The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha
Translated with introduction by John Ross Carter and Mahinda Palihawadana
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2000
ISBN 978-0-19-955513-0 (pbk)
The Dhammapada is Buddhism’s most popular and well-known scripture. As an act of devotion, millions of Buddhists recite the text daily in its original Pali language or in a translation. Dhammapada literally means the “sayings of the dhamma” (in the Pali language “dhamma” means “dharma,” variously translated as “religion,” “truth,” and “cosmic moral law”).
Siddhartha Gautama, or the Buddha, is traditionally considered to have lived circa 563 BCE to circa 483 BCE, in the Magadha region in the northeastern Indian subcontinent. His father, a king, attempted to shield him from the realities of life, but at age twenty-nine the prince unexpectedly encountered old age, sickness, death – and a serene ascetic. Shocked and inspired, he ran away from his palace, wife, and newborn son, and became an ascetic. For the next six years he practised various severe forms of asceticism, but failed to find peace of mind. At this point he is said to have discovered the Middle Way – a path of moderation between the extremes of self-denial and self-indulgence. He began meditating under the famous Bo or Bodhi tree in what is now Bodh Gaya, India, vowing not to move until he had fully attained the Truth. After forty-nine days, at age thirty-five, he attained nirvana. For the next forty-five years he conducted an extensive ministry in Magadha, teaching his sangha (congregation of followers) how to attain nirvana, often in their very lifetimes.
The Dhammapada is a compilation of 423 of the Buddha’s verses arranged in twenty-six loosely thematic chapters. The Buddha spoke them presumably in the regional Magadhi tongue, using rhythmic and repetitive verse as a memory aid; indeed, his words were memorized and passed down orally until over a century later. Then, on the foreign island of Sri Lanka, they were written down in a local dialect that would eventually become known as Pali.
The Buddha begins with the famous “twin verses,” telling his listeners, in terms they would understand, that the state of one’s mind is of paramount importance. If with a mind “polluted one speaks or acts, / Thence suffering follows / As a wheel the draught ox’s foot.” Conversely, if with a tranquil mind “one speaks or acts, / Thence ease follows / As a shadow that never departs.” With these words the Buddha portrays negative thinking not just as wrong or immoral, but as inevitably causing suffering. Throughout the book he repeatedly places before listeners an option: Which way do you wish to live your life?
‘He reviled me! He struck me!
He defeated me! He robbed me!’
They who gird themselves up with this,
For them enmity is not quelled.
‘He reviled me! He struck me!
He defeated me! He robbed me!’
They who do not gird themselves up with this,
For them is enmity quelled.
Not by enmity are enmities quelled,
Whatever the occasion here.
By the absence of enmity are they quelled.
This is an ancient truth.
The Buddha often warns his listeners about Mara – a then-colloquial name for Death, the implacable enemy of all life. He implies that the problem of the mind is in some manner the problem also of Mara; in overcoming one’s mind, one overcomes Mara. In other words, overcoming the mind is a question not just of psychology – of altering one’s thoughts from bad to good – but also of dealing with a metaphysical force that constantly seeks to prevail over unwary unenlightened beings.
The Buddha gives listeners hints as to how Mara defeats, and is to be defeated:
Whoever dwells seeing the pleasurable, in senses unrestrained,
Immoderate in food, indolent, inferior of enterprise,
Over him, indeed, Mara prevails,
Like the wind over a weak tree.
Whoever dwells seeing the non-pleasurable, in senses well-restrained,
And moderate in food, faithful, resolute in enterprise,
Over him, indeed, Mara prevails not,
Like the wind over a rocky crag.
The Buddha repeatedly emphasizes that those who conquer their minds triumph over Mara:
They who will restrain the mind,
Far-ranging, roaming alone,
Incorporeal, lying abiding –
They are released from Mara’s bonds.
Knowing this body to be like foam,
Awakening to its mirage nature,
Cutting out Mara’s flowers, one may go
Beyond the sight of the King of Death.
How do listeners conquer both their minds and Mara? According to the Buddha, by attaining nirvana, which ends the soul’s bondage to the wheel of transmigration. Nirvana is commonly understood as a state attained after death, but a study of early Buddhist teachings reveals that the Buddha as well as many of his followers attained nirvana while still alive. But how does one attain this nirvana (in Pali, Nibbana)?
Those meditators, persevering,
Forever firm of enterprise,
Those steadfast ones touch Nibbana,
Incomparable release from bonds.
Nirvana, then, is achieved through earnest meditation, and meditation is the answer to both the problems of life and the onslaughts of Mara.
The Buddha describes the path of meditation as a battle of self-conquest:
He, truly, is supreme in battle
Who would conquer himself alone,
Rather than he who would conquer in battle
A thousand, thousand men.
He explains that self-conquest through meditation and controlling the mind is not easy. It is much easier to busy oneself with activities and to keep the mind in a whirl of thoughts:
Easy to do are things not good
And those harmful for oneself.
But what is beneficial and good,
Is exceedingly difficult to do.
Yet he encourages the spiritual aspirant to take up the battle:
Make a lamp for yourself;
Strive quickly! Become a wise one;
With stains blown out, free of blemish,
You shall not undergo birth and old age again.
He stresses again and again that the path he teaches is simple and direct. If one follows this simple path to control the mind, one has no need of outward practices:
Just this path, there is no other
For purity of vision.
Do ye go along this [path];
This is what will bewilder Mara.
The Dhammapada touches on many other themes such as karma, transmigration, the inefficacy of rites and rituals, the self-defeating nature of evil, and the surpassing value of the company of Enlightened Ones.
The Dhammapada is readily available in print and online in the Pali-language original and numerous translations, English and otherwise. The translation reviewed here, by John Ross Carter and Mahinda Palihawadana, includes an 18-page introduction offering a concise and accessible, yet in-depth, explanation of the text. It also summarizes recent advances in scholarship on the Dhammapada, explaining the place of the Pali Dhammapada within the larger Buddhist Dharmapada literature. The authors had published this translation earlier with more extensive scholarly commentary: The Dhammapada: A New English Translation (Oxford, 1987).
Another beautiful translation is The Dhammapada: The Path of Truth, by Ananda Maitreya and Rose Kramer, (Parallax Press, 1995). Non-Buddhist Eknath Easwaran’s translation of The Dhammapada (Nilgiri Press, 2007) explores The Dhammapada as an Indian spiritual classic. Harvard Sanskrit and Indian Studies scholar Glenn Wallis’s The Dhammapada: Verses on the Way (Modern Library, 2004) includes a helpful “Guide to Reading the Text.” Finally, The Dhammapada (Shambhala, 2005), translated by Gil Fronsdal, a Buddhist meditation teacher and Stanford PhD in Buddhist Studies, is a sensitive and insightful offering.
Let us conclude with an especially cherished Dhammapada verse:
Refraining from all that is detrimental,
The attainment of what is wholesome,
The purification of one’s mind:
This is the instruction of Awakened Ones.
Book reviews express the opinions of the reviewers and not of the publisher.