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The Wise Man

Chapter 6 of the Dhammapada for Awakening

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Buddha has given us a portrait of the foolish man, and now he begins to speak of the wise man.

We all begin foolish, but after a while we aspire to become wise. If we are fortunate, the first step in this process will be to meet with someone wise who will point out to us the way to wisdom. If we cannot meet such a person–and they are rare, especially in the West–then we should search for the written wisdom of a wise teacher–or even more than one. It is glibly said that spirituality cannot be gotten from books, but the truth is, spiritual awakening or spiritual recognition has resulted from books far more than from meetings with a living teacher. That is because over the centuries the teachings of many wise men have been preserved, whereas the living teachers are always few in comparison. As the Venerable Master Chin Kung, a contemporary Chinese Buddhist teacher, has said, by studying and applying the teachings of any great teacher, no matter how long ago he lived, you can become his student. So now let us look at Buddha’s teaching on the matter of a teacher, keeping in mind that his words apply equally to living teachers and books of teachings.

Like one pointing out hidden treasure

Like one pointing out hidden treasure, if one finds a man of intelligence who can recognize one’s faults and take one to task for them, one should cultivate the company of such a wise man. He who cultivates a man like that is the better for it, not worse (Dhammapada 76).

Obviously Buddha’s idea of a worthy teacher is not the one popularly held today. Buddha is not at all interested in a teacher who is totally accepting–just the opposite. He extols a teacher who is not at all tolerant of our faults or our sore-ego sensitivity to having them revealed or prodded at. In the twelfth chapter of Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramhansa Yogananda tells of his experience as a disciple of Swami Sriyukteswar Giri. Here are some bits that give a general idea. We will begin with the sweet, and go directly to the bitter.

“Lifelong shadow lifted from my heart; the vague search, hither and yon, was over. I had found eternal shelter in a true guru.… Discipline had not been unknown to me: at home Father was strict, Ananta [Yogananda’s elder brother] often severe. But Sri Yukteswar’s training cannot be described as other than drastic. A perfectionist, my guru was hypercritical of his disciples, whether in matters of moment or in the subtle nuances of behavior. …my ears were no strangers to reproof. My chief offenses were absentmindedness, intermittent indulgence in sad moods, non-observance of certain rules of etiquette, and occasional unmethodical ways.…Under Master’s unsparing rod, however, I soon recovered from the agreeable delusions of irresponsibility.

“My guru could never be bribed, even by love. He showed no leniency to anyone who, like myself, willingly offered to be his disciple. Whether Master and I were surrounded by his students or by strangers, or were alone together, he always spoke plainly and upbraided sharply. No trifling lapse into shallowness or inconsistency escaped his rebuke. This flattening treatment was hard to endure, but my resolve was to allow Sri Yukteswar to iron out each of my psychological kinks. As he labored at this titanic transformation, I shook many times under the weight of his disciplinary hammer.

“‘If you don’t like my words, you are at liberty to leave at any time,’ Master assured me. ‘I want nothing from you but your own improvement. Stay only if you feel benefited.’”

Please read the entire chapter to see the characteristics of a worthy teacher. It is so perfect, that I will say no more except to point out that Buddha evidently thinks that having our faults exposed to us and undergoing reprimand for them is the finding of treasure. Yogananda agrees, for he further says: “For every humbling blow he dealt my vanity, for every tooth in my metaphorical jaw he knocked loose with stunning aim, I am grateful beyond any facility of expression. The hard core of human egotism is hardly to be dislodged except rudely. With its departure, the Divine finds at last an unobstructed channel.” What a treasure indeed!

There are many kinds of intelligence, but spiritual intelligence is the highest, for it alone frees us from our age-long bondages. A teacher possessing such intelligence has only their freedom in mind when dealing with students. “He who cultivates a man like that is the better for it, not worse.”

Two reactions

In our egotism we think that our opinions are discernments of truth regarding things. But usually they are only revelations of our own worth or lack of it. I read of a woman who remarked aloud that a painting in an art museum was worthless. A guard standing by said, “Madam, the merit of this painting was established long ago. What is on trial here is the worth of your perceptions.” Krishna, too, indicates in the Gita that our reactions are according to the quality of our inner makeup. “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). So by analyzing our opinions we can discern the true quality of our intellect.

Much less philosophical was part of the theme music for a favorite television program of my (much) younger years. Every week before Richard Greene swung across the screen as Robin Hood, the words boomed out: “Feared by the bad; loved by the good….” Buddha had the same conviction, for he further said:

If a man disciplines, instructs and restrains them from what is not right, he will be dear to the good, and disliked by the bad (Dhammapada 77).

The students’ declarations that the worthy teacher is good or bad is a revelation of their own inner condition. Here, too, Yogananda helps us to understand.

“But divine insight is painful to worldly ears; Master was not popular with superficial students. The wise, always few in number, deeply revered him. I daresay Sri Yukteswar would have been the most sought-after guru in India had his words not been so candid and so censorious.

“‘I am hard on those who come for my training,” he admitted to me. “That is my way; take it or leave it. I will never compromise.… Tender inner weaknesses, revolting at mild touches of censure, are like diseased parts of the body, recoiling before even delicate handling.’ This was Sri Yukteswar’s amused comment on the flighty ones. There are disciples who seek a guru made in their own image.…

“Students came, and generally went. Those who craved a path of oily sympathy and comfortable recognitions did not find it at the hermitage. Master offered shelter and shepherding for the aeons, but many disciples miserly demanded ego-balm as well. They departed, preferring life’s countless humiliations before any humility. Master’s blazing rays, the open penetrating sunshine of his wisdom, were too powerful for their spiritual sickness. They sought some lesser teacher who, shading them with flattery, permitted the fitful sleep of ignorance.

“…But toward students who sought his counsel, Sri Yukteswar felt a serious responsibility. Brave indeed is the guru who undertakes to transform the crude ore of ego-permeated humanity! A saint’s courage roots in his compassion for the stumbling eyeless of this world.

“When I had abandoned underlying resentment, I found a marked decrease in my chastisement. In a very subtle way, Master melted into comparative clemency. In time I demolished every wall of rationalization and subconscious reservation behind which the human personality generally shields itself. The reward was an effortless harmony with my guru. I discovered him then to be trusting, considerate, and silently loving.”

The love of such a one is the only love worth seeking and finding. Actually, it is the only love there is. Unconditional love is only given by those who have themselves transcended all conditions and conditionings.

Determining association

Over and over in the teachings of Buddha we find that he is giving us only that which can be applied in our daily lives in order to fit ourselves for freedom from all that bind us. Never does he waste a single moment of our time with metaphysics that, by their abstract nature, have no practical use. Again and again we see from his words that dharma is a matter of here and now. Anything outside the here and now is meaningless.

Paramhansa Nityananda said: “When a man takes birth, he is not born with a book in his hand but he is born with a brain” (Chidakasha Gita 41). In modern India it certainly seems like the popular teachers were born with a book instead of a brain–a book of platitudes and truisms that someone once rightly labeled “fortune cookie omniscience.” In the West we are raised in such abysmal ignorance that when we first hear the fortune cookie platitudes we are overwhelmed with their wisdom. We are like a starving person to whom junk food tastes heavenly. The sad thing about many Western seekers is that they never come to see the flimsy character of the platitudes but stick with them and their robotic dispensers for all their life.

Fortunately for me, my initial contact with Sanatana Dharma was the translation of the Bhagavad Gita by Swami Prabhavananda. There is not a single syllable in the spiritual teaching of the Gita that is not essential; for me the Gita was a door into a whole new world. My next contact moved me forward into that new world and told me what I needed to acclimatize and expand into it. That contact was Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi and his other writings that are worthy of a lifetime of study and analysis. His commentary on the Bhagavad Gita presents the Sankhya philosophy in an unequaled manner, and his commentary on the Christian Gospels is the prime source for the real teachings of Jesus. No matter how many excellent books I have read over the intervening years, I always find myself going back to Yogananda to find the first, middle and last words on spiritual life. Over and over he illuminates practical aspects of both inner and outer life that other teachers never even mention. One of the first aphorisms of Yogananda that I learned deeply affected me. It was: “Company is stronger than will power.” I took it seriously and applied it seriously in my life. It still comes to mind in many instances. So it naturally came to mind when I read the seventy-eighth verse of the Dhammapada:

Companions good and bad

Don’t cultivate the company of bad companions. Don’t cultivate depraved men. Cultivate companions of good character. Cultivate superior men (Dhammapada 78).

Here are three other translations that bring out the shades of meaning:

“Do not keep company with evildoing friends nor with people who are base; associate with the good, associate with the best of men” (Harischandra Kaviratna).

“Do not have evil-doers for friends, do not have low people for friends: have virtuous people for friends, have for friends the best of men” (Max Muller).

“Don’t associate with bad friends. Don’t associate with the low. Associate with admirable friends. Associate with the best” (Thanissaro Bhikkhu).

Buddha, as we would expect, is not in the least afraid of being thought a snob or a self-righteous prig. The only people who would accuse him of that on the basis of this words are the very people he tells us to avoid.

Bad companions

What makes someone a bad companion? Obviously evil-doers are bad companions, but we have to define evil. There are a lot of things that never come to mind as outright evils, but for the sadhaka they can be deadly. Laziness, ignorance, lack of interest in higher life, material-mindedness, trivial-mindedness, mundane-mindedness, arrogance, selfishness, egotism, lack of spiritual motivation–all these are evils for the seeker of enlightenment, especially since we rarely consider them as such. People who have these traits are bad companions, since these things are contagious. Company is stronger than will power.

Wagner wrote a symbolic music-drama called Parsifal. One of the major characters is a woman named Kundry. She divides her time between association with the holy knights of the Grail and the vile Klingsor, a renegade Grail knight that has become a sorcerer. When she is with the Grail knights, Kundry behaves in a positive manner, but when she is with Klingsor she behaves in a negative, destructive manner. Many people are like Kundry, being influenced profoundly by the psychic character of whomever they are with. “Evil company corrupts good manners” is true, but the worst of it is the condition of being so susceptible.

None of us should feel beyond the influence of others. Some people do not succumb immediately, but in time the citadel of their good state falls, often to never rise again in this lifetime. So this is a matter of life and death.

The depraved

The fact that Buddha distinguishes between the bad and the depraved bears out my contention that the bad are those we never think of as bad, only spiritually out of the picture. The depraved are those who do evil by choice–choice which rapidly escalates into addiction and eventual enslavement. These people can usually be identified by anyone with good moral sense, but many of them operate under a veneer of benevolence and even goodness. This is why so many morally corrupt people at the present time are avidly engaging in social action and are exaggeratedly concerned about ecology and the pollution of the atmosphere. These are fake, “noble” moralities, requiring no moral strength whatsoever, that are only a cover for their depravity. These, too, must be avoided assiduously. (Good and worthy people are also sincerely involved in these concerns, but that is a different matter altogether.)

How to define a depraved person? First, anyone who is addicted to anything. Second, anyone who encourages addiction in others. It is incumbent on aspirants to higher awareness to develop the intuition to detect hidden depravity–not to challenge or change them, but to avoid them.

Those of good character

What makes a person one of good character? Absence of the negative qualities we have discussed is necessary, but not enough. There must be the presence of active, positive elements. We can take our former list and reverse it. Good people are diligent, disciplined, wise, oriented toward higher consciousness, spiritual-minded, substantial of character, possessing intelligent values, generous, unselfish, and valuing things of the spirit above all else.

Someone once asked Anandamayi Ma how to define “good” and “friend.” She replied that good was anything that enables someone to remember God and that a friend was someone who inspired you to remember God. Anything or anyone else was bad and an enemy. To grasp this truth and act upon it, bringing into our life the good and ruthlessly eliminating the bad–and doing it right now, not gradually easing into it or putting it off to some vague or convenient future–is not just the beginning of wisdom, it is the guarantee of wisdom.

The superior

Superior people are those of conscious spiritual evolution who are constantly moving forward to higher and deeper realms of personal consciousness. They are dedicated wholeheartedly to the path of progress. Obviously they are yogis in the truest sense. A superior person not only elevates himself, but elevates those who come in contact with him. Vibrating to truth, he awakens others to truth by his mere presence. Those who cannot be so uplifted are indifferent to him and he is indifferent to them. “The yogi who is always content, self-controlled and of firm resolve, whose mind and intellect are fixed on me, who is devoted to me–he is dear to me” (Bhagavad Gita 12:15). “I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me” (John 17:9).

Great saints and masters can produce spiritual consciousness in others simply by entering the room. I have known some myself, and have lived with some. However, only those who get busy and cultivate their own spiritual consciousness will benefit from them in a lasting manner. It always comes back to us.

Take it within

He who drinks in the Dharma will live happily with a peaceful mind. A wise man always delights in the Dharma taught by the Aryas (Dhammapada 79).

Water is essential to life, possessing many aspects necessary to the maintenance of form and function. We can live a long time without food, but not without water. Dharma is equally necessary for the true life of the inmost consciousness. But both water and dharma are valueless if they are not internalized–and not drop by drop, but by continual, deep drinking. Buddha is explaining to us that we must drink up dharma as the thirsting man seizes water and drinks it with urgency and delight. Just as the most virulent poison will not harm us or the best medicine will not cure us if we do not swallow it, in the same way dharma will have no effect unless we make it part of our very being by taking it into our consciousness.

Looking at, touching, applying, or even immersing ourselves in water is useless if we do not drink it. And just talking about it is the most useless of all. It is the same with dharma. That is why Saint Paul spoke of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). An external Christ is of no value whatsoever. That is why Jesus spoke of eating and drinking the flesh and blood of Christ–in other words, internalizing and absorbing Christ. It is the same with dharma.

Work on yourself; change yourself

Irrigators channel water, fletchers shape arrows, and carpenters bend wood, but the wise discipline themselves (Dhammapada 80).

This verse conveys a tremendous amount of information in a very concise manner. It is a marvel. And if we follow it, we will ourselves become marvels.

Irrigators channel water. First, they find a source of water. Then they dig a channel to the place where water is needed. Finally, they remove the barrier between the water and the channel, and the water flows in and their work is done. It is hard work that demands perseverance and good engineering. Sri Ramakrishna speaks about it this way:

“There happened to be drought in the country. All the peasants began digging channels to bring water. One of them was stubbornly determined. One day he vowed that he would go on digging a channel until it became connected with the river and water began to flow into it. He proceeded digging. The time came for his bath. The wife sent the daughter to him with oil. The daughter said, ‘Father, it is late already. Finish bathing quickly after rubbing the body with oil.’ He told her to go away for he still had work to do. It was past midday and the farmer still kept working. No thought at all of taking a bath. Then his wife came to the field and said, ‘Why haven’t you bathed as yet? The food is getting cold. You carry things too far. You may finish it tomorrow or even after taking your meal.’ Scolding, the farmer ran after her with spade in hand and said, ‘Have you no sense? There has not been any rain. There has been no farming at all. What will the children eat? You will all die of starvation. I have taken the vow that I will bring water to the field today and then worry about bath and food.’ Observing his mood the wife fled running. After a whole day’s bone-breaking labor the farmer connected the channel with the river. Then he sat down for a while and watched the water from the river flowing into the field with a pleasant gurgle. His mind was at peace and filled with joy.

“Now there was another farmer who was also trying to bring water to his field. His wife went to him and said, ‘It is very late. Come now, there is no need for overdoing things so much.’ He dropped the spade without much protest and told his wife, ‘Let’s go, since you say so.’ That farmer did not ever succeed in bringing water to his field.”

So we have to know where the water of life is to be found, how to remove the barriers between it and us, and how to channel it into ourselves. This is what dharma really is, and its most important component is meditation.
Fletchers shape arrows. It is no easy thing to make an arrow. The wood must be strong, free from defect, and of the right density or weight. It must be shaped in such a way that it will move through the air at maximum speed. More important, it must be absolutely straight so it will fly unerringly to its target. Obviously this is a symbol of the mind itself.

The mind is a field of energy, and the quality of that energy is crucial for the sadhaka. Just as a machine can have gears of tempered steel or cheap shoddy plastic, in the same way, although everyone has a mind, the character of the mind substance, the manasic energy, varies greatly. Even intelligence counts for little if the mind itself is of inferior energy. As Yogananda pointed out, Handel took a sequence of notes and got the opening of the Hallelujah Chorus, while an American composer took the same notes and got “Yes, We Have No Bananas.”

The Chandogya Upanishad explains: “Mind consists of food, breath consists of water, and speech consists of heat. Of the curd when churned, that which is subtle moves upwards, it becomes butter. In the same manner of the food that is eaten, that which is subtle moves upwards, it becomes mind” (Chandogya Upanishad 6.5.4; 6.6.1-2, 5).

The type of thoughts habitual to a person also determines the rate of vibration of his mind. The mind must be strong and steady, yet at the same time it must be fluidic, responsive and capable of mirroring correctly that which is presented to it. Without yoga this is simply impossible.

Carpenters bend wood. It is interesting that Buddha refers to the bending of wood. We usually think of carpenters cutting or planing wood, but wood is sometimes bent in the making of furniture, and even in the making of yokes for oxen and other animals that pull carts. To bend wood it is necessary to soak it and soften the fibers to the right degree and then to ever so slowly bend it to the desired shape, affix it in that shape, and then let it dry. If everything was done right, it will permanently hold that configuration. It is the same with us. Great care and skill are needed for us to rework and reshape ourselves, particularly our minds, so there will be a permanent change for the better. As Buddha concludes: “The wise discipline themselves.”

Irrigators, fletchers and carpenters all work with external things, but the wise work with themselves, shaping and changing themselves. At the end of life they take the results along with them, having produced lasting change in their consciousness, and will build on that in future lives until Nirvana is reached.

Wise indifference

As a solid rock is not shaken by the wind, so the wise are not moved by praise or blame (Dhammapada 81).

A rock is not shaken by wind because it is so substantial and firmly settled on the earth. In the same way, a person who possesses self-knowledge as well as knowledge as to what is not himself is not moved by praise or blame, since neither mean anything, for the true Self is beyond anything that can be said about it. Also, knowing that whatever occurs in the outer world is only a passing show, the wise take nothing seriously that is said or done in relation to them. A perfect example of this was the holy Metropolitan Philaret of New York, head of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. I had the great blessing of meeting him a few times and will never forget the experience. An acquaintance of mine told me that when he was first made the chief hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad, he visited all the churches in America and Canada. When he came to Boston he was accompanied by Archbishop Nikon, himself a spiritually remarkable person. At the Divine Liturgy, Archbishop Nikon introduced the Metropolitan, praising him fulsomely and eloquently, virtually proclaiming him a saint (which he was). Any other person would have made some protest of modesty, but he just stood there, looking downward and indrawn in prayer, completely indifferent to the praise. As another friend of mine said regarding him: “He was alone with God and absorbed in God.”

The way to peace

The wise find peace on hearing the truth, like a deep, clear, undisturbed lake (Dhammapada 82).

Already wise in their inmost consciousness, the wise need only hear the truth of dharma to instantly recognize it and to come to the end of their search for realities of life–and beyond. The mind of a truly dharmic person is deep, clear, and undisturbed by any phenomena arising either from within or without. We usually think about peace of mind, but there is also peace of will. That is, once a person has fixed his intention on the attainment of higher consciousness, and resolved to do all that is necessary to attain that precious thing, then nothing can shake him from that steadiness of will (sankalpa). Inwardly he will have peace, even if he is somewhat affected by fluctuations in his emotional or intellectual levels. Those who keep their mind’s eye steadfastly on the goal, like an archer aiming at the target, will know peace that is unshakable.

The Wisdom of Renunciation

The good renounce everything. The pure don’t babble about sensual desires. Whether touched by pleasure or pain, the wise show no change of temper (Dhammapada 83).

This eighty-third verse is not a simple one, and the translations of even very qualified scholars can vary. Rather than pick what seems to me to be the best, I am going to give the differing translations so you can see what I mean.

The good

Jesus said: “There is none good but one, that is, God” (Matthew 19:17). At that time in parts of the Mediterranean world the word “good” was never applied to anything or anyone but God. That is why the Eastern Orthodox compendium on mystical life is called Philokalia, “Love of the Good”–that is, Love of God. So the good are the godly. Buddha has something to say about them: “They renounce everything.” So translates John Richardson. Narada Thera has: “The good give up everything.” Harischandra Kaviratna: “Good men abandon lusting after things.”

There is no use ignoring the fact that we live in a thing-obsessed society. And it is risky indeed to assume that we have not been influenced by its material philosophy, both consciously and subliminally. So when people hear about giving up or renouncing they become unsettled, unless at the moment they are unhappy through being let down by something or someone. Then they agree and make noise about “chucking it all away” and suchlike. It will not be long, though, before they are pursuing another form of what made them miserable.

The plain truth is, we cannot live without material things. Even if we could remain forever in samadhi without breathing or eating, we would still be in the body and would have to sit or lie upon the earth. So good sense tells us that whether we externally rid ourselves of many things or whether we retain them, Buddha is definitely speaking of our attitude toward them. Perhaps the best explanation of this is to be found in the words of Sri Ramarkrishna:

“If one is sincere one can realize God even in the world. ‘Me and mine’ make ignorance. ‘O God! You and yours.’ This is knowledge! Live in the world like the maid servant of a wealthy man. The maid servant does all household work, brings up children and calls the master’s son, ‘My Hari,’ but she knows very well at heart that neither the house nor the boy belongs to her. She does all the chores but her heart is always in her country home. Likewise do all the work of the household but keep your mind on God. And know that the house, the family, the son and all the rest are not yours but God’s. And that you are only God’s servant.

“I ask people to renounce mentally. I do not ask them to renounce the world. If one lives in the world with detachment and longs for God from the heart one can realize him” (The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Volume 2, Part 15, Chapter 2).

“The tortoise moves about in water but do you know where its mind is? It is on the land where its eggs are. Do all the duties of the world but keep your mind on God” (The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Volume 1, Part 1, Chapter 5).

“I say to those who come to me, ‘Live in the world; there is no harm in that. But keep your mind on God while living in the world. Know that house, home, family are not yours. All these belong to God. Your home is near God.’” (The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Volume 1, Part 10, Chapter 8)

This is possible only to the yogi. For all others this is mere juggling with the mind.

The Venerable Thanisarro Bhikkhu’s translation sums it up very well: “Everywhere, truly, those of integrity stand apart.” Integrity means self-containment, self-sufficiency. This the wise always strive for: not to be scattered or diluted or weak and dependent. The worthy find all they need within. By their very nature they stand apart. The Gita gives a perfect picture of them: “Indifference to (detachment from) the objects of sense, absence of egotism, keeping in mind the evils of birth, death, old age, disease, and pain, non-attachment, absence of clinging to son, wife, home and suchlike; constant evenmindedness in desired and undesired events, inswerving devotion to me with single-minded yoga, frequenting (living in) secluded places, having distaste for crowds of people (association with many people), establishment in the knowledge of the Supreme Self, keeping in mind the goal of knowledge of the truth–this is said to be true knowledge. The contrary is ignorance” (Bhagavad Gita 13:8-11).

The pure

“The pure don’t babble about sensual desires.” Narada Thera: “The saintly prattle not with sensual craving.” Harischandra Kaviratna: “They take no pleasure in sensual speech.” This is really quite clear. The truly pure do not talk about sensual things because they do not think about them. Speech can deceive but it can also greatly reveal the hidden contents of the mind. For example, it is amazing how many yoga gurus use sex, sexually related examples or similes involving some form of relations between the sexes when wanting to make a point. Obviously that is what habitually springs to their minds. Our monastic group used to visit the monastery of another religious tradition. The head of the ashram was highly intelligent and the author of many books. We profited greatly from conversation with him about the meditational and philosophical aspects of his tradition, but every single time we visited he would bring up some aspect of sex, and always made reference to male sex organs. He was amazingly creative in coming up with ways to do this. So you can imagine that we had little interest in anything more than intellectual contact with those people. And eventually we just faded away from their orbit.

“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” said Jesus (Matthew 6:21). And, as he also said: “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” (Matthew 12:34). This applies to teachers who under the guise of teaching morality really only expound immorality, just as others who under the guise of teaching truth only go on and on disproving and denouncing heresy. Even worse are those that instead of speaking of God and angels talk only about the Devil and demons. What we love, that we think and speak about.


“Whether touched by pleasure or pain, the wise show no change of temper.” Narada Thera: “Whether affected by happiness or by pain, the wise show neither elation nor depression.” Harischandra Kaviratna: “When touched by happiness or sorrow, the wise show no elation or dejection.”

This has a great lesson for us. The idea is current among many yogis that the wise are simply numb to pleasure or pain, that they never experience such things. But Buddha indicates otherwise. He says that they are touched by these things, but they do not respond to them with elation or depression. Krishna said: “Like the ocean, which becomes filled yet remains unmoved and stands still as the waters enter it, he whom all desires enter and who remains unmoved attains peace” (Bhagavad Gita 2:70). This is the state we should seek.

Hard sayings

Great Masters are fearless, and so must those be who would benefit from their teachings. For Masters and (true) disciples see things exactly opposite to the world and the worldlings. Certainly greed and desire for control over others bring about the inner destruction of religion, but an equally pernicious factor is the insistence that the principles of religion be made to accommodate, please and motive the common crowd rather than the worthy few–the only ones to whom the Masters really speak. That is why Jesus prayed, saying: “I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine.… I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” (John 17:9, 14). On one occasion when Jesus had given a particularly thorny discourse: “Many therefore of his disciples, when they had heard this, said, This is an hard saying; who can hear it?… From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him” (John 6:60, 66). Now we are ready to look at one of Buddha’s hard sayings.

If a man does not seek children, wealth or power either for himself or for someone else, if he does not seek his own advantage by unprincipled means, he is a virtuous man, a wise man and a righteous man (Dhammapada 84).

Narada Thera: “Neither for the sake of oneself nor for the sake of another: he should not desire son, wealth, or kingdom. By unjust means he should not seek his own success. Then such a one is indeed virtuous, wise and righteous.” The translation of the Venerable Thanissaro Bhikkhu says that such a one “is righteous, rich in virtue, [and] discernment.”

Applied to everyone

Although it is so common to hear someone say regarding an unpalatable discipline: “Oh, that is just for you monks,” in this case it has to be pointed out that Buddha’s teaching is not just for non-monastics. For sad to say a lot of monastics are greedy and scheming, though supposedly for the sake of others: family, friends, church, monastic order, etc. Under the guise of personal poverty, Christian monks for centuries have amassed fantastic amounts of money and land holdings, often owning slaves and bond servants including peasants in imperial Russia. One famous monk in Thailand actually raised enough money to pay off the national debt, then realized that everyone in the government were such crooks that they would grab it and not pay off the debt. So the money sits idle to no purpose. Monks are often matchmakers. I knew a Greek Orthodox nun that travelled around raising thousands of dollars for her nieces’ dowries.

Even more absurd, consider the number of monks (especially in India) who are credited with the miraculous power to ensure pregnancy, gain wealth for devotees, and get employment and university degrees for others. Some activity for world-renouncing teachers of dispassion and non-materialism! Buddha never did such things. He is a perfect example for all humanity. In the case of this eighty-fourth verse, one size truly does fit all.

Children, wealth, and power

Children, wealth and power; in themselves these three items have no defect. After all, if we had not been children we would not be here at all. And if we had no money, what kind of existence would we have? It is the same with some power or influence; it would be impossible to live a worthwhile human life without it. What, then, is the problem? As always: the ego. The trouble is with the rascal that says: My children, My money, My influence. Or an ego so twisted that it thinks getting those things for others–which will all be labeled Mine in some way–is acceptable. Ego is at the bottom, the middle, and the top.

Buddha is warning us away from actively seeking those things in an ego-involved way. Actually, he is warning us about seeking anything in a self-centered manner rather than approaching life as a worthy karma yogi: do our best and leave the rest to the cosmic laws. It is true, as the Gita points out to us, that there is a positive form of indifference to these things that renders them safe for us. Buddha does not want us to hate or despise them, for then we would be thinking and obsessing about them. The idea is that we should live life with the central purpose of spiritual evolution and let these other factors be, or not be, as they are. We are to seek the Paramartha, the Supreme Attainment, of enlightenment.

Let us not forget that Buddha gave up all these three. And because of his renunciation billions have understood the truth about this life and have attained higher consciousness. Just think: one man has done all this through his renunciation!

Unprincipled means

The end does not justify the means. Rather, the end can invalidate or corrupt the means. Buddha is aware of the slippery nature of the ego. It may seem to agree to not seek for vain things, but it will certainly consider that it can adopt any strategy it wants for the accomplishment or gain of something that is seen as necessary or beneficial. The ego loves to Do Good in a Not Good manner, thinking it is justified to do so. This type of hypocrisy is common on all levels of life. Sometimes the religious people are the worst. In the 1960’s an acquaintance of mine discovered that officials of the Russian Orthodox Church in New York City were paying someone who lived right there in New York City to write accounts of fictitious “new martyrs” in Russia–as if the Communists were not continually making enough real ones! These fabrications were then presented as “accounts recently smuggled out of the Soviet Union.” When the priest (later a bishop) in charge of the fraud was challenged by her regarding this, he responded with polished cynicism: “It accomplishes what we want.” And the conversation was at an end.

But the good and true person will never cut corners or compromise integrity or moral principles to gain something that of itself may seem desirable. As an Eastern Christian writer has said: “If you have to employ an unjust means, then the end is unjust, as well.”

Virtuous, wise, and righteous

Diogenes may have searched for a good and wise man with a lantern, but only two things will enable us to find such a one: a) by that person really being good and wise; and b) by ourselves being good and wise so we can recognize him. It is true: it takes one to know one.

Those who live according to the principles so clearly presented by Buddha will be all those things: virtuous, wise, and righteous. It is easy for the real person, but impossible for the ego.

Running along the bank

Few are those among men who have crossed over to the other shore, while the rest of mankind runs along the bank (Dhammapada 85).

Narada Thera: “Few are there among men who go Beyond; the rest of mankind only run about on the bank.” It is a fact: people live their lives like ants whose hill has been disturbed; rushing about aimlessly and uselessly.

“Then said one unto him, Lord, are there few that be saved? And he said unto them, Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able” (Luke 13:23-24). Jesus was surely familiar with the Dhammapada, considering the amount of time he spent in Buddhist monasteries and centers in India, and no doubt had these very verses in mind when he gave his answer. At any time in history it is indeed comparatively few that Cross Over.

Few cross over

Edward Lear wrote a poem called “The Jumblies” which tells it very well–as he often did under the guise of nonsense verse. I am going to include the whole thing here for you to see what I mean. Even though much of it may not seem to apply to or be relevant to the search for liberation, it does, because those who seek Reality are even more strange and absurd than the Jumblies to the ants that run along the shore and never get anywhere, but like to say that one day they, too, will cross over, yet somehow it does not happen. For “far and few, far and few” are the Jumblies who alone can do it.

The Jumblies

They went to sea in a Sieve, they did,

In a Sieve they went to sea:
In spite of all their friends could say,

On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day,
In a Sieve they went to sea!

And when the Sieve turned round and round,
And every one cried, “You’ll all be drowned!”

They called aloud, “Our Sieve ain’t big,
But we don’t care a button! we don’t care a fig!

In a Sieve we’ll go to sea!”

Far and few, far and few,

Are the lands where the Jumblies live;

Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,

And they went to sea in a Sieve.

They sailed away in a Sieve, they did,

In a Sieve they sailed so fast,
With only a beautiful pea-green veil

Tied with a riband by way of a sail,
To a small tobacco-pipe mast;

And every one said, who saw them go,
“Oh won’t they be soon upset, you know!

For the sky is dark, and the voyage is long,
And happen what may, it’s extremely wrong

In a Sieve to sail so fast!”

Far and few, far and few,

Are the lands where the Jumblies live;

Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,

And they went to sea in a Sieve.

The water it soon came in, it did,

The water it soon came in;
So to keep them dry, they wrapped their feet

In a pinky paper all folded neat,
And they fastened it down with a pin.

And they passed the night in a crockery-jar,
And each of them said, “How wise we are!

Though the sky be dark, and the voyage be long,
Yet we never can think we were rash or wrong,

While round in our Sieve we spin!”

Far and few, far and few,

Are the lands where the Jumblies live;

Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,

And they went to sea in a Sieve.

And all night long they sailed away;

And when the sun went down
They whistled and warbled a moony song

To the echoing sound of a coppery gong,
In the shade of the mountains brown.

“O Timballoo! How happy we are,

When we live in a sieve and a crockery-jar,

And all night long in the moonlight pale,
We sail away with a pea-green sail,

In the shade of the mountains brown!”

Far and few, far and few,

Are the lands where the Jumblies live;

Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,

And they went to sea in a Sieve.

They sailed to the Western Sea, they did,

To a land all covered with trees,
And they bought an Owl, and a useful Cart,

And a pound of Rice, and a Cranberry Tart,
And a hive of silvery Bees.

And they bought a Pig, and some green Jackdaws,

And a lovely Monkey with lollipop paws,
And forty bottles of Ring-Bo-Ree,

And no end of Stilton Cheese.

Far and few, far and few,

Are the lands where the Jumblies live;

Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,

And they went to sea in a Sieve.

And in twenty years they all came back,

In twenty years or more,
And every one said, “How tall they’ve grown!

For they’ve been to the Lakes, and the Torrible Zone,
And the hills of the Chankly Bore;”

And they drank their health, and gave them a feast
Of dumplings made of beautiful yeast;

And everyone said, “If we only live,
We too will go to sea in a Sieve,

To the hills of the Chankly Bore!”

Far and few, far and few,

Are the lands where the Jumblies live;

Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,

And they went to sea in a Sieve.

But some do

Buddha said that few cross over, but some do, and he tells us how they manage it.

However, those who follow the principles of the well-taught Truth will cross over to the other shore, out of the dominion of Death, hard though it is to escape (Dhammapada 86).

Thanissaro Bhikkhu: “But those who practice Dharma in line with the well-taught Dharma, will cross over the realm of Death so hard to transcend.”

We must know dharma, but it must be well-taught–that is, it must be complete with nothing lacking, and nothing added that is not really a part of dharma. And certainly dharma is of little use unless it is well-learned as much as well-taught. There simply is no room here for cutting corners or slouching around. It will indeed be hard, and not an overnight matter, but if we follow all the principles of dharma we shall indeed transcend this realm of birth and death in which we are presently imprisoned. That is why study of scriptures such as the Upanishads and the Gita are so important. Buddha was very conscious of his Aryan heritage, which is why he used the word so often, as well as other terms found in classical Indian scriptures. The idea that Buddha started a new religion is incorrect: he recovered Sanatana Dharma and restored it to humanity.

How to cross over

Buddha does not leave us unsure as to what the well-taught dharma will entail in our search for moksha (liberation). However, many (most) will like the hearers of Jesus say in response: “This is an hard saying; who can hear it?” (John 6:60). Nevertheless, here it is:

A wise man, abandoning the principle of darkness, should cultivate what is pure. Leaving home for the homeless life, let him seek his joy in the solitude which people find so hard to enjoy, and, abandoning sensual pleasures, let him cleanse himself of inner defilements, looking on nothing as his own (Dhammapada 87, 88).

Thanissaro Bhikkhu: “Forsaking dark practices, the wise person should develop the bright, having gone from home to no-home in seclusion, so hard to enjoy. There he should wish for delight, discarding sensuality–he who has nothing. He should cleanse himself–wise–of what defiles the mind.”

Forsaking dark practices, the wise person should develop the bright. Here we have the only intelligent and viable basis for morality: we should avoid what darkens, limits and distorts the consciousness, and engage continually in that which brightens, expands, frees and clarifies the consciousness. This is the only sensible way to find our way through the maze of this illusory world. Naturally, honesty, intelligence and insight are needed to do this.

We are all familiar with people who do destructive things to themselves while insisting that they not only do no harm, they are actually beneficial to them. This is the horrible curse of addiction, and can also be an indication of a person who is so dead and gone that evil actions produce no perceptible change in him. Here is a real life example I gave in another commentary:

“One semi-renowned ‘yogi’ of twentieth century America used to tell about how when he attained Cosmic Consciousness he wanted to put it to the test. (No person in that state would need a test!) So he went right out to a restaurant and ate a big steak; and found it did not alter his consciousness (?!). Then he got a bottle of whiskey, drank the whole thing, and found his consciousness was unchanged. As a final test he went to a brothel and engaged in immoral conduct… and discovered that it made no difference in his state of awareness. Now, I believe him: he had a state of consciousness too low and inert to be changed by anything–it could not even be made more negative than it already was. Being truly negative, he saw everything backwards, mistaking the lowest state for the highest. People on the path to self-destruction continually make this mistake. They think they are growing and expanding when they are shrinking away. They boast of all the power they gain and wield when they are daily bleeding away their inner energies and becoming dead husks. A former Franciscan monk who had become engaged in ‘magick’ came to see me once and confided: ‘I always feel like I am dying somewhere deep inside.’ And he was. This is the cruel delusion of Maya.”

However it may be for others, the wise person turns from darkening actions and turns toward those that enlighten him.

Leaving home for the homeless life, let him seek his joy in the solitude which people find so hard to enjoy. “Leaving home for the homeless life” means to formally take up monastic life. There is no place here for the absurd ideas of “a monk in the world,” “a monastery without walls,” or–worst of all–“ordinary people as monks and mystics.” Buddha says get to out of the house and into the monastery, that monastic life is the necessary prerequisite for even beginning the path to Bodhi (Enlightenment). What more can be said? This is Buddha’s view: monastic life is an absolute sine qua non in seeking true knowledge. That is why the Pali sutras almost always begin with the single word “Bhikkhus,” indicating that teaching was for monks.

Someone once complained to Buddha about the fact that he only lived and taught in the forest with the monks and never taught in the towns where most of the people lived. Buddha made no defense, but asked him to go into the nearby city and ask every single person he met what they most wanted in life. He did so, and it took a very long time. When he returned, Buddha asked: “How many people wanted enlightenment?” “None!” answered the man in disgust. “They wanted all kinds of things–all material and all selfish. No one wanted real knowledge.” “Why, then, do you blame me for not forcing on them what they do not want?” was Buddha’s response. The man got the idea, and so do the wise that seek joy in that inner solitude which the worldly so dislike.

The bhikkhus were a great multitude externally, but inwardly each one dwelt alone in his consciousness. The word “monk” comes from the Greek monochos, which means “one who lives alone.” It has been applied for thousands of years to those who physically lived with dozens, hundreds, and even thousands of other monks, because it is a psychological term. By the practice of meditation we are solitary even in the midst of other seekers. And we find joy in that inward solitude which most people find so tedious and even maddening.

Abandoning sensual pleasures, let him cleanse himself of inner defilements. This can only be done by renunciation and meditation, for renunciation clears away the external obstacles, and meditation eliminates the inner obstacles.

Looking on nothing as his own, for nothing–no object in this world–really is ours, not even our body. Also, the wise does not say anything is “mine” because that which claims ownership is the illusory ego which ultimately does not even exist, much less have the ability to possess something. It is a ghost, a vapor that means and is nothing. This is why the monastics have a chance to follow these ideals of Buddha. The world of human illusions cannot exist without ego, and no one can live in it without being centered in ego. The very nature of worldly life not only demands ego-involvement, it produces and fosters the ego. That is why worldly people resent monastics so much and constantly assure themselves that they do not need to be like them. No wonder Buddha was not interested in talking to them. They set themselves to be increasingly entangled in samsara, and only pull in and drown those that reach out a hand to them.

Jesus gives a very clear picture of this situation, saying: “Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were wise, and five were foolish. They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them: but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him. Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. 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. And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut. Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us. But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not” (Matthew 25:1-12).

Many are those that visit monasteries and “go on retreat” there and make friends with the monks, and even seek their advice. They want to get the oil of spiritual knowledge and experience that they have never bothered to obtain by living that life themselves. Many monastics waste their oil and their time with them. Rare are those honest (and courageous) enough to say: “Come, join us and produce your own oil,” even though they know that Jesus said: “The kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field” (Matthew 13:44). And: “Whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). And further: “Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God’s sake, who shall not receive manifold more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting” (Luke 18:29-30).

The implication is that those who do not so renounce shall not so receive. Jesus had spent a great deal of time in Buddhist monasteries in India, and had learned the Buddha Way: to “seek his joy in the solitude which people find so hard to enjoy…looking on nothing as his own.”

The wise

Those whose minds are thoroughly practiced in the factors of enlightenment, who find delight in freedom from attachment in the renunciation of clinging, free from the inflow of thoughts, they are like shining lights, having reached final liberation in the world (Dhammapada 89).

A ripe fruit falls off the tree effortlessly after having hung there and equally effortlessly matured. That is the right way for fruit, but not for human beings. Unfortunately, in the West nearly all yogis think that all they need do is allot some time for yoga practice, and they will automatically attain higher consciousness with little or no rearrangement of life, thought or deed. This is because they are usually students of teachers or organizations that intensely hype their particular kind of meditation, assuring them that all they need do is add it to their life like salt and pepper to a soup pot. Not so, according to Buddha. Those that attain Nirvana in this very life:

  1. Are thoroughly practiced in the factors of enlightenment. First, they know what the factors are, and second, they observe them diligently until they are proficient in them. This is because enlightenment is as precise a science as the physical sciences. Nothing is hit-or-miss or happenstance, nor is it a reward for sincerity or simple goodness, or bestowed by another, even a deity. Rather, enlightenment comes from specific practices, internal and external. And it is attained in exact steps or stages, each of which is characterized by psychological factors that are often outwardly evident. In his discourses found in the Pali sutras, Buddha is very clear about them, as Krishna and Patanjali were earlier in the Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras.
  2. Find delight in freedom from attachment in the renunciation of clinging. Narada Thera renders this: “Who, without clinging, delight in ‘the giving up of grasping.’” Renunciation is not just the path to freedom, it is the path to peace and joy. As Sri Yukteswar often said: “Finding God will mean the funeral of all sorrows.” We must give up the unreal before we can attain the Real–a great bargain, indeed. When suffering comes to an end, joy (ananda) begins. So renunciation is not some grim exercise in dedication and sacrifice, it is the way of freedom. Those who understand this follow it with great contentment and happiness. They rejoice in the letting go that precedes the Great Attainment. Free from the compulsion of clinging or grasping, they know Peace Profound.
  3. Are free from the inflow of thoughts. This cannot be faked. Yes, someone can act in an idiotic way and pretend that he is in that state, but he knows the truth of the matter. I know of a man in India whom any sensible person can see is in the final stage of Alzheimer’s, but people flock around for “darshan” of someone who supposedly has gone beyond all thought or perception and rests in the Self. The man was never a yogi, he just went ga-ga. One of the silliest things I ever saw was Alan Watts on television pretending to be in the no-mind state. Considering he was an alcoholic and ultimately a suicide, we can safely conclude that he never came near it. It is tragic the number of “mystics” and “enlightened” who end up alcoholics or drug addicts, sometimes also committing suicide.

But Buddha is telling us about the real thing. No impression can touch the truly enlightened. This does not mean that liberated beings are living in a void without perception of what is going on in the world, it means that nothing changes their interior condition, no more than a reflection in a mirror really touches or affects the mirror. Nothing invades the mind of a perfect yogi, and the perfect yogi’s mind never responds in the slightest to any stimulus. As Krishna says in the Gita: “He whom all desires enter and who remains unmoved attains peace” (2:70). This is the real meaning of yogash chitta vritti nirodhah–“yoga is the inhibition of modifications of the mind” (Yoga Sutras 1:2). It is not absence of thought, otherwise there would be a lot of enlightened people in the world! Rather, it is the non-response of the mind (chitta) to external impulses or perceptions. Those in that condition truly are “shining lights, having reached final liberation in the world.”

Next article in the Dhammapada for Awakening: The Enlightened

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Chapters in the Dhammapada for Awakening:

Introduction to the Dhammapada

The History of the Dhammapada

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