Thursday, October 22, 2009

Pupphavagga: Blossoms

While the first three chapters of the Dhammapada lay out the basic notions that we create and own our own kamma, as well as outline the characteristics and consequences of skillful versus unskillful acts, the fourth chapter and much of the remaining chapters go into greater detail and describe more specific issues and concepts. With the Pupphavagga, the qualities and rewards of skillfulness are explained using similes of blossoms and flowers. And at the start, a template is laid out for the reader.

“Who will penetrate this earth
& this realm of death
with all its gods?
Who will ferret out
the well-taught Dhamma-saying,
as the skillful flower-arranger
the flower?

The learner-on-the-path
will penetrate this earth
& this realm of death
with all its gods.
The learner-on-the-path
will ferret out
the well-taught Dhamma-saying,
as the skillful flower-arranger
the flower.”

It’s an invitation to be a “learner-on-the-path,” to develop the skill to “ferret out the well-taught Dhamma saying.” But what is this simile saying?

Let’s consider the Third Precept. What is the “well-taught Dhamma saying” that can be found in the Third Precept? And how do we “ferret out” its meaning?

The easy way to explain the Third Precept is to merely recite it, and then inject our own cultural bias into what it means. The Third Precept directs us to refrain from sexual misconduct, or others might say that it prohibits wrongful sexual conduct. The lazy way of explaining this is to say that homosexual conduct qualifies as wrongful sexual conduct because it is perceived negatively by the larger culture, or that it’s misconduct because it departs from the norm. But an answer like that is not ferreting out anything, let alone what may be within a “well-taught Dhamma saying.”

Because further investigation leads us to various suttas (such as this one) that quote the Buddha as specifically identifying what sexual misconduct entails. And if we further investigate these examples, we see it to be well-taught because of its consistency with the Four Noble Truths. An act is misconduct – or rather, unskillful – because it results in pain, suffering, disappointment, hardship, separation: It results in dukkha. And the reason it results in dukkha is that the conduct was motivated by either greed, hatred or delusion. In other words, the intention behind the act, not the act itself, is what defines the outcome.

And that is what is meant with the simile of the flower arranger. Given a certain set of flowers, the skilled arranger “ferrets out” the best display. Likewise, the skillful student of Dhamma seeks the appropriate lesson for the circumstances facing him or her at the moment.

Blossoms in the Pupphavagga are used to both represent good and skillful qualities as well as unskillful qualities. For example, in verses 47-48:

“The man immersed in
gathering blossoms,
his heart distracted:
death sweeps him away —
as a great flood,
a village asleep.

The man immersed in
gathering blossoms,
his heart distracted,
insatiable in sensual pleasures:
the End-Maker holds him
under his sway.”

Contrast that with verse 53:

“Just as from a heap of flowers
many garland strands can be made,
even so
one born & mortal
should do
— with what’s born & is mortal —
many a skillful thing.”

In the former, the blossoms are a distraction, an intoxicant, that lead the man astray. Yet, the fact that flowers are beautiful is not a bad thing on its own, because in the latter verse, things of beauty can be arranged and turned into pleasing things. And there are many things of beauty within ourselves – undeveloped skillful qualities – that can be nurtured and brought forward.

The fact that some blossoms are scentless and others have sweet scents is used as a simile to explain the pointlessness of hearing the Dhamma and not acting on it.

“Just like a blossom,
bright colored
but scentless:
a well-spoken word
is fruitless
when not carried out.

Just like a blossom,
bright colored
& full of scent:
a well-spoken word
is fruitful
when well carried out.”

Verses 54-56 continue with the metaphor of scent, demonstrating that even the pungent scents of flowers like jasmine or sandalwood are carried by the wind, whereas the “scent” of virtue can go against the wind.

And the final verses of this chapter bring back the image of the lotus flower rising out of the mud.

“As in a pile of rubbish
cast by the side of a highway
a lotus might grow
pleasing the heart,
so in the midst of the rubbish-like,
people run-of-the-mill & blind,
there dazzles with discernment
the disciple of the Rightly
Self-Awakened One.”

It doesn’t matter who we are, what circumstances we come from, how deluded we might have been in the past or how deluded we are right now: we all have the potential to turn into that lotus flower, we all have the Buddha nature inside of us. We just have to get out of the way.

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