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.


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.


“Me River”

The mind flows:
A river
Rippling, swirling
Thought to thought
Eddies form
Whirlpools spin
As thoughts stick
And twirl again

Thoughts wash away,
Never to return
Over time,
The river changes:
New courses
New shapes
Even moment to moment
It’s never
The same river twice

Yet, we overlook
This dynamism
Seeing it instead
As the “Me River”
Static, known object
Clearly defined on a map.
Not seeing the “selfing”
In every moment…


Study the Self! By Maezumi Roshi

Beautiful! I’ve wanted to post on this particular Dogen zenji quote. At some point, I will, but for the meantime, I will share this beautiful and succinct piece.

Buddhism now

Sekizanzen-in's (赤山禅院) Juroku-rakan (十六羅漢 the '16 Arhats')In the Soto school we also appreciate gradual practice and sudden realization. But Soto Zen emphasizes that, because this life is all together one thing, is the Buddha Way itself, you should not expect kensho. As soon as you chase after something, right there you cre­ate separation, so how can you have realization? Many people misunderstand, saying that the Soto school is not concerned with the enlightenment experi­ence — that’s nonsense. Awak­ening is the very core of the Buddha’s teaching, but if we are thinking about awakening we are separating ourselves from it.

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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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