The Pali title of this section is Niraya Vagga. Some translate it “hell” and others translate it “a woeful state.” Some verses can only mean an after death state, but others can certainly apply to the future in this life or in another incarnation, as well. This should be kept in mind.
Perhaps more important is the need to face the fact that Buddha talked about hell–not in the way of Western religion, but certainly as a reality of which we should be aware. I mention this because in the West so many people think that they can hide in Buddhism from “Judeo-Christian” moral principles and the belief in heaven and hell as consequences of keeping or breaking those rules. They fool no one but themselves. Morality, heaven, and hell are facts understood by all religions, however differently their presentation or attitude regarding them may be. A true disciple of Buddha will not try to blind himself to any part of Buddha’s teaching. So here we go.
“He who speaks untruth goes to hell, as does he who, having done something, says, ‘I didn’t do it.’ Men of ignoble behavior, they both end up the same in the next world” (Dhammapada 306)
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: “He goes to hell, the one who asserts what didn’t take place, as does the one who, having done, says, ‘I didn’t.’ Both–low-acting people–there become equal: after death, in the world beyond.”
Basically, lying in any form leads to hell or a miserable rebirth. This is the severest injunction against lying that I have found in any scripture, East or West. The yogis of India believe that speaking the truth literally strengthens and develops the subtle bodies–including that of the mind and the life force in general. Speaking untruth does the opposite, so a liar weakens both mind and body. A habitual liar is actually destroying his body and mind in this life and in future ones.
Buddha does not speak so forcefully because he “hates” lying, but out of mercy for the ignorant who do not realize the terrible effects of falsehood. This is what marks out the morality of East and West. The East enunciates moral principles to warn people and spare them suffering. The West thunders at them thinking to echo God and his anger and sure punishment of sinners. The motives are directly opposite and based on opposing concepts of both man and God. I cast my lot with the East, but again affirm that there is no way to avoid karmic retribution, whether we think we are being punished or merely experiencing the law of action and reaction. The behavior must be the same, even if for different reasons. As the song says: “There’s no hiding place down there.” Only Up There, away from it all.
“Many of those dressed in the yellow robe are evil and unrestrained, and the evil end up in hell because of their evil deeds” (Dhammapada 307).
This is extremely clear, but I am afraid that many monastics in the various religions do not realize the truth of it. In Eastern Christianity they say: “Lower than a demon is a fallen monk”–but what if they had nothing to fall from to begin with? So many take up monastic life for personal advantage and material gain–it cannot be denied.
Only a few hours before coming to this verse for comment I was vividly remembering two truly unsavory Buddhist monastics–one a man and the other a woman–whom I saw at a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant. They came in, ushered by fawning groupies who began running around making sure everything was perfect for them–and as usual with that sort, just making confusion and disorder. Nevertheless, the “jewels in the lotus” were gratified to see how anxious their dupes were to serve them. The outfits of both were a combination of Buddhist monastic dress and “designer” accessories of varying degrees of pretentious uselessness. They began divesting themselves of these accretions as they stared hostilely at me and the monks I was with. I assumed they were used to being the only monastics and claiming all the attention. Fortunately, a few minutes’ scrutiny convinced them that we were just a rag-tag bunch without enough sense or savvy to be competition. So they settled back to ordering regally and quietly bullying their groupies over this and that. The groupies were in apprehensive delight at such attention.
Buddha had just such in mind when he spoke this verse. There is a spiritual Mafia, and he meant them.
“It is better to swallow a red-hot, flaming iron ball than for an unrestrained and immoral person to eat the alms food of the land” (Dhammapada 308).
One thing that has deeply impressed me about authentic Buddhist monastics is their extreme care in spending the money given to them by the laity. They never spend a mite on something not needed, and they are scrupulous custodians of material objects given to them. This noble behavior puts to shame those who are not so conscientious. Even worse, of course, are the immoral and undisciplined who by wearing the robes insult and dishonor the Buddha and the Sangha. Them I have seen, too.
Buddha shows us the severity of the karma of those hypocrites who plunder the well-meaning and pure-hearted who trust them. Certainly, the merit of those good people is as great as though they gave to the Buddha himself, but the demerit of those false monastics is colossal.
“The thoughtless man who consorts with another man’s wife encounters four things–accumulation of demerit, disturbed sleep, thirdly disgrace, and hell fourth.
“Accumulation of demerit, a bad rebirth and the slight pleasure of a frightened man and a frightened woman–while the authorities impose a severe penalty too. Therefore a man should not consort with another man’s wife” (Dhammapada 309, 310).
What more is to be said? An evil present begets an evil future.
“In the same way that a wrongly handled blade of grass will cut one’s hand, so a badly fulfilled life in religion will drag one down to hell” (Dhammapada 311).
Narada Thera: “Just as kusha grass, wrongly grasped, cuts the hand, even so the monkhood wrongly handled drags one to a woeful state.”
Having cut myself with kusha grass (it feels like the worst possible paper cut), I understand the simile. You must handle kusha grass just right–or else. Kusha grass is extremely valuable because it insulates from cold and damp. This benefits both the meditator and the sleeper. I have slept on damp ground in the Indian winter and been warm and dry because I was lying on kusha mats. But the yogi must be careful how he handles his treasure. In the same way monastic life is a great boon, a protection, and a fortress of peace if lived rightly. If not, it becomes the opposite, and the destruction of the unworthy.
“Lax behavior, broken observances and dubious chastity–these are of no great benefit” (Dhammapada 312).
Buddha was aware that many would be half-hearted in their spiritual life–not outright transgressing but always being borderline and “iffy” in all they did. Not bad people, but not good, either. Jesus, having studied the words of Buddha, perhaps had this verse in mind when he said: “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:15, 16). Not an appealing prospect.
Such people are so mediocre and meaningless in their life that they do not incur the terrible karmic consequences Buddha has been warning about. Instead they muddle through this life and their future ones, just being nothing much at all.
Do worthy deeds in a worthy manner
“If it ought to be done, then do it; apply yourself to it strenuously. A lax man of religion just spreads even more dust” (Dhammapada 313).
Here Buddha goes directly to the heart of most aspirant’s problems: laxity. If we grasp how crucial it is to seek enlightenment, we should devote our entire life to it, making it the prime purpose of our whole life. Those who just mosey along the path, careful that they take no risks and incur no inconvenience, will never amount to anything. Worse, they will have created the habit of carelessness and neglect that may reach into future lives and retard their progress–or stop it altogether.
If you ever find yourself saying about any aspect of spiritual life: “That is for monks”–know that you are in danger. I have never heard those words spoken in honesty. They are a tragic denial of spiritual realities and the kind of lie that Buddha says in verse six leads to “hell.” It is as harmful to say: “I don’t need to do it” when we should, as it is to say: “I didn’t do it,” when we did. The Buddha Way is the same for all.
Avoid the bad, do the good
“A bad action is best left undone. One is punished later for a bad action. But a good deed is best done, for which one will not be punished for doing it” (Dhammapada 314).
Narada Thera: “An evil deed is better not done: a misdeed torments one hereafter. Better it is to do a good deed, after doing which one does not grieve.”
Karma is the law–pure and simple.
“Guard yourself like a frontier town, guarded inside and out. Do not let a moment slip you by. Those who have missed their opportunity grieve for it when they end up in hell” (Dhammapada 315).
Harischandra Kaviratna: “As a frontier city, well-guarded within and without, so guard yourself. Do not lose a single moment, for those who let opportunity slip away do indeed grieve when they are born in the woeful state (hell).”
This is an excellent simile. A frontier town is in danger of being invaded by foreign forces. In our true nature we are Buddhas, but we have been invaded–and occupied–for so long by worldly ways and attitudes that we think to seek Buddhahood is some kind of astounding and impossible thing–that it “goes against nature” when just the opposite is true.
We must be guarded inwardly and outwardly against all that is not compatible with who we really are, which in any way dims our awareness of the upanishadic dictum: TAT TWAM ASI–“That Thou art.” Unless we are vigilant against alien invasion (and continued occupation), we render our aspirations completely useless. That is why there are so many Buddhists and so few Buddhas, so many Christians and so few Christs.
Swami Sivananda wrote a song that said: “It is difficult to get a human birth; so do your very best to realize in this birth….” Every moment–literally every waking breath–is an opportunity not to be missed if we would not live in regret later on, whether in this world or another.
“Ashamed of what is not a matter for shame, and not ashamed of what is, by holding to wrong views people go to a bad rebirth.
“Seeing danger where there is no danger, and not seeing danger where there is, by holding to wrong views people go to a bad rebirth.
“Seeing a fault in what is not a fault, and not seeing a fault in what is, by holding to wrong views people go to a bad rebirth” (Dhammapada 316-318).
Elsewhere Buddha has said that the ability to feel shame is a sign of awakening. But the feeling must be appropriate. We must know what is laudable and what is reprehensible–in the perspective of a Buddha, not a bound and ignorant samsarin. Consider how may people think that taking up spiritual life and discipline will be a danger (“you can go crazy, you know…people will think you are a kook…what if it’s all a fantasy…”), but that living in a heedless and degraded state will be safe. And how many see all kinds of faults in “organized religion” and its members, but none in worldly endeavors and associations or the deluded people whose company they cultivate and value. Turning from the medicine of immortality they frantically gulp down the poison of false identity and foolish action. They are “inclusive” and “non-judgmental”–but only in relation to evil. The good they shun and denigrate. What, then, can await them in this or any world?
“Recognizing a fault as a fault, and what is not a fault as not one, by holding to right views people go to a good rebirth” (Dhammapada 319).
This is why Buddha avoided abstruse metaphysics and advocated simple, good, common sense. To know the good as good and the evil as evil is a sure path to the Good and the True.
Next article in the Dhammapada for Awakening: The Elephant
Chapters in the Dhammapada for Awakening:
Visit our e-library page for Free Downloads of this and other ebooks in various formats.
Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary