Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Buddha, The Dhammapada

The Dhammapada: Verses on The Way. A new translation of the teachings of the buddha, with a guide to reading the text, by Glenn Wallis. Modern Library Classics, 2007. 202 pp (actual text is 85 pp). Cost: Free, from Albany Park library. The Buddha's life is dated to approximately 500 BCE.

A deep read. Again, I find myself comparing an uninterrupted reading of this text with reading, say, the book of Matthew in the New Testament in one sitting, versus spending a lifetime poring over and going back to individual passages.

The verses in the Dhammapada, attributed to the Buddha, are dated to about 500 BC. There are 423 verses in 26 short chapters. The word "dhamma," while without an exact English equivalent, can be roughly translated to "the law," and the word "pada" to "the path." The Dhammapada is a major text in the Theravada canon - Theravada being the type of Buddhism especially found in southeast Asia, versus Mahayana, the type of Buddhism most prevalent in north and northeast Asia.

A few verses to return to (and a few thoughts in red):

I. Contrasting Pairs

1. Preceded by mind are phenomena led by mind, formed by mind. If with mind polluted one speaks or acts, then pain follows, as a wheel follows the draft ox's foot.

3. "He berated me! He hurt me! He beat me! He deprived me!" For those who hold such grudges, hostility is not appeased.

5. In this world hostilities are never appeased by hostility. But by the absence of hostility are they appeased. This is an interminable truth.

7. Living with an eye to pleasure, unrestrained in the sense faculties, immoderate in eating, indolent, and idle - Mara (Death) overcomes such a person, as the wind overcomes a weak tree.

8. Living without an eye to pleasure, well restrained in the sense faculties, moderate in eating, faithful, and energetic - Mara does not overcome such a person, as the wind, a rocky hill.

II. Diligence

21. Diligence is the path to the deathless. Negligence is the path of death. The diligent to not die. Those who are negligent are as the dead.

25. With energy, diligence, restraint, and control, the wise person should make an island which no flood can overflow.

Here again is that Eastern theme of mustering up one's own strength - relying on oneself only (see also verse 103 in chapter VIII). As with the Bhagavad Gita, I wonder about the possible seepage of ideas between the east and the west, between this kind of restrained centeredness and, say, Emersonian Self-Reliance (we know he was a reader of "The Geeta"). Whatever the case: self-control and self-mastery, those virtues that humans everywhere have discovered and admired.

III. Mind
33. Trembling and quivering is the mind, difficult to guard and hard to restrain. The person of wisdom sets it straight, as a fletcher does an arrow. I wonder again how Plato and the Buddha arrived at such similar insights at around the same time.

IV. Flowers

45. A seeker will master this earth, this world of death and radiant beings. A seeker will gather a well-taught verse on the way, as a skilled gardener gathers a flower.

50. Look not at the faults of others, nor at what they leave undone; but only at your own deeds and deeds unachieved. .

VI. The Skilled Person

76. Regard the person who sees your faults as a revealer of treasures. Associate with that skilled person as one who is wise, who speaks reprovingly. Keeping company with such a person, things get better, not worse.

81. As a rock of single solid mass cannot be moved by the wind, so are the skilled unshaken by praise and blame.

82. As a deep pond, clear, calm, so do the teachings become serene, having heard the teachings. Unshaken, pure, and at peace: the center of the Buddha's teachings.

VII. The Accomplished Person
94. His senses serene like horses well tamed by the charioteer, the person who has let go of haughtiness, who is free from impulses - even the radiant ones are envious of one such as that.

VIII. Thousands
100. Better than a thousand statements composed of meaningless words is a single meaningful word which, having been heard, brings peace.

103. Though one might conquer in battle a thousand times a thousand men, the one who conquers himself alone is supreme in battle.

112. Better than living a hundred years lethargic, low in energy, is a single day lived exerting steadfast vigor.

IX. Detriment
121. One should not think slightly of injury... With drops of falling water even a water pot is filled. The childish person is full of injury gathered day by day.

XIV. The Awakened
186-187. Not through a torrent of money or in sensual enjoyment can satisfaction be found. The skilled person, knowing that sensual enjoyment is painful, yielding but little pleasure, does not take delight even in divine enjoyments. A person who delights in the dissolution of craving is a disciple of the perfectly awakened.

188. People who are anxious with fear often go for refuge to mountains and forests, to tree shrines in pleasant groves...

190-191. But whoever has gone for refuge to the Buddha, the Dhamma, and Sangha sees with thorough understanding the four noble truths: pain the arising of pain, the overcoming of pain, and the noble eightfold path leading to the stillness of pain.

192. This is the secure refuge. This is the best refuge. Arriving at this refuge, a person is released from all pain.

XV. Being at Ease
197. Oh, with what ease we live when peaceful amid the hostile! Amid hostile people we live peacefully.

199. Oh, with what ease we live when relaxed amid the anxious! Amid anxious people we live relaxed.

201. Victory begets hostility: the defeated person lives ill at ease. Giving up both victory and defeat, the peaceful person lives at ease.

204. Health is the finest possession. Contentment is the ultimate wealth. Trustworthy people are the best relatives. Unbinding is the supreme ease.

205. Having drunk the sap of solitude and the savor of peace, one is free of distress, free from wrongdoing, enjoying the delightful flavor of the teaching.

XVI. Pleasing
215. Sorrow springs from sensual pleasure. Fear springs from sensual pleasure. For the person freed from sensual pleasure there is no sorrow. From where could fear emerge?

XVIII. Toxins
241. The rust of religious texts is nonrepetition. The rust of houses is lack of repair. Lethargy is the rust of personal appearance. Negligence is the rust of the watchman.

244-245. It is easy to live a life without scruples or shame, boldly and offensively, boastfully, recklessly, corruptly. But it is difficult to live as a person with scruples, longing always for purity, with a simple lifestyle, open, careful, and perceptive.

251. There is no fire like passion. There is no seizure like hatred. There is no snare like delusion. There is no river like craving.

252. It is easy to see the faults of others, but difficult to see one's own. The faults of others you sift like a husk, but conceal your own, like a deceitful gambler conceals a bad roll of the die.

XIX. Firmly on the Way
258. A person is not skilled just because he talks a lot. Peaceful, friendly, secure - that one is called "skilled."

260-261. A person is not venerable just because his head has gray hair. His age ripened, he is called "one who has grown old in vain." But a person in whom there is truthfulness, morality, gentleness, restraint, and self-control - that person, toxins dispelled, wise, is called "venerable."

270. A person who harms living beings is not noble. By being gentle to all living beings one is called "noble."

XX. The Path
280. A person who is listless when it is time for exertion, who is young and strong, though filled with torpor, mind possessed of depressing thoughts, inactive, lethargic, does not find the path to insightful knowledge.

282. From practice springs expansive understanding; from lack of practice, its loss. Being aware of this divided pathway to cultivation and decline, conduct yourself so that understanding increases.

285. Tear out your self-regard as you would an autumn lily with your hand. Foster only the path to peace, to unbinding, taught by the one who traveled it well.

XXIII. Elephant
320. As an elephant in battle bears the arros shot from a bow, I will endure insult; for many people have poor self-control.

327. Delight in diligence! Watch over your mind! Pull yourself out of misfortune like an elephant, sunk in mud.

XXIV. Craving
335-336. Whomever this miserable craving, this entanglement in the world, overcomes, his sorrows grow, like grass well rained upon. But whoever overcomes this miserable craving, in this world so hard to overcome, sorrow falls away from him, like a drop of water from a lotus blossom.

348. Let go of the past! Let go of the future! In the present, let go! Gone to the other shore becoming, mind released entirely, you will never again undergo birth and old age.

349. For the person who is agitated by thoughts, whose passions are severe, who searches for the pleasurable, craving grows all the more. This person makes the bondage strong.

350. The person who delights in the calming of thought, meditates on the unpleasant, constantly mindful - this one will remove, this one will cut, the bond of Mara.

XXV. The Practitioner
375. This is primary for an insightful practitioner: guarding the sense, contentment, restraint in line with the discipline, association with friends who are encouraging, who live a pure and vigorous life.

XXVI. The Superior Person

406-408. The person who is harmonious amid the hostile, peaceful amid the violent, free from grasping amid the greedy, that one I call superior. The person whose passion and aversion, pride and pretense have fallen like a mustard seed off a sharp point, that one I call superior. The person who would speak in a way that is gentle, instructive, and honest, speech with which he would offend no one, that one I call superior.

410. The person for whom there are no expectations concerning either this world or the world beyond, who is without wishing, free, that one I call superior.

418. Having renounced likes and dislikes, cooled, without a foundation for further existence, a hero who has overcome the entire world, that one I call superior.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Plato, The Crito, The Phaedo

Socrates at his execution
Like in Raphael's School of Athens, he points upwards to Eternity

The Last Days of Socrates (Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo). Penguin Classics edition, translated by Hugh Tredennick and Harold Tarrant (1954, 1959, 1969, 1993, 2003). Total pages: 199, without notes, 251 with notes. Cost: $1, used bookstore. Authorship, by Plato, dated to within 10 years after Socrates' death in 399 BCE.


The Crito is named after a friend of Socrates' who visits him in jail, as Socrates awaits his execution, and offers Socrates the opportunity for escape. Socrates refuses. To act violently against the State, which has raised him, is a "far greater sin" than violence against mother and father. Moreover, as he explains to Crito, he has taken peaceful civil disobedience to its fullest course and has failed; now he must "do whatever [the State] orders, and patiently submit to any punishment that it imposes..." There is a sense of duty to the State, but there is also the fact that he had always had the freedom to rescind his citizenship before the trial or ask for banishment. But at this point, if he were to run away - where would run to? Who would respect his words on goodness and justice? What good would it for his children to raise them a few years longer with this sort of reputation? Did a few more years of life matter more than these?

"... the really important thing is not to live, but to live well."

The Phaedo is traditionally known as Socrates' argument for the immortality of the soul, but, as the introduction says, Socrates also describes why the philosopher is unafraid of death; why the knowledge of the True and Eternal cannot be based on our senses but only our mind and intellect (what True Reality - verses the copies of reality in the physical world - is); and what most likely happens in the afterlife to good souls, to bad souls, and to the top of the hierarchy - to the lovers of wisdom.

Again, to me, what makes his conversation with the people at his deathbed feel so... modern are the questions that the other people around him raise about the different possibilities after death: the possibility of no soul, the possibility of a mortal soul, the possibility of rebirths, the confusion about the different destinations in the purported afterlife.

I am impressed most of all, again, by Socrates' ascetic value of wisdom, of a life that looks beyond material things, beyond human opinion, beyond our physical desires, beyond the "petty," and instead places the utmost value on the search for whatever is the true, the good, the noble, the eternal. For Plato, the eternal qualities of the mind itself - the soul - are the route to understanding our own immortality.

A few beautiful excerpts from the Phaedo:

"I want to explain to you how natural it seems to me that a man who has really devoted his life to philosophy should be confident in the face of death, and hopeful of winning the greatest of prizes in the next world after death."

"Do you think that it's a philosopher's business to concern himself with what people call pleasures - food and drink... sex.... smart clothes and shoes and other bodily ornaments; do you think that he values them or despises them...? ...And most people think, do they not... that anyone who thinks nothing of pleasures connected with the body has one foot in the grave?"

"Don't you think that the person who is most likely to achieve [knowledge of objects in themselves] flawlessly is the one who approaches each object as far as possible, with the unaided intellect, without taking account of the sense of sight in his thinking, or dragging any other sense into his reckoning - the man who pursues the truth by applying his pure and unadulterated thought to the pure and unadulterated object, cutting himself off as much as possible from... virtually all the rest of his body, as an impediment which, if present, prevents the soul from attaining to the truth and clear thinking? Is not this the person... who will reach the goal of reality, if anybody can?

"...the body fills us with loves and desires and fears and all sorts of fancies and a great deal of nonsense, with the result that we literally never get an opportunity to think at all about anything."

"...true philosophers make dying their profession, and that to them of all men death is least alarming."

"If... a Beauty, a Goodness, and all such entities, really exist - if it is to them that we refer to all the objects of our physical perception as copies to their patterns, as we rediscover our own former knowledge of them - does it not follow that our souls too must exist even before our birth... that it is just as inevitable that our souls exists before our birth as it is that these realities exist, and that without the one there's not the other?"

"I suppose that the happiest people, and those who reach the best destination, are the ones who have cultivated the goodness of an ordinary citizen, so-called 'temperance' and 'justice,' which is acquired by habit and practice, without the help of philosophy and reason... they will probably pass into some other kind of social and disciplined creature like bees, wasps, and ants; or even back into the human race again, becoming decent citizens."

"But no soul which has not practiced philosophy, and is not absolutely pure when it leaves the body, may attain to the divine nature; that is only for the lover of learning."

"...every pleasure or pain has a sort of rivet with which it fastens the soul to the body and pins it down and makes it corporeal, accepting as true whatever the body certifies... Consequently it has no share of fellowship with the pure and uniform and divine."

"But those who are judged to have lived a life of surpassing holiness - these are they who are released and set free from imprisonment in these regions of the earth, and passing upward to their pure abode, make their dwelling upon the earth's surface. And of these such as have purified themselves sufficiently by philosophy live thereafter altogether without bodies, and reach habitations even more beautiful, which it is not easy to portray... But the reasons which we have already described provide ground enough... for leaving nothing undone to attain during life some measure of goodness and wisdom; for the prize is glorious and hope great."

"These are the reasons, then, for which a man can be confident about the fate of his soul - as long as in life he has abandoned those other pleasures and adornments, the bodily ones, as foreign to his purpose and likely to do more harm than good, and has devoted himself to the pleasures of acquiring knowledge, and so by adorning his soul not with borrowed beauty but with its own - with self-control, and goodness, and courage, and liberality, and truth - has settled down to await his journey to the next world."

At first, it's difficult to conceive of this idea of philosophy-as-salvation -- as a ticket to some kind of eternal happiness. But when I read the Phaedo, I try to think back to a time when men must have marveled for the first time at their own faculty of reason, at the voice in their head which could contemplate their motives, their history, their futures. Minds that could penetrate and apprehend the invisible perfection of Euclidean geometry. I can imagine them asking themselves, how do such mathematics arise? Where is it located? How is it so perfect, so eternal, so elegant, so invisible? An equilateral triangle in our minds does not actually exist, and yet we can sense that it has a permanence, an eternity, that seems to be beyond us. From this, I can see how it takes only one step to associate that kind of eternity to our mind itself. And I can see how Plato would logically scorn the senses and equate them with the base, thoughtless impulses of beasts. I can see how Platonic thought sets a foundation for Christian faith in the unseen, as later developed by St. Augustine. I can see why he can develop the idea of an immortal soul based on the assumption of the eternal and perfect nature of these unseen qualities. I can see why the eternal concept of Justice would then allow the lover of truth to enter the realm of eternity with other immortal souls, and why the foolish would remain chained to lower realms of existence.

But I can also see "Eastern" elements in Socrates' thoughts - reincarnation for the good (but not philosophical) as a social animal, like the bee. The entrapment of the physical and the mundane and the thoughtless. The mind - and the focus on the truest Reality - as the path to liberation from our physical world into the unseen, eternal world. The overcoming of ignorance and grasping -- quintessential Eastern thoughts.

[How was it that there were so many parallel, important advances in both Western and Eastern thought, all in a similar era, this "Axial Age"? Was there some sort of communication between these worlds, or did they develop their philosophies completely on their own?]

So after reading the Phaedo, I'm left wondering, what makes us strive for eternal happiness, eternal life, eternal love, eternal peace, or eternal extinction (and thus peace)? Why are we all hard-wired to seek eternity? Or do we, really? Can't there be a balance, and a peace, between appreciating both the brevity of our lives and the much longer time we are not alive? Reality does not demand an eternity.