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The Righteous (Dharmic) One

Chapter 19 of the Dhammapada for Awakening

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The righteous judge

One is not righteous if one decides a case without due consideration, but the wise man who takes into account both for and against, and comes to his decision about others with due consideration–such a man of discrimination who keeps to the truth, he is to be called righteous (Dhammapada 256, 257).

Thanissaro Bhikkhu: “To pass judgment hurriedly does not mean you are a judge. The wise one, weighing both the right judgment and wrong, judges others impartially–unhurriedly, in line with the Dharma, guarding the Dharma, guarded by Dharma, intelligent: he is called a judge.”

This might not seem a particularly spiritual subject, but that is because in the West we have been conditioned to think dualistically, and that includes separating the material from the spiritual rather than seeing them as a single thing: life. This has also given rise to the idea that a material person will be practical and a spiritual person will be impractical. But Sri Ramakrishna said: “If you can weigh salt, you can weigh sugar,” and he insisted that his disciples first of all learn to be methodical and practical and to guard themselves against carelessness and indifference. He especially insisted that they never let themselves be cheated or taken advantage of, as that would be passive cooperation with dishonesty and would blunt their moral sense. In the same way Buddha is saying that we must be careful in all our judgments, never being hasty and always seeing all aspects of a situation. Most important, all our valuations should be in line with dharma and an expression of dharma. Further, when we come to a decision we should abide by it and order all things in accordance with what we know to be the dharmic position. Moral rectitude is an absolute essential for those seeking liberation (nirvana).

The truly learned

One is not a learned man by virtue of much speaking. He who is patient, without anger and fearless, he is to be called learned (Dhammapada 258).

I always cringe when I hear the authority of scholars, theologians or experts invoked in any matter, because in modern times these are simply misinformed and mentally shallow people who think much of themselves and get others to do the same. It is much better for all of us to use our own heads and learn about things for ourself. Nevertheless, those who talk and write a lot become “experts” on subjects they know next to nothing about. They not only know little, that little is misunderstood by them and their conclusions are absurd and even harmful.

Buddha give us three traits of a learned person. He is not saying that possessing these three qualities make a person learned, but that a truly learned person will have these qualities, otherwise we should not trust what he says. A wise man is patient because he is calm and humble, and because he is aware of his own and others’ limitations. He is without anger because he is a master of all passions and the ego from which they arise. He is fearless because he possesses a mental and spiritual integrity that cannot be shaken or compromised.

Maintainer of the dharma

One is not a bearer of the teaching [dharma] by virtue of much speaking, but he who, even if he has only studied a little, has experienced the truth in person, he is indeed a bearer of the teaching, who has not forgotten the teaching (Dhammapada 259).

This is always the viewpoint of the yogi: only direct experience is true knowing (jnana), and those who never forget or lose that experience are the true bearers of dharma. This is because the purpose of dharma is jnana, not just intellectual ideas. Dharma is nothing if it does not lead to jnana.

An elder

One is not an elder [thera] by virtue of having white hair. One is just advanced in years, and called “grown old in vain.” He in whom there is truthfulness, non-violence, restraint and self control, however–that wise and faultless sage is to be called an elder (Dhammapada 260, 261).

Respect for age is a hallmark of a worthy civilization, but we should not think that mere age is a sign of knowledge or even experience. Most people truly do “grow old in vain”–that is, they gain nothing through the years but continue as unheeding and unaware of higher things as when they were children. This was something I knew long before I went to school. Looking at those around me, including my parents, I realized that when they died they would have done nothing, learned nothing, been nowhere and become nothing. And so it was. Not one did, learned, saw or became anything. Their lives amounted to zero. “When they die it will be as though they never lived,” was my conviction, which they themselves proved to be true. Consequently I had a real horror of being a “nothing.” And so should everyone.

Truthful, non-violent, restrained, self-controlled and purified by those qualities–such is the real “elder of wisdom.”

The admirable one

It is not just by fine speech or by flower-like beauty that one is admirable, if one is envious, mean and deceitful, but when that sort of behavior has been eliminated, rooted out and destroyed, that faultless sage is said to be admirable (Dhammapada 262, 263).

This is quite straightforward, but it is true that Westerners interested in Eastern thought are extremely susceptible to external appearance in those they regard as teachers. If the teacher looks impressive, they are impressed, if they speak in an inspirational manner they are inspired, if they speak with authority they are convinced. But it is all superficial impression without any actual basis. The unimpressive, self-effacing, simply clothed and simply behaved teachers of righteousness who are worthy of great reverence–those who have long ago eliminated the egoistic impulses that motivate the flashy teachers–are ignored. “I was not impressed,” is the verdict. It takes intelligence and intuition to recognize the worthy teachers, so they have few students in comparison with the glitter-gurus. In time the negative character of the glitterati is revealed, but the dupes keep right on adoring whichever glitterati take their place in their life.

Great masters of the spiritual life have been coming and going for nearly a century here in America, but few–mostly Indians–even knew about them because they avoided publicity and were interested only in spiritually benefiting those they came into contact with. The kind of people that gathered around them had no interest in publicity and institutionalization. The glitter-gurus attracted just the opposite–those who understood that if they exalted the guru then they, too, would be exalted by association and eventually would have access to power and money. One group was making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, and when their guru was caught out being immoral they just kicked him out of the ashram and kept right on raking in the cash. He immediately went to the west coast and picked up another group of opportunists and parasites and kept right on. But it makes no difference: the real seekers find the real teachers, and the fakes find the frauds.

The real monk

A shaven head does not make one a man of religion, if one is irreligious and untruthful. How could a man full of desires and greed be a man of religion? But when a man has put aside all evil deeds, both great and small, by that putting away of evil deeds he is indeed called a man of religion (Dhammapada 264, 265).

Harischandra Kaviratna: “Not by tonsure does one who is undisciplined and utters lies become a monk. How can he who is overcome by desire and greed become a monk? But he who constantly stills his evil tendencies, small or great, is called a true monk (samana), because he has quieted all these evils.”

One of the great problems of the East is the way young men flood into monastic life simply because they know they will be assured of clothing, food and shelter for the rest of their life without doing a thing to merit them. Criminals often join the monastic life hoping that their shaven head and monastic garb will disguise them from the police, who will not be looking for them in a holy place, anyway. Some become monks because they cannot get a job. Malcontents often get a fit of renunciation and become monks at least for a while so they can get away from their worldly obligations, including wife and children, and often debts. Sri Ramakrishna said: “There is a kind of renunciation, called markatavairagya, ‘monkey renunciation.’ A man, harrowed by distress at home, puts on an ochre robe and goes away to Benares. For many days he does not send home any news of himself. Then he writes to his people: ‘Don’t be worried about me. I have got a job here.’” Because of this people lose respect for monks and the worthy monks suffer because of it. Often a sincere young man finds himself surrounded by men whose morals and character are worse than any he had encountered before coming to the monastery. It was so in Buddha’s time and before and since then. Many, if not most, of the present-day glitter gurus became monks solely because it would enhance their careers. And they make others monks to be their staff and promoters. For this reason monks should be carefully scrutinized before being accepted as such.

One is not a bhikkhu by virtue of taking alms from others. By taking up any old teaching, one is not a bhikkhu on that account. But he who has here and now ejected both good and evil, and in leading the holy life lives in accordance with reason–he is indeed called a bhikkhu (Dhammapada 266, 267).

Narada Thera: “He is not thereby a bhikkhu merely because he begs from others; by following the whole code (of morality) one certainly becomes a bhikkhu and not (merely) by such begging. Herein he who has transcended both good and evil, whose conduct is sublime, who lives with understanding in this world, he, indeed, is called a bhikkhu.” Harischandra Kaviratna: “He is not a religious mendicant because he begs alms from others. He does not become a bhikkhu merely by outward observances of the Law. But he who has transcended both merit and demerit, who leads a life of purity and lives in this world in full realization of the Truth, he indeed is called a bhikkhu.” Thanissaro Bhikkhu: “Begging from others does not mean one is a monk. As long as one follows householders’ ways, one is no monk at all. But whoever puts aside both merit and evil and, living the chaste life, judiciously goes through the world: he’s called a monk.”

By looking at all four of these translations we can get a good idea of what Buddha intended to say. Two points strike me in reading them. One, a monastic must have a completely different mode of life, a completely different psychology, actually, from that of worldlings. Two, he must live in a thoroughly sensible and practical manner. There is no place for the fiction of “crazy wisdom” here, nor the pretense that a monastic of advanced spiritual realization is somehow beyond the rules of right conduct. A fool is a fool; a loony is a loony. No real monk is either of these. And he certainly is not a liar and a scoundrel.

The sage

Silence does not make a sage [muni] if he is stupid and ignorant, but when a man avoids evil as if he were choosing something of value on the scales–he is a sage. That indeed makes him a sage. He who discriminates in both worlds is for that reason called a sage (Dhammapada 268-269).

Except in the realms of media, politics and entertainment, stupid and ignorant people do not attain anything in this world, and certainly not in the spiritual realm. That is a fact. One of the worst mistakes of religion is trying to accommodate everybody, including the stupid and ignorant, the indifferent and the unfit. That, too, is a fact.

A worthy person avoids evil because he sees that virtue is of great value, not because he wants people to have a good impression of him or fears punishment for sin–and that includes fear of bad karma. True morality is a positive character, a reaching out for the good, not just the avoidance of the bad.

Those who even now are at home in both the material and spiritual worlds, and who live intelligently in each one, aware of the innate laws of both, are sages, none other.

The aryan

One is not noble [arya] if one harms other living creatures. It is by non violence [ahimsa] to all forms of life that one is called noble (Dhammapada 270).

This is absolutely so. The Venerable Narada Thera includes the background-story of each verse of the Dhammapada. Regarding this one, the story is: “A man named Arya was fishing. The Buddha told him that one did not become an Arya by harming others.” This should be taken seriously as an indication that Buddha advocated strict abstinence from the flesh of sentient beings. (It is a shame that such a point need even be made.) Further, this shows that vegetarianism was originally a tenet of Theravada Buddhism, just as does the fact that when Ashoka, Emperor of India, adopted the Theravada school personally he immediately outlawed animal slaughter and the eating of meat throughout India.

True peace

It is not just by means of morality and religious observances, not by great learning nor by attainments in meditation, nor by living alone, nor by thinking, “I am enjoying a spiritual happiness which ordinary people do not know” that a bhikkhu achieves peace if he has not achieved the elimination of inflowing thoughts (Dhammapada 271-272).

This is a surprising verse, but nonetheless true. Only when a person’s mind no longer is conditioned by or responds to external and internal stimuli does he have peace. This is why Patanjali defines yoga as the non-arising of modifications of the mind–that is, when the mind is in a state in which no response can be provoked in any way, but is completely under the control of the yogi’s will as to response or non-response. “One should not exult when encountering what is liked, and one should not be repulsed when encountering the disliked. With firm intellect, undeluded, the knower of Brahman is established in Brahman. He whose Self is unattached to external contacts, who finds happiness in the Self, whose Self is united to Brahman by yoga, reaches imperishable happiness” (Bhagavad Gita 5:20-21).

Next article in the Dhammapada for Awakening: The Way

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Chapters in the Dhammapada for Awakening:

Introduction to the Dhammapada

The History of the Dhammapada

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