Dhammapada verses 197 & 198

Ah, so happily we live,
Without hate among those who hate.
Among people who hate
We live without hate.

Ah, so happily we live,
Without misery among those in misery.
Among people in misery
We live without misery. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

Here we begin a new chapter, usually titled “Happiness”.

In these verses, we are told that it is possible to live with a peaceful sense of joy, even among people who are angry, hateful, or miserable. It is possible to bear the vicissitudes of life without taking them as personal insults. Instead of expecting others to treat us nicely, we can learn to treat ourselves nicely. If someone else is angry, we may feel an urge to join them in their anger, to react angrily ourselves. But this is a choice; we can take their anger personally, or we can refuse to do that. We can see their anger or unhappiness as originating and remaining within their mental world without its affecting (or infecting) our mental world. We can remain neutral and allow the energy to dissipate on its own, or we may see that the person is suffering and feel compassion for them. Either way, we don’t pick up the “burning coal” of hate.

A subscriber recently asked why Buddhist teachings often start with “don’t” rather than “do”, appearing to take a negative approach. It’s a common concern among people who first look into the Buddha’s teachings. The trainings are not so much prescriptive as they are based on restraining our tendencies to grasp at and reject our experience; to reflect before acting or speaking; and to avoid getting too caught up with what’s around us so we can develop an inner steadiness. This can look like a passive or disinterested position, but in reality, we have to work hard to maintain our balance when those around us have lost theirs, in either a positive or negative direction. Some people call this developing an intimacy with life.

If we are working on building the strength of our inner peace, we may seem to be less engaged with the world than other people. In fact, we are practicing a different sort of engagement; we are keeping track of our inner reality, separately from what’s going on around us. In most cases, it only takes a second or two to check our reactivity. With practice, we can note our responses to experience without taking them as ultimate reality, without grasping onto and possessing them, thinking “this is me”. This can be a profound form of freedom, one worth investigating. 

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Dhammapada verses 188-192

People threatened by fear
go to many refuges:
To mountains, forests,
Parks, trees, and shrines.
None of these is a secure refuge;
None is a supreme refuge.
Not by going to such a refuge
Is one released from all suffering.

But when someone going for refuge
To the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha
Sees, with right insight,
The Four Noble Truths:
The arising of suffering,
The overcoming of suffering,
And the Eightfold Path
Leading to the end of suffering,
Then this is the secure refuge;
This is the supreme refuge.
By going to such a refuge
One is released from all suffering. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

This could be the most important set of verses about the idea of refuge. When one “takes refuge” in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, one becomes a Buddhist. There may or may not be a ceremony; it can be done in the privacy of one’s own home, or anywhere. At some point it becomes clear that the solutions to our problems can’t be found in trying to rearrange circumstances in the world but might be found by rearranging the relationship between our minds and the world.

Before we reach that point, we are likely to try out many creative solutions to address what we consider problems for us. We test various strategies to avoid aging or becoming ill, but inevitably old age and illness come. We try to inject glamour or power into our lives through various means. We try to influence or change the people we work or live with, or with whom we are in relationship. Once in a while, these strategies work, at least to some degree, but on the whole, if they provide relief it is only temporary.

When we come face to face with the limitations of our power to influence the circumstances of our lives, where do we turn? Some people turn to prayer or make efforts to tap into the supernatural. Others withdraw from society and flee to a simpler lifestyle. And yet, aging still comes, people still disappoint us; there is no protection from dukkha. But by investigating the nature of dukkha, its origins, when it is absent, and what causes its absence, we may come to understand how reality works. Investigating our direct experience is the starting point of the path towards wisdom.

Taking refuge in the Buddha (or the principle that awakening is possible), the Dhamma (acceptance of the laws of nature and karma), and the Sangha (the community of people on the path to awakening), can give us reliable comfort. We give up the idea that things should be to our liking and accept and understand them just as they are. Gravity is true; people both delight and disappoint us; if we hurt others, we hurt ourselves; we can’t control much beyond our own words and actions. This is a world we can live in and strive to understand and accept.

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Dhammapada verse 184

Patient endurance is the supreme austerity.
The buddhas say that Nirvana is supreme.
One who injures others is no renunciant;
One who harms another is no contemplative. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

The first line of this verse has been quoted and re-quoted in many places; it was a favorite saying of Ajahn Chah. If we think about the daily challenges that everyone faces, patient endurance could make all of them more manageable. 

What is patient endurance? It’s not simply gritting one’s teeth and waiting for something to be over. It is an acceptance of things as they are; it’s giving up our wish that things would be different from how they are. We wish that others would be considerate and kind, that trains would run on time, that people would say yes when asked and then actually follow through. But we must accept that people and circumstances will sometimes be to our liking and sometimes they will not. Try as we might, we cannot manage the world to our satisfaction; there will always be mosquitoes and bad weather and disappointments and unwelcome news.

And then, perhaps most difficult of all, we have to accept ourselves just as we are, to acknowledge our flaws as well as our virtues so we can lean towards the wholesome and away from our own unwholesome impulses. 

“The buddhas say that Nirvana is supreme” implies that awakening is possible. Nirvana is the ultimate goal of our practicing with the eightfold path – the uprooting of all our greedy and hateful and deluded intentions. By not injuring and not harming others, we move in this direction. We don’t have to be monastics to be “renunciants”, we only have to renounce our own greedy and hateful impulses and strive to contain them. When they are in abeyance, we naturally experience a subtle but profound freedom and lightheartedness. The total absence of aversion is felt as mettā and compassion; the total absence of greed is felt as generosity. All of this is within our power.

It starts with accepting circumstances as they present themselves right now. We won’t be able to know the whole background of a given situation, but we can usually make out enough to know what, if any, action is called for. 

Our responsibility with respect to the first truth – there is dukkha – is to accept, acknowledge, and comprehend it. We can continually deepen our understanding of the first truth. For a useful study guide to the four truths, see this essay by Thanissaro Bhikkhu: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/study/truths.html  

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Dhammapada verse 183

Doing no evil,
Engaging in what’s skillful,
And purifying one’s mind:
This is the teaching of the buddhas. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

We’re now sampling some verses from a chapter called “The Buddha” or “The Awakened One”. I’ve skipped over a few that didn’t seem directly relevant to lay life.

There are many translations of this verse as it is considered one of the most important. Here’s one more:

To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one’s mind—this is the teaching of the Buddhas. (translated by Ācāriya Buddharakkhita)

As you can see, it is the eightfold path pared down to its essence: perform only wholesome actions of body, speech, and mind; and purify or cleanse one’s mind of defilements through meditative exercises.

The last line refers to all the historical buddhas or awakened ones, an acknowledgement that the Buddha whose teachings we have access to was only the most recent one in a long line of awakened ones. All of them teach this same path, according to tradition and the Pali canon.

“Doing no evil” and “engaging in what’s skillful” both point to drawing more from our wholesome intentional roots (generosity, kindness, clarity) and less from our unwholesome ones (greed, hatred, delusion) in all of our actions of body, speech, and mind. They also match up with the ethical trainings in the eightfold path: wise speech, action, and livelihood. Of course, to pursue this course relies on continuous mindfulness; we have to notice and be contextually aware of our inclinations and motives as well as our words and actions. How could we avoid causing harm if we didn’t notice it when we did?

We can enjoy satisfaction and even a wholesome pleasure when we behave in ways that benefit others and ourselves. We can curb our selfish instincts and be wary of the ones that are habitual in us.

Purifying or cleansing our mind refers to the development of calm and insight, as described in three factors of the eightfold path: wise effort, concentration, and mindfulness. By sharpening the tool of our mind, we improve our ability to behave wisely and compassionately wherever we are.   

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Dhammapada verse 178

Absolute rule over the earth,
Going to heaven,
Supreme sovereignty over all worlds –
The fruit of stream entry surpasses them all. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

This is the last verse in the chapter called The World, and it lists what people at that time might have considered the very best the world has to offer – being the ruler of everything everywhere and having only pleasant destinations to look forward to. We might have our own, more modest list – a happy family, enough money so we don’t have to worry about it, a pleasant environment to live in, good health. It’s undeniable that we have goals and desires (wholesome or unwholesome) that, to some degree, direct our actions. But have we considered an altogether different sort of goal?

Stream entry describes the first of four levels of awakening in the early Buddhist texts. It is characterized by three things:

  1. the falling away (not elimination, but subsidence) of self-view;
  2. the end of any belief that rites and rituals can purify us or bring about awakening;
  3. the end of skeptical doubt (that is, faith) in the Buddha’s path.

The other three levels of awakening are traditionally associated with shedding deeper and deeper forms of clinging, but this first level is said to plant one firmly on the path to awakening. Once we’ve glimpsed the possibility of freedom from clinging, nothing else can compete with that as a goal. Awakening is not a matter of understanding concepts, but of experiencing the world in a different way.

If someone new to the Buddha’s teachings were looking for an entry point, it would most likely be the five precepts or training rules: harmlessness, generosity, non-harming with sensuality, truthfulness, and sobriety. These trainings help to orient us in the direction of wholesome action and discourage us from creating problems for ourselves and others. Of course, many people start with attempting a meditation practice, which is fine, but unless meditation is undergirded by an ethical framework, we may not discover its relevance to the other parts of our life.

Once we have established some form of commitment to training, we might investigate the Buddha’s Eightfold Path: Wise view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, concentration, and mindfulness. Practicing with these factors, individually and in concert with each other, can lead us all the way to the final eradication of greed, hatred, and delusion, though probably not quickly.

Meanwhile, we would do well to ask ourselves what our goals are now. What makes us get up and go in the morning? What gives context to our decisions? Where or what are we trying to move toward?

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Dhammapada verse 177

Fools don’t praise generosity;
Misers don’t go to the world of gods.
The wise rejoice in generosity
And so find happiness in the hereafter. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

Generosity is a broad category of intention and behavior, and is the first virtue taught to students of the Buddha’s teaching. Tuning in to our own generous impulses is the beginning of learning to let go – let go of self-centeredness, of clinging to all the things that we identify with as “me”. The act of giving freely also provides a small taste of liberation; there’s a softness to the heart, the lifting of a burden we may not have known we were carrying.

Generosity comes in many forms. We often think of money or material goods as the primary form of gift, perhaps because we all cling to these things to some degree, so there’s always some tension that can be released. However, every time we give our full attention to someone else, we are performing an act of generosity; we open the door of our hearts to whomever and whatever is in front of us. Listening without judgment is an act of love available to all of us.

Many people enjoy giving food to others, from their own kitchens or through institutions that serve the hungry. Others like to knit and donate their products in appropriate places. Serving as a volunteer who helps people (or other animals) in any kind of need is a significant act of generosity. Mother Teresa said that no matter how poor you are, you can always give a smile.

What did the Buddha say about generosity? From AN 4:61 – And what is accomplishment in generosity? Here, a noble disciple dwells at home with a mind free from the stain of miserliness, freely generous, openhanded, delighting in relinquishment, devoted to charity, delighting in giving and sharing.  This is called accomplishment in generosity. (translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

When the verse above says “misers don’t go to the world of gods” it could be taken both as referring to an afterlife and as an immediate result of our actions. Heaven and hell are here and now, more surely than they are sometime later, and it is our actions now that move us in one direction or the other.

Acting in a generous way can become an essential element of our life and practice, not an afterthought for “when we’re less busy”. This shift in priorities can be the beginning of profound changes in ourselves.

From Thanissaro Bhikkhu (https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/nostringsattached.html):

“How can I ever repay you for your teaching?”

Good meditation teachers often hear this question from their students, and the best answer I know for it is one that my [Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s] teacher, Ajaan Fuang, gave every time:

“By being intent on practicing.”

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Dhammapada 176

For people who speak falsely,
Who transgress in this one way,
And who reject the world beyond,
There is no evil they won’t do. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

This is a verse about the importance of being scrupulously truthful. It refers to a classic story from the suttas in which the Buddha instructs his young son (also a monk) about the dangers of lying.

Note: “Who reject the world beyond” means who believe that their words and actions have no consequences, that is, they reject the laws of karma and the principle of dependent co-arising.


The Buddha was sitting with his son Rahula who was seven at the time. The Buddha asked Rahula if he saw the few drops of water left in the ladle the Buddha was holding.

Rahula replied that he did. The Buddha tells Rahula “that is how little understanding one has who tells deliberate lies.”

The Buddha then tosses away the few drops of water and tells Rahula “A person who feels no shame in telling deliberate lies has tossed away their mindfulness.”

The Buddha then turns the ladle upside down and tells Rahula “A person who feels no shame in telling deliberate lies has turned their mindfulness upside down.”

The Buddha then shows Rahula the empty ladle and says “Whoever feels no shame in telling a deliberate lie is as empty and hollow as this ladle. Anyone who feels no shame in telling deliberate lies is capable of any wrong-doing. Train yourself, Rahula, ‘I will not tell a deliberate lie for any reason, even jokingly.”

The Buddha asks Rahula if he knows what a mirror is for and Rahula replies “for reflection, sir.” The Buddha responds “In the same way your thoughts, words and deeds must be done with constant reflection. Reflect in this manner, Rahula: ‘Is this thought, word or deed skillful? Will it lead to harm for myself or others, or will it lead to release? Will this thought, word or deed bring more suffering for myself or others, or will it have a peaceful result? If upon reflection your thoughts words and deeds will have peaceful results then this is fit for you and fit for a person developing understanding.”

“Rahula, all those who purify their minds through continual reflection (mindfulness) will do so in just this way. Rahula you should train yourself in just this way through continual mindfulness of your thoughts, words, and deeds.”

In this sutta, the Buddha draws a direct line from the smallest white lie to complete wantonness. The point is that when we neglect mindfulness, we may be capable of anything. Because we speak so much of the time, if we train ourselves to attach care and attention to everything we say, we will essentially be practicing continuous mindfulness, which supports the growth of wisdom in all categories. 

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Dhammapada verse 174

Blind is this world;
Few see clearly here.
As birds who escape from nets are few,
Few go to heaven. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

In the Buddhist cosmology there are several heavens, stratified by degrees of refinement. Through the ages these have been understood as actual locations by some people and as psychological states by others. Within this philosophical framework, the human realm is just below the heavenly realms and just above the animal realm and lower levels, down to some very unpleasant hells. So we, as conscious human beings, live in this world in which there is both great suffering and great joy, and in the aggregate it sort of balances out, not for each individual, but for humanity as a whole.

The human realm is the one (by reputation) that has the greatest potential for awakening because both suffering and release from suffering are within reach. In the heavenly realms, beings become complacent because nothing much troubles them. In the animal, hungry ghost, and hell realms, the struggle for survival dominates consciousness and the thought of liberation slips out of reach.

The verse above says that few of us will reach a final escape from dukkha. Fair enough; the dedication required to turn entirely away from worldly concerns and towards liberation from all attachments is not much in evidence, perhaps especially in the profoundly materialistic cultures that most of us live in. However, we might hear or feel a call to investigate dukkha and the possibility of letting go of the clinging that is the source of each instance of dukkha in our experience; we might be inclined to pursue that counter-intuitive goal. Once we have a taste of letting go at a deeply personal level, we may find the Buddha’s path more appealing. The further along the path we travel, the more sense it will make to us.

So here we are, and our responsibility is to clarify our vision, to train our bodies and minds to discern dukkha and to learn how to release the clinging that causes our dukkha.

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Dhammapada verses 172-173

Whoever recovers from doing evil
By doing something wholesome
Illuminates the world
Like the moon set free from a cloud.

Whoever replaces an evil deed
With what is wholesome
Illuminates the world
Like the moon set free from a cloud. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

It’s got the simplicity and power of a Zen poem, doesn’t it? “Like the moon set free from a cloud”; what an uplifting image. We are invited to imagine ourselves as a source of light. Can we picture that?

We as individuals are not, cannot be, evil or wholesome; only our words and actions can be classified along this spectrum. There is no fixity. It’s up to us to guide our intentions and behavior in a way that is beneficial and not harmful to ourselves and to others. All of our words and actions affect us and anyone who might feel their impact down the line, directly or indirectly, and then they fade away and our present words and actions come to the forefront.

Of course, some things we do have more lasting effects than others. If we hurt someone badly, physically or psychologically, the damage can be devastating and long-lasting. If we provide safety and support to an individual on a regular basis, the karmic effects of that go well beyond that one person.

If we attend to what we’re thinking and doing, we’re cultivating mindfulness; if we glide along thoughtlessly, we are cultivating delusion. Interestingly, developing mindfulness through practice, both on and off the meditation cushion, brings its own type of joy. Allowing delusion to grow often increases our feelings of frustration and confusion. As we grow and mature, we develop our own supports for mindfulness practice. How do we encourage ourselves to be like the moon emerging from behind clouds?

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Dhammapada verse 171

Come, look on this world
As a beautified royal chariot.
Fools flounder in it,
But the discerning do not cling. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

This compact verse implies that, for some people, the whole world of experience is like a fancy car. We can identify with a vehicle as a symbol of success, give it all the attention we might give to a lover, and pine over it when we’re not driving in it. This metaphor might be particularly apt here in Australia, as well as California, where one’s car is (sometimes) the primary reflection of the self we want to project. What’s the problem that presents? It’s a form of enchantment that excludes us from the possibility of training towards awakening, for the reduction of dukkha.

According to the commentaries, “this world” refers to the five khandhas or aggregates which we cling to. The khandhas are categories of experience covering everything we can encounter through our senses, including our minds. It’s one way to organize our thinking into five types of interactions we can have. In a nutshell, the five khandhas are:

  1. Form: Everything physical – our bodies, other peoples’ bodies, furniture, trees, cars, paper, computers, anything we can touch.
  2. Feeling: Our immediate preference when sense stimulations occurs – pleasant, unpleasant, or neither pleasant nor unpleasant. These instances of liking and not liking are usually lightning quick, often so fast that they are gone before we register them, yet they can leave an “aftertaste” of grasping or repulsion.
  3. Perception: The activity of conceptualization, of naming or identifying things – a person, a temperature, a mood, a tree, a refrigerator – anything. Perception is not voluntary; we continually label what happens in order to make sense of the world and our experience, although the process is intrinsically unreliable.
  4. Thoughts/emotions/memories/imaginings: In Pali this aggregate is called sankara, a very broad and complex category that includes our decisions, habits, opinions, all the things we deduce (or make up) based on perceptions and feeling. Sankaras can proliferate endlessly if one is not mindful.
  5. Consciousness, specifically, knowing experience through consciousness of what we see with our eyes, hear with our ears, smell with our noses, taste with our tongues, touch with our bodies, and think with our minds. 

So, really, we can’t help being enchanted with the khandhas because normally these are the only types of experience we have access to. However, with mindfulness, we can slow down our perceptions, start noticing our likes and dislikes as they happen, and see deeply into how we process information. This can give us a felt sense of something other than the material world, something beyond the thinking mind. It must be tried if we want to break free from ordinary dukkha.

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