Dhammapada verses 106-107

Better than a thousand ritual sacrifices
Offered every month for a hundred years
Is one moment’s homage offered
To one who has cultivated herself.

Better than a hundred years
In the forest tending a ritual fire
Is one moment’s homage offered
To one who has cultivated himself. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

These verses touch on an important point in the Buddhist doctrine. One of the beliefs the Buddha addressed repeatedly during his life was the idea that people could redeem or cleanse themselves through saying certain words, or paying a priest to say certain words, or tending a small fire in a ritual way, believing that these actions would eliminate the fruits of any bad karma that had been acquired. It’s a kind of magical thinking that is still quite common in the world today. 

One of the marks of a stream-entrant (first stage of awakening) is that the belief in “rites and rituals” falls away. Such a person has acquired the wisdom to see that her liberation is not dependent on performing any particular rite, but is dependent on releasing clinging in her heart. We can say a prayer every day for a hundred years, but if we are just mouthing the words and not altering our attitudes, it is all for nought. If we are satisfied with such superficial practices, our progress might even be blocked.

Instead, an effective support to our efforts at developing wisdom would be to “offer homage” to a “cultivated” person. In this case, the word “cultivated” doesn’t mean someone who goes to classical music concerts and museums, it means one who has cultivated the Buddha’s path, someone who has developed wisdom beyond the ordinary level. This advice encourages us to seek out people who have devoted themselves to the Buddha’s path or who otherwise show signs of encouraging people in a wholesome direction. We might visit our local monastery to listen to some teachings. We could sign up for a course in mindfulness or Buddhist ethics. Many of the people who teach these and related courses have delved deeply into the Buddha’s path and may be worth getting to know.

Of course in the first centuries of the Buddha’s dispensation there was virtually no written canon or electronic availability of teachings as we have today. A seeker had to physically go into the presence of a teacher of good reputation and see what could be learned. In the same way as we do today, those ancestors had to listen carefully and with discrimination, absorbing and taking away what they could.

What happens next is up to us. We can listen with an open heart, weigh the potential usefulness of a teaching, and test it out in our own lives. 


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Dhammapada verses 104-105

Certainly it is better to conquer
Oneself than others.
For someone who is self-restrained
And always lives with mastery,
Neither a god, a gandhabba,
Nor Marā and Brahmā together
Could turn conquest into defeat. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

The gandhabbas are described as semi-divine beings who reside in the lowest of the god-realms. They are usually associated with pleasure and especially music.  Following on from the previous verses, this verse claims that the power of self-restraint is so profound that none of the many gods, including the most malevolent (Marā) and the most beneficent (Brahmā), could turn us from our chosen path.

“Always living with mastery” – now there’s a challenge. But we can manage to sometimes live with mastery over ourselves. We start to recognize our sticking points, our frustrations and our objections to life as not inflicted on us from the outside, but as attachments we can continue to hold on to or (sometimes) attempt to release. If we conquer our defilements (varieties of greed, hatred, and delusion) sufficiently, we can’t be diverted from the goal of liberation from dukkha.

There is a form of pseudo-liberation that might lead us astray, though. If we want something badly or work very hard for something and then we get it, there is usually a feeling of relief, of having been released from a specific desire because it’s been satisfied.  The catch is that as soon as our wants have been fulfilled, the satisfaction fades quickly and is replaced with wanting something else. That’s the nature of clinging; as humans we do it automatically.

But if we truly see with wisdom a particular form of clinging in ourselves and abandon it because we know it harms rather than helps us, then there is a deeper kind of liberation. When this occurs it affirms our commitment to the path. We know for ourselves that seeing dukkha and releasing clinging is an activity that won’t lead us in frustrating circles but that goes in a direct line to freedom from suffering. When we know this for ourselves, we don’t even think of turning away from this truth.

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Dhammapada verse 103

Greater in combat
Than a person who conquers
A thousand times a thousand people
is the person who conquers herself. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

(Much appreciation to Gil Fronsdal for the gender inclusivity he brings to his translation of the Dhammapada.)

This verse could be the most important one in this chapter, “Thousands”, in terms of its usefulness as a practice. The hardest thing we can ever do is to tame our own minds, to make them receptive, incisive, expansive, and wise. We waste so much energy fighting unproductive battles with outside forces. Meanwhile, if we turn our attention inward we discover that there is a world where we can be effective, in which we can change utterly how the world appears to us.

Once we understand that the “me against the world” model is a misinterpretation of reality, we can start to observe the workings of cause and effect; we can see how certain actions reliably produce certain results, whether intended or not. We start to perceive that damaged people tend to damage others, that acts of kindness generate kindness in others. We begin to discover our own previously obscured motivations and to appreciate our wholesome qualities. This is the activity of mindfulness: attending to our intentions and actions, taking in the larger framework and cultivating sensitivity to the wholesome and unwholesome.

The five precepts (harmlessness, generosity, responsible sexual behavior, truthfulness, and sobriety) are directed at the social realm; they give us guidelines to refine our interactions with other people. Sometimes when we are with others we forget that our first responsibility is to tend to our own actions of body and mind.

So much of our modern life is framed in terms of power – power over others or over events – while in reality our personal power over the outside world is very limited. The kind of effort required to conquer our own impediments, our own unwholesome impulses, is within our grasp if we turn our attention inward. We use the power of restraint, the power of wisdom, the power of mettā, and most of all the power of patience and persistence.

Ajahn Sujato said recently that the process of meditation is more like being a gardener than an engineer, or we could say “combatant”. We recognize that we can’t conquer our unwholesome roots with one blow; it requires continuous, patient attention; we observe ever more deeply our intentions and actions and their results. We pull out the weeds and give the native (wholesome) plants space and water and fertilizer to encourage growth.

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Dhammapada verses 100 – 102

Better than a thousand meaningless statements
Is one meaningful word,
Which, having been heard,
Brings peace.

Better than a thousand meaningless verses
Is one meaningful line of verse,
Which, having been heard,
Brings peace.

Better than reciting a hundred meaningless verses
Is one line of Dharma,
Which, having been heard,
Brings peace. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

This chapter of the Dhammapada is usually titled “Thousands” and we can easily see the theme it’s taking up. In the three verses, the second line starts out describing “one meaningful word”, is then refined to “one meaningful line of verse”, and finally lands on “one line of Dharma”. We could say that these three expressions form a progression or we could say that they are equivalent to each other.

The implication is that much of our normal conversation is made up of meaningless statements or verses. We all understand the idea of meaningless words, things that could just as well not have been said. The verses may refer to prayers we say on auto-pilot or other ritual expressions that we’ve lost the heart-connection to. The test of quality for our words is whether or not they bring peace to ourselves and others.

Even if we consistently intend for our words to shed light and bring comfort to others, sometimes we miss the mark. Sometimes we speak when listening might have been better. If our own heart is agitated, it’s unlikely that our words can bring peace. We have to start with knowing our own state of mind and discerning whether what we’re thinking is worth sharing or not in this moment.

What words can bring peace? Broadly speaking, any words that communicate acceptance, kindness, wisdom, and calm. There are some lines of Dharma that may be reliably useful in calming ourselves and others; a short mettā phrase can penetrate fear and anxiety. Also, a mantra that has meaning for us may have the power to dispel delusion; one example is “dukkha, samudaya, nirodha, magga” or dukkha, the arising, the release, and the path to release. This succinct restatement of the Buddha’s four truths can bring light into dark places.

By monitoring our speech and its effects on ourselves and others, we can cultivate deep wisdom.

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Dhammapada verses 98 & 99

In village, in forest,
In low land, in high land:
Delightful is the place
Where the arahant dwells.

Delightful are forests
Where the public does not delight.
There the passion-free [people] delight,
Not seeking sensual pleasure. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

In these last two verses from the chapter called “The Arahant” the natural world stands as an analogy for the freedom of nirvana. The forests in the verses are presumed to be empty of people, with no material distractions, only nature in the raw. The implication is that once we have shed our grasping tendencies, the peaceful state is empty of self and therefore delightful.

Because of our unwholesome inclinations, we tend to seek out stimulation, excitement, or distraction. Distraction from what? Could it be that our true nature (nirvana) is frightening because the idea of a universe without a self – this self – at the center of it is inconceivable? David Loy, in his book Lack and Transcendence, posits that our deepest fear is not death but the thought that we don’t exist right now, at least as we are accustomed to thinking of ourselves. It’s a thought worth investigating. What if there really is nothing of substance at our core? What would be the ramifications of that? Once the grasping and wanting and rejecting disappear, what’s left?

It is possible that once we are freed from the constraints of a self, then what remains energetically is light and free and unimaginably vast. We can experience little tastes of this in our lives when we release a specific clinging, when we decide to let go of a long-held belief or point of view, and there’s a release of energy, a rising up. It may be that the Brahmaviharas – unbounded kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity – are freed when we escape the prison of self.

I remember that the day I decided to stop trying to make my mother into my best friend, our relationship became easier and the love flowed more freely than ever. Perhaps you’ve had similar experiences. We can look for opportunities to recognize our clinging, to examine it objectively, discern the difficulties it causes, and with that insight, simply release it. This is one way we can walk the Buddha’s path.

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Dhammapada 95 & 96

For a person
Who, like the earth, is untroubled,
Who is well-practiced,
Who is like a pillar of Indra,
Who is like a lake without mud,
There is no more wandering.

Calm in mind, speech, and action
And released through right understanding,
Such a person
Is fully at peace. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

These verses describe a person who has fulfilled the path, who has reached the end of striving and rests in perfect wisdom. The pillar of Indra is a symbol of stability; the lake without mud is a symbol of clarity. No more wandering (saṃsāra) means that the individual is experiencing her final birth on earth and will not be reborn into this world of woe again.

For us, this idea can be aspirational and inspirational. When we look at an image or statue of the Buddha, we may see an embodiment of this peace. Even for people who know nothing of the Buddha’s teachings, the image may project a pleasant calm.

In the Zen tradition, simplicity is valued, and a clean uncluttered space may also bring an element of peace to our minds.

We surround ourselves with people and things we love or that we wish for. When we are young, we may have posters of sports heroes or musicians we admire on our bedroom walls. What images do we plant in our environment now? Is the television the visual center of our home? Is there any design or logic to the furniture, pictures, books, art, etc. we accumulate and display in our home? Some peoples’ homes are filled with photographs of their immediate or extended families; some have books or art or political images on prominent display; and some of us have a Buddha statue in almost every room to remind ourselves of what’s important.

If we have a regular place to meditate, what is it like? Does it feel safe, appealing, and also challenging? What might we adjust? Reminders of mortality, photographs of inspiring teachers, items from places significant to us? Are there things that no longer support our practice but we haven’t removed because they’ve become part of the background?

We could take this opportunity to consider what in our physical environment might inspire us and what we might be better off without. Our needs change over time, and there is usually a lag in how those changes are expressed in our physical surroundings. It’s a good mindfulness exercise to review our habits based on how well they support our current aspirations.

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Dhammapada verse 94

Even the gods cherish
Those who are without toxins,
Who have abandoned conceit,
And whose senses are calm,
Like horses well tamed by a charioteer. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

Without toxins = without greed, hatred, and delusion in all their many variations, gross and subtle

Abandoned conceit = are without the thought “I am”

Whose senses are calm = who abide in a calm and concentrated mind state and are not agitated with responses to sensory input

Each of these definitions could be substituted for either of the other two. They are synonymous and describe the awakened state. Most of us can only imagine what it would be like to be entirely unencumbered with the idea of a self, but we can have little samples of it when we experience a moment of non-clinging. Especially if a tightly held desire or opinion is suddenly released, the relief and joy are palpable.

For us laypeople, the most useful part of this verse is the simile of the well-tamed horse. A horse doesn’t become useful to a charioteer until it is trained, and a well-trained horse is more useful than a partially trained horse. One difference is that we’ve usually got to train ourselves; no one is standing over us with a schedule and encouragement, with appropriate carrots and sticks. If we are lucky enough to have a teacher accessible, then we have both an example to follow and encouragement, but this relies on finding and being open to the right teacher at the right time. Most of us stumble along essentially on our own until we encounter a teacher-student relationship that fits.

Of course when we do find the right teacher, we can make great leaps in our practice. This is one of the joys of the path. As we grow and mature on the path, some of our teachers may morph into kalyāna mitta, or spiritual friends, more peers than superiors.

We can make the most of our training opportunities through good times and bad by maintaining a daily sitting practice, cultivating relationships supportive of our practice, and immersing ourselves in the teachings of the Buddha in whatever ways are available to us. We can ask ourselves repeatedly, as an open-ended practice, “What is it [experience] like now?”

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Dhammapada verses 92 & 93

Like the path of birds in the sky,
It is hard to trace the path
Of those who do not hoard,
Who are judicious with their food,
And whose field
Is the freedom of emptiness and signlessness.

Like the path of birds in the sky,
It is hard to trace the path
Of those who have destroyed their toxins,
Who are unattached to food,
And whose field
Is the freedom of emptiness and signlessness. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

In Gil’s notes on these verses, he says: “Here, emptiness and signlessness are attributes of Nirvana; in other words, Nirvana is empty of self and of greed, hate, and delusion, and it has no attributes or signs that awareness can focus on.”

This is an important point: one who has completely freed herself from greed, hatred, and delusion provides no harbor for those unwholesome roots to attach or embed themselves. If we understand the insubstantiality of self, those impulses are no longer part of the world for us.

It’s interesting that the two verses are identical except for their middle couplets, which refer specifically to having conquered greed for food. Because we require food to stay alive, the need for it often feels like a life or death proposition, but most of us are not starving. If we can distinguish the desire for food from hunger, we will start to see this greed as a pure form of clinging. Most of us never or rarely allow ourselves to feel hunger, but it may be a beneficial exercise to wait until we experience hunger before we eat. Where does the desire end and the necessity begin? [Caveat: this is not an invitation to starve oneself; we have to use wisdom.]

In a poetic and memorable way, these verses evoke the lightness of those who have left clinging behind. We can experience this phenomenon through meeting a remarkable person, for example the Dalai Lama. When in his presence we can witness that although he is fully engaged with the people around him, he also leaves no trace but a subtle uplift. His personal needs and desires have been vanquished and he is completely present with whomever and whatever is before him. Such people do exist in our world, and they don’t have to be fully awakened (how would we know, anyway?) to provide deep inspiration. When we meet them, something in us resonates with their freedom, and we start to know what is possible.

In order to connect with such beings, we have to (at least temporarily) let go of our personal desires, our greed, our resentments, our self-pity, or other conception of ourselves. Even if we are listening to an audio or watching a video of a teacher we think has really freed her- or himself, we can benefit most by undertaking an attitude of mindfulness and receptivity. Rather than judging each sentence as we hear it, we can step back from the critic’s posture and soak in whatever wisdom we have space for in our hearts.

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Dhammapada verse 91

The mindful apply themselves;
They don’t amuse themselves in any abode.
Like swans flying from a lake,
They abandon home after home. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

When we are embedded in a comfortable place, our mindfulness can become dulled. We may be reluctant to disturb a pleasant status quo. The quality of rolling with “what is” rather than getting stuck on what we wish for is essential to letting go and to ultimate freedom.

“The mindful apply themselves” — to what? To mindfulness of the present, presumably. Mindfulness (Pali: sati) is a word rich with meaning. It encompasses full awareness of body, speech, and mind, internally and externally; of the feeling tones of our experiences; the movements of greed, hatred, and delusion, and also of generosity, kindness, and clarity. It’s the kind of undistracted attention that embeds experience in our memories. There is peace and wisdom embedded in right (skillful) mindfulness.

“And what is the faculty of sati? There is the case where a monk, a disciple of the noble ones, is mindful, highly meticulous, remembering & able to call to mind even things that were done & said long ago. He remains focused on the body in & of itself — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings in & of themselves… the mind in & of itself… mental qualities in & of themselves — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world.” (from SN 48.10 translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

In the Pali canon, sati is almost always paired with sampajañña which means a comprehensive alertness to the context we find ourselves in. Sampajañña is another word that has a broad and complex meaning, and is an essential adjunct to the working of sati.  It encompasses an awareness of our intentions as well as our actions. Thanissaro Bhkkhu says: “Examples in the Canon show that sampajañña means being aware of what you’re doing in the movements of the body, the movements in the mind. After all, if you’re going to gain insight into how you’re causing suffering, your primary focus always has to be on what you’re actually doing. This is why mindfulness [sati] and alertness [sampajañña] should always be paired as you meditate.”

In his direct way, Thanissaro Bhikkhu reminds us that our first duty is to pay attention to what we’re doing, saying, and thinking. This is our primary ground for development. We make the effort to see all of our actions, even our deeply habitual ones, in a fresh way. The enlivening and enlightening perspectives we seek are found by not settling too deeply into our comfortable nests.

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Dhammapada verse 90

For someone
At the journey’s end,
Freed of sorrow,
Liberated in all ways,
Released from all bonds,
No fever exists.

This verse describes in stark terms the end of suffering as a person might experience it. For most of us this requires an act of imagination, but is worth considering as a long-term goal. A really long-term goal, perhaps over many lifetimes. But whether we are new to the Buddha’s teachings or have spent decades practicing in the tradition, we set our direction and intentions in the same way.

The most vivid part of this description is the phrase “no fever exists”. What can this mean? Do we currently feel fevered? I believe this line refers to one of the Buddha’s early discourses, often titled “Burning”, which I quote in part below (from Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation).

From the Saṃyutta Nikāya 35:28 (https://suttacentral.net/sn35.28/en/bodhi)

“Bhikkhus, all is burning. And what, bhikkhus, is the all that is burning? The eye is burning, forms are burning, eye-consciousness is burning, eye-contact is burning, and whatever feeling arises with eye-contact as condition—whether pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant—that too is burning. Burning with what? Burning with the fire of lust, with the fire of hatred, with the fire of delusion; burning with birth, aging, and death; with sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair, I say.

“The ear is burning … the nose … the tongue … the body … the mind is burning … and whatever feeling arises with mind-contact as condition—whether pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant—that too is burning. Burning with what? Burning with the fire of lust, with the fire of hatred, with the fire of delusion; burning with birth, aging, and death; with sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair, I say.

This powerful sutta describes how we suffer at a very intimate level, how we are always dissatisfied with anything that we experience through our six senses. Sometimes the unhappiness is gross and sometimes subtle, but it cannot be absent until we quench the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion in our hearts.

It may be hard to imagine having any experience without the overlay of our personal reactions and wishes, but it can happen, in small moments at first, and then more and more often. The suffering we inflict on ourselves with our grasping and clinging can gradually diminish as we become more sensitive to its arising and effects. Once again, mindfulness is our greatest ally in noticing and investigating this process.

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