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The Fool

Chapter 5 of the Dhammapada for Awakening

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In the drug-soaked ’sixties of the last century, one interesting phenomenon was that of “underground comics.” Usually incoherent or obscene, on occasion they were discomfitingly insightful. One such was a brief comic strip called “Shuman the Human.” It began: “Shuman the Human went searching for God. And believe me, he packed a lunch,” the idea being that Shuman was not that interested in finding God, just in passing time; but if he should find God, he hoped it would not be right away.

In the same way, when Buddha decided to expound the nature of a spiritual fool in the Dhammapada, he took sixteen verses, a number that in India signifies completeness. So he will be describing a Complete Fool to us. It should not be missed that he will next take fourteen verses to describe a wise man, and only ten to describe an enlightened one. There has to be a meaning here.

Why do we need to know the traits of a fool? For two very crucial purposes: 1) so we can find out if we ourselves are fools and amend–not just our ways, but our minds; and 2) so we can tell when others are fools, and avoid and ignore them. This latter is very hard, since there so many of them, and they run all aspects of public life and set the tone for the pathetic mess they call culture.

Now Buddha speaks:

Blind to wisdom

Long is the night for the sleepless. Long is the road for the weary. Long is samsara [the cycle of continued rebirth] for the foolish, who have not recognized the true teaching (Dhammapada 60).

The word translated “true teaching” is saddhammam, true dharma. There are many definitions of dharma, but fundamentally dharma is that which unfolds or evolves relative nature and reveals transcendent Reality. It may take the form of many do’s and don’ts, but essentially it is that which reveals the inmost reality, which is why we have the Sanskrit term swadharma: “the dharma of the Self.”

No thing, no matter how desirable it may seem, is dharma (or dharmic) if it does not reveal the Self or further the possibility of that revelation. What may accomplish that in one person may have the opposite effect in another. For example, a great deal of social interaction may be just what one person needs for his development, but it may be detrimental to another person, whose swadharma would be solitude. This is extremely valuable to keep in mind, lest we try to coerce others into doing what may only be beneficial for us. It is a trait of childish individuals to consider that anything good, bad or indifferent for them is good, bad or indifferent for everyone.

True dharma, then, is that which reveals the truth of our own being to us. Without the knowledge and the practice of this dharma, life itself is nothing but weariness, like waking for the sleepy and walking for the weary. Human beings engage in all types of frantic activity to cover up this weariness and invent so many things to hide the truth of their own inner misery from themselves and others. If they cannot find an adequate mask, they merely engage in stubborn denial of the truth. And the weariness increases apace with their distraction and denial.

Life is death for such people. Some close friends of mine trained for a long time to be telephone counselors for suicidal people, wanting to be of help to suffering souls. But within two weeks of counseling they resigned because they could think of no reason why most people should continue their lives if they were not going to change. Why prolong the agony? “The only way their lives could be worth living would be for them to wake up spiritually and change their whole way of thinking and acting,” one of them told me, “but according to the ‘rules’ we were not allowed to speak about spiritual or even philosophical things with them. How could we help them? So we quit. It was all a sham.” Human beings frantically run from the only solution there is: spiritual consciousness. So their lives drag on horribly. They live and die in hopelessness, for only dharma can give them life and hope.

Worthless association

Human beings are sometimes described as “social animals,” and they do not change when they take up spiritual life. Recognizing this, Buddha then says:

If on one’s way one does not come across one’s better or an equal, then one should press on resolutely alone. There is no companionship with a fool (Dhammapada 61).

This echoes the Gita: “Unswerving devotion with single-minded yoga, frequenting (living in) secluded places, having distaste for crowds of people (association with many people)” (Bhagavad Gita 13:10).

There is no place in the psychology of Buddha for the “I am as good as anyone else” fantasy. There are a lot of people is this world much better than us in a myriad of ways, and only the inveterate fool refuses to recognize this and give them their due. We should certainly seek for those who have progressed further along the path than ourselves and learn from them. If we cannot find such people, then let us find those that at least have the same degree of resolve and understanding as ourselves. If we cannot find either kind, then let us go on alone with strong intention. We are never alone on the path, for as mentioned before, whenever someone decides to follow the Buddha Way a multitude of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas become aware of the fact and begin helping him.

Buddha is warning us against association with the foolish, telling us that there is no real companionship with them. This is a bitter dose to swallow and digest, but we must if we would not relapse into foolishness ourselves. Company is stronger than will power. In an unsuitable or hostile environment no seed can grow or plant continue to live. So following Buddha’s counsel is a matter of survival. I know myself that this is true. At the beginning of my yoga practice I was literally over a hundred miles from the nearest yogis, and did not know about them at that time. So I nobly but stupidly decided that I should at least seek out people locally who were sincere and trying for higher life. That was a mistake, and one that nearly cost me my spiritual life. The story is too long to recount here, but I assure you my danger was very real. It is the same with any aspirant. Sri Ramakrishna used the simile of the brick enclosure put around a sapling to keep goats and cows from eating it. We must protect ourselves from our vulnerability to the influence of others. If need be, we must walk on alone. That is a much better choice than it may seem to us in the beginning.

And remember: the spiritually unconscious and indifferent can be much more harmful than the overtly wicked, for their negative influence is not readily perceived. They can infect us with their inertia, even if not with outright evil. As Jesus said: “He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad” (Matthew 12:30).


“I’ve got children,” “I’ve got wealth.” This is the way a fool brings suffering on himself. He does not even own himself, so how can he have children or wealth? (Dhammapada 62).

Another good translation is that of Harischandra Kaviratna: “‘I have children, I have wealth,’ thinking thus, the fool torments himself. But, when he is not the possessor of his own self, how then of children? How then of wealth?”

The belief that any thing, internal or external, is ours is the terrible snare of samsara. But we are not helpless victims; rather, we are willing enslavers of our own selves. There is an internal aspect to Jesus’ statement that “a man’s foes shall be they of his own household” (Matthew 10:36).

We often, and glibly, speak of someone as his own worst enemy, but fail to realize that this is the truth about all of us. Consequently Krishna says: “One should uplift oneself by the [lower] self; one should not degrade oneself. The [lower] self can truly be a friend of the [lower] self, and the [lower] self alone can be an enemy of the [lower] self. For him who has conquered himself by the [lower] self, the [lower] self is a friend. But for him who has not conquered himself, the [lower] self remains hostile, like an enemy. The highest Self of him who has conquered himself and is peaceful, is thus steadfast in cold, heat, pleasure, pain, honor and dishonor” (Bhagavad Gita 6:5-7).

But we willfully torment ourselves with the “mine” whip, driving ourselves from absurdity to absurdity. “I must fulfill my…;” “I must satisfy my …;” “I must protect my…;” “I must look after my…;” “I must pay attention to my…;” “But I have my…;” “I must increase my…;” “It is my duty to love and care for my….” There are thousands of “my’s” that demand our attention, none of them real and therefore none of them legitimate. Who will heed the insistence of Jesus that only “one thing is needful” (Luke 10:42)? And who will adopt as his own the wise words of David: “One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his temple” (Psalms 27:4). We are ourselves the temple of God, “the house of the Lord” (I Corinthians 3:16). Those who cultivate interior consciousness through meditation and purification will find this to be so. This is the only way to freedom from fear and sorrow.

Yet the fool stumbles on, increasing his fears and sorrows, truly “dreaming the impossible dream,” for Buddha asks: “But, when he is not the possessor of his own self, how then of children? How then of wealth?” No thing is ours, because the “me” who cries out “Mine!” is the ego, itself a mirage. How can a dream possess a dream? Awakening is the only course for us. All shall come to it in time, but until then fools pursue folly with the avidity of madness.

A “tough truth”

In the annals of all authentic religions the rosters of saints are filled with the names of monastics, with very few non-monastics named. Why so? Monastic life is no guarantee of enlightenment; countless ignorant monks and nuns are proof of that. Nevertheless history shows that monastics have a better chance, a better percentage, at winning the race and gaining the prize. In this verse Buddha has shown us why. Monastics are free from the delusions: “I’ve got children,” “I’ve got wealth.” And these are the strongest delusions a human being can indulge. It is not external monasticism that is the key, but rather freedom from the psychology that is inherent in secular life. It is not family and money that does the harm, but their effects on the mind and heart of those who mistakenly think they possess them. Few are those who can resist and rise above that error. This sad fact is seen every day. Materiality is the School of Fools.

A real fool

A fool who recognizes his own ignorance is thereby in fact a wise man, but a fool who considers himself wise–that is what one really calls a fool (Dhammapada 63).

Is there really a need to comment on this? The problem is that we are in the grip of utter inconsistency. We may have the most sophisticated philosophy while living the most primitive or degraded lifestyle. “As a man thinketh, so he is,” is outright bunkum. We should not disregard or deny our wisdom, but we must also recognize the presence of ignorance in our minds as well. Otherwise we will be unable to cultivate the one and eliminate the other. Constant vigilance is needed; we must be always sensitive to the arising of foolishness, for a great deal is hidden in our heart. The Kena Upanishad gives a fine exposition of the problem of “knowing.” I will relay it here and nothing more will be needed on the subject.

“If you think that you have understood Brahman well, you know it but slightly, whether it refers to you [the individual Self] or to the gods. So then is it to be investigated by you [the pupil] [even though] I think it is known. I do not think that I know it well; nor do I think that I do not know it. He who among us knows it, knows it and he, too, does not know that he does not know. To whomsoever it is not known, to him it is known: to whomsoever it is known, he does not know. It is not understood by those who understand it; it is understood by those who do not understand it. When it is known through every state of cognition, it is rightly known, for [by such knowledge] one attains life eternal. Through one’s own Self one gains power and through wisdom one gains immortality. (2.4)” (Kena Upanishad 2:1-4).

The company of the wise

Sri Ramakrishna often spoke of the legend that when the Malaya breeze blew all trees turned into sandalwood trees except the ironwood trees. Some people, he commented, were ironwood trees. No matter how beneficial the company or environment, they would not learn or progress an inch. We see this in the lives of great master teachers like Krishna, Buddha, and Jesus. Comparatively few struck fire from their company, sometimes the most incorrigible seeming to be close disciples.

Buddha was speaking from experience when he said:

Even if a fool lived with a wise man all his life, he would still not recognize the truth, like a wooden spoon cannot recognize the flavor of the soup (Dhammapada 64).

All the “wisdom” and the “wise” in the world mean nothing as long as they remain external to us. There must be an inner awakening for us to even recognize either wisdom or the wise. It truly does take one to know one. That is why Buddha continues:

Even if a man of intelligence lives with a wise man only for a moment, he will immediately recognize the truth, like one’s tongue recognizes the flavor of the soup (Dhammapada 65).

The question is: Are we tongues or spoons?

The old adage is true: “A fool and his money are soon parted.” But the fool clings to his folly with great tenacity like a miser. So Buddha is now going to expound the deeds of a fool.

Their own enemy

Stupid fools go through life as their own enemies, doing evil deeds which have bitter consequences (Dhammapada 66).

Human beings are astonishing, including in their foolishness. One of the most astonishing follies is their insistence on doing things which bring them nothing but bitterness inwardly and outwardly. “Aren’t we having a good time?” they ask their fellow-fools, shuffling through their little dreary lives that are crammed with activity that is really doing nothing in the end result.

A friend of mine challenged her father as to what his way of life–which he cordially hated, but which made him a lot of money–had ever done for him. Indignantly he took a deep draw on his cigarette (as he habitually smoked) as his hands shook (as they habitually did), and stammered out: “Why… it has made me very happy!” She was speechless at this response. Truly, he was the most miserable person I have ever seen. He was not an evil man, but had foolishly chosen a way of life completely galling to him just so he could make money and be respected by people he despised. As a result he was friendless and respected by no one, including his wife and children. But he did have money–which he used to endow scholarships so others could take up the career he wished he had adopted.

I have already referred to the camel that chews on thorns that pierce its mouth and make it bleed, but keeps on chewing. People are the same. Over and over they do what makes them suffer, often resolving to never do it again, but just as often repeating their folly. Many more people are destroying themselves without any idea they are doing so. They are bewildered as to what the problem is, and keep on piling up the pain. Others have somehow anesthetized themselves so they do not even know they are suffering. That is why Buddha said the first step we must take is the acknowledgment of the fact of our suffering.

The self-revealing nature of action

In Hinduism and Buddhism acts are not classed as right or wrong because some divine revelation has said so, as is the case in Western religion. In the East the character of an action is determined solely by its effect on the actor, not on the whim of a deity or prophet. So Buddha further says:
A deed is not well done if one suffers after doing it, if one bears the consequences sobbing and with tears streaming down one’s face.

But a deed is well done if one does not suffer after doing it, if one experiences the consequences smiling and contented (Dhammapada 67-68).

Of course Buddha is speaking of the long-term or ultimate consequences of a deed. Many people rejoice at the successful accomplishment of an evil deed, but in time–even in another incarnation–the suffering will result. On the other hand, some people are unhappy at doing good because they do not understand the principle of karma. But in time they rejoice at the good they did. The important principle is the fact that all actions in time reveal their true nature. But until then:

A fool and his karma…

A fool thinks it like honey so long as the bad deed does not bear fruit, but when it does bear fruit he experiences suffering (Dhammapada 69).

“I got away with it!” so thinks the fool. Consequently, when the suffering starts he wails: “What did I do to deserve this?” Never learning, he keeps on perpetuating his misery. When will it end? That is all up to him.

Ascetic fools

There are not only self-indulgent fools, there are self-denying fools who think that by coercing and tormenting the body they will somehow become spiritual. Engaging in physical discipline enables them to stay intent on their favorite subjects: their bodies and their egos. The ascetic struggle takes up all their attention so they can utterly forget their true selves, their spirits. Of such persons Buddha remarks:

Even if a fool were to take his food month after month off the tip of a blade of grass, he would still not be worth a fraction of those who have understood the truth (Dhammapada 70).

Narada Thera translates this verse: “Month after month a fool may eat only as much food as can be picked up on the tip of a kusha grass blade; but he is not worth a sixteenth part of them who have comprehended the Truth [Dharma].”

If we saw someone who would eat each day only as much food as could be contained on the tip of a blade of grass, we would consider that he was living on–and in–spirit. But we would be wrong. He would only be an amazing fool. His incredible discipline and dedication would be only so much stupidity, but other fools would admire it greatly. (If you do not believe me, just go to India for a while.)

The expression “sixteenth part” is significant. In Indian thought, sentient beings upon the earth are classified in sixteen categories, from the most elementary to the most developed. To only be worth a sixteenth of a fully perfected human being is to be rated with the most elementary plant life such as moss or mold. And to not be even worth that would be as of no more worth than a pebble–not even alive. In the spiritual sense, those without awakened consciousness are not alive. They are insentient, though technically sentient.

It is easy to look at this negatively, as though Buddha is saying what worthless people such ascetics would be. But actually he is saying how great is the awakened person. It is a matter of praise, not blame. We should admire the wise, not despise the foolish.

Inevitable karma

Like fresh milk a bad deed does not turn at once. It follows a fool scorching him like a smoldering fire (Dhammapada 71).

Narada Thera renders it: “Verily, an evil deed committed does not immediately bear fruit, just as milk curdles not at once; smoldering, it follows the fool like fire covered with ashes.”

As already mentioned, the unwise think that they have gotten away with wrong action if it does not immediately rebound on them. Although there is such a thing as rapid karmic reaction, karma usually ripens like fruit before it falls off the universe-tree and hits us. It also takes a well-ripened mind to intuit this and know that “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7). Believing in one’s own immortality–actually eternity–carries a lot of connotations.

Beneath the ashes of our forgetfulness, especially forgetfulness of past lives, the karmas lie smoldering. We may feel their heat in a vague way and feel unease, but in time, as Harischandra Kaviratna translates it, the karma “suddenly blazes up” and burns us, much to our bewilderment, for we have long ago forgotten what we did to produce this result. No wonder human life is utter confusion most of the time.

A “knowledge” worse than ignorance

A fool acquires knowledge only to his own disadvantage. It destroys what good he has, and turns his brains (Dhammapada 72).

Narada Thera: “To his ruin, indeed, the fool gains knowledge and fame; they destroy his bright lot and cleave his head.”

All around us we see fools whose knowledge, little or great, is completely destructive. Consider how many scientific discoveries have rebounded to our detriment. Nothing good whatsoever has come from nuclear energy. There is hardly a greater or more harmful fraud than nuclear power plants. Like demons from a hideous fantasy they brood over the landscape, subtly poisoning everything in sight. Every single one is built at a cost ruinous to the economy and we have yet to see the “cheap” and “clean” power promised to us. Yet, addicted to death, governments will not learn and give them up. The very fact of nuclear waste should terrify them into abandoning such folly, but it never happens. And now we face the holocaust of genetic engineering.

In religion we find the most obvious evidence of Buddha’s assertion. The New Age is a carnival of foolishness, of idiocy based on fragmentary knowledge. Rare is the oyster who produces a round pearl; most oysters make misshapen globs. It is the same with fools; in them the seed of knowledge mutates into distorted ideas and actions. Tell a fool that Krishna says it is a delusion to think we have the power to kill or the capacity to be killed, and he will instantly state that murder is not so bad, then, especially murder of the unborn. “It’s all one” and “We are all God” are the slogans of spiritual and moral stupidity, even though they are statements of truth when found in the mouth of the wise.

As a yogi once told me: “Never teach either meditation or philosophy to crazy people. It will just compound their craziness, and add another tool for them to express their insanity. And it will give a bad reputation to what should be respected.” As Buddha says, it will crack their heads open. As an Eastern Christian priest once said to me about some mentally and morally degenerate people: “Those animals need a religion. But not my religion!” Just see what fools in the West are doing daily to utterly muddle and even destroy the great values of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Look at me, everybody!

One may desire a spurious respect [“undue reputation”–Narada Thera] and precedence among one’s fellow monks, and the veneration of outsiders. “Both monks and laity should think it was my doing. They should accept my authority in all matters great or small.” This is a fool’s way of thinking. His self-seeking and conceit just increase (Dhammapada 73, 74).

Success also ruins a fool. One achievement and he swaggers and boasts for life. These are the last people in the world that should have self-esteem or high self-image, but many are eager to bestow such nonsense on them. As the upanishads say: “Abiding in the midst of ignorance, wise in their own esteem, thinking themselves to be learned, fools treading a tortuous path go about like blind men led by one who is himself blind” (Katha Upanishad 1:2:5; Mundaka Upanishad 1.2.8).

Aryas have a healthy and reasonable desire to improve themselves and to succeed in worthwhile endeavors, but fools only want to glorify themselves and justify their egotism and arrogance. Here, too, a multitude of fools await to boost their morale and give them self-confidence and make things even worse for them and those unfortunate enough to come into contact with them. Only take a good look at politics throughout the world to see a riot of such fools.

The two ways

Buddha is not taking pleasure in delineating the ways of fools. He has a very positive and constructive purpose: finally pointing us to the way of wisdom. So he concludes by saying:

One way leads to acquisition, the other leads to Nirvana. Realizing this a monk, as a disciple of the Buddha, should take no pleasure in the respect of others, but should devote himself to solitude (Dhammapada 75).

Narada Thera gives a more accurate rendering: “Surely, the path that leads to worldly gain is one, and the path that leads to Nirvana is another; understanding this, the bhikkhu, the disciple of the Buddha, should not rejoice in worldly favors, but cultivate detachment [viveka].”

A disciple of the Buddha is one who is intent on the revelation of his own Buddhahood, his Buddha Nature. Seeing that the accolades of others lead only to addiction and hunger for more, he disregards all such and practices discrimination (viveka), seeing truly that the ways of the world are hollow, but filled with poison, in contrast to the Buddha Way which concentrates on real spiritual attainment rather than mere spiritual reputation. He finds his fulfillment in nothing less than the perfection of Nirvana.

“He whose happiness is within, whose delight is within, whose illumination is within: that yogi, identical in being with Brahman, attains Brahmanirvana. The seers whose evils have been annihilated, whose doubts have been dispelled, whose inner being is mastered, who rejoice in the welfare of all beings, attain Brahmanirvana. Released from desire and anger, with thoughts controlled, those ascetics who know the Self find very near [to them] the bliss of Brahmanirvana” (Bhagavad Gita 5:24-26).

Next article in the Dhammapada for Awakening: The Wise Man

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Chapters in the Dhammapada for Awakening:

Introduction to the Dhammapada

The History of the Dhammapada

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