Reading Room

The Dhammapada

“There is the perfume of sandalwood, of rose-bay, of the blue lotus and jasmine; but far above the perfume of those flowers threadingroom1e perfume of virtue is supreme.”

“Come and look at this world. It is like a royal painted chariot wherein fools sink. The wise are not imprisoned in the chariot.”

“He who in early days was unwise but later found Wisdom, he sheds a light over the world like that of the moon when free from clouds.”

“Better than a hundred years not seeing the Path supreme is one single day of life if one sees the Path supreme.”

In a nutshell

Refine and improve the quality of your thoughts and you will have little to fear from the world.

Buddha’s teachings

Tired of modern self-help books? The Dhammapada is an ancient source of wisdom and one of the truly great works of spiritual literature. It is also the perfect introduction to Buddhist thought, being an inspirational compendium of all the major themes in the sacred canon of Theravada Buddhism.

The title comes from the Sanskrit word dharma (dhamma in Pali), simply meaning the way of the universe, its law of being, while pada in both languages is a foot or a step. Thus the holy book represents a path guide to the universal way of love and truth that can lead us to nirvana, or personal liberation, as Juan Mascara says in the note to his 1973 translation. The Dhammapada expresses both the law of the universe and how we can live in alignment with it while on earth.

Who Buddha was

Siddhartha Gautama Buddha lived 500 years before Jesus. “Buddha” is not his real name but a title of honour. He was the son of a king ruling over a small state in what is now Nepal, and if you have seen the movie Little Buddha with Keanu Reeves as The Enlightened One, you will have some idea of the luxury and indolence that Indian royalty enjoyed. Nevertheless at age 29, after looking outside the walls of the palace and discovering just how miserable most people’s lives were, Siddhartha fled into the jungle to spend years as a loin-clothed hermit.

It was famously under the bough of a bodhi tree that “enlightenment” came to him. Unlike Jesus, the Buddha lived into old age, spending the next 45 years wandering northern India as a teacher.

Why Buddha succeeded

Among the hundreds of faiths of the time, Buddha’s triumphed. Why? Buddha sought out people from all levels of society, having little respect for the caste system and the exclusive language and ceremony of the Brahmin priesthood. He knew that power corrupted and the religion that grew around him was dogma free, seeking to remove the barriers between individuals and enlightenment. Buddha was not a god, a divine incarnation, or even a prophet; through his own dedication, he had achieved perfect wisdom and purity of mind, laying down the example for anyone to follow him.

The spread of Buddhism was also guaranteed by the Master’s identification of clear practices that promised to banish suffering for ever. This was obviously a revolutionary idea, and still is-the promise of a pain-free life continues to hold incredible allure. Buddhist scholar Thomas Cleary believes that the Buddha succeeded because his teachings stood outside of time and culture, grasping the essential nature of the human condition and our relationship to the universe.

What The Dhammapada says

The Dhammapada is symbolic of Buddhism’s timelessness and accessibility. It has chapters but no obvious sequence. You can open it at any page and find an inspirational thought that may well have been spoken by Buddha himself, a sacred communication across the ages. It has been suggested that while the New Testament has the energy of a young man who seeks to transform the world, The Dhammapada carries the wisdom, serenity, and patience of an older person.

It covers perennial subjects such as pleasure, happiness, and evil through almost poetic sayings, and unlike some writings in Buddhism the style is unscholarly and to the point. As each era and culture has interpreted it afresh, the book does not date. The following are some of its subjects.


It is our duty to free ourselves from hate, disease, and restlessness. This is not to be done by rejecting the world, but by cultivating love, health, and calmness within it. The ideal state is to “feed on joy,” joy that can be self-generated, flowing from an ever-reliable source; one no longer has to rely on the events and conditions of the world for happiness. Self-contained, we see ambition and acquisition to be inferior routes to happiness.


Sorrow arises from what is dear, as does fear. For someone free from liking, there is no sorrow, so how could there be fear? How can we not have likes and dislikes? Perhaps it is impossible, but we should know that strong desires have a price. It makes sense that if we are attached to something, we have an attendant fear of its loss. By witnessing the transitory nature of the world and accepting whatever comes to us, we can reduce attachment and therefore fear and misery.


Discipline is all-important. The following verses speak for themselves: “By energy, vigilance, self-control, and self-mastery, the wise one may make an island that a flood cannot sweep away.”

“He who can be alone and rest alone and is never weary of his great work, he can live in joy, when master of himself, by the edge of the forest of desires.”


The idea of leaving normal life behind and becoming a hermit can sometimes seem very attractive! But The Dhammapada says that taking solitary refuge is a sign of egocentrism or fear. We are better off dealing gracefully with the challenges of work and family life-through them we can become enlightened. Cleary says that the key teaching of The Dhammapada is “being in the world but not of the world.”

Retribution and its avoidance

The following two statements are possibly the most profound in The Dhammapada, with implications for every aspect of human life and relationships: “For hate is not conquered by hate: hate is conquered by love. This is a law eternal.”

“Overcome anger by non-anger, overcome evil by good. Overcome the miser by giving, overcome the liar by truth.”

Note that there is nothing in these statements about not taking action; they simply mean that whatever is done must be consciously chosen, not an “emotional response.”

Accept criticism as a fact of life

“They disparage one who remains silent, they disparage one who talks a lot, and they even disparage one who talks in moderation. There is no-one in the world who is not disparaged.”

You can never please everyone! The main thing is to concentrate on your own work, your integrity-to be independent of the good opinion of others.

The Path

There is a myth that Buddhism is pessimistic – “All is transient, all is sorrow. When one sees this, one is above misery. This is the clear path.” Western culture has interpreted these statements as implying that life is suffering. In fact, and as Cleary argues in his translation, Buddhism is inherently optimistic, believing that an individual, and humanity overall, can rise above its folly, fear, and aggression.

“When one sees by insight that all conditioned states are miserable, one then wearies of misery; this is the path to purity.”

If we are independent of mind and do not let ourselves become robotic reflections of our environment, life will not equate with suffering. Nirvana is not obliteration of the world of the senses but being able to live within it in total independence. In Pali, nirvana means “extinction”-of the afflictions of greed, hate, conceit, delusion, doubt, and arbitrary opinion.

The famous “four statements” are central to Buddhism because they are the recipe for ending suffering:

  • That misery or sorrow is a conditioned state.
  • That it has a cause
  • That it has an end
  • That the way to end it is through practice of the eightfold path to Nirvana.

The eightfold path involves:

1 – Accurate perception. 2 – Accurate thinking. 3 – Accurate speech. 4 – Appropriate action. 5 – Appropriate way of making a living (“right livelihood”). 6 – Precise effort. 7 – Mindfulness. 8 – Meditation.

Final comments

It is amazing to think that a person may pick up a 2500-year-old book and be instantly refreshed by its insights. Of course, not only are Buddha’s teachings still relevant, they are fashionable. Its lack of dogma and ritual make Buddhism the perfect religion for contemporary life. Though uprooted from tradition, we still want a level of spiritual discipline, and it comes with the least baggage of the major world religions, with an in-built resistance to zealotry; you don’t often hear of Buddhist Fundamentalists.

Somehow we expect spiritual truths to be complicated, only understood by a keen theological mind. The sayings from The Dhammapada show us just how unintellectual it all is. What may seem like empty platitudes are accurate instructions for the best life imaginable.

This copy was taken from 50 Self-help Classics, written and compiled by Tom Butler-Bowdon.

About Tom Cottrell

Tom is a struggling author, pilgrim and citizen of Planet Earth.
This entry was posted in 10 - Mind, 11 - Spirit and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Reading Room

  1. Pingback: The compass and sextant of my thoughts | A short stroll to the horizon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s