Introduction by Bhikkhu Bodhi
From ancient times to the present, the Dhammapada has been
regarded as the most succinct expression of the Buddha's teaching
found in the Pali Canon and the chief spiritual testament of early
Buddhism. In the countries following Theravada Buddhism, such as
Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand, the influence of the Dhammapada is
ubiquitous. It is an ever-fecund source of themes for sermons and
discussions, a guidebook for resolving the countless problems of
everyday life, a primer for the instruction of novices in the monasteries.
Even the experienced contemplative, withdrawn to forest hermitage
or mountainside cave for a life of meditation, can be expected to
count a copy of the book among his few material possessions. Yet
the admiration the Dhammapada has elicited has not been confined
to avowed followers of Buddhism. Wherever it has become known its
moral earnestness, realistic understanding of human life, aphoristic
wisdom and stirring message of a way to freedom from suffering have
won for it the devotion and veneration of those responsive to the
good and the true.
The expounder of the verses that comprise the Dhammapada is the
Indian sage called the Buddha, an honorific title meaning "the Enlightened
One" or "the Awakened One." The story of this venerable personage
has often been overlaid with literary embellishment and the admixture
of legend, but the historical essentials of his life are simple
and clear. He was born in the sixth century B.C., the son of a king
ruling over a small state in the Himalayan foothills, in what is
now Nepal. His given name was Siddhattha and his family name Gotama
(Sanskrit: Siddhartha Gautama) . Raised in luxury, groomed by his
father to be the heir to the throne, in his early manhood he went
through a deeply disturbing encounter with the sufferings of life,
as a result of which he lost all interest in the pleasures and privileges
of rulership. One night, in his twenty-ninth year, he fled the royal
city and entered the forest to live as an ascetic, resolved to find
a way to deliverance from suffering. For six years he experimented
with different systems of meditation and subjected himself to severe
austerities, but found that these practices did not bring him any
closer to his goal. Finally, in his thirty-fifth year, while sitting
in deep meditation beneath a tree at Gaya, he attained Supreme Enlightenment
and became, in the proper sense of the title, the Buddha, the Enlightened
One. Thereafter, for forty-five years, he traveled throughout northern
India, proclaiming the truths he had discovered and founding an
order of monks and nuns to carry on his message. At the age of eighty,
after a long and fruitful life, he passed away peacefully in the
small town of Kusinara, surrounded by a large number of disciples.
To his followers, the Buddha is neither a god, a divine incarnation,
or a prophet bearing a message of divine revelation, but a human
being who by his own striving and intelligence has reached the highest
spiritual attainment of which man is capable — perfect wisdom, full
enlightenment, complete purification of mind. His function in relation
to humanity is that of a teacher — a world teacher who, out of compassion,
points out to others the way to Nibbana (Sanskrit: Nirvana), final
release from suffering. His teaching, known as the Dhamma, offers
a body of instructions explaining the true nature of existence and
showing the path that leads to liberation. Free from all dogmas
and inscrutable claims to authority, the Dhamma is founded solidly
upon the bedrock of the Buddha's own clear comprehension of reality,
and it leads the one who practices it to that same understanding
— the knowledge which extricates the roots of suffering.
The title "Dhammapada" which the ancient compilers of the Buddhist
scriptures attached to our anthology means portions, aspects, or
sections of Dhamma. The work has been given this title because,
in its twenty-six chapters, it spans the multiple aspects of the
Buddha's teaching, offering a variety of standpoints from which
to gain a glimpse into its heart. Whereas the longer discourses
of the Buddha contained in the prose sections of the Canon usually
proceed methodically, unfolding according to the sequential structure
of the doctrine, the Dhammapada lacks such a systematic arrangement.
The work is simply a collection of inspirational or pedagogical
verses on the fundamentals of the Dhamma, to be used as a basis
for personal edification and instruction. In any given chapter several
successive verses may have been spoken by the Buddha on a single
occasion, and thus among themselves will exhibit a meaningful development
or a set of variations on a theme. But by and large, the logic behind
the grouping together of verses into a chapter is merely the concern
with a common topic. The twenty-six chapter headings thus function
as a kind of rubric for classifying the diverse poetic utterances
of the Master, and the reason behind the inclusion of any given
verse in a particular chapter is its mention of the subject indicated
in the chapter's heading . In some cases (Chapters 4 and 23) this
may be a metaphorical symbol rather than a point of doctrine. There
also seems to be no intentional design in the order of the chapters
themselves, though at certain points a loose thread of development
can be discerned.
The teachings of the Buddha, viewed in their completeness, all
link together into a single perfectly coherent system of thought
and practice which gains its unity from its final goal, the attainment
of deliverance from suffering. But the teachings inevitably emerge
from the human condition as their matrix and starting point, and
thus must be expressed in such a way as to reach human beings standing
at different levels of spiritual development, with their highly
diverse problems, ends, and concerns and with their very different
capacities for understanding. Thence, just as water, though one
in essence. assumes different shapes due to the vessels into which
it is poured, so the Dhamma of liberation takes on different forms
in response to the needs of the beings to be taught. This diversity,
evident enough already in the prose discourses, becomes even more
conspicuous in the highly condensed. spontaneous and intuitively
charged medium of verse used in the Dhammapada. The intensified
power of delivery can result in apparent inconsistencies which may
perplex the unwary. For example, in many verses the Buddha commends
certain practices on the grounds that they lead to a heavenly birth,
but in others he discourages disciples from aspiring for heaven
and extols the one who takes no delight in celestial pleasures (187,
417) [Unless chapter numbers are indicated, all figures enclosed
in parenthesis refer to verse numbers of the Dhammapada.]
Often he enjoins works of merit, yet elsewhere he praises the
one who has gone beyond both merit and demerit (39, 412). Without
a grasp of the underlying structure of the Dhamma, such statements
viewed side by side will appear incompatible and may even elicit
the judgment that the teaching is self-contradictory.
The key to resolving these apparent discrepancies is the
recognition that the Dhamma assumes its formulation from the needs
of the diverse persons to whom it is addressed, as well as from
the diversity of needs that may co-exist even in a single individual.
To make sense of the various utterances found in the Dhammapada,
we will suggest a schematism of four levels to be used for ascertaining
the intention behind any particular verse found in the work, and
thus for understanding its proper place in the total systematic
vision of the Dhamma. This fourfold schematism develops out of an
ancient interpretive maxim which holds that the Buddha's teaching
is designed to meet three primary aims: human welfare here and now,
a favorable rebirth in the next life, and the attainment of the
ultimate good. The four levels are arrived at by distinguishing
the last aim into two stages: path and fruit.
(i) The first level is the concern with establishing well-being
and happiness in the immediately visible sphere of concrete human
relations. The aim at this level is to show man the way to live
at peace with himself and his fellow men, to fulfill his family
and social responsibilities, and to restrain the bitterness, conflict
and violence which infect human relationships and bring such immense
suffering to the individual, society, and the world as a whole.
The guidelines appropriate to this level are largely identical with
the basic ethical injunctions proposed by most of the great world
religions, but in the Buddhist teaching they are freed from theistic
moorings and grounded upon two directly verifiable foundations:
concern for one's own integrity and long-range happiness and concern
for the welfare of those whom one's actions may affect (129-132).
The most general counsel the Dhammapada gives is to avoid all evil,
to cultivate good and to cleanse one's mind (183). But to dispel
any doubts the disciple might entertain as to what he should avoid
and what he should cultivate, other verses provide more specific
directives. One should avoid irritability in deed, word and thought
and exercise self-control (231-234). One should adhere to the five
precepts, the fundamental moral code of Buddhism, which teach abstinence
from destroying life, from stealing, from committing adultery, from
speaking lies and from taking intoxicants; one who violates these
five training rules "digs up his own root even in this very world"
(246-247). The disciple should treat all beings with kindness and
compassion, live honestly and righteously, control his sensual desires,
speak the truth and live a sober upright life, diligently fulfilling
his duties, such as service to parents, to his immediate family
and to those recluses and brahmans who depend on the laity for their
A large number of verses pertaining to this first level are concerned
with the resolution of conflict and hostility. Quarrels are to be
avoided by patience and forgiveness, for responding to hatred by
further hatred only maintains the cycle of vengeance and retaliation.
The true conquest of hatred is achieved by non-hatred, by forbearance,
by love (4-6). One should not respond to bitter speech but maintain
silence (134). One should not yield to anger but control it as a
driver controls a chariot (222). Instead of keeping watch for the
faults of others, the disciple is admonished to examine his own
faults, and to make a continual effort to remove his impurities
just as a silversmith purifies silver (50, 239). Even if he has
committed evil in the past, there is no need for dejection or despair;
for a man's ways can be radically changed, and one who abandons
the evil for the good illuminates this world like the moon freed
from clouds (173).
The sterling qualities distinguishing the man of virtue are generosity,
truthfulness, patience, and compassion (223). By developing and
mastering these qualities within himself, a man lives at harmony
with his own conscience and at peace with his fellow beings. The
scent of virtue, the Buddha declares, is sweeter than the scent
of all flowers and perfumes (55-56). The good man, like the Himalaya
mountains, shines from afar, and wherever he goes he is loved and
(ii) In its second level of teaching, the Dhammapada shows that
morality does not exhaust its significance in its contribution to
human felicity here and now, but exercises a far more critical influence
in molding personal destiny. This level begins with the recognition
that, to reflective thought, the human situation demands a more
satisfactory context for ethics than mere appeals to altruism can
provide. On the one hand our innate sense of moral justice requires
that goodness be recompensed with happiness and evil with suffering;
on the other our typical experience shows us virtuous people beset
with hardships and afflictions and thoroughly bad people riding
the waves of fortune (119-120). Moral intuition tells us that if
there is any long-range value to righteousness, the imbalance must
somehow be redressed. The visible order does not yield an evident
solution, but the Buddha's teaching reveals the factor needed to
vindicate our cry for moral justice in an impersonal universal law
which reigns over all sentient existence. This is the law of kamma
(Sanskrit: karma), of action and its fruit, which ensures that morally
determinate action does not disappear into nothingness but eventually
meets its due retribution, the good with happiness, the bad with
In the popular understanding kamma is sometimes identified with
fate, but this is a total misconception utterly inapplicable to
the Buddhist doctrine. Kamma means volitional action, action springing
from intention, which may manifest itself outwardly as bodily deeds
or speech, or remain internally as unexpressed thoughts, desires
and emotions. The Buddha distinguishes kamma into two primary ethical
types: unwholesome kamma, action rooted in mental states of greed,
hatred and delusion; and wholesome kamma. action rooted in mental
states of generosity or detachment, goodwill and understanding.
The willed actions a person performs in the course of his life may
fade from memory without a trace, but once performed they leave
subtle imprints on the mind, seeds with the potential to come to
fruition in the future when they meet conditions conducive to their
The objective field in which the seeds of kamma ripen is the
process of rebirths called samsara. In the Buddha's teaching, life
is not viewed as an isolated occurrence beginning spontaneously
with birth and ending in utter annihilation at death. Each single
life span is seen, rather, as part of an individualized series of
lives having no discoverable beginning in time and continuing on
as long as the desire for existence stands intact. Rebirth can take
place in various realms. There are not only the familiar realms
of human beings and animals, but ranged above we meet heavenly worlds
of greater happiness, beauty and power, and ranged below infernal
worlds of extreme suffering.
The cause for rebirth into these various realms the Buddha locates
in kamma, our own willed actions. In its primary role, kamma determines
the sphere into which rebirth takes place, wholesome actions bringing
rebirth in higher forms, unwholesome actions rebirth in lower forms.
After yielding rebirth, kamma continues to operate, governing the
endowments and circumstances of the individual within his given
form of existence. Thus, within the human world, previous stores
of wholesome kamma will issue in long life, health, wealth, beauty
and success; stores of unwholesome kamma in short life, illness,
poverty, ugliness and failure.
Prescriptively, the second level of teaching found in the Dhammapada
is the practical corollary to this recognition of the law of kamma,
put forth to show human beings, who naturally desire happiness and
freedom from sorrow, the effective means to achieve their objectives.
The content of this teaching itself does not differ from that presented
at the first level; it is the same set of ethical injunctions for
abstaining from evil and for cultivating the good. The difference
lies in the perspective from which the injunctions are issued and
the aim for the sake of which they are to be taken up. The principles
of morality are shown now in their broader cosmic connections, as
tied to an invisible but all-embracing law which binds together
all life and holds sway over the repeated rotations of the cycle
of birth and death. The observance of morality is justified, despite
its difficulties and apparent failures, by the fact that it is in
harmony with that law, that through the efficacy of kamma, our willed
actions become the chief determinant of our destiny both in this
life and in future states of becoming. To follow the ethical law
leads upwards — to inner development, to higher rebirths and to
richer experiences of happiness and joy. To violate the law, to
act in the grip of selfishness and hate, leads downwards — to inner
deterioration, to suffering and to rebirth in the worlds of misery.
This theme is announced already by the pair of verses which opens
the Dhammapada, and reappears in diverse formulations throughout
the work (see, e.g., 15-18, 117-122, 127, 132-133, Chapter 22).
(iii) The ethical counsel based on the desire for higher rebirths
and happiness in future lives is not the final teaching of the Buddha,
and thus cannot provide the decisive program of personal training
commended by the Dhammapada. In its own sphere of application, it
is perfectly valid as a preparatory or provisional teaching for
those whose spiritual faculties are not yet ripe but still require
further maturation over a succession of lives. A deeper, more searching
examination, however, reveals that all states of existence in samsara,
even the loftiest celestial abodes, are lacking in genuine worth;
for they are all inherently impermanent, without any lasting substance,
and thus, for those who cling to them, potential bases for suffering.
The disciple of mature faculties, sufficiently prepared by previous
experience for the Buddha's distinctive exposition of the Dhamma,
does not long even for rebirth among the gods. Having understood
the intrinsic inadequacy of all conditioned things, his focal aspiration
is only for deliverance from the ever-repeating round of births.
This is the ultimate goal to which the Buddha points, as the immediate
aim for those of developed faculties and also as the long-term ideal
for those in need of further development: Nibbana, the Deathless,
the unconditioned state where there is no more birth, aging and
death, and no more suffering.
The third level of teaching found in the Dhammapada sets forth
the theoretical framework and practical discipline emerging out
of the aspiration for final deliverance. The theoretical framework
is provided by the teaching of the Four Noble Truths (190-192, 273),
which the Buddha had proclaimed already in his first sermon and
upon which he placed so much stress in his many discourses that
all schools of Buddhism have appropriated them as their common foundation.
The four truths all center around the fact of suffering (dukkha),
understood not as mere experienced pain and sorrow, but as the pervasive
unsatisfactoriness of everything conditioned (202-203). The first
truth details the various forms of suffering — birth, old age, sickness
and death, the misery of unpleasant encounters and painful separations,
the suffering of not obtaining what one wants. It culminates in
the declaration that all constituent phenomena of body and mind,
"the aggregates of existence" (khandha), being impermanent and substanceless,
are intrinsically unsatisfactory. The second truth points out that
the cause of suffering is craving (tanha), the desire for pleasure
and existence which drives us through the round of rebirths, bringing
in its trail sorrow, anxiety, and despair (212-216, Chapter 24).
The third truth declares that the destruction of craving issues
in release from suffering, and the fourth prescribes the means to
gain release, the Noble Eightfold Path: right understanding, right
thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort,
right mindfulness, and right concentration (Chapter 20).
If, at this third level, the doctrinal emphasis shifts from the
principles of kamma and rebirth to the Four Noble Truths, a corresponding
shift in emphasis takes place in the practical sphere as well. The
stress now no longer falls on the observation of basic morality
and the cultivation of wholesome attitudes as a means to higher
rebirths. Instead it falls on the integral development of the Noble
Eightfold Path as the means to uproot the craving that nurtures
the process of rebirth itself. For practical purposes the eight
factors of the path are arranged into three major groups which reveal
more clearly the developmental structure of the training: moral
discipline (including right speech, right action and right livelihood),
concentration (including right effort, right mindfulness and right
concentration), and wisdom (including right understanding and right
thought). By the training in morality, the coarsest forms of the
mental defilements, those erupting as unwholesome deeds and words,
are checked and kept under control. By the training in concentration
the mind is made calm, pure and unified, purged of the currents
of distractive thoughts. By the training in wisdom the concentrated
beam of attention is focused upon the constituent factors of mind
and body to investigate and contemplate their salient characteristics.
This wisdom, gradually ripened, climaxes in the understanding that
brings complete purification and deliverance of mind.
In principle, the practice of the path in all three stages is
feasible for people in any walk of life. The Buddha taught it to
laypeople as well as to monks, and many of his lay followers reached
high stages of attainment. However, application to the development
of the path becomes most fruitful for those who have relinquished
all other concerns in order to devote themselves wholeheartedly
to spiritual training, to living the "holy life" (brahmacariya).
For conduct to be completely purified, for sustained contemplation
and penetrating wisdom to unfold without impediments, adoption of
a different style of life becomes imperative, one which minimizes
distractions and stimulants to craving and orders all activities
around the aim of liberation. Thus the Buddha established the Sangha,
the order of monks and nuns, as the special field for those ready
to dedicate their lives to the practice of his path, and in the
Dhammapada the call to the monastic life resounds throughout.
The entry-way to the monastic life is an act of radical renunciation.
The thoughtful, who have seen the transience and hidden misery of
worldly life, break the ties of family and social bonds, abandon
their homes and mundane pleasures, and enter upon the state of homelessness
(83, 87-89, 91). Withdrawn to silent and secluded places, they seek
out the company of wise instructors, and guided by the rules of
the monastic training, devote their energies to a life of meditation.
Content with the simplest material requisites, moderate in eating,
restrained in their senses, they stir up their energy, abide in
constant mindfulness and still the restless waves of thoughts (185,
375). With the mind made clear and steady, they learn to contemplate
the arising and falling away of all formations, and experience thereby
"a delight that transcends all human delights," a joy and happiness
that anticipates the bliss of the Deathless (373-374). The life
of meditative contemplation reaches its peak in the development
of insight (vipassana), and the Dhammapada enunciates the principles
to be discerned by insight-wisdom: that all conditioned things are
impermanent, that they are all unsatisfactory, that there is no
self or truly existent ego entity to be found in anything whatsoever
(277-279). When these truths are penetrated by direct experience,
the craving, ignorance and related mental fetters maintaining bondage
break asunder, and the disciple rises through successive stages
of realization to the full attainment of Nibbana.
(iv) The fourth level of teaching in the Dhammapada provides
no new disclosure of doctrine or practice, but an acclamation and
exaltation of those who have reached the goal. In the Pali Canon
the stages of definite attainment along the way to Nibbana are enumerated
as four. At the first, called "stream-entry" (sotapatti), the disciple
gains his first glimpse of "the Deathless" and enters irreversibly
upon the path to liberation, bound to reach the goal in seven lives
at most. This achievement alone, the Dhammapada declares, is greater
than lordship over all the worlds (178). Following stream-entry
come two further stages which weaken and eradicate still more defilements
and bring the goal increasingly closer to view. One is called the
stage of once-returner (sakadagami), when the disciple will return
to the human world at most only one more time; the other the stage
of nonreturner (anagami), when he will never come back to human
existence but will take rebirth in a celestial plane, bound to win
final deliverance there. The fourth and final stage is that of the
arahant, the Perfected One, the fully accomplished sage who has
completed the development of the path, eradicated all defilements
and freed himself from bondage to the cycle of rebirths. This is
the ideal figure of early Buddhism and the supreme hero of the Dhammapada.
Extolled in Chapter 7 under his own name and in Chapter 26 (385-388,
396-423) under the name brahmana, "holy man," the arahant serves
as a living demonstration of the truth of the Dhamma. Bearing his
last body, perfectly at peace, he is the inspiring model who shows
in his own person that it is possible to free oneself from the stains
of greed, hatred and delusion, to rise above suffering, to win Nibbana
in this very life.
The arahant ideal reaches its optimal exemplification in the
Buddha, the promulgator and master of the entire teaching. It was
the Buddha who. without any aid or guidance, rediscovered the ancient
path to deliverance and taught it to countless others. His arising
in the world provides the precious opportunity to hear and practice
the excellent Dhamma (182, 194). He is the giver and shower of refuge
(190-192), the Supreme Teacher who depends on nothing but his own
self-evolved wisdom (353). Born a man, the Buddha always remains
essentially human, yet his attainment of Perfect Enlightenment elevates
him to a level far surpassing that of common humanity. All our familiar
concepts and modes of knowing fail to circumscribe his nature: he
is trackless, of limitless range, free from all worldliness, the
conqueror of all, the knower of all, untainted by the world (179,
Always shining in the splendor of his wisdom, the Buddha by his
very being confirms the Buddhist faith in human perfectibility consummates
the Dhammapada's picture of man perfected, the arahant.
The four levels of teaching just discussed give us the key for
sorting out the Dhammapada's diverse utterances on Buddhist doctrine
and for discerning the intention behind its words of practical counsel.
Interlaced with the verses specific to these four main levels, there
runs throughout the work a large number of verses not tied to any
single level but applicable to all alike. Taken together, these
delineate for us the basic world view of early Buddhism. The most
arresting feature of this view is its stress on process rather than
persistence as the defining mark of actuality. The universe is in
flux, a boundless river of incessant becoming sweeping everything
along; dust motes and mountains, gods and men and animals, world
system after world system without number — all are engulfed by the
irrepressible current. There is no creator of this process, no providential
deity behind the scenes steering all things to some great and glorious
end. The cosmos is beginningless, and in its movement from phase
to phase it is governed only by the impersonal, implacable law of
arising, change, and passing away.
However, the focus of the Dhammapada is not on the outer cosmos,
but on the human world, upon man with his yearning and his suffering.
his immense complexity, his striving and movement towards transcendence.
The starting point is the human condition as given, and fundamental
to the picture that emerges is the inescapable duality of human
life, the dichotomies which taunt and challenge man at every turn.
Seeking happiness, afraid of pain, loss and death, man walks the
delicate balance between good and evil, purity and defilement, progress
and decline. His actions are strung out between these moral antipodes,
and because he cannot evade the necessity to choose, he must bear
the full responsibility for his decisions. Man's moral freedom is
a reason for both dread and jubilation, for by means of his choices
he determines his own individual destiny, not only through one life,
but through the numerous lives to be turned up by the rolling wheel
of samsara. If he chooses wrongly he can sink to the lowest depths
of degradation, if he chooses rightly he can make himself worthy
even of the homage of the gods. The paths to all destinations branch
out from the present, from the ineluctable immediate occasion of
conscious choice and action.
The recognition of duality extends beyond the limits of conditioned
existence to include the antithetical poles of the conditioned and
the unconditioned, samsara and Nibbana, the "near shore" and the
"far shore." The Buddha appears in the world as the Great Liberator
who shows man the way to break free from the one and arrive at the
other, where alone true safety is to be found. But all he can do
is indicate the path; the work of treading it lies in the hands
of the disciple. The Dhammapada again and again sounds this challenge
to human freedom: man is the maker and master of himself, the protector
or destroyer of himself, the savior of himself (160, 165, 380).
In the end he must choose between the way that leads back into the
world, to the round of becoming, and the way that leads out of the
world, to Nibbana. And though this last course is extremely difficult
and demanding, the voice of the Buddha speaks words of assurance
confirming that it can be done, that it lies within man's power
to overcome all barriers and to triumph even over death itself.
The pivotal role in achieving progress in all spheres, the Dhammapada
declares, is played by the mind. In contrast to the Bible, which
opens with an account of God's creation of the world, the Dhammapada
begins with an unequivocal assertion that mind is the forerunner
of all that we are, the maker of our character, the creator of our
destiny. The entire discipline of the Buddha, from basic morality
to the highest levels of meditation, hinges upon training the mind.
A wrongly directed mind brings greater harm than any enemy, a rightly
directed mind brings greater good than any other relative or friend
(42, 43). The mind is unruly, fickle, difficult to subdue, but by
effort, mindfulness and unflagging self-discipline, one can master
its vagrant tendencies, escape the torrents of the passions and
find "an island which no flood can overwhelm" (25). The one who
conquers himself, the victor over his own mind, achieves a conquest
which can never be undone, a victory greater than that of the mightiest
What is needed most urgently to train and subdue the mind is
called heedfulness (appamada). Heedfulness combines critical
self awareness and unremitting energy in a process of keeping the
mind under constant observation to detect and expel the defiling
impulses whenever they seek an opportunity to surface. In a world
where man has no savior but himself, and where the means to his
deliverance lies in mental purification, heedfulness becomes the
crucial factor for ensuring that the aspirant keeps to the straight
path of training without deviating due to the seductive allurements
of sense pleasures or the stagnating influences of laziness and
complacency. Heedfulness, the Buddha declares, is the path to the
Deathless; heedlessness, the path to death. The wise who understand
this distinction abide in heedfulness and experience Nibbana, "the
incomparable freedom from bondage" (21-23).
As a great religious classic and the chief spiritual testament
of early Buddhism, the Dhammapada cannot be gauged in its true value
by a single reading, even if that reading is done carefully and
reverentially. It yields its riches only through repeated study,
sustained reflection, and most importantly, through the application
of its principles to daily life. Thence it might be suggested to
the reader in search of spiritual guidance that the Dhammapada be
used as a manual for contemplation. After his initial reading, he
would do well to read several verses or even a whole chapter every
day, slowly and carefully, relishing the words. He should reflect
on the meaning of each verse deeply and thoroughly, investigate
its relevance to his life, and apply it as a guide to conduct. If
this is done repeatedly, with patience and perseverance, it is certain
that the Dhammapada will confer upon his life a new meaning and
sense of purpose. Infusing him with hope and inspiration, gradually
it will lead him to discover a freedom and happiness far greater
than anything the world can offer.
— Bhikkhu Bodhi
1. (v. 7) Mara: the Tempter in Buddhism, represented
in the scriptures as an evil-minded deity who tries to lead people
from the path to liberation. The commentaries explain Mara as the
lord of evil forces, as mental defilements and as death.
2. (v. 8) The impurities (asubha): subjects of meditation
which focus on the inherent repulsiveness of the body, recommended
especially as powerful antidotes to lust.
3. (v. 21) The Deathless (amata): Nibbana, so called
because those who attain it are free from the cycle of repeated
birth and death.
4. (v. 22) The Noble Ones (ariya): those who have
reached any of the four stages of supramundane attainment leading
irreversibly to Nibbana.
5. (v. 30) Indra: the ruler of the gods in ancient
6. (v. 39) The arahant is said to be beyond both
merit and demerit because, as he has abandoned all defilements,
he can no longer perform evil actions; and as he has no more attachment,
his virtuous actions no longer bear kammic fruit.
7. (v. 45) The Striver-on-the-Path (sekha): one who
has achieved any of the first three stages of supramundane attainment:
a stream-enterer, once-returner, or nonreturner.
8. (v. 49) The "sage in the village" is the Buddhist
monk who receives his food by going silently from door to door with
his alms bowls, accepting whatever is offered.
9. (v. 54) Tagara: a fragrant powder obtained from
a particular kind of shrub.
10. (v. 89) This verse describes the arahant, dealt
with more fully in the following chapter. The "cankers" (asava)
are the four basic defilements of sensual desire, desire for continued
existence, false views and ignorance.
11. (v. 97) In the Pali this verse presents a series
of puns, and if the "underside" of each pun were to be translated,
the verse would read thus: "The man who is faithless, ungrateful,
a burglar, who destroys opportunities and eats vomit — he truly
is the most excellent of men."
12. (v. 104) Brahma: a high divinity in ancient Indian
13. (vv. 153-154) According to the commentary, these
verses are the Buddha's "Song of Victory," his first utterance after
his Enlightenment. The house is individualized existence in samsara,
the house-builder craving, the rafters the passions and the ridge-pole
14. (v. 164) Certain reeds of the bamboo family perish
immediately after producing fruits.
15. (v. 178) Stream-entry (sotapatti): the first
stage of supramundane attainment.
16. (vv. 190-191) The Order: both the monastic Order
(bhikkhu sangha) and the Order of Noble Ones (ariya sangha) who
have reached the four supramundane stages.
17. (v. 202) Aggregates (of existence) (khandha):
the five groups of factors into which the Buddha analyzes the living
being — material form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and
18. (v. 218) One Bound Upstream: a nonreturner (anagami).
19. (vv. 254-255) Recluse (samana): here used in
the special sense of those who have reached the four supramundane
20. (v. 283) The meaning of this injunction is: "Cut
down the forest of lust, but do not mortify the body."
21. (v. 339) The thirty-six currents of craving:
the three cravings — for sensual pleasure, for continued existence,
and for annihilation — in relation to each of the twelve bases —
the six sense organs, including mind, and their corresponding objects.
22. (v. 344) This verse, in the original, puns with
the Pali word vana meaning both "desire" and "forest."
23. (v. 353) This was the Buddha's reply to a wandering
ascetic who asked him about his teacher. The Buddha's answer shows
that Supreme Enlightenment was his own unique attainment, which
he had not learned from anyone else.
24. (v. 370) The five to be cut off are the five
"lower fetters": self-illusion, doubt, belief in rites and rituals,
lust and ill-will. The five to be abandoned are the five "higher
fetters": craving for the divine realms with form, craving for the
formless realms, conceit, restlessness, and ignorance. Stream-enterers
and once-returners cut off the first three fetters, nonreturners
the next two and Arahants the last five. The five to be cultivated
are the five spiritual faculties: faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration,
and wisdom. The five bonds are: greed, hatred, delusion, false views,
25. (v. 374) See note 17 (to v. 202).
26. (v. 383) "Holy man" is used as a makeshift rendering
for brahmana, intended to reproduce the ambiguity of the Indian
word. Originally men of spiritual stature; by the time of the Buddha
the brahmans had turned into a privileged priesthood which defined
itself by means of birth and lineage rather than by genuine inner
sanctity. The Buddha attempted to restore to the word brahmana its
original connotation by identifying the true "holy man" as the arahant,
who merits the title through his own inward purity and holiness
regardless of family lineage. The contrast between the two meanings
is highlighted in verses 393 and 396. Those who led a contemplative
life dedicated to gaining Arahantship could also be called brahmans,
as in verses 383, 389, and 390.
27. (v. 385) This shore: the six sense organs; the
other shore: their corresponding objects; both: I-ness and my-ness.
28. (v. 394) In the time of the Buddha, such ascetic
practices as wearing matted hair and garments of hides were considered
marks of holiness.
Source: Copyright © 1985 Buddhist Publication Society.
Reproduced and reformatted from The Dhammapada The Buddha's
Path of Wisdom, Translated from the Pali by Acharya Buddharakkhita,
Access to Insight edition © 1996 For free distribution.
This work may be republished, reformatted, reprinted, and
redistributed in any medium. It is the author's wish, however,
that any such republication and redistribution be made available
to the public on a free and unrestricted basis and that
translations and other derivative works be clearly marked