Simplistic statements are almost always wrong or misleading. This is especially true regarding the teachings of Buddha. Few things are sillier than saying that Buddha denied the existence of God or a creator, since he speaks about Brahma the Creator quite readily. Even more foolish is the statement that he denied the existence of an immortal, eternal Self, when he continually speaks of the need to know the Deathless and Birthless. Anatman (anatta) in the Pali language never means “no atman (self),” but “not-self,” which is a standard expression of Advaita Vedanta. If Buddha had meant there was no self he would have used the word niratman (niratta)–which he never did at any time. Another baseless assertion is that Buddha rejected the idea of caste, which he did not, as he often refers to the castes as a reality. What he did oppose was the caste “system” of his time which was based on birth and not on personal characteristics.
His frequent use of the word “Brahmin” (Brahmana) tells us much. A Brief Sanskrit Glossary defines Brahmin in this way: “A knower of Brahman; a member of the highest Hindu caste consisting of priests, pandits, philosophers, and religious leaders.” By using this word so much Buddha clearly indicates that Brahman, the Absolute Reality, certainly exists, and so does a caste, or class of human beings, whose dominant trait is that of nearness to the realization of such a Reality. These are the philosophers Plato said were so necessary to a true civilization. This entire section is addressed to them.
Knowing the unconditioned
“Cut the stream and go across, abandon sensuality, brahmin. When you have achieved the stilling of the activities of the mind, you will know the unconditioned, brahmin” (Dhammapada 383).
The stream of relative, conditioned existence must be cut off and transcended. This is done by turning from the outer senses of illusion and bringing into function the inner senses of true perception. Then the antics and creations of the lower mind must be stopped so the intelligence (buddhi) can come into dominance and further our evolution so that in time (out of time, actually) we will come to know the Unconditioned–Brahman–and thereby become a perfected Brahmana.
“When a brahmin has crossed beyond duality, then all the fetters of such a seer come to an end” (Dhammapada 384).
Harischandra Kaviratna: “When the Brahman has reached the farther shore of the two states (of tranquillity [samatha] and insight [vipassana]), then all the fetters of that knowing one disappear.”
Certainly we must go beyond dual consciousness, and definitely that is done by perfection in stillness of mind and heart (samatha) and direct realization (vipassana). So both translations give us a right understanding. This alone results in the dissolving of all bonds that is Nirvana.
Neither “this” nor “that”
“When a man knows no ‘this shore,’ ‘other shore,’ or both–such a one, free from anxiety, liberated, that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 385).
Buddha is underlining the fact that freedom from dual consciousness is the ultimate liberation.
“Meditating, free from stain, settled in mind, with work accomplished, without inflowing thoughts, and having achieved the supreme purpose–that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 386).
Here we have six basic traits of a brahmin, all of them worthy of our scrutiny.
Meditating. A brahmin is not just an occasional meditator, but is always involved in meditation, continuing the process outside of his formal meditation (which should occupy some hours each day) so it is the dominant trait of his life. That is why the Bhagavad Gita more than once speaks of the yogi who is always in meditation.
Free from stain. Purity is another major trait of the brahmin.
Settled in mind. Steadfast and intent on attaining liberation, the brahmin’s mind is oriented toward Brahman just as the compass needle ever turns to the north wherever it may be and no matter how much it is moved about.
With work accomplished. This can be interpreted in two ways. 1) The brahmin’s obligations to the world are totally finished and his only occupation is realization of the Real. 2) The perfect Brahmin has finished his true work in the spirit and is established in Nirvana.
Without inflowing thoughts. He is no longer affected by external factors, so much so that they might as well not exist. He is totally an inward person, seeing Reality within. “Only that yogi whose joy is inward, inward his peace, and his vision inward shall come to Brahman and know Nirvana” (Bhagavad Gita 5:24).
Having achieved the supreme purpose. The supreme purpose is also the only purpose of the brahmin: Nirvana.
The shining Buddha
“By day it is the sun which shines, at night the moon shines forth. A warrior shines in his armour, and a brahmin shines in meditation. But at all times, by day and by night, the Buddha shines in his glory” (Dhammapada 387).
Here “brahmin” means one who is intent on and near the goal. Such a one shines in meditation–finds his glory in meditation–but a Buddha shines at all times because he does not just experience the Light or “wear” the Light–he IS the Light.
The truth of things
“A brahmin is called so by breaking with evil deeds. It is by pious behavior that a man is called a man of religion, and by casting out blemishes one is called one gone forth” (Dhammapada 388).
Harischandra Kaviratna: “Because a man has discarded all evil, he is called a Brahman; because of his balanced conduct, he is called a monk (samana); because he has rid himself of all impurities, he is called a recluse (pabbajita).”
A brahmin not just a person who decides to try for higher awareness. He is one who has cut off all evil thoughts, words, and deeds. Now we think that such a person is very advanced, but really he is only just ready to begin. This shows how little we understand the nature and extent of authentic dharma.
It is very dramatic to read of the criminal who in an instant becomes reformed and immediately takes up the monastic life, but here Buddha indicates that right behavior at all times is the prerequisite for monastic life. Finally he shows that only those who have cast off all defilements can really be called monks–for “pabbajita” means “one who has gone forth” in the sense of truly abandoning all lower things and taking up the higher modes of behavior, thought, and consciousness.
Buddha is also implying that a brahmin will progress from brahmin to samana to pabbajita, that all brahmins who remain in their path will in time become full-fledged monastics. Otherwise they would just be stuck back in a kind of pious hamster wheel mode of life. Growth implies change and leaving the lesser for the greater. How else could it be? As Sri Ma Anandamayi told two friends of mine: “Those who practice sadhana automatically become sadhus.” So from that we can tell who really practices sadhana and who does not.
Violence, outward and inward
“One should not strike a brahmin, and nor should a brahmin lose his temper. Shame on him who strikes a brahmin, and shame on him who loses his temper because of it” (Dhammapada 389).
Ahimsa–non-injury and especially non-killing–is a foundational teaching of dharma, Hindu and Buddhist. Buddha is giving us an example of two forms of himsa–injury: outer action in the form of physical harm, and inner, mental violence arising in the form of anger. Both are infractions of the precept of ahimsa. One who has mental ahimsa will never act harmfully, but without it there is always the possibility of eventual wrongdoing. In the twelfth chapter of Autobiography of a Yogi (a text worthy of a lifetime’s study) Yogananda give us this incident:
“It was the gentle hour of dusk. My guru was matchlessly interpreting the ancient texts. At his feet, I was in perfect peace. A rude mosquito entered the idyl and competed for my attention. As it dug a poisonous hypodermic needle into my thigh, I automatically raised an avenging hand. Reprieve from impending execution! An opportune memory came to me of one of Patanjali’s yoga aphorisms—that on ahimsa (harmlessness).
“‘Why didn’t you finish the job?’
“‘Master! Do you advocate taking life?’
“‘No; but the deathblow already had been struck in your mind.’
“‘I don’t understand.’
“‘Patanjali’s meaning was the removal of desire to kill.’ Sri Yukteswar had found my mental processes an open book. ‘This world is inconveniently arranged for a literal practice of ahimsa. Man may be compelled to exterminate harmful creatures. He is not under similar compulsion to feel anger or animosity. All forms of life have equal right to the air of maya. The saint who uncovers the secret of creation will be in harmony with its countless bewildering expressions. All men may approach that understanding who curb the inner passion for destruction.’”
The root of violence is egotism. When that has been cut out and thrown away we will have no trouble with violence. Easy to say, not so easy to do, but the masters have shown us the way, having first travelled it themselves.
“Nothing is better in a brahmin than this–that he restrains his mind from pleasurable things. Suffering disappears for him to the same extent that he gets rid of thoughts of harming anyone” (Dhammapada 390).
Harischandra Kaviratna: “It is no small advantage to a Brahman to restrain the mind from clinging to pleasurable things. In proportion to the degree that he abstains from wishing to injure others, to that degree will suffering cease.”
When we think of it, both these undesirable factors are clinging to something, for both are like the tar baby in the story: the more we touch them the more we get stuck up in them and become bound. Attraction and aversion both pull us into the whirlpool of samsara. Contented indifference is our protection and assurance of safety. Therefore:
“He who does no wrong with body, speech or mind, but is restrained in all three spheres–that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 391).
Worthy of homage
“One should reverently pay homage to the man from whom one has learned the Truth, taught by the True Buddha, like a brahmin does to the sacrificial fire” (Dhammapada 392).
Narada Thera: “If from anybody one should understand the doctrine preached by the Fully Enlightened One, devoutly should one reverence him, as a brahmin reveres the sacrificial fire.”
Since the old ways are fading away with increasing rapidity in these times, there is little comprehension of how an ancient brahmin revered the sacred fire. It was literally the center of his life, and its maintenance was his supreme obligation. At least twice a day he roused the fire from its “sleep” in the form of banked coals and made offerings into it, understanding that the fire was the “mouth” of God and possessed the supernatural power to transfer over into the subtle worlds whatever he offered from the material world. Even more important, at the reciting of the requisite mantras the fire became a living, intelligent deva whose radiations literally entered into his subtle bodies and purified them.
I will never forget when sacred fire was brought to Dehra Dun from Dacca in East Bengal (Bangaladesh) where it had been kept burning for several decades at the direction of Ma Anandamayi. When it was kindled into flame for the first time, Ma motioned for me to come and stand very near and fix my attention on the fire. As I did so, I could feel the subtle radiation penetrating my whole body and the firm conviction arose in my mind that karmas were being consumed and corrections being made in my subtle bodies. When I glanced at Ma she indicated her satisfaction, so I knew I had perceived rightly. Wherever it takes place, in the daily morning kindling of the holy fire, at one point the fire becomes alive and remains so.
So when Buddha says to reverence those who teach us the Dharma, he is saying a very serious thing. We should consider them living extensions of the Buddha principle, the Dharmakaya, that dwells in all things. Now if we should so regard the teachers of Dharma, how much, much more then should we revere the Dharma itself. In truth, if Buddha had not given us the Dharma, what value would he be to us? It is the constant failing in religion to value the messenger far above his message. This is a complete reversal of the right order of things.
“One is not a brahmin by virtue of matted hair, lineage or caste. When a man possesses both Truth and righteousness, then he is pure, then he is a brahmin. What use is your matted hair, you fool? What use is your antelope skin? You are tangled inside, and you are just making the outside pretty” (Dhammapada 393, 394).
This applies to so many people in so many ways–and it certainly needs no explanation, especially not to those Buddha is calling fools.
“The man who wears robes made from rags off the dust heap, who is gaunt, with his sinews standing out all over his body, alone meditating in the forest–that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 395).
This is the picture of a brahmin. One time many years ago I visited the home of a dear friend. Her very outspoken daughter-in-law was there and when she was introduced to me she said in all sincerity: “Wow, this is great! Your clothes are so crummy!” Apparently she had seen enough of Christian monks in costumes. (At one time in the West there was the Order of Saint John the Baptist whose members wore burlap clothes, never cut their hair or shaved, wandered the countryside giving spiritual teaching to whoever would listen, and lived on alms alone, refusing money. The other orders were so shamed by their example that they clamored for the Pope to dissolve the order, which he did.)
Of course it is the solitary meditation that really makes someone a brahmin.
“I do not call him a brahmin who is so by natural birth from his mother. He is just a supercilious person if he still has possessions of his own. He who owns nothing of his own, and is without attachment–that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 396).
According to Patanjali, aparigraha–non-possessiveness and non-acquisitiveness is a requisite for spiritual life. Buddha agreed.
Here are a few verses that really need little or no comment, but deserve deep pondering:
“He who, having cut off all fetters, does not get himself upset, but is beyond bonds–that liberated man is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 397).
“He who has cut off both bond and strap, halter as well as bridle, who has removed the barrier, himself a Buddha–that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 398).
“He who endures undisturbed criticism, ill-treatment and bonds, strong in patience, and that strength his power–that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 399).
“Without anger, devout, upright, free from craving, disciplined and in his last body–that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 400).
A true brahmin is one who has snapped the bonds of rebirth and will be seen no more in this world under the compulsion of birth. He may return to help others, but it is an act of total freedom and he can nevermore be bound as before. Since he will never identify with body or background he will in a sense not really be “born” at all.
“Like water on a lotus leaf, like a mustard seed on the point of an pin, he who is not stuck to the senses–that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 401).
Water cannot soak into a lotus leaf, and a mustard seed is so hard that it cannot be pierced by a pin. Both the water and the pin will simply slip off. In the same way a brahman cannot be affected by any external factors to any degree.
“He who has experienced the end of his suffering here in this life, who has set down the burden, freed!–that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 402).
“The sage of profound wisdom, the expert in the right and wrong road, he who has achieved the supreme purpose–that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 403).
“Not intimate with laity or monks, wandering about with no abode, and few needs–that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 404).
Detachment is a cardinal virtue for all sadhakas.
“Abandoning violence to all living creatures moving or still, he who neither kills or causes killing–that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 405).
“Unagitated amongst the agitated, at peace among the violent, without clinging among those who cling–that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 406).
To be unaffected by those around him is another primary trait of a brahman.
“He from whom desire and aversion, conceit and hypocrisy have fallen away, like a mustard seed on the point of a pin–that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 407).
“He who utters only gentle, instructive and truthful speech, criticizing no-one–that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 408).
“He who takes nothing in the world that has not been given him, long or short, big or small, attractive or unattractive, that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 409).
“He who has no desires in this world or the next, without longings, freed!–that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 410).
“He who has no attachments and has been freed from uncertainty by realization, who has plunged into the deathless–that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 411).
“He who has even here and now transcended the fetter of both good and evil, who is sorrowless, faultless and pure–that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 412).
“The man who is stainless, pure, clear and free from impurities like the moon, the search for pleasure extinguished–that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 413).
“He who has transcended the treacherous mire of samsara and ignorance, who has crossed over, reached the other shore, meditating, motionless of mind, free from uncertainty, and who is at peace by not clinging to anything–that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 414).
“He who by here and now abandoning sensuality, has gone forth a homeless wanderer, the search for pleasure extinguished–that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 415).
“He who by here and now abandoning craving, has gone forth a homeless wanderer, the search for pleasure extinguished–that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 416).
“He who has abandoned human bonds, and transcended those of heaven, liberated from all bonds–that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 417).
“He who has abandoned pleasure and displeasure, is cooled off and without further fuel, the hero who has conquered all worlds–that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 418).
“He who has seen the passing away and rebirth of all beings, free of clinging, blessed, awakened–that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 419).
“He whose path devas, spirits and men cannot know, whose inflowing thoughts are ended, a saint–that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 420).
“He who has nothing of his own, before, after or in between, possessionless and without attachment–that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 421).
The perfect brahmin-monk
Verses 415 and 416 speak of one who “has gone forth a homeless wanderer.” This is a technical term for formal monastic life. The last two verses of the Dhammapada list the characteristics of such a one, so in conclusion we will look at them in detail.
“Bull-like, noble, a hero, a great sage, and a conqueror, he who is motionless of mind, washed clean and awakened–that is what I call a brahmin.
“He who has known his former lives and can see heaven and hell themselves, while he has attained the extinction of rebirth, a seer, master of transcendent knowledge, and master of all masteries–that is what I call a brahmin” (Dhammapada 422, 423).
Bull-like. This was a common expression in Buddha’s day to mean someone who was absolutely fearless. Fear is rooted in the human psyche, and that is why deceptive religion and politics traffic in fear, and even the news media capitalizes on the natural fear response in people. It is the conditioning of countless lifetimes–many in pre-human forms–that is manifesting. Fearfulness comes in many forms, some personal and some social, but all can coerce a person into doing wrong or neglecting the right. For those who are highly evolved, this comes in many subtle forms easy to cover up and ignore. Fear that undermines our integrity and self-respect is usually the last to go, and is very hard to detect and uproot. Yet it must be done.
It is the fearlessness necessary to gain liberation that is referred to in the book of Revelation: “They loved not their lives unto the death” (Revelation 12:11), for nirvana is of necessity the death of all that binds–that with which we have identified for lives beyond number, so much so that we think its death will be the death us, when in reality it will be our resurrection into Life. That is why Jesus said: “Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it” (Luke 17:33).
Noble. In a culture where cheapness is “cool” and the order of the day, nobility is not even given a thought. Dignity and integrity are jokes in a society where “getting ahead” is the sole motivation and anyone who sacrifices personal gain or advantage to preserve them is considered a fool and arouses the indignation of those who pursue “the good life” above all. But those who seek liberation must understand and cultivate nobility of thought and life. Simply writing these words has caused a flood of memories to arise, memories of saints and masters I have known, all of whom possessed nobility of character that revealed itself in their every word and act–even their mere presence. All of them were accessible, embodiments of maitri–loving-kindness and warm friendship. Everyone was at ease in their company, feeling a deep kinship with them. Yet their nobility was never lost sight of. They were the true royalty of humanity. I was always aware that they were living in the heights of consciousness, that they were calling me to ascend those heights as well. They were near and far away at the same time, but if I would I could join them completely. A person who is not a challenge to higher life just by being with us is of no worth to us spiritually.
A hero. Great courage is required to attain the Goal. When we look at the lives of saints of all traditions and ages, we see that they exerted tremendous will power and courage. Consider Buddha beneath the bodhi tree. Cosmic evil–Mara–itself came and threatened to destroy him. It took courage to withstand threats and attempts to overcome him with fear, and even more courage to withstand the blandishments and temptation of pleasure and material ease. It is not enough to just not be a coward: those who aspire to nirvana must be heroic in all things. Tremendous will power must be developed in order to succeed in the struggle with ignorance and evil.
A great sage. A master is not a lovable, naïve, “childlike” ignoramus. He is the embodiment of wisdom and knowledge (jnana). Yogananda used to say that stupid people do not find God. The liberated are possessed of the highest degree of intelligence, even if it is not expressed through intellectuality. When I met Swami Sivananda the first thing that impressed me was his incredible intelligence–it was literally awesome.
I have met saints that pretended to be fools, but they were not; their intelligence was impressive. For example, Saint John Maximovitch was thought by many to be a fool–and real fools considered him to be so–but his intellectual power was amazing. When he felt it necessary he could come to grips with the most abstruse aspects of philosophy and theology. He single-handedly exposed the folly of Sergius Bulgakov’s “Sophiology” and brought about its official rejection. I well remember one morning at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York, when nearly everyone was smiling or laughing. Seeing my puzzlement, some of the monks explained that the venerable Archbishop Averky had gone early in the morning to the library. There he saw many high stacks of books arranged in a circle. Curious, he stepped over the nearest stack, and stepped right on Saint John, who was sitting, asleep, in the circle of books! What a surprise! So everyone was amused by the incident, but since I knew Saint John hardly ever slept, I realized that he had gathered those books and studied them throughout the night, only dozing off momentarily. He was a great intellectual, despite his habitual, disheveled appearance and seemingly eccentric ways. If anyone ever had a mind like a steel trap, it was Saint John Maximovitch.
A conqueror. All spiritual aspirants must be fearless and ruthless warriors, even though their battles are fought inwardly–and occasionally externally, as well. The perfected ones are those that win through the strife and become conquerors. They are battle-scarred but unbowed, fearsome to Mara and his followers.
Some Russian friends of mine had become disciples of a great master in Russia. He never wore clothes, saying that in his previous life he had been a naked sadhu in India and got out of the habit of clothing. He travelled throughout Russia, riding on the train without paying (as used to be done in better days in India). The Communists were terrified of this (seemingly) defenseless, naked old man, and every few months the newspapers would claim he had died–but he kept right on living. The awakening he helped others to attain was widespread and profound. He was a mighty man of battle, a vanquisher of evil and ignorance.
He who is motionless of mind. Nevertheless, the warrior-master is ever at peace, dwelling in silence of mind and heart that is the fullness of Conscious Light–his own Self. However much his body may move around, his inner awareness remains unmoving. That is why Sri Ramana Maharshi said there was no place for him to “go” when his body would die. When Sri Ma Anandamayi visited his ashram in Tiruvannamalai some years after his mahasamadhi, his disciples begged her to stay there, and she simply replied: “I neither come nor go.”
Washed clean. A liberated person has purified himself totally, indeed purification has been a major part of his endeavor, a necessary part of his success. And it has all been accomplished by his own action.
Awakened. A Buddha is one who is all Consciousness (chinmaya). He is not merely aware: he is permanently awake. When someone met Buddha just after his enlightenment, he was astounded at his evident greatness and asked him: “Who are you?” Buddha answered: “I am awake.” Nothing more could be said.
He who has known his former lives. Buddha said this was sign of enlightenment, however it is more than mere remembrance–it is understanding the present in the connotation of the past. It is seeing past and present as an organic whole–as consciousness at play.
And can see heaven and hell themselves. Literally a master is everywhere in the sense that he can see/perceive at any moment anything he wills. No matter where his body may be, he can see into all worlds and even interact there. Just as saints have been seen physically in two or more places at once, in the same way a master can be on several planes of being simultaneously. The great Master Yogananda revealed that he was working in other worlds just as much as in this one. This is the practical omnipresence and omniscience of a Buddha.
Has attained the extinction of rebirth. Even if he seems to be born in the future, his consciousness will be untouched, unchanged by the event, so that he will not be “born” in the ordinary sense. Only a body will appear and eventually disappear. To the liberated one, nothing will have really happened at all–only a simple act of will.
Seer. A Buddha “sees” all things at his will, both internally and externally, and sees the inner meaning of all outer things. Nothing is unknown to him, “knowing” being meant in the highest sense.
Master of transcendent knowledge. Dwelling in transcendent consciousness, he is a natural master of transcendent knowledge. Moreover, he can convey that knowledge more completely and perfectly than anyone else, even though some things cannot be expressed in human speech. Yet, often his mere presence enables people to intuitively comprehend those things that cannot be put into words.
Master of all masteries. A Master is a master of all aspects of life. For example, some time ago a man in Benares (Varanasi) was considered to have attained enlightenment, so some people came and tested him. They found that there was no question, either practical or philosophical, that he could not answer. Finally they gave him the needed material and told him to make a pair of shoes–and he did!
Yogananda once decided to paint a picture and produced a masterpiece depicting Krishna. When people marveled at how he could do that, he said: “Krishna came and I painted him.” Once when he needed money desperately to pay the bills of the ashram, he invested in stocks and made a huge profit. For quite a while afterward people would come to the ashram and pester him to reveal his secret. He would laugh and say: “I don’t know anything about the stock market.” He was often visited by one of America’s major mathematicians and also by a major physicist, because he was the only person they could speak to about their fields who would perfectly understand their ideas and discuss them profitably. One of them remarked that Yogananda must–like him–constantly read to keep up with all the developments. Yogananda smiled and quietly said: “I have not read four books in the last twenty-five years.” Knowing That Which Must Be Known, he knew all.
The end of it all
So now we have come to the end of the Dhammapada–but only to the end of my limited, partial understanding. It is my hope that you will continue to read and ponder Buddha’s profound wisdom and be inspired to yourself become a Buddha and be a living Dhammapada.
Chapters in the Dhammapada for Awakening:
- The Twin Verses
- The Mind
- The Fool
- The Wise Man
- The Enlightened
- The Thousands
- The Rod
- Old Age
- The Self (Atta Vagga)
- The World
- The Buddhas
- Impurities (Taints)
- The Righteous (Dharmic) One
- The Way
- A Woeful State
- The Elephant
- The Bhikkhu
- The Brahmin
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Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary