The DhammaPada , the earliest portion of the Păli Scriptures to become known in the West, gives us the "Words of the Truth", that is, of the Dhamma. The whole Doctrine taught by the All-Enlightened One. This is the sense in which the name is used in the work itself, where (v. 102) we are told how great is the value of "one single word of the Dhamma". Further analysis of the meaning will be found in the Preface of the translator.
In one respect the DhammaPada differs greatly from most of the Master's utterances. It is not a continuous discourse, but consists of single verses or sometimes several combined, which have been uttered by the Master on the occasion of some special event during the forty -five years of his ministry.
We are fortunate in possessing a large commentary on the verses, which not only explains each verse grammatically, but also gives an account of the persons and circumstances that led to its utterance. The connection of the circumstances with the verses may often be only traditional, but the incidents have a quite independent value, as they frequently record events in the life of the Master, and also present some of the important principles of his teaching. They give us a picture of the daily life of the Master as it was understood in the early days of the community.
The verses which come first in importance are (v. 153, 154) the first words uttered by the Buddha on his attaining Enlightenment. No real story is given here, but we are told that the words were repeated at a later time to Ănanda, his favourite disciple and attendant, at Ănanda's request. After spending seven weeks at or near the Bodhi tree after his Enlightenment, he journeyed to Benares to find and convert his five disciples, who had deserted him when they thought that on his abandoning the wrong methods of meditation he had given up striving. On the way he was met by an ascetic, Upaka, who asked him who was his teacher. His reply (v. 353) was to declare his omniscience and his independence of any teacher.
Two of his earliest disciples were Săriputta and Moggallăna. They were two Brahmin students, who had promised each other that whichever of them should first find "The Immortal", the permanent state as opposed to the world of change, would tell the other. Săriputta was the first to learn of it from Assaji, one of the five disciples. He revered Assaji so much that afterwards he would bow with clasped hands in the direction where he knew Assaji was living. The other monks thought that he was performing a heathen spell known as "worshipping the quarters". They complained to the Master, but he, knowing Săriputta's real intention, replied to them in the words of (v. 392).
Some years after his Enlightenment the Buddha paid a visit to his native city, Kapilavatthu, where he converted many. The next day his father found him going from house to house for alms, and when his father protested that this was not the conduct for one born in the lineage of kings, his son pointed out that his true lineage was that of former Buddhas, who had gained their living in the same way, and he repeated v. 168, 169. He also induced his half-brother Nanda to enter the Order. But Nanda was so infatuated by his bride that he wished to return to lay life. The Master then took him to the heaven of the thirty-three gods, and showed him the celestial nymphs, so superior to his own bride that he decided to stay in the Order in order to gain them, as the Master promised that he should. It was this state of mind that the Buddha described in v. 13. Nanda was afterwards completely converted, when v. 14 was uttered.
The Master's care for individuals is shown in several stories. For the sake of a weaver's daughter he travelled thirty leagues in order to preach to her (v.174), and on another occasion gave instruction to a farmer who had lost an ox (v. 203). The farmer was wearied in having had to seek his ox all day, and the Master took care that he should first receive some food. One of the most striking stories of this kind is that of the monk Tissa. In v. 41 is stated the hard truth of the fate of the body after death, but the story of Půtigatta Tissa (Tissa the foul-limbed) throws a wonderful light on the character of the Master as a sympathetic teacher. Tissa was afflicted with a skin disease, which became so offensive that the monks put him outside and neglected him. The Master on finding out went and heated the water in the fire-room, and when it was hot was going to carry Tissa inside, but the monks insisted on doing so. He then caused Tissa's robes to be washed, bathed him himself, and when Tissa was again robed, with his body refreshed and his mind tranquil, then it was that the Master repeated the truth about the body:
Before long, alas! this body
The tale of Gatamě the lean (Kisă Gotamě) also refers to the inevitability of death. It is given here as an example of the style of the stories.
Gotamě gave birth to a son, but the child died as soon as he was able to walk. As she had not seen death before, she prevented those who were going to burn the body, saying, "I will ask for medicine for my child," and putting the dead body on her hip she went from house to house asking, "Do you know any medicine for my child?" People said, "Are you mad that you go about asking for medicine for a dead child?" She went on, thinking, "Surely I shall find someone who knows medicine for my child." Then a wise man saw her and thought, "This will be my daughter, who has lost her first-born son, and has never seen death before; I certainly ought to help her." So he said, "Women, I don't know the medicine, but I know one who does know." "Dear sir, who knows?" "Women, the Master knows, go and ask him." So she went to the Master, saluted him, and standing on one side asked, "They say you know of medicine for my child." "Yes, I know." "What must I get?" "You must get just a pinch of mustard seed." "I will get it, reverend one, but in whose house must I get it?" "In the house of one whose son or daughter or anyone else has not died before." So saying, "Good, reverend one," she saluted the Master, and taking the dead child on her hip she entered the village. Stopping at the door of the first house she said, "Is there any mustard seed in this house, they say it will be medicine for my child?" "There is." "Then give me some." They brought some mustard seed and gave it to her, and when she asked, "Has no son or daughter died before in this house?" they replied, "What are you saying, woman? As for the living they are few, the dead are many." "Then take your mustard seed, that is no medicine for my child," and she gave it back. Going on in the way she had begun she went along asking. She did not get a mustard seed from even a single house, and in the evening she thought, "Alas, a heavy task! I thought that only my child was dead," and then she perceived that in the whole village the dead are more than the living. As she thus thought, her heart which had been soft with love for her child became hardened. She laid her child down in a forest, went into the Master's presence, saluted him, and stood on one side. Then the Master said to her, "Did you get the pinch of mustard seed?" "I did not, reverend one, for in the whole village the dead are more than the living." Then the Master said, "You imagined that only your child was dead, but it is the constant lot of creatures; for the King of Death, like a great flood sweeping away all beings with their desires unfulfilled, hurls them into the ocean of painful existence," and teaching the doctrine he spoke this verse:
The doting man, whose mind
As soon as the verse was ended, Kisă Gotamě was established in the Fruit of Entering the Stream, and many others also attained the Fruit of Entering the Stream and the other Fruits. She then asked the Master for admission to the Order. He sent her to the nuns and caused her to be admitted, and on being ordained she was known as the Theri Kisă Gotamě.
The commentary adds a later incident in her life, which illustrates v. 114.
One day, when it was her turn to light the lamp in the meeting hall, she sat down and looked at the flames dying out and springing up, and taking them as a subject of meditation she thought, "Even so is it with these living creatures, they rise up and pass away, and on attaining Nibbăna (extinguishment) they are no more known." The Master seated in the Perfumed Chamber sent out an image of himself, and as though seated face to face with her spoke and said, "Even so, Gotamě, these creatures like flames arise and pass away, and on attaining extinguishment (Nibbăna) they are no more known. Even so, life for a moment is better for one who sees Nibbăna than the life of those who live a hundred years without seeing Nibbăna." So saying he made the connection, and teaching the doctrine spoke this verse:
Though one should live a hundred years,
Gotamě became known as "the chief of the nuns who wear rags", and it is of her that v. 395 was spoken.
The Deathless or Immortal State of Nibbăna is the state of the disciple at any time when full knowledge is attained. Then all his fetters and corruptions are extinguished. Hence the commentators speak of two attainings of Nibbăna. The latter attained at death is called Nibbăna without a remainder of substrate of rebirth. When the DhammaPada first came to be studied in the West there were scholars who declared Nibbăna to imply annihilation at death. Yet not only is there no such doctrine in all the Scriptures, but the view of a monk who appeared to hold it is decisively rejected.
In v. 277-279 are taught the doctrines of the impermanence of all compound things, their painfulness (the first of the four Truths), and the doctrine of non-self (anatta). There is here no real narrative connected with the verses, but only incidents of the Master prescribing these subjects for meditation. The fact of the impermanence of all compound things was the truth realized by Săriputta when he first heard the doctrine stated by Assaji. The term anatta, "selfless", has raised difficulties, because attă, "self" (Skt. ătmă), is used in two senses. When it is used of the self of actual experience it is never denied. In this sense it occurs over and over again in the Scriptures. This self (not the merely mental part but the whole individual) is analysed into five parts, the body, feeling, perception, the other mental and volitional activities known as the sankhăras, and consciousness. But the Jains and the Hindus held that besides these ever-changing elements there was something permanent, which transmigrates unchanged. It was this supposed unchanging reality behind everything transitory that is denied by the doctrine of non-self. The self as experienced is always changing, but the changes are continuous from birth to birth, and enough personal identity remains for one with the proper training to be able to remember his former lives. Rebirth indeed takes place under the form of rebirth-consciousness. This is no unchanging element, but only one form of the stream of being (bhavanga), which the individual assumes at the time of conception, and its further changes are enumerated in the twelve-fold Chain of Causation.
The Master's later life was disturbed by the intrigues of his cousin Devadatta, who had entered the Order. He was evidently an ambitious character, eager for gain and honour. Verses 9, 10 were spoken when he assumed a robe of which he was not worthy. He later proposed that the Master should retire and allow him (Devadatta) to lead the Order, but the proposal was rejected with disgust. Then he plotted with Prince Ajătasattu to kill the Buddha, but finally with the failure of all his devices, including the fomenting of a schism (v. 163) and his attempts to kill the Master (v. 162), he ended miserably, and at his death the Master (v. 17) spoke the words:
Here he laments, hereafter he laments,
A long and complicated legend tells of the destruction of the Sakya clan, followed by the destruction of the destroyers. Thereupon the Master repeated v. 47, showing the vanity of human efforts overwhelmed like a flood of death.
Other very different characters are the two chief disciples Săriputta and Moggallăna, who both died before the Master. On one occasion Săriputta was asked by the Master whether he believed that when the faculty of faith (saddhă) had been meditated on and practised much it is plunged in the Deathless, and finds its end in the Deathless, i.e. does such a one attain Nibbăna. He denied it, and the other monks thought that he was holding false views. But Săriputta was distinguishing between saddhă, mere faith or confidence in the words of another, and pańńă, the full knowledge gained by direct insight into the Truths. The verse (97) spoken on this occasion is a good example of an Indian riddle, depending on a series of puns, for it might mean:
The man who is faithless, who is ungrateful,
One without faith may be a misbeliever, but Săriputta means one who has left mere faith behind and has reached full knowledge. Akata-ńńu is "knowing the unmade", i.e. Nibbăna, but if divided as a-katańńu it means "not grateful".
The death of Moggallăna illustrates another important doctrine. The Jains hold that Nibbăna is attained when all kamma (the result of all deliberately willed action) is exhausted. But this is not the Buddhist view, for we find cases where disciples have attained enlightenment, but who are still suffering the fruits of their previous deeds. What is to be removed is not the kamma, but the evil tendencies in the individual that cause bad kamma. This is shown in the fate of Moggallăna, who in a previous life had been tempted to kill his parents. In verses 137-140 the Master explains to the monks the cause of Moggallăna's death at the hands of robbers.
One of the most attractive characters is Visăkhă, the great lay-woman disciple. Her career shows the result of good kamma. A long story is told of her life and former lives. She was happily married and wealthy, but her father-in-law favoured the Naked Ascetics. They made charges against her and demanded that she should be expelled, but she successfully defended herself, and her father-in-law allowed her to stay. This she refused to do unless she should be allowed to serve the Buddhist monks. When she invited the Buddha with his attendant monks to a meal, she persuaded her father-in-law to listen to the preaching, and thus he was converted. She afterwards caused a dwelling for the monks to be erected, and bestowed many gifts in accordance with a wish that she had made in a former existence in the time of the Buddha Padumuttara. When the vihăra was completed she walked round it, and the monks thought that she was singing. The Master explained that she was repeating the earnest wish that she had made in a former life, and was rejoiced at seeing it as last fulfilled. She said:
When shall I give a fair palace
When shall I give couches and chairs
When shall I give the gift of food,
When shall I give the gift of robes
When shall I give the gift of medicine
Then the Master, after recounting the former life of Visăkhă in which she had made the wish, repeated the words (v. 53):
And as from a heap of flowers
Several events of the Master's last years receive mention. The Sakyas, members of the Buddha's own clan, quarrelled with their neighbours the Koliyas about the use of the water of the river Rohině. The Master went and dissuaded both clans from fighting, finally uttering the words of v. 197-199.
There are two instances mentioned of calumnies, attempts by the heretics to discredit the Master morally. The heretics induced a wandering nun Sundarě to pretend to pay nightly visits to the Buddha. Then they caused her to be murdered and accused the Buddhists, but the murderers on getting drunk revealed the truth. Another wandering nun was Cincă, who made similar charges, and it required the help of the god Sakka to discover the truth. In both cases the words of the Master condemn the vice of lying (v. 306), (v. 176).
One of the most striking events both as showing the Master's method of teaching as well as emphasizing his fundamental principles is the conversion of Subhadda. He was an aged wanderer who came, when the Master lay on his death-bed, to have certain questions solved that were being discussed in other schools. The reply of the Master was to put aside all these questions and to point out what are the only things essential for a true ascetic. All that matters for the Buddhist is that the true ascetic must hold and realize the four Noble Truths and follow the Eightfold Path (v. 254-255). Subhadda then became the last disciple to be admitted by the Lord to the ordination of a monk (bhikkhu).
These four Truths (pain or sorrow, its origin, its cessation, and the Noble Eightfold path) were set forth by the Master on another occasion, when he was discussing various paths along which the monks had been travelling (v. 273-276).
The ăsavas: this is a term sometimes translated "corruptions" or "depravities", but this gives no idea as to what quality or feature of the individual is meant. As, however, they are described in detail, we know exactly what they mean. They are the three (or four) inherent tendencies in the individual which must be eradicated in order to attain the full knowledge of an arahat, namely, sensual desire (kăma), desire for becoming in any form of sensitive existence (bhava), and ignorance (avijjă) to which, as a form of ignorance, is added false view (micchăditthi).
Many other points of doctrine are discussed in the learned notes of the translator that accompany this text.