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The Bhikkhu

Chapter 25 of the Dhammapada for Awakening

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Since the last verses of the previous section pertained somewhat to monks, this section will deal them them in depth. “Bhikkhu” literally means “one who lives on alms,” but of course that includes anyone who lives on the charity of another, including beggars. So lest monks should pride themselves on their poverty and non-possession–something they have in common with many unfortunate people, though theirs is voluntary–Buddha will describe what a real, worthy bhikkhu is.


Restraint of the eyes is good. So is restraint of the ears. Restraint of the nose is good, and so is restraint of the palate.

Restraint of the body is good. So is restraint of speech. Restraint of mind is good, and so is restraint in everything. The bhikkhu who is restrained in everything, is freed from all suffering (Dhammapada 360, 361).

This is very clear and needs no comment.


Restrained of hand, restrained of foot, restrained of speech and restrained in his highest faculty [the mind], with his joy turned inwards, his mind still, alone and contented–that is what they call a bhikkhu (Dhammapada 362).

“Restrained of foot” means one who does not wander around aimlessly impelled by a restless and idle mind. As the Gita says: “He whose happiness is within, whose delight is within, whose illumination is within: that yogi, identical in being with Brahman, attains Brahmanirvana” (Bhagavad Gita 5:24). The true monk is a self-contained person, not a “swell guy” or a “good mixer” with “a great personality.” Unhappily, these “personality kids” abound in every monastic tradition, but they are parasites, not monks. Non-monastic spiritual parasites love them, however. Venerable in every sense of the word, the genuine monk lives away from “society” and is contented–for it is discontent that drives a monk out of his retirement into “the swim of things” and turns him into a performing monkey for the delight of the ignorant and anti-spiritual. As the Gita also says: “Frequenting (living in) secluded places, having distaste for crowds of people (association with many people” (Bhagavad Gita 13:10), is the sign of true knowledge. There is no other way to true contentment (santosha).

Good to hear

When a bhikkhu is restrained of tongue, quotes wise sayings, and is peaceful, expounding both letter and spirit–his speech is good to hear (Dhammapada 363).

This, too, is clear, but I would like to point out that Buddha mentions that a worthy teacher is peaceful, he does not engage in arguments or polemics of any kind, but speaks calmly and reasonably. He teaches but never entertains. Rather, his speech is quiet and straightforward, devoid of theatrics, cuteness or cleverness.


With joy in the Teaching, delighting in the Teaching, and pondering over the Teaching, the bhikkhu who remembers the Teaching does not fall away from the [true] Teaching (Dhammapada 364).

Thanissaro Bhikkhu: “Dharma his dwelling, Dharma his delight, a monk pondering Dharma, calling Dharma to mind, does not fall away from true Dharma [saddhamma].”

Dharma is the total concern of the worthy monk–it occupies his thoughts and actions, filling the entire horizon of his mind and life. Such a monk is the embodiment of dharma (dharmamayi).


One should not underestimate what one has got, and one should not live envying others. A bhikkhu who envies others does not achieve stillness of mind in meditation (Dhammapada 365).

Envy is a form of identity with materiality, a poison generated by the selfish and greedy ego.


Even if he has only received a little, if a bhikkhu does not look down on what he has received, even the devas praise him, pure of life and determined as he is (Dhammapada 366).

Such a monk as this is the opposite of the one described in sutra 365.


When a man is without self-identification with any object or idea, and does not grieve for what does not exist–that is what is called a bhikkhu (Dhammapada 367).

This sutra can be understood in a broad way and in a more defined way, both being valid.

First the broad way. It is necessary for us to cease identification with anything–body, birth, nationality, social situation, associations and even religious identity. Sometimes when people would approach Sri Ramana Maharshi to ask his blessing to become a monk, he would reply: “Why take on another false identity?” Obviously he saw that instead of really being a monk they would egotistically pride themselves on being a monk–would only look like a monk, but not be one at all. Buddha often warned against the dangers of self-concepts based on either externals or internals (such as emotions, aspirations, personality, etc.). To define ourselves in any terms whatsoever is a grave error. Jesus said: “According to your faith be it unto you” (Matthew 9:29), meaning that however we think of ourselves, so shall it be. We are constantly limiting ourselves in this manner. So Buddha is telling us to have no self-identification with anything material or intellectual. Next he urges us to forget all about what either does not or cannot be–just as did the great Greek philosopher Epictetus. That is why the Zen Master Seung Sung often said the two profound words: “Make Nothing.” It is self-torment to agitate ourselves over what is not, just as much as it is to make ourselves miserable over what is in the present, including the fear of something either coming into being or going out of being in the future. Basically, we should care about nothing except our quest for Nirvana. Then we will be worthy disciples of Buddha.

Now the narrower way. Buddha is telling us that we must never desire or reach out for any object or for the fulfillment of an aspiration. This would also include reforming society or launching a movement of any kind, however beneficial or wise it may seem to be. We need to focus on our life and let others live theirs. People censured Buddha for being standoffish and uncaring because he lived in the forest and never went around preaching and converting people. Instead he only taught those who sought him out and asked for wisdom. (On occasion he would go to places where his intuition had shown him there were worthy people, but even then he waited until they asked him for teaching.) So he followed his own counsels.

This sutra also tells us to not only be indifferent to external objects or intellectual ideas, but also to not wish that something would come to exist or occur that is not presently existing. We should be detached from all things and not hope for others to come into being. Further, the loss or disappearance of something should be a matter of indifference to us. The wise person neither holds on to or reaches out toward anything. The Bhagavad Gita, too, advises us to not consider anything either desirable or undesirable. We should see things as they are and let them be as they are.

We must keep in mind that such principles as these are not being presented to everyone, only to those who have decided to seek for enlightenment. Society has its own ways, contrary to the Buddha Way, and that, too, should not matter to us. Our assurance should be the next sutra: The bhikkhu who lives full of goodwill, with faith in the teaching of the Buddha–he will reach the place of peace, the satisfaction of stilling the functions of the mind (Dhammapada 368).

Empty the boat

Empty the boat, bhikkhu. Empty it will sail lightly for you. When you have cut away desire and aversion, you will come to nirvana as a result (Dhammapada 369).

All relative existence is known as “the ocean of samsara,” and our aspiration is to cross over it and attain the permanent peace of Nirvana. Our body and mind are the “boat” in which we sail on the samsaric sea. If we do not empty it of everything, its weight will cause it to founder and sink, and we will drown–just as we have done so many lives before. The empty boat sails lightly, but any unnecessary objects will hinder its progress and ultimately sink it. Cutting away desire and aversion is the quick way to reach the other shore and end samsara forever. That is why in the Guild of the Master Jesus, the Christian mystery school of Dion Fortune, one of the prayers included the phrase: “Teach us to travel light, as do all who travel on the Path.”

Crossed over

Cut away the five (lower fetters), abandon the five (remaining fetters), and then develop the five (faculties). The bhikkhu who has transcended the five fetters is said to be “crossed over the flood” (Dhammapada 370).

Everybody has their own list of possible factors listed here. Instead of giving mine, here is the translation of Harischandra Kaviratna and his comments:

“‘(Of the fetters) cut off the five, renounce the five, and (of the virtues) cultivate the five. He who has gone beyond the five attachments is called a bhikkhu who has crossed the stream.’

“The five fetters that one should cut off are: self-allusion, doubt, clinging to mere rules and rituals, sensuous craving and ill will.

“The five fetters to be renounced are: craving for material existence, craving for immaterial existence, conceit, restlessness, and ignorance.

“To destroy the fetters, the vigilant monk has to cultivate the five virtues: faith, mindfulness, energy, concentration, and wisdom.

“The five attachments are: lust, hatred, delusion, pride, and false views.”

Meditate, or…

Meditate, bhikkhu, do not be careless, do not let your mind take pleasure in the senses. Do not have to swallow the iron ball for being careless. Do not have to cry out, “This is terrible” as you burn (Dhammapada 371).

Harischandra Kaviratna: “Meditate, O monk! Be not heedless! Let not your mind wander among the pleasures of the senses, lest through your heedlessness you swallow the red-hot iron ball (in hell) and cry out, as you thus burn–‘This is suffering.’” Thanissaro Bhikkhu: “Practice jhana, monk, and don’t be heedless. Don’t take your mind roaming in sensual strands. Don’t swallow–heedless–the ball of iron aflame. Don’t burn and complain: ‘This is pain.’”

Each of these translations gives a different nuance of meaning, so I have included them. But the basics are in all three.

  1. It is made clear that those who do not meditate regularly and deeply will be heedless in mind and careless in their life. It is inescapable.
  2. The mind must never graze in the pasture of the senses, but be ever disciplined and restrained from wandering in their poisonous attractions and distractions. Here, too, heedlessness will be the result.
  3. Those who are careless and heedless will “swallow the red-hot iron ball” of samsaric existence and inevitably suffer.
  4. There is no virtue in just saying “ouch” as we burn inwardly, having swallowed the hot iron ball, just as there is no virtue in the sinner doing nothing more than admitting or confessing his sin. Instead we must expel the burning instrument of our torment, just as the sinner must forsake his sin. Otherwise there will never be anything but suffering.

Another thing we should keep aware of is the fact that, as Buddha said, suffering has a cause. All our suffering is directly caused by us, not by “fate” or by other persons or any kind of “accident.” There is no such thing as “life’s lottery” or “luck” good or bad. Our misery is the reaction to our own past action. Certainly we should feel sympathy for those who suffer, but the only thing that will really help them is their learning the way to end suffering. Just being comforted by us will accomplish nothing in the long run, though sometimes that is really all we can do for those who are not evolved enough to comprehend the law of karma and live accordingly.

Meditation and wisdom

There is no meditation without wisdom, and there is no wisdom without meditation. When a man has both meditation and wisdom, he is indeed close to nirvana (Dhammapada 372).

This is as profound as it is brief, and should never be forgotten. A person can gain great intellectual facility and be a living encyclopedia of facts and philosophical theorems, but he will have no wisdom if he does not meditate, and he will not take up meditation if he has no wisdom. Obviously they are simultaneous, a matter of profound evolutionary opening. Moreover, wisdom will fade away from the mind of those that slack off in meditation, and lacking wisdom they will not realize the need to return to their former discipline and intentness on the meditative life. That is why Saint Paul wrote: “We ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip” (Hebrews 2:1). Another equally legitimate translation is: “It behooves us to attend more earnestly to the things we have heard, lest perhaps we ourselves should slip away” as so many have done before us, easily sliding down the slippery slope of carelessness and inattention.

The good news is that those who cultivate and increase their meditation and wisdom are close to Nirvana.

Alone and at peace

The bhikkhu who has retired to a lonely abode, who has calmed his mind, who perceives the dharma clearly, experiences a joy transcending that of men (Dhammapada 373–Narada Thera).

This sutra reminds me of The Way of a Pilgrim, when the pilgrim had the chance to live for a few months in an abandoned, half-ruined hut in an isolated forest: “Then I shut myself up in the hut. Ah! How delighted I was, how calmly happy when I crossed the threshold of that lonely retreat, or rather, that tomb! It seemed to me like a magnificent palace filled with every consolation and delight. With tears of rapture I gave thanks to God and said to myself, Here in this peace and quietude I must seriously set to work at my task [of interior cultivation] and beseech God to give me light.”

So it ever is with those who wisely separate themselves from the hamster wheel of society and the hamsters that run in it all day long, getting nowhere and never knowing the truth of their situation. Turning within and bringing peace to their mind, they come to understand the real nature and purpose of dharma. Then they will have a joy inconceivable to others. The Taittiriya Upanishad attempts to convey the nature of that joy in a passage I quoted regarding sutra 27, but it will be good for us to look at it again in relation to this sutra as well:

“Consider the lot of a young man, noble, well-read, intelligent, strong, healthy, with all the wealth of the world at his command. Assume that he is happy, and measure his joy as one unit.

“One hundred times that joy is one unit of the joy of Gandharvas: but no less joy than Gandharvas has the seer to whom the Self has been revealed, and who is without craving.

“One hundred times the joy of Gandharvas is one unit of the joy of celestial Gandharvas: but no less joy than celestial Gandharvas has the sage to whom the Self has been revealed, and who is without craving.

“One hundred times the joy of celestial Gandharvas is one unit of the joy of the Pitris in their paradise: but no less joy than the Pitris in their paradise has the sage to whom the Self has been revealed, and who is without craving.

“One hundred times the joy of the Pitris in their paradise is one unit of the joy of the Devas: but no less joy than the Devas has the sage to whom the Self has been revealed, and who is without craving.

“One hundred times the joy of the Devas is one unit of the joy of the karma Devas: but no less joy than the karma Devas has the sage to whom the Self has been revealed, and who is without craving.

“One hundred times the joy of the karma Devas is one unit of the joy of the ruling Devas: but no less joy than the ruling Devas has the sage to whom the Self has been revealed, and who is without craving.

“One hundred times the joy of the ruling Devas is one unit of the joy of Indra: but no less joy than Indra has the sage to whom the Self has been revealed, and who is without craving.

“One hundred times the joy of Indra is one unit of the joy of Brihaspati: but no less joy than Brihaspati has the sage to whom the Self has been revealed, and who is without craving.

“One hundred times the joy of Brihaspati is one unit of the joy of Prajapati: but no less joy than Prajapati has the sage to whom the Self has been revealed, and who is without craving.

“One hundred times the joy of Prajapati is one unit of the joy of Brahma: but no less joy than Brahma has the seer to whom the Self has been revealed, and who is without craving” (Taittiriya Upanishad 2:8:1-4).

Who, then, would not avidly seek such a joy? Virtually the whole world does not seek it.

Joyful insight

Whenever he meditates on the rise and fall of the constituent elements of existence [the skandas], he experiences joy and rapture. It is immortality for men of discrimination (Dhammapada 374).

Foolish people grieve and complain over the impermanence of the world, but the wise rejoice, knowing that they have made the only right choice in seeking that which is eternal.

First things

Therefore in this teaching, this is what comes first for a wise bhikkhu–guarding of the senses, contentment, and discipline in accordance with the rules of the Order [patimokkha]. He should cultivate friends of good character, of pure behavior and resolute. He should be friendly in his manner, and well-behaved. As a result he will experience great joy, and put an end to suffering (Dhammapada 375, 376).

This is easy to understand, so I will only mention one thing: The only real friends of a seeker for Nirvana are those who will sustain him in his practice by doing so themselves and living up to the same ideals. It is extremely important to only cultivate the friendship of those who also devote their thought and life to achieve liberation. If such persons cannot be found, then the aspirant should live to himself, as Buddha has counseled in previous sutras.

Like the jasmine

In the same way that the jasmine drops its withered flowers, you too should discard desire and aversion, bhikkhus (Dhammapada 377).

The jasmine plant simply lets its withered flowers fall–it lets go of them. In the same way we must let go of all that incites desire and aversion in us, and then the capacity for desire and aversion should also drop away from us. This is a profound change, but it is attainable.

At peace

Peaceful of body, peaceful of speech and with his mind thoroughly stilled, the bhikkhu who has rid himself of attachment to the world–is called “at peace” (Dhammapada 378).

Vantalokamiso literally means to have spit out or vomited up all that pertains to the world. First we calm ourselves and then we purge ourselves–that is the way to peace profound. The world is like a cancer: we must rid ourselves of every little bit of it, especially its roots, if we would live.

Do it yourself

You should encourage yourself, yourself. You should restrain yourself, yourself. When you are self-protected like that, you will live happily as a bhikkhu (Dhammapada 379).

Self-sufficiency is a prime necessity for one who seeks enlightenment. Dependency in any form renders that search impossible. The seeker must be thoroughly self-reliant in all things. Those who are not self-motivated and self-directed will not persevere in their practice. We must empower ourselves and discipline ourselves. Protected by our own self, what can harm us? Then we will be able to live happily as a renouncer of ignorance.

One is one’s own guard. What other guard could one have? One is one’s own destiny. Therefore one should train oneself, like a merchant does a thoroughbred horse (Dhammapada 380).

We are the only guard and guide we can ever have. Since we ourselves are our only destiny, who else can possibly be involved in the matter? Buddha had to turn from all his teachers and from all the traditions he had learned and bring the truth from within his own self. So must we. We alone can discipline and perfect ourselves. This is the truth Buddha shares with us.

The worthy bhikkhu

The bhikkhu who experiences great joy, and has faith in the teaching of the Buddha, will attain the place of peace, the satisfaction of stilling the functions of the mind.

When a bhikkhu applies himself when still young to the teaching of the Buddha, he illuminates the world, like the moon breaking breaking away from a cloud (Dhammapada 381, 382).

What more need be said? We now need to start “doing.”

Next article in the Dhammapada for Awakening: The Brahmin

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Chapters in the Dhammapada for Awakening:

Introduction to the Dhammapada

The History of the Dhammapada

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