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The Self (Atta Vagga)

Chapter 12 of the Dhammapada for Awakening

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Yes, Buddha believed in the existence of the Self, and now we will see what Buddha really taught about the Self.


If one holds oneself dear, one should protect oneself well. During every one of the three watches the wise man should keep vigil (Dhammapada 157–Narada Thera).

If one holds oneself dear, one should protect oneself well. This sentence tells us two things: everyone living in this samsara is in danger from both outer and inner forces. While we should not be fearful, we should be cautious and never overconfident. Second, we must protect ourself, not depending on others to do so. Buddha is telling us that we are fully capable of protecting ourselves, but we must learn how. This is an essential part of dharma. But we must not protect ourselves in a slipshod or minimal way, we must protect ourself well: completely and perfectly. This is no simple matter, and this is no facile platitude we are considering.

During every one of the three watches the wise man should keep vigil. The translation of Thanissaro Bhikkhu says that the three watches are the three stages of life: childhood, adulthood and old age. The habit of wisdom should be established even when we are young. If not, then we must be vigilant throughout the remaining two watches. Dharma is a lifelong activity.

First he should establish himself in what is right. Then if he teaches others, the wise man will not be corrupted (Dhammapada 158).

There are also two aspects to this. First is that a teacher should be absolutely firm in his observance of dharma before he presumes to teach another. Second is the implication that if he is not so established, then eventually he will be corrupted. This is seen over and over in every religion and especially in the case of so many contemporary “gurus.” In fact, teaching itself is risky, for it is easy for the ego to sneak in and ruin everything. Once the teacher ego grips the individual, his doom is sealed. I have never seen even one person escape from that terrible predator of souls. Rare and blessed are those who teach without falling into that deep pit, and blessed are those who learn from them.

If one would only apply to oneself what one teaches others, when one was well disciplined oneself one could train others. It is oneself who is hard to train (Dhammapada 159).

Greater is he who is his own master than he who numbers his disciples in the thousands. The lives of true masters reveal that they spent many years in discipline and spiritual practice before even considering teaching others. If such great ones do not teach until well-established, then lesser teachers should beware.

One is one’s own guardian. What other guardian could one have? With oneself well disciplined one obtains a rare guardian indeed (Dhammapada 160).

This needs no explanation, but merits a long and serious pondering. For we can look outward for nothing–only within.

The self-destructing fool

The evil he has done himself and which had its origin and being in himself breaks a fool, like a diamond breaks a precious stone (Dhammapada 161).

The greatest disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda was an elderly nun called Sister Gyanamata, Mother of Wisdom. One time another nun asked her for general spiritual advice, and she wrote her a short note in which she said: “Your own will always come to you. Indeed you can have nothing but your own.” This is a perfect statement of the absolute law we call karma. The egotist tries to weasel out of such responsibility, blaming God, nature, human beings, genetics, society, and whatnot, but never himself. As the Pali verse says: “I have nothing but my actions. I shall never have anything but my actions” in the form of karma. This is bedrock truth.

Evil karma originates in the individual and eventually crushes him if he does not apply himself to wisdom. It is not an outside force at all, but his own misapplied inner will-power turning back on him. Those who take refuge in wisdom gain the ability to become stronger during such karmic onslaughts, and rise above them to greater wisdom. It is also possible to erase all evil karmas through self-purification and enlightenment. So it is not fatalistic, but a matter of our own good sense or our continuance in ignorance.

A man of immorality is like a creeper, suffocating the tree it is on. He does to himself just what an enemy would wish him (Dhammapada 162).

Truly, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), death of the inner consciousness, death of conscience, death of wisdom-discrimination and ultimate destruction-death of the body. The first time I read the Gita I was impressed by many passages, one of which was: “For a man dwelling on the objects of the senses, attachment to them is born. From attachment desire is born. And from [thwarted] desire anger is born. From anger arises delusion; from delusion, loss of memory; from loss of memory, destruction of intelligence (buddhi). From destruction of intelligence one is lost” (Bhagavad Gita 2:62-63). Buddha is saying the same. The immoral person is a spiritual and mental suicide–and often a physical one, too. He is his own enemy and works his own destruction.

Easy evil

Things which are wrong and to one’s own disadvantage are easily enough done, while what is both good and advantageous is extremely hard to do (Dhammapada 163).

This is the terrible dilemma of the human being, rooted in millions (if not billions) of lives in subhuman forms and then untold lives in deluded human situations. Since the problem is not intellectual but instinctual, no amount of intellectual activity or even emotional attempts will dislodge these delusions. We have to directly dissolve them in their form as bundles or aggregates of subconscious impressions known as vasanas. We have to engage in hand-to-hand struggles with them by entering the subconscious through the practice of meditation and dispelling them. This is the only way, and is not as difficult or traumatic as it might be expected, for: “Greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world” (I John 4:4), meaning that our true Self, our Atman, is far more powerful than the delusive ego-mind that is only in the world, only a mass of vibrating energy, in itself nothing at all.

Once the mind has become purified of these vasanas and positive qualities have been established in the mind, the opposite occurs. Then evil is hard, even impossible, and good is easy and natural. It is all a matter of energy constructs in the form of samskaras and vasanas. That is why the Gita says: “One acts according to one’s own prakriti–even the wise man does so. Beings follow their own prakriti; what will restraint accomplish?” (Bhagavad Gita 3:33). This is a very important truth. Our actions spring not from our true Self, but from the energy levels in which the Self is enwrapped. So it is not our Self we need to change, but those subtle life energies that have been trained by our own actions to behave in a negative and detrimental manner. It is a matter of re-education, and that is the purpose of yoga.

Without yoga any lasting reformation is virtually impossible. People often undergo certain psychological upheavals and for a while the mind seems changed. But in time, or even in a future incarnation, the evil habits return. Jesus was talking about this, saying: “When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first” (Matthew 12:43-45).

“Therefore, be a yogi” (Bhagavad Gita 6:46).

Those who speak ill of dharma

The fool, who out of attachment to a wrong view speaks ill of the religion of the enlightened and noble ones who live according to truth, brings forth fruit to his own downfall, like the offspring of the bamboo (Dhammapada 164).

Narada Thera is definitely more accurate: “The stupid man who, on account of false views, scorns the teaching of the Arahants, the Noble Ones [Ariyas], and the Righteous [Dharmic], ripens like the fruit of the kashta reed, only for his own destruction.”

It is not impossible that some of us have been in this situation. I know that, being blinded by the idiocies of my birth religion, I said a lot of stupid things about reincarnation, though without dislike or malice. Later on a lot of people around me–and even some I met for one time only–spoke with hatred and contempt about Sanatana Dharma and Yoga when I began to realize their truth and value. I was threatened with being outcast from society (what a great idea!), being possessed by demons, and being put in a mental institution if I persisted in “this craziness.” The viciousness with which this was done was shocking. Perhaps you, too, have experienced the same. I think it is a very reliable sign of being on the right track. As Jesus said to such people: “Ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in” (Matthew 23:13).

There is an evil intuition operative in many negative people which is an accurate indication of good and evil. The thing to remember is that what they hate is good and what they like is evil. Some years before the explosions I have just described I had figured this out. So instead of doubt being instilled in me when I encountered opposition from such people, my resolve to pursue the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita and Yoga was strengthened by confidence in the intuition of the foolish who loved untruth and unrighteousness. It helped that I moved halfway across the continent to study yoga, but even there I continued to occasionally meet with those about whom Sri Ramakrishna spoke in this way: “Worldly people say all kinds of things about the spiritually minded. But look here! When an elephant moves along the street, any number of curs and other small animals may bark and cry after it; but the elephant doesn’t even look back at them.” So in such situations we must be elephants!

Apparently the kashta reed flourishes until it bears fruit, and then it quickly dies. So Buddha tells us that those who mock and defame dharma do so to their own destruction–not because they are punished, but because the karma of rejection reacts to further darken their understanding. This is especially true if they are doing so under the impulse of inner negativity. If they do so in misguided sincerity without malice, in some instances it actually works to their benefit and in time they embrace the truth they once rejected. Saint Paul is a classic example. The aunt and uncle of a friend of mine went to China to save the heathen, but instead embraced Buddhism themselves and became advocates of dharma. It all depends upon the quality of the heart.

Sole responsibility

By oneself one does evil. By oneself one is defiled. By oneself one abstains from evil. By oneself one is purified. Purity and impurity are personal matters. No one can purify someone else (Dhammapada 165).

Next to the Four Aryan Truths and the Eightfold Aryan Path, this is perhaps the most important of Buddha’s philosophical teachings. It is uncompromising truth: our life is in our hands and ours alone. Yes, we can be influenced by others and even have others affect our life–but it is our choice to do so and we determine to what degree we will be affected. Certainly we reach into the world around us and take to ourselves various elements, but we do that intentionally.

Those who wish to escape responsibility insist that something is beyond their control, that they could not help themselves in a certain situation. But even those situations and that susceptibility were determined by them previously. For example, if a person builds a brick wall incompetently and it falls on him and injures him, he certainly did not build it with that as his purpose, but his incompetence brought the injury about, so at the root it was all in his sphere, no one else’s. What about those harmed or even killed in “natural disasters”? That was their karma which they themselves created, and on a subliminal level they understood all the implications when they created that karma.

Another example occurred to a healer friend of mind. It was his practice to tune in with the inner mind of a person before attempting to heal them (actually, he taught them to heal themselves). When he tuned into a little girl who was severely mentally retarded, to his shock a deep, male voice shouted: “Leave me alone, I know what I am doing!” He realized this was the voice of the child’s former personality, and that the retardation was for a purpose, and she was retarded by her own choice. Occasionally he would tune in to her and ask: “Have you learned what you need, yet?” “No,” would be the answer. Then one day her inner mind said: “Yes. You can help me now.” And that girl became totally normal. So here we see that it is all our choice, even when another factor enters our life and changes it.

Buddha spoke these words to people who had already produced in themselves a significant degree of awakening. Yet they (yes, by their choice) still carried with them mistaken ideas from past religious experience, including the fundamental bane of most religion: the attribution of responsibility to forces other than themselves, especially the reflexive attribution of everything to God. But now they had chosen to approach Buddha to be freed from those childish beliefs, and he did not fail them. Those clinging to the errors of the past accused Buddha of being atheistic, but he was not. You might just as well call someone atheistic if they said God had nothing to do with their cooking failures. Being the Source of all, everything involves God. But there are certain areas in which human beings control everything, and their life is one of them. God has manifested all the worlds and the various forms in which we incarnate. God has also woven various laws into the fabric of relative existence which operate at all times without exception. The universe is a great interactive school of learning set up so the students can teach themselves–a kind of ultimate Montessori school. The use, misuse, or neglect of the school and the opportunities it offers are solely the choice of each student.


Buddha gave another not very popular teaching already mentioned: one of the signs of awakening is the ability to feel shame–yes, guilt. Morality is of prime concern in the dharma of Buddha, despite the fact that Westerners flock to Buddhism (or a deformation of it) to get away from “Judeo-Christian morality.” Vain hope! All Eastern religions have moral principles far more complex and realistic than those of Western religions. The difference is, they are voluntary and are not forced on others. That is of course a better situation, but anyone who thinks they can shake their guilt by “turning East” are self-deluded.

The practical side to moral principles is the capacity of the individual for both defilement and purification. Therefore Buddha taught:

By oneself one does evil. No one else is involved in the final analysis, for we act solely from our own ever-free will. Even a bent or perverted will got that way by a person’s own past choices. So their apparent bondage is the result of the exercise of free will. It is habitual with people to blame environment, other people, disadvantages, etc., but action is done only by each one of us. That is why in one of the Pali sutras there is a section which contains statements such as: “There shall be lying, but we shall not lie. There shall be killing, but we shall not kill. There shall be stealing, but we shall not steal.” This is the way it must be understood. We are not herd animals, even though society is usually nothing more than a herd. We are individuals with our own minds and wills. If we choose to run with the herd, it is still all our doing. A sensible aspirant knows that all around him people will be engaging in adharmic actions, and that should not influence him in the least. Yes, there will be wrongdoing, but we shall not do wrong. Wrong actions condition the mind and will to wrongdoing, but that is our choice. We do not do wrong because our wills are weak, but because they are strong and we have pointed them in the wrong direction.

By oneself one is defiled. Much of this has just been covered. Eastern religion understands that wrongdoing does not anger God, but that it brings negative results in the form of karma into our lives and even worse, it defiles our minds and hearts, darkening and distorting them. This latter is the worst part, because karma can be exhausted, but defilement stays on, inclining us to more of the same negative actions.

By oneself one abstains from evil. Again, this is not a group thing, it is totally individual, although we can certainly draw inspiration from others to apply our free will in the right direction. Still, it is a completely personal, private matter. People who cannot stand alone on their own simply will not succeed in the pursuit of higher life. It is not for weaklings, whiners or cowards. That is why spiritual teachers often use examples from military life, and the Bhagavad Gita is set on a battlefield.

By oneself one is purified. Purification is possible, this is Buddha’s message of hope, and it can be fully accomplished by us, by our free will. In Parsifal, Parsifal touches the spear to the wounded side of Amfortas, saying: “That which wounded alone can heal.” The spear represents the will of the individual. Of course we must know the way to purify ourself, not just cover up the wounds. Meditation is the supreme healer through self-purification.

Purity and impurity are personal matters. No, we did not inherit a propensity to evil from Adam, ancestors, racial memory, collective unconscious, our parents or society. Many people try to blame traumatic experiences, but those experiences came about because they were their karma, results of their past deeds committed through free will. There are no victims, only reapers of personal karma. Good and evil, purity and impurity, are our choice alone.

No one can purify someone else. How important this is! False religion and false gurus pretend to be able to purify us, forgive our sins and take away our karma. NOT AT ALL. It is a destructive mythology, no matter how sincere it may be. No one takes away our sins, not even us. We must purify ourselves. Sometimes in yogic treatises it will be stated that a practice burns away or washes away impurities, but it is the individual’s engaging in the practice that purifies. And that is a matter of will and action.

Actually we see this principle in the life of Jesus. Many times when people were healed by his touch he would assure them that their own faith was what healed them. This was not modesty, but honesty. Their faith and their effort in coming to him was a healing karma, and even more it was an opening, an allying of their will with his. So their healing was their doing, although Jesus was the instrument.

We are the answer to our own problems once we know the way to higher life and consciousness.

Right Priorities

One should not neglect one’s own welfare for that of someone else, however great [the need]. When one has understood what one’s own welfare really consists of, one should apply oneself to that welfare (Dhammapada 166).

Narada Thera: “For the sake of others’ welfare, however great, let not one neglect one’s own welfare. Clearly perceiving one’s own welfare, let one be intent on one’s own goal.”

One should not neglect one’s own welfare for that of someone else, however great. The idea that we should neglect our well-being for that of others is a very destructive and widespread delusion based solidly on ego. I knew a woman who told me that every time she sat to meditate either the phone or the doorbell would ring, and she would have to go help others. “My feeling is: ‘Lord, it is you I am helping through all these forms,’” was her explanation to me. She was wrong. The help she gave was first of all superficial, no matter how emotionally charged it might have been and how desperately she was asked for it.

This is one of the tests that the sadhaka undergoes when beginning to make progress. It is one of Mara’s (Maya’s, Satan’s) cleverest ploys, because falling for it makes us look good–compassionate–and refusing it makes us look bad–selfish and hardhearted. Ego chooses to “feel good about myself” every time. In Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:9-14), the Pharisee who felt good about himself gained nothing, but the Publican who acknowledged his weakness was benefitted.

Another example from Jesus, who spent years in India studying, is the parable of the wise and foolish virgins waiting for the bridegroom to escort him to the home of his bride (Matthew 25:1-12). The wise took extra oil for their lamps and the foolish did not, so when the groom was delayed the oil in their lamps was consumed. “And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out. But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.” It is the same with the yogi: he dare not risk depleting his own spiritual resources for the (alleged) benefit of others, but they will have to tap their own inner power and act by it. Sri Ramakrishna often spoke of those who have not earned even a few rupees and yet want to give away thousands in charity. Even more, he said that a yogi could deplete all his spiritual power just to get someone on the spiritual path, and then they would come to nothing and so would he. Sadhaka, beware.

When one has understood what one’s own welfare really consists of, one should apply oneself to that welfare. There we really have it all summed up. When we understand that liberation is our only real welfare–and therefore that of others–then we will strive for that single-mindedly and whole-heartedly, understanding that others will have to do the same, that each person gains his own welfare, no one else can do it for him or them. To know the truth of karma, rebirth and the possibility of realization, and yet to do either nothing or very little about it is great folly–a waste of an entire lifetime and creation of the habit of spiritual neglect that will reach into future lives.

Next article in the Dhammapada for Awakening: The World

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Chapters in the Dhammapada for Awakening:

Introduction to the Dhammapada

The History of the Dhammapada

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