Thursday, April 5, 2012

On the lawpath

'What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind'.  So begins the Dhammapada, the third-century BC compilation of aphorisms traditionally attributed to the Buddha himself which is generally recognized as one of the most important Pali scriptures.  When I first started meditating, I had little interest in reading ancient Buddhist texts, and what interest I had was mediated through my knowledge of Latin and Greek, later descendents of the ancient Indian languages Sanskrit and Pali.  When I got involved with a Zen group in a lay lineage, this evasion of texts - unusual for me, a professional classicist - became even more pronounced.  Even though we worked regularly with koans spoken into the room, the emphasis on the direct apprehension of the real drove me to the cushion, not to the library.

Now that I'm in the process of taking refuge (a sort of Buddhist confirmation), I've decided that I need to open my eyes a bit and explore what it is that I'm getting into.  This is the case even though I was drawn into Buddhism not because I found its philosophical system noticeably more sound than others I'd encountered, but because I found the practice of meditation helpful.  Deciding what to read, and what to read first, has been difficult.  In contrast to Judaism or Christianity, Buddhism has no single holy text that stands unchallenged at the top of a hierarchy of sacred or inspired works in the way that the Torah and the Gospel (and the Old and New Testaments) are ranked above the Talmud and the Church Fathers, or Maimonides and Augustine.  And the canon of Buddhist sacred texts is large: besides the Pali scriptures - more than ten times longer than the Bible on their own - are the large number of other writings in Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan.

Fortunately, my choice is limited to the books I can borrow for free from the 'wine-box of wisdom' at Wind in Grass Sangha and from the library at the interfaith center at Stanford.  (I could turn to academic libraries, but that would feel too much like work.)  After skimming the titles once or twice I settled on the Dhammpada, in a slim Penguin volume translated and introduced by Juan Mascaró, the Mallorcan polymath who has the unusual distinction of having translated several works from one of his non-native languages into another.  The Dhammapada seemed to fit the bill: it looked venerable, authoritative, and old - and when it comes to figuring out traditions, the very beginning is often a very good place to start.  It also looked short, and at this stage of my pratice and my career I have no interest in wading through endless sutras, nikayas, pitakas, or any other sorts of basket.

The most striking - though hardly surprising - feature of the Dhammapada for someone engaged in modern lay practice is that its focus is rather starkly on monks and hermits, full-time mendicant holy-men, and not at all on working people who meditate in their spare time.  It may even seem as times as if monks alone are capable of achieving nibbana (the Pali version of nirvana): 'Few cross the river of time and are able to reach nirvana: most of them run up and down only on this side of the river'.  Connected to this foregrounding of professional meditators is an acceptance that the path of spiritual development is difficult and that it has many discrete steps.  There is nothing here of the Zen insistence that the practitioner is already perfect, already a Buddha.  And this, of course, is one of the main differences between the orthodox Theravada philosophy of the Dhammapada and the reformist Mahayana perspectives of most of the people I sit with in San Francisco.

But to stop here would be to give this ancient work short shrift.  Its chief merit is the lucid simplicity of its verses.  Some would no doubt complain that it sometimes verges on simple-mindedness, but it more often transcends doctrinaire Buddhism in apothegms that would seem equally true in any tradition.  Mascaró in his introduction juxtaposes its verses with choice passages from the Spanish mystics, especially Teresa of Avila and Juan de la Cruz.  Such games of syncretism - like that played by Aldous Huxley in his Perennial Philosophy - are easy and pleasant enough to play, though it must cross our minds that in such vast and complex traditions, one can find what one likes, and therefore write whatever narrative one likes too.  Nonetheless, there is such a thing as truth that never dies.  'Hate is not conquered by hate: hate is conquered by love.  This is a law eternal.'


  1. I actually have a great love of the Ancient Mahayana Sutras, so much so I taught myself Sanskrit so I can read in the original language. If I had to give my opinion on sutras as a Zen student, really you only need the Heart Sutra, if you get this then you get them all. 2nd favourite - Diamond Sutra, then Lotus, then Avatamsaka.

    1. Thanks for the recommendations! I like the Heart Sutra a lot too. And I remember your devotion to the Diamond Sutra :)