Hasten towards doing what is wholesome.
Restrain your mind from evil acts.
The mind that is slow to do good
can easily find pleasure in evil-doing.
Dhammapada v. 116
We are familiar with the teachings that caution us against unwholesomeness. And we already know that it takes effort to be restrained. But here the Buddha is making a point which might not have occurred to us before: if we are tardy to do good, we are more likely to fall for the allure of the not-good; unwholesomeness increases its appeal. If we truly understand this, we see the wisdom of cultivating wholesomeness and the protection we are afforded.
Resembling a withered leaf,
you have the messenger
of death at your side.
Although a long journey lies ahead,
you have still made no provision.
Dhammapada v. 235
We all know that death is the inevitable consequence of having been born, and you would think that we would want to make provision for such a significant event. However, the daunting fear of uncertainty that death generates means we readily default to the pursuit of distractions. If we do wish to make mindful preparation for the inevitable, it is wise to strengthen our confidence in the law of kamma. The Buddha taught to trust in the cultivation of that which is wholesome and the relinquishment of that which is unwholesome. We don’t know the future, but it is not helpful to waste a lot of time worrying about it. Mindful preparation is very different from compulsive worrying. This very moment is the only reality to which we have direct access, so it makes sense to emphasise the quality of attention we bring to this moment, and to trust in that effort. Developing such a trusting disposition is not avoiding responsibility, it is making an intelligent choice.
This reflection seems so appropriate considering the nature of the Manchester terrorist attack…..
Becoming lost in enjoyment brings sorrow;
becoming lost in enjoyment brings fear.
Being free in your experience of enjoyment means sorrow ceases,
so how could there be any fear?
Dhammapada v. 214
Is it possible to truly live with all the pleasure and pain of life and at the same time remain free from suffering? Clearly, our confidence in the Buddha’s Awakening means we trust freedom from suffering is possible. Such confidence is a powerful motivator and contributes to the foundation on which we build our spiritual practice. And from a practice perspective, we are not just interested in what we experience, but also in the way we meet all our experiences. Out of unawareness we readily become lost in experiences; the joyous, the utterly intolerable and everything in-between. But when awareness is well-cultivated there is the possibility of receiving all experience without becoming lost; without obstructing freedom.
Just as a sweet-smelling and beautiful lotus
can grow from a pile of discarded waste,
the radiance of a true disciple of the Buddha
outshines dark shadows cast by ignorance.
Dhammapada v. 58-59
Perhaps there are times when we look at all the garbage we find stored in our minds and feel disheartened. This ‘discarded waste’ is the consequences of previous unawareness. But we can choose how we are going to view these consequences – the regrets, embarrassments and resentments to which we are still clinging.
We are not obliged to assume it must always be that way. Before he was the Buddha, Siddarttha Gotama struggled; the Teachers we all look up to have struggled; and we too all struggle when we are not seeing clearly.
What matters, here and now, is what we do with the struggle. The Buddha’s Awakening offered the world a vision of that which is possible. Our task as disciples of the Buddha is to uncover the possibilities within us; not to assume that the detritus of ignorance which we encounter inside ourselves is what defines us. When compost is properly processed, it transforms into valuable nutriment.
Come, view this world.
See it as an ornate festive carriage.
See how fools are entranced by their visions,
yet for the wise there is no attachment.
Dhammapada v. 171
This very world that we live in is our field of spiritual study. We can learn from all of it, but we probably find on occasion that we prefer to look away. Taking time out to refresh and renew can certainly be helpful, and was regularly praised by the Buddha. Let’s take note, however, that here our Teacher is specifically inviting us to look directly at the world – not to merely look away in judgement, but to study it; to reflect on it; to see where, when and how we are fooled by its appearance. An attractive object such as an ornate festive carriage can be beguiling so long as we are not wise, and similarly utterly unattractive objects can fool us. But projecting love or hate on to an object is something extra that we do; we are not obliged to add anything extra. As the Buddha said elsewhere, in the seeing let there just be seeing. Nothing added, nothing taken away.
You should follow the ways
of those who are steadfast,
discerning, pure and aware,
just as the moon follows the path of the stars.
Dhammapada v. 208
Being a follower does not have to mean abdicating personal responsibility. It might mean that, if we are not careful, but being a follower could also mean honouring our personal responsibility creatively and efficiently. The life task of making sense of the apparent chaos around us is our biggest challenge. If we insist on ‘going our own way’ however, we can still end up thoroughly lost, despite the sincerity of our efforts. When those we follow are truly awake to reality, they will serve as a beacon in the dark, helping us to get our bearings. Heading in the right direction doesn’t take away the challenge of transforming rage into something more truly human; nor does it free us from fear. But it can mean that we are not overwhelmed when we are assailed by the consequences of our unawareness, as then there is a better chance we will remember that rage, fear and despair are not ultimate. Freedom from suffering is a realistic goal.
Let the dread of endless mediocrity
spur you into great effort,
like a well-trained horse
encouraged by the mere touch of the whip.
Relinquish the burden of endless struggle
with unapologetic confidence,
with purity of action, effort, concentration,
and by conscious and disciplined commitment
to the path.
Dhammapada v. 144
It is appropriate to feel afraid at the thought of being endlessly caught up in delusion and suffering. It is a mistake to think that all feelings of fear are a symptom that we are somehow failing. Sometimes, feeling afraid may well be a warning sign that we are in danger and need to be extra careful. Fear can serve to protect us from harm. Like a good friend who points out something that we perhaps don’t want to hear, but need to, fear can also serve as a motivator.