Reflecting on the Dhammapada (6/26)

“The wise man tells you
Where you have fallen
And where you may fall–
Invaluable secrets!
Follow him, follow the way.”

The wise person is able to see the pit falls that lay in your path — perhaps they have been on such a path themselves and thus recognize the dangers, or perhaps they have been observant of your ways and understand the risks to which you are most prone. Either way, they recognize where you are going, they recognize your weaknesses as well as your strengths, and they have your best interests in mind. They seek to help you recover from past falls and learn from them, as well as to learn how to avoid future falls. The wise person is not only one who has the experience and/or empathy to understand the path you are on as well as the foresight and understanding to see where you may fall, they are one who is genuinely interested in your well-being, your quality of life, your honesty with yourself, your growth, and your ability to achieve inner peace, harmony, and happiness. They are one who has practiced compassion and honesty with themselves and now extends these things to you.

“Let him chasten and teach you
And keep you from mischief.
The world may hate him
But good men love him.”

It may be hard to hear the honesty the wise person has to offer you, but they will offer it with compassion and care and out of a desire to help you along your path through growth and to happiness. Because it can be hard to hear such truths, such a person as offers them up may often be disliked for their honesty. It is easier to avoid honesty, both in the speaking and the hearing of it, but those who genuinely wish for self improvement and greater wellness have the capacity and ability to fight through the discomfort of being confronted with truths they might rather not hear, and use those truths as a means of growth and empowerment.

“Do not look for bad company
Or live with men who do not care.
Find friends who love the truth.”

Let us define “bad company” in this context: here bad company may mean those who do not follow “the way,” which we have previously defined as honesty and compassion, working toward better wellness, working toward inner peace and happiness. Therefore bad company would be the company of those who do not work for these things — those who are comfortable stagnating, who have no interest in growth or healing or even who actively fight against these things. Bad company would be the company of those who do not value or practice honesty, who do not value or practice compassion. They may be dishonest with themselves and this dishonesty will inevitably extend to you — but the worse part of this is that they neither care about this dishonesty nor work to correct it. One may be aware of these tendencies within themselves and struggle with those tendencies in the pursuit of greater well-being — such a person ought to be supported in their endeavor, that they may move towards greater honesty, that they may move towards truth. Bad company may also lack compassion for those around them and even for themselves, and again be uninterested in correcting this. They may be unwilling to hear the truth from others and disdain it, thereby barring themselves from the ability to grow into greater honesty and compassion, and hindering their own ability to gain greater wellness and happiness. Friends who already value AND practice honesty and compassion, however, will contribute to your own ability to practice these things, and will support you in your growth.

“Drink deeply.
Live in serenity and joy
The wise man delights in truth
And follows the law of the awakened.

The farmer channels water to his land
The fletcher whittles his arrows.
And the carpenter turns his wood.
So the wise man directs his mind.”

A person of wisdom will cultivate his mind just as a professional cultivates their profession or a craftsman cultivates their craft — they do not let stagnation creep in. They practice honesty and compassion with consistency, to the best of their ability, and always strive for greater growth and understanding, for greater well-being, for harmony and peace.

“The wind cannot shake a mountain.
Neither praise nor blame moves the wise man.

He is clarity.
Hearing the truth,
He is like a lake,
Pure and tranquil and deep.”

Such is fruit of such labor: tranquility, calm. Inner peace and harmony. A happiness which is not fleeting but which is rooted in a deep self-understanding and self-compassion and compassion for the world and those around you; a happiness which is not rooted in hedonistic pleasures but rather in a consistent inner calm which is the result of the work of self-honesty, self-compassion, and growth.

“Want nothing.
Where there is desire
Say nothing.

Happiness or sorrow —
Whatever befalls you
Walk on, unattached.”

Here we see the philosophy that attachment and desire is the root of suffering — if we are attached to the outcome of our actions rather than being fully present in the moments of those actions, we cause ourselves pain and distress. We ought to be present in the moment of our actions rather than desiring a particular outcome or growing overly attached to the outcome, understanding that the process itself is valuable regardless of the outcome. This is, of course, more difficult for those of us who struggle with mental illness — in particular depression and anxiety, where it can be difficult if not impossible to simply turn off worrying about the outcome of something and turn on being present in the moment. This is why compassion must be exercised for the self and for others — so long as we are trying our best, then we are doing well. So long as we are trying our best, then we are growing. So long as we are trying our best to walk on despite our bumps and bruises, then we are following the way.

“Do not ask for family or power or wealth,
Either for yourself or another.
Can a wise man wish to rise unjustly?”

Let me begin with power and wealth, as these are easy to address: the pursuit of such things is inherently in contradiction to the law or the way as it has been defined. The hoarding of resources not only signifies attachment and desire, it is a behavior that is actively detrimental to the communities you occupy and the communities you are connected to. One need only look at what capitalism has done to the world thus far to see the truth of this: gross wealth inequality is responsible for many of the ills of poverty, including much suffering causes by lack of access to affordable care and clean water, housing, food, etc. Many other horrible things such as racism have historically been employed by capitalists in the pursuit of wealth and power (see slavery as a basic example). The pursuit of wealth and power almost inevitably is unjust in nature, and is something that should be put aside and avoided.

As to family? This is a difficult question, as belonging, care, and warmth are all things which are basic human needs and it is only natural to desire them — and yet if to desire is to suffer…? It is for such reasons as this that I believe it is best to temper this philosophy, or at the very least is the reason why I would be unable to wholly commit to it. To be critical and careful with your desires, in an attempt to ensure that you are not desiring things which will themselves cause you suffering or harm your growth in some capacity, or to be wary of growing overly attached/desirous of that which is unnecessary to your well-being. Self-honest and self-compassion can go a long way in discerning that which is unnecessary and that which is necessary; that for which desire should be released and that for which it is only natural and even beneficial to feel desire for (such as basic needs, including food, water, shelter, and love).

“Few cross over the river.
Most are stranded on this side.
On the riverbank they run up and down.

But the wise man, following the way,
Crosses over, beyond the reach of death.

He leaves the dark way
For the way of light.
He leaves his home
Seeking happiness on the hard road.”

Here I would like to pause and remember that the Buddha (Siddhārtha Gautama) was a prince before he was a wise man. In many ways he did leave his home to travel a road which was much harder than the sheltered and deeply privileged life he had previously lead. Nonetheless, the privilege of that previous life must be taken into account, especially in discussing those who are stranded on this side of the river, running up and down the riverbank. Many such people suffered in ways Siddhārtha could not have fathomed despite witnessing it with his own eyes — until he deliberately choose to go hungry, he did not know what it was like to go hungry. Until he deliberate choose to live with no home, he did not know what it was like to go homeless. Even so, these were choices that he made, not things inflicted upon him by the circumstances of his birth.

Nonetheless, it is also true that maintaining a consistent practice of self honest and self compassion is a much harder road that going about your day without deliberately cultivating that kind of awareness. And it is hard in many, many ways. It can be hard to be really honest with yourself about having made a mistake or even about having a gap in your knowledge, and it can be incredibly tiring. It can be difficult to extend yourself compassion when you feel as though you’ve messed up or been hurtful or stupid — it can feel like you don’t deserve compassion. But all of these things are why self-honesty (you did make a mistake but you do deserve the compassion required to learn and grow from that mistake) and compassion are so vital. You need these things to grow, and to keep walking forward despite the bumps and bruises.

“Free from desire
Free from possessions
Free from the dark places of the heart.

Free from attachment and appetite
Following the seven lights of awakening
And rejoicing greatly in his freedom
In this world the wise man
Becomes himself a light
Pure, shining, free.”

Releasing desire (within reason and logic) and embracing simplicity allows one to be free from “the dark places of the heart” — at least in theory. This allows one to release the suffering which is attached to desire and attachment, and feel the relief which follows. Of course those who are haunted by trauma and mental illness cannot do this with ease — we may work towards wellness and healing, but it is possible these things will still haunt us despite our best efforts. Such are the workings of a damaged brain, or one whose wiring was faulty to begin with. We much continue to show ourselves compassion along our journey, and simply continue doing the best we can, in order to become “light, pure, shining, free.” At least, to the greatest capacity that we can — and greater wellness is no small thing.

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