Dhammapada verses 13&14

As rain penetrates
an ill-thatched house,
so lust penetrates
an uncultivated mind.

As rain does not penetrate
a well-thatched house,
so lust does not penetrate
a well-cultivated mind.  (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

In these verses, lust refers to wanting of all kinds, not only sexual lust. We lust after possessions, after praise, after approval, after specific foods and experiences (fill in your favorite here).

The big question is, what’s the difference between a cultivated and an uncultivated mind?

In an uncultivated mind, there is no input filter; we don’t stop to consider what results acting on our impulses might bring. We chase after what we think we’ll like and run away from what we think we won’t like, without a second thought. In this way we might shun a strict but skilful teacher, or turn away from challenges that we can’t necessarily win; we avoid practicing to develop any skill. In short, we don’t take up anything that doesn’t come easily, that might frustrate us.

Cultivating anything, especially our minds, takes patience and determination. We have to be willing to begin again, over and over. Both mindfulness and clear comprehension (Pali: sati-sampajañña) are required; that is, an awareness of what’s actually going on (as if we were an impartial observer), and some contextual understanding — what are the causes of what we’re observing? We have to start by accepting that there’s plenty we don’t know and that our commitment is to look as deeply into our experience as we can.

The type of effort required is not the 100% physical exertion of an olympic athlete; it is the steady commitment of a beginner. Think of the way we navigate when we are driving a car or riding a bicycle. Rather than trying to watch the lines on both sides of us and stay within them one metre (yard) at a time, we set our vision on the road ahead, taking in a “full screen” view, including our peripheral vision. We steer into the middle of that frame, keeping our focus wide enough to anticipate danger or uncertainty from all directions, even behind us or to the side. The door of a parked car may swing out in front of us; a child may chase a ball into the road; the car ahead may stop suddenly for no apparent reason. This kind of steady, open attention is a skill we can sustain and develop.

When we intentionally train our minds, we gradually become more equanimous, we “walk evenly on uneven ground”, which in turn improves the clarity of our perceptions.  We can see that the world is not designed around our wishes, that other forces are at work. We generate a protective “roof” so that when temptation to superficial or unworthy rewards comes calling, we recognize it as not for us, and when an opportunity to behave in a wholesome way appears, we gravitate towards it.

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Dhammapada verses 11&12

Those who consider the inessential to be essential
And see the essential as inessential
Don’t reach the essential,
Living in the field of wrong intention.

Those who know the essential to be essential
And the inessential as inessential
Reach the essential,
Living in the field of right intention. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

Note: The Pali word Sāra, here translated as “essential”, also refers to that which is most excellent. An analogy sometimes used is “heartwood”, i.e., the core.

Learning what is essential and what is not is a lifelong effort. When we are small children, learning how to navigate the physical world is usually all we can manage. In the teenage years, our sensitivities can be heightened, making it difficult to see beyond our own self-consciousness. Even as adults, we know (better) what’s important, but often enough, we forget. We get distracted by greed, envy, or resentment, or a vision of how things “should be”; we make plans that include things we have no control over. We spend our energy hoping that chronic problems will miraculously disappear.

What could we consider essential?

  • Kindness
  • Honesty
  • Generosity
  • Acceptance of things as they are
  • Truthful speech
  • Mindfulness
  • Resilience
  • Cultivating wholesome relationships
  • Developing the Buddha’s 8-fold path (Upright view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration)
  • What else?

Another contemplation that the Buddha recommends in the Pali canon is the recollection of death, our own and everyone else’s. If we remember that all of us have a limited time here on earth, it might encourage us to keep our eye on what’s important and let the petty stuff slide. No one is so awful that we can’t be civil to them, in the interests of our own peace of mind and the general welfare. Even if we feel we need to intervene, to protect someone or correct a wrong impression, we can do it with kindness, making our good intentions clear.

Mindfulness is key here. How many times in a day can we check whether our actions and speech match up with our deeper intentions? Can we kindly correct ourselves when we get carried away in unwholesome directions, acknowledging our mistake and resolving to do better?

Simply asking ourselves what is essential NOW is a powerful form of mindfulness.

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Dhammapada verses 9&10

Whoever is defiled
And devoid of self-control and truth,
Yet wears the saffron robe,
Is unworthy of the saffron robe.

Whoever has purged defilements,
Is self-controlled, truthful,
And well established in virtue,
Is worthy of the saffron robe. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

These verses introduce the idea of virtuous intentions and actions as a source of human worth. They also introduce the possibility of hypocrisy.

What are the defilements?

Purification of mind as understood in the Buddha’s teaching is the sustained endeavor to cleanse the mind of defilements, those dark unwholesome mental forces which run beneath the surface stream of consciousness vitiating our thinking, values, attitudes, and actions. The chief among the defilements are the three that the Buddha has termed the “roots of evil” — greed, hatred, and delusion — from which emerge their numerous offshoots and variants: anger and cruelty, avarice and envy, conceit and arrogance, hypocrisy and vanity, the multitude of erroneous views. …The work of purification must be undertaken in the same place where the defilements arise, in the mind itself, and the main method the Dhamma offers for purifying the mind is meditation. (From https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_04.html)

Meditation is the most powerful method available for acquiring self-control, for taking responsibility for our actions and words, and channeling them in wholesome directions.  Truthfulness also requires a finely tuned self-awareness.

To be “purged” of defilements refers to the uprooting of our unwholesome tendencies, and for a bit of color, the word in Pali means “vomited”. So we could think of tasting the bitterness of our own greed and hatred and ejecting them physically, if that helps.

Most of us find hypocrisy unpleasant, at least in other people. “Wearing ochre robes” identifies one as a follower of the Buddha, though in present times, robes could be black (Zen) or maroon (Tibetan). When people wear the robes of the ordained, it is reasonable to expect a better-than-average standard of behavior, and it’s distressing when that clearly is contradicted. Consider the many Chinese “fake monks” who panhandle in New York and other large cities. They have no compunction about preying on the public’s belief that their intentions are good. They try to trade good luck charms and trinkets for money, a practice specifically forbidden in the Pali canon.

We could say that hypocrisy is the opposite of humility. Regardless of what clothing we wear, our actions and words tell others who we are, how kind, how truthful, how virtuous. A passing glance or a short speech doesn’t reveal character, we have to be patient. We only know through close observation whether good or bad intentions are being revealed in others. Our most scrupulous attention should be directed to our own motives and actions.

These verses encourage us to recognize our defilements and work at wearing them away, through meditation and through the integrity of our actions and words.

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Dhammapada verses 7&8

Whoever lives
Focused on the pleasant,
Senses unguarded,
Immoderate with food,
Lazy and sluggish,
Will be overpowered by Māra,
As a weak tree is bent in the wind.

Whoever lives
Focused on the unpleasant,
Senses guarded,
Moderate with food,
Faithful and diligent,
Will not be overpowered by Māra,
As a stone mountain is unmoved by the wind. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

Māra in the Pali canon refers to the principles of death, destruction, and delusion. Māra is sometimes personified as “the evil one”, and sometimes the term “māra” (lower case) is applied to the whole of worldly existence, or the realm of rebirth (saṃsāra), as opposed to Nibbāna.

Also, in the Pali canon, when Māra is a character, he often actively discourages people from the path to awakening, tempting them with sensual rewards or taunting them with fear.

So how do we get bogged down in delusion and negative energy? Verse 7 says it’s by chasing after pleasant experiences, by letting our sensuality run wild, with gluttony and laziness. That covers four of the seven deadly sins in some Christian traditions. They are familiar to most of us, as we can observe them in others or ourselves. Unfortunately, there are many external influences encouraging us to pursue our greedy and lazy tendencies, some of them from peer-pressure and some from marketing forces, for example, “fear of missing out”.  The seductions of Māra can appear internally (from our own greed or fear) or externally.

In the suttas, the way Māra is defeated or turned back is simply through looking him squarely in the eye and saying, “I see you, Māra; I know who you are.” We have the opportunity to do the same; we can face down our greed and lust when they come up, seeing them clearly and not letting them push us into unwise actions of speech or body. We can recognize fear as a strong but temporary feeling; we can step back from it, accept it, and analyse it. When we meet fear squarely we can see that it seems ferocious, but the space around it is empty. All of us have to confront our fears, great and small, but if we bring mindfulness to the encounter, the strength of that fear is greatly diminished. We can see it as “not mine”, and let it pass by.

A classic mindfulness exercise is to contemplate the unpleasant characteristics of our bodies, as an antidote to lust and vanity. When the second stanza recommends “focusing on the unpleasant”, it’s not saying we should ignore the pleasant in our experience, but that we need to remember that all pleasing experiences are temporary. Also, we have such a strong tendency to push aside anything we don’t like that we miss the chance to understand and accept the dukkha component of our experience. We can be “faithful and diligent” by maintaining mindfulness of dukkha, it’s origin (clinging), and its cessation.

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Dhammapada verses 5&6

Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.

Many do not realize that
We here must die.
For those who realize this,
Quarrels end.  (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

 Verse 5 is a well-known saying of the Buddha, and it’s meaning is clear; hatred has never overcome an enemy, mostly harming the hater. But the word “non-hatred” (avera in Pali) brings up an interesting dilemma. In colloquial English we would probably say that hatred only ends through love, but this misses a subtle and important point. If we experience intense hatred, and then experience its cessation – what’s left? It may not be the warm, fond, personal feeling we associate with the word “love”. It may be more like peace or calm, the absence of agitation or the disappearance of the urge to harm. Is that also a form of love?

Ajahn Sumedho has said that mettā is a state of non-aversion. Does that accurately reflect our experience? When there is no trace of resistance, only acceptance, does that feel like unbounded loving-friendliness? Would we recognize mettā if we encountered it? Contemplating this question, we can use this verse to investigate our direct experience.

There’s another question raised by verse 6. “We here must die” could also be translated as “we should be restrained”; the Pali is ambiguous. Gil Fronsdal chose the first translation for good reasons, but it also works well if we substitute knowing that we should restrain our anger for the second line. Quarrels end if we contain our anger, keep it from affecting others. Quarrels also end if we remember that all beings living on earth must one day die, that our lives are of limited duration, which could give us some perspective on the immediate cause of our anger. Is it really so important if we feel insulted or overlooked? Are we certain of the intention of the other person? What caused this instance of anger? What external trigger (a thought?) and what sensitivity in ourselves came together and resulted in a burning sensation? Every experience we can have, we can investigate with wisdom; we can try to understand its causes and results.

The Dhammapada verses are clear but condensed instructions. We can read them as poetry for inspiration, and we can parse their meanings as they might apply to our own lives. They can be used by those of us who simply want our lives to be less difficult and by those of us who are aiming for full awakening, plus anyone in between.

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Dhammapada verses 3&4

“He abused me, attacked me,
Defeated me, robbed me!”
For those carrying on like this,
Hatred does not end.

“She abused me, attacked me,
Defeated me, robbed me!”
For those not carrying on like this,
Hatred ends.
—(translated by Gil Fronsdal)

On first reading, we might think these two verses are identical, but the second couplets in each verse tell opposite stories. They describe two different responses to the same circumstances. In one case, we are outraged; in the other, we recognize that our outrage is a form of poison in our hearts, and we let it go. It may be simple to understand this point, and yet, in the moment, it can be difficult for most of us to shift out of powerful negative emotions.

These verses present a distilled picture of how the root cause of our internal hatred (dosa in Pali) affects us. It reaches beyond the fact of being beaten and robbed; it refers to any instance of anger and resentment welling up in our hearts, in response to a perceived offense or instance of unfairness. The feeling is remarkably similar, regardless of the precipitating event.

If we recognize the feeling we have when we believe we’ve been cheated or betrayed or lied to, we will experience the familiarity of this response. There is something consuming about anger and it may feel as if we’ve been taken over by an external power, a “righteous” one.

Anger is not the same as sadness or disappointment. Those emotions don’t usually lead us to strike out, physically or verbally. So it’s important to mindfully assess what’s going on as it happens. We can sense the difference in our bodies, perhaps more easily than in our minds, between raw anger and other, more mixed emotions. Confusion is often present, or our vision might be impaired by unconscious assumptions or desires. By checking in with our physical sensations and impulses, we can familiarize ourselves with the subtle differences between hatred and some of its cousins.

Once we know when hatred is present and when it’s not, we can use it as a kind of fire alarm. “Wake up! Watch out! Leave the building!” We can take a step back and assess whether we want to rush into actions or words that may be hard to retreat from, or whether we can take a deep breath or two and see if there isn’t another perspective available that doesn’t tap into our anger. This decision point is a powerful opportunity to wake up into wisdom. Can we identify our own anger as an agent that clouds our perceptions and blinds us to the larger picture? Can we see that releasing anger, in this moment, brings peace to ourselves and others?

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Dhammapada verses 1&2

The Dhammapada is probably the most popular Buddhist literature in the world. It consists of 423 verses — sort of poetry, sort of philosophy, and a useful set of instructions to guide our deepening practice of the Dhamma. There are more than 50 translations from the Pali into English, and many more into other languages. For our reflections, I’ve chosen Gil Fronsdal’s translation because his purpose aligns with my own: to translate the Buddha’s teachings with all possible accuracy and in a way that enables the practitioner to deepen her wisdom in the here and now.

Without further ado, we begin:

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a corrupted mind,
And suffering follows
As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a peaceful mind,
And happiness follows
Like a never-departing shadow.

Gil explains in a footnote that “preceded by mind” is sometimes translated as “impelled by mind”, giving the image more force. But our minds don’t compel us to do anything; we decide how to act, whether consciously or subconsciously motivated. If our mind is habitually angry or selfish or confused, our actions are likely to be the same. And if our thoughts tend to be kind, generous, and wise, then our actions are likely to be more in that vein.

We can examine our experience and our words and actions using this question: “What made me think that?” or “Why did I behave that way?” We can look into the causes and conditions within this human system, including our bodies and minds, to unveil our motives and intentions. The investigation itself will help us understand how thought becomes action, with whatever results follow.

It’s no accident that this pair of verses sits in the opening position. They introduce two important themes. The first is that we, and no one else, are responsible for our actions of body, speech, and mind. We all influence each other to different degrees, but the ultimate choices lie within us. We could think of the tired but true metaphor that we don’t choose the cards we are dealt (heredity, place of birth, inherent intelligence), but we do choose how to play those cards. This is the only leverage we have on the direction our lives take.

The second important theme is that actions have consequences; that what we do matters. When we treat ourselves and each other with respect and kindness, we are making a better world both internally and externally. If we are dishonest, even if we think no one can see, we ourselves can see; we know that we are diminishing our worth.

We would do well to  try to observe ourselves as if from another (impartial) person’s perspective. Do we behave in ways that we criticize in others? Do we turn away from the responsibility of serious reflection? There is no “time off” from karma; we only have now.

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