Dhammapada Studies, by Sylvia Swain


Link to Dhammapada PDFFor those who know little of Buddhism or who find it obscure, the Dhammapada is an ideal book to begin with. For those who know and love Buddhism it is likely already to be a constant companion and a reminder, just like having the gentle hand of Gautama on the reins of the unruly heart.

It consists of a collection of verses taken from a section of the Buddhist Pali Canon known as the Khuddaka, the shorter discourses. It is considered to embody the essence of the teachings. Juan Mascaro, the translator of the Bhagavad Gītā and the Upaniṣads as well as the Dhammapada, said of it “This gospel of light and of love is amongst the greatest spiritual works of man. Each verse is like a small star, and the whole has the radiance of eternity”. The verses represent a condensed description of the Way of the Buddha, the Way of the Brahma-Farer, the Way of the human mind as it grows and flowers into enlightenment. In it we will find all those themes which inspired the work of Phiroz [This talk was given at a Phiroz Mehta meeting], and so I feel that it makes an excellent basis for our study and discussions.

The main theme of Buddhism is that of awakening from the darkness of the sleep of ignorance, and in this collection of wise advices we will be given all the same admonishments, instruction and inspiration which guided those of the ancient world who followed in the Buddha’s footsteps, to become in their lives the wise and holy ones who carried on that great tradition which has survived to this day. Empires have come and gone, and societies arisen and been overthrown or outmoded, but the human heart-mind (only in the West have we created a division between heart and mind) has not changed — human folly is as it ever was, and holiness remains constant.

When we penetrate the deep psyche and the profound religious teachings we could be in any era. Thus the opening thesis of this book — the mind and the thoughts of the mind — needs to make no concessions to modern man, nor he to it.

Chapter 1

What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind.

 Dhammapada verse 1

This first line is appropriately the bottom line of all Buddhist teaching as it sets out its fundamental premise of mindfulness. In Buddhism, mind is chief; we live through and in mind by virtue of our human condition long before we learn to contemplate its nature, its structure and what we need to be doing in relation to it. Before we come to the study of religion, we tend to take the mind for granted, using it in an un-critical way; believing this, rejecting that, without being able to take into account our own unconscious mental conditioning, of which of course we are unaware. In verse 2 we are told:

If a man speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows him as the wheel of the cart follows the beast that draws the cart. If a man speaks or acts with a pure mind, joy follows him as his own shadow.

Already from these few extracted lines we learn that, if and when the mind is left in an unexamined state, it becomes conditioned, open to penetration by impurities such as anger, craving and delusion, and it is these, not the virtues, that will come to determine the fate of the individual and of the world. Without consideration there is no action in this life, but only reaction to the power of the temptations that bind us to “the wheel of the cart”. The mind can be likened to a garden which untended will surely become a wilderness trapping its owner in its thickets. In order to create a garden of beauty and benefit to all, it is necessary first to examine the wilderness, to understand the nature of the plants, and then to decide after due consideration which to cultivate and which to uproot.

BindweedIf we see our thoughts as plants in our garden, what kinds of thoughts does the unaware person think? In verses 3 and 4 the example is given: “He insulted me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me”. All who think such thoughts will not be free from hate. Without awareness these thoughts, having entered the mind, remain, are harboured, making that person the victim of his own thoughts, adding to the weight he has to carry.

“Those who harbour no such thoughts are free from hatred.” When the same thoughts are occasioned in the mind of one who is aware, he allows them to arise and pass away. Not taking root, they leave no traces, and the mind remains pure and free. The process is not easy, the power of our victim emotions is very strong and quite compulsive, but to give in to them after awareness has arisen is a further injury, this time a self-inflicted mental injury. Knowing all about such difficulties, the Buddha explains in the next two verses 4 and 6: “Hatreds never cease by hatred in this world; by love alone they cease. This is an ancient law.” Law here can be taken to mean a law of nature, a psychological fact, not a rule invented by the Buddha but one discovered by him in his “ancient city”. ”The others (unaware, who are overcome by their emotions) know not that in this quarrel we perish; those of them who realize it have their quarrels calmed thereby.”

It is true that what does not become rooted in the mind as obsession does no lasting harm; the mind regains its purity. The nature of mind is, also according to Buddhism, like a clean clear mirror reflecting the events of life and letting them pass on. Clinging to the impure thoughts is tantamount to smearing the mirror and distorting the images, and thus affecting our whole outlook on life. This clear mirror mind is very hard to achieve. In Holistic Consciousness Phiroz Mehta writes:

In about a score of years after birth, nature completes her task of maturing the body. The maturing of the psyche, on the other hand, is each person’s own responsibility, assisted during childhood and adolescence by parents and educators.

The most necessary foundation needed for the mind’s maturity in formal education systems, and also in the religions too, is to teach the importance of the mind in itself, and its functioning in the organization of the mind as a whole as the organ of consciousness.

Until the last century, with the coming of depth psychology and the defining of conscious/unconscious dichotomy, only the religions gave instruction about what one might call “the hygiene of the mind”, otherwise it was taken for granted that the small self with its will and its desires was the possessor and master of a person’s fate, and also that maturity of the body implied maturity of the mind. This was believed to justify the toughest punishments. It is still embodied in our laws that on the eve of the 18th birthday we are children, and on the morning of the 18th birthday we have to take on responsibility for our actions. Furthermore it is assumed that academic capability confers responsibility on those who achieve high enough standards. We are shocked when people of standing in the community are caught out in forms of behaviour that prove that the mind behind the authoritarian facade was lewd, impure and irresponsible. Recently what are seen to be the “causes of crime” are being taken into account.

No one can or should be responsible for others who has not developed responsibility for themselves. This statement seems so obvious and yet, to find effective forms of mind training, we still have not improved on the ancient wisdom of the holy ones. The generality still recognize the law of stick and carrot, but this law can only achieve conditioned responses since it comes only from the outside. This is the tragedy of the extroverted society.

Although the modern body matures in 20 years, it took millions of years for that modern brain and body to evolve. No one can calculate the cost in animal and human suffering of this wonderful body and brain which we now take for granted. We now have the best conditions for health and length of life that humanity has ever enjoyed, but further work is still needed for the completion of, in the words of Phiroz Mehta, “fully-fledged human-ness” (ibid. p. 65).

Sadly our thoughts and ambitions as a society for the most part are still directed away even from the idea of that completion, that development of the mind. Instead we are looking ever further from that greatest of goals, the healing of consciousness. Some of us are even looking to outer space for solutions to our self-made problems.

Relievo on a church in PlymouthToo many have yet to realise that wherever mankind goes he takes his mind with him, his evil as well as his good. Verses 116 and 117 advise:

Let a man strive to do good and cease to do evil. If a man is slow to do good he easily comes to do evil.

As in everything, good and evil enter the world through the human heart.

Verses 121 and 122:

Let no man think lightly of evil, “It will not touch me”. Drop by drop is the pitcher filled, and little by little the fool becomes filled with evil. Let no man think lightly of good, “It cannot be for me.” Drop by drop is the pitcher filled, and little by little the wise man is filled with merit.

Good and evil are relative to man, unlike the animals he has choice, but a generalized lip service to do good is not enough. Good must be actively chosen as a way of life, and that is the value of this book.


Having established that the awakening of the mind is both the way and the goal, we must expect to hear much about mindfulness as we proceed through this book. It is important to understand that awareness needs to be applied beyond the simple paying of attention to material things. Many people and organizations in the West keep up very high standards of concentration, efficiency and technique, but in the religious life close attention to motivation is the criterion for the attainment of the purified mind.

If we are to understand the wisdom of the Dhammapada in the modern context, we need to look beyond and below the surface of the materialism and dependence on technology which has re-shaped our thinking, and to question our acceptance of extraverted materialism, both in public and in private life, which has almost unconsciously become the basis of our value judgements and our thinking processes. For example, our “unthought-out thought” passively gives consent to the asset-stripping of the planet, whereas “conscious”, mindful thought would point out that we are only custodians and not the owners at all.

This is only one example, and we can all add our own, but when greed is triggered, people are easily convinced. The important thing is not to follow the examples which clearly cause the problems but to turn our attention to the thoughts the Buddha had, when he too was confronted by all the suffering of his day, which stemmed from what he termed heedlessness. He observed that the causes of human suffering had three powerful sources. He called them the Three Fires, translated as desire or craving, hatred or aversion and delusion or ignorance.

This ignorance means not only that we are ignorant regarding others, their reality as distinct from our judgements of them, but that we are self-ignorant, living an inner delusion, whilst we are not sufficiently self-aware to be capable of distinguishing truth from falsehood, wholeness from partiality, either inwardly or by implication, in the outer world.

The dangers of ignorance are pointed out at the beginning of the book in verses 11 and 12:

Those who mistake the shadow for the substance, and the substance for the shadow, never arrive at Reality, but follow false aims.

Those who know the substance as the substance, and the shadow as the shadow arrive at Reality, and follow right aims.

The charge of ignorance comes as a shock to the modern mind, so clearly confident now in the ability of science to solve its problems of desire and aversion. For science, although excellent in its technology, is not moral but answers to demand, so that not only the traditional authority of religion to provide fundamental and spiritual explanations and remedies is being fast eroded, but moral values too are giving way to market forces.

So we need urgently to challenge the tacit assumption that to appease desire is the same as bringing an end to suffering or giving meaning to life. It so obviously is not doing so, since mental and emotional suffering are at an all-time high.

The mind that is continually self-seeking is not stable but, in reality, is out of communication with life and thus is out of communion as well. So, clearly, we need to return to our theme, which is, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought”. If we have hubris it is because we have inflated thoughts.

Inflation is a common problem in a society of high technology; the ego can inflate when it identifies with a powerful car or any technology that extends its normal fields of activity. Even higher education cannot pacify a mind which is distressed or unsteady.

There is an important difference between a well-stocked mind and a well-trained one. We may well stock our mind with all kinds of prejudice as well as knowledge, but only the “well-trained-mind”, which becomes modest and wise in the training process, can distinguish the true from the false. As verse 14 says:

As rain does not break into a well-thatched house, so craving does not break into a well-trained mind.

We all know the religious rules verbally and we know of the existence of good and evil, but in what vein do we know these things? Verse 136 says:

A fool does not know when he does evil, evil deeds consume him as by fire.

And verse 141 is a very interesting sidelight of the wrong thinking which the Buddha had to correct in his day, and which can easily be applied to today:

Not nakedness, nor matted hair, nor fasting, nor sleeping on the ground, neither rubbing the body with dust, nor sitting like an ascetic can purify a man who has not solved his doubts.

The Buddha taught only from experience — not hearsay. He had lived as an ascetic himself in the early days of his search for the truth, and later on when he taught about Nirvana. That too was from experience and so we can surely trust his words. Verse 145 is just another illustration of mindfulness in action:

Irrigators guide water, fletchers straighten arrows, carpenters bend wood, wise men shape themselves. As a fletcher straightens his arrow, so the wise man straightens his unsteady mind which is so hard to control.

He knew how the crooked becomes straight and how the unsteady mind can find peace. This brings us to the important question of how we are to change the tenor of our thoughts, to straighten the unsteady mind.

Thistle and yarrow.The history of countless centuries of human thought in the form of religion, philosophy or dogma has shown that even the high sounding ideologies have their hidden agendas and thus beget a very negative contraflow, leading to outer conflicts such as the ever-repeated succession of wars, which has dogged the whole history of man. On the individual scale too, even the most loyal adherents to an ethic find themselves caught up in doubts and intrusive thoughts of an unwanted nature. In Buddhism, it is not belief in anything, however laudable, which saves us, but experience in mindfulness. Who but the Buddha would have said, “Do not believe what I say because I say it [although he knew his words were true] but try these things out for yourselves”? Verse 243 makes this clear:

Ignorance is the worst stain of all, let the bhikku remove ignorance and be clean.

To the Buddha, belief, not being self-discovered, was still a form of ignorance, so we can only really benefit from his teaching by doing the work for ourselves. This is why Buddhism makes a clear distinction between the dishonest repression of thought, a denial of negative contents of the mind, and the active examination of them with a view to their transformation. Many religions advise control by will power alone, whereas Buddhism, which is psychologically based, aims not so much at the obedience of commandments as at the achievement of the remedying of ignorance, which is seen as a sickness of the mind to be cured. Tao Te Ching 71 says:

Knowing ignorance is strength.

Ignoring knowledge is sickness.

If one is sick of sickness, then one is not sick.

The sage is not sick because he is sick of sickness.

Therefore he is not sick.

Only mindfulness will give us sufficient knowledge of our sick mind to make us sick of it and thus to lead to the adoption of the hard, but necessary, mental exercises of the religious life. Without this honesty we can easily escape into self-satisfied justification. There are no quick ways to purify the mind, all sudden changes are only reversals of old ethics. Verse 226 puts it into a nutshell:

Those who train themselves by day and night and are ever watchful will destroy their evil thoughts and approach Nirvana.

So this embodies the new ethic, new not in the sense that it is not ancient, as Buddhism is, but new to the humanity who has lived on the old ethics of divide and rule for so long a time. In the next part we will consider the ways of healing that division.


Those who train themselves by day and night and are ever watchful will destroy their evil thoughts and approach Nirvana.

Dhammapada verse 226

So now we need to contemplate the psychological reality underlying those words with which we ended Part II. The message is all there if we look, not only into the meaning of the words, but to the conditioning within the minds of us who read the words, for it is through the conditioning of the mind that the true meaning becomes distorted. This is religion’s tragedy.

As the Bhikku Nanamoli so pertinently wrote in his notebook: “So much can be done by teachers for others — but what can others do for teachers? We might ask ourselves what would the teachers have us do?” Surely to uphold the integrity of the message. Another quotation from his is an indication of how distortion can arise: “If I insist on only having beauty before me, I know only horror will be behind me.”

To return to the Dhammapada and the problem of the destruction of evil, it is a psychological fact that “evil” repressed or evil evaded is not evil destroyed, but is in fact evil secreted and thus preserved. This is the horror behind us all, individually and collectively.

The most dangerous thing we can do is to live by a false ethic, which means to aspire to the beauty without addressing the horror. This insight, as many of us know, is also fundamental to the understanding of the psychology of C.G. Jung, which issued from his confrontation and penetration into the hidden reaches of the unconscious, both personal and collective, costing him much suffering, but producing much enlightenment in the process, and leading psychology into greater depths and fields of influence than had ever previously been conceived of by any other school. Jung penetrated to the religious wellsprings of the psyche from which our deepest ethics arise. The unconscious, he told us, is honest: it is the ego that colours and falsifies the facts. From an extensive and holistic view of the human psyche came the exposition of a new psychological landscape and ethic, a new truth of good and evil, not as independent absolutes but as relativities stemming from the discoveries of the mechanisms of repression and projection. The ego is our daytime companion, but by “day and night” unconscious procedures are at work, necessitating both honesty and watchfulness. Thus in their very different ways East and West have arrived at a common ethic.

In the beginning of religious practice, it is said, the more we look in, the more evil we find, but we need not despair or be too self-critical for this is everyone’s experience. Chapter 26, The Brahmin, verse 383 states:

Let the Brahmin struggle hard to stem the torrent of craving. Let him destroy the elements of being and realize Nirvana.

Window display from, Anne of Cleves, a Totnes tea shop.As we read this chapter we come to realize that “the torrent of craving” includes all the elements of the ego/shadow, that unit of “isolative self-consciousness” from which has issued our conviction of being someone, a someone whose craving, in addition to all the usual objects of human craving, includes the deceptively virtuous craving to be “good.” However this can only be a relative goodness, because to realize Nirvana involves the ending of all desire for being anything at all.

From verse 410 onwards the emphasis is put on all aspects of the emptying out of all selfness, as Phiroz sometimes put it. This means that we cannot free ourselves from evil whilst at the same time building up and harbouring ideas of being a “good” person for our own gratification. The good thing to do is to follow the Good Law, being no-thing in the ethos of competition between self and others.

In the early chapter of the Dhammapada, much is said about the righteous man and the evildoer (verses 16–17 onwards). Naturally we wish to identify with the righteous man and separate ourselves from that evildoer. This is as it should be. We need to respect dualistic values, since they were the opening by which humanity first evolved conscience and ethical identity. To discriminate between good and evil was a first indispensable step to the raising of standards of behaviour and to the passing of laws based on ethics. However, we cannot delegate responsibility for ethical behaviour to lawmakers, especially when laws are only imposed by stick and carrot.

So the lessons of selflessness and restraint, which are essential for the religious life, have to be learnt anew with each individual life. A baby needs to inherit instincts of greed and aggressiveness in order to survive to adulthood in the physical sense, of course, kindness and generosity have to come later from the heart in each case.

At the present time our animal instincts still counteract our spiritual aspirations very strongly, as we know, and yet we hear ourselves saying, “If only everybody could be honest and kind, what a difference this would make.” Indeed it would, but if we look closely at our own well-meaning lives, we see just how much we too are involved in collective activities, political, legal and economic necessities which advantage some and disadvantage others. However much we try, however carefully thought out the issues and choices in politics or business, we find that for sheer collective security we are a part of much that is less than fair or compassionate. So much for the evolution of social man.

At the beginning of the voluntary, individual path, we must respect simple collective “right and wrong” ethics, because they are our introduction to truth and compassion. Phiroz always emphasized the importance of observing the moralities as a foundation of the religious life, but said that for clarity it is necessary to review teachings for each generation to keep pace with new understanding and changing terminology, or perhaps; as Addison wrote, “Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.”

As a current example of this we can take the western sacred right to free speech, our proudest value etched in stone as an indispensable guarantee of all the other forms of freedom. Over the years, particularly in America, it has come to be interpreted ever more loosely, and because it was an open-ended , unconditional “ideal”, no one could find any justification for curtailing its increasingly wide interpretations and expressions. So, when the recent scandal in the White House in all its sorry detail exploded from the airways across the world, seeing that freedom had indeed become incontinence, I wondered what the effect would be on the numberless millions whose tastes and moral laws were more restrained. I heard myself saying, “The Americans are corrupting the world with their free speech!” A very contradictory thing to say, until I realized that it actually illustrated a dilemma faced by many teachers of morality who are often accused of contradictoriness. The Bible is full of such “contradictions”, as is Buddhism if one looks for them; Jung also came in for such criticism.

Wherever the transcendent heart of morality is approached, we are confronted by the paradox, it is inevitable, we get it here in the Dhammapada verse 412: “He is a Brahmin who is beyond good and evil… ”, except that here is a rider to the effect that the Brahmin is “free from longing and suffering.” In other words, he has no axe to grind and thus will never claim that freedom from good and evil is an excuse to do anything he fancies and not be held to account for it. He is the one who has faced up his meditation to the ways in which the mind can become intoxicated with desire and aversion, and who understands how in extremis the psyche can swing without warning to its opposite polarity. This is why he renounces both good and evil, in order to reach that third transcending view. Until this is achieved there is always the possibility of instability and suffering for individual and community alike, which is why we cannot withstand modern pressures by depending on faith and will-power alone. It takes well rounded and stable people to benefit fully from a holistic teaching.

He is a Brahmin who is free from craving and understands the Law, is free from doubt and knows Nirvana.

Dhammapada verse 411

What a difference there is between knowing the law of the land when one is motivated by craving and liable to manipulate the law for one’s own ends, and understanding the Law of the Dhamma free from craving and doubt, but enjoying freedom from choice. Such is the new ethic. Until freedom such as this is gained, our whole lives are involved with the anguish of choosing good from ill, without being confident just what is the best course of action in any particular situation. What the conditioned dualistic mind sees as good is not necessarily harmless or free from potential to cause suffering.

In conclusion, it remains to draw together the common points in the life of the householder and the life of the Brahmin, which is of course the example of the religious life given as the ideal. We, the householders, are far from achieving that ideal, but the attempt does offer to modern people psychological possibilities for future development.

All manner of experiences and situations constantly enter our lives and then, in due time, pass away if we do not cling to them. At least the situations pass away, but the crucial question is, has the mind let go of their emotional detritus?

The Brahmin observes with detachment, what Krishnamurti calls “choiceless awareness.” Is our awareness as free? “That Brahmin the Buddha” taught the methods of awareness, patience, endurance, detachment and harmlessness. Such are the procedures through which the mind is liberated and purified. Such is the message of this book, small in size but great in wisdom. Many regard it as the teacher in their pocket. The teaching is rounded, open-handed; it is ahiṁsa, harmless, that renowned ethic of Buddhists everywhere, having no secret doctrines, pitfalls or penalties. It is up to the individual how far on its path they travel. It is described as “lovely in the beginning, lovely in the middle and lovely in the ending.” Majjhima Nikāya 27, 179.

Read more articles by Sylvia Swain here.
Download a PDF copy of the Dhammapada here.

With thanks to the The Phiroz Mehta Trust

Categories: Beginners, Buddhism, Sylvia Swain, Texts, Theravada

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