The Dhammapada

"Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think.”  Thus opens The Dhammapada, a collection of verses gathered from Buddha himself and passed down through time.  This book is the second in a (so far) fantastic trilogy of sorts.  “The Classics of Indian Spirituality” also include the Upanishads, which I used heavily in my last post, and the Bhagavad Gita, which I am reading now.

This opening line really does summarize the entire work.  One example is the idea that “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional,” where pain is a physical reaction, but suffering is a construct of the mind. It is put another way in the Upanishads: “You are what your deep, driving desire is. As your desire is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your destiny.”  We can train our minds such that we truly control our thoughts, and because our thoughts create our destiny, we can then control our destiny. Many people think that they control their thoughts already, but one session of meditation trying to focus one’s attention quickly kills that illusion (I still can barely make it 25 breaths before my mind starts running away from me).  This central idea is a self-help gold mine, and the root of many modern self-help books (The Secret, for example).  Self improvement turns out to be very simple, but not easy. The practice of training the mind is arduous, “It requires the patience of someone trying to wear down the Himalayas with a piece of silk – and you feel you are making about as much progress.” But with the right effort – a strict regimen of meditation - the mind can be transformed from master to servant.

The verses in the book are really all about the law of dharma.  The author (translator) offers this explanation of dharma in the introduction to the book.  I just love the simple logic of this philosophy. Emphasis is mine.

In its broadest application, dharma expresses the central law of life, that all things and events are part of an indivisible whole. Probably no word is richer in connotations. In the sphere of human activity, dharma is behavior that is in harmony with this unity. Sometimes it is justice, righteousness, or fairness; sometimes simply duty, the obligations of religion or society. It also means being true to what is essential in the human being: nobility, honor, forgiveness, truthfulness, loyalty, compassion. An ancient saying declares that ahimsa paramo dharma: the essence of dharma, the highest law of life, is to do no harm to any living creature. Like the Buddha, the sages of the Upanishads did not find the world capricious. Nothing in it happens by chance – not because events are predestined, but because everything is connected by cause and effect. Thoughts are included in this view, for they both cause things to happen and are aroused by things that happen. What we think has consequences for the world around us, for it conditions how we act.
These are illustrations of what Hinduism and Buddhism call the law of karma. Karma means something done, whether as cause or effect. Actions in harmony with dharma bring good karma and add to health and happiness. Selfish actions, at odds with the rest of life, bring unfavorable karma and pain. In this view, no divine agency is needed to punish or reward us; we punish and reward ourselves. This was not regarded as a tenet of religion but as a law of nature, as universal as the law of gravity. No one has stated it more clearly than St. Paul: “As you sow, so shall you reap. With whatever measure you mete out to others, with the same measure it shall be meted out to you.”

Physicists venture outward in their quest for understanding, whereas the Buddha advocated travelling inward. But the ancient Buddhist tradition and modern physics have a lot in common, “What the Buddha is telling us is precisely parallel to what the quantum physicists say: when we examine the universe closely, it dissolves into discontinuity and a flux of fields of energy. But in the Buddha’s universe the mind-matter duality is gone; these are fields in consciousness.”  Meditation is the method of exploration in the Buddha’s case. 

The modern mind balks at calling meditation scientific, but in these sages’ passion for truth, in their search for reality as something which is the same under all conditions and from all points of view, in their insistence on direct observation and systematic empirical method, we find the essence of the scientific spirit. It is not improper to call brahmavidya a series of experiments – on the mind, by the mind – with predictable, replicable results.

I believe that understanding the mind is tantamount to understanding the physical laws of the universe. Einstein, quoted below, understood the dharma well.  I wonder if he every practiced meditation.

A human being is part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

My key take away from the book was that meditation is one of the most important things that we can do in life. Hopefully, one of the experiments I carry out for the pledge is a retreat of sorts that focuses on meditation.

Finally, here are a few of my favorite verses  from the Dhammapada:

Do not give your attention to what others do or fail to do; give it to what you do or fail to do.
As fresh milk needs time to curdle, a selfish deed takes time to bring sorrow in its wake.
There is no fire like lust, no sickness like hatred, no sorrow like separateness, no joy like peace. No disease is worse than greed, no suffering worse than selfish passion. Know this, and seek nirvana as the highest joy.
It is easy to see the faults of others; we winnow them like chaff. It is hard to see our own; we hide them as a gambler hides a losing draw. But when one keeps dwelling on the faults of others, his own compulsions grow worse, making it harder to overcome them.
For hatred can never put an end to hatred; love alone can. This is an unalterable law.