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Buddha and the Path to Enlightenment: IV. The Dhammapada and the Udanavarga


IV. The Dhammapada and the Udanavarga

Let one's thoughts of boundless loving-kindness pervade the whole world, above, below, across, without obscuration, without hatred, without enmity.

Sanyutta Nikaya, 150

 Myriad schools and far-flung traditions sprang from the fertile streams of Mahayana thought. They developed in their own distinctive way in Tibet, but in China, Korea and Japan they were deeply influenced by the Sthavira philosophy preserved in Theravadin teachings. Some schools incorporated potent ideas from Taoist alchemy and others emphasized the elimination of doubt by deep faith, giving rise to the Pure Land (sukhavati) schools. Yet others stressed meditation, dhyana, developing the Ch"an tradition which became Zen in Japan. However divergent the perspectives, they all readily recognized and consistently preached the fundamental importance of morality in thought, word and deed to any authentic progress on the Path to Enlightenment. In the Shrimala Devi Sinha Nada Sutra, Queen Shrimala summarizes the standpoint of all Buddhist schools when she addresses Buddha:

 World-honoured One, the embracing of the true Dharma is not different from the paramitas; the embracing of the true Dharma is the paramitas.

 It is indeed significant that the Dhammapada has always been venerated as the finest expression of the ethical principles upon which all wise practice and compassionate therapy must be firmly based.

 The Dhammapada is a remarkable collection of memorable utterances attributed to Buddha. Given the rich variety of meanings which can be ascribed to the dhamma and to pada, the title may be translated "The Way of Virtue", "The Path of the Law", "The Foundation of Religion" and even "Utterances of Scriptures". Although the Pali version is best known today, partly because of its internal coherence and beautiful imagery, Chinese Buddhists have long preserved fine translations of four apparently different Sanskrit versions. The Tibetan canon did not include any version of the Dhammapada per se, though it contains two careful recensions of the Sanskrit Udanavarga, a similar collection of Buddha's words which contains many of the statements found in the Dhammapada. The Dhammapada was well known in some Tibetan monasteries where Prakrit versions were discovered in the 1930s.1

 The Prakrit Dhammapada was discovered recorded on ancient prepared birch bark. Written in the Karosthi script, it is in the Prakrit dialect generally called Gandhari, after the Gandhara region where early Buddhist art and civilization flourished. The Gandhari Dhammapada has the distinction of being the oldest known Indian manuscript and the only text which survives in this language and script. Unfortunately, the Dhampiya, a Sinhalese version brought to Sri Lanka by Ashoka's son Mahinda, has been lost to history. Despite the destruction of most of the sacred texts belonging to groups and schools which did not survive into modern times, these varying recensions are sufficient to suggest that there may not have existed a single, original Dhammapada text. For example, although the Gandhari text is close to the Pali in length, its contents are on the whole more like the much longer Udanavarga. Whilst there are nearly identical verses which can be found in all surviving versions, yet they are ordered differently in each one. Rather than thinking in terms of a complete original of which others are supposed derivations, one might more profitably think of a dharmapadani literature, a kind of scriptural text analogous to a sutra or a discourse, and see the surviving Dhammapadas as worthy examples of that kind of text cherished by different schools and traditions.

 No one knows who first compiled any particular version of the Dhammapada. Dharmatrata is traditionally credited with compiling the Tibetan Udanavarga, consisting of about three hundred and seventy-five verses from the Dhammapada and a considerable portion of the Udana. Since dharmapadani texts seem to have been widespread amongst early Buddhist schools, they clearly form a very early strain of the Buddhavachana. Unlike the sutras which are more or less extended disquisitions on some question or topic, and which all begin with the reverential expression evam maya shrutam, "Thus have I heard", indicating an oral recollection of an occasion on which Buddha taught, the Dhammapada seems to come closest to the direct speech of Buddha. Unlike the Udana or "breathing out", representing spontaneous utterances which arose from the depths of feeling occasioned by a particular event, the Dhammapada seems to consist of recurrent sayings which arose out of and apply to practical problems repeatedly found in everyday attempts to tread the Noble Eightfold Path. Whilst a sutra has an overarching unity of theme, standpoint or topic, and the Udanavarga is broadly arrayed into vargas, or sections according to subject, the Dhammapada exhibits shifting criteria of composition. Verses are grouped together because of shared characteristics (for example, Yamaka, "Twin Verses"), or because of shared metaphors and similes ("The Elephant", "The Thousands"), or because of a sustained theme ("The Brahmana"), and at least one canto has no explicit basis of any kind ("Miscellaneous"). All of this suggests that the Dhammapada consists of memorable utterances of Buddha on different occasions and in varied circumstances. Though they arose in particular contexts, they were hardly bound by them, and so several monks recalled these sayings as invaluable aids in many situations. Thus the Dhammapada is a sort of handbook or compendium of practical ethics, a comprehensible guide to the Path, which also provides much food for thought and contemplation.

 Since the subtle differences in the surviving versions of the Dhammapada do not suggest conscious sectarian divergences, these ancient recensions are most probably the result of recording very early oral traditions which go back to Buddha himself. Without speculating as to how long these sayings were transmitted orally, it is reasonable to assume that the long-standing tradition of the Sangha preserved Buddha's Word without imposing any rigid structure upon it. Thus the Pali Dhammapada consists of four hundred and twenty-three verses arranged in twenty-six chapters, whereas one Chinese version has thirty-nine chapters. Comparing the twenty-six chapters in the Pali with the Chinese versions of the same, we find seventy-nine additional verses. The Udanavarga has around nine hundred and fifty verses in thirty-three chapters. Though the surviving Gandhari recension is incomplete, a careful examination of textual evidence suggests that it was originally about five hundred and forty verses in length. According to the oldest Buddhist traditions, the Dhammapada emerged from the First Council shortly after Buddha's Parinirvana, and Buddhaghosha, who wrote extensive commentaries on the Pali canon in the fifth century A.D., accepted this tradition. Some ancient histories date the writing down of sacred texts to the time of King Vattagamani (early first century B.C.). Since the verses of the Dhammapada were uttered on specific occasions, a commentary or attakatha appeared which provided stories about specific events which gave rise to one or more sayings. The Pali commentary on the Dhammapada (dubiously ascribed to Buddhaghosha) and its Chinese counterpart may have simply set down stories from the oral tradition which preserved echoes of original events.

 The Pali Dhammapada cannot claim to be the canonical archetype of all dharmapadani literature. Nonetheless, its forthright style and moving simplicity and beauty justly place it in the front ranks of Buddhist sacred literature. In addition, its aim, purpose and origin vindicate its rightful place among the sacred texts which constitute the spiritual heritage of humanity. Like the Bhagavad Gita or the Gospel According to Thomas, the Pali Dhammapada is readily accessible to any enquirer and also provides ample fare for the most ardent seekers and austere anchorites. It has the stamp of self-validating truth as well as the infectious common sense which transcends the constraints of time and place, sect and tradition, race and culture. Its ethical content is trustworthy and testable. In all these, the Pali Dhammapada can rightly claim to be Buddhavachana, the Word of Buddha. In the Pali canon it forms part of Khuddaka Nikaya, the Collection of Shorter Texts, which includes the Udana and the Jataka or previous lives of Buddha. The Khuddaka Nikaya belongs to the Sutta Pitaka, the second of the three "baskets" of instruction known as the Tripitaka. Generally, the Vinaya Pitaka addresses monastic discipline, the Sutta Pitaka deals with Buddha's basic Teachings and the Abhidhamma Pitaka consists of philosophical reflections and psychological investigations. The Dhammapada shows, however, that these divisions are tentative and fluidic rather than rigid and exclusive, for it considers with equal ease the basic teachings, monastic discipline and open-textured philosophical problems. It can serve as a clear summation of all one needs to know to begin to tread the Noble Eightfold Path and also as a thought-provoking compendium of what one needs to recall at every step along the way.

 Buddha inseparably fused two fundamental principles and made them the firm basis of daily practice – the priority of mind and the ultimacy of Dharma. Declaring that The mind is the precursor of all propensities (I.1), he taught that the tropism of the mind can enslave or emancipate, inducing perpetual discontent or progressive fulfilment. Seeking pleasure and shunning pain is wasted effort, for pleasure and pain intermix in unpredictable ways, and since their unstable admixture aggravates frustration and repeated disillusionment, no mere tinkering with external conditions can bring mental and moral strength. The tropism of the mind must be confronted and understood if it is to be changed significantly. One must come to see clearly that If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts, happiness follows him even as his never-departing shadow (I.2). Altering the habitual orientation or oscillation of consciousness demands wise restraint, a taste for temperance, increasing faith and cool perseverance, but at root it requires a fundamental rethinking of one's shallow relationship with a fast-moving world. Hatred is never stilled through hatred in this world; by non-hatred alone is hatred stilled. This is the Eternal Law (sanantana dhamma) (I.5). Dharma is not just religiosity as distinguished from other profane aspects of life, nor is it a remote ideal unrelated to the world of imperfect subjects and illusory objects. Dharma is the omnipresent normative order, the bedrock of the manifest universe. If this were not so, it would be difficult to grasp how ignorance, avidya, invariably leads to suffering rather than arbitrarily producing a variety of alterable results in Samsara. Given that Dharma is the fundamental anchor amidst the flux of fleeting existence, it follows that unrelieved ignorance leading to tanha, the desperate thirst for sensory consciousness, gives rise to a false sense of self which seeks to situate and shape the world around its unauthentic centre and thereby comes into continual conflict with Dharma, the common source of universal obligation.

 The false "I" seeks to expropriate the regulatory function of Dharma in a cosmos of myriad subjects and objects. This tenacious yet precarious sense of self, regardless of the degree of refinement and versatility that might be brought to the notion, vainly seeks to be the invulnerable protagonist and judge in all situations. But such egocentrism ensures suffering of every sort and accumulated resentment. In utterly renouncing hatred, in letting go of all forms of selfish clinging and shallow judgementalism, one can begin to learn to live in concord with mutable things and volatile persons. The common tendency to expropriate is as infectious as ignorance itself, and Buddha showed how it can operate on many levels of consciousness. Even the most earnest aspirant can fall into the trap of substituting one sense of self for another and thereby delude himself into thinking that he has transcended the psychic core of ignorance, whereas he has only reinforced it. Buddha counselled all to be mindful, judicious and fully awake in every context and circumstance. The Middle Way is not a passive aloofness or a violent shrinking from extremes and excesses. It is a position of inner strength, enabling one to take a quantum jump in activity, being vigorous, vigilant, pure in conduct, considerate, self-restrained, righteous and heedful (II.4). Mindfulness is the way to immortality (II.1), and it requires rigorous mind-training on three levels. First of all, the mind must cease to identify with anything of a transient nature, or the entire panorama of shapes and forms, masks and veils. Secondly, it must repeatedly purify itself by a rigorous purgation of desires from all thoughts and feelings. And thirdly, it must turn to regular meditation, the unbroken contemplation of the highest ideals, which mirror Dharma and Buddha, its exalted and ever compassionate custodian. The mind thereby ceases to be the pathetic victim of divisive tendencies in which it cunningly participates, whilst refusing to learn the lessons of life. It can be redeemed by turning deeply within, discovering its inmost core, consubstantial with the Buddha-nature, capable of translucent awareness, uttermost lucidity, supreme calm and effortless serenity.

 The mindful individual neither succumbs nor invades in a world of deceptive appearances. He does what should be done and attends appropriately to his needs and tasks, without interfering with others or becoming ineffectually involved in things. Just as a bee gathers honey and flies away, without harming the colour or fragrance of the flower, even so the silent Sage moves about in the village (IV.6). The fool is fascinated by the world and thinks he learns thereby, but the wise man is not fascinated, indulgent or afraid and so moves noiselessly through the world, ever reflecting upon universal Dharma, the Tathagatas, the sweetness and light radiating from the invisible pillars of the never-ending Sangha. Untouched by the fever and fret of those overcome by fascination and passion, the mindful individual who is ever heedful gains a magisterial, hidden tranquillity which is hinted in his healing words and timely acts. His unruffled mind mirrors the magnitude and lustre of the Dharma, and he magnanimously loosens the ties that bind others or himself to compulsive, cyclic existence. Subduing himself, he masters the world of delusion and frees others who are ready to be freed, whilst calmly brooding on the benediction of Buddha-like Enlightenment.

 Whilst Buddha refrained from any form of spiritual utilitarianism, which invokes a course of action in the present with the inducement of some future compensation, he did not hesitate to speak hard truths. The psychological tension between mindfulness and heedlessness, the mental contest between insightful knowledge and insolent ignorance, and the emotional conflict between fragile loves and persisting hates are all mirroring manifestations of a continual metaphysical encounter between Sat and asat, light and shadow, universal good and partisan evil. In a universe rooted in and ruled by moral Law, neither ignorance nor folly, attraction nor revulsion, can be wholly separated from evil. Avidya is not the aboriginal condition of man which only a favoured few may overcome; pristine spiritual awareness is the inmost essence of humanity, which has been distorted and obscured by the accumulated sins and follies of all our ancestors. The Noble Eightfold Path of the true exemplars (Aryas) is the legacy of all the disinherited, to be claimed by those who dare to challenge the collective ignorance that compounds human misery and to meditate upon the compassionate Sages who have shown both how to see the world from the summit and to live in the world, making of themselves islands emitting rays of benevolence, truth and love. Dharma unites the standpoints of the seeker and the Sage, serving both as the initial awakening and the eventual Enlightenment, the means and the goal, the pathway and its consummation in the peace that passeth all human understanding.

 The Path to Enlightenment is indeed arduous, but each step in a series of progressive awakenings both anticipates and hastens the goal. The converse is also painfully real. Each backsliding and every procrastination ensures imminent torments that foreshadow the eventual congregation and incurable, anguished aloneness of the self-doomed, witnessing the self-annihilation of the perversely cruel, the defiantly slothful, the irredeemably damned. Hence Buddha warned all and sundry that no one can evade the relentless workings of the Law of Karma. He urged his disciples to understand fully that violence, coercion and playing upon the fears of others will rebound not only upon all such evil-doers but also upon entire communities as well as the earthly Sangha.

 Rules must be decisive, impartial and firm, but ever applied with wisdom and compassion. If each one is to rule himself, the same principles have to be applied to oneself as to others. Irrigators lead the waters; fletchers bend the shafts; carpenters carve the wood; the truly virtuous control themselves (X.17). They must look at the glaring facts of life, including the unpleasant fact of inevitable decay and death. Rather than fighting, fleeing or forgetting it, each one must meditate upon its universal significance. All must come to see that either one is the body, in which case the outcome is already known, or one is not, and so daily identification with transient things is disastrous. At the simplest level, mindfulness (appamada) is lucid yet vigorous thinking that must release the will to act appropriately, without any delay. Fear is a failure of nerve, impetuosity a failure of patience, violence is a failure of courage, hatred is a failure of understanding and procrastination is a failure of penance. Rather than taking the cowardly course of constructing a world-picture in which one is the victim of malign fate and human malice, one must dare to respect oneself and to risk much as an apprentice initiate who daily enacts the Dharma in this world.

 Like Bhishma in the Mahabharata, Buddha taught that individual exertion is mightier than inexorable destiny. Karma is not unalterable fatalism, but rather the universal operation of Dharma, which implies the integrity as well as the intelligibility of Nature. To alter course, to turn around and to inaugurate a course of wisdom and light, one can benefit enormously by contemplating the Vow, the Compassion, the Renunciation and the Enlightenment of Buddha. Reverence for Buddha, reliance upon the Dharma (and, therefore, karma) and refuge in the true Sangha are invaluable aids in gaining clarity of mind, preserving continuity of effort, and regenerating oneself at all stages of the Path to Enlightenment. The universal benediction and unceasing radiance of the trikaya of Buddha can draw like a magnet anyone who truly seeks and strives to transmute the lead of his lower nature into resilient iron, reflecting the lustre of the "Diamond Soul" and the golden glow of the Tathagatagarbha, the sacred source of gestation of past and future Initiates. Even in the early stages, the constant outflow of gratitude for the life and message and presence of Buddha can spur one along the Path. Reverence, gratitude and devotion can reliably sustain one's faith and courage in emulating the Buddha Vow without hubris or hypocrisy. One becomes joyous, like Shantideva, that one can become worthy of belonging to the Buddha family without any wavering, or shadow of turning, in one's irrevocable fidelity to the Triple Gem.

 Buddha compassionately drew repeated attention to the treacherous ways in which one can periodically obstruct the processes of assimilation, growth and self-transformation. Perverse inclinations towards subtler sensory pleasures, which lead one to condone self-indulgence, righteous-seeming indignation and lurking impurities of motivation, are especially dangerous; they can unbalance the mind, resulting in confusion and loss of control. Hence eternal vigilance is the price of spiritual freedom, whilst mistaking appearances for realities at any level of meditation, morality and conduct can undo the good and end in self-destruction. Age does not ensure wisdom, speech is not gnosis, mere silence does not make a Sage, and neither austerities nor rituals bring one closer to complete renunciation.

 That wise man who, as if holding a balance, accepts the good and rejects the evil is indeed a Sage. He is a Sage by reason of this. He is deemed a Sage since he comprehends both worlds. (XIX.13-14)

Thus Buddha defined the righteous man, the ordained monk and the Sage in terms which exclude identification through external signs, names or forms. Outward forms can at best reflect inward graces, but they cannot cause them or serve as surrogates.

 Internality is the crux, the criterion and the index of fundamental growth in apprehension, motivation and the strength of meditation. The outward arena may serve for self-testing and gaining insight into the interdependence, the integrity and predictability of karma. But the Eightfold Path must become an inward reality before it can yield visible results. To tread the Path means in time that one becomes the Path. One must ever recall that everything which has a beginning is inevitably characterized by suffering, impermanency and insubstantiality. Only inward harmony, outer timeliness and constancy in meditation can emancipate one: for increasing harmony in thought, word and deed dissolves the pain of honest self-examination; right action overcomes residues and their karmic accretions; and deep, daily meditation can dispel delusion as well as tanha, craving for embodied existence in the phenomenal realm.

 The basic chain of dependent origination is conventionally presented in a sequential arrangement so that it can be initially understood, but the Avatansaka Sutra makes clear that it arises as a unified whole. Ignorance, pain, craving and form likewise arise together, and from one philosophical standpoint can be seen as sharing a single quality – that of non-enlightenment. The Triple Gem – Buddha, Dharma and Sangha – can release the triune force which removes the false spell of conditioned existence and induce an ever deeper insight into the unconditioned reality, the "Untrodden Land" of Nirvana (XXIII.4). Thus Buddha, freed from all conditions and forms, freed from collective ignorance and all craving, asked: By what track can you trace that trackless Buddha? (XIV.1). As the distilled essence of the Buddhavachana, the Dhammapada is replete with the guru's guidance in stripping away everything that leaves tracks, that taints the tranquil harmony of all things and thereby generates needless karma, reinforcing the inexorable cycle of involuntary rebirths. Empty this boat, Buddha enjoined. Emptied, it will move lightly (XXV. 10).

 Buddha came to humanity neither to plead for personal salvation nor to promise any terrestrial or celestial paradise; he came to show, to vindicate and to re-enact the Path to Supreme Enlightenment and thereby to demonstrate the universal relevance, reality and attainability of Buddhahood. His message of hope and healing, inimitably expressed in myriad ways, enshrined in thousands of texts, resounds with a deathless reverberation throughout the Dhammapada and the Udanavarga. These proclaim what all the texts teach:

 Shun ignorance, and likewise shun illusion. Avert thy face from world deceptions: mistrust thy senses; they are false. But within thy body – the shrine of thy sensations – seek in the Impersonal for the "Eternal Man"; and having sought him out, look inward: thou art Buddha.

The Voice of the Silence

Hermes, August 1986
by Raghavan Iyer


1 The Tibetan scholar Dge-'dun Chos-'pel knew of the Prakrit manuscript found in Tibet, but he proceeded to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to work with the distinguished monk Reverend Dharmananda. With his guidance Chos-'pel translated the Pali Dhammapada into Tibetan.

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