Mind and experience

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a corrupted mind,
And suffering follows
As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a peaceful mind,
And happiness follows
Like a never-departing shadow.

These verses set the tone for the rest of the Dhammapada: we are responsible for our experience. We cannot control what comes to us, but unless our minds have stopped working entirely, we can control what we do with those events.

What does it mean to have a “corrupted” mind? Or a “peaceful” mind? These terms are closely correlated with my themes of cultivating wholesome actions and abandoning unwholesome ones, though they also carry the connotations of delusion and wisdom. A corrupted mind may not even know that it is producing unwholesome words and actions, it may think all is normal and fine. A truly peaceful mind knows it has left behind self-centered views and sees things as they are.

In a note, Gil Frondsdal explains the challenge of translating these important first verses. The pali words dhamma and mano have a context in Pali that is not available in English. Experience (dhamma) could also be translated, awkwardly, as objects of consciousness, including sensations, sights, sounds, smells, and mental states like happiness and sadness, anticipation, etc.; anything that can be known.

In Pali there are multiple words that in English all converge on the translation “mind”. Mano has a particular flavor of being the thinking mind, the part of the mind that produces ideas, etc. as opposed to the knowing mind (vinanna), which simply takes in information.

One useful question might be: how do we think of our minds? Is the mind just a mystery? Or can it be directed and developed?

The inevitability of causes and results is beautifully captured in the final lines of each of the two verses:
Speak or act with a corrupted mind, and suffering follows as the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox. Speak or act with a peaceful mind, and happiness follows like a never-departing shadow.
If A, then B; if C, then D. We generate our own suffering and happiness with our minds. We cannot produce happiness with a corrupted mind any more than a cart tethered to an ox can go in a different direction from the ox. If our mind is peaceful, happiness will follow as a shadow with the sun always present. Have you ever tried to escape your shadow?

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