He who applies himself to what is not really an appropriate subject for application, and fails to apply himself to what is, missing the real purpose to grasp after what appeals to him, may well envy the man who does apply himself (Dhammapada 209).
Narada Thera: “Applying oneself to that which should be avoided, not applying oneself to that which should be pursued, and giving up the quest, one who goes after pleasure envies them who exert themselves.”
Here Buddha is speaking of those who knew the right way of life, but who either never tried it or who did for a while and then left it, “giving up the quest” for Nirvana and instead seeking after self-indulgence. They shall always envy those who entered the way and persevered. That envy may be cloaked with sour grapes mockery and bitter resentment, but nevertheless at heart they know the truth: they have turned from reality to the fever dream that can never satisfy, for it has no substance.
In the 1940’s Monica Baldwin, a nun, left her convent and wrote I Leap Over the Wall, which became a bestseller, being avidly read by those who wished to assure themselves that they were wise in not being monastic. (I read it a dozen or so years later and was not convinced she had done the right thing, and I was a Protestant.) She told of her wonderful “freedom,” and some time later wrote a fiction book about how awful it was to be in an enclosed, contemplative order. I read that book, too, and was so inspired to take up monastic life that I would have written her a letter thanking her, but knew it would not be appreciated. This book thrilled me, despite her intentions. Then, six years after I read the book, she wrote an article for Emmanuel magazine entitled The Crux of My Downfall. Yes, she had at last wakened to find herself in prison, not freedom as she had thought for so long. She had fallen, not risen. She wrote the article after having read a book by a priest who had left the priesthood and gotten married, and was writing about how it was all God’s wonderful plan for him. Miss Baldwin knew better because she had slept the same slumber and dreamed the same deadly dream. Here is the conclusion of her article.
“The newspaper photograph of Mr. Davis and the former Miss Henderson after their wedding shows two mature people in whom the ‘natural’ man has won the day. It saddened me; for behind them, in the background, one saw oneself. A dim figure labeled for ever as one of those who, having put their hand to the plough, looked back; came down from the cross, because one lacked the courage and generosity–but above all, the love–that would have kept one there; thief of the holocaust once handed over so utterly to God but which, taken back from its rightful owner, must, now and forever, be looked upon as stolen property.
“Mr. Davis tells us that in human love (and in the freedom that I too so enjoyed for a period) he has found peace and happiness. He has got what he wanted. But even if this should last, there is one moment (whether in this life or the next one cannot know) that I do not envy him. For I have lived through it. It is the moment when the scales at last fall from one’s eyes and one realizes, in agony of heart, the more than shabby meanness of what one has done:
“‘And the Lord turned and looked upon Peter… and he went out and wept, bitterly.’”
Likes and dislikes
Never have anything to do with likes and dislikes. The absence of what one likes is painful, as is the presence of what one dislikes (Dhammapada 210).
Buddha is not just speaking of objects for which we have liking or disliking, but of the need to avoid creating such reactions to any things. There are people who decide to be annoyed at everything; others decide to be hurt by everything; and others decide to be let down, disappointed and disillusioned by everything; and of course many decide to be offended day and night. All four deliberately make themselves miserable by those reactions. In the same way those who habitually classify everything as liked or disliked are setting themselves up for constant emotional upset and anxiety.
Therefore do not take a liking to anything. To lose what one likes is hard, but there are no bonds for those who have no likes and dislikes (Dhammapada 211).
Again, Buddha is speaking of creating in our mind a reaction of desire and pleasure which must in time result in aversion and pain when the liked object is lost or is discovered to not be what we originally thought it was. (“Where is the man/woman I married?” is a common plaint.)
Buddha is not telling us to be indifferent and unreacting like zombies, but is telling us not to artificially create what are only bonds to loss and sorrow. We make those experiences inevitable if we keep on creating them. He sums it up with these words:
From preference arises sorrow, from preference arises fear, but he who is freed from preference has no sorrow and certainly no fear (Dhammapada 212).
Sorrow and fear
From affection arises sorrow, from affection arises fear, but he who is freed from affection has no sorrow and certainly no fear.
From pleasure arises sorrow, from pleasure arises fear, but he who is freed from pleasure has no sorrow and certainly no fear.
From sensuality arises sorrow, from sensuality arises fear, but he who is freed from sensuality has no sorrow and certainly no fear.
From craving arises sorrow, from craving arises fear, but he who is freed from craving has no sorrow and certainly no fear (Dhammapada 213-216).
Here we find our own follies named, for none of these things exist in our hearts until we create them.
The dear one
Well may people hold dear the man who is endowed with morality and insight, who is well established in righteousness, a seer of the truth, and applying himself to his own business [duty] (Dhammapada 217).
This is an excellent list of the qualities of one who is worthy of our esteem. We should look for them in anyone who claims to be seeking for higher awareness, and more importantly we should cultivate them in ourselves. But good as this description is, Buddha goes on to describe one who is not just right thinking and right acting, but who has caught the vision that impels the aspirant onward and upward to the Goal.
He whose longing has been aroused for the indescribable, whose mind has been quickened by it, and whose thought is not attached to sensuality is truly called one who is bound upstream (Dhammapada 218).
This is a description of one who has evolved to the point that internal realities are increasingly occupying his consciousness. As internal things become more real to him, external things become less and less real to him. A quiet and blessed revolution is taking place, not just in his thinking but in his consciousness. He is coming to know–not just assume or philosophize. As a piece of steel is drawn to the magnet, in the same way he is being drawn to the ultimate reality of Nirvana. His mind has become alive to Nirvana, for that is the sole Truth. He is not learning intellectually, but awakening spiritually. This being so, attachment to outer life is fading away in proportion to the emergence of inner experience gained through meditation. Such a one is a stream-enterer, one who is truly on the right path to Nirvana, and who will attain it if he continues without slacking or deviating.
Beyond this world
When a man who has been away a long time at last comes home safely from far away, his family, friends and acquaintances rejoice to see him back. In the same way, when a man who has done good goes from this world to the next, his good deeds receive him like relations welcoming a loved one back again (Dhammapada 219, 220).
In contrast to the childish egotism of “we will all be reunited with our loved ones over there,” Buddha tells the truth: at death–just as at birth–we meet our actions, our karma. For that is all we ever have. The dear man is met by his good deeds and by their power lifted to higher regions beyond the compulsion of earthly rebirth. And from those pure abodes of which Buddha frequently spoke he is enabled to attain Nirvana through unbroken cultivation of consciousness.
Next article in the Dhammapada for Awakening: Anger