What’s essential?

Those who consider the inessential to be essential
And see the essential as inessential
Don’t reach the essential,
Living in the field of wrong intention.

Those who know the essential to be essential
And the inessential as inessential
Reach the essential,
Living in the field of right intention.

– Dhammapada 11-12, translated by Gil Fronsdal

What is essential? This is a good question for us to ask and re-ask ourselves, because our understanding of what is essential is likely to mature and grow as we do. The clue in these verses is that it has to do with our intentions. If we keep our best intentions close to us (in our awareness) so that we can’t stray too far from them, we are on the right track.

This is not an abstract verse; it has to do with our actions, words and thoughts. We know when our actions are in conflict with our good intentions because we have the thought afterwards, “I wish I hadn’t done that”. Conversely, when we do the right thing, there is a feeling of satisfaction and maybe even joy.

One example: I used to think that being on time for meetings and events was not essential. I would arrive late to just about everything, including flights (sometimes). The wrong intention behind this was an arrogance, a feeling that I didn’t want to waste my valuable time waiting for others. When I saw this, I decided to reverse it. My new intention was never to make anyone wait for me or to increase anyone’s stress levels by creating doubt in their minds. This would be my gift to others and to myself – I could be the waiter instead of the late-arriver.

Some things that might wrongly appear essential are: popularity, physical beauty, owning the hot item (electronic or otherwise), living in a particular neighborhood, having a particular car, etc. These wrong understandings can easily lead us to neglect what is essential, that is, making our actions, words and thoughts as wholesome as possible.

What are some of the things that you have prioritized as essential or inessential that maybe don’t belong in that category?

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