Fear of death is the most widespread and deep-seated fear within the hearts of the human race. All religions pay a great deal of attention to the subjects of death and immortality, and they all claim to have the way to avoid death and enter into immortality. These ways consist of avoiding wrong action and cultivating good action, faith in and worship of their gods, and material contribution.
Buddha stands in contrast to all this. As any responsible spiritual teacher would do, he places the matter solely upon the individual. First he sets forth the relevant question:
Who shall gain victory over this earth together with the domain of Yama [ruler of the underworld] with its gods? Who shall find the well-proclaimed Dhammapada [Path of Truth], even as the expert gardener selects the choicest flower? (Dhammapada 44).
This world and the next
To begin with Buddha lets us know that there is no mastery of a future world until we attain mastery in this world. It is the failing of every major religion on the earth to despise this earth in some degree, whether spoken or not. Everyone is so intent on getting beyond this world that they ignore its absolute necessity, and this includes popular Hinduism, which is a major offender in this matter. The result is a guaranteed return here. “This old world of sin and sorrow” happens to be as much the kingdom of God as the highest spiritual world. It is our ignorance that produces the sin and sorrow, not the world. That is like calling the weapon of a murderer “a vicious killer.” But we are just that crazy. Buddha points the way to sanity.
The conqueror of both life and death is he who will seek and find the path of dharma, using his intelligent discrimination to distinguish true dharma from the false, “even as the expert gardener selects the choicest flower.” The Venerable Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates this verse in the following manner: “Who will penetrate this earth and this realm of death with all its gods? Who will ferret out the well-taught Dhamma-saying, as the skillful flower-arranger the flower?”
To “penetrate” something means to know it thoroughly, and by that wisdom to master it. Here, too, we see that to minimally live in this world and minimally deal with it–an ideal also set forth by nearly all religions–is to miss the mark completely. We must comprehend this world. And to do that we must diligently seek–literally ferret out–the way of dharma. Then we must put ourself in control and order things accordingly, “as the skillful flower-arranger the flower.” This is not the picture of some pious nitwit proudly proclaiming his ignorance and declaring his total dependence on God or gods. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna tells Arjuna to take refuge in God, but also he tells him to stand up and fight. The two go together. One without the other is nonsense, producing chaos.
And the winner is…
Who, then, will conquer?
The disciple will gain victory over the earth and the realm of Yama together with its gods. The true disciple will indeed find the well-proclaimed Dhammapada, even as the expert gardener selects the choicest flower (Dhammapada 45).
“Disciple” has a lot of connotations, most of them negative and erroneous as applied in the religions that seek to dominate their adherents. The Venerable Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates it “learner-on-the-path” which gives a much better idea than mere “disciple.” For it is the path itself that teaches the worthy disciple as he applies what he has learned from a worthy teacher.
Recognizing this corporeal body to be evanescent as foam, comprehending this worldly nature as a mirage, and having broken the flower-arrows of Mara, the true aspirant will go beyond the realm of the Evil One (Dhammapada 46).
What characterizes a learner-on-the-path? Three major traits.
Recognizing this corporeal body to be evanescent as foam. Older people who have not seen through the world envy the young. Naturally, the state of health and the prospect of years ahead in which to attain goals is desirable, but the terrible delusions and illusions of youth far outweigh that. One of the worst blindnesses of youth is the heedlessness of death, the baseless feeling of assured life and well-being in the future. Long ago the sages of India stated that one of the most amazing things about human beings is their inability to grasp their own mortality although they see others dying around them. This of course comes from an intuitional grasp of our innate immortality, but the placement is mistaken. Only the Self is immortal. The incredible fragility of life must be grasped by those who would learn on the path, not in a pessimistic manner but in a realism that cannot be clouded by false confidence. Think of all we accomplish when we realize we have little time in which to do it. Awareness of the brevity and fragility of life can be positive if it spurs us on to wisely-directed action.
Comprehending this worldly nature as a mirage. Life is not only fragile, it is insubstantial, even illusory. The right attitude toward the world and its nature, as well as the earthly aspects of our own being, is absolutely necessary for us, and a simplistic view will not suffice–it will get us into major difficulties.
In India we find two conflicting statements: 1) the world is real; 2) the world is unreal. And so the wrangle goes on, and we are supposed to choose which we think is right. I can help you on this. They are both wrong and they are both right.
In our modern times we have many advantages over the ancient philosophers because a great deal of our modern science and technology actually makes easy the knots they found so hard to loosen and eliminate. One of our most inspired examples is the motion picture. It is real and it is not real. The filmmakers and film students and film historians take motion pictures quite seriously. Yet what is a motion picture but a series of images that do not move but appear to move and speak?
It was motion pictures that revealed the unreal nature of “reality” to me when I was just a child of seven or eight. First I noticed that at the start of the movie I would hear the sound coming from speakers on the walls at either side, but in just a few minutes I would hear the sound coming from the screen, and not just from the screen but from the projected images of the characters that were speaking. This was obviously an illusion created by my mind, and it disturbed me somewhat. Next I saw that when spoked wheels (as on a stagecoach) turned rapidly they appeared to stand still and then begin to move backwards. Again, an obvious illusion showing that the senses were not reliable in perceiving reality. The most amazing thing was my discovery that the perception of passing time was completely subjective. One evening I liked a motion picture so much I decided to stay on and watch it a second time. To my bewilderment the picture seemed to take only half the time it had the first time through. Again, it was all in my head–an idea I did not like very much, because everything was then seen as unstable and, as I say, mostly subjective.
By studying our experience of motion pictures (and now television) we can get some idea of the unreality of “reality,” understanding that even an illusion is real. Reality is unreal and unreality is real! No ancient sage of India ever demonstrated this as clearly as Edison’s Wonder.
Our cooperation with and creation of illusion is also shown by motion pictures. We know it is all illusion, yet we react as though we were witnessing something real. We respond with a range of emotions, liking and disliking characters and situations that are nothing but light patterns on a screen. (And how profound is the insight that the relationship between picture and screen perfectly mirrors Purusha and Prakriti, samsara and the atman, matter and consciousness.) Even stranger, no matter how many times we see a movie, we still react to it. Although we know exactly what the outcome will be, we find ourselves involuntarily feeling tense, even anxious, about what may happen. We laugh as much at a comic situation as we did the first time–maybe even more–and even jump at a no-longer-unexpected development. Why? Because it is the nature of the mind to fool and be fooled. We truly are Dwellers In The Mirage, and voluntarily so. So we not only come to realize that the world is ultimately a mirage, so is the mind that perceives it. The capacity of the mind to create a world in dream drives the point even deeper home. A dream is totally unreal and yet is real at the same time.
Having broken the flower-arrows of Mara. Cosmic Delusion hooks us like the gullible fish takes the tasty bait unaware of the horrible steel beneath. If you have ever seen a fish that has not just been hooked in the mouth but has completely swallowed the hook then you have some idea of the consequences of being struck by the flower-arrows of Mara. How we like being hit! Poor fools, we just keep right on, “desiring desires.” In India they cite the example of camels that keep chewing on thorns however much their mouths are pierced and bleeding. But “He who abandons all desires attains peace, acts free from longing, indifferent to possessions and free from egotism” (Bhagavad Gita 2:71).
Buddha does not speak of someone who has learned to evade the flower-arrows or who has become impervious to them. Rather he speaks of those who have broken the arrows. That is, they have rendered them ineffectual and, practically speaking, non-existent. He has destroyed them. “Sense-objects turn away from the abstinent, yet the taste for them remains. But the taste also turns away from him who has seen the Supreme” (Bhagavad Gita 2:59). Thus–and only thus–he has gone beyond the realm of death. He has gone “where the King of Death [Yama] cannot see,” as Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates it.
“When he leaves behind all the desires of the mind, contented in the Self by the Self, then he is said to be steady in wisdom. He whose mind is not agitated in misfortunes, freed from desire for pleasures, from whom passion (raga), fear and anger have departed, steady in thought–such a man is said to be a sage. He who is without desire in all situations, encountering this or that, pleasant or unpleasant, not rejoicing or disliking–his understanding (wisdom) stands firm” (Bhagavad Gita 2:55-57). “With attraction and aversion eliminated, even though moving amongst objects of sense, by self-restraint the self-controlled attains tranquility. In tranquility the cessation of all sorrows is produced for him. Truly, for the tranquil-minded the buddhi immediately becomes steady” (Bhagavad Gita 2:64-65).
This is a happy picture, but truth is both happy and sad. So Buddha shows us another view in conclusion, perhaps because it is the situation of the majority of human beings–and of us if we are not vigilant. Worthy teachers do not hesitate to tell us or show us what we may not like, but which must be changed if we would pass from death unto life. Here are his words:
The hedonist who seeks only the blossoms of sensual delights, who indulges only in such pleasures, him the Evil One carries off, as a flood carries off the inhabitants of a sleeping village (Dhammapada 47).
What a horrible truth! We can be carried off by Death while sleeping and dreaming just the opposite. “It shall even be as when an hungry man dreameth, and, behold, he eateth; but he awaketh, and his soul is empty: or as when a thirsty man dreameth, and, behold, he drinketh; but he awaketh, and, behold, he is faint, and his soul hath appetite” (Isaiah 29:8). It is worldly life and not religion that is the opium of the people, though of course worldly religion is part of the poppy field. There is more:
The hedonist who seeks only the blossoms of sensual delights, whose mind is agitated, him the Evil One (Mara) brings under his sway even before his carnal desires are satiated (Dhammapada 48).
Now this is the truth. Delusion never really comes through or pays off. Oh, yes, just like crooked gamblers, for the first few times the forces of Mara let us “win.” Then, when we are addicted, the sorrow sets in. All we really end up with is addiction and the inevitable frustration of that addiction. What an awful trap, and what an awful willingness to be trapped. Nevertheless, if we hearken to Buddha’s wisdom and follow it we shall transcend delusion and death.
The holy “bee”
A holy man [muni] should behave in the village like a bee which takes its food from a flower without hurting its appearance or its scent (Dhammapada 49).
It is generally assumed that this is an instruction for the wandering monk that begs for his food, telling him that he should not take advantage of those who provide his food by putting an undue burden on them, that he should take a little from many places rather than expect one or two people to provide him with all his food, unless some specifically ask him to take their whole meal from them.
But considering that the four hundred and twenty-two other verses are philosophical in nature and applicable to all types of aspirants, I think it is safe to interpret this verse differently. It seems to me that this verse is telling us how to pass through the world, benefiting from it in many ways–especially in the fulfilling of karma and dharma–and burdening it in no way. The great Mughal emperor, Akhbar, in 1601 A.D. built a gate at Fatehpur Sikri on which he had written in Persian: “Jesus, son of Mary, said: The world is a Bridge, pass over it, but build no houses upon it.” The Bhagavad Gita puts it this way: “He who agitates not the world, and whom the world agitates not, who is freed from joy, envy, fear and distress–he is dear to me” (Bhagavad Gita 12:15). And Saint Paul: “The world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Galatians 6:14). These fully support the picture given in the translation of the Venerable Thanissaro Bhikkhu: “As a bee–without harming the blossom, its color, its fragrance–takes its nectar and flies away: so should the sage go through a village.” We should pass through this world without injuring or exploiting it in any way. And especially we should keep moving on, not trying to settle down at any point or trying to carry any of it along with us.
The right focus
It is not the shortcomings of others, nor what others have done or not done that one should think about, but what one has done or not done oneself (Dhammapada 50).
The meaning is obvious, so I need only point out that Buddha is telling us that we ought to think about our actions–not to egotistically brood, but to examine and learn how better to act or abstain from action. We are not to shrug off our past actions without a thought and move on heedlessly. This also means that we must ponder our shortcomings so they will not be repeated.
Actions alone matter
Like a fine flower, beautiful to look at but without scent, fine words are fruitless in a man who does not act in accordance with them.
Like a fine flower, beautiful to look at and scented too, fine words bear fruit in a man who acts well in accordance with them (Dhammapada 51, 52).
High ideals are nothing if they are not lived out by those who speak or advocate them. There is simply no value in theory that is not carried out successfully in practice. What a pity that Buddha needs to point this out, but he certainly does. Look at politics, for proof.
Just as one can make a lot of garlands from a heap of flowers, so man, subject to birth and death as he is, should make himself a lot of good karma (Dhammapada 53).
Human beings can turn any wisdom into foolishness, and karma no doubt tops the list. Karma is proof that we have the power to completely create our life situations, but nearly everybody acts like it is some kind of imposed fate. We easily say “my karma” while ignoring the implication: it is ours, not an external factor, and it is totally under our control. It exists only because we make it exist. It is always right in our hands, and nowhere else.
“Just as from a heap of flowers many garland strands can be made, even so one born and mortal should do–with what’s born and is mortal–many a skillful thing” (Thanissaro Bhikkhu).
“As many a garland can be strung from a mass of flowers, so should mortal man born in this world perform many wholesome deeds” (Harischandra Kaviratna).
The power of goodness
The scent of flowers cannot travel against the wind, and nor can that of sandalwood or jasmine, but the fragrance of the good does travel against the wind, and a good man perfumes the four quarters of the earth (Dhammapada 54).
World history bears this out. Nero, Hitler, Stalin and suchlike are ugly memories, but Krishna, Buddha, and Jesus are living presences, changing and preserving lives. How many times do the corrupt and degraded exhort the good and true to “wake up and see how things are” and “go with the flow.” But Buddha assures us that the good absolutely are able to move against the flow and exert great influence around them. History also shows how much a single person can change the world, altering the course of culture and history.
Sandalwood, tagara, lotus, jasmine–the fragrance of virtue is unrivalled by such kinds of perfume.
The perfume of tagara and sandalwood is of little enough power, while the supreme fragrance, that of the virtuous, reaches even up to the devas (Dhammapada 55, 56).
There is no ceiling to the power and glory of virtue.
Fear has no place in spiritual life, although caution and wariness often do. Yet most religion thrives on fear, especially in relation to evil. The three Western religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam keep their adherents in line by threatening them with the power of Satan or the wrath of God if they do not follow along. But Buddha has no need for such manipulative mythology. Instead he assures us that:
Perfect of virtue, always acting with recollection, and liberated by final realization–Mara does not know the path such people travel (Dhammapada 57).
In other words, evil cannot even figure out what the virtuous are doing. Only those whose minds and hearts live in the realm of metaphysical evil will be bothered by it. What if it is their karma from the past? Virtue will dissolve it. This is another major liberating truth of Buddha’s teaching as contrasted with the modern idea that karma is some inexorable entity that must be worked out or fulfilled. Buddha assures us we can dispel karma along with the ignorance and defilement that produced it. Again: we can undo what we have done.
Saint Paul told his disciples: “In the midst of a crooked and perverse nation [generation] ye shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15). But Buddha gives a much more colorful picture, saying:
Like a beautiful, fragrant lotus, springing up on a pile of rubbish thrown out on the highway, so a disciple of the Enlightened One stands out among rubbish-like and blinded ordinary people by virtue of his wisdom (Dhammapada 58, 59).
Oh, oh! Can we believe that “the Compassionate Buddha” said such harsh words? Yes, indeed. He had compassion for human suffering, but not for human stupidity. He says flat out that those who follow the Buddha Way, whatever their religious label or lack thereof, are exquisite blossoms of enlightenment in contrast to the “rubbish-like and blinded ordinary people.” It is a simple matter of wisdom, of those who have it and those who do not. May the wisdom of Buddha be made ours so we, too, can bloom.
Next article in the Dhammapada for Awakening: The Fool