The mirage

Knowing this body is like foam,
Fully awake to its mirage-like nature,
Cutting off Mara’s flowers,
One goes unseen by the King of Death.

Dhammapada v. 46, translated by Gil Fronsdal

This verse and the previous two come from a section called “Flowers”, so the only thing that really connects them is the flower imagery, which has different associations. In the previous verses the flowers were various teachings, presumably most of them lovely. In this verse, Mara’s flowers represent a kind of sensual seduction, in particular referring to how in love with our bodies we can be.

I’m pretty sure that the “King of Death” here refers to dying in a state of ignorance, that is, without knowing things as they are, still believing that we personally are at the center of the universe.

The body as made of foam is a well-known image in the Buddhist canon and in Buddhist poetry. The image comes to life at the ocean shore on a blustery day when the water is churning up a mass of brownish foam. If there’s enough foam, you can imagine buildings, horses, people, anything at all, emerging and disappearing from the bubbles.

So, my take on this verse is that we should see the less than enduring nature of our own bodies – not loving them too much and not hating them. We should not be convinced that we are immortal by fleeting sensations, especially the pleasures, that our bodies enjoy. Beautiful smells, sights, tastes, etc. are by nature seductive; we can’t help but enjoy them. But it is possible to enjoy them without claiming them, without thinking “ah, this is the real me”.

Our bodies are like foam in the sense that they are conjured up by a set of causes, and they continuously change, buffeted by other causes, getting excited and deflated by turns, and eventually they fade away and are no more. This is not a tragedy, it’s simply the way nature works. If we can see our bodies in this way, some of the melodrama drops out of our lives, and a taste of freedom is possible.

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