Path of the Dharma: Dhammapada – Chapter 1: “Twin Verses”

This opening chapter shows the way by pointing out the enlightened path and comparing it to the deluded path. The amazing thing about this opening passage is its balance between solid ethical philosophy/cognitive-behavioral psychology and more austerely poetic spiritual maxims. It’s pretty long, so I’ll only cover part of it, and I’ll go through that part in pieces.

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: we are formed and molded by our thoughts. Those whose minds are shaped by selfish thoughts cause misery when they speak or act. Sorrows roll over them as the wheels of a cart roll over the tracks of the bullock that draws it.

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: we are formed and molded by our thoughts. Those whose minds are shaped by selfless thoughts give joy whenever they speak or act. Joy follows them like a shadow that never leaves them. — Trans. Easwaran

This initial chapter is called “Twin Verses”, and the reason is clear here. We have the deluded and enlightened paths–samsara and nirvana–side by side, twinned in the same structure and style of explication.


The first sentence is the same in both, and it reveals the importance of karma in a way that resonates with Western philosophy and cognitive psychology. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics couches virtuous (that is excellent) action in an ongoing awareness of oneself within a social landscape. This requires an ongoing examination of how I have been molded by my background–upbringing and origin–and how I am molding myself further with each thought and action. Another familiar parallel is cognitive-behavioral psychology, which is more or less the successor of a Stoic understanding of the mind. Our thoughts mold our perception of ourselves and the world. In that sense, all that we are and all that the world is are the thoughts that mold us/it. Therapy, then, becomes an engagement to change the thoughts that harm us and the related behaviors to those thoughts. With these comparisons, the relevance of the Buddha’s position for us from the West is made clear.

Our two paths are displayed before us, and this is where the Buddha goes dramatically beyond these familiar points of comparison. The deluded path of ongoing suffering is the path of selfish thoughts. This includes all the plans oriented on my own aggrandizement. Out of the just listed Western parallels, the Stoics would be the only ones to make this dramatic leap (I’m reminded here of Marcus Aurelius speaking of being a citizen of the Universe). Selfish thoughts, even those oriented toward my success, my story, and my truth, even when they don’t harm others, will lead ultimately to dukkha, i.e. suffering, discontent, and continual yearning.

Why? This is a path that continually tries to get beyond the inevitability of impermanence. It’s an ongoing attempt to rig the game just right to get me that happiness of success that will never dissipate, never change, never fade. If I try hard enough… If I plan thoroughly enough… If I get the conditions just right…

Notice how all these thoughts are turned inward. If the world gives to me just right, I will be happy. That is the crux: external conditions have to be right, whether following the path of avoiding pain or pursuing pleasure. The energy of this system goes from outside to inside, from the world to me, thus the inward nature of these thoughts. “I” become the focus and goal of thoughts set up toward making my life just perfect. Even if that perfection includes others, it’s still about my perfect life.

In comparison, the enlightened path is one of selfless thought (and action). Such people (at least attempt to) give joy to all in all their speech and action (that which follows from thought), and hence, they are regularly cultivating joy in situations. It follows them everywhere. This invites a larger discussion of Buddhist psychology and karma, but let’s put this simply: the first path keeps the selfish person in an ongoing chain of cause and effect. His or her actions bring consequences that maintain an enduring cycle of felt dissatisfaction and of fighting to be free of this dissatisfaction with subsequent action … which is ultimately not fully satisfying. Selfish thought leads to selfish action which leads to the karmic consequence of this never-ending cycle: samsara. The other path invites us to at least see the difference. Then, perhaps, we have a gap after selfish thoughts arise–before we speak or act on them. Realizing that they lead only to sorrow, we instead change our thoughts, speech, and actions to more selfless ones. With time, this practiced self-reflection becomes a new mold for our thoughts, and selfless thoughts come on their own. With such a shift, we attempt to give joy to all, attempting to help them find peace, happiness, and health (by inspiring them to step beyond sorrow-laden paths as well). With this, we first begin cultivating more positive chains of consequences (as if that’s a necessary motivation), and ultimately, we step beyond the cycle of ongoing dukkha–that karmic chain is broken.

Notice that this second passage focuses on the selfless person giving joy, not getting it. Here, we have the contrast that this path is not inward-oriented like the first, in the sense of seeing the world’s purpose as to give to me or for me to take from it. Instead, this is outward-oriented. My thoughts are aimed out from myself toward the joy of all. The energy of this system now moves from me outward, rather than the inward grasp of appropriation for self. Through such a step beyond concern about my own joy, beyond “I”, me, and mine, I paradoxically realize that very joy in myself.

Let these discussions open one other passage for consideration:

“He insulted me, he struck me, he cheated me, he robbed me”: those caught in resentful thoughts never find peace.

“He insulted me, he struck me, he cheated me, he robbed me”: those who give up resentful thoughts surely find peace.

For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love. This is an unalterable law. — Trans. Easwaran

Again, I’m reminded of Western philosophy in that one of Nietzsche’s greatest concerns is man’s propensity for “ressentiment”–more or less, resentment. The problem is precisely how inwardly driven this is–it’s literally a feeling again and again, a “re-sentir” (to feel again). This keeps us trapped and tortured, perpetually reactive, rather than vibrant, active, and creative. We get again and again, but we only get the pain of a stung mind, an envenomed heart. As in the passage of Thus Spake Zarathustra (II, 29–The Tarantulas), we feel the toxic bite of the tarantula, again and again, stagnant and rotting with emotional poison, and with Nietzsche, according to Deleuze, the problem is that this reactivity, this “feeling again”, lies throughout our entire human psychology. So the question becomes how do we step beyond this into that active state, rather than feeling reactivity everywhere?

To exemplify this problem, we can take another verse from chapter 18 of the Dhammapada:

There is no fire like lust, no jailer like hate, no snare like infatuation, no torrent like greed.

Notice that all of these are reactive evaluations–wanting to have what one does not have or jealousy of what someone else has (which is really another version of the same). In each, we become trapped in or tortured by reactivity. Hate, the jailer, is an instance of not wanting, and as such, it is wanting. It is not wanting a situation or person to be as he/she/it is, so it is wanting to have the world be completely different for me. (See my comments on love and hate in Love, Rebounds, and Relationships: Part 3 – Love and Metaphysics and also my comments on hope and fear in Reiki-The Five Precepts: 2nd Precept-Faith)

In comparison, the Buddha offers the selfless, enlightened path, one that is not stung by holding on to the continual, reactive poison of internalized wrong done to self:

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

To let go of the resentful thoughts, the bars of the prison of hate, we cannot negate that person or thing out there which has wronged me. This is the most basic impulse in us, but as Gandhi said: “An eye for an eye makes the world go blind.” Selfish action to escape pain, begets another and another, and moreover, it begets this same resentful and retaliatory (as with hatred) reactivity in others. The only way to get beyond this is to selflessly give–to love–rather than to selfishly take–to hate (remember that hate wants the world to be utterly different in a way more suitable to me; it is a wanting, and it can lead to the subsequent action of taking, through negation). This means even giving up the self-righteous thoughts of being wronged. You instead give yourself to the world, finding connection with it, finding the suffering in those who have “wronged” us, finding the compassion of an awakened heart.


In conclusion, let’s offer this passage of Red Pine’s translation of Verse 63 of the Tao Te Ching which I discussed in a recent post. These guiding words for the Sage go hand in hand with the Buddha’s words for the arhat who walks the selfless path of love, peace, and joy:

Act without acting
work without working
understand without understanding
great or small[,] many or few
repay each wrong with virtue
– Trans. Red Pine

May this inspire you to read the rest of this beautiful chapter and the whole book. May it show you the first steps on the selfless path, and may you begin to walk it towards joy, peace, and love.


Reiki: The Five Precepts (Gokai – 五 戒) – 1st Precept: Peace

Just for today:
Don’t hold on to anger
Don’t focus on worry
Honor all those who came before
Work hard on self-improvement
Be kind to all living things
– Reiki Center App, Windows Phone

– My shortened mantra of the precepts

In this post, I focus only on the first of the five precepts. I spoke about “Just for today/Now” in my “Precursor” post. I recommend reading that post before reading further if you haven’t already. That post sets up the background for the discussions of all the precepts. Just for today (Now) is the injunction that stands before all the precepts and applies to all of them.

We should recall that Usui-sama, the writer of the precepts, was a Tendai Buddhist priest. This is important, as I would say that the first precept is the beginning of the Buddhist spiritual path, and the last is its culmination in terms of practice. When I say this, I mean in terms of the Mahayana (the Great Vehicle) tradition of Buddhism, a subset of Buddhism that includes well-known schools such as Zen and Chan Buddhism. This tradition focuses on the way of the Bodhisattva, spiritual warriors who focus their efforts on the liberation of all sentient beings from suffering.

The beginning of practice is cultivating a presence that supersedes the cyclic suffering of samsara (ordinary existence; the counterpart of the enlightened existence of nirvana–an awakened state that overcomes suffering). One of the Buddha’s core teachings is the Three Marks of Existence (also called the Three Seals). They are: impermanence, suffering, and selflessness (Not-I). First of these, impermanence–everything changes. Nothing is static. From a scientific viewpoint, we could state this in terms of the second law of thermodynamics: the tendency for entropy to increase in a system. This means that the heat energy in a system changes over time. This is a law of physics. From these tenets, even atoms will break down trillions of years from now. Even that fundamental building block will change.

In our lives, we face change all the time–the weather, our physical appearance, comings and goings of loved ones, illness, birth, death, and even the basic bodily functions of breathing and our hearts beating from moment to moment. Change causes suffering for us in a couple ways: we go through life in a distracted manner and fall into changes we could have avoided because of this ignorance. With mindfulness, we can be in sync with our environment and flow with it rather than cause distracted changes which are painful. Also, despite the fact that all changes, we cling to things. We try to hold on to what we want and avoid what we don’t want. Most of all, we cling to habits and anything to bolster a sense of a permanently enduring self. We cling to the masterpiece of our creation that is the ego. This clinging to desired permanence and the unmindful engagement of a distracted mind with the world lead to suffering–the second of the Three Marks of Existence.

The third mark is selflessness (Not-I). Its the counterpoint to the clinging of ego. With mindful presence, we can experience phenomena as they are. If we attend to them in such a way, we can see them as impermanent arising. They come into being, grow, flourish, wither, and dissipate. None of them is constant. None of them endures. Noticing this reveals the oneness of all phenomena and their inherent emptiness. We can see that the separation and permanence of “I” is my own confused perception and desire to resist change. Everything, including the “I” of ego, is empty, “self”-less.

This realization leads us to a hidden gem, a fourth mark that is sometimes added–peace; we could call this realization the opening of the gate to nirvana. This peace comes from seeing our place in the world (or better said–seeing the world as it is, not as we want it to be): from actively engaging on the path of liberation beyond suffering. There is much that can be said about this path which would necessitate a deeper discussion of the Four Noble Truths. For that, I suggest reading Chögyam Trungpa’s book: The Truth of Suffering and the Path of Liberation. I’ll focus on the fact that the path is mindful presence, facilitated by regular meditation. This gets us past the three roots of suffering: desire, aversion, and ignorance (think of the comments above about changes we want and don’t want–desire and aversion–as well as the distracted engagement with the world–ignorance).

These considerations about the Four Marks of Existence (Four, rather than three, as we have added Peace as the culmination of the Three Marks), returns us to Usui’s precepts, particularly the first precept: “Don’t hold onto anger” — “Peace“. He is offering a Buddhist meditation. You are asked to mindfully attend to these precepts twice a day while doing “gassho” as per his instructions. You focus on doing them well for today only (or for now in each and every instant). You then attend to not being angry. This is the first step on a Buddhist path to enlightenment. The heart of the Hinayana (the Lesser Vehicle) tradition is not doing harm. To achieve this, anger and pursuing an ego-driven idea of my goals from it are put aside (cognitive psychology shows that anger comes from the obstruction of something we want–think of a traffic jam keeping you from getting where you want to go; in such cases, you act out in anger, and this anger is meant to clear away those obstructions to get things back on the desired path). Not getting angry entails letting go of your own story and opening yourself up to whatever is here right now (even that traffic jam). This is how you do no harm, and this is how you begin working toward compassion, the fifth precept; to realize compassion and to let go of anger, you have to step beyond I, me, and mine. From a different, perhaps more familiar perspective for the standard Reiki student, if you are going to be a conduit for universal energy, surely the first step is opening to it and realizing that there is no separation to begin with: this is also a letting go of “I”, me, mine, my truth, my story, my goals, etc. This letting go of self and opening up to existence is realizing the mark of peace.

Let go of anger. Realize the peace that exists beyond your “self”.

As an after-thought, I thoroughly disagree with the understanding of the first precept in The Spirit of Reiki given by Walter Lübeck . The point is not to harness anger for positive personal ends. Perhaps, you could say the point is to transmute anger into peaceful enlightenment, but it isn’t about “me” and “mine” at all. Quite the opposite. First of all, I think that anger comes from desire, not fear (fear is the opposite of hope, not desire. This is commonly confused, and these are all closely related. I hope for what I desire. I fear that which I do not want to happen. Hope and wanting are closely related as are fear and aversion, but they aren’t quite the same). Overcoming the negativity of anger results in our personal healing, but in taking up a spiritual path, it isn’t about me. It’s about healing everything and realizing that all is more important than I. Here again, the precept of peace points toward the Mahayana method at the heart of the Bodhisattva way: compassion.

May this help you find peace.

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