Sunday, April 7, 2013

Dhammapada Reflection #1

Verses 1 & 2:

Mind precedes all states.
Mind is their chief;
They are mind-made.
If one speaks or acts 
With an impure mind,
Suffering will follow,
Just as the wheel 
Follows the ox's hoof.

Mind precedes all states.
Mind is their chief;
They are mind-made.
If one speaks or acts 
With a pure mind,
Happiness will follow,
Like an ever-present shadow.

It is appropriate that mind (mano in the ancient Indian Pali language) is the first word in the Dhammapada. For, whereas the idea of a soul is central to so many of the world's great - and not-so-great - religions, it is mind that is the focus of Buddhist teachings. It is the mind that Buddhists endeavor to perfect, avoiding unwholesome states and cultivating wholesome ones. And, it is in the mind that the ultimate goal of Buddhism, nirvana, is to be experienced. Moreover, the practices of meditation & mindfulness are mental undertakings that with development lead to that awakening that gave the founder of Buddhism his title. (Buddha means 'awakened one' or 'enlightened one.') 

In the first two verses of the Dhammapada, the Buddha declares that 'mind precedes all states.' The word translated as 'states' here is dhamma, a word that has a wide meaning, covering such diverse areas as things, processes, mental conditions, phenomena, law, doctrine and the Buddhist Teachings. When referring to the latter three meanings, it is usually written Dhamma (Sanskrit, Dharma), and this is not the meaning traditionally attributed to the word by Buddhist scholars & teachers. Rather, it is as both mental & physical phenomena, or 'things,' that dhamma is defined as in the first two verses of the Dhammapada. 

That mental phenomena are conditioned by the mind in which they occur is easy enough to understand and accept. As many Buddhist can testify, we can see this happening in our own minds when meditating. And, even if we don't meditate, we can think back to recent events in our lives and see how the state of the mind conditioned the feelings and thoughts that arose in it. Indeed, if this was not the case, the whole system of Buddhist mental training (bhavana) would fail pathetically. Moreover, any kind of mental training would be impossible if the mind could not be cultivated in certain directions,from learning a language to brainwashing people into becoming terrorists. Thankfully, in Buddhism mental training is set on establishing virtuous behavior and mindfulness, rather than creating trained killers!

Seeing how the mind 'precedes' or is the 'chief' of physical phenomena is less obvious to most of us, however. With a little effort, though, this too can be understood and observed. When the mind is in a certain state, the body will appear differently. For instance, if the mind is in a negative mood, the body can seem overly fat or too thin. Moreover, if the mind is of a gluttonous nature, then the body may well end up obese, or the reverse, as when the Buddha was an ascetic prior to his enlightenment and was said to have been skeletal in appearance. 

In Buddhist understanding, an impure mind is one that is unawakened to its true, empty nature; suffering arises because we live from impure mind states, caught up in the delusion of self. This is a simplification of the first two of the four noble truths, the essential teachings of the Buddha. The first noble truth is that there is suffering. By suffering is also meant painful, angst-ridden, or unsatisfactory, all of which are translations for the Buddhist term dukkha. The second noble truth is the cause of suffering, which is desire (tanha). This is the result of the delusion of being a self, which clings to certain things and rejects others, causing inner conflict and turmoil. And, as the first verse of the Dhammapada states, suffering will follow the impure mind just as the wheel of a cart will follow the foot of the ox pulling it.

The second verse hints at the third and fourth noble truths. The third is that the ending (nirodha) of desire is the ending of suffering, and the fourth is the path (magga) that leads to this end. If we purify the mind - and one of the many names of 'Buddhism' is Visuddhimagga, 'the path of purification' - then whatever we do will come from this purified state, and will be conducive to a happy outcome. Simply put, the path (or 'noble eightfold path') has three main trainings to undertake, in morality (sila), concentration (samadhi) & wisdom (panya). if the mind & the mental, verbal & physical actions that come from it are purified by walking the path, then the 'shadow' of happiness will not only be experienced by the Buddhist practitioner, but also by all that she or he comes into contact with.

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. 


Was Once said...

I acted out of insecurity, it really doesn't make a difference as to the cause it was born out of expectations. Once the action is in motion, emotions carry it until it burns out. The only difference this time was the duration, when you constantly reexamine your mind states....Oh, this is emotion, running the "temperature" over in your mind. But when it subsided, mostly because you tire of the blossomed into a more freer heart....and some other suffering being got the merit....and changed their life. The best part of my human life blossomed. The only "re-incarnation" we can effect is in the hearts of those we touch.

G said...

Nice reflection. It can also help to see that these thoughts & feelings are not 'mine,' but are impersonal processes. Regular meditation really helps to establish this as an observed fact. "A freer heart" is a useful & inspiring turn of phrase, too!

Lucas said...

Yes, nice reflection, and good elucidation, G, on how our bodies end up reflecting our mental states.

I'll add another bit to that if I may: though you may think you can think what you will of others or of yourself without even more prompt consequences...think again. Just watch, track and you will see.

I'll be travelling and volunteering in NGOS in South East Asia with my wife for a year as of July, G. I hope we can meet up in Thailand, probably some time next spring.

I've much appreciated your recent posts and will take your recommended readings on the trip. I'll write more soon.

All the best,


G said...

Yes, Lucas, it would be good to meet up, if possible. And you add an important insight about tracking the mind's meanderings - and the consequences; Thanks for that! It's good to read that you'll read some of the works recommended on 'Buddha Space.' Such teachings can have profound effects on our understanding & practice, if we are open to them.

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