In Translation: The Inexhaustable Dhammapada

The Buddha taught a path of liberation. To understand his teachings is to understand how to walk that path. Though he described it as an ancient pathway, hidden and forgotten until he rediscovered it, it remains as relevant today as it was in his time, 2,500 years ago.

By far the most popular text teaching how to walk this path is the Dhammapada, a collection of verses from the earliest period of Buddhism in India. I was introduced to this sacred text when my first Zen teacher gave me my first copy. In the twenty-five years since receiving that gift, I have read and reread the Dhammapada many times. I have found its teachings to be direct, wise, and inspirational. The verses point to a possibility of peace and freedom that I find breathtakingly simple in its profundity.

Over the years I have read the Dhammapada in a variety of ways, sometimes casually and sometimes with great care. I have calmed my mind in meditation so that I could encounter the text in creative and intuitive ways. I have read it out loud. I have memorized verses. Some passages I have reread many times until they revealed new understandings or insights. I have read the verses for my own inspiration, as well as to discover what inspired ancient Buddhists in their religious life. At times I have approached the text with an inquiring attitude, sometimes to see how the text might address a particular question I’ve had, and sometimes to allow the text to question my own views and biases.

As a Western Buddhist teacher, I am acutely aware that Buddhism has been adapted and reinterpreted in the West. I believe that there is nothing inherently wrong with this tendency; indeed, it points out how Buddhism has been adapted over time and across cultures. However, I believe it is important that we be conscious of—and responsible for—just how we might be changing Buddhism. And to do this, we need to know what we are changing it from.

In this translation, I have tried to put aside my own interpretations and preferences, insofar as possible, in favor of accuracy. In attempting a literal translation, I am trying to understand early Buddhism in its own terms so I can better evaluate our modern versions of Buddhism. After nearly thirty years of practice, I remain inspired by the teachings of the Buddha, and I hope to understand better what the Buddha taught by going back to the original text and rendering it into modern English.

Gil Fronsdal

Dichotomies

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a corrupted mind,
And suffering follows
As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a peaceful mind,
And happiness follows
Like a never-departing shadow.

“He abused me, attacked me,
Defeated me, robbed me!”
For those carrying on like this,
Hatred does not end.

“She abused me, attacked me,
Defeated me, robbed me!”
For those not carrying on like this,
Hatred ends.

Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.

Many do not realize that
We here must die.
For those who realize this,
Quarrels end.

Whoever lives
Focused on the pleasant,
Senses unguarded,
Immoderate with food,
Lazy and sluggish,
Will be overpowered by Mara,
As a weak tree is bent in the wind.

Whoever lives
Focused on the unpleasant,
Senses guarded,
Moderate with food,
Faithful and diligent,
Will not be overpowered by Mara,
As a stone mountain is unmoved by the wind.

Whoever is defiled
> And devoid of self-control and truth,
Yet wears the saffron robe,
Is unworthy of the saffron robe.

Whoever has purged the defilements,
Is self-controlled, truthful,
And well established in virtue,
Is worthy of the saffron robe.

Those who consider the inessential to be essential
And see the essential as inessential
Don’t reach the essential,
Living in the field of wrong intention.

Those who know the essential to be essential
And the inessential as inessential
Reach the essential,
Living in the field of right intention.

As rain penetrates
An ill-thatched house,
So lust penetrates
An uncultivated mind.

As rain does not penetrate
A well-thatched house,
So lust does not penetrate
A well-cultivated mind.

One who does evil grieves in this life,
Grieves in the next,
Grieves in both worlds.
Seeing one’s own defiled acts brings grief and affliction.

One who makes merit rejoices in this life,
Rejoices in the next,
Rejoices in both worlds.
Seeing one’s own pure acts brings joy and delight.

One who does evil is tormented in this life,
Tormented in the next,
Is tormented in both worlds.
Here he is tormented, knowing, “I have done evil.”
Reborn in realms of woe, he is tormented all the more.

One who makes merit is delighted in this life,
Delighted in the next,
Is delighted in both worlds.
Here she is delighted, knowing, “I have made merit.”
Reborn in realms of bliss, she delights all the more.

One who recites many teachings
But, being negligent, doesn’t act accordingly,
Like a cowherd counting others’ cows,
Does not attain the benefits of the contemplative life.

One who recites but a few teachings
Yet lives according to the Dharma,
Abandoning passion, ill will, and delusion,
Aware and with mind well freed,
Not clinging in this life or the next,
Attains the benefits of the contemplative life.

Vigilance

Vigilance is the path to the Deathless;
Negligence the path to death.
The vigilant do not die;
The negligent are as if already dead.

Knowing this distinction,
Vigilant sages rejoice in vigilance,
Delighting
In the field of the noble ones.

Absorbed in meditation, persevering,
Always steadfast,
The wise touch Nirvana,
The ultimate rest from toil.

Glory grows for a person who is
Energetic and mindful,
Pure and considerate in action,
Restrained and vigilant,
And who lives the Dharma.

Through effort, vigilance,
Restraint, and self-control,
The wise person can become an island
No flood will overwhelm.

Unwise, foolish people
Give themselves over to negligence.
The wise
Protect vigilance as the greatest treasure.

Don’t give yourself to negligence,
Don’t devote yourself to sensual pleasure.
Vigilant and absorbed in meditation,
One attains abundant happiness.

Driving away negligence with vigilance,
Ascending the tower of insight and free of sorrow,
A sage observes the sorrowing masses
As someone standing on a mountain observes
Fools on the ground below.

Vigilant among the negligent,
Wide awake among the sleeping,
The wise one advances
Like a swift horse leaving a weak one behind.

With vigilance, Indra became the greatest of the gods.
The gods praise vigilance,
Forever rejecting negligence.

The monastic who delights in vigilance
And fears negligence
Advances like a fire,
Burning fetters subtle and gross.

The monastic who delights in vigilance
And fears negligence
Is incapable of backsliding
And is quite close to Nirvana.

The Mind

The restless, agitated mind,
Hard to protect, hard to control,
The sage makes straight,
As a fletcher the shaft of an arrow.

Like a fish out of water,
Thrown on dry ground,
This mind thrashes about,
Trying to escape Mara’s command.

The mind, hard to control,
Flighty—alighting where it wishes—
One does well to tame.
The disciplined mind brings happiness.

The mind, hard to see,
Subtle—alighting where it wishes—
The sage protects.
The watched mind brings happiness.

Far-ranging, solitary,
Incorporeal and hidden
Is the mind.
Those who restrain it
Will be freed from Mara’s bonds.

For those who are unsteady of mind,
Who do not know true Dharma,
And whose serenity wavers,
Wisdom does not mature.

For one who is awake,
Whose mind isn’t overflowing,
Whose heart isn’t afflicted
And who has abandoned both merit and demerit,
Fear does not exist.

Knowing this body to be like a clay pot,
Establishing this mind like a fortress,
One should battle Mara with the sword of insight,
Protecting what has been won,
Clinging to nothing.

All too soon this body
Will lie on the ground,
Cast aside, deprived of consciousness,
Like a useless scrap of wood.

Whatever an enemy may do to an enemy,
Or haters, one to another,
Far worse is the harm
From one’s own wrongly directed mind.

Neither mother nor father,
Nor any other relative can do
One as much good
As one’s own well-directed mind.

Flowers

Who will master this world
And the realms of Yama and the gods?
Who will select a well-taught Dharma teaching,
As a skilled person selects a flower?

One in training will master this world
And the realms of Yama and the gods.
One in training will select
a well-taught Dharma teaching,
As a skilled person selects a flower.

Knowing this body is like foam,
Fully awake to its mirage-like nature,
Cutting off Mara’s flowers,
One goes unseen by the King of Death.

Death sweeps away
The person obsessed
With gathering flowers,
As a great flood sweeps away a sleeping village.

The person obsessed
With gathering flowers,
Insatiable for sense pleasures,
Is under the sway of Death.

As a bee gathers nectar
And moves on without harming
The flower, its color, or its fragrance,
Just so should a sage walk through a village.

Do not consider the faults of others
Or what they have or haven’t done.
Consider rather
What you yourself have or haven’t done.

Like a beautiful flower,
Brightly colored but lacking scent,
So are well-spoken words
Fruitless when not carried out.

Like a beautiful flower,
Brightly colored and with scent,
So are well-spoken words
Fruitful when carried out.

Just as from a heap of flowers
Many garlands can be made,
So, you, with your mortal life,
Should do many skillful things.

The scent of flowers
—sandalwood, jasmine, and rosebay—
Doesn’t go against the wind.
But the scent of a virtuous person
Does travel against the wind;
It spreads in all directions.

The scent of virtue
Is unsurpassed
Even by sandalwood, rosebay,
Water lily, and jasmine.

Slight
Is the scent of rosebay or sandalwood,
But the scent of the virtuous is supreme,
Drifting even to the gods.

Mara does not find the path
Of those endowed with virtue,
Living with vigilance,
and freed by right understanding.

As a sweet-smelling lotus
Pleasing to the heart
May grow in a heap of rubbish
Discarded along the highway,
So a disciple of the Fully Awakened One
Shines with wisdom
Amid the rubbish heap
Of blind, common people.

Gil Fronsdal is the founder and primary teacher of the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, California, and is part of the Vipassana teachers’ collective at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center. This excerpt is from his book, The Dhammapada: A New Translation of the Buddhist Classic with Annotations, published by Shambhala Publications, 2005.