Reading the teachings or living by them

One who recites many teachings
But, being negligent, doesn’t act accordingly,
Like a cowherd counting others’ cows,
Does not attain the benefit of the contemplative life.

One who recites but a few teachings
Yet lives according to the Dharma,
Abandoning passion, ill will, and delusion,
Aware and with mind well freed,
Not clinging in this life or the next,
Attains the benefits of the contemplative life.

Dhammapada verses 19-20, translated by Gil Fronsdal

These two verses close a chapter called “Dichotomies”, and might be called a summary of what has gone before. The new idea is “reciting teachings” as opposed to putting them into practice. Up until now, the Dhammapada hasn’t recommended memorization, but that is what “reciting teachings” means. In our culture, we are likely to have a favorite spiritual book or two and dip into them from time to time. In the Buddha’s day, there were almost no books of any kind, and if you wanted to learn something, you memorized it and recited it daily (or at least often) so you could remember it.

I am a fan of memorization and recitation, because it helps to keep me focused on what’s important. You could say it serves as a type of prayer for me, reminding myself to be as mindful as possible, with all the wisdom I can muster. So I’m recommending that you find a favorite verse, from the Dhammapada or elsewhere, and keep it close to your heart. Whatever we fill our minds with regularly, becomes the basis for our thoughts, intentions, and actions.

The more important point of these verses is that memorization (or learning) alone doesn’t help us to get free. We have to put the teachings into practice by cultivating greater and more refined awareness of our intentions and actions, by practicing generosity and kindness as a top priority, and by learning to let go in any appropriate way.

If we just read about the teachings, we are “counting others’ cows”, that is, we are passing the time but not getting anywhere ourselves. But by putting the teachings into practice, even if we only know a few things (say, harmlessness and truthfulness), we can recognize our clinging when it comes up and find ways to release it. This is the path that leads to the end of greed, hatred and delusion, that leads to freedom.

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