Guarding what’s precious

If one knew oneself to be precious,
One would guard oneself with care.
The sage will watch over herself
In any part
Of the night.

Dhammapada v. 157, translated by Gil Fronsdal

We’ve skipped over a section called Old Age, and will take up just a couple of verses from this section, Oneself.

For me, the weight of this verse falls in the first line, “If one knew oneself to be precious”. Do we know that this life is a precious opportunity? Do we know it all (or most of) the time? Or do we behave as if this life were nothing particularly wonderful, even perhaps a burden to be endured?

What do we have, other than this life? We can say we own a bicycle or a car or a washing machine, or even a home. But there is a sense in which all these material items are borrowed, or rented. What we actually have to work with is time. We have this day, these hours, and how we inhabit our time reflects our understanding of ourselves and the world. Are we hiding, hoping no one will notice that we’re not sure what we’re doing? Are we banging along, making plenty of noise to scare away our own fears?

This verse can be understood in different ways. What interests me most is the sense of both preciousness and urgency, of taking our lives and actions and words seriously, as if they were the things that mattered most. This is how I understand the phrase “guard oneself with care” – it’s less about driving carefully and hanging on to our wallets than it is about being aware of what we’re doing and what effect we’re having on ourselves and others.

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