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.

Constructing the present

“The present moment is not an absolute. It’s something that you’re [unconsciously] fabricating, and the goal of the practice is to learn how to fabricate it in a new [nirvanic] direction…. The present is here to be used, and the teachings are here to teach us how to use it wisely” (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “The Use of the Present,” 2016-11-28).

Unconditioned freedom

“If you’re more carefully attentive to your choices in the present moment, you begin to see that you do have choices. There is some freedom here. And, the more you explore that freedom, by being skillful, the more you discover there’s something else… another kind of freedom, that’s not conditioned. The freedom of choice is something conditioned, but there is an unconditioned freedom. It’s a dimension that can be touched, and it’s right next to that freedom of choice” (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “The Skill of Meditation”, 2016-11-29)


A few Buddhist quotes that seem relevant today

“Good men are constant[ly good]” (Dhammapada, 83, Lal’s translation).

“He is indeed virtuous, wise, and righteous who neither for his own sake nor for the sake of another (does any wrong), who does not crave for sons, wealth, or kingdom, and does not desire success by unjust means” (Dhammapada 84, Acharya Buddharakkhita’s translation).

“Think not lightly of evil, saying, “It will not come to me.” Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the fool, gathering it little by little, fills himself with evil” (Dhammapada 121, Acharya Buddharakkhita’s translation).

“By not holding to fixed views, the pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision, being freed from all sense desires, is not born again into this world” (Karaniya Metta Sutta, Amaravati translation).


The Skill of Meditation

“As we meditate, we’re working on a skill, and the skill is to bring the mind to a state of stillness, with as much alertness and awareness as possible, because this skill lies at the basis of all other skills. If you want to be skillful in how you act, how you speak, how you think… you need to be aware of what you’re doing, and you have to be in the present moment, to watch your intentions, because your intentions shape everything” (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “The Skill of Meditation“, 11/29/2016).


Sick with ignorance and craving

“…since Freud, the most extravagant fancies in the realm of love are considered to be perfectly normal (a person without them is regarded as a case for treatment), in the realm of death (the other great pole of human life) any strange fancies are still classed as ‘morbid’. The Suttas reverse the situation: sensual thoughts are the thoughts of a sick man (sick with ignorance and craving), and the way to health is through thoughts of foulness and the diseases of the body, and of its death and decomposition” (Ñāṇavīra Thera, “Clearing the Path”).


A Theravada view of abortion

Given the current US presidential debate environment (about sexism, abortion, etc.), here is my understanding of a Theravada Buddhist view of abortion, which does not seem to be represented by any candidate running for US president. This description will be skewed towards a Sri Lankan perspective, because I am most familiar with that.

“Monks, the descent of the embryo occurs with the union of three things. … when there is a union of the mother & father, the mother is in her season, and a gandhabba is present, then with this union of three things the descent of the embryo occurs” (MN 38). From Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s introduction to that sutta: “Usually in the Canon, the term gandhabba means a being on the lowest level of the celestial devas — devas who are often represented as obsessed with lust. However, the Commentary notes that gandhabba in this context means a being whose kamma enables it to take birth on that occasion, an interpretation supported by a discussion in MN 93” (ibid).

Therefore, perhaps the only way in which a fetus might not possess a gandhabba, and be just a physical shell/husk, is if the fetus dies for some reason during the course of pregnancy (e.g., from a congenital defect), such that the gandhabba leaves that body naturally and seeks a different body. If the fetus is not already dead, a gandhabba probably is still there, at any stage of pregnancy, and killing the fetal body that is supporting the gandhabba probably is the same as killing any living human (i.e., murder, if the killing is intentional, which might cause the killer to be reborn in some type of hell). This prompts a number of questions:

  • Should women have the right to choose abortion? Should any human have the right to choose to murder another human? If it comes down to a decision between saving the life of the mother or the life of the baby, who has a greater “right to life”? As I understand it, the law in Sri Lanka, which is a Theravada Buddhist-majority country, is that abortion is legal only if a medical doctor believes/certifies that abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother. Otherwise, the baby has a right to life.
  • What if doctors know that the baby will be severely handicapped and/or have a very difficult or painful life? As I understand it, the Buddhist view is that that is the baby’s karma — a natural result of its past intentions and actions. Wherever that mind is born, it must face its karma, so sparing it a life here and now would just send it somewhere else to suffer similarly.
  • Women did not consciously choose to be the child-bearers in our species. Is it fair to ask them to sacrifice themselves? As I understand it, women’s gandhabbas did unconsciously choose to be born as women, though it is questionable how much a gandhabba can know about the body it is choosing.
  • Is that sacrifice a kind of suicide or self-murder? Many parents (including fathers) love their children more than themselves, and would willingly sacrifice themselves to save their children (e.g., undertake risky travel to help their children, would jump in front of a bus or train to push their child to safety, etc.). Is it selfish of a mother not to be willing to sacrifice herself for her child? It seems to be a “damned if you, damned if you don’t” scenario (i.e., having to choose between killing a child or allowing oneself to die). Hell is not eternal in Buddhism, like it is in the Abrahamic religions, but, still, it is probably not somewhere one wants to go. There is a jataka story (a story about the Buddha’s past lives), where the Buddha, in a past life, before he was fully enlightened (so he could not avoid rebirth in hell) but when he was still quite spiritually accomplished, came upon a family of tigers that were starving. He went to the top of a nearby cliff and jumped off, sacrificing himself so that the family of tigers could have something to eat. He supposedly paid for that suicide with a rebirth in some kind of hell, but was willing to do it because of his great love for all living beings, who were not even his own immediate children.