Dhammapada – About the Buddhist Guide to Living

By Michael Ericson

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The Dhammapada is a guide for how to live an ideal life and reach Nibbana, which is total freedom from attachment to the world. It speaks a lot on themes of self-control (of one’s words, actions, and thoughts), doing good and refraining from evil, keeping good company, avoiding attachment and the pain that it brings, and living a life not conditioned by the seeking of pleasure and avoidance of pain. The seeker is advised to be ever vigilant in controlling their behavior and mind and to have the utmost discipline in their pursuit of freedom and bliss.

The Dhammapada teaches what the results will be for certain attitudes and behaviors and explains that following the Buddhist path will have positive effects, and that following the typical path of a worldly pleasure seeker will have negative effects. It strongly advises against participating in vices such as hatred, greed, and harming others. The Dhammapada explains that one’s actions, good or bad, will come back to you, and that when you act you are planting the seeds of your future experience.

The transience of life is explored, and the reader is reminded that their body will not last—death is inevitable. Anything worldly thing we work towards gaining will be lost, and the accumulation of worldly goods distracts us. “Like a withered leaf are you now; death’s messengers await you. You stand on the eve of your departure, yet you have made no provision for your journey!” (235) We should focus instead on what is lasting: Nibbana, freedom from rebirth, which can be brought about via the destruction of craving. If we manage to avoid becoming attached the fleeting illusions of this life, it will pay off. The Dhammapada explains, “One who looks upon the world as a bubble and a mirage, him the King of Death sees not.” (170)

The Dhammapada discusses a wide variety of key Buddhist ideas, but I feel that the Buddhist doctrine of Karma and its strong ethical advice is the most useful as an explanation of why one would want to follow the Buddhist path. Karma is discussed repeatedly in the Dhammapada and is used a primary justification for its prescriptions on how to live. A key foundation of its emphasis on the power of karma is its explanation of how good and bad deeds accumulate, meaning that even small acts ultimately make a big difference: “Think not lightly of evil, saying, ‘It will not come to me.’ Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the fool, gathering it little by little, fills himself with evil. Think not lightly of good, saying, ‘It will not come to me.’ Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise man, gathering it little by little, fills himself with good.” (121, 122)

Everything we do matters, and our actions will have effects on us in the future, even if it is not immediate. It may seem for a while like one’s action doesn’t come back to them, but eventually the fruits of their action will “ripen”. Doing good and refraining from evil gives a person protection and bliss, while doing the opposite exposes the evildoer to serious harm. There will be no escape for an evildoer, either: “Nowhere in the world is there a place where one may escape from the results of evil deeds.” (127)

A big evil listed is violence, and the Dhammpada lists out the terrifying results waiting for those who engage in violence. “Sharp pain, or disaster, bodily injury, serious illness, or derangement of mind, trouble from the government, or grave charges, loss of relatives, or loss of wealth, or houses destroyed by ravaging fire; upon dissolution of the body that ignorant man is born in hell.” (138-140) An aspect with big implications is that the Dhammapada considers all killing (and causing others to kill) to be an evil act whenever the beings in question also seek happiness and hold life dear. This includes animals, meaning that causing animals to suffer and die by eating meat and engaging in other exploitation will come back to the person responsible. The implication of this is that there are actions considered normal in our society may be karmically devastating, and that by participating in our society in the typical way we may be damaging our ability to move forward on the path to Nibbana.

This leads into the second doctrine we will explore, the Arhat Ideal, the idea that optimal Buddhist success requires retreating from society and avoiding its acquisitive and ambitious ways. Society is founded on attachment and is often fueled by evils such as greed and violence. While the Dhammapada does not specifically recommend joining a monastery, it does speak about homelessness and repeatedly suggest that one must seek good company and avoid bad company. “Association with fools is ever painful, like partnership with an enemy. But association with the wise is happy, like meeting one’s own kinsmen.” (208) Also, the Dhammapada says that one is better off alone if unable to find good company: “Should a seeker not find a companion who is better or equal, let him resolutely pursue a solitary course; there is no fellowship with the fool.” (61)

The implication is clear: a seeker should find like-minded people. The type of people who a Buddhist seeker would be able to learn from can be found at a monastery. Society is filled with people who have vices and are controlled by their worldly attachments. The Dhammapada speaks of two paths, and it’s easy to realize that these paths will be found in different places: “One is the quest for worldly gain, and quite another is the path to Nibbana. Clearly understanding this, let not the monk, the disciple of the Buddha, be carried away by worldly acclaim, but develop detachment instead.” (75)

The Dhammapada is a powerful tool for improving one’s life and avoiding suffering, both suffering caused by the fruits of evil actions and suffering caused by worldly attachment. It is a very ethics-oriented text and focuses heavily on self-improvement. It urges us to cultivate purity by avoiding negative thoughts and deeds and renouncing the aims that people typically pursue, including the goal of having sex. “For so long as the underbrush of desire, even the most subtle, of a man towards a woman is not cut down, his mind is in bondage, like the sucking calf to its mother.” (284) Although this renunciation appears to require a very different lifestyle than the one most of us live, it does not preclude living and acting in society, but merely requires that our attitudes and habits be vastly different than those of many of our neighbors and peers.

The Dhammapada teaches us which characteristics are most vital to avoid because of the dangers they bring, saying for example, “There is no fire like lust; there is no grip like hatred; there is no net like delusion; there is no river like craving.” (251) This is especially useful because they are speaking about flaws which afflict all of us. One must not just learn these things from the Dhammapada, we must strive to apply these teachings by identifying when we have partaken in these dangers and then working to alter the causes of our behaviors. This purification is a gradual and constant process: “One by one, little by little, moment by moment, a wise man should remove his own impurities, as a smith removes his dross from silver.” (239)

To remove the cause of non-ideal behavior and thoughts (attachment/craving), we must follow the Path, which begins with certain teachings that will help us overcome ignorance. Meditation must be regularly practiced. A version of a quote from the Dhammapada goes: “Meditation brings wisdom. Lack of meditations breeds ignorance. Know well what leads you forward, and what holds you back.” (282) This is the most important prescription for anyone who hopes to use the Dhammapada to their benefit. Absolute control of our mind is necessary for success on the Path and this can only be achieved with extensive meditation.

When we lose control of our minds, they wander to anything and everything involving attachments to our transient world, and such thoughts are the food of craving. Therefore, the Dhammapada does not only define our greatest enemy (craving), it clearly defines the tools (self-control, wisdom, meditation) we need to defeat it and prevent it from ever gaining power over us again.

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