Dhammapada verse 136

Even while doing evil,
Fools are ignorant of it.
Like someone burned by fire,
Those lacking wisdom are scorched by their own deeds.
(translated by Gil Fronsdal)

Here is a second translation of this verse for comparison:

When a person ignorant (of the Dhamma)
commits evil deeds,
he does not realize their nature. 
The stupid man burns (suffers) through those deeds 
as if consumed by fire. (translated by Harischandra Kavirantna)

In some ways the second translation seems more straightforward, though it assumes that there is no other guide to skillful actions than the Dhamma. Even ordinary human nature usually comes with an inbuilt sense of right and wrong, and many religions and philosophical systems reinforce the golden rule (treat others as you wish to be treated) and other ethical guidelines. 

When we do (or are tempted to do) something dishonest or unkind, do we know what we’re doing? Can we think past the immediate greed or hatred that is motivating us and imagine the likely consequences? We are sometimes witnesses to people who do foolish things like drink and drive, or treat those they’re with unkindly, and we recognize that something is happening that is not right. Usually we remain ignorant of the consequences, and we may even hope that the perpetrator or victim escapes the worst outcomes, but our sense of how things should be is upset.

Realistically, we cannot control others. In rare circumstances we may see an opportunity to deflect or mitigate consequences of irresponsible or malign behavior in others. However, our own behavior is always before us and available to study as closely as we are able. As with many of the Dhammapada verses, we are invited to investigate our own intentions and actions, and we are steered in the direction of virtuous or ethical words and deeds. We can develop and refine our understanding of how to behave in ways that are helpful rather than harmful, generous rather than selfish.

As Kurt Vonnegut famously instructed in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘[By the deity], you’ve got to be kind.'”

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Dhammapada verse 135

As, with a stick, a cowherd drives
Cows to pasture,
So aging and death drive
The lives of beings. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

Just as a cow is reluctant to respond to the stick and will try to avoid it, we humans prefer to pretend that aging and death have nothing to do with us, and when they intrude into our consciousness, we resist and possibly resent them. Psychologically, fear and anger are related, and so we might respond with both to the prospect of our lives declining and having an end, even if that end is not imminent.

Whether we acknowledge death or not, it is like a shadow that follows us everywhere. The obituaries of famous or familiar people toll the bell of remembrance, reminding us that all lives, no matter how celebrated, must end. 

We might think that because we’re going to die anyway, nothing we do matters; or we could think that things are as they are and we can’t do anything about them. Both of these positions deny the reality of karma, of dependent co-arising, a central principle of the Dharma. This denial is a way of deflecting our responsibility to manage our actions of body, speech, and mind.

“Master Gotama, does the person who does the deed experience the result?”

“‘The person who does the deed experiences the result’: this is one extreme, brahmin.

“Then does one person do the deed and another experience the result?”

“‘One person does the deed and another experiences the result’: this is the second extreme. (SN 12.46, translated by Sujato Bhikkhu)

This sutta goes on to say that the Buddha responded to both of these extreme positions by expounding dependent co-arising, which is impersonal, in flux, and complex. What this means is that what we do matters, but it’s not all that matters. Our actions of body, speech, and mind affect ourselves and others and are the only part of our fate or destiny that we have any hand in shaping. External events, natural disasters, political upheavals, pandemics, etc. affect us all but the causes are (mostly) not personal.  Our actions happen (or don’t) and have some effect within an ever-changing context. 

Any sensible advisor will say that if you want to prepare for death, the best way to do it is to live a good life. Lean in to your wholesome inclinations and away from the unwholesome. Make an effort to live by the Buddha’s precepts (harmlessness, generosity, non-harming with sensuality, truthfulness, and sobriety). Watch how abiding by them (or not) affects your state of mind and your overall contentment with life. Everything is in motion; let’s make our mark where we can.

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Dhammapada verse 134

If, like a broken bell,
You do not reverberate,
Then you have attained Nirvana
And no hostility is found in you. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

This colorful simile represents a test for us. If we are attacked with words or actions, how do we respond? If we respond in kind, then we have not attained Nirvana, we haven’t managed to eliminate our reactivity.

From SN 7.2 translated by Bhikkhu Sujato:

The brahmin Bharadvāja the Rude heard a rumor that a brahmin of the Bharadvāja clan had gone forth from the lay life to homelessness in the presence of the ascetic Gotama. Angry and displeased he went to the Buddha and abused and insulted him with rude, harsh words. When he had spoken, the Buddha said to him:

“What do you think, brahmin? Do friends and colleagues, relatives and family members, and guests still come to visit you?”

“Sometimes they do, Master Gotama.”

“Do you then serve them with a variety of foods and savories?”

“Sometimes I do.”

“But if they don’t accept it, brahmin, who does it belong to?”

“In that case it still belongs to me.”

“In the same way, brahmin, when you abuse, harass, and attack us who do not abuse, harass, and attack, we don’t accept it. It still belongs to you, brahmin, it still belongs to you! …”

While the ideal of never reacting to criticism or rudeness may seem utterly removed from our experience, we may notice that there are degrees of reactivity, in ourselves and in others. What are the distinguishing features? 

When we observe an angry person, we may try to avoid them, or we may try to “set them straight” or talk them out of the angry attitude. An alternative would be to know that their anger is self-generated and doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with us; we could feel compassion because an angry person is a suffering person.

A general key to wise responses is to avoid taking things personally. Even if someone is attacking us specifically, it may simply be their anger or agitation finding a ready target. In each case when we are annoyed or feel imposed upon, we can measure the degree of our own hostility by looking into how much we are responding in terms of “me”, “my needs”, “my displeasure”, “my dislikes”. What if we could remove ourselves from the narrative? The other person would be boxing with a shadow. With this deep wisdom, we can experience deep peace.

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Dhammapada verse 133

Don’t speak harshly to anyone;
What you say will be said back to you.
Hostile speech is painful,
And you will meet with retaliation. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

Harsh speech is one of the forms of unskilful speech that the Buddha warned about. It includes belittling or insulting words, yelling, swearing, and anything that comes across as hostile. Often harsh speech is motivated by anger or annoyance. When we put such words into our environment, we create an unwholesome atmosphere and invite escalation. This week in particular, we can also reflect on which podium we are speaking from; are we trying to reach and incite a particular audience? How much amplification is our speech likely to be subjected to? If we are using social media we would be wise to consider how our words could be used by others, some of them with malign intent.

Also, for in-person interactions, the physical cues that come with speech often communicate more than the words themselves. Physical posture, facial expression, and tone of voice can make “hello” sound like a threat or a lover’s endearment or take on any of a variety of meanings.

This verse warns that our harsh speech will be met with retaliation, and we could understand that the karmic result will come either in this life, or in the next life, or both.

from MN 135, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi:

“Here, student, some man or woman is of an angry and irritable character; even when criticised a little, he is offended, becomes angry, hostile, and resentful, and displays anger, hate, and bitterness. Because of performing and undertaking such action…he reappears [after death] in a state of deprivation…But if instead he comes back to the human state, then wherever he is reborn he is ugly. …

“But here, student, some man or woman is not of an angry and irritable character; even when criticised a lot, he is not offended, does not become angry, hostile, and resentful, and does not display anger, hate, and bitterness. Because of performing and undertaking such action…he reappears in a happy destination [one of the heavenly realms]…But if instead he comes back to the human state, then wherever he is reborn he is beautiful.

[We can take the “ugly” and “beautiful” here to be of the inner type.]

Of course in this life, if we habitually speak harshly to others, criticizing them, attempting to humiliate them, etc., we are not likely to have satisfying friendships as a result. Even those to whom our negative words are not directed will likely try to avoid our company. Our own state of mind is steered in a harmful, unhappy direction when we speak with antagonistic intent – to anyone.

Obviously, understanding this, we can bring mindfulness to all of our speech and avoid creating harm. We can think twice before saying or writing anything that springs from an angry or hostile intention. We can stop such impulses at the gate, before they are released into the world.

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Dhammapada verses 131 & 132

If, desiring happiness,
You use violence
To harm living beings who desire happiness,
You won’t find happiness after death.

If, desiring happiness,
You do not use violence
To harm living beings who desire happiness,
You will find happiness after death. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

These verses remind us, in stark terms, that there are consequences to our actions. This is the classic ends and means conundrum; if we desire happiness and try to acquire it through harming others, we won’t get what we desire. Whether we think there’s anything to the theory of rebirth or not, our happiness depends on our motivations and actions here and now.

In the Buddha’s cosmology, all beings experience many rebirths, perhaps offering us a longer perspective. A young monk once said that he was relieved by the idea of rebirth because it meant he had more than this one lifetime to break through to awakening.

If we look for evidence of previous lives in a material sense, we are likely to feel frustrated. If we accept that the physical reality we can experience is incomplete, that there are unseen forces (e.g., gravity), then we might accept the usefulness of the metaphor of spiritual progress over many lifetimes, even if we can’t remember previous lives.

In the Buddha’s era, there was a widespread belief in reincarnation, including the belief in a self that moved from one life to the next. For most laypeople, their spiritual striving was aimed at a more advantageous rebirth in improved circumstances, as a pre-cursor to awakening (or not). The Buddha skilfully removed the idea of a self from this picture, positing that only our karmic stream was passed on, not anything identifiable as “me”. If we liberate ourselves from an overbearing sense of self in this life, then death itself becomes less of an issue – it’s simply life renewing itself in a continuous stream. This is the work that we are embarked on, escaping from the limited view that a self-centered existence imposes on us. In small, mindful steps we can move in this direction.

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Dhammapada verses 129 & 130

All tremble at violence;
All fear death.
Seeing others as being like yourself,
Do not kill or cause others to kill.

All tremble at violence;
Life is dear for all.
Seeing others as being like yourself,
Do not kill or cause others to kill. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

We now come to a section of the Dhammapada that Gil Fronsdal titled “Violence”.

The Pali word daṇḍa is a noun with a broad meaning. From the Pali-English Dictionary: 1. stem of a tree, wood, wood worked into something, e. g. a handle, etc.; 2. a stick, staff, rod, to lean on, & as support in walking; the walking stick of a Wanderer; 3. a stick as means of punishment, by extension: a blow, a thrashing, e.g., “they go for each other with sticks”.

So, the first line of each of these two verses could also be “all fear the rod”. We are all afraid of being hurt or killed; we’d prefer not to be beaten. Bearing this in mind, and remembering that we humans have this characteristic in common, we can choose to curb our anger, our instinct to hurt or kill someone else. 

Most of us are not murderers and don’t beat up other humans, and this is the central warning of these two verses. We must first develop our non-harming through actions; i.e., refrain from physically assaulting another person. The more we refine our mindfulness, the more we might extend the gift of safety to other species and to include non-physical forms of harm. A tempting and difficult-to-contain activity is to harm others with our words. 

It might be useful to think of harming-with-words in two categories. One would be how we interact with our intimates and those we come into contact with regularly, and separately, with respect to incidental encounters with people we don’t know or don’t know well. Is our mental resting place similar with both categories of beings? Is our sensitivity radar set at a higher level with one group or the other? Is our baseline kindness/generosity variable? We can observe our speech to discover whether we generally use one tone with some people and another tone with others. 

Cruelty to animals, especially other mammals, is seen by most people as reprehensible, and is illegal in some places. How far does our compassion and fellow-feeling extend into the animal kingdom? It’s worth considering. 

The thing to monitor most closely is what is in our heart-minds. Whether it’s the temptation to swat a mosquito or to shut someone up, what is the quality of our mental energy? Can we identify hatred when it’s present? Can we see the danger in such a mindstate?

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Dhammapada verse 127 & 128

You will not find a spot in the world –
Not in the sky, not in the oceans,
Not inside a mountain cave –
Where you will be free from your evil karma.

You will not find a spot in the world –
Not in the sky, not in the oceans,
Not inside a mountain cave –
Where death will not overtake you. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

There’s nowhere in the world that we can hide from ourselves. The verses above describe the power of our negative karma, our words and actions that have caused harm to ourselves and others. At the same time, our wholesome karma has equivalent power. We can’t undo what’s been done, but we can act with generosity and integrity NOW, and our actions in the present can eventually overwhelm the effects of any negative karma. The point is to stop generating energy that will weigh us down in a moral sense.

We have this choice all the time. We can halt any negative activities and keep still until we’re ready to commit wholesome acts. What are we doing now? Worrying is not a helpful activity; it uses up our time and energy for no productive outcome. Instead, we could imagine ways to bring our presently available generosity, reliability, kindness, and compassion to the fore, and then plan and act accordingly. 

The second verse says that we can’t hide from death. We can pretend that death has nothing to do with us, but that is a delusion of the first order. This human life is limited, we don’t have infinite time to accumulate good karma; in fact we only have this present moment. Our intentional thoughts, words, and deeds are the makers and carriers of our karma.  

From MN 131, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

Let not a person revive the past
Or on the future build his hopes;
For the past has been left behind
And the future has not been reached.
Instead with insight let him [her/them] see
Each presently arisen state;
Let him know that and be sure of it,
Invincibly, unshakeably.
Today the effort must be made:
Tomorrow Death may come, who knows?
No bargain with Mortality 
Can keep him and his hordes away,
But one who dwells thus ardently,
Relentlessly, by day, by night –
It is he, the Peaceful Sage has said,
Who has one [excellent night].

In this instance, “night” is not just the time after sunset, but a 24-hour period. Also the last line is apparently tricky to translate from the Pali. Some translations end with one “fortunate attachment” rather than one excellent night, but the point is clear. Now’s the time.

There’s nowhere to hide; we carry our worlds within us. We can affect the present with our words, thoughts, and actions, which will continuously color our quality of life. 

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The message below was posted on a Sutta Central discussion list last month, and it seems appropriate to share it in this season when gift-giving is part of so many peoples’ lives.  The occasion was Bhante Sujato’s birthday, but it can apply to any day we feel like giving a gift. 

As a preface, fully ordained Theravada monks and nuns are limited to a short list of possessions: robes, a bowl for their food, a sewing kit, a razor to shave their heads — things that they must use. For lodging, food, and medicines, they rely on the generosity of laypeople, and there are rules that forbid them from directly asking for specific food or lodgings or anything else. Keeping that in mind, here is the message from Bhante Sujato on 4th November (https://discourse.suttacentral.net/t/for-my-birthday/17797), in its entirety:

Hey y’all it’s my birthday! :fireworks: :cake:

People often wonder about what they can give a monk for their birthday: what to give the person who has nothing?

Well, here are some birthday present ideas that I’d really appreciate.

  • Do some meditation.
  • Read a sutta.
  • Be kind and generous.
  • Let go.

Be happy everyone, we’re alive and living!

Maybe we don’t think of these things as gifts, but they definitely are. Conveniently, they are gifts to others and to ourselves at the same time. We are invited to turn away from a universe characterized by acquisitions and turn towards renunciation. Paradoxical as it may seem, the deepest happiness comes not from getting things, but from relinquishing our clinging to them. Bhante Sujato knows this from direct experience and so encourages us to enjoy the same gifts that he has made use of.

May you be well, may you be happy.
May you be peaceful and at ease.
May all of your good purposes be fulfilled. 

Happy holidays and here’s to healing the world and ourselves in 2021.

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Dhammapada verse 125

Like fine dust thrown against the wind,
Evil comes back to the fool
Who harms a person who is
Innocent, pure, and unblemished. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

The Dhammapada restates some of the same messages again and again, attaching different images, metaphors, and similes so that if one presentation doesn’t move us, another one might. This image, of fine dust being blown back onto us reminds me of a funny scene from a movie where a solemn character empties an urn holding the ashes of his father only to have the bulk of them blow back into his face. In the movie, it’s funny only because the character expected something different. What do we expect to happen if/when we cause harm to an innocent person?

The danger pointed out by this verse is that when we cause harm, presumably with intention, we may think that we can avoid any negative consequences of our action. We may honestly believe that people are hurt all the time with no cost to those doing the harm, but this is a misunderstanding of cause and effect as the Buddha teaches it. We cannot behave in a way that causes pain or hardship to others without affecting both them and ourselves. At some level, unless we have a serious mental illness, we know that we will inherit the results of our bad behavior, that it will follow us or will accumulate and damage our peace of mind.

The converse of this situation is the effect of our wholesome acts, on ourselves and on others. When we wholeheartedly give a gift, we understand that we are made lighter, being unburdened of some measure of selfishness. When we can make another person happy with our words or silence, with our action or inaction, we should welcome the opportunity. Jack Kornfield once said that we should never suppress an impulse to be generous; if we are mindful, we may discover that the impulse is more common than we had thought.

This verse and the ones that come next affirm the point that there’s no escaping the results of our actions, for good or ill. Our bad actions, if we don’t use them to correct our course, will come back to blind and irritate us. When we experience dukkha, we can view it purely as part of the human condition, and/or as a result of something we may have done to someone else. The workings of karma are too obscure for us to be able to parse the exact cause, but in any case, it is the nature of nature to create and destroy, to build up and tear down. We can only make an effort to be a healer and not a cause for harm, right now, in the present.

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Dhammapada verse 124

A hand that has no wounds
Can carry poison;
Poison does not enter without a wound.
There are no evil consequences
For one who does no evil. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

Each person’s karma is her own; we are responsible for our own actions and words and not anyone else’s. This forms a sort of protective shield around us. Of course life is full of ambiguous situations where it’s not perfectly clear what the best course of action is, so we have to stay alert to causes and (probable) effects as well as we can.

Should we say nothing when someone near us makes unkind or belittling comments to us or to someone else present? What if the person being criticized is not present? In these situations it can be difficult to figure out what our options are. If we can be specific enough, we can say, “It makes me uncomfortable (or upsets me) to hear you say X.” It’s also possible to say, “Wow! That was mean”, or if we are inspired to creativity in the moment we can say exactly the right (funny, de-escalating) thing. If the speaker persists, we can say “excuse me” and walk away. In this way we maintain our integrity without engaging in battle.

Another situation this verse might apply to is when we are with a group of friends and the plan or the discussion takes a turn that makes us uneasy. Maintaining our integrity means navigating this type of development with grace and firmness. If we have clarity about what we consider beneficial behavior for ourselves, we can follow that internal guidance. This is what’s meant by a “hand that has no wounds.” Our confirmed intention not to wander outside of what we know to be wholesome behavior safeguards us from dangers of all sorts.

Intoxicants could be seen as a form of poison. When asked why we don’t drink or do drugs (if we don’t) we can explain that we prefer mindfulness and that intoxicants take us in the opposite direction, or we could just say, “It doesn’t improve me.” Many people feel that intoxicants do improve them, and they may be improved in the sense of feeling more relaxed or less self-conscious, but I’ve yet to see intoxicants improve anyone’s behavior.

This verse follows on from the previous one. Our integrity can be our most prized possession, and avoiding things that damage our integrity is a way to affirm and strengthen our best intentions.

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