Friday, October 23, 2009

Balavagga: Fools

So this makes five blog posts in five days on the first five chapters in the Dhammapada, so not a bad start. But I can tell you, I am already feeling the pressure. Like right now, I’ve been at work all day, I would much rather laze on the sofa and watch TV than sit here and write about the Balavagga.

I like saying that name – Balavagga. Kind of a pirate-like scowl, a scurvy knave kind of thing – Balavagga!

Yet, persist I shall, because setting the goal to blog about the entire Dhammapada isn’t about being academic, pedantic or an exercise in self-absorption. It’s really about perseverance. It’s so easy to find an excuse to not do something, to put it off to later, or to suggest that following through on something really doesn’t matter. I mean, what is it that the apathetic Buddhist will say? “It’s all an illusion. It’s all relative.”

Illusion? Say something nasty to your significant other and after he or she slaps you, tell yourself that was all illusion. Try walking out of a grocery store with a cart full of food without paying for it, and tell me if that law that landed you in jail was an illusion. Life is real, and the consequences of our actions are real. Even a fool can see that.

Uh, um, wait, that’s what the Balavagga is all about – Fools!

This is very straight-forward stuff; so straight-forward that out of the 16 sets of verses in the Balavagga, there are explanatory notes for only one set.

Right off the bat, the Buddha aims a shot across your bow.

“Long for the wakeful is the night.
Long for the weary, a league.
For fools
unaware of True Dhamma,
is long.”

Yes, samsara, this shit that life can be at times can be very long when one behaves foolishly. It’s basic: Everything I think, say or do, I own. The same goes for you buddy.

With the next verse, there seems to be an implication that the reader, or listener, already has a modicum of sense.

“If, in your course, you don’t meet
your equal, your better,
then continue your course,
There’s no fellowship with fools.”

This is pretty common advice among spiritual leaders. Jesus, after all, in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke instructed his followers that should they ever encounter a village or house where they wouldn’t be received or listened to, they were to shake the dust of that place off their feet and leave! Of course, the Buddha said as such 500 years before Christ. But I digress.

“‘I have sons, I have wealth’ —
the fool torments himself.
When even he himself
Doesn’t belong to himself,
how then sons?
How wealth?”

Basic stuff. I am not my body, my body is not me. So if I am not my body, I do not possess it, how is it possible to think that I can “have” other people or things? Now that is illusion! Or more accurately – delusion.

Skipping ahead (I’m not covering every verse), I find this, which kind of hits home with recent events in Chicago.

“Fools, their wisdom weak,
are their own enemies
as they go through life,
doing evil
that bears
bitter fruit.”

And this verse as well is relevant.

“As long as evil has yet to ripen,
the fool mistakes it for honey.
But when that evil ripens,
the fool falls into

While youth violence is a major issue everywhere, it has garnered particular scrutiny here in Chicago. And as I read about or hear about another incident – and there have been many others with young men left in comas – my heart aches and I weep wondering how did this happen? How did we get to this? Yet, these children are blinded by a notion that what they are doing gives them status, power, whatever, a feeling of superiority. But it’s temporary. Because the fruit of kamma will ripen.

“An evil deed, when done,
Doesn’t — like ready milk —
come out right away.
It follows the fool,
like a fire
hidden in ashes.”

Our use of the term “fool” is often so frequent and careless that it is more commonly used in the sense of a buffoon, a clown. But how the Buddha is using this term is different. The fool in this case can be evil or stupid, intelligent or clumsy. But in each of these cases, the fool is ignorant, unknowledgeable of how his or her actions bring about the bad results he or she is always commiserating over. I frequently behave as a fool, either unaware of what consequences I am preparing for myself, or reacting viscerally to some event or situation as out of anger or fear. The fool is careless and often thinks he or she is not.

“Only for his ruin
does renown come to the fool.
It ravages his bright fortune
& rips his head apart.

He would want unwarranted status,
preeminence among monks,
authority among monasteries,
homage from lay families.

‘Let householders & those gone forth
both think that this
was done by me alone.
May I alone determine
What’s a duty, what's not’:
the resolve of a fool
as they grow —
his desire & pride.”

Ah yes, I would be a rich man if I had a dollar for every foolish act I committed and which I thought was wise. Or at least out of debt.

Balavagga! I love saying that word!


  1. BALAVAGGA!!!! STELLAAAAAA!!! fools...

    Hey! Where did you get that picture looks alot like the inbred donkeys from Custer State Park!

  2. OMG, that is exactly where that photo was taken! Damn, you nailed me on that one. Took it last fall.

  3. I don't live 30 minutes away and I feed them every winter holiday. Feel bad for those poor transplants.