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Buddhism
The Dhammapada Introduction.

The sutras or discourses of the Buddha preserved in the Buddhist Pali canon were largely aimed at the monks and nuns of the Buddhist order. But the Dhammapada was meant for everyone. Its 423 verses are much more than wise aphorisms to be read and reflected over. They contain that part of the Buddha's teaching which can be grasped and put into practice by the greatest number of people, by following the disciplines of the Eightfold Path.

Every reader knows that one book which becomes part of one's life means more than a thousand others. The Dhammapada was meant as such a book, and its method for transforming our lives is given right in the first chapter. The title "Twin Verses" gives the clue.

Chaper 1 presents pairs of possibilities for human conduct, each leading to a different kind of destiny. There are ten verse pairs, and usually it is the negative possibility, the kind of conduct catering to conditioned human wants, that is presented first. Then comes the positive one, which runs contrary to human nature. The first alternative usually is easily accomplished and temporarily satisfying. The second, however, goes against the conditioning of the pleasure principle, and to implement it requires hard effort on the Eightfold path. But in the long run, the sweet and east way leads to more suffering; the hard way, to nirvana.

The Buddha can only point the way; the hard choice we must make ourselves, again and again, until it becomes part of our personality. The Buddha says later, "If a man who enjoys a lesser happiness beholds a greater one, let him leave aside the lesser to gain the greater." This is the "greater happiness" - the second, more difficult path - which will come to any human being who recognizes the choice he has in every action, even in every thought, and has the will and discrimination to choose wisely.

Robert Frost's famous lines from "The Road Not Taken" provide a model for the crossroads at which every human being stands: "Two roads diverged in a wood and I - I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."

Why can't a person just pass by the easy road and take "the one less traveled by" if it leads to permanent happiness?

The obstacle is the mind. It is one's mental state that determines which of these possibilities a person will act on. The mind can be said to be a product of the human being's evolutionary drive to look out for himself first. Its natural response to any situation is to take the easiest, least unpleasant course to personal fulfillment.

The Buddha calls this swimming with the current, taking the easy path traveled by the many. To find happiness, one has to go against the current, against every selfish impulse. Here one can see the dilemma the Buddha faced as a teacher: how will anyone believe that the hard way really leads to the happiness that all seek? In his experience of enlightenment, he had seen for himself that eternal principles operate in human affairs; hatred, for example, cannot put an end to hatred no matter what the circumstances or pretext.

But how could he motivate others to act on these principles unless they experience the truth for themselves?

Like Jesus, the Buddha had to find ways to make things and events that everyone was familiar with reverberate with the power of what he understood in the depths of meditation. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Dhammapada, where deep, subtle truths take on the garb of common village scenes familiar to the audiences the Buddha addressed. One can imagine his using verses like 13 -14 to explain the real causes of village quarrel, or even of a war. Everyone would have known that a poorly thatched roof will leak during the monsoon rains. Now they could understand how conflicts arise when hostile thoughts leak into an untrained mind.

To the Buddha, of course, training the mind meant meditation: the regular discipline of concentrating the mind and making it one-pointed at will. Even in the Dhammapada - that is, even for his lay followers - the Buddha emphasizes the practice of meditation above all else. But meditation is a terribly difficult discipline.

Why did the Buddha take such pains to communicate his lofty meaning to the masses of people who would probably never have time or means to practice meditation?

The answer is that the Buddha was an incorrigible optimist. "I am confident," he once said, "confident with the highest confidence." When writers call him a "spiritual democrat," they mean he felt sure he could go anywhere in India and find that needle in the haystack, the person who would come up after the sermon and say, "I want to know more about how to prevent hostile thoughts from arising. Please teach me."

The serious student is what every teacher seeks, and the Buddha found enough of them in these crowds to build a movement that has had a powerful and enduring effect on people's hearts and lives for centuries.

 


 


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