Dating to the fifth century B.C.E., the Dhammapada is one of the most influential canonical texts in the Buddhist world. It is such a beloved classic that new translations of it appear regularly and novices, especially in Burma and Sri Lanka, recite the 26 chapters of verse from memory. The 423 stanzas are a distillation of hundreds of discourses that are attributed to the Buddha and appear in other scriptural works. These talks were delivered to all levels of society-to kings and queens as well as to merchants, laborers, mothers, and even criminals. Although the collection is based on the Buddha's teaching, people of other spiritual traditions will find its advice universal, for its aphorisms are conducive to living a harmonious life.
Various scholars suggest different translations of the title. Dhamma (in the ancient Pali language) or Dharma (in Sanskrit) is "the Truth," "the Law," or "the Norm"-what the Buddha discovered and proclaimed about the nature of existence. Pada is "sections," "parts," or "way." Thus, Dhammapada can be rendered as "The Way of Truth" or "Words of the Truth." Its verses serve two basic purposes: to imbue readers or listeners with a particular view of life, its difficulties, and their solution and to impart certain spiritual and ethical values.
As a primer of foundational Buddhism, the Dhammapada emphasizes the centrality of the mind in creating sorrow and happiness, the ephemeral nature of worldly or material pleasures, the role of personal responsibility, and the law of cause and effect (karma). It points to the Buddhist path as one that a wise person follows and a fool ignores. For example, the wise do not associate with low persons and bad friends, but with the best people and admirable friends. The Buddha was radical in redefining nobility not as birth into the highest caste but as specific qualities of character and behavior (such as truthfulness, generosity, and patience), all earned through spiritual purification and self-mastery. Such noble development is not the result of repression, stringent asceticism, coercion by religious authorities, dependence on external forces or powers, or rites and rituals in worship of a deity. Instead, the Buddha highlighted conscious restraint from unwholesome mental, physical, and verbal action and conscious cultivation of a clear, steady, balanced mind and a heart filled with compassion and loving kindness. Through our own efforts, we can achieve peace of mind and inner freedom regardless of outer circumstances.
The verses of the Dhammapada suggest how to attain such peace. For example, Chapter 10 calls for nonviolence. It asks us to stand in someone else's shoes before acting. Knowing that everyone treasures life and trembles when threatened with a beating or death, would we kill or get others to kill for us? Similarly, if we speak harshly to anyone or cause conflict with our words, that verbal abuse will come back to haunt us in the pain of retaliation. The Buddha's message is that respect and sensitivity to others lead to harmony within and without. Even when someone verbally abused him, he always responded courteously and wisely.
The Buddha dispensed advice for how to attain that harmony. For instance, we easily notice and comment on the failings of others, yet remain oblivious to our own (verse 252). It would be better not to find fault with others and see what we do instead (verse 50). He also says that it is wiser to go alone and do no harm than to keep the company of fools who do ill (verses 207 and 330). Chapter 8 suggests that it is preferable to say one beneficial word or verse that upon hearing it brings peace than to utter thousands of useless words or verses. It is also better to act on our words and not merely say things that sound good (verses 51 and 52).
The Buddha promoted self-control for personal benefit and for the welfare of others. He stressed reining in anger and craving because otherwise there is no end to either unwholesome force. Unchecked anger can lead to intense hatred that results in violence. In Chapter 17 the Buddha exhorts the reader to abandon, conquer, and guard against anger to keep away suffering and misery. Frequently quoted, verse 5 contends that we will never banish hatred with hatred; only with goodwill and patience will we overcome hostility. As in the case of anger, unchecked craving can lead to addiction that makes destruction possible. Chapter 24 describes a person whose craving is like a creeping vine that smothers the very support that holds it up. His sorrows spring up like wild grass after it rains. He runs around like a rabbit caught in a trap. He is like a spider that falls into its own web. The Buddha used such simple similes so that everyone, of whatever educational level, could understand. As an itinerant teacher for 45 years, he addressed all ages, from children to the elderly.
Although it is an introduction to the Buddhist perspective, the Dhammapada is not an abstract intellectual treatise but a practical guide to living well, to behaving ethically. The Buddha uttered these sayings to inspire those who heard him speak. Twenty-five hundred years later, millions of people are still reflecting on them and putting them into practice. Anyone can read them, but those who are unfamiliar with Buddhism would do well to select a translation with explanatory notes written by someone who does not interpret the Buddha's teaching through the lens of another religion.