Experience is surely the best teacher, but sometimes its lessons are discouraging. That is why Arjuna told Krishna: “Restless man’s mind is, so strongly shaken in the grip of the senses: gross and grown hard with stubborn desire for what is worldly. How shall he tame it? Truly, I think the wind is no wilder” (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: “Patiently, little by little, a man must free himself from all mental distractions, with the aid of the intelligent will. He must fix his mind upon the Atman, and never think of anything else. No matter where the restless and the unquiet mind wanders, it must be drawn back and made to submit to the Atman only” (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 (and she needed a great many to deal with his many mutations), 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? (“What problem?” “What illusion?” “What mind?”) 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 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 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: “Become a yogi” (Bhagavad Gita 6:46). Meditation is the means by which we straighten and sharpen the arrow of the mind.
One of the most unfortunate misunderstandings about spiritual life is that it should almost immediately bring peace to our minds and lives–to many, peace is the only purpose of spiritual practice. Just the opposite is true. The purpose of spiritual life is conflict–a battle to the death with ignorance and ego. When we win that battle then there is peace–everlasting peace. But until then: War. 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 you must fight,” Krishna told Arjuna. (Bhagavad Gita 2:18) “Fight, and have no fear. The foe is yours to conquer” (Bhagavad Gita 11:34). The outcome of the battle is assured, but until then:
“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 was 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: “How hard to break through is this, my Maya!” (Bhagavad Gita 7:14). We are our own Maya! Yet it must be done.
It can be done
“To achieve this certainty is to know the real meaning of the word yoga. It is the breaking of contact with pain. You must practice this yoga resolutely, without losing heart. Renounce all your desires, for ever. They spring from willfulness. Use your discrimination to restrain the whole pack of the scattering senses. Patiently, little by little, a man must free himself from all mental distractions, with the aid of the intelligent will. He must fix his mind upon the Atman, and never think of anything else. No matter where the restless and the unquiet mind wanders, it must be drawn back and made to submit to the Atman only” (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 recollected mind is awake in the knowledge of the Atman which is dark night to the ignorant: the ignorant are awake in their sense-life which they think is daylight: to the seer it is darkness” (Bhagavad Gita 2:69),
What are we struggling with? Richards employs the expression “the Tempter,” but the Pali 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 who have 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. “You must know Him who is above the intelligent will. Get control of the mind through spiritual discrimination. Then destroy your elusive enemy” (Bhagavad Gita 3:43).
We are ourselves the answer, the secret of success in spiritual striving. “What is man’s will and how shall he use it? Let him put forth its power to uncover the Atman, not hide the Atman: man’s will is the only friend of the Atman: his will is also the Atman’s enemy. For when a man is self-controlled, his will is the Atman’s friend. But the will of an uncontrolled man is hostile to the Atman, 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. That is, those aspects of our being that we thought were opposing us and in the enemy camp will be restored to us in peace as our own by right. “Therefore you must first control your senses, then kill this evil thing which obstructs discriminative knowledge and realization of the Atman” (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. “Yoga purifies the man of meditation, bringing him soon to Brahman” (Bhagavad Gita 5:6). “He should meditate on the Atman unceasingly” (Bhagavad Gita 6:10). “If he practices meditation in this manner, his heart will become pure” (Bhagavad Gita 6:12). “When, through the practice of yoga, the mind ceases its restless movements, and becomes still, he realizes the Atman. It satisfies him entirely.…He stands firm in this realization. Because of it, he can never again wander from the inmost truth of his being” (Bhagavad Gita 6:20 21). “Make a habit of practicing meditation, and do not let your mind be distracted. In this way you will come finally to the Lord, who is the light-giver, the highest of the high” (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. “On earth there is no purifier as great as this knowledge. When a man is made perfect in yoga, he knows its truth within his heart. The man of faith, whose heart is devoted, whose senses are mastered: he finds Brahman. Enlightened, he passes at once to the highest, the peace beyond passion” (Bhagavad Gita 4:38, 39).
“If a yogi has perfect control over his mind, and struggles continually in this way to unite himself with Brahman, he will come at last to the crowning peace of Nirvana, the peace that is in 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 cavern 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 that 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.
“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 to be 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, and 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.
One of the saddest events 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 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 and 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 so 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 and “feeling alive” 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 shall be alive and conscious, immortal beings. And that is the most important reason to heed the Buddha’s teachings. For he shows us to way to unveil our immortality–our eternity.
“He should lift himself by the Self; he should never degrade himself; the Self is indeed the self’s friend, and the self’s only enemy. For him who has conquered himself by the Self, the Self is a friend; but for him who has not conquered himself, the Self remains a foe” (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 in “mind” he is including both the basic consciousness and its instruments, which would 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. 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 sub-or-super-human.
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
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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