Reflecting on the Dhammapada (5/26)

“How long the night to the watchman
How long the road to the weary traveler
How long the wandering of many lives
To the fool who misses the way.”

In essence — these things which are dreary, dull, and stretch out inevitably before us give us a frame through which to view the idea of continuous reincarnation without enlightenment. Only enlightenment, we are told, can free us from the cycle of reincarnation and the suffering it entails. By this definition the fool would be one who has not or perhaps cannot access enlightenment in this life, but how should we define the fool? Perhaps a fool should be defined by the behavioral trends or habits that prevent their achieving greater wellness, or an internally derived sense of self, joy, peace, and contentment. Clinging to old habits of comfort which prevent growth and encourage stagnation, or which may be comforting but which in actuality can be detrimental. Consistently and continually shying away from opportunities for personal growth/evolution. Consistently choosing comfort over improvement, same-ol-same-ol over greater wellness, stagnation over healing, or even perpetuating the harm that was done to them by enacting cruelty on others. Actions such as these are what defines the fool.

“If the traveler cannot find
Master or friend to go with him
Let him travel on alone
Rather than with a fool for company.”

Indeed, for taking a long and lonesome journey on one’s own provides as much potential for risk as it does for introspection, reflection, and growth. Traveling with the fool, on the other hand, carries primarily risk for being damaged or harmed by them. The fool is just as worthy of love and support as anyone else of course — their detrimental traits may be born out of trauma, mental illness, or simple ignorance. All of these things can be overcome and moved past (though ignorance may be the most dangerous one of all, for the greatest cruelty and damage often comes out of ignorance first and foremost, and therefore it should be dealt with with great caution and care). Therefore it is good to show the fool compassion along your journey, and do what you can to aid them in growing out of the state of the fool and toward greater wellness. Perhaps even walk with them a ways, but exercise caution and wisdom to assure that you do not become distracted from your own journey. Perhaps invite the fool to walk with you on your journey, but be prepared to (with compassion) part ways with them when their presence becomes detrimental, and be vigilant for the signs that their presence is becoming a detriment to you.

“‘My children, my wealth!’
So the fool troubles himself.
But how has he children or wealth?
He is not even his own master.”

Without being their own master — without being able to move beyond the old behavioral patterns and thought-traps that ensnare them — the fool has neither authority over themselves nor anyone or anything else. The fool is perhaps the kind of parent who would alienate their children, who are damaged by the fool’s detrimental behavior (abuse, toxicity, self-centeredness). The fool is the kind of person who would squander or hoard wealth, and prioritize money over love, kinship, contentment, inner peace, or who might think that joy can be bought (not the basic necessities required to survive well and therefore have the starting point from which to be happy, but rather squandering money on stuff and things in the false belief that more stuff and things will result in more happiness, or hoarding more wealth in the false belief that wealth in itself equates to happiness). The fool has no true control over their own being, and so will flail and lash out in an attempt to exercise control over others or other things, but it will never truly work and it will never truly bring them either peace or contentment.

“The fool who knows he is a fool
Is that much wiser.
The fool who thinks he is wise
Is a fool indeed.”

“Acknowledging you have a problem is the first step.” Of course, for if one knows they are a fool then they have the requisite knowledge to begin to change the things that make them a fool. If one knows and acknowledges that they are mentally ill or carry trauma, they are much better equipped to begin the journey towards wellness than one who is ignorant of their state or in denial of it.

“Does the spoon taste the soup?
A fool may live all his life
In the company of a master
And still miss the way.

The tongue tastes the soup.
If you are awake in the presence of a master
One moment will show you the way.

The fool is his own enemy.
The mischief he does is his undoing
How bitterly he suffers!”

One must be open to possibilities in order to move forward, in order to heal, in order to go on a journey of self discovery and begin the process of healing, growing, and finding inner peace. The fool is not open to the possibilities that present themselves once one says “I have a problem — what are my options for getting better?” The fool doesn’t want to recognize that they have a problem — it is painful and difficult to do so — so cannot be open to moving forward. This in turn only leads to greater suffering along the fool’s path.

“Why do what you will regret?
Why bring tears upon yourself?

Do only what you will not regret
And fill yourself with joy.”

Use care in deciding how to conduct yourself in the world, how to treat yourself and how to treat others. Moving through the world conscientiously and with due consideration and care will help to maximize quality of life and reduce suffering associated with regret.

“For a while the fool’s mischief
Tastes sweet, sweet as honey.
But in the end it turns bitter.
And how bitterly he suffers!

For months the fool may fast
Eating from the tip of a grass blade.
Still he is not worth a penny
Beside the master whose food is in the way.”

Though hedonistic pleasures may be greatly attractive and enjoyable temporarily, they do not bring long lasting peace or happiness and may, in fact, be detrimental. Over indulgence in such pleasures can not be made up for by merely “fasting” from them — genuine, deep, profound inner work on the self must be done to achieve inner peace and harmony.

“Fresh milk takes time to sour.
So a fool’s mischief
Takes time to catch up with him.
Like the embers of a fire
It smolders within him.”

The consequences of acting a fool — of behaving in harmful or detrimental ways — aren’t always immediately obvious. It can take a long time for such actions and behaviors to wear away at the people around the fool or to erode their relationships, but consequences for such actions will eventually come to pass. Similarly, over indulgence in hedonistic pleasures poses such a threat — the immediate pleasure may be nice, and it may seem harmless in the moment, but it is always possible that long-term consequences will arise given time.

“Whatever a fool learns,
It only makes him duller.
Knowledge cleaves his head.

For he then wants recognition
A place before other people
A place over other people.”

The fool may be good at acting the part of the student — parroting the right words, imitating the right actions — but the fool will always throw others under the bus when the occasion arises. Does this mean all attempts at educating the fool are a waste of time? Not necessarily. Everyone has the capacity to learn, and even if it comes in only the barest of increments — even if only a few slivers of words reach the fool — this is better than nothing, and can have an overall cumulative effect that might improve the fool and reduce the harm they do to others. Only use caution in this approach, for you do not want to be leached of time, energy, and goodwill by those who are unwilling to hear what you have to teach them.

“‘Let them know my work,
Let everyone look to me for direction.’
Such are his desires
Such is his swelling pride.

One way leads to wealth and fame
The other to the end of the way.”

In their preoccupation with achieving renown, getting ahead, or even just fulfulling their own desires at whatever cost, the fool blinds themselves to the things that would bring them long-lasting, meaningful change that would improve their quality of life. The fool blinds themselves to the things that lead to inner peace, harmony, and contentment.

“Look not for recognition
But follow the awakened
And set yourself free.”

Renown, fame, and wealth are not the things which bring true, meaningful, lasting happiness. Focus not on these things, but rather on practicing honesty, reflection, compassion, and self-knowledge. Learn how to best bring balance to your life, to nurture positive relationship, and grow in happiness and peace.

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