Dhammapada, Verses 19 & 20
Even though reciting sacred texts,
But not acting accordingly,
That heedless one is like a cowherd
Who only counts others’ cows –
He does not partake of the blessings of a holy life.
Though little reciting sacred texts,
But putting the teaching into practice,
Forsaking greed, hatred, and delusion,
With true wisdom and emancipated mind,
Clinging to nothing of this or any other world,
One indeed partakes of the blessings of a holy life.
According to tradition, Buddha’s words were memorised by his cousin & attendant the Venerable Ananda, and then recited by Buddhists through the ages. Eventually, after several hundred years, these words were written down and became “sacred texts.” Historically, there have been many different collections of Buddhist teachings, each promoted by different branches of Buddhism. Today, there are three such collections used by Buddhists across the world – the Pali, Chinese & Tibetan. These collections, known in Sanskrit as the Tripitaka, are complemented by commentaries & other subsequent writings also considered sacred by those that use them. (Interestingly, at the time of Buddha, when the above verses were said to have been originally uttered, Buddhist texts didn’t yet exist. Was Buddha referring to contemporary non-Buddhist texts or predicting the formation of Buddhist sacred texts in the future?)
Whether the term “sacred texts” used in verses 19 & 20 of the Dhammapada originally meant religious texts existing at the time of Buddha or not, modern Buddhists can interpret these words as referring to Buddhist sacred texts. Reciting such texts has a long history in Buddhism, sometimes as an act of merit-making, sometimes with the intent of remembering & reflecting upon them. It’s interesting, therefore, that Buddha states that merely reciting these texts doesn’t bring much benefit. Instead, he teaches that it’s in putting these teachings into practice that someone may “partake of the blessings of a holy life.” (“Holy life” here indicates living a Buddhist life based on the threefold training briefly described below. ‘Holiness’ in this sense means practicing the Buddhist path, not being a kind of Ghandi or Mother Teresa figure.)
In verse 20, Buddha describes several ways that a wise person benefits from Buddhist practice – even if Buddhist texts are little recited. Firstly, he talks of “putting the teaching into practice.” This teaching includes the threefold training of wisdom, morality & concentration (or, meditation). All major schools of Buddhism include these three types of training, although the details & methods of training may differ from school to school.
Secondly, Buddha promotes “forsaking greed, hatred and delusion.” These are called the three unwholesome roots or three poisons, and are considered the cause of suffering. To forsake them is to remove the causes of suffering and therein achieve awakening (or enlightenment). This awakening is the meaning of the phrase “true wisdom and emancipated mind” in the verse. To achieve this emancipation is the result of living the Buddhist life to its fruition, but even if we don’t reach full awakening, we may still witness the reduction of the poisons in our lives to good effect.
The benefits of living the Buddha’s teachings to their conclusion is summed up in the words “clinging to nothing of this or any other world, one indeed partakes of the blessings of a holy life.” This is true freedom without clinging, clinging being an integral part of the arising of suffering. Such absence of clinging must also include not clinging to the Buddhist teachings themselves. For, if clung to, the idea of awakening will prevent the realization of its reality. This fact reveals an important reason why the recitation & remembrance Buddhist texts won’t lead to awakening: awakening is beyond words, even those of Buddha!
This isn’t to say that Buddha’s teachings should be shunned. They still supply us with the blueprints that most of us need to enable us to awaken. Verses 19 & 20 are telling us that if we know, understand & apply the basic teachings of Buddha to our lives consistently, we will awaken. Cramming our minds full of texts but not putting them into practice is useless if our intent is to become awakened. Ultimately, awakening lies beyond the reaches of the intellect; it can be a useful tool, but it does not liberate us.
All of this doesn’t mean that Buddhist texts shouldn’t be studied or recited, of course. It simply means that these activities are no substitute for actually walking the Buddhist path. We can study the teachings – and we need to so to gain a sound idea of what Buddhism is all about – but it’s in their application to our lives that they will truly benefit us. The wisdom contained in Buddhist sacred texts like the Dhammapada is to be valued, but only as far as it inspires in us a realisation of the “blessings of a holy life.”
The Dhammapada ('Verses of Dharma' or 'Path of Dharma') is an ancient Buddhist text that is said to contain some of the 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.