The Dharmapada (Buddha) REVIEW
Today was a day for reading, an an interesting and eclectic assortment of readings it was. This morning, I finished Extravagant Grace by Barbara Duguid, a book focusing on the teachings of John Newton (recommended by a friend). This afternoon, I read the Dhamapada (Buddist text for my Buddhism class this week). After the Dhamapada, I finished reading Confessions of a Sociopath by M.E. Thomas (not the author’s real name) in pursuit of a better understanding of the character, Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello (something I will begin teaching next week). I will just note that last week’s Ethics class was about the Ethics of Religion so there is a bit of a confluence going on in my reading this weekend.
But let me start with the Dhamapada.
One is struck by the similarities between some of the teachings of the Stoics, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and various texts in Judaism. Really, the subject is perfection and how one arrives at it. IN the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to indicate that perfection is a state of being and paradoxically, a weak, dependent, broken state of being. I think this is why the list of precepts which follows the beatitudes sets the bar pretty much beyond a human’s ability to achieve it. In my own mind, Jesus is interpreting the first nine commandments in the moral light of the tenth which prohibit covetousness. When dealing with moral absolutes, Jesus constantly goes below the level of action into the level of desire. “Perfection is not the avoidance of murder when you would like to murder but the complete avoidance of any hint of wishing to murder.” Contamination can occur at the one part per millionth level where nothing but the shreds of an embryonic motive can be seen.
The essence of perfection in the Dharmapada is total self-control. The Bhudda seems to set up a fight to the death between the frontal cortex and the brain-stem (as did the Stoics) and, as Jesus seems to do when he says things like “Love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek” and if you but lust you have committed adultery already.” Both moral codes make the absolute domination of the amygdala and brain stem a prerequisite to heaven/nirvana/bliss/happiness. In so far as humans cannot really DO this (unless maybe you are a reverse sociopath of some sort), it makes sense that failure will be the result and the sense of that failure (“Blessed are the meek”) become the new righteousness.
Both texts raise questions in my mind. If we COULD overwhelm our instincts, would we become better humans for doing so? What was the purpose of those instincts if they were meant to be imperialized and subjected? Isn’t it possible that they serve some function? Barbara Duguid’s book resolves the problem in her Christian context by saying that though God can give victory over “sin” (the word she would use to describe that part of the human personality that lusts out of bounds or hates a rival or feels ego wounds) He often does not simply because dependence is what He is after not performance.
I confess, that it makes sense to me that human beings, if told that they can and should over-ride their instincts will eventually feel like failures to some degree. I guess my question for Barbara Duguid, Epictetus and the Buddha is … can anyone really be expected to have as much control over those drives as a few people can? Are there not just some people who have the sorts of brain wiring that allows them to be more … conscious and in control? And how does spiritual empowerment work? Clearly, the Bible would lead one to believe that God can make self-control possible. And the Buddha seems to suggest that it is an ability that can be acquired with training and Epictetus seems to assert that Stoicism is a skill that can be learned. Maybe simply believing that you will have help gives you the impetus to try and it is in trying that you get the skill? More questions than answers.
Anyway, here are my favorite lines from the Dharmapada.
3. "He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me." Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.
4. "He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me." Those who do not harbor such thoughts still their hatred.
5. Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.
19. Much though he recites the sacred texts, but acts not accordingly, that heedless man is like a cowherd who only counts the cows of others — he does not partake of the blessings of the holy life.
35. Wonderful, indeed, it is to subdue the mind, so difficult to subdue, ever swift, and seizing whatever it desires. A tamed mind brings happiness.
61. Should a seeker not find a companion who is better or equal, let him resolutely pursue a solitary course; there is no fellowship with the fool.
64. Though all his life a fool associates with a wise man, he no more comprehends the Truth than a spoon tastes the flavor of the soup.
65. Though only for a moment a discerning person associates with a wise man, quickly he comprehends the Truth, just as the tongue tastes the flavor of the soup.
75. One is the quest for worldly gain, and quite another is the path to Nibbana. Clearly understanding this, let not the monk, the disciple of the Buddha, be carried away by worldly acclaim, but develop detachment instead.
80. Irrigators regulate the rivers; fletchers straighten the arrow shaft; carpenters shape the wood; the wise control themselves.
94. Even the gods hold dear the wise one, whose senses are subdued like horses well trained by a charioteer, whose pride is destroyed and who is free from the cankers.
97. The man who is without blind faith, who knows the Uncreated, who has severed all links, destroyed all causes (for karma, good and evil), and thrown out all desires — he, truly, is the most excellent of men.
110. Better it is to live one day virtuous and meditative than to live a hundred years immoral and uncontrolled.
111. Better it is to live one day wise and meditative than to live a hundred years foolish and uncontrolled.
112. Better it is to live one day strenuous and resolute than to live a hundred years sluggish and dissipated.
113. Better it is to live one day seeing the rise and fall of things than to live a hundred years without ever seeing the rise and fall of things.
114. Better it is to live one day seeing the Deathless than to live a hundred years without ever seeing the Deathless.
115. Better it is to live one day seeing the Supreme Truth than to live a hundred years without ever seeing the Supreme Truth.
186-187. There is no satisfying sensual desires, even with the rain of gold coins. For sensual pleasures give little satisfaction and much pain. Having understood this, the wise man finds no delight even in heavenly pleasures. The disciple of the Supreme Buddha delights in the destruction of craving.
197. Happy indeed we live, friendly amidst the hostile. Amidst hostile men we dwell free from hatred.
211. Therefore hold nothing dear, for separation from the dear is painful. There are no bonds for those who have nothing beloved or unloved.
223. Overcome the angry by non-anger; overcome the wicked by goodness; overcome the miser by generosity; overcome the liar by truth.
270. He is not noble who injures living beings. He is called noble because he is harmless towards all living beings.
271-272. Not by rules and observances, not even by much learning, nor by gain of absorption, nor by a life of seclusion, nor by thinking, "I enjoy the bliss of renunciation, which is not experienced by the worldling" should you, O monks, rest content, until the utter destruction of cankers (Arahantship) is reached.
273. Of all the paths the Eightfold Path is the best; of all the truths the Four Noble Truths are the best; of all things passionlessness is the best: of men the Seeing One (the Buddha) is the best.
283. Cut down the forest (lust), but not the tree; from the forest springs fear. Having cut down the forest and the underbrush (desire), be passionless, O monks! 
284. For so long as the underbrush of desire, even the most subtle, of a man towards a woman is not cut down, his mind is in bondage, like the sucking calf to its mother.
285. Cut off your affection in the manner of a man who plucks with his hand an autumn lotus.
299. Those disciples of Gotama ever awaken happily who day and night constantly practice Mindfulness of the Body.
338. Just as a tree, though cut down, sprouts up again if its roots remain uncut and firm, even so, until the craving that lies dormant is rooted out, suffering springs up again and again.
339. The misguided man in whom the thirty-six currents of craving strongly rush toward pleasurable objects, is swept away by the flood of his passionate thoughts.
340. Everywhere these currents flow, and the creeper (of craving) sprouts and grows. Seeing that the creeper has sprung up, cut off its root with wisdom.
394. What is the use of your matted hair, O witless man? What of your garment of antelope's hide? Within you is the tangle (of passion); only outwardly do you cleanse yourself.
Question for Comment: Do you think that the goal of spirituality should involve altering the relationship between the different parts of the mind/brain/personality?