The Dhammapada (pāli, Sanskrit Dharmapada or also Udānavarga), sometimes translated as the Dharma Path, is a text of the Buddhist Canon preserved both in the Pāli Canon (in the Khuddaka Nikāya of the Piṭaka Sutta), both in the Chinese Canon (where it takes the name Fǎjùjīng, 法句經, and is found in the section of the Běnyuánbù), and in the Tibetan Canon (where it takes the name Ched-du brjod-pa'i choms, is found in both the Kanjur and Tanjiur).
This work consists of 423 verses collected into 26 categories. According to tradition, these are words actually spoken by Gautama Buddha on several occasions.
Although it is particularly revered by the Theravāda school, the Dhammapada is also read by many Buddhists belonging to Mahāyāna schools, and is very popular in every sphere of Buddhism.
The Dhammapada is the best-known text in Theravada Buddhism. The work is included in the Khuddaka Nikaya ("Minor Collection") of the Piṭaka Sutta, one of the three "baskets" of the Tipitaka, the Pāli Canon.
From ancient times to the present, the Dhammapada has been considered the most concise expression of the Buddha's doctrine and a kind of testament of the spiritual leader of Buddhism.
In countries such as Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Burma and Thailand, the Dhammapada is used as a guide for solving the countless problems of daily life and as the basis of novice instruction in monasteries.
The stated author of the verses that make up the Dhammapada is the Indian sage called Buddha, an honorific title meaning "Enlightened One" or "Awakened One." "Dhammapada," in Pali, means portions, aspects, or sections of the Dhamma. It is so called because, in its 26 chapters, it enunciates the many aspects of the Buddha's teaching.
Ordering of the chapters
The Dhammapada has no systematic ordering, unlike other texts that make up the Tipitaka and represent series of discourses juxtaposed by length or topic. It is thus a sequence of inspired or pedagogical verses, illustrating the fundamentals of the Dhamma, to be used as a basis for personal edification.
Each chapter groups verses that are similar in structural features "The Pairs" - "The Thousands" or because they pertain to a specific theme "The Monk" - "The Fool." Each group of verses, represents the development of a series of variations on the theme. In general, the logic that informs the grouping of the different chapters, is not obvious.
The Buddha's teachings found in the entire Pali Canon are considered fairly consistent. In contrast, the Dhammapada has apparent inconsistencies that can be perplexing.
For example, in many verses the Buddha seems to praise certain practices that lead to a heavenly birth, but in others he discourages disciples from aspiring to these births, arguing that only the ultimate liberation, Nibbana, represents true liberation from suffering.
He often stresses the importance of acting according to current morality but then, elsewhere, praises the one who has gone beyond, both merit and demerit. Without an understanding of the structure of the underlying teaching, such statements may seem confusing and inconsistent.
In reality, to understand the text one needs to know the two keys used by those who drafted it. There are two realities: the conventional and the absolute. What is true in the former often turns out to be illusory in the latter.
Moreover, until people reach the state of Enlightened (Arahant), their actions must be consistent with proper formal, socially acceptable behavior. The Buddha often criticizes the excesses of asceticism, such as extreme renunciation of food, nudity, dirt, covering oneself with ashes or excrement-.
"Neither walking around naked, nor shaggy hair, nor dirt or fasting, nor sleeping on the ground, nor soiling oneself with ashes and mud, nor sitting on one's heels [in penance], can purify a mortal who has not overcome doubt." So the teaching is formulated according to the listener's level of understanding and by the diversity of needs that may coexist, even in a single individual.
The four levels of reading
In order to make precise sense of the utterances found in the Dhammapada, a four-level schematism is used, by which it is possible to understand the intention of the disseminator, present behind the letter of each verse and, therefore, its proper placement, in the systematic view of the Dhamma teaching.
This schematism stems from an ancient interpretive maxim, which holds that the Buddha's teaching was designed to meet three main goals: human well-being, here and now, favorable rebirth in the next life, and the attainment of the ultimate goal: Nibbana.
First level - Social
The first level defines the need to create well-being and happiness in the immediately visible sphere of human relationships. The goal at this level is to suggest to the men of the time (farmers, ranchers, merchants, landowners, nobles and priests) a way to live at peace with themselves and their fellow human beings.
One finds maxims urging the fulfillment of family and social duties, and curbing the hatred, conflict and violence that infect social relations.
The guidelines, appropriate for this level, are largely identical to the basic ethical principles put forward by most of the world's great religions: concern for one's own physical and mental integrity and for the welfare of those who suffer the consequences of our actions.
The most general advice found in the Dhammapada is to avoid all evil, to cultivate goodness and to purify the mind.
Both monks and lay people, are expected to abide by the five precepts, the fundamental moral code of Buddhism, which teaches to refrain from destroying life, stealing, committing adultery, lying and intoxicating oneself with drugs and alcohol. One who violates these rules of behavior "unravels his own root in this world."
Therefore, the disciple should treat all beings with kindness and compassion, live honestly and righteously, control sensual desires, speak the truth, and maintain a sober conduct of life, diligent in fulfilling one's duties, in service to parents, family, monks and Brahmins who depend on lay people for their maintenance.
A large number of verses related to this first level deal with conflict resolution and hostility. Fighting is to be avoided with patience and forgiveness: responding to hatred with hatred only strengthens the cycle of revenge and retaliation.
The real achievement is to respond to hatred with tolerance and love. Rather than speak a harsh word, it is better to keep silent. One should not give in to anger, but control oneself, as a charioteer controls horses thrown at great speed.
Instead of noting the faults of others, the disciple is admonished to examine and make amends for his own, as a silversmith purifies silver before working it.
Even if he has committed evil in the past, he should not allow himself to be seized by despondency and despair: he who abandons evil for good enlightens this world, like the moon, freed from the clouds.
The qualities that distinguish the holy man, are generosity, sincerity, patience and compassion. By developing these qualities within himself, man lives in harmony with his own consciousness and at peace with his fellow human beings.
The fragrance of virtue, the Buddha declares, is sweeter than all other fragrances. The good man, like the Himalayan mountains, shines from afar and, wherever he goes, is loved and respected.
Second level - the kamma
In the second level of teaching, the Dhammapada demonstrates that morality does not exhaust its task by simply making a contribution to human happiness, here and now, but exerts a far more important influence, in the personal destiny of the disciple.
This level begins with the recognition that, existence, seen in the light of reflective thought, demands a deeper explanation than the mere ethical exhortation to goodness and altruism can provide.
On the one hand, our innate sense of moral justice demands that good should be rewarded with happiness and evil with suffering; on the other hand, our experience shows us that often, virtuous people are haunted by severe hardship and misfortune, while criminals and unrepentant wicked people live blissful, wealthy and fearless lives.
Moral intuition tells us that if the visible order does not produce obvious effects, dependent on different causes, there must be another venue in which to claim our need for justice. In Buddhism this impersonal law, which reigns over all "sentient beings," is the law of "kamma" (Sanskrit: karma).
Every action bears a fruit, good, bad or neutral, immediate or deferred in time, in an unlimited sequence of existences. Kamma has an ethical basis that ensures that the morally determined action does not disappear into nothingness but eventually meets its just retribution: good with happiness, bad with suffering.
In popular conception kamma is sometimes identified with destiny, but this is a total misunderstanding, completely inapplicable to Buddhist doctrine. Kamma means volitional action, the action that flows from intention, which can manifest as an act of the body, speech or thought.
The field in which the seeds of kamma are brought to maturity is the endless process of rebirths, called samsara. In the Buddha's teaching, life is seen not as an isolated event but as part of an individualized series of lives, which have no knowable beginning in time and continue until the desire for existence is extinguished in Nibbana.
Rebirths can take beings into the different realms, lower and higher than human.
Thus the second level of teaching found in the Dhammapada is the practical corollary to the law of kamma. It contains the rules that point human beings, who naturally desire happiness and freedom from pain, to the most effective means of achieving their goals.
The content of this same teaching is no different from that presented at the first level: it is the same set of ethical injunctions aimed at avoiding evil and practicing good.
The difference lies in the perspective: no longer just social, the principles of morality are shown here in their broader cosmic connections, as related to an invisible but all-encompassing law that holds together the lives of sentient beings and rules over the cycles of birth and death.
Those who violate this law, acting in the grip of hatred, ignorance and selfishness, suffer a deterioration of their status as human beings, which inevitably leads them into the worlds of suffering.
The theme is already announced by the pair of verses that opens the Dhammapada, and it reappears in different formulations throughout the text.
Third level - the Path
The ethical advice based on the desire for higher rebirths and happiness in the future life is not the Buddha's ultimate teaching, and therefore is not capable of providing the decisive training program, defined by the Dhammapada.
In the area in which it is applied it is perfectly valid, as a preparatory or provisional teaching for those whose spiritual faculties are not yet mature.
Deeper research, however, reveals that all states of existence in the saṃsāra, even the highest heavenly abodes, are devoid of real value, because they are all inherently impermanent, without any lasting substance (anicca), and therefore, for those who cling to them, potential bases for further suffering.
The disciple who has gained a deep understanding of the dhamma, sufficiently prepared by previous experience, having understood the inherent inadequacy of all conditioned things, focuses his or her aspiration toward the ultimate liberation from the cycle of births. This is the goal to which the Buddha's teachings point: the Nibbana, the Immortal, the unconditioned state, where there are no more births and thus old age, suffering and death cease.
The third level of teaching found in the Dhammapada then lays out the theoretical framework and practical discipline, which enable one to achieve ultimate liberation.
The theoretical framework is summarized in the teaching of the Four Noble Truths, which the Buddha had already proclaimed in his first discourse. The Four Truths hinge on the concept of suffering (dukkha), understood not as the mere experience of pain, but as pervasive dissatisfaction generated by what is conditioned.
The cause of suffering is desire (Taṇhā), the desire for pleasure and existence, which leads us through the endless cycle of births, bringing with it pain, anxiety and despair. The third truth tells us that by abandoning desire, we can come to the cessation of pain.
The fourth noble truth represents the path that leads to the cessation of suffering: the Noble Eightfold Path: righteous understanding, righteous thought, righteous speech, righteous action, righteous livelihood, righteous effort, righteous awareness and righteous concentration.
At this third level is the firm invitation to go beyond current morality to access the practice of the path that leads to the ultimate cessation of all kamma, both good and evil: to pacification, to liberation from the cycle of births.
In practice, the eight factors of the path are arranged into three main groups that more clearly reveal the development of the training: moral discipline (righteous speech, righteous action and righteous livelihood), concentration (righteous effort, righteous awareness and righteous concentration), and wisdom (righteous understanding and righteous thinking).
With morality, gross mental defilements are eliminated. With concentration the mind becomes calm, pure and unified, purged of distractions. With wisdom, attention is focused on the factors that constitute reality "as it is."
With wisdom, attention is focused on the factors that constitute reality "as it is." This wisdom, gradually matured, culminates in the understanding that leads to total purification and liberation of the mind.
In principle, the practice of the path is practicable by everyone, in any condition of life. The Buddha taught lay people and monks, and many of his lay followers have reached high stages of realization.
However, the application required for the development of the path is more intense, for those who have abandoned all other concerns in order to devote themselves body and soul to spiritual training, to living the "holy life" (Brahmacharya).
This is why the Buddha established the Sangha, the order of monks and nuns, who devote their lives to the practice of the Noble Path, which, throughout the entire Dhammapada, is recalled everywhere.
Monastic life is an act of radical renunciation. It implies the breaking of family and social ties, the abandonment of homes, children, wives and worldly pleasures.
The monk, withdrawn to quiet and secluded places, seeks the company of wise teachers, and accepts the rules of monastic training, devoting his energies to a life of meditation. He contents himself with the minimum necessary for survival, is moderate in food, restrained in the senses, energetic in practice, constantly immersed in mindfulness.
The life of meditative contemplation, reaches its culmination in the development of deep insight (vipassana), and the Dhammapada enunciates the principles on which this wisdom is based: that all conditioned things are impermanent (anicca), unsatisfactory (dukkha), that there is no permanent self or self (anatta).
When these truths are understood, through direct experience, desire, ignorance and related mental chains are destroyed, and the disciple ascends through successive stages of realization, until full realization of Nibbana.
Fourth level - the Arahant
The fourth level of reading of the Dhammapada provides no further teachings, but is an acclamation of those who have reached the goal. In the Pali canon, there are four stages of ultimate realization along the road to Nibbana: "Having entered the stream" (Sotāpanna), the disciple irreversibly enters the path of liberation, which he or she will reach in seven lifetimes at most.
Already this achievement, it is said in the Dhammapada, is superior to lordship over all worlds. The next two stages are (Sakadagami), who will return only once to a body before finally becoming liberated, and (Anāgāmin), who will attain rebirth in a heavenly plane, destined to gain final liberation there.
The fourth and final stage is that of the arahant, the Accomplished, the fully realized sage, who has completed the development of the path, eradicated all defilements and freed himself from the bondage of the birth cycle.
This is the ideal figure of Buddhism; he is the supreme hero of the Dhammapada. Exalted in Chapter 7 in Chapter 26 under the name of arahant, Brāhmaṇa, "holy man," he constitutes the living demonstration of the truth of the Dhamma: that it is possible to free oneself from the stains of greed, hatred and ignorance by overcoming suffering in order to attain Nibbana in this life.
The one who embodies the ideal of the arahant in the most perfect way is the Buddha, the Supreme Master who is not dependent on anything, who has developed his own wisdom.
Not a god but a man, the Buddha always remains essentially human, but his perfect enlightenment elevates him to a level far above that of ordinary humanity.
All our familiar concepts and common forms of knowledge, fail to circumscribe his nature: he is without roads, without field limits, free from all worldliness, the conqueror of all, the knower of all, untainted by the world.
Structure of the work
The Dhammapada is structured as follows:
Yamaka-vagga, the paired stanzas (verses 1 to 20);(see excerpt below) Appamāda-vagga, the awareness (verses 21 to 32);(see excerpt below) Citta-vagga, the mind (verses 33 to 43); Puppha-vagga, the flowers (verses 44 to 59); (see excerpt below) Bāla-vagga, the fool (verses 60 to 75); (see excerpt below) Paṇḍita-vagga, the wise man (verses 76 to 89);
Arahanta-vagga, the awakened ones (verses 90 to 99); Sahassa-vagga, the thousands (verses 100 to 115); Pāpa-vagga, the evil (verses 116 to 128); Daṇḍa-vagga, the staff (verses 129 to 145); Jarā-vagga, old age (verses 146 to 156); Atta-vagga, himself (verses 157 to 166);
Loka-vagga, the world (verses 167 to 178); Buddha-vagga, the Buddha (verses 179 to 196); Sukha-vagga, happiness (verses 197 to 208); Piya-vagga, pleasure (verses 209 to 220); Kodha-vagga, wrath (verses 221 to 234);
Mala-vagga, the impurities (verses 235 to 255); Dhammaṭṭha-vagga, the righteous man (verses 256 to 272); Magga-vagga, the way (verses 273 to 289); Pakiṇṇaka-vagga, varî verses (verses 290 to 305); Niraya-vagga, hell (verses 306 to 319);
Nāga-vagga, the elephant (verses 320 to 333); Taṇhā-vagga, the thirst (verses 334 to 359);2 Bhikkhu-vagga, the monk (verses 360 to 382); Brāhmaṇa-vagga, the brāhmaṇa (verses 383 to 423).