Path of the Dharma: Dhammapada–Chapter 14: “The Awakened One”

“Avoid all evil, cultivate the good, purify your mind: this sums up the teaching of the Buddha.” – Chapter 14, Verses

All right. We can go home now. Here’s the teaching, and it’s easy… Wait! No, it isn’t. What does this mean? What is evil? What is good? How do I purify the mind?

I’ve chosen my first two commentaries on the Dhammapada with the hope of making these clearer, but let’s try to untangle them. Here’s our Manjushri sword to cut through this Gordian knot: the Buddha said again and again that he taught the truth of suffering. This was his whole teaching. Also, “The Four Noble Truths”, his four part analysis on the nature of suffering and how to be liberated from it, was his first sermon.

So, his teaching is about liberation from suffering, but it can also be summed up as the three tenets above. However, how are these related? If this sums up his teachings, yet his teaching is that of the truth of suffering and the path of liberation from it, how do we understand them together?

To put it simply, the three point summary offered in this chapter of the Dhammapada is the direction of the path to liberation from suffering. To some extent, to live is to be in pain: we all will undergo the pain of birth, death, illness, and aging. However, we cultivate suffering through our own actions and, perhaps more importantly, reactions. These activities keep us walking in an endless circle of suffering, and our desire to gain a secure setting where “I” am gratified is at the center of this circle. This is our orbit of samsara.

The Buddha offers a path that goes beyond this endless orbit: a path to nirvana. This path is precisely the three points in the quote:

  1. Avoid all evil: Evil has been clearly presented in the Dhammapada as selfish thoughts and actions. Sorrow will always follow these–they keep us locked in samsara’s orbit.
  2. Cultivate the good: the good has been shown since the opening to be selfless thoughts and actions. We might readily think of this as being a martyr. However, a martyr is still caught in the game of “self”–sacrificing him or herself, sometimes for recognition, sometimes for self-gratification. The Buddha’s questioning of self is more radical. He questions the enduring entity of “I”, of atman–revealing that the self is a process that can be mastered, not a static entity. As he says in Chapter 20:

    All states are without self; those who realize this are freed from suffering. This is the path that leads to pure wisdom.

  3. Purify your mind: This one follows from the other two. The task of the spiritual path is to master yourself–recognizing that you “are” an unfolding karmic set of conditions and acting in such a way that recognizes this impermanence, this ongoing flow: “states” without self. To put it simply, we can offer two verses from the opening chapter of the Dhammapada as guiding principles–lanterns lighting the path of purifying your mind:

    For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time; hatred ceases by love. This is an unalterable law.

    There are those who forget that death will come to all. For those who remember, quarrels come to an end.

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I would suggest an interpretation of the first that moves past more standard understandings of these words. If we think of love as the greatest connection to what “I” like, we’ll remain lost. This keeps us rooted in the reactive patterns of suffering that the Buddha tries to free us from–desire, aversion, and ignorance. If love is just a cultivation of the “I”‘s desire, then we’ve understood nothing. Instead, for us to love, not from the love of attachment and I, me, and mine, we have to develop the wisdom of insight–coming to realize that although in a sense you and I are separate (when I eat, it doesn’t fill your stomach), ultimately we are both part of the same unfolding moment, part of the universe’s emergence right now. We’re both part of an intricately interdependent set of conditions not separate in the slightest and not enduring as we “are” in this moment. If we can see this, even for just brief moments from time to time, we can move from “hate” which is the aggressive push for “my” illusory position/preferences as reality over and above those of others to “love” which is a recognition of the interdependence of All and the illusion of separation as well as the delusions of our myriad other stories. In short, I take “love” here to be closer to what is standardly expressed as “compassion” in Mahayana Buddhism–mostly because “love”, as it is standardly understood, is an extremely loaded term for us.

Furthermore, our second lantern from the quote is giving up our quarrels by seeing that we all will die. This reveals our own impermanence and the pettiness behind our strife with others. Realizing that we all will die leads us, much like Stoicism, to understand how those things that we struggle for and suffer over are ephemeralillusory, and empty (Tibetan Buddhist dream yogis would express this by telling us life is a dream–see my related posts here and here. Be careful though! Don’t misunderstand what this statement about existence means!). So, we can learn from this insight to let go of our selfish plans–locking us into suffering of desire, aversion, and ignorance. Through this shift, we can purify our minds.


While writing this post, I read a passage by Dainin Katagiri on these three precepts of the Awakened One. His own commentary offers an excellent companion to my own, and the synchronicity of reading the passage made me feel that I should add part of it here for further elucidation and another voice. The rest of this commentary can be found in his You Have to Say Something: Manifesting Zen Insight (“Buddha’s Mind” pp. 40-42):

At the beginning of practice, you might believe the precepts are moral rules. But you must learn to take them as expressions of the Buddha’s activity. In doing so, you will study your everyday life, and before you are conscious of it, these teachings will penetrate your life. In this way, you can live naturally the life of a buddha.

The first two precepts are to refrain from what is unwholesome and to practice what is wholesome. The third precept is to purify your own mind. In order to perfect these, and the other precepts, we have to sever three ties. The first of these is doubt, or wrong view, which occurs whenever we attach to our cherished or tightly held ideas.

In Buddhism, human life is seen in light of the teachings of impermanence and cause and effect. These teachings seem contradictory, but actually they work together. On the one hand, everything is impermanent, so there is nothing we can grasp or cling to. On the other hand, there is cause and effect. If you do something, it will very naturally have results. These two seeming contradictory teachings account for much of why we are confused by human life.

Whatever we plan for our lives, we must take impermanence into account. It’s a basic fact of existence. Impermanence doesn’t have any form or color or smell. We only see it in the process of continual change. It’s a kind of energy–always moving, functioning, working. This impermanence–this continuous movement, change, this appearance and disappearance–is what supports our lives. We have to care for our lives with impermanence in mind. We cannot attach to the results of what we plan.

People tend to ignore these teachings of impermanence and causation. This is called wrong view. But we have to accept them. They are facts of life.

The second tie to be severed is selfishness. To be selfish means we attach to our self as our first concern. It’s very difficult to be free of this.

… … …

The last tie we need to sever in order to perfect the precepts is superstition. This is expressed in the precepts of taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, or the Triple Treasure. To take refuge is not about escaping the human world. True refuge is seeing the depth of human existence. True refuge is where everyone meets.

A buddha is any person who understands human life on the basis of impermanence and cause and effect. If you live like this, you are Buddha. Everyday life is difficult. We are loaded with preconceptions, prejudices, customs, and hereditary factors. This is why we have to come back to this moment and take refuge in living the life of a buddha. A buddha’s efforts never cease.

Dharma is the teaching given by any person who understands the human world on the basis of impermanence and cause and effect. All we have to do is hook into this teaching and grow. To do this, however, we need help. We need the sangha.

The sangha is made up of those who come together to practice the Buddha’s Way. Without this, Dharma teaching will not be transmitted to future generations. So all of us are needed to practice the Buddha’s Way.

When we take up the Buddha’s Way, the precepts are not rules but ways to manifest ourselves as buddhas. In our daily life, we must return to the precepts again and again. This effort is very important. It’s the effort of simply walking forward, step-by-step, just like the tortoise.

May these words help guide you with the lantern’s light upon the way, the light of the Awakened One, enlightening and purifying your own mind.

Gassho!

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