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The Way

Chapter 20 of the Dhammapada for Awakening

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Of paths the Eightfold one is best, and of truths the Fourfold. Dispassion is the best of mental states, and of human beings the best is the seer (Dhammapada 273).

Thanissaro Bhikkhu: “Of paths, the eightfold is best. Of truths, the four sayings. Of qualities, dispassion. Of two-footed beings, the one with the eyes to see.”

The Eightfold Path

The Eightfold Path was mentioned in verse one hundred ninety-one, but for some reason it did not occur to me to include it in the commentary. Now it should be, because many people may not have read an exposition of it or memorized it. (As a Buddhist nun once said: “If you like lists, then Buddhism is the religion for you.”) It is very important, because in the next verse Buddha declares that this is the only path to the purification that enables us to attain Nirvana.

The Eightfold Path consists of: 1) Right View; 2) Right Intention; 3) Right Speech; 4) Right Action; 5) Right Livelihood; 6) Right Effort; 7) Right Mindfulness; 8) Right Concentration. All of these are interrelated to some extent.

1) Right View

View–drishti–literally means the faculty of sight, but also includes a person’s view, opinion, or perception of something, and is right view of the right thing, namely the way to live so as to lead to Nirvana. The trivia which occupy the minds of nearly every human being ultimately mean nothing, and Buddha is not concerned with that. Right view is the right evaluation of things as well as the right understanding of them. Right view is seeing things as they really are, and knowing which matter and which do not. Naturally this includes a right response to right view, including the right way to live. It is obviously a function of the buddhi, the intelligence, and not the sensory mind or the emotions. The mind is like a mirror, and if there is any distortion of the mirror then all perceptions will be distorted. So Right View presupposes right condition of the mind. Each of the eight parts of the path is psychological, even if some of them include external modes of behavior.

2) Right Intention

Sankalpa means resolution, will, determination, and intention. Obviously Right View is a prerequisite of Right Intention. Right intention, again, is focused on the right subjects, the ones that matter. It controls the direction of our life and the way we will live it. Certainly right intention includes a right understanding of the need to live and act in perfect accordance with the highest standards. This does not admit of superficiality, mere dabbling or moseying along through life. Self-discipline is another requisite to carry out Right Intention. The intention to reach Nirvana–and for the right reasons–is the sum of Right Intention.

3) Right Speech

Vak is speech: the ability to speak, the intelligence to speak (the thought behind speech), and the speaking itself. It is the last two that are referred to by Buddha. The wellsprings of our speech must be right, both our understanding and intention in speaking. So must our inner speaking, our thinking. Right speech does not allow of disparity between thought and word. All speech must be beneficial, true, complete, useful, sincere, and an expression of friendliness (maitreya). Then it will be right in every aspect.

4) Right Action

Right Action (karmanta) can also be translated as Right Conduct. This is according to the codes established by the teachers of wisdom, including the five precepts of Buddhism: No lying, no stealing, no injury (of others or oneself), no immorality, and no intoxication. More complete is the yama-niyama of the Yoga Sutras. One thing is certain: the code of Right Conduct must be as broad, as all-inclusive as possible, in contrast to the Western attempts to limit the principles of right action to only glaring misconduct or only the things specifically mentioned in scriptures or other authoritative texts. Rather, general principles must be applied as thoroughly as possible, making sure that no infractions of any kind or degree occur. This is the way of the East, the only way that really succeeds.

5) Right Livelihood

This is an exceedingly broad precept, based on many moral principles. It is not just that we must abstain from livelihood that breaks those principles, we must engage in livelihood that embodies them. Our livelihood must not only not harm others, it must genuinely benefit others. For example, we cannot be dishonest, but neither should we be persuading people to buy items or services that are unnecessary. There are many ways to cheat or steal and we must be sure our mode of livelihood is far from them, not skirting or just avoiding them narrowly. Scrupulous honesty on all levels is mandatory. Further, livelihood encompasses our relationships with others such as suppliers, employees, government regulations, promotion (advertising)–every single aspect of business. And it also includes the highest standards in all aspects, as well. As I say, the scope of this is so vast that it is impossible to spell it all out, and frankly a worthy aspirant can figure it out without having every detail set forth.

6) Right Effort

Right Effort (vyayama) can also be translated as Right Endeavor. It is both doing the right thing and doing it in the right way. Here, too, the determination of “right” must be exceedingly broad and scrupulous. This includes action and acting in the right and beneficial and dharmic way. Right Effort has Nirvana for its goal. This, too, does not admit of superficiality, mere dabbling or moseying along through life.

7) Right Mindfulness

Smriti means memory in the sense of keeping in mind what should be remembered, in other words holding the right perspective on things in the context of the principles of dharma that have been learned or experienced for oneself. However, the Pali word Sati means awareness and attention, as well. This does not mean being totally absorbed in the present moment or in every tiny external activity. Such an interpretation is outright silly. Rather, this principle means that we must never for a moment permit the right perspective to slip from our minds, and we must also remain fully conscious of our inner being, not letting it be overshadowed by externals. Our attention must be mostly focused inwardly and only peripherally on outward things. However, our outer attention must be so perfectly clear that we do all outer activities well and carefully. Nevertheless, our hearts must be intent on the inner work of attaining Buddhahood. Right Mindfulness includes being aware of the character of everything around us and the implications of all situations. It also means evaluating and responding to them in exactly the right way. It also entails knowing what should be paid attention to and what should be ignored.

8) Right Concentration

Although in later times samadhi became a technical yogic term for an intense state of interior union and superconsciousness, at the time of Buddha it simply referred to the state of meditative concentration. Samadhi included all meditative states, from the least to the highest, and was a matter of degree of contemplation. So samadhi could be spoken of as weak or strong, but the main point is that it must be Right. Now what does that mean? It means that meditation must accomplish its sole purpose: Nirvana (Moksha). A lot of meditation practices can give a buzz, a high, entertain and even give psychic experiences, but none of that has anything to do with liberation. In fact, very little contemporary yoga does. Right samadhi can only be produced by right practice, which includes both right methodology and the right way of doing it.

A summary

This concludes my analysis of the Eightfold Path, but I would like to include a summary taken from a Theravada Buddhist source as I think it has a value of its own.

Right view=understanding suffering; understanding its origin; understanding its cessation; understanding the way leading to its cessation.

Right intention=intention of renunciation; intention of good will; intention of harmlessness.

Right speech=abstaining from false speech; abstaining from slanderous speech; abstaining from harsh speech; abstaining from idle chatter.

Right action=abstaining from taking life; abstaining from stealing; abstaining from sexual misconduct.

Right livelihood=giving up wrong livelihood; earning one’s living by a right form of livelihood.

Right effort=the effort to restrain defilements; the effort to abandon defilements; the effort to develop wholesome states; the effort to maintain wholesome states.

Right mindfulness=mindful contemplation of the body; mindful contemplation of feelings; mindful contemplation of the mind; mindful contemplation of phenomena.

Right concentration=the four stages of meditation (jhana) culminating in liberation.

The Four Truths

The Four Truths are: 1) There is suffering. 2) Suffering has a cause. 3) Suffering can be ended. 4) There is a way to end suffering. These are so incredibly simple that it seems equally incredible that they should need explaining, but Buddha said that the people of earth had dust in their eyes and were blinded to even the basics. So we should take a brief look at each one for they can bring about a veritable breakthrough in awareness for those who comprehend them fully.

1) There is suffering. Also incredible is the fact that many people in the West, especially those who consider themselves Buddhist, complain that this truth is negative. This is of course typical of the distorted, reverse thinking that is a trait of Western minds: that it is not negative to be something negative, only negative to recognize the fact and say it. This is demonic psychology and it prevails in today’s New Age. Truth is never negative, nor is its acknowledgement. Illness may be a negative state, but its recognition is potentially positive because it can lead to seeking a cure. Anyone who cannot endure to acknowledge the fact that there is suffering in the world is spiritually psychotic. Of course there is suffering. Yet Buddha did not stop there, but went on to tell us one of the most positive facts in the universe:

2) Suffering has a cause. If we cannot understand our situation in life we will be unable to determine its character and know how to proceed. All suffering comes from past wrong action which created the force we call karma. There are different kinds of suffering, but if we understand that karma is a metaphysical version of the law that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, we can understand exactly what kind of action caused our present status. Then Buddha gives us an even more positive truth:

3) Suffering can be ended. Suffering need not be accepted fatalistically as an inexorable inevitability, but can be ended and a life free from suffering created for us. And the best thing is that we can end it ourselves without dependence on another. This is an extremely positive affirmation of the power and capability of each human being.

4) There is a way to end suffering. There is a specific, methodical way to end suffering, to wipe out karma and prevent its future rising in the form of more birth and death in the material world. The Buddha Way, the Eightfold Path, diligently pursued does this. It is actually very simple.

The best mental state

While working our way through the Eightfold Path, what should our basic mental state be? Buddha says that it is Vairagya. A Brief Sanskrit Glossary defines vairagya in this way: “Non-attachment; detachment; dispassion; absence of desire; disinterest; or indifference. Indifference towards and disgust for all worldly things and enjoyments.” That pretty well says it all. We have had enough of getting caught up in ego-involved action for lifetimes, and we do not need to fall into the same trap regarding our following of the Eightfold Path. Rather, our spiritual pursuit should be done in a cool-minded, level-headed manner without anxiety, obsession, attachment, or any kind of passion whatsoever. Vairagya is the way to tread the Eightfold Path so that it becomes an ever-increasing source of peace and happiness.

The one with eyes to see

The best kind of human being is one whose inner eyes of unity and truth are open and operating in an effective manner. Anyone can discuss philosophy, but only the “seeing” can live it and reap its benefits. The opening of the eyes is a matter of evolution–nothing else can produce it. There is no use trying to open the eyes of others, it cannot (and should not) be done. Everything happens at the right time and it is solely the business and concern of the individual, not anyone else. It is certainly possible to force plant growth, but not human evolution. It is like birth: until the child is ready to be born the mother will not go into labor. A friend of mine refused to have labor induced after nine months of pregnancy. When her baby was born after a full ten months he was completely healthy and all the better for being allowed to wait until he was ready for birth. It is the same in the matter of spiritual conception and birth. Each one of us should pay attention to our own development and let others alone until they spontaneously awaken and begin to move along the way of conscious growth.

Purification

This indeed is the Way–there is no other–for the purification of one’s vision. Follow this way. It leads to Mara’s confusion (Dhammapada 274).

Harischandra Kaviratna: “This is the path; there is no other path that leads to purity of insight. Follow this path, for this path bewilders the Evil One (Mara).” Thanissaro Bhikkhu: “Just this is the path–there is no other–to purify vision. Follow it, and that will be Mara’s bewilderment.”

When he says this is the only way, Buddha does not mean this in a narrow sense. Rather, he is saying that all the elements listed previously put together form the only way to Nirvana. Buddha never claimed to be unique and the only one to become enlightened. Actually, he was a very traditional Sankhya yogi who was reviving Arya Dharma in his age.

Purification is the purpose of the path, for we have nothing to attain, only to reclaim, to recover. We are ever the perfect Buddha-Self, but we have lost awareness of that and created a labyrinth of false identities from life to life, piling up mountains of karma beneath which we seem to suffocate. But it is only the false side of us that acts and creates and reaps karma. Once we clear that falsity away, nothing remains but the Truth, the eternal Dharmakaya. That alone is freedom.

Such an attainment eludes the force of cosmic ignorance or Mara, for it is impossible for darkness to perceive the light. We need not battle evil or even reject it. Rather, like Buddha we ignore it and stay intent on our path to Nirvana. Nothing more is needed. Mara is only part of the great dream, as unreal as anything else within it. Awakening is our business, and we must be about it.

Ending suffering

Following this Path you will put an end to suffering. I have taught you the Way after realizing the removal of the arrow myself (Dhammapada 275).

When we are purified, the darkness of ignorance will disappear and so will suffering, for suffering is an illusion, a mirage.

“I have taught you the Way after realizing the removal of the arrow myself” is one of the great statements of the Dhammapada, for no one is a worthy teacher who has not first practiced and come to know the way. A teacher need not be a Buddha, but he must be a “son of the Buddha” whose feet are well along on the path and who will not waver or regress. Even Buddha could not teach what he had not himself already come to know. He often used the simile of an arrow wound in speaking of the desperate condition of ignorant human beings. We cannot live with the arrow, we must remove it–not just philosophize about it or hope that someone comes along one day to remove it. Each one must remove his own arrow. Until he had done so, Buddha did not presume to teach others.

You must do it yourself

Making the effort is your affair. The Buddhas have pointed out the Way. Those who are on the way and practicing meditation will be freed from Mara’s bonds (Dhammapada 276).

No one saves us but we ourselves. No one attains enlightenment except by his own effort, and it is that which must absorb our attention, not intellectualizing, philosophizing, discussing and confusing others by teaching what we do not really know ourselves. It is not just Gautama Buddha who is Self-awakened and Self-enlightened, but everyone who attains the goal. A religion which propounds any savior beyond ourself is a destroyer, an enemy worse than any vice. Even the greatest teacher can do no more than show the way, the rest is up to us. Anyone who claims to be able to help us or do it for us is a liar, especially those who pretend to be able to take on or free us from our karma. Karma is only a dream, and no one can wake up for us; we must awaken ourselves. And meditation, which is purely individual, is the way to awakening

Impermanence

All processes are impermanent. When one sees this with understanding, then one is disillusioned with the things of suffering. This is the Path of Purification. All processes are painful. When one sees this with understanding, then one is disillusioned with the things of suffering. This is the Path of Purification (Dhammapada 277, 278).

Narada Thera: “Transient are all conditioned [sankhara] things: when this, with wisdom, one discerns, then is one disgusted with ill; this is the path to purity. Sorrowful are all conditioned things: when this, with wisdom, one discerns, then is one disgusted with ill; this is the path to purity.”

Narada Thera notes: “Sankhara is a multisignificant term. Here it is used in the sense of things conditioned by causes. Supramundane Nirvana is not included in sankhara as it is not conditioned by any cause. It is causeless and timeless.” He defines “ill” as: “Suffering caused by attending to the five Aggregates.”

When we realize that nothing is permanent and that all things are conditioned–limited and defined–by their component parts, we see they are not to be clung to by the wise. There really are no things in themselves, but just varying combinations of substances that are nothing more than differing configurations of the basic factors of relative manifestation. Even the physical elements are varying arrangements of atomic particles. So nothing ever really exists as itself and all things are destined to break apart and dissolve.

This inevitable change produces myriad shades of discontent and unhappiness, filling our life with countless modes of suffering and stress. This is the nature of life in all relative levels of existence, not just this world in which we now find ourselves. Holding on to anything is to doom ourselves to disappointment since all things eventually change, including our body which we mistakenly think possesses what we cling to. So if things do not “die” out of our life, we will certainly die to them. Renunciation, then, is simple wisdom, the only realistic response to life in this or any other world.

All processes are out of my control. When one sees this with understanding, then one is disillusioned with the things of suffering. This is the Path of Purification (Dhammapada 279).

Harischandra Kaviratna: “All forms of existence are unreal [an-atta]; he who perceives the truth of this gets disgusted with this world of suffering. This is the path to purity.” Thanissaro Bhikkhu: “When you see with discernment, ‘All phenomena are not-self’–you grow disenchanted with stress. This is the path to purity.”

Buddha did not at any time teach that there is no Self. Just the opposite, he continually exhorted his hearers to know the Unborn and the Deathless–and that is the Self. Being in the line of classical Sankhya philosophers and yogis, he taught the doctrine of anatma (anatta): “Not-Self.” (“No Self” is niratma or niratta, a term he never used.) This was a major characteristic of the teaching of Swami Sivananda, as well.

Anatma is the exposition of that which must be realized as not being the Self, as that with which we must not identify or even consider as having the slightest connection with us. There are two ways to express anatma: “That is not me” and “I am not that.” The most perfect expression of anatma is found in the Stanzas on Nirvana by Shankaracharya:

I am not the mind, intellect, thought, or ego;
Not hearing, not tasting, not smelling, not seeing;
I am not the elements–ether, earth, fire, air:
I am the form of Conscious Bliss: I am Shiva!

I am neither Prana, nor the five vital airs;
Nor the seven components of the gross body;
Nor the subtle bodies; nor organs of action:
I am the form of Conscious Bliss: I am Shiva!

I have no aversion, clinging, greed, delusion;
No envy or pride, and no duty or purpose;
I have no desire, and I have no freedom:
I am the form of Conscious Bliss: I am Shiva!

I have no merit or sin, nor pleasure or pain;
No mantra, pilgrimage, Veda or sacrifice;
Not enjoying, enjoyable, or enjoyer:
I am the form of Conscious Bliss: I am Shiva!

I have no death or fear, no distinction of caste;
Neither father, nor mother, nor do I have birth;
No friend or relation, guru or disciple:
I am the form of Conscious Bliss: I am Shiva!

I am without attributes; I am without form;
I am all-pervading, I am omnipresent;
By senses untouched, neither free, nor knowable:
I am the form of Conscious Bliss: I am Shiva!

When we realize that nothing is ours and we have no relationship with anything, then we cultivate indifference (vairagya) to all things. Again, this is just being realistic. And it is the path to the end of suffering.

Laziness

Since he will not exert himself at the time for exertion, and although young and strong is full of indolence and irresolution and idleness, the lazy man is incapable of recognizing the way of wisdom (Dhammapada 280).

Harischandra Kaviratna: “He who does not get up when it is time to do so; who, although youthful and strong, is yet given to indolence, is weak in resolution and thought–such an idle and lazy person does not find the path to wisdom.”

Laziness is a profound psychological flaw for it indicates weakness of will and intellect. The lazy will simply never find the path of wisdom. Spiritual indolence is the curse of the day. People not only do not want to put forth any effort at all (witness the man from India who emailed a few days ago telling us to provide him with a visa and the money for travel to America so he could live in our ashram), their minds are so debilitated that they cannot sustain any attention or act of will for more than a few minutes. The satirical book, How To Become A Modern Guru, says that the attention span of the average “seeker” is about one-half second. That is an exaggeration for humor, but I have observed for nearly fifty years that it is rarely more than twenty minutes, unless strongly motivated by greed or fear. Then it may last a day or two. For that reason I never reply to a silly email because I know that by the time I opened it the writer had forgotten all about it and will not write again.

Three ways of wisdom

Be guarded in speech, restrained of mind and not doing anything wrong physically. Perfect these three forms of action, and fulfill the way taught by the sages (Dhammapada 281).

Many of the things required of the seeker for higher awareness are esoteric, abstract or outright difficult. But some are quite easy–at least in principle–and these three are, though they entail the restraining and breaking of bad habits. Although they make take time to perfect, nevertheless they are simple to grasp and work at.

To be careful of speech entails always being truthful, not babbling on about trivia or pointless subjects, and never to be careless in speech and harm anyone in any way. I think we all know lots of people that are unthinkingly rude and embarrassing day and night. So this rule includes being aware of the effect of our words on other people. This implies recognizing the value of others and caring about them, though some people are so narcissistic that they do not even know others exist except as props in their private life-drama.

Besides controlling speech we must control the mind and not let it chatter on and on to no purpose. Some people seem incapable of shutting up mentally, and are always talking and fantasizing to themselves. For such people, who are usually incorrigible, meditation and any significant degree of spiritual life is simply impossible. So it is crucial that we do not become one of them. Also the mind must not be allowed to run after memories, fantasies, and emotional tangles.

When speech and mind are reined in it should not be very hard to no longer do any wrong physically, through the body, for all good and evil originate in the mind. Unfortunately there are people who pretend that they can do evil physically but it does not harm their spirit or mind. There are Fundamentalist Protestants who believe–or say they believe–that the body can sin independently of the individual. Anyone with good sense can see that is an impossibility, but morally degraded people do not have good sense, do they? Anyhow, Buddha says this lest there be those of such perverted intellect that they would claim to be self-disciplined in speech and thought while doing wrong through the body.

The important point is that those who follow these three precepts will then be able to “fulfill the way taught by the sages.”

The source of wisdom

From meditation springs wisdom. From lack of meditation, loss of wisdom. Recognizing these alternative roads of progress and decline, one should so direct oneself so that one’s wisdom will increase (Dhammapada 282).

From meditation springs wisdom. Although meditation is surely meant in this and the next sentence, the word used is yoga. The ancient Hindu and Buddhist texts spoke very alike and even used identical terminology. And that was because they were the same religion, really.

Anyhow, wisdom comes from meditation, from the opening of spiritual intuition by means of which the yogi comes to know far more than can be found written in books, and also to understand levels of truth that mere scholars do not even dream exist. The implication is also that without yoga there is no true wisdom, only unproved and indemonstrable ideas.

From lack of meditation, loss of wisdom. This is very interesting, for it means that those who do not meditate will lose even what wisdom they have, for there will be no stability in their minds to hold on to what they do know. It also implies that meditators who abandon their practice will lose that which they gained through it.

Recognizing these alternative roads of progress and decline, one should so direct oneself so that one’s wisdom will increase. Yoga is the upward path, and life without yoga is the downward path. It is up to us to choose which we will take.

Cut it down and clear it away

Cut down the forest, not just a tree. Out of the forest of desire springs danger. By cutting down both the forest of desire and the brushwood of longing, be rid of the forest, bhikkhus (Dhammapada 283).

Thanissaro Bhikkhu: “Cut down the forest of desire, not the forest of trees. From the forest of desire come danger and fear. Having cut down this forest and its underbrush, monks, be deforested.”

You can see that the translators do not agree on the first sentence. It is the same with others who are certainly reliable scholars, so we should consider both, as there is a good lesson in each mode of translation.

Cut down the forest, not just a tree. This is great wisdom. Those who set about to improve themselves just one trait or one mental aspect at a time will never manage, because the mind is seemingly infinite and they will just not have the time to completely change themselves. Plus all the aspects of the mind, like the trees of the forest, are interrelated. In his commentary on the Yoga Sutras Shankara uses the simile of a forest to point out that right meditation does not cut down one tree–one mental flaw–at a time, but it mows down the whole forest. It will take time, but not an eternity, to straighten out the mind.

Another fallacy is being warned against here. Some people think that if they do one good thing or conquer one negative trait it renders them a very good and worthy person. Certainly it shows their ability to correct themselves, but just changing a few undesirable habits is not sufficient. For example, in today’s climate of shameless immorality there are people who try to cloak their evil by doing good deeds. They live in a hellish manner most of the time and then do volunteer work in a homeless shelter or drive handicapped people around the town, and make a point of letting everyone know they are doing it. But “doing good” does not make a person good. Swami Sivananda had a huge sign made and put up in the ashram: “BE good. DO good.” First we must be good, otherwise it is only an appearance, a sham. More than one Nazi war criminal made the defense that they were good family men, as was the colossally evil Joseph Goebbels. Believe it or not, some people tried to defend the monster Klaus Barbie by saying that he played the piano beautifully and was kind to his grandchildren! And Joseph Mengele lived in a Christian commune to hide himself from the world’s eye. It does not work.

Cut down the forest of desire, not the forest of trees. Actually this fits in with the foregoing, for Buddha is saying that making nice externally and obsessing on outer behavior and environment is not what we need. Rather, we must clear out the forest of the mind–specifically the forest of desire. Real change is inner change. Then the outer will automatically improve.

Out of the forest of desire springs danger. (“From the forest of desire come danger and fear.”) Desire torments us with the fear that we may not be able to fulfill it, and the danger of possibly losing what we have already desired and gained. Further, it addicts us to more and more desire. Like any addiction it grows and grows until it completely devours us and we become mere shadow-slaves of desire. People become driven and tortured by desire, but like drunks who believe they are sober they do not realize the hell in which they live–in fact they are indignant if the truth of their situation is pointed out to them. Here is part of the commentary on the sixty-sixth verse of the Dhammapada that reveals this:

“Human beings are astonishing, even 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.

“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.”

By cutting down both the forest of desire and the brushwood of longing, be rid of the forest, bhikkhus. (“Having cut down this forest and its underbrush, monks, be deforested.“) We must not control or suppress desire, we must destroy its very roots and ensure that it cannot grow back and oppress us again. This is why Paramhansa Nityananda praised desirelessness and declared the desireless person to be liberated while living.

Buddha does not just mention the trees of the forest, but the underbrush, as well. This is so we will realize that the little things, the petty ways of human life, are just as dangerous and misery-producing as the trees of big delusions and desires. Many people think that if they eliminate the big, obviously destructive, faults they can keep the small ones and keep entertaining themselves by indulging them. Not so. Everything has to go under the axe of discipline and wisdom.

The condition of bondage

So long as the least desire of a man for women has not been eradicated, he is fettered in mind, like a sucking calf to its mother (Dhammapada 284).

Thanissaro Bhikkhu: “For as long as the least bit of underbrush of a man for women is not cleared away, the heart is fixated like a suckling calf on its mother.”

Since he was speaking to monks, Buddha mentions the “desire of a man for women,” but really what he is speaking about is the delusive sexual drive in any form. No matter how attenuated that attachment-addiction may be, if it is not totally eradicated the person is hopelessly bound and subject to rebirth and its attendant sufferings. Again, the underbrush is mentioned because it is easy to detect the intense, physical aspects of sex, but there are subtle sexual ties that are either unsuspected or seem to be harmless, even nobly romantic, or love that is “pure” or “spiritual.”

What is wrong is desire and dependency in any form. Therefore:

Pluck out your desire, like one does an autumn lotus with one’s hand. Devote yourself to the path of peace, the nirvana proclaimed by the Blessed One (Dhammapada 285).

Death

“Here I will spend the rainy season, and here the hot season.” This is the way a fool thinks. It does not occur to him what may happen in between (Dhammapada 286).

According to commentators, Buddha is speaking of death, and is urging us to ever be aware that nothing of earthly life is sure, especially life itself. We should realize that all things planned are only tentative, and that the only sure thing is death.

This is not to be taken in a fearful or pessimistic sense, but should stimulate us to a constant awareness of the impermanence of all things, an awareness that will keep impelling us forward in the search for the Birthless and Deathless that alone is real and abiding. Otherwise:

Death comes and snatches away the man infatuated with children and livestock, while his mind is still full of desire, like a great flood sweeping away a sleeping village (Dhammapada 287).

For at that time:

There are no children to take refuge in then, no father or any other relative. When a man is seized by that terminator, Death, there is no taking refuge in family (Dhammapada 288).

Again, this is not negative or gloomy, but positive. For:

When he has seen the implications of this, a wise man, restrained by morality, should quickly develop the path leading to nirvana (Dhammapada 289).

Buddha thus shows us that awareness of the emptiness of earthly life and the practice of morality are the two basic ingredients of the attitude need to “quickly develop the path leading to nirvana.”

How simple and how sure is the wisdom of Buddha.

Next article in the Dhammapada for Awakening: Miscellaneous

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Chapters in the Dhammapada for Awakening:

Introduction to the Dhammapada

The History of the Dhammapada

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Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary

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