Monday, October 19, 2009

Yamakavagga: The Pairs

The first chapter in the Dhammapada is “The Pairs.” And the first pair of verses is among my favorites for its simplistic clarity. I find these verses so profound that I have given them a prominent position on my blog: they are the verses just to the right of this column.

The repetition of the origin of phenomena is both instructive (these verses identify kamma as the root of all things) and soothing. And because phenomena arise from the heart, I own everything I think, do or say.

Combined with the repeated description of phenomena are the two choices we face in everything we think, do or say: we can act with skillfulness or unskillfully. I really love the metaphors used to present this message.

With unskillful actions, I create burdens for myself that weigh down my progress, just like the laden cart an ox is towing behind it. The ox is a perfect animal for this as well because in addition to being a beast of burden, the ox is often attributed with stubbornness and stupidity.

However, with skillful actions, happiness is the result, and with happiness there are no burdens; in fact, it is likened to a shadow that is always there, yet never felt.

Really exquisite.

The next pair is something I really struggle with, because at the heart of this group of verses is the notion of resentment and how we cling to it.

I frequently fail to remember that if I am feeling bitter about something someone may have done to me in the past, that bitterness is lingering solely because I continue to think about it. It’s like a photo album of bad and hurtful memories that I continue to pull out and go through with the intention of making myself feel bad. The message is pretty basic: If I don’t like the way thinking about these past hurtful events makes me feel now, then all I need to do is stop thinking about them! I am feeding my own anger! And yet, why do I continue to do it?

“Unlike those who don't realize
that we’re here on the verge
of perishing,
those who do:
their quarrels are stilled.”

With the next pair, a method of practice is introduced that actually saved my ass a few times, and that is the practice of attending to what is foul. Sounds all eew and icky, but in my situation, it was very helpful.

“One who stays focused on the beautiful,
is unrestrained with the senses,
knowing no moderation in food,
apathetic, unenergetic:
Mara overcomes him
as the wind, a weak tree.

One who stays focused on the foul,
is restrained with regard to the senses,
knowing moderation in food,
full of conviction & energy:
Mara does not overcome him
as the wind, a mountain of rock.”

Before I had found Buddhism, I was – for lack of a better term – a bit of a slut. For a while, there wasn’t a boy on the circuit I didn’t want and couldn’t have. But that kind of attitude makes establishing more meaningful long-term relationships rather difficult. It’s hard for a boyfriend to have trust in you when he can see that your eyes are following every bit of candy that strolls by. It also makes it difficult to remain faithful if you are tempted continuously. Ahhh, but attending to what is foul saved me from this peripatetic lustfulness. Whenever I saw a cute guy and I instantly started to sex this man in my mind, I switched over my mental imagery to picturing the cute boy as having just got out of bed, hung over and taking a shit. Not a pretty sight, and soon enough, my infatuation passes.

Verses nine and 10 overtly link skillfulness to the monastic life, suggesting that someone who cannot be truthful and lacks self-control is not worthy of wearing the robes. However, the robes can be interpreted to mean any type of commitment, so lay people ignore the lesson in these verses at their peril.

I remain befuddled by what is meant in verses 11 and 12 regarding “essence” and “non-essence.” However, seems to me the basic premise of these verses is anyone who sees white and calls it black lacks the ability to develop the proper determination to do the right thing because he or she is incapable of proper discernment. Maybe someone else has a better way to explain what is going on in these verses.

The notion of the undeveloped mind is presented again with the metaphor of the poorly thatched hut. Just like the hut with the leaky roof, an undeveloped mind can’t filter out what is unworthy of attention because of the distractions created by “passion,” which really means any strong emotional attachment or reaction to anything.

The impact of one’s kamma and the seriousness of the cause-and-effect relationship between events are sublimely revealed in verses 15-18. But in the final verses, the charlatan is warned.

“If he recites many teachings, but
— heedless man —
Doesn’t do what they say,
like a cowherd counting the cattle of
he has no share in the contemplative life.

If he recites next to nothing
but follows the Dhamma
in line with the Dhamma;
abandoning passion,
aversion, delusion;
his mind well-released,
not clinging
either here or hereafter:
he has his share in the contemplative life.”

Such verses are a shot across my bow, because I can be a “learned” person when it comes to the Dhamma, but if I don’t make these lessons part of my daily life – if I can’t walk the walk – then, as Bob Dylan sang, I’m just releasing an idiot wind every time I talk.

A note: please bear with me as I find “my voice” as I blog about the various chapters in the Dhammapada. This is, after all, an experiment in developing persistence.

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