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The Mind

Chapter 3 of the Dhammapada for Awakening

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Experience is surely the best teacher, but sometimes its lessons are discouraging. That is why Arjuna told Krishna: “The mind is truly unstable, troubling, strong and unyielding. I believe it is hard to control–as hard to control as the wind” (Bhagavad Gita 6:34).

Buddha, who could not have been unaware of Arjuna’s opinion, had this to say on the subject:

Elusive and unreliable as it is, the wise man straightens out his restless, agitated mind, like a fletcher crafting an arrow (Dhammapada 33).

Krishna replied to Arjuna: “With the buddhi firmly controlled, with the mind fixed on the Self, he should gain quietude by degrees. Let him not think of any [extraneous] thing whatever. Whenever the unsteady mind, moving here and there, wanders off, he should subdue and hold it back and direct it to the Self’s control” (Bhagavad Gita 6:25-26).

The wayward mind

Buddha lists four characteristics of the mind that render it so difficult to deal with, much less master.

Elusive. How many people know their minds? Virtually no one. That is why self-analysis (swadhyaya) can be such a revelation. The mind, being a bundle of illusions, has progressed through many incarnations from being a lie to being a liar with an unsettling half-life of its own. I never thought my mind was worth much consideration, but when I began meditating, and it began to have an effect and thus endanger the mind and ego, I discovered that the mind was virtually a separate person inside me. (In reality, the mind is separate from the Self.) After meditating a while my mind would say: “I am bored. My legs hurt. Why not quit?” If I ignored or told it to shut up it would keep on fussing. One time I said: “That’s right. I am bored. I am going to quit for now.” And my mind became completely quiet. I meditated about twenty more minutes and again my mind announced that it was time to quit. Again I said that I was going to quit, and even said what I was going to do after quitting. Once more: silence of mind. And so it went. It might seem funny, but it is really frightening.

Within us is an entirely false self–completely false, not a distortion of our real self, though it can imitate it when it suits its purpose. We are all schizophrenic. Our ego/mind is the escaped lunatic that threatens us every moment. It is elusive because it is ever-changing. This is seen in the account found in the Sri Devi Mahatmyam (Sri Durga Saptashati or Chandi) of the manifestation of the Goddess Durga to vanquish the demon Mahishasura. No matter how much she struck at him with her weapons, he kept changing and thereby eluding her. The mind’s capacity to change shape and even become invisible and undetectable is genuinely miraculous. How do you deal with something that can differ from moment to moment and disappear at will? As we evolve, so does the mind. The bigger we get, the bigger grows the net.

Unreliable. It is astounding that people almost never face the fact of the mind’s unreliability. (Actually, it usually never arises in their consciousness, so there is no question of facing it or not.) Again, the mind is a liar. It will tell us anything we want to hear or do not want to hear–whichever is the way to perpetuate its control over us. See how the likes and dislikes of the mind swing back and forth, ever changing. For many years people think they are so devoted to some spiritual ideal and in a moment they become either indifferent or inimical to it. It had always been no more than a puff of air. Buddha told his disciples that adherence to “views” was an obstacle. Why? Because they spring from the mind and are therefore nothing. Even an interest in Nirvana is meaningless when it comes from the mind rather than the deep intuition of the true Self. Most religion is nonsense because it is mind-based rather than spirit-based. We can count on nothing that the mind produces. “Well, I know one thing…,” says the deluded individual as he teeters on the brink of completely changing his “knowing.” The mind can never be trusted, the “spiritual” mind least of all.

Restless. Some translators prefer “difficult to guard.” The mind is like a restless horse, a mad elephant, even. How can it be held in check or guarded when it is intent only on that which worsens its condition? The mind constantly demands diversion of all sorts, even delighting in pain and suffering if it can get nothing else as a distraction. As an addict requires larger and larger doses, so does the mind demand increasingly powerful objects and situations for its absorption.

Agitated. That is what the mind becomes when it does not get its addictions supplied and increased. The mind is desperate in its pursuit of… EVERYTHING. If it had some order to its goals then there might be a chance. But there is nothing it does not want at some time or other, and nothing that it does not equally despise or ignore at some time or other.

The wise man straightens out his mind

Who would not be overwhelmed at this panorama of determined chaos? Yet the wise man sets himself to the task of straightening out his mind just as a maker of arrows straightens the shaft so it can be sent unerringly to its target by the skilled archer. So after this awful picture we are given hope: the wise man can and does bring the mind under his mastery and renders it accessible, reliable, calm, and content. How? Krishna put it in the briefest possible way: “Therefore be a yogi” (Bhagavad Gita 6:46). Meditation is the means by which we straighten and sharpen the arrow of the mind.


One of the goals of spiritual life is peace of mind, heart and life. But first there is often conflict, for spiritual life is a battle to the death with ignorance and ego. When we win that battle then there is peace, everlasting peace. But until then a lot of skirmishes and outright battles can occur. That is why Jesus declared so forthrightly: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). And: “I am come to send fire on the earth;…. Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division” (Luke 12:49, 51) between truth and untruth, between wisdom and folly, between the ego and the true Self. “Therefore, fight!” Krishna told Arjuna. (Bhagavad Gita 2:18) “Do not hesitate. Fight. You shall conquer the adversaries in battle” (Bhagavad Gita 11:34). The outcome of the battle is assured, but until then:

Terrible struggle

Trying to break out of the Tempter’s control, one’s mind writhes to and fro, like a fish pulled from its watery home onto dry ground (Dhammapada 34).

This is a rather horrid picture. I am sure many of us remember the terrible distress we felt the first time we saw people we loved and trusted pull a helpless fish from the water and indifferently watch it suffocate as it desperately flopped about, trying to regain the water. How we wanted to let it live! But they looked on our compassion as childish, confident that in time we would grow up and become as callous as they. Is it any wonder that Jesus counseled his disciples to “become as little children” (Matthew 18:3)?

In time many of us came to lose compassion for the helpless innocent, at the same time developing compassion and indulgence for the guilty: our own false ego. As a consequence, when the ego-mind and emotions are pressured or pained we lapse into self-pity and begin looking for a way out as desperately as the poor fish struggles to get back into the water. We, however, are just opposite to the fish. Whereas its return to the water is necessary for its continued life, we have become so horribly addicted to the false realm of death, both psychically and physically, that we mistake death for life and life for death. Like an addict deprived of his addictive substance, we feel that we will die without it and are willing to do anything to avoid our cure and maintain the addiction. Free will complicates this a great deal, for as long as we will to remain distorted and ignorant, just so long shall we remain that way. We can understand why Krishna said: “Truly this divine illusion (maya) of mine made of the gunas (gunamayi) is difficult to go beyond (penetrate; master)” (Bhagavad Gita 7:14). We are our own Maya!

It can be done

“Let this dissolution of union with pain be known (understood) as yoga. This yoga is to be practiced with determination (absence of doubt), with an assured (positive; optimistic) mind. Abandoning those desires whose origins lie in one’s intention–all of them without exception–also completely restraining the many senses by the mind, with the buddhi firmly controlled, with the mind fixed on the Self, he should gain quietude by degrees. Let him not think of any [extraneous] thing whatever. Whenever the unsteady mind, moving here and there, wanders off, he should subdue and hold it back and direct it to the Self’s control” (Bhagavad Gita 6:23-26). How simple. But in the meantime, we must face it: the mind is going to writhe in agony. The crucial question is: will it strive to return to the sleep of death or will it awaken into real life? “Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead” (Ephesians 5:14). “The man of restraint is awake in what is night for all beings. That in which all beings are awake is night for the sage who [truly] sees” (Bhagavad Gita 2:69),

The opponent

What are we struggling with? Richards employs the expression “the Tempter,” but the Pali text says Mara. Mara is the force of cosmic evil, but let us consider a moment. Can we be tempted by any thing whatsoever unless we first have an inner affinity for it? If a person dislikes some kind of food or drink, can anyone tempt him to eat or drink it? Not at all. Nor will it take any will power for him to refuse. If someone dislikes a certain activity, can he be tempted to engage in it? Never. In the same way the wise person who has seen through the tawdry and petty offerings of relative existence cannot be drawn toward them. He need not even resist, just ignore them as usual. Whether we call it Mara or Maya the truth is plain: if it cannot be found within us then it can move us not at all. This is why Jesus managed so easily when Mara-Satan tempted him. The secret? He was not tempted at all!

Could someone persuade us to once more do the things that so delighted us as infants or children? How interesting would our old toys seem if once more presented to us? Or the mindlessly repetitious games that we continually entreated our parents or other adults to play with us? Just look at children’s Saturday morning television programs. We cannot stand them. There is no need for us to resist, they have no attraction at all.


How easy it all sounds; but how tremendously difficult it is to pass from dream to awakening, from inner childhood to inner adulthood. It is a literal life-or-death struggle. And to succeed it must be constant. “Much superior to the intellect is the supreme intelligence (param buddhi). Having learned this, sustaining the [lower] Self by the [higher] Self, kill this difficult-to-encounter enemy which has the form of desire” (Bhagavad Gita 3:42-43).

We are ourselves the answer, the secret of success in spiritual striving. “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” (Bhagavad Gita 6:5-6).


We must free ourselves. None else can do it. Ascending the cross we must not come down until death has been transmuted into life. “For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory” (I Corinthians 15:53-54).

All the enemies that militate against us have been summoned by the One Enemy that flourishes within us. Once it is eliminated the enemies will not only be powerless against us, they will abandon the battlefield altogether. This is why more than once in the Bible we find the enemy vanquished without a single blow or stroke, fleeing and leaving behind everything. Also many aspects of our being that temporarily oppose us can be restored to us in peace as our own by right meditation. “Therefore, controlling the senses at the outset, kill this evil being, which destroys ordinary knowledge (jnana) and supreme knowledge (vijnana)” (Bhagavad Gita 3:41).


How do we do it? The simile of the fish tells us. The mind must be drawn out of the water of egoic life. That is, we must transfer our consciousness from the unreal to the Real, from darkness to the Light, from death to Immortality. We must transfer it from the kingdom of earth to the kingdom of heaven. And this is done in no haphazard manner but precisely and methodically through the sole transformer: meditation. “The yoga-yoked sage quickly attains Brahman” (Bhagavad Gita 5:6). “The yogi should fix his awareness constantly on the Self” (Bhagavad Gita 6:10). “He should practice yoga for the purpose of self-purification” (Bhagavad Gita 6:12). “When the mind comes to rest, restrained by the practice of yoga, beholding the Self by the Self, he is content in the Self. He knows that endless joy which is apprehended by the buddhi beyond the senses; and established in that he does not deviate from the truth (tattwatah: thatness)” (Bhagavad Gita 6:20-21). “With mind made steadfast by yoga, which turns not to anything else, to the Divine Supreme Spirit he goes, meditating on him” (Bhagavad Gita 8:8).

When we do this, we ensure that the fish of the mind will not be able to twist and flop its way back into the waters of samsara. “No purifier equal to knowledge is found here in the world. He who is himself perfected in yoga in time finds it [knowledge] in the Self. (4:38)

He who possesses faith attains knowledge. Devoted to that [pursuit], restraining the senses, having attained knowledge he quickly attains supreme peace” (Bhagavad Gita 4:38-39).

“Always disciplining himself thus, the yogi whose mind is subdued goes to the supreme peace of nirvana, and attains to union with me” (Bhagavad Gita 6:15).

The real “pursuit of happiness”

Through the ages people have been chasing after the silliest of things and situations in the belief that they will bring them happiness. But Buddha cuts through the nonsense and shows the only way, saying:

It is good to restrain one’s mind, uncontrollable, fast moving and following its own desires as it is. A disciplined mind leads to happiness (Dhammapada 35).

Both the Bhagavad Gita and the upanishads are echoed in this passage listing the problems of the mind: uncontrollable, fast moving and following its own desires. Buddha adds to the list, continuing:

A wise man should guard his mind for it is very hard to keep track of, extremely subtle and follows its own desires. A guarded mind brings happiness (Dhammapada 36).

In his translation Harischandra Kaviratna lists the mind as “incomprehensible,” and Max Muller employes the expression: “very artful.” How true that is. The mind is a mystery beyond mystery–actually more of a mystification. And in its tricky ways it truly is extremely artful. Yet we must outsmart it. The next verse tells how.

The mind goes wandering off far and wide alone. Incorporeal, it dwells in the cave of the heart. Those who keep it under control escape from Mara’s bonds (Dhammapada 37).

The “cave of the heart” is the lair of the mind. So those who track it down to the core of their being will be able to tame it. There is no drawing near to the cave of the heart except through meditation. As T. Byrom renders this verse: “With single-mindedness the master quells his thoughts. He ends their wandering. Seated in the cave of the heart, he finds freedom.” Through meditation all this is accomplished, and the pursuit of happiness ends in the eluding of delusion and death.

Wasted wisdom

If he is unsettled in mind, does not know the true Teaching, and has lost his peace of mind, a man’s wisdom does not come to fulfillment (Dhammapada 38).

Getting wisdom is hard enough, but that is not the ending of the matter. Those who have no real focus or knowledge of The Way–without which peace of mind is impossible–cannot bring their wisdom to fruition. A tool is valueless if there is no knowledge of its purpose or how to use it.


There can be no happiness where there is fear. So Buddha tells us:

With his mind free from the inflow of thoughts and from restlessness, by abandoning both good and evil, an alert man knows no fear (Dhammapada 39).

When we are no longer assaulted by thoughts and agitated by them, and when we feel no compulsion to do either good or evil but in perfect freedom of will do that which is RIGHT–that which is accordance with our true nature, then being awake even in the dark night of material existence, we shall have no fear. For that which makes fear possible shall have melted away in the flame of spiritual reality.

This is a beautiful thought, but Buddha did not come into the world to give pretty ideas, he came to show The Way. So he continues.

Understand the body

Seeing your body as no better than an earthen pot, make war on Mara with the sword of wisdom, and setting up your mind as a fortress, defend what you have won, remaining free from attachment (Dhammapada 40).

Foolishly we identify with the body and therefore order our lives according to its whims, demands and even its addictions. What a preposterous basis for the conduct of our life. But Buddha exhorts us to see that the body is no more than an earthen pot, ready at any moment to break and be discarded as nothing.

Far greater than the body is the indwelling consciousness; indeed it is for the sake of the consciousness that the body has been assumed. Therefore we should seize the sword of wisdom which cuts through the veils of ignorance, and make war on illusion and delusion (Mara), an enemy that dwells within, not without. This is why the only remedy is an internal process. Certainly, because the body so affects the mind, we need to provide external measures to make the internal process easier and more effective. This includes right conduct in all its aspects, which is the way to fortify the mind. Rousing up and honing the sword of wisdom in the mind, we shall conquer Mara; there is no doubt, for Mara itself is an illusion.

Defend yourself

One of the saddest experiences in human life is to see someone who has attained some measure of spiritual development slip back and lose the gained ground. Why does it happen? Simply because he did not defend and therefore safeguard what he had won, mostly because he had no idea of his danger. Having lived so long in the swirling waters of spiritual heedlessness, he felt secure as would a child.

One of the most important elements of spiritual awakening is awakening to the real dangers inherent in the world and in ourselves, since we are conditioned by the world. Once we begin walking the path to liberation in this world whose very nature is bondage, we are moving against an inexorable current of downward-moving force with which there can be no compromise or accommodation if we are not to fall back and be once more carried along in the descending stream. As Krishna urged Arjuna: “Stand up resolved to fight” (Bhagavad Gita 2:37). Buddha does not outline for us an easy or lackadaisical path any more than did Krishna or Jesus.

Free from attachment

But there is more. Buddha tells us to be free from attachment. This has two aspects. One is the common failing in which a person becomes satisfied with what has been gained, however small, and clings to that in self-congratulation with no intent of pressing onward to wider horizons of consciousness. The wise are never satisfied with their gains, but keep on seeking more. The other problem is becoming attached to our self-image as a seeker after enlightenment, and cultivating all that gives us the appearance of being so–with no interest as to whether we really are seeking, and even less interest in really attaining. One of the worst illusions of human beings is the belief that they are what others–and they themselves–think they are. They consider that if they look or act the part, then they are that which they look and act like. And being caught up in this costume drama, they can be distracted from reality for all of their life.

No more than wood!

Before long this body will be lying on the ground, discarded and unconscious, like a useless bit of wood (Dhammapada 41).

Buddha knows that body identification is at the root of much of our suffering. He has already pointed out its fragility, but knows that many can shrug that off, feeling that they will be healthy forever. So he makes us face our mortality, for although we may ignore our mortality, we cannot deny it.

Yet he points beyond the body when he speaks of it as “discarded.” Surely he has in mind the words of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita: “Even as a man casts off his worn-out clothes and then clothes himself in others which are new, so the embodied casts off worn-out bodies and then enters into others which are new” (Bhagavad Gita 2:22).

It is true. In time our body will be discarded, bereft of life and consciousness (which are really the same), as useless to ourself and others as scrap wood. Yet we in our true selves shall be alive and conscious, immortal beings. And that is the most important reason to heed the Buddha’s teachings. For he shows us the way to unveil our immortality–our eternity.

Mind: enemy/friend

“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” (Bhagavad Gita 6:5-6). So said Krishna. Some centuries later, Buddha told his hearers:

One’s own misdirected thought can do one more harm than an enemy or an ill-wisher (Dhammapada 42).

Harischandra Kaviratna renders it: “An ill-directed mind does greater harm to the self than a hater does to another hater or an enemy to another enemy.”

Sri Ramakrishna frequently said: “The mind is all.” Of course by “mind” he is including both the basic consciousness and its instruments, which include the senses, at least on a subtle level. The body certainly dominates our awareness, but it is continually seen that the mind dominates the body as well. In crisis situations, for example, people can do things that are supposedly beyond the capacity of the body. The mind is the ruler in the plane of relative existence.

The history of mankind in general and the personal history of just about every human on the earth demonstrates the destructive capabilities of a misdirected or uncontrolled mind. Why expound it? Anyone who is not aware of the facts is either subhuman or superhuman.

There are some points in which the fact of duality becomes advantageous, and this is one. For the same mind which harms can also do good. So Buddha continues:

Even your mother, father or any other relative cannot do you as much good as your own properly directed thought (Dhammapada 43).

“Not a mother, not a father will do so much, nor any other relative; a well-directed mind will do us greater service” is the Max Muller translation. The reason should not be hard to figure out. Mother, father, or any other human being is outside us, whereas the mind is within us.

So in these few verses Buddha has shown the way to the fulfillment of our pursuit of true happiness, of that true bliss (ananda) that is our Self.

First article of the Dhammapada for Awakening: Flowers

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Chapters in the Dhammapada for Awakening:

Introduction to the Dhammapada

The History of the Dhammapada

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