Dhammapada verses 54 & 55

The scent of flowers
— sandalwood, jasmine, and rosebay —
Doesn’t go against the wind.
But the scent of a virtuous person
Does travel against the wind:
It spreads in all directions.

The scent of virtue
Is unsurpassed
Even by sandalwood, rosebay,
Water lily, and jasmine. (translated by Gil Frondsal)

In some ancient cultures, flowers, spices, and plant barks with pleasant fragrances were used by the wealthy to cover the more unsavory odors that exist in all human communities. I have also seen cut watermelons positioned outside port-a-potties, and to my surprise, they were effective in counteracting the smell.

Our olfactory sense is often seen as minor in comparison with sight and hearing, but it can be a powerful aid to our sense of well-being. We are instinctively repelled by unpleasant odors, and comforted by sweet ones (unless they are overpowering). Our sense of smell is also a reliable aid to memory, for good or ill.

In these verses, virtuous behavior is compared to sweet smells and found to be superior, since virtue has a radiant power and is appreciated in all directions. As a force in the world, our virtuous words and actions are stronger and more far-reaching than any scent can be.

Virtue can be thought of as the sila portion of the Eight-fold Path: Wise Speech, Action, and Livelihood. All three of these refer to our social relationships — how we interact with others at work and play, in business, travel, and romance, in short everywhere we speak or act. So virtue is a full-time aspiration, regardless of whether we are with intimates, colleagues, or strangers, or alone with our computers. When we slip up and behave in a way that’s unkind or cruel, we notice the feeling of regret or remorse and can resolve to apologize if appropriate and to avoid any similar action again.

Admitting our mistakes and committing ourselves to act differently in the future is right at the center of the path of virtue. No one is perfect, but some of us are persistent in trying not to cause harm or pain. When we speak and act skillfully, we can move through the world with confidence, compassion, and even joy.


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Dhammapada verse 53

Just as from a heap of flowers
Many garlands can be made,
So, you, with your mortal life,
Should do many skillful things. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

This verse points out that to have a mortal life is a gift that offers many possibilities. The human realm is said to provide the greatest potential for awakening because we can, in one lifetime, experience extreme suffering and also extreme bliss. We can see both, and if we are lucky enough to encounter the teachings of the Buddha, and willing to put in some effort, we can learn to see dukkha and the way to free ourselves from dukkha. In the Buddhist cosmology, no other realm offers this opportunity so clearly. The lower realms are dominated by suffering, and the heavenly realms are dominated by bliss, both of which obscure our vision. We don’t have to believe in any of these realms as real places or states of being; we can clearly perceive suffering and not-suffering in our human lives.

This verse reminds me of a specific moment in my own meditation training. More than 15 years ago, I was on retreat with a Burmese teacher who taught a very precise and prescriptive method. There were interviews every day (as I recall) to check on the students’ progress, ticking off each specific step towards concentration (or not). My effort was unbalanced, and one day I said in frustration: “I can’t do this! Thank god I can still do sila [the ethical trainings] practice!”

So, when we recognize that we are attempting something that is not working, we can check for other places to put our energy. If we are pursuing a goal and it becomes clear that our ability or interest is inadequate to reach it, we can review and adjust our plans. If a relationship is not beneficial for us or the other person, we can try to change it or decide to leave it behind. If we have a habit of speech or action that has put us into a rut, we can examine and modify it.

We may also simply outgrow some situations or relationships, with friends or teachers or places. If we recognize what is helping or hurting us, we can choose our direction wisely.

There are many ways to develop the Buddha’s path, and different methods are appropriate for different people and for different periods in our lives. The path to freedom described by the Buddha has eight separate elements that weave together in practice: Skilful View, Intention, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness, and Concentration. Any of these principles of the Eight-fold Path can be a starting point, or a “next” training direction.

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Dhammapada verses 51 & 52

Like a beautiful flower,
Brightly colored but lacking scent,
So are well-spoken words
Fruitless when not carried out.

Like a beautiful flower
Brightly colored and with scent,
So are well-spoken words
Fruitful when carried out. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

These verses go to the heart of our integrity. Do we say what we mean and mean what we say?

Dictionary definitions of integrity:

  1. the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.
  2. the state of being whole and undivided.

The opposite of integrity is hypocrisy, or a mis-match between our words and actions.

Integrity means sticking to one’s principles, but those principles might be virtuous or might not be. Some people consider loyalty to be a virtue, regardless of the harmful effects of actions taken. Think of the mafia, for example, or certain politicians. In these Dhammapada verses, the implication is that the values we are scrupulous about observing are non-harming, compassion, generosity, etc. We think of integrity within the context of the Buddha’s Eight-fold path, and the teachings as a whole.

Within the concept of integrity, truthfulness holds primary position. If we do not undertake to be truthful all the time, none of our actions, verbal or physical, can be trusted. If we make every effort to be truthful, we can live at ease because we know we are protecting ourselves and others from anxiety and remorse.

Other qualities implied by integrity are taking responsibility for our words and actions, and accountability in general. If we keep good company, our efforts at living honestly and harmlessly are well-supported, and maintaining our integrity can be a joy.

Our integrity can be challenged; at times we have to be forthright in order to be truthful. We might have to say or do things that we know will displease others. We can try to be as generous and constructive as possible without being misunderstood.

Integrity might be thought of as collectedness, a lack of scattered attention, which is akin to meditative concentration, but more fluid, more flexible than when we are sitting on the cushion. We keep what is important clear in our minds.

Do we represent ourselves fairly? Do we do what we promise and not promise what we can’t or don’t intend to do? Are we behaving in the world as someone who knows that what we say and do matters?

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Dhammapada verse 50

Do not consider the faults of others
Or what they have or haven’t done.
Consider rather
What you yourself have or haven’t done. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

It is worth considering how eager we are to criticize others, and contrast that with our awareness of our own imperfections. It is odd but sometimes true that our flaws are more apparent to others than they are to ourselves, possibly because we’re scouting for the faults of others and are less interested in self-reflection that might reveal something unwelcome.

There’s a section in the New Testament of the Christian bible that illustrates the issue:

Matthew 7:1-5 (New International Version of the Bible)

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

This passage reflects a biblical sense of justice, which is not central to the Dhammapada verse. But the point is clear: before we criticize others, we should check our own attitudes and behaviors for prejudice or biases. Sometimes the things that annoy us most about others are flaws in us, or have been in the past. Every time we are tempted to correct another person we need to ask ourselves, can we reasonably expect this statement to be heard and welcomed? Are our planned words coming from a position of clarity and compassion?

Our most potent tool for influencing others is the example we set with our own words and behavior. No matter how difficult a situation is, the option to be kind and compassionate is available to us. It is particularly useful to recognize the futility of repeating how awful a person or situation is without finding a way to bring a wholesome perspective to the conversation. Remember the Buddha’s first truth: there is dukkha. We can’t alter that, but if we accept it, we might find a beneficial way forward.

In the Buddha’s teachings, our attention is directed away from finding fault with others. Not only is it impossible to fully know another person’s experience and mental state, but more to the point, their behavior is outside the scope of our control.  Our attention is re-directed to ourselves because we do have control over our own actions. This is our field of work and it can be a joy if we do it together with like-minded friends.

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Dhammapada verse 49

As a bee gathers nectar
And moves on without harming
The flower, its color, or its fragrance,
Just so should a sage walk through a village. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

This simple verse recommends that as we move through life, we attend to not harming anyone or anything we encounter. There are many sections of the Pali canon that refer to “blameless” behavior, and this idea is embedded in the practice of mindfulness. The first part of doing good in the world is to avoid damaging beings and their homes or environments.

A contrasting example might be careless behavior that’s so focused on a personal goal that we don’t notice if we are causing grief or harm to others. Those of us with a direct personal style (which some would call rough) are often in danger of doing damage without realizing it.

The general guidelines for harmless behavior are central to the Buddha’s Eight-fold Path: Skilful Speech, Action, and Livelihood. Each of these can be a study in itself, and we might consider undertaking one of them as an intentional practice, which could only be of benefit to ourselves and others.

Meanwhile, we can re-set our awareness of whether our words and actions are harmful or not by simply slowing down enough to notice what effects our actions are having around us. We may have habits that prevent us from registering our influence on others. Examining those habits and their effects is an important starting point for expanding our mindfulness. The Buddha’s path is not just about refining our own minds, it’s also, in its essence, about deepening our awareness of how we are with others. The image of doing our work as a bee gathers nectar points to the possibility of maintaining harmlessness while going about our business (pun intended).

Humans who have accomplished a high degree of harmlessness often have a gentle demeanor; they are kind as a default position. To an outside observer they might appear contained, thoughtful, or caring. How do we present ourselves to the world?



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Dhammapada verses 46 & 47

Knowing this body is like foam,
Fully awake to its mirage-like nature,
Cutting off Māra’s flowers,
One goes unseen by the King of Death.

Death sweeps away
The person obsessed
With gathering flowers
As a great flood sweeps away a sleeping village. (translated by Gil Frondsdal)

In the case of these two verses, the flower analogy takes on a different flavor, as a symbol of sense pleasures (Māra’s flowers) which can fool us into believing that the only viable goal is for us to enjoy ourselves through sight, sound, fragrance, taste, touch, and our preferred mental images (memories, fantasies, etc.). We choose to focus on these sensual satisfactions and come to believe that they can continue to delight us indefinitely, and that they are an expression of our true selves. In this way we are blinded to the facts of all existence: anicca (impermanence), dukkha, and ānatta (the non-self nature of all things).

If we understand the changeable and impersonal nature of our bodies, we may enjoy sensual pleasures, but we don’t chase after them, long for them when they’re not present, and and believe in them as “me” or “mine”. Sense pleasures cannot be possessed by anyone, they are passing phenomena, as is the body itself. The image of foam churned up at the edge of a rough sea is a perfect metaphor for the ever-changing nature of our bodies and minds. There’s nothing that lasts inside or outside of us; both internal and external realities are created by causes and conditions that arise, most of them without our intentionally setting them in motion. When the causes and conditions change, our bodies and minds are altered, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Death, of course, comes to all living beings. The idea of being swept away by death points to being caught unawares, to being shocked by the unexpected. If we are awake and aware, moment by moment, then we know that anything can happen; we know that this body won’t be here, and functioning as it does now, indefinitely. When we understand these facts, Death cannot claim us in the same way it does those who resist this understanding. We can see ageing and death as natural evolutionary steps, depending on causes and conditions which are mostly out of our control.

It is a challenge to penetrate this mystery, but it can be done, and as we progress on the path, we discover that it is a more peaceful and joyful way to live.

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Dhammapada verses 44 & 45

Who will master this world
And the realms of Yama and the gods?
Who will select a well-taught Dharma teaching,
As a skilled person selects a flower?

One in training will master this world
And the realms of Yama and the gods.
One in training will select
A well-taught Dharma teaching,
As a skilled person selects a flower. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

The next section of the Dhammapada, after The Mind, is titled Flowers. The first way this symbol is used is as an analogy to our ability to discriminate among teachings and teachers.

Even though you are reading this post right now, we can’t assume that you have chosen the teachings of the Buddha above any other system of training. Many of us have tried more than a few different teachers and teachings, with varying results. As we mature, the excitement factor of taking up different teachings seems to diminish and the discrimination factor to grow, which makes sense because we learn our most memorable lessons through mistakes we make ourselves. Although it can be painful to remember errors of judgment we made in the past, each time we commit to a teacher or training that in hindsight turns out to be a (possibly humiliating) mistake, we learn a significant lesson. What drew us to the teacher or teaching? What did we hope for that wasn’t or couldn’t have been provided? Was it a case of false advertising or of our own inappropriate expectations?

Perhaps there are two questions to consider when evaluating teachers and trainings: (1) What need or lack in ourselves are we trying to address? and (2) If entirely successful, where will the path we are embarking on lead us? What is the goal?

For many people, 12-step programs (Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and many others) provide a clear path to a desired destination. For something more general, aimed at a less specific problem, we may be at a loss. When choosing a spiritual or mental training, what is our goal? How do we envision ourselves or our activities changing if things work well?

There’s really no shortcut. We’ve got to investigate and test any system of training that we consider committing to. One thing that may help along the way is looking to the people who have had some success on our chosen path. Have they, at least some of them, arrived at a place we would be happy to go?

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