Three interpretations of Dhammapada 1

“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought” (Dhammapada 1, Acharya Buddharakkhita translation).

“Phenomena are preceded by the heart, ruled by the heart, made of the heart” (Dhammapada 1, Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation).

Here are three different ways of interpreting that famous first line of the Dhammapada:

  1. (A possibly animist or creationist interpretation:) There apparently exists an outside world independent of my mind, and the arrangements or configurations of most/all things in that world apparently result from the activities of human and non-human minds. For example, my house exists because many people in the past have thought that humans should live in houses for various reasons (protection from weather, animals, thieves, etc.); thought of ways to construct and sell a house in the climate, society, etc. where I live; and then constructed it. How far out/back you want to abstract this idea to nature or the universe is up to you. The Buddha didn’t offer a view about the origins of the universe.
  2. (A constructivist/phenomenological interpretation popular among Western Theravadists today:) Though there probably exists an outside world independent of our minds, no one can see it directly; we can each see only our own mind. Everything we see is a mind-state, a construction of our body-mind complex – mental output based on sensory input. When you think you’re seeing yourself or a world out there, all you’re really seeing are poorly measured, heavily subjectively biased mental constructs/fabrications of how the self or world might be. The only way to maybe see absolute reality is to remove one’s subjective biases through meditation and simple/ethical living, going deeper and deeper into the mind, until one can see reality clearly.
  3. (A later-Buddhism, possibly Vedanta-influenced interpretation:) The external world is literally made of/by mind, and has no existence except to the degree that our minds create it. In reality, there is only a single, monistic, cosmic Mind (e.g., Buddha-nature), which manifests itself as this dualistic world because it has somehow forgotten its true nature and/or developed dualistic cravings. When people realize/remember that true nature, they can wake up from this delusional dream we’re all living in.
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3 thoughts on “Three interpretations of Dhammapada 1

  1. I stumble over interpretation 2 because it seems like everyone agrees on the delusion so how can it be false if everyone sees what I see? Interpretation 3 is really a stretch.

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    • About interpretation 2, for Theravada, it isn’t necessarily false, but poor-quality, biased, or incomplete. I think the idea of aggregation (Pali: khandha, Sanskrit: skandha) in Buddhism is similar to evolution in science, namely: we all are the result of a long series of physical (and, per Buddhism, mental) aggregation of complexity, interacting with the environment on the Earth, over billions of years. So, there probably is some truth to what we see. But individuals have their own biases, and our species has adapted to live in only one environment, so what we see and think are well-suited to a land-based Earth environment, but probably not to all environments. For example, some animals can see and hear more than we can, but their senses also are sometimes worse than humans’; for example, dogs can hear and smell much better than can humans, but they have rather poor black-and-white vision. People, both individually and collectively, often make the mistake that what they see or think where they live is necessarily true for everyone and everything everywhere. It may not be.

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