Dhammapada verse 79

One who drinks in the Dharma
Sleeps happily with a clear mind.
The sage always delights in the Dharma
Taught by the noble ones. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

Some of us, when we first encounter the Dharma, experience an instant recognition and deep satisfaction; for others of us, it’s a slow-growth process. At first, the Dharma may make us uncomfortable, challenging our beliefs and assumptions about ourselves and the world and how it all fits together.

We cling to a firm conviction that we deserve good things and that anything uncomfortable or inconvenient for us is some kind of mistake. This can result in a perpetual low-grade uneasiness. It might seem absurd that there could be a more important task than to protect and preserve our bodies and accumulate as much wealth, comfort, recognition, etc. as we can for ourselves and our loved ones. But there is another view which is both illuminating and freeing.

The Dharma starts with dukkha, with accepting and acknowledging that dukkha, in all its infinite variety, is an inescapable fact of life for everyone, everywhere. Including us? Yes, including all of us. Until we drink in this truth, this law of the natural world, we cannot see the Dharma. Once we understand that dukkha is ever-present, we can also see that it is caused by something (clinging) and that release through non-clinging is possible. It’s a complete package, but many of us get caught on that first step of letting go of the fantasy of a perfectly comfortable life.

And yet, the release and joy that comes from seeing things as they are, seeing the non-me-centered universe, are immense and long-lasting. It’s as if the fog has cleared and what was thoroughly confusing before becomes obvious. We have a way forward, we can see the Buddha’s 8-fold path of practice. Seeing the potential in the path brings a lasting and delightful peace.


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Dhammapada 78

Do not associate with evil friends;
Do not associate with the lowest of people.
Associate with virtuous friends;
Associate with the best of people. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

This is quite a direct instruction. Remember that when the Buddha refers to the “lowest” and the “best”, his scale is based on wholesome behavior, not religion, skin color, material means, popularity, accent, or country of origin. Sometimes it’s hard to discern who is good and who is not; we have to keep an eye on behavior, on speech, on how others are treated, and not be distracted by physical beauty or youth or superficial charm. Also, different cultural customs can make one person’s apparent rudeness another person’s comfortable familiarity.

Keeping all that in mind, who do we choose as friends? Are we willing to put up with some quirks if a person is essentially good? Many of us embody a combination of wholesome and unwholesome habits and inclinations; how would we rate ourselves? Which “good” qualities do we consider the most important, in ourselves and others? And what are the marks of a person we would do better to avoid?

We will each have our own lists, but high on mine would be honesty, truthfulness, and an ability to put oneself into another’s shoes.

Once we start observing others without the filter of our likes and dislikes, putting aside whether we are being admired or criticized, we can see how others are in the world, apart from their effect on us. This is how we learn about others. We can have compassion for someone’s situation and still choose whether we want to be closer or further away from them.

All the activities we participate in, and all the people we associate with, are having an effect on us, whether we acknowledge it or not. Our teachers are all around us, if we will only look through the lens of the Dharma.

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Dhammapada verses 76 & 77

Like someone pointing to treasure
Is the wise person
Who sees your faults and points them out.
Associate with such a sage.
Good will come of it, not bad,
If you associate with one such as this.

Let one such as this advise you, instruct you,
And restrain you from rude behavior.
Such a person is pleasing to good people,
But displeasing to the bad. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

Joseph Goldstein used to pose the question: Would you rather find a wrapped gift waiting for you when you come to breakfast, or someone who reveals your flaws to you? It’s a great question because it highlights our reluctance to investigate our obstructions and also how easily we’re distracted by pretty wrapping paper.

Of course, in practice, only someone who knows us well has standing to help us in this way. Only a trusted friend can give constructive criticism, and probably only if invited, specifically or generally. Ideally, if we have a kalyāṇa mitta, a good friend, there is a mutual understanding that we can speak openly and will listen humbly.

There have been a few memorable moments when someone gave me a wake-up call. Once, I was told “Listen to yourself!”, which was exactly what I needed to shake me out of my self-involvement at that moment. The phrase has often been useful as a mindfulness tool.

Another standout moment occurred many years ago, while I was in a practice interview with Bhante Gunaratana. I was worrying about a family member and saying that I felt responsible. He sat up straight, held his index finger in the air, and said sternly, “You only have one responsibility and that is to work out your liberation!” It struck me as truth, and still does.

I’ve also been reminded by Dharma friends that even though we’re on the same path, our approaches will vary; our karmic needs are not all the same; our choices and timing will differ. This is useful to remember with everyone we encounter.

An important question is whether we seek out friendships which might result in mutual improvement or only those which confirm our biases and preferences. Who are our trusted friends? Do we cultivate those relationships and value them appropriately? Is our radar sensitive enough to pick up the signals from potential friends who see with clarity and listen with heart?

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Dhammapada verses 70 & 72-75

The foolish ascetic who month after month
Eats food with the tip of a blade of grass
Is not worth a fraction
Of a person who has fathomed the Dharma. (verse 70)

And if ever to his own harm the fool increases in cleverness, this only destroys his own mind and his fate is worse than before (verse 72, translated by Juan Mascaró)

Fools will want unwarranted status,
Deference from fellow monks,
Authority in the monasteries,
And homage from good families.
“Let both householders and renunciants
Believe that I did this.
Let them obey me in every task!”
Such are the thoughts of a fool
Who cultivates desire and pride. (verses 73-74)

The way to material gain is one thing,
The path to Nirvana another.
Knowing this, a monk who is the Buddha’s disciple
Should not delight in being venerated,
But cultivate solitude instead. (verse 75. All translations except verse 72 by Gil Fronsdal)

Although these verses all refer to the actions and intentions of monks, there is a useful point for us laypeople: outward signs of virtue can be presented or exaggerated, but they will not lead to freedom.

We all may be vulnerable to the temptation to appear good, perhaps a bit better than we actually are. Even as a lay teacher of the Dharma one is vulnerable to getting a swelled head (ego) from being praised, and it is a danger to be wary of. Who doesn’t appreciate being praised? But if we believe it when we are praised, do we also believe it when we are blamed or criticized? It’s safer to take both with a grain of salt, that is, to not take either one personally. If we are practicing mindfulness continuously, there is no room for self-aggrandizement, or for “selfing” of any kind.

It might be useful to think of actual people we know or know about. Cult leaders tend to attribute special powers to themselves and also encourage others to be subservient to them and to praise them publicly. Thich Nhat Hanh leaps to mind as a counterexample — a teacher who embodies the power of the Dharma and also a deep humility. If we look closely, we can see the capital-S Self in the first example and the absence of self in Thich Nhat Hanh.

Wisdom and humility cannot be faked. People who believe most firmly that they have (or are entitled to) status may the least respectable where the Dharma is concerned. Indeed, in the Vinaya (monastic rules), claiming spiritual attainments that one has not in fact experienced is a major cause for censure.

The marks of worldly success don’t tell us anything about a person’s real worth. Only wisdom, compassion, and humility are the true marks of a noble person.

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Dhammapada verses 69 & 71

As long as evil has not borne fruit,
The fool thinks it is like honey.
But when evil does bear fruit,
Then the fool suffers. (verse 69 translated by Gil Fronsdal)

Fresh milk takes time to sour.
So a fool’s mischief
Takes time to catch up with him.
Like the embers of a fire
It smolders within him. (verse 71 translated by Thomas Byrom)

I’ve paired these two non-sequential verses because they make the same point: the results of our actions (good or bad) don’t appear instantly; they may ripen with a reward or punishment at the most unexpected times, in unexpected contexts. Thomas Byrom’s translation (verse 71) was clearer to me than some other translations, and I hope it illustrates the point for you.

We’ve either experienced or witnessed the feeling of “getting away with” something that shouldn’t have been done, and thinking there would be no consequences. Then later, when the same attitude of seeking a short cut creates an awkward situation, we may not recognize the discomfort as a consequence of earlier actions.

Because karma is only occasionally instant, as when our inattention causes us to break or knock into something, we might conclude that our actions have no consequences beyond the immediate. But every time we think or act in a way that increases our greed, hatred or delusion, we are creating karmic ruts that can be increasingly hard to get out of. When we practice generosity, kindness, and compassion we are strengthening our citta (heart/mind). Because these two pathways are internal and invisible, we give them little importance, but they are the driving forces of our days.

The power of the unwholesome roots is insidious; they are always lying in wait for us. It takes a modicum of wisdom to recognize that we are all vulnerable to the forces of wanting and hating and self-delusion, and it takes some determination to establish mindfulness throughout the day so we can stay alert to their appearance. We can say “Aha, I see you” when they arise and pause to re-set our intentions. We can also train ourselves to notice and act on our generosity, compassion, and wisdom when they arise. As with any activity, the more we practice it, the better we become at developing mindfulness.

Unless we have countervailing training, we tend to be lazy. We don’t like to think that ALL of our actions and words have power. Even though the laws of karma, of cause and effect, are subtle and hard to perceive, they are powerful. We cannot behave in unwholesome ways and reap beneficial rewards; and we cannot maintain a truthful and generous attitude and fail to benefit. Things just don’t work that way.

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Dhammapada verses 67 & 68

No deed is good
That one regrets having done,
That results in weeping
And a tear-streaked face.

A deed is good
That one doesn’t regret having done,
That results in joy
And delight. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

Sometimes human nature seems to work against us,  bringing our regrets to mind more often than our good actions, regardless of the relative balance of the two. It is worth considering how this whole operation works. What are the things we most regret? Is making amends for any of them possible? Have we already done what we could to make amends? Are we needlessly continuing to punish ourselves? Our mistakes can be our most profound teachers. Have we learned what we needed to learn?

On the other side, we often overlook the many ways in which we do good. The everyday kindnesses shown to others, attention given to friends and relations, the automatic financial support that we may be sending to worthy causes, help (financial or physical) that we’ve given to major projects in the past – all of these accumulate to our karmic “account”.

A beneficial habit to develop would be a regular meditation practice, whether sitting, walking, or any other practical, methodical training that redirects our attention from the outside world to examining our inner state. We would never regret this supportive activity, and others in our sphere of influence might benefit greatly.

The best use of these verses would be to let them inspire us to guide our actions now, today, wherever we are. There is a choice: if we’re feeling cranky, we can avoid taking it out on anyone else; if we’re feeling peaceful and at ease, we can share that energy with whomever we meet. We can monitor our mental states, which will not only guide us  to wholesome words and actions, but will also provide valuable training in mindfulness. Little by little, day by day, we can move along the path through this training.


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Dhammapada verse 66

Fools with no sense
Go about as their own enemies,
Doing evil deeds that
Bear bitter fruit. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

This verse is an expression of the principle of karma, the law of causation: good actions produce good results and bad actions produce bad results, and not only for the person performing the action.

Individual karma is not deterministic, it is not the whole story of why anything happens in our lives, but it is the only part that we have control over. Things we did in the past, for good or ill, are beyond our reach, and many impersonal events affect us in myriad ways, but we can direct our actions in the present. Understanding this basic principle, that we are responsible for what we do and say in the world and for how those actions help or hinder us and others, is essential to any growth.

An earlier verse in the Dhammapada re-states the principle:

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. (verse 42)

This is a distinguishing feature of most forms of Buddhism among other world religions. We do not look to an external power, earthly or heavenly, to regulate our actions and punish or reward us; we rely on the laws of nature to perform this function. If we are unkind or unfair to others, the result is that we hurt other people, damage our own hearts, and acquire a reputation as mean and unreliable. If we are generous, honest, and fair to others as a matter of course, we enjoy the inner warmth of knowing that we are a reliable source of joy, strength, and comfort, to ourselves and to others.

Events and energies come at us non-stop throughout or lives. Our domain of control is how we respond to what is both in front of us and inside of us.

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Dhammapada verses 64 & 65

A fool associating with a sage,
Even if for a lifetime,
Will no more perceive the Dharma
Than a spoon will perceive the taste of soup.

A discerning person who associates with a sage,
Even if for a brief moment,
Will quickly perceive the Dharma,
As the tongue perceives the taste of soup. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

While the Buddha often advises us to cultivate “noble friendships”, these verses point out that we need to bring whatever wisdom we’ve got to the encounter. Just being in someone’s presence is not enough to move us towards freedom if we haven’t learned how to pay attention. It requires perceiving causes and results, which among humans can be a confusing business.

The five precepts for laypeople may be a good place to start. We can discern whether someone’s behavior (including our own) involves harming others or not; we can tell the difference between generosity and stinginess (or outright theft); we can observe whether a person is so driven by sensual desire that they have lost perspective; over time we can know if someone has the habit of truthfulness or not; and close observation will reveal whether another person is intoxicated and how that makes them behave.

What do we admire in others? What makes us enjoy their company? What draws us in and what repels us? This is not a frivolous question; we are driven by such inclinations, even if they are sometimes sub- or semi-conscious. As an example, we might review our relationships and notice if we are drawn to people who are charming, or who flatter us, or who make caustic comments, or who create drama wherever they go. Or perhaps we seek out people who are generous and kind to everyone, who spend their energy in support of those in need.

Are we attracted to people who think before they speak or act? Are we reflective ourselves? Discovering whether we ourselves are fools or people with discernment is the an important step towards becoming truly wise.

If we’re alert, we may pick up very quickly that someone we meet has a rare degree of clarity and calm. Even a short contact with such a person can be uplifting.

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Dhammapada verses 62 & 63

A fool suffers, thinking,
“I have children! I have wealth!”
One’s self is not even one’s own.
How then are children? How then is wealth?

A fool conscious of her foolishness
Is to that extent wise.
But a fool who considers himself wise
Is the one to be called a fool.

The first verse goes to the very heart of the Buddha’s teachings: the question of ownership. Ajahn Chah would often say that experiences and things, in fact everything, was ownerless. We can only own things if we believe in a self that can accumulate things exclusively to itself. But youth, beauty, possessions, money, relatives, and status are all unreliable — all become old, wear out and disappear; we can count on that. Somehow we find it pleasanter to live as if we can control the uncontrollable. Even a little bit of observation will prove that one may be lucky or unlucky with wealth and, even more, with children. We might have a very promising child who dies young, or who suffers from a debilitating illness (physical or mental), or who cuts us out of his life. If we let our contentment depend on what we consider to be our possessions, we are sure to be disappointed.

The second verse is a concise description of delusion. We think we know what’s going on, but we are entirely mistaken, because we are unconscious of our underlying assumptions and motivations. We can see an example of this in the public realm where different people have wildly varying perceptions of the same events; and most are 100% sure that their perception is the right one. To be truly wise, we would need to acknowledge the different views, understand the causes that create the differences, and have compassion for the blindness of humans.

When we want to understand what’s happening, we can refer back to the Buddha’s Four Truths: where’s the suffering in this situation? What form of clinging is creating the suffering? Can anything be done to soften the clinging, and hence the suffering? Above all, can we remember that whatever’s going on is happening because of many seen and unseen prior causes, and is essentially NOT about “me”?

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Dhammapada verse 61

If, while on your way,
You meet no one your equal or better,
Steadily continue on your way alone.
There is no fellowship with fools.

This is not the only place in the Pali canon that the Buddha recommends being alone rather than taking up with unworthy friends. In a social sense, this verse describes a snob, not something we aspire to be.

The verse also overlooks the fact that even fools deserve our compassion. I’ve always thought it was useful to cultivate friends who know more than I do, and to balance things out, to mentor and nurture at least one friend whose needs are greater than my own.

It is likely that the verse is addressed to the Buddha’s monastic followers, who cleave to a strict code of conduct in which there is little wiggle room for frivolity. I recall reading an interview with Thanissaro Bhikkhu where the interviewer asked him what he did for fun while he was living secluded in a remote forest. He replied, “Fun?” After further consideration he allowed that chopping wood was sometimes an enjoyable activity.

Another way to look at this Dhammapada verse is this:

Whatever person one befriends,
Whomever one associates with,
One becomes of like quality,
One becomes like one’s companion.
(from Itivuttaka 76 (3.27) translated by John D. Ireland)

As laypeople living in modern society with obligations and duties and connections electronic and personal, what lesson can we take from this verse? It’s a reminder that our time is limited and precious, and that we shouldn’t waste it doing things that hold us back from awakening, but lean towards the people and activities that support our wholesome inclinations. 

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