Dhammapada verse 219-220

Relatives, friends, and companions
When a long-absent person
Returns from afar.
Just so, in passing from this world to the next,
The merit we have made
Receives us,
As a family does the return of a beloved relative. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

We could take these verses as promising a world beyond our death, but that would be a misunderstanding. The Buddha’s cosmology includes many different realms we can be born into (and die out of), but they are all part of the same saṃsara, the cycle of death and rebirth to which life in the material world is bound.

Rather we should understand this verse as saying that the only thing that follows us throughout this life and beyond is our deeds, good or bad. As it says in AN 5.57:

‘I am the owner of my kamma, the heir of my kamma; I have kamma as my origin, kamma as my relative, kamma as my resort; I will be the heir of whatever kamma, good or bad, that I do.’

Kamma simply means action.

When someone asked Trungpa Rimpoche what follows us from life to life, he replied with a laugh “our neuroses”, which is essentially what the suttas say. Whatever we cling to, virtuous or not, is what follows us around. When we die, our bodies disintegrate; our unstable minds and their preferences end when the body closes down. What’s left? Not “me” as we think of ourselves, but the acts of kindness and cruelty that we have committed; they have already taken on a life of their own.

There are those who are fascinated with questions of remembered past lives, but every Dharma teacher I’ve ever encountered said the same thing: Work with the reality before you; anything else is a distraction from our main task.

In these verses we are encouraged to pay close attention to what we’re doing right now and keep alert to whether we are acting (including speaking) in a way that is beneficial or harmful for ourselves and others. This is an important element of right mindfulness. We can’t always know what the effects of our actions will be, but we can set and re-set our intentions in a wholesome direction. 

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Dhammapada verses 212 – 216

[Longing] gives rise to grief;
[Longing] gives rise to fear.
For someone released from [longing]
There is no grief;
And from where would come fear? (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

Dhammapada verses 212 through 216 are all identical except for the substitution of the word in brackets above.

In 213: Affection
in 214: Infatuation
in 215: Sensual craving
in 216: Craving

Broadly speaking, these are all synonyms and refer to what we hold on to strongly enough to cause pain when they change or disappear. They cause grief and fear – grief when they change or pass away and no longer satisfy us, and fear because we know (consciously or subconsciously) that we will lose them, or at least will lose the satisfaction that they bring us.

Author and translator Professor Peter Feldmeier points out in his book Dhammapada: The Way of Truth that many of the Dhammapada verses are addressed to monastic communities, i.e. monks and nuns. These folks have given up lay life — partners, parents, money, entertainment, indulgences of all sorts — and committed to a life of meditation and training directed at liberating their minds and supporting their companions in the holy life.

Even for those of us in lay life, with jobs, families, and responsibilities, establishing the path to awakening in our lives is a possibility. We don’t need to plan for a future as an awakened being, we only need a desire to reduce suffering for ourselves and others. The Buddha’s teachings have value for those of us at any level of preparedness, if we are willing to undertake some training.

There are many techniques we can use to reduce our unhealthy attachments. The first step is to see clearly what causes us trouble; which specific form of clinging hurts the most? Is it worrying about someone or about what might happen? Is it a fear that the car or the refrigerator or the washing machine might break down? Losing our job? We can choose one thing to examine dispassionately and tease out the connection between our fear or concern and the reality that applies. If there’s something we can do — make a plan or save up some funds to prepare ourselves for or prevent a specific problem — we can calmly decide to address our worry in that way.

Sometimes we have unrealistic hopes – that nothing will break or go wrong. Simply accepting that things will go wrong and that we’ll find ways to cope is a form of letting go of clinging and can bring great relief.

Developing a daily practice of meditation or mindfully working with the precepts can also bring a reliable level of peace into our days. The rewards will be commensurate with our commitment. 

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Dhammapada verses 210 & 211

Don’t get entangled
With what you long for or dislike.
Not seeing what you long for is suffering;
So also is seeing what you dislike.

Therefore, do not turn anything
Into something longed for,
For then it’s dreadful to lose.
Without longing or dislike,
No bonds exist. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

How much of our time do we spend wishing we had something we don’t have or wishing we didn’t have something we do have? This common entanglement is front and center in these two verses. 

What’s the alternative to wishing for something to come or go away? Simply being in the present, experiencing what we’re experiencing with our full attention, continuously, noticing how it changes and not taking it personally. Often we take life as a long stream of rewards and punishments, but if we observe closely, we can see that’s not what’s actually happening. Everything we encounter comes into being based on a complex structure of causes and conditions, most of which have little or nothing to do with our worthiness or unworthiness, our likes and dislikes, our plans and wishes. If we can take a half-step back and appreciate this framework, our understanding will deepen; we will recognize when we’re being pushed around by our desires and aversions and when we’re not.

Our innate greed and resistance create the bonds that confine us and make us feel dissatisfied. We can’t make our greed and hatred disappear, we can only plant our attention on the present and encourage their opposites to take root. We can accept our experience, appreciate it, learn from it, and feel grateful for it. It is a wholesome diversionary tactic that can become a way of life, gradually loosening the ties that bind us and allowing us to feel both freer and steadier within ourselves. 

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Dhammapada verse 209

Practicing what one shouldn’t,
Not practicing what one should,
Having abandoned the goal,
Clinging to what is dear,
One comes to envy those who practice. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

We’ve discussed the importance of training in the Buddha’s path, both cultivating the moral precepts and developing mindfulness and concentration. Once we encounter and investigate the Buddha’s teachings, we start to understand that what we choose to do with our time and how we behave towards others has consequences.

What would “practicing what we shouldn’t” look like? For starters, it would be breaking any of the five precepts, that is: harming sentient beings (physically or otherwise), taking what has not been offered to us, misbehaving in the sexual or sensual realm, not being truthful, and becoming intoxicated and acting carelessly as a result, i.e., breaking the other four precepts. While it’s not always perfectly clear what the right thing to do is, in a general sense, we can make an effort to be truthful, generous, and harmless. When we do make the effort, we (mostly) feel good about ourselves and our place in the world. When we ignore these guidelines, we are likely to feel disconnected from others, selfish, and generally not-good.

That would be called “abandoning the goal”, and it may mean that we don’t have faith in the Buddha or his path or, often, faith in ourselves.

The word “dear” in Pali is piya, and in the context it’s used here, it means whatever or whomever we cling to. This can be a tricky concept. Obviously, in lay life, we form attachments to people, places, activities, and things. Yet all the things and feelings we hold dear are impermanent and fated to change and pass away.

“Bhikkhus, there are these five themes that should often be reflected upon by a woman or a man, by a householder or one gone forth. What five?

(4) A woman or a man, a householder or one gone forth, should often reflect thus: ‘I must be parted and separated from everyone and everything dear and agreeable to me.’ (from AN 5.57, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

Normally, our relationships involve a mix of unconditional and conditional love. If the balance is toward the conditional, we suffer with every change in the object of our fondness. We have difficulty accepting any alteration in the way we feel towards the beloved, whether it’s a house, a car, a job, or a person. Some of this is unavoidable, but we can sensitize ourselves to the difference between love and appreciation that is freely given and joyful, and love that depends on a specific satisfaction to ourselves.

It might even be healthy to “envy” those who seem to be firmly on the Buddha’s path because they experience a lower level of anxiety about things changing. Such people may even inspire us to believe we also can shift towards a more unconditional form of love and appreciation.

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Dhammapada verses 206-208

It’s good to see the noble ones;
Their company is always a delight.
Free from the sight of fools,
One would be constantly happy.

One who keeps company with fools
Will grieve for a long, long time.
Living with fools is painful,
As is living with foes.
Living with the wise is delightful,
Like relatives gathered together.

You should follow a good, intelligent person
Who is wise, insightful, learned,
Committed to virtue, dutiful, and noble,
As the moon follows the path of the stars. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

In a separate sutta, the Buddha tells Ānanda that “noble friendship” is the whole of the holy life. That is, the path to awakening is through the companionship of people who are committed to living according to the eightfold path; without the support of wise friends we are likely to lose our way. 

Verses 206-208 restate this principle in no uncertain terms. They say that we can find delight with wholesome companions, and that living among the foolish (read careless or thoughtless) is painful. Lastly, the Buddha advises following a wise friend as the moon follows the path of the stars, that is, faithfully and without wavering. 

We can test these statements in our own experience. Do we find pleasure in being with companions who participate in wholesome activities, people who have integrity? Is it a reliable joy to be with anyone we know, not simply because they’re entertaining, but because their basic goodness resonates with our own?  

What does the Buddha mean when he uses the word “fool”? Essentially he means the opposite of a wise person. Wisdom is not a matter of never making mistakes, it’s the art of learning from mistakes, our own and others’. We try to live in a way that our best intentions are matched with and supported by our words and actions. 

“Like relatives gathered together” represents a happy and safe situation. Sometimes our relatives are wholesome company and support our good intentions, sometimes not. Are they closer to wise friends or fools? If they are fools, there’s no need to abandon them, we can understand the situation, care for them as appropriate, and spend more time with our chosen friends.  

Often people affiliate with religious or service groups from a desire to spend time with worthy companions. This is a wholesome instinct and often has good results. However, we must be judicious when committing to a community of any kind. What behavior is acceptable in the group? What actions are encouraged and which ones discouraged? Is there a mutual commitment to supporting wisdom and compassion?

All these questions need to be re-visited at intervals. Who are we spending time with? Are our wholesome or unwholesome roots being cultivated by their company? And just as important is the question: are we wise friends to those we associate with? Sometimes we can’t seem to find a wise friend, but we can always be one. 

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Dhammapada verse 205

Tasting the flavor
Of solitude and peace,
One becomes free of distress and evil,
Drinking the flavor of Dharma joy. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

For a person unfamiliar with meditation, it may sound strange to hear that solitude and peace can bring joy. In 2014, an experiment revealed and that many people find silence and solitude uncomfortable.

For 15 minutes, the [scientific experiment] team left participants alone in a lab room in which they could push a button and shock themselves if they wanted to. The results were startling: Even though all participants had previously stated that they would pay money to avoid being shocked with electricity, 67% of men and 25% of women chose to inflict it on themselves rather than just sit there quietly and think, the team reports online today in Science. (https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/07/people-would-rather-be-electrically-shocked-left-alone-their-thoughts)

This was just one experiment, so it should be taken with a grain of salt, but it points out that many people find silence uncomfortable.

Thinking and meditation are different activities. We expect our thoughts to stimulate and entertain us, but when we meditate, we hope to come into contact with our thoughts and know them as insubstantial. We are willing to face the discomfort of emptiness.

nothingThere is no shortcut to enjoying the peace that silence and solitude bring, we have to develop the skill of observing how our minds work and be more curious about what we discover than frightened by the absence of our habitual mental props. We can’t simply decide to alter our minds, we have to use some method to nudge ourselves into a state that involves less clinging and less “selfing”.

We can induce a break in our normal patterns of thought with a simple technique. Some alternatives are:

  1. attending fully to our in-breath and out-breath, counting each out-breath,  “1, 2, 3,” etc. to 10 and then starting over. If we lose our place, we just start over with 1 (no blame, no regrets);
  2. repeating a mantra to ourselves. It could be “Buddh – ho” (which means “awake”), “may [I/all beings] be well”, or any other short phrase that is both general and meaningful;
  3. bringing the attention to our hearing, we discern whatever sounds are present without interpreting them. We might hear birds, cars, airplanes, other people or pets, machine noise or, if it’s very quiet, a persistent, low hum. Loud or soft, strong or subtle, we train ourselves to just listen, to hear and accept whatever comes without objection or comment. We let the sounds pass through us without grabbing on to them.

Practicing any one of these techniques for 15 minutes daily can give anyone a taste of freedom from distress and evil. As we cultivate this training, the peace that we experience may become more predictable and (often) sweeter.

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Dhammapada verse 204

Health is the foremost possession,
Contentment, the foremost wealth,
Trust, the foremost kinship,
And Nirvana, the foremost happiness. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

This verse is a down-to-earth reminder from the Buddha that the best things in life are not things. If we have our health, we have the most precious possession. This can’t be overstated. When we’re healthy, especially if this has been so for a long time, we may take it for granted and feel wronged or cheated when we become ill or injured. But every day that we have a functioning body and mind is a gift. 

Contentment may be harder to come by. Contentment could be described as simply the absence of discontent, the state of not rejecting or resisting anything, also known as mettā. While contentment is easy to understand, it can be hard to accomplish. When we have expectations, at least some of them are sure to be disappointed.  When we habitually let little things bother us, discontent becomes our default position. If we feel that other people are not treating us with the respect and deference that we deserve, well, you can see the discontent coming like a cloud covering the sun. Any time we reject the facts of life as they present themselves, when we object to how life is treating us, we are living in a pool of discontent. The only way out is to be with what is, with the understanding that dukkha is normal and that we still have choices. 

In all of our relationships, trust is the one quality that binds us together. We may have fun with others and enjoy their company for a variety of reasons, but it is the friends we trust and who trust us that can nurture our emotional and spiritual growth. Trusting friendships can form between people of quite different personalities. We only learn over time who will do what they say they will do; who will over-promise and under-deliver; who turns away when things get tough; who stands by us even when we’re not at our best. 

Let’s think of Nirvana, the foremost happiness, as a direction rather than a destination. When we are grasping and clinging to anything, we’re moving away from Nirvana. When our generosity, kindness, and wisdom are leading the way, we are moving towards Nirvana. Simply orienting ourselves by remembering that health, contentment, and trust are the best things in life, we put ourselves on a good path. When we forget these things and allow greed and aversion to drive us, we are losing our way. 

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Dhammapada verse 202

There is no fire like lust,
No misfortune like hate,
No suffering like the aggregates,
And no happiness higher than peace. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

The first two lines of this verse couldn’t be more direct. The lust and hate referred to exist within us and are the sources of our greatest pain. Although we often think that our difficulties are caused by external factors, it is our own reservoirs of greed and hatred that are the source of our pain. Whatever is going on, we can draw our responses from the internal well of greed-hatred-delusion or from their opposites, our inner reserve of generosity-kindness-wisdom. 

The “aggregates affected by clinging” is the way Bhikkhu Bodhi translates the Pali word khanda. Each of the khandas (body, feeling, perception, mental activity, and consciousness) is a category of experience. We could substitute “identify with” for the word clinging, so what’s described here is our tendency to identify with every passing physical sensation, every though or emotion, as the essential “me”. We automatically assume that this body is me or mine, feelings of joy or pain are me, perceptions of the world are me, thoughts are me or mine, and awareness is me. Each of these assumptions seems as natural as rain, but they are assumptions, not verifiable facts. It is an explicit teaching of the Budhha that this process of identification with phenomena that are ephemeral and insubstantial is a primary source of our suffering. 

The “aggregates associated with clinging” is a comprehensive teaching of the Buddha and difficult to penetrate for those of us brought up with reductionist and materialist patterns of thought. If we can make a space for this alternative way of seeing our experience, without “me” at the center of the universe, a whole new world can open up to us.

It may seem as if it would be impossible to act in the world without an active self, but the truth is that our bodies contain wisdom that works faster than our conceptual minds and if we can get our views and opinions out of the way, we become more intimate with ourselves and others. We will know what to do without going through the mental process of “should I do this? or that?” We may discover that observing and listening produce more understanding if our need to control things is set aside.

Back to the singular, compact verse for today, we are directed to examine our experience from the inside, to acknowledge our reactions as originating with us, not anywhere else. We are promised a peace which is the “highest happiness” if we can release our hold on greed and hate, on clinging to things that are intrinsically ownerless. 

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Dhammapada verse 201

Victory gives birth to hate;
The defeated sleep in anguish.
Giving up both victory and defeat,
Those who have attained peace sleep happily. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

This verse is about winning and losing. As long as we see the world in terms of winners and losers, and ourselves as either a winner or a loser, we will never be contented.

What’s the alternative? We could imagine that everything that happens comes about because of the complex interplay of causes and conditions, without regard for who is coming out on top on a particular day or in particular context. Even when battles take place between individuals or teams or nations, we know some factors from the start, others develop during the contest, and many influences are invisible.

It is possible to see things in neutral terms — when this happens, that is the result — regardless of who’s talking or acting. When we fall down the stairs, some injury occurs. When the wind is strong, the hat blows off our head. When someone is unkind to us, we feel sad or angry; when we are unkind to someone else, they probably respond in the same way.

It is likely that we think we are in control of ourselves and our world most of the time and only notice that we exist in a much larger context when something inconvenient happens. But to see ourselves and our world as part of an ever-developing universe of interrelated, impersonal causes and conditions allows us the freedom to just be, maybe even to be at peace. Each success or failure, regardless of how small or large, is just one moment in the non-stop stream of consciousness. We can take it as a personal success or failure, but that only makes us want to grab onto it and start a new chapter in the fascinating story of ME. It’s an optional step that stalls our availability for the next moment.

We’re invited to think about the place of competition in our lives. Most of us have had both wins and losses and have likely learned from both. Sometimes we have to make the same mistake several times before we discover that we ourselves are creating a problem. When there’s a victory, we can choose to share it or hoard it. What have we learned, from our own experience and from watching others, about how winning and losing function in a social context?

One way or another, winning streaks and losing streaks end and morph into something entirely different. Can we roll with the knocks when we’re down? Can we succeed without crowing?

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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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