapter titled “The Path” and describe some of the results of having fulfilled the trainings encompassed by the Buddha’s eight-fold path.

We may have had the experience of being in the presence of someone who “shines”, who inspires us in the same way that a view of the Himalaya mountains might. Because one who has made progress along the path has an aura of peacefulness, of not being agitated or needy, we are attracted to them; and that attraction remains whether we are close to them or far away. 

Others may appear attractive in the distance, particularly if we are looking in a superficial way, but up close we can sense a lack of depth, perhaps a measure of self-absorption or desperation. People caught up in the belief that worldly success is the most worthy (or only) goal will wilt in our view beside a person of genuine character and integrity.

Folks who have understood the Buddha’s four truths – that all beings suffer in some way, that our own clinging causes the suffering, that release from suffering is possible, and that there is a reliable path to this release – have a level of contentment with themselves and the world that cannot be faked. One who understands things as they are, who knows that the world does not revolve around us personally, can be content anywhere, is at peace when alone, their needs are few.

We can all be like that, or at least more like that. We can choose to be less reactive, more inclusive and caring. Even just imagining ourselves as having internal peace is a step in the right direction. Taking up the path, not as a task that must be accomplished quickly, but as a noble way to live day by day, week by week, year by year, creates its own sense of relief, of quiet but solid purpose.

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