Dhammapada, Verses 11 & 12:
Those who mistake the unessential to be essential
And the essential to be unessential,
Dwelling in wrong thoughts,
Never arrive at the essential.
Those who know the essential to be essential
And the unessential to be unessential,
Dwelling on right thoughts,
Do arrive at the essential.
Two concepts & their opposites dominate these two verses – The first is sare (essential) & its opposite asare (unessential); the second is samma-sankappa (right intention, translated as ‘right thoughts’ above) & miccha-sankappa (wrong-intention). Understanding these terms is crucial in understanding these verses, so this article must initially resemble something of a dictionary entry so that it has a sound foundation upon which to build. As the verse suggests, distinguishing the essential from the unessential is dependent upon our intention (sankappa), so it is with the idea of right-intention that we will begin.
Right-intention is the second aspects of the noble eightfold path (ariya-atthangikamagga), and with right-view (samma-ditthi) forms an aspect of the path known as wisdom (punya). Right view, put simply, involves viewing experience in the light of such teachings as the three characteristics (tilakkhana), which describe all things as impermanent (anicca), stressful (dukkha) & not-self (anatta). Right intention, which complements right-view and sets the mind up for moral & meditative training, involves setting the mind up in the right direction for such endeavours. It is sometimes translated as ‘right-thought.’ In the early texts, Buddha says, “What, now, is right-intention? It is intent free from lust (nekkhamma-sankappa), intent free from ill-will (avyapada-sankappa), and intent free from cruelty (avihimsa-sankappa). This is called right-intent.” (Digha-nikaya 22, Pali canon)
Being free of lust, ill-will and cruelty is to establish the mind in a state where it will be more able to facilitate a morally-positive lifestyle (which comprises a further three aspects of the path). All this helps to create a peaceful mind free of negativity & its associated guilt, thereby allowing a successful meditation practice to lead to calmness & wisdom, and eventually, enlightenment. Caught up in wrong intention leads to suffering & ignorance to the way things are, and makes progression along the Buddhist path impossible. Right-intention, therefore, is a crucial aspect of awakening or enlightenment.
The term essential (sare in Pali) can be looked at in two in ways. The first is explicit in the meaning of the verses as explained above, defining the essential as having right-intention (and by extension, as they are inextricably linked as the training in wisdom, right-view). That is, to practice the noble eightfold path and awaken to our true nature we need right-intention; it is essential if we wish to awaken to the way-things-are and live from this wisdom. The other way we can understand the word essential is implicit in the above verses’ meaning, and it is see to that which is essential to our being – and therefore essential to our ability to awaken. This essential aspect within us is not a teaching or doctrine, but rather the essence of what we are, right now, when we take the time to actually look and see. Shall we look, then? Why not?!
Point at the scene in front of you, taking note of the size, color, shape and opacity of an object you can see. Next, point to another object near to where you are, answering the following questions: how big is it? What color is it? What shape is it? Can you see through it, or is it opaque?
• Next, point at your own feet, asking and answering the same questions as above, before moving on to focus on your legs. Take a look at your torso, also taking the time to analyze its size, color, shape and solid nature.
• Now, point your finger at your face – or at least where others see your face. What do you see? How big is it? What color is it? Does it have a shape? Is it an opaque thing, or the exact opposite? Pointing at where others see my face, I see no such thing. Right here, right now, this finger is directed not at a face or head, but at...no-thing whatsoever!
• All the different sized things on display are in stark contrast to what I see here: they appear in the absence of any such thing here. Ditto colors – there are no colors here other than the colors of the objects arising in awareness. The same is true of shape – the ‘no thing’ here has no shape, as only things have shape, and there’s no thing here to have a shape! As to opacity, all the opaque objects that can be seen right now are occurring in this invisible no-thing: its absence is their being. What do you see when you point at your ‘face’?
The Dhammapada ('Verses of Dharma' or 'Path of Dharma') is an ancient Buddhist text that is said to contain some of Buddha's teachings in poetic form. The first chapter is called Yamakavagga, 'Chapter of Pairs,' and the above two verses are from this part of the book.