Juan Mascaró (translator), The Dhammapada
Like many religious innovators throughout history—Jesus, Mohammed, Confucius—the Buddha left no written record in his own hand. He taught his first followers verbally, and his religion survived for generations in the oral tradition. His most important texts, the Sutras, weren’t transcribed until the language he spoke, Sanskrit, was all but extinct. Yet the few passages we have, purportedly straight from his own tongue, remain influential, and a popular export to curious Western seekers.
Perhaps because it is brief (under sixty pages), or because it doesn’t require grounding in South Asian culture of the Axial Age, the Dhammapada is possibly Buddhism’s most widely read text by non-Buddhists, according to religious historians like Robert Buswell and John Brough. It comprises 423 sayings attributed to the Buddha on issues of right living, right thought, and self-control. And like Jesus’ sayings, these gnomic proverbs reward deeper contemplation than their surface simplicity implies.
Some of these sayings seem straightforward, perhaps because the thoughts behind them move across cultures well, and have been part of settled civilizations for millennia. Especially in post-housing-crisis America, it seems easy to discount seemingly obvious proverbs like 119: “A man may find pleasure in evil as long as his evil has not given fruit; but when the fruit of evil comes then that man finds evil indeed.” Saying 120 mirrors this saying for “good.”
But these sayings seem obvious because we’ve seen them displayed, in our lives and in our culture. To children and people lacking empathy, taking your desires seems a clear highway to happiness… until it isn’t. We must resist the tendency to disparage introductory spiritual axioms as merely “elementary,” just because we internalized them in Sunday School decades ago. Without these basics, we’d have no foundation for more complex, adaptive religious avenues we seek as adults.
Consider these valuable sayings, and how they could change you:
“Empty the boat of your life, O man; when empty it will swiftly sail. When empty of passions and harmful desires you are bound for the land of Nirvana. (369)Again, it seems obvious, if we don’t contemplate it. Ocean-going vessels sail better when not burdened with needless ballast; early European explorers often chucked once-treasured heirlooms overboard to keep their ships moving. Yet how often do we nurse resentments, thinking revisiting them will bring moral vindication? Or chase bodily lusts, thinking this time they’ll make us happy?
“He who in early days was unwise but later found wisdom, he sheds a light over the world like that of the moon when free from clouds.” (172)One inevitably recalls Jesus’ statement about more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than all the righteous people who never stray.
These sayings are phrased as declarations; only infrequently in this text will you find a question mark. Later commentators have positioned these statements as answers to questions asked of the Buddha, much like how Jesus answered questions with parables. The meaning seems literal, yet when you spend even moments contemplating the deeper implications, the statements challenge you. These seemingly simple declarations actually force you to choose: change yourself, or disbelieve the master and his message.
The Dhammapada has been translated into English several times since the first Orientalists of the Nineteenth Century. Because of the cultural reach of the Penguin Classics line, the Juan Mascaró translation is probably the most widely known. Included with his translation is an introductory essay which situates the Dhammapada with other classic mystic texts: the Tao, the Spanish Mystics (Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross), Keats and the English Romantics, even the Bible.
Even with the introductory essay, this book is brief enough to savvy in one evening. Yet engaged readers will find themselves taking notes, making choices, trying to decide what the sayings mean in their lives. One cannot read this book and remain unchanged, even if the only change is the wilful decision not to change. One should not pick up this book casually, like a novel. One must realize life will never be the same.