Reflecting on the Dhammapada (10/26)

“All beings tremble before violence.
All fear death.
All love life.”

It is the natural state of living things to crave to continuance to life. It is natural to fear the death — the ultimate unknown, and the ultimate opposite of the survival drives we all experience. The last extinguisher of those drives. Violence is consistently an existential threat to the state of living, and thus inspires fear. None of us wants to be on the receiving end of true violence (“true” violence being that which is threatening in nature and non-consensual, not including recreational activities or activities falling under the umbrellas of BDSM and other consensual kink practices). The state of longing for one’s own death is often driven by factors outside of one’s control — mental illness, or standing in the face of life that doesn’t seem worth living (chronic excruciating pain with lack of treatment, as one example, though many philosophical arguments can be made about suicidality as not inherently being “crazy”). If given the power to make the necessary choices, it seems safe to say that all being would choose to preserve their life by correcting the problems that might instigate suicidality — because at the end of the day, all being crave life; all beings crave, at the very least, a contented life. A good life.

“See yourself in others.
Then whom can you hurt?
What harm can you do?”

Recognize that everyone is ultimately, at the root of things, seeking the same thing: a happy, good, contented life. Remember this as you interact with the people you cross paths with. Their means for achieving this goal may seem strange or even stupid to you, but their approaches, understandings, and the resources (they recognize as being) available to them are all shaped by the experiences they’ve had in the lives they’ve lead. The skills they have developed through these experiences will also effect the ways in which they are trying to access happiness. Sometimes this may end up being toxic, harmful, even abusive. Sometimes it will simply be ineffective, and they may be stuck in a pattern of being unable to move forward. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not trying — it simply means that they haven’t yet built the tools they need in order to access that happiness, that contentedness, the good life they crave just as badly as you or I crave. These are people that have previously been referred to as “fools” but it is just as foolish to immediately dismiss or shun such people who may, with the right support and resources, be able to rise above whatever rut has trapped them. Only be aware of exercising discernment in your efforts to assist such people, for those who are unable to unwilling to listen or accept a helping hand may only drag others down with them.

“He who seeks happiness
By hurting those who seek happiness
Will never find happiness.”

Those whose means of seeking happiness are, for whatever reason, stunted may become harmful to those around them. This may not necessarily be deliberate — plenty of people behave in harmful ways only because they are unaware, not because they are malicious. The outcome, however, is the same. If people are unwilling or unable to learn from such experiences, to grow from them and reduce the harm of their behavior? These are people who are barring themselves from accessing happiness, either through ignorance, stubbornness, fear, or some combination thereof.

“For your brother is like you.
He wants to be happy.
Never harm him
And when you leave this life
You too will find happiness.”

In recognizing that all people are not so dissimilar to you when you get down to it, this opens a clear path for extending compassion to them, even when their behavior may not be up to snuff. In extending compassion, acting in honesty and compassion, and behaving in ways that promote peace will, in theory, bring happiness and contentedness. These must also be done in tandem with releasing attachment to outcomes, as I can testify to how frustrating it can be to behave in these ways and expect that people around you will rise to meet you in that place. You must learn to release expectations, and to accept the peace of mind and heart that your behavior brings you is enough while not putting too much (in some cases, any) weight or value on the actions and reactions of others.

“Never speak harsh words
For they will rebound upon you.
Angry words hurt
And the hurt rebounds.”

It may feel good in the moment to lash out and make someone who has hurt you hurt in turn (one way hurt may rebound — people may seek to hurt you back) but in the long term it often hurts to witness and grapple with the damage that you have done. Responding to hurt with violence, be it of the body or of the emotions and the mind, only perpetuates violence; it breeds further violence and feeds a cycle of violence. To break that cycle, one must consciously choose to abstain from such violence and practice abstinence from cruelty every day.

“Like a broken gong
Be still, be silent.
Know the stillness of freedom
Where there is no more striving.”

“Freedom” here or, to be without “striving,” is reflective again of the concept of being un-attached: if you are attached to a particular outcome, you strive to make that outcome come to pass. To strive for something, to desire it or be attached to it is, in the Buddhist philosophy, the root of all suffering. In the context of this reflection, behaving with compassion and in an attempt to promote peace in the hopes that others will rise to meet you in compassion and peace is striving for a particular outcome, or being attached to an outcome, desiring a certain behavior from those around you — and the only outcome of such striving is inevitably suffering, to one degree or another. It may cause stress or disappointment or pain. The best path forward is to undertake these right actions for their own sake, not with desire for a particular outcome.

“Like herdsmen driving their cows into the fields,
Old age and death will drive you before them.”

Because, again, we all fear the inevitable unknown — how much our actions are directly driven by this fear? By the desire to extend or retain life? We go on in this desire, uncritical of it, daily as is our natural due.

“But the fool in his mischief forgets
And he lights the fire
Wherein one day he must burn.”

Lacking foresight, reflection, and self-honesty the fool may lash out in anger or in pain; the fool may seek happiness through means that are directly harmful to others around them and thereby cut off their own happiness.

“He who harms the harmless
Or hurts the innocent,
Ten times shall he fall —
Into torment or infirmity,
Injury or disease or madness,
Persecution or fearful accusation
Loss of family, loss of fortune.

Fire from heaven shall strike his house
And when his body has been struck down
He shall rise in hell.”

I suppose it is true that if you’re going to hurt someone who is relatively innocent (none of us are fully innocent in any capacity) there is a greater chance of more immediate and greater blow-back. The chances that your community will shun you or retaliate against you for harming someone who is seen as harmless themselves or even as innocent are great. Consider those who are discovered to have harmed a child — even in prison certain crimes against children can garner retribution from total strangers who would rather see such criminals dead than suffered to live. It is safer by far to act with consciousness and compassion and to avoid doing harm to any, lest you be caught in a cycle of suffering of your own creation and perpetuation.

“He who goes naked,
With matted hair, mud-bespattered
Who fasts and sleeps on the ground
And smears his body with ashes
And sits in endless meditation–
So long as he is not free from doubts,
He will not find freedom.”

Someone can live a life of extreme asceticism but still not achieve enlightenment or freedom from suffering so long as they are still “doubtful.” Let’s define doubtful: in an Abrahamic religion this would refer to a weakness in faith, but that seems unlikely with regards to Buddhism which, though existing in a greater context that acknowledges deities, demons, spirits, and afterlives, is itself not particularly bothered with any of those things (except for the afterlife). Some people have called Buddhism more of a philosophy than a religion, though there is an argument for the latter just as there for the former. Nonetheless, the idea of “doubt” in this context hardly seem appropriate to apply to the concept of faith as such — rather, it would make sense to apply it to the idea of doubt in one’s self and one’s actions. If you doubt your motivations or even the purpose of those actions, what meaning do those actions then carry? Little, if any at all I would wager — if your actions are driven by a desire to manipulate or motivate others rather than being for their own sake or for your own inner peace and stability, then they will ultimately result in suffering. If you take these actions without understanding them or knowing why, you may become frustrated and eventually give up — in other words, they may still lead to suffering. If one takes these actions only in the pursuit of enlightenment, even with understanding one may still become frustrated as the desire for enlightenment may itself inhibit one’s ability to achieve enlightenment — looking always into the future for a reward, one misses out on mindfulness of the present. One still succumbs to desire and, thus, suffering. Thus, one must understand the purpose of the action they take and be confident in taking those actions for their own sake, without additional motivation outside of cultivating inner peace and stability.

“But he who lives purely and self-assured,
In quietness and virtue,
Who is without harm or hurt or blame
Even if he wears fine clothes
So long as he also has faith
He is a true seeker.”

Contrary to the definition of doubt in the last passage, I would argue that here faith is less of the religious variety and more “faith in the process.” Faith that by practicing mindfulness, returning always to compassion and honesty, one can unlock inner peace. Faith that inner peace will flower with time, rather than uncertainty which breeds a striving, a hunger, a desire which then gets in the way of actually developing inner peace. Living with the inner peace one can find moment to moment rather than trying to strive for some grander enlightenment in the future — faith that this moment-to-moment inner peace is both the process and the arrival.

“A noble horse rarely
Feels the touch of the whip.
Who is there in this world as blameless?

Then like a noble horse
Smart under the whip.
Burn and be swift.

Believe, meditate, see.
Be harmless, be blameless.
Awake to the law.
And from all sorrow free yourself.”

Admittedly I am struggling a bit with the passages on the horse, but I believe the third passage is intended to summarize the intent behind these passages. They are reflective of the intent discussed regarding doubt and hope — a noble horse does not doubt its purpose nor its actions — it simply acts. It has faith in its actions — it believes, it does not doubt. The presence of the noble horse in the present, its mindfulness, is admirable. We too ought to believe in the process of our mindful actions, of our meditations. We ought to believe in our practice and embrace the inner peace it brings it us, and should doubt visit us, acknowledge it and then let it go.

“The farmer channels water into his land.
The fletcher whittles his arrows.
The carpenter turns his wood.
And the wise man masters himself.”

It is in our nature to do what must be done. We must care for ourselves, and to do so we must act in right ways. The farmer cannot ignore their land and expect a fertile harvest. The fletcher cannot ignore his arrows and expect that they be ready for use. The carpenter cannot ignore his wood and expect that it be ready for building. Similarly, we cannot neglect our minds and expect peace to bloom from nothing. We must to tend to our minds as the farmer tends to their field — through practice of compassion, honesty, mindfulness, and reflection. We must choose everyday to cultivate peace and contentment within ourselves. Only then can we enjoy it as it blooms.

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