The Dhammapada, verses thirteen & fourteen: “Lust pierces the hearts of the undeveloped but not those of the developed”

The Pāḷi word of the day is rāga, meaning lust or greed.

13. Yathā’gāraṃ ducchannaṃ —

vuṭṭhi samativijjhati

Evaṃ abhāvitaṃ cittaṃ —

rāgo samativijjhati.

“Even as rain penetrates an ill-thatched house, so does lust penetrate an undeveloped mind.”

14. Yathā’gāraṃ succhannaṃ —

vuṭṭhi na samativijjhati

Evaṃ subhāvitaṃ cittaṃ —

rāgo na samativijjhati.

“Even as rain does not penetrate a well-thatched house, so does lust not penetrate a well-developed mind.”

The background story for these verses happens to be one of my favorites. Normally, the Buddha is depicted as a stoic sage, a skillful teacher, a masterful debater — but here, we discover Gotama the trickster, a man with a mischievous side and a very human sense of humor. The narrative itself also ends on an amusing and somewhat ironic note the likes of which I haven’t found elsewhere in the Canon. We’ll get to that later, though; for now, we’ll take a look at the meanings of these verses.

Here the Buddha uses an interesting and very appropriate simile for two very different states. The mind that’s underdeveloped is obsessed with sensual pleasure, and is like a house with holes in the roof that leave the person inside exposed to the elements. The well-developed mind, on the other hand, isn’t disturbed by the push-and-pull of sense desire. The commentarial narrative makes it clear that the meaning of the word translated here as “lust” corresponds in this case with modern usage, referring specifically to the desire for sexual gratification. However, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to extend this to the desire for other pleasant stimuli — the sight of something beautiful, the sound of lovely music, the taste of delicious food, or the feeling of a warm bath.

It’s not so much that these things are bad; they’re part of life, and the Buddha, for all His marvelous qualities, was a human being who lived in the world. He’s quoted in the scriptures as acknowledging beautiful and pleasant places, pleasant sounds, the quality of food, and other things. The problem with sensual pleasure is that it becomes the object of an endless pursuit, a game we can’t really win because real gratification always slips through one’s fingers like sand. The verses are encouraging us to cultivate, through the practice of meditation, a certain immunity — not to the REALITY of pleasant things, but to the negative effects that our thirst for those things has on our minds and hearts. By uttering them, the Buddha is urging us to seek out something better.

Okay, enough pontificating. Time to get to the good stuff.

The Buddha had a big family, and was up to His neck in cousins. One of them was named Nanda, and around the time that the verses above were uttered, Nanda was about to become a very happy man. He was engaged to be married, to a girl named Janapada-Kalyāṇi, who was renowned for her beauty. Fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it – life had other plans: on Nanda’s wedding day, the Buddha, who was staying nearby, happened to drop in for a meal and a visit.

After the meal was over, the Blessed One did something very strange: He rose from His seat, took his bowl, and dropped it right into Nanda’s hands. Then He turned on His heel and waltzed right on out the door. Unbeknownst to him, His cousin was about to go on a wild ride.

When Janapada-Kalyāṇi heard that her groom had followed the Buddha out the door, she panicked. She knew what that meant: when the Tathāgata left a house with a husband in tow, they usually didn’t come back. Wives & girlfriends? SOL. She ran out and chased after them, demanding that Nanda return immediately; unfortunately for her, he didn’t have it in him to turn his back on someone he respected so much. What’s the worst that could happen anyway? The Buddha had to realize that He’d forgotten his bowl sometime, take it back, and Nanda would be on his merry way. Or so he thought.

He was confused and probably more than a little irritated by Siddhattha’s behavior, but he didn’t dare demand that the Blessed One take His bowl back; he had too much reverence for his cousin’s wisdom and power. He had no choice but to follow silently behind and hope that, at some point, the Buddha would turn and take His bowl back. No such luck. The Teacher had something else in store for his hapless relative, and led him straight to the monastery gate. There He turned around, looked Nanda dead in the eye, and said, “Nanda, would you like to become a monk?” I like to imagine that a little smile played on the Buddha’s lips as He asked that faithful question.

Apparently there was one rule in ancient India: never say no to an all-knowing superbeing. Nanda suddenly found himself in the hot seat, and not knowing what else to say, he answered, “Yes.” He was ordained immediately, and poor Janapada-Kalyaṇi was left at the altar. Gotama the Budda, the Fully-Enlightened One, the Thus-Gone, the Ultimate Homewrecker.

At this point, Buddhaghosa interrupts Nanda’s adventure briefly to describe a separate incident. I’m including an account of it because I think it can add to our discussion of the themes in the main story, and maybe answers a few questions raised by the Buddha’s behavior.

A few days after Nanda’s ordination, the Buddha’s former wife Yasodharā called their son Rāhula to her, saying, “Dear son, go look upon this monk possessed of a retinue of twenty thousand monks, possessed of a body of the hue of gold, possessed of the beauty of form of Mahā Brahmā. This monk is your father. To him once belonged great stores of treasure. From the time of his Great Retirement we have not seen him. Ask him for this your inheritance, saying, ‘Dear father, I am a royal prince, and so soon as I shall receive the ceremonial sprinkling, I shall become a  Universal Monarch. I have need of wealth; bestow wealth upon me; for to a son belongs the wealth which formerly belonged to his father.”

Rāhula went off, found his father in the middle of His morning meal, and greeted Him affectionately. When He had finished eating, the Blessed One got up and started walking back to the monastery. Rāhula followed close behind, repeating his one request over and over: “Monk, give me my inheritance.” The Lord’s attendants did their best to shoo him away, but the Buddha made no such attempt. By the time they had reached the monastery, He had a plan: Even if He still had the treasure that Rāhula was looking for, He knew full well that giving it to him would never make him happy. On the contrary, He foresaw that the stresses and complications of vast wealth and of royal power would ruin the young man some day. The Lord decided that he would give Rāhula his inheritance — but not the kind of inheritance that he was expecting. “Well then, Sāriputta,” He said to His Chief Disciple, “make a monk of Prince Rāhula.”

The commentary doesn’t record Yasodharā’s reaction to the news that her son had become a monk — perhaps she knew that this would happen all along — but the Buddha’s father, King Suddhodana, was devastated. He had already lost his only son to the call of the religious life; to lose his little grandson in the same way was almost unbearable. He went to the Blessed One and made a request: that from then on no child would be made a monk or nun without his or her parents’ permission. The Buddha agreed. That wasn’t the extent of the Lord’s efforts to console His father, however; on a later occasion, while He was visiting the royal palace, He told Suddhodana a story about how he had demonstrated great faith in a formerlife. When He was finished, His father had attained the third stage of Awakening; Suddhodana’s need to weep & wail had disappeared, and he was on his way to full enlightenment.

After Rāhula’s ordination, the Buddha took his monks to Anāthapin.d.ikA’s newly constructed monastery at Jetavana. On one occasion during their stay there, the Ven. Nanda was talking to some of his friends. He told the other monks that he was tired of the monastic life, and intended to dusrobe and go back to the life of a layman. The monks, of course, immediately went to their Teacher and spilled the beans.

The Buddha’s response was typical: He told them to bring Nanda to Him. He would take care of the rest.

After asking his cousin a few questions, the Buddha took him by the arm, and used His supernormal power to head up to the realm of Sakka (the Vedic god Indra,) king of the devas. On the way, He shows Nanda a greedy monkey who had lost her ears, nose, and tail in a fire. Believe me, I know how bizarre this stuff sounds. It all ties together, I promise.

When they arrived in Sakka’s Heaven of the Thirty-Three, the Buddha pointed out the five-hundred pink-footed celestial nymphs who wait on their king day & night. He asks Nanda, “Nanda, which do you regard as being the more beautiful and fair to look upon and handsome, your noble wife Janapada-Kalyāṇi or these five hundred pink-footed celestial nymphs?” Nanda didn’t miss a beat, saying that the nymphs are just as superior to his wife as she is to the burned monkey that the Blessed One had shown him on the way; indeed, they are “infinitely more beautiful and fair to look upon and handsome.”

The Buddha told His cousin to take heart; if he were to continue to live the life of a monk, the Blessed One  he would be assured to receive these same nymphs as a reward. The Ven. Nanda eagerly agreed, and they descended back to Earth.

As soon as they returned, the news spread throughout the Sangha like wildfire: Their friend Nanda was just in it for the nymphs. It wasn’t long before the lusttful monk became the butt of everyone’s jokes; he was nothing but 
“a hireling,” “one bought with a price.” Nanda didn’t mind though; he was the one with five-hundred gorgeous nymphs coming his way. Itching to start living it up, he withdrew from the others to meditate his ass off in private.

Ironically, the immense effort that Nanda put forth for the sake of those five-hundred nymphs brought him to the point where any interest he had had in the opposite sex totally disappeared. The Buddha had successfully duped him into becoming enlightened.

That night, a celestial being approached the Blessed One to report that the Ven. nanda had finally become a true mink, an awakened being. The Buddha then encompasses His cousin’s mind with His own, and sees that he scheme had paid off. The Ven. Nanda likewise approached the Teacher and told Him that He was released from His promise. The Buddha replied that, as soon as the Ven. Nanda had become enlightened, their contract was rendered null & void.

When his brother-monks approach the Ven. Nanda and asked him if he was still dissatisfied with the monastic life, he replied that he was “in no wise inclined to the life of a layman.” Convinced that he must be lying, the monks went to the Blessed One & told Him. The Buddha corrected them right away, comparing His cousin’s old personality to an ill-thatched house. Now, he said, Nanda’s mind was like a well-thatched house, utterly sealed off from the rains of sensual desire. Finally, his heart was secure within, no longer subject to the tyranny of the elements.

Now we can discuss something that I struggled with for a long time: how should we feel about these stories where the Buddha basically breaks up families? How should we look at the man, Himself, who taught the cultivation of compassion & selflessness, but abandoned His own wife & infant son? It’s almost like the Buddhist elephant in the room: no one likes to talk about the ethical implications of this stuff.

A lot of non-Buddhists find these things to be totally unacceptable, and I’ll admit that there are days where I feel the same. This story, though, has brought me some peace of mind; I’ll try to explain how I’ve come to look at the issue in the following paragraphs.

We should start by considering the cultural context of the practice of renunciation at that time. As strange as it may seem from the perspective Western, Protestant culture, it seems to me leaving behind one’s home, family, and friends was a fairly common occurrence in the Buddha’s time. It wasn’t expected, or even preferred, but renunciates as a whole appear to have received a lot of respect and support from those who chose to lead more mundane lives.

Secondly, although it may appear extremely selfish to modern people, the Buddha saw the quest for enlightenment as incredibly important, even urgent. Celestial rebirths were thought to delight and intoxicate the senses so that heavenly beings failed to see how unsatisfactory sensual indulgence was. Life on lower planes, on the other hand, was too hard. A birth in the human sphere was ideal, but the exact conditions required arose extremely rarely. So it was of tantamount importance that any human being take full advantage of the rare opportunity they had been given; otherwise, who knew when they might get a second chance?

It’s also useful to consider these people’s motivations for leaving home in the first place, and what they did once they achieved their goal. I’ve come across several instances already of renunciate parents, children, and spouses returning to give those they had left behind, helping them along their own paths to ultimate security and everlasting peace. The story of Rāhula and his father is one such example; a canonical collection of poetry traditionally ascribed to enlightened monks includes verses by Rāhula himself. He had been hoping for material riches, but instead of filling Rāhula’s coffers with gold, silver, and precious gems, the Buddha filled His only son’s heart with deep wisdom, true peace, and transcendent happiness — with treasures that last forever.

Of course, the most important example is the Buddha Himself. When He was still an unenlightened bodhisatta, He chose to leave the people He held most dear behind in order to discover a deeper, more lasting happiness, but it wasn’t a happiness that He kept for Himself. On the contrary, as the above story shows, He returned to share that happiness with His friends and family; as it just so happens, both His wife and His mother are said to have ordained as nuns, practiced hard, and reached enlightenment themselves. From a Buddhist perspective, the Buddha gave up his own temporal joys in order to open the doors of the Deathless to all beings. Isn’t that something worth sacrificing for?

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The Dhammapada, verses eleven & twelve: “Right perception leads to the realization of truth”

The Pāḷi word of the day is sammādiṭṭhi, meaning “right view.” It’s the first factor of the Eightfold Path, and refers to understanding things as they really are.

11. Asāre sāramatino — sāre casāradassino

Te sāraṃ nadhigacchanti —

micchāsaṇkappagocarā

“In the unessential they imagine the essential, in the essential they see the unessential, — they who entertain (such) wrong thoughts never realize the essence.”

12. Sārañ ca sārato ñatvā —

asārañ ca asārato

Te sāraṃ adhigacchati —

sammā saṇkappagocarā

“What is essential they regard as essential, what is unessential they regard as unessential,– they who entertain (such) right thoughts realize the essence.”

It actually took reading the  background story for me to really understand these verses. When I first read them, the meaning of the term “essential” was, in this context, unclear to me; apparently, in this case “essential” refers to “what is true,” or maybe “the Truth.” In any case, I guess the verses are essentially correct: if you don’t see things clearly, it’s not possible to arrive at a correct understanding of reality. The commentary uses a story about the Buddha’s two chief disciples to illustrate the point:

Before the Bodhisatta attained enlightenment, two women whose families were fast friends bore sons, and named them after the villages in which they were born. One was called Upatissa, the other Kolita. As they  grew, they became inseparable; when one went to the bank of a river or a delightful garden to amuse himself along with his retinue of servants, the other inevitably came with his. In this way they passed the years in pleasure and at ease, until one day they decided to go to a popular local celebration called the Mountaintop Festival. For several days they watched the performances being put on there, enjoying themselves immensely: when something funny happened, they laughed heartily; when something sad happened, they wept with equal gusto. After a while though, something changed.

Suddenly it occurred to the two young men that all this frivolity was ultimately meaningless. What was the point in shallow amusements while the big questions were left unanswered? It was then that they decided to leave their worldly lives behind and become ascetics under some respected teacher. They chose to follow a guru named Sañjaya, who had recently come to the city with his students. They learned so quickly and so well that their reputations spread, and brought their master great renown as a spiritual leader.

Unfortunately, their talent had a downside: we’re told that, after only a few days, they had mastered everything that Sañjaya had to teach them. When they went to ask him whether or not he had anything else to offer, he said no. Convinced that they wouldn’t reach enlightenment under his guidance, the two friends decided to leave and seek out someone else to show them the way. They wandered all over India, talking to every teacher they could find, but to no avail. Eventually they returned to their homes, and before setting out again they made a pact: whichever one of them found the way to Awakening first would come back to inform the other.

A short time after the friends had separated, the Buddha came to Rājagaha to spend the rainy season at Veḷuvana Monastery. From there, he sent his enlightened disciples to spread the Dhamma throughout India. However, the arahant Assaji decided to stay near the city. One morning, while Assaji was on alms round, Upatissa happened to pass by him. When he saw the elder, Upatissa was captivated by his serene appearance. Convinced that this must be an awakened being, he decided to follow Assaji until his alms round was complete; then, he would take advantage of the opportunity to ask who his teacher was, and what it was that he practiced. Once Assaji was finished collecting alms, he stopped to eat. Upatissa offered him a stool to sit on, as well as water to drink. When the meal was over, he asked his questions. “Calm and serene, brother, are your organs of sense; clean and clear is the hue of your skin. For whose sake, brother, did you retire from the world? And who is your teacher? And whose doctrine do you profess?”

Seeing an opportunity to reveal the depth of the Buddha’s teaching to someone from a rival sect, Assaji decided to answer. He chose to do so, however, in an unusual way. He claimed that he was just a novice, and wouldn’t be able to explain the Lord’s teaching in-depth. When Upatissa insisted that a long lecture was unnecessary, he gave as simple an answer as he could: “Of all things that proceed from a cause, of these the cause the Tathāgata hath told.” This was all that Upatissa needed; with these simple words, he knew that the Buddha was the teacher he and his friend had been looking for. The elder then finished his teaching as simply as it had begun, saying, “And also how these cease to be, this too the mighty monk hath told.” Having heard this powerful utterance, Upatissa asked where the Blessed One resided. He told Assaji to go on ahead; he had a promise to keep. Afterwards, he and his friend would to meet the Teacher.

When Upatissa approached his friend, Kolita could tell right away that he had discovered something wonderful. Upatissa told him that he had found the way to enlightenment, and recited the very stanza that he had heard from the Elder Assaji. Like his friend before him, Kolita was immediately convinced of the efficacy of the Buddha’s teaching, and suggested that they go to meet Him at once. Upatissa, however, had another idea: they would pay a visit to their old teacher Sañjaya first, share their discovery with him, and bring him with them to see the Buddha. Kolita agreed, and they set out.

When he saw them, their old teacher asked, “Friends, did you succeed in finding anyone able to show you the Way to the Deathless?” “Yes, teacher, such a one have we found. The Buddha has appeared in the world, the [Dhamma] has appeared, the [Sangha] has appeared. You, sir, are living in vain unreality.” They then invited him to come with them to see the Blessed One in person. “You may go; I cannot go. ” he replied. “For what reason?” “In the past I have gone about as a teacher of the multitude. For me to become a pupil again would be as absurd as for a chatty to go to the well. I shall not be able to live the life of a pupil.” They did their best to persuade Sañjaya to change his mind, but he was firm in his resolution to stay. “Friends, which are more numerous in this world, the stupid or the wise?” “Teacher, the stupid are many, the wise are few.” “Well then, friends, let the wise men go to the wise monk Gotama, and let the stupid come to stupid me. You may go, but I shall not go.” The commentary goes on to relate two odd, supernatural occurrences, but I don’t think these details are particularly relevant to our discussion; rather, it’s the first half of the commentary that provides the most food for thought.

The narrative of Sāriputta’s and Moggallāna’s spiritual journey and eventual ordination are incidental, really. What interests me most is what the story has to say about Sañjaya. His refusal to become a student again certainly stems from arrogance on his part, but he’s not unique in this respect. Who hasn’t acted like Sañjaya at one point or other? It’s easy to close ourselves off to new information and experiences out of pride, even if they present a valuable opportunity to learn and grow. Of course, most of us don’t ever pass up something as huge as a chance to become enlightened, but Sañjaya can still act as a mirror of our own behavior and tendencies. His statement about his own stupidity, on the other hand, can be interpreted in one of two ways: it can be seen as an admission of something he knows that he lacks, namely wisdom; or his questions and answers, beginning with”Friends, did you succeed in finding anyone able to show you the Way to the Deathless?” can be read sarcastically. I think that either interpretation has something to offer. The first reinforces the image of a stubborn and overly-proud person who nonetheless knows he’s making the wrong choice; the second, that of someone who is truly ignorant, deluded, and disrespectful.

Of course, a sarcastic and defensive response on the part of Sañjaya may not be totally unwarranted; after all, even though the Chief Disciples came to him out of compassion and gratitude, their assertion that he is  “…living in vain unreality” comes across as awkward, blunt, and insensitive. For all his stubborness, who would ever respond positively to an accusation like that? Sāriputta and Moggallāna hadn’t attained perfect enlightenment yet, so maybe they simply lacked the wisdom to guide their former teacher in a gentler, more skillful way. I’d prefer to think that their imperfection was the real issue here; their intentions were good, but their way of expressing their concern was not. In fact, most of us can sympathize with that, too. I’d need a whole Hell of a lot of hands to count the number of times that I’ve tried to steer someone away from making a bad decision or placing themselves in a difficult situation, only to put them on the defensive by getting preachy.

So there we have two important things to keep in mind here: the danger of pride, arrogance, and stubborness, and the importance of gentle and skillful speech, for your own sake as well as that of others’. The commentarial narrative isn’t just a practical teaching, though; it includes a miracle story, an unpleasant supernatural death, and something like nine past-life stories. Even as a Buddhist, I can never be sure if these details are true or not; but what a marvelously powerful teacher the core story is.

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The Dhammapada, verses nine & ten: The pure are worthy of the yellow robe but not the impure

The Pāḷi word of the day is bodhisatta, the term for a being on their way to becoming a fully-enlightened Buddha. Here, it refers specifically to the one who would eventually be born as Siddhattha Gotama, or Gotama Buddha.

9. Annikasāvo kāsāvaṃ

yo vatthaṃ paridahessati

Apeno damasaccena —

Na so kāsāvam arahati.

“Whoever, unstainless, without self-control and truthfulness, should don the yellow robe, is not worthy of it.”

10. Yo ca vantakasāv’assa —

sīlesu susamāhito

Upeto damasaccena —

sa ve kāsāvam arahati.

“He who is purged of all stain, is well-established in morals and endowed with self-control and truthfulness, is indeed worthy of the yellow robe.”

The immediate significance of these verses is important. People tend to respect authority figures, especially the religious kind. This is partly because of the immense reverence that people have for the values that these figures represent, which I think is very wholesome. However, it’s also due to the influence of tradition; we’re told to pay homage to these people, and we do. It’s important, however, to remember that the clothes do not make the man (or woman.) This goes for any person in a position of power, be they a Catholic priest, a rabbi, a police officer…the list goes on. The countless cases of abuse at the hands of people from all of these professions is ample evidence that it’s the character of a person, rather than their rank or title, that makes them worthy of respect.

Due to things like the child abuse scandal within the Catholic Church, Watergate, and the numerous police shootings of unarmed citizens, people nowadays people seem to assume that corruption comes with the job. However, many would be surprised to learn that Buddhism — the religion of “the fat, happy guy” — is just as guilty of crimes against humanity. As I’m writing this, men in Burma wearing monks’ robes are stirring up hate against ethnic Muslims. These people aren’t real bhikkhus, no matter what kinds of clothes they wear. This doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with Buddhism — just as the Church’s role in the abuse of children doesn’t mean that there’s anything inherently wrong with Christianity — but unfortunately, it does mean that somewhere, somehow, Buddhism isn’t doing its job.

We can take some solace in knowing that this is not a modern problem; even with the Buddha there to guide them, there were monks giving His dispensation and community a bad name. His own cousin, Devadatta, is perhaps the most prominent example of this in Buddhist legend; he would eventually attempt to divide the sangha and take power for himself, even resorting to an attempt on the Blessed One’s life. He was extremely corrupt, and the commentarial story behind the above verses gives just one example of how the admiration of the laity caused him to receive something that he didn’t deserve:

On one occasion, the Buddha’s two chief disciples, the Elders Sariputta and Mahā Moggallāna, went on alms round in the city of Rājagaha. Out of gratitude for the alms that they received, Sariputta gave a talk on the benefits of giving, and on the ideal giver: one who gives, and encourages others to give too. Afterwards, a lay disciple invited Sariputta to take the next day’s meal in his own home. When he was told that the venerable monk had a retinue of a thousand bhikkhus, the layman was unfazed; he merely saw it as an opportunity to make even more merit. In fact, he gladly invited all of them to come along!

The Ven. Sariputta accepted the invitation, and the layman went through the streets of Rājagaha, calling the citizens to work together so that they could provide the monks with enough food. The whole city eagerly set to work, with each person offering dishes according to their means; there was no need to worry about who gave more or who gave less. Since the meal was a single offering, the merit accumulated as a result would be shared equally among rich and poor alike.

Concerned that their combined resources would prove insufficient, one particularly wealthy layman offered the head of the project an extravagant robe worth a hundred thousand panas, which the community could sell if they ran out of money for food. When all was said and done, however, they found that nothing was lacking, so the leader suggested that they offer the robe to some worthy monk. Sariputta was renowned as an excellent bhikkhu, but he was very focused on his practice and on fulfilling his monastic duties. Devadatta, on the other hand, was accustomed to socializing often with the laypeople, no doubt intending to endear himself to them and receive more respect and better offerings as a result. Accordingly, it was Devadatta who was chosen as the recipient by a very slim majority.

However, once he had tailored the robe and begun wearing it  — probably without much humility — a funny thing happened: the laypeople found that it actually didn’t look that good on him. There was something strange about seeing a person like him dressed in such excellent clothing. “This robe does not become Devadatta, but does become the Elder Sariputta,” they said. “Devadatta is going about wearing under- and upper- garments which do not become him.”

When a certain monk came to Sāvatthi to see the Buddha and pay his respects, the Lord asked him about the well-being of His two chief disciples. After hearing the whole story of Devadatta and the opulent robe, the Blessed One said, “Monks, this is not the first time Devadatta has worn robes unbecoming to him.” Then He told a story about how the unscrupulous bhikkhu had done the same thing in a previous birth.

Now, I know that this post is already really long, but the story told above is really just a frame narrative for the tale of Devadatta’s previous life. The tale itself gives us even more to consider in regards to status, power, and the relationship between monastics and laypeople, so I’m going to tell it whether you all like it or not. Get ready.

Long before the time of the Buddha, the being who was to become Devadatta was born as a greedy elephant hunter, and he made his living selling ivory, flesh, organs…if it used to be part of an elephant and someone was willing to buy it, he sold it. In a nearby forest, there lived a herd led by the Bodhisatta, who had been born as a bull elephant. You can see where this is going.

It just so happened that a group of paccekkabuddhas, individuals who had become enlightened on their own, lived in that very same forest. Every time that the herd passed by, each elephant would stop and pay obeisance to them before moving on. The hunter saw an opportunity; he figured out that the elephants identified the paccekabuddhas by their robes. He reasoned that, if he could get his hands on a set of his own, he would be able to disguise himself and thin the herd at his leisure. So, one afternoon he crept up to the edge of a pool where one of the paccekabuddhas was bathing, grabbed their robes, and took off. His plan was in motion.

For the next few days, the hunter stationed himself near the herd’s customary path, with the yellow robe over his head to hide his face (I guess some of the elephants would have recognized him on sight otherwise.) Each day the elephants would kneel down before him in turn, and each day he would kill the last in line with his spear when the rest had gone their way. This went on for some time until the Bodhisatta noticed just how many of His family and friends had mysteriously disappeared. “Where do these elephants go that this herd has become so small?” He asked those remaining. “That we do not know, master.” He began to suspect that the mysterious ascetic whom they passed by each day was up to something, so He formed a plan of His own.

The next day the herd was traveling along its customary route, but this time the Bodhisatta trailed behind the rest. When they came up to the elephant hunter and paid him homage, He was prepared. The hunter thrust out his spear, the Bodhisatta evaded it, and moved in to attack. The hunter scurried away and took shelter behind a big tree; hoping that his stolen yellow robe might save him, he removed it and held it out for the Bodhisatta to see. The Lord couldn’t bring himself to stoop so low as to attack someone clad in saffron robes, no matter who they were, and instead admonished the hunter with the pair of verses quoted above. When He had concluded the story, the Buddha repeated those verses to the monks, saying again, “Monks, this is not the first time Devadatta has worn a robe which was unbecoming to him; he did the same thing in a previous state of existence also.”

It’s the duty of priests, monks, and other religious leaders to tend to the needs of their communities with open hearts; for that, we should be grateful. Unfortunately, there are plenty of wolves in sheep’s clothing, men and women who take on the appearance of holiness for the sake of personal gain. As Buddhists, it’s easy for us to believe our own hype: that our religion’s history is free of violence, corruption, and ignorance. We’re encouraged to think that we’re somehow above that, somehow smarter than other people of faith. Unfortunately, that image of Buddhism isn’t borne out by the facts, and we have to be just as cautious as everyone else. Even if your robes are yellow, it isn’t worth a damn if your heart is black.

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The Dhammapada, verses six & seven: The weak succumb to temptation but not the strong

The Pāḷi word of the day is māra, which I’ve seen translated as “evil,” although it can also refer to a powerful being named Māra, who is portrayed in the texts as the god of temptation.

7. Subhānupassiṃ viharantaṃ —

indriyesu asaṃvutaṃ

Bhojanamhi amattaññuṃ —

kusītaṃ hīnavīriyaṃ

Taṃ ve pasahati māro —

vāto rukkhaṃ’va dubbalaṃ

“Whoever lives contemplating pleasant things, with senses unrestrained, in food immoderate, indolent, inactive, him verily Māra overthrows, as the wind (overthrows) a weak tree.

8. Asubhānupassiṃ viharantaṃ —

indriyesu susaṃvutaṃ

Bhojanamhi ca mattaññuṃ —

saddhaṃ āraddhavīriyaṃ

Taṃ ve nappasahati māro —

vāto selaṃ’va pabbataṃ

“Whoever lives contemplating “the Impurities,” with senses restrained, in food moderate, full of faith, full of sustained energy, him Māra overthrows not, as the wind (does not overthrow) a rocky mountain.”

Okay, let’s be honest: these verses don’t exactly seem life-affirming. You’ll be overcome by evil unless you spend all your time contemplating impurities? No thank you. We all tend to try to look on the bright side, to appreciate the beauty that life has to offer. These verses, on the other hand, have a decidedly monastic bent, a certain ascetic flavor. So how can we, as lay people, apply these teachings to our everyday lives? Maybe the story provided in the commentary can help us figure it out.

In the time of the Buddha there lived two brothers, Mahā Kāḷa, or Kāḷa the Elder, and Culla Kāḷa, or Kāḷa the Younger. They, along with their middle brother, were merchants in the city of Setvaya, where they ran a very lucrative business trading in various goods.

During one of their trips, Mahā Kāḷa and Culla Kāḷa happened to stop their carts between Sāvatthi and Jetavana, near where the Buddha was staying with his bhikkhus. There Mahā Kāḷa saw a number of lay devotees passing by on their way to hear the Blessed One teach. Curious, he approached and asked them where they were headed; when he found out that they were going to hear the Dhamma from the Buddha’s own lips, he decided to follow them and hear what He had to say.

When they arrived, Mahā Kāḷa took a seat near the back. The Blessed One saw him there, and with His powers of insight was able to tell what the newcomer’s level of spiritual development was. With this in mind, He tailored His sermon accordingly, and sparked in Mahā Kāḷa a desire to go forth as a monk. However, when he asked the Blessed One for ordination, he was told that he would have to get permission from a family member first. So, Mahā Kāḷa went to his little brother and announced his intention to leave worldly life behind.

“Dear brother, receive all this wealth,” he said.

“But you, brother?” asked Culla Kāḷa.

“I intend to retire from the world under the Teacher.”

After many fruitless protestations, Culla Kāḷa finally gave his elder brother permission to go forth. However, he had plan: he would follow Mahā Kāḷa into monastic life, stay for a time, and finally convince his brother to return to lay life with him. And so both siblings ordained as monks under the Buddha.

Mahā Kāḷa was serious about being a monk, and opted for a life of meditation over a life of scriptural and doctrinal study. He requested that the Buddha instruct him in a rather morbid practice still observed by bhikkhus to this day: that of living in a charnel ground, where one can observe the decay of human bodies.

This might seem distasteful to modern sensibilities, but in the time of the Buddha such practices were common methods of weakening attachment to the body and helping to curb lust. It’s also worth noting that the Buddha didn’t recommend this method to all of his followers; those predisposed to depression, who would simply be weighed down by the constant contemplation of death, were given other meditation objects such as loving-kindness. So no, the Buddha didn’t require everyone to stare at corpses all day.

Anyway, once Mahā Kāḷa found a suitable spot and had spent a few nights there, the woman who looked after the charnel ground approached him and asked if he was aware of the duties that someone living in a such a place was expected to perform. Mahā Kāḷa replied that he did not. However, instead of sending away this woman of unclean occupation — close to the lowest of the low in ancient Indian culture — he asked a simple and wonderful question: “What ought I to do, lay sister?”

The woman duly informed him of his responsibilities, and promised to find him a suitable body to contemplate. Shortly afterwards, a family brought the body of a beautiful young woman who had died suddenly of a mysterious illness. Thinking this a perfect specimen, the woman informed Mahā Kāḷa, built a pyre, and kindled the fire. As the monk watched the girl’s beautiful form wither in the flames, he thought to himself, “Impermanent are all existing things. It is their nature to come into existence and to decay. They come into existence and perish. It is well when they have ceased to be.” It was at that moment that Mahā Kāḷa attained enlightenment.

Later, the Buddha and his sangha travelled to a forest near the brothers’ hometown. Culla Kāḷa’s wives heard that they had arrived, and seeing an opportunity to get their husband back, they sent an invitation to the Buddha to come have a meal at their house along with his retinue of monks. The Buddha accepted the invitation, and Culla Kāḷa was sent to supervise the arrangement of the seats. When he got there, his wives surrounded him, stripped him, dressed him in the white clothes of a laymen, and sent him back to fetch his former companions. The Blessed One followed him with monks in tow, apparently without comment. I like to think that when He saw Culla Kāḷa coming, He just sighed and said, “Kids these days…”

The next day, Mahā Kāḷa’s wives were the ones to invite the Blessed One and His followers to a meal, thinking to do as Culla Kāḷa’s wives had done. When the meal was finished, the wives said to the Buddha, “Reverend Sir, Mahā Kāḷa will pronounce the formula of thanksgiving and then return; you go on ahead.” The Buddha accordingly rounded up His bhikkhus and left. The monks, gossipy as ever, started in almost immediately. Was their teacher crazy? They had already lost one monk to wily wives. Why would He risk the loss of another? The Buddha heard what they were saying, and explained to them that the two brothers were not alike; unlike his restless and hyperactive sibling, Mahā Kāḷa’s mind was unshakable.

Meanwhile, Mahā Kāḷa’s wives were ready to pounce. Unfortunately for them, the arahant knew exactly what they were planning. Rather than allow himself to be caught, he used supernatural power to shoot up into the air, blowing a hole through the roof and flying to where the other monks were standing. As the Buddha was concluding His explanation, the elder monk descending, bowed down, and paid his respects to the Fully Enlightened One.

So, never try to strip an enlightened person naked, unless you feel like putting your carpentry skills to work.

In my mind, this story provides the verses with much-needed context, as well as a number of things for us to chew on:

Although He isn’t the main character, the commentary reveals two important aspects of the Buddha: His skill as a teacher, and His compassion. He was so sensitive and perceptive that He was able to assess someone’s disposition and character immediately, and out of compassion, He delivered a sermon designed to liberate that one person — or rather, to help that person liberate themselves. Also, when He discovered that Culla Kāḷa had disrobed, He didn’t punish him or attempt to shame him, nor was there any shunning on the part of the monastic community. The Lord chose instead to accept Culla Kāḷa exactly as he was, without uttering even one disparaging word. Perhaps He knew on meeting this young man that he wasn’t cut out to be a monk, but nonetheless gave him his ordination, and with it a chance to open his eyes and reap the benefits of the holy life.

Since this is a story about monks for monks, it took me a while to figure out how I could spin it so that it could apply to my own life. Then it hit me: New Year’s resolutions. It’s so stupid that it’s almost laughable, but it got me thinking. What is the key to giving up a bad habit, an addiction, or any detrimental behavior? Focusing on what’s pleasant or gratifying about it only weakens your resolve, allowing temptation to overcome you at any given moment. The trick is seeing for yourself, by direct experience, the negative impact that said behavior has on your life, how it causes you to suffer. Mahā Kāḷa had to overcome an unhealthy attachment to worldly wealth and bodily health by seeing for himself how all people, even the young and the beautiful, eventually pass away and decay. Hopefully we don’t require such extreme measures to free ourselves from the bonds of attachment, but the principle remains the same.

The truth is, our time in this particular body is limited. We can’t afford to be the man who finally quits smoking when he has a cancer scare, or the woman who decides to get sober for good only after killing someone with her car. We need to follow verse eight’s advice: contemplate “the Impurities,” i.e. the drawbacks of our own destructive behavior, gain the resolve to change, and follow through. Otherwise, we’re all just weak trees in the wind.

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The Dhammapada, verse six: Quarrels cease through right thinking

The Pāļi word of the day is vinaya, which means “discipline.” In a Theravadin context, it most often refers specifically to monastic discipline. One name for the Buddha’s teachings is dhamma-vinaya, in which case dhamma means “doctrine; so, the whole term can be translated as “the Doctrine and the Discipline)

6. Pare ca na vijānanti — mayamettha yamāmase

Ye ca tattha vijānanti — tato sammanti medhagā

“The others know not that in this quarrel we perish; those of them who realize it, have their quarrels calmed thereby.”

Life is far too short to allow important relationships to be ruined by petty squabbles. Even when you find yourself butting heads with a casual acquaintance or a stranger, why cause yourself to suffer by nurturing feelings of anger and resentment? The best you can hope for is that the disagreement won’t come to blows; no one will likely change their minds, and you’ll carry the memory of the conflict around with you for goodness knows how long!

Unfortunately, the Venerable Nārada Thera’s paragraph-long summary of the story behind this verse is, again, a little too bare-bones for me. Since I got some encouraging feedback after the last post, I’ll go ahead and retell the Commentary’s story myself. I may end up including my own retelling each time, depending on how helpful they are. Here it goes:

The Buddha was staying with a large community of bhikkhus at a monastery in Kosambi. There, a bhikkhu specializing in the memorization and recitation of the Lord’s discourses went to the monastery latrine to relieve himself, and afterwards left some of the water he had used to wash his hands in the washing-basin. Another bhikkhu, a vinaya specialist, went in immediately afterwards. When he found the leftover water in the basin, he came running after the first bhikkhu, stopped him, and asked, “Brother, was it you that left the water?”

“Yes, brother.”

“But do you not know that it is sin so to do?”

“Indeed I do not.”

“But, brother, it is a sin.”

“Well then, I will make satisfaction for it.”

“Of course, brother, if you did it unintentionally, inadvertently, it is no sin,” the vinaya expert acknowledged. He was right; as we saw in the story of Cakkhupāla, Buddhism espouses an ethics of intention. Thinking that everything was resolved, the dhamma expert let the matter drop and went about his business.

I want to take a moment to briefly explain something about this exchange. The text in quotations is excerpted from Buddhist Legends, Part I, a translation by E.W. Burlingame of the Dhammapāda commentary ascribed to the medieval scholar-monk Buddhaghosa. The first edition of the translation was published in 1921, hence the pseudo-Biblical language that was in vogue in the lat 19th and early 20th centuries. I suspect that what Burlingame translated as “sin” might more properly be rendered as “breach of the monastic rules.” The Western concept of sin doesn’t mesh well with the worldview of early Buddhism, as I understand it.

Unfortunately, the vinaya expert must not have found the other bhikkhu’s reaction satisfactory, because he went to his students afterwards and told them all about this guy wandering around the monastery and breaking rules willy-nilly. His students told the dhamma expert’s students, who went and told their teacher. The dhamma expert said, ‘This student of the Discipline said before, “It’s no sin.” Now he says, “It is a sin.” He’s a liar.’ Needless to say, HIS students went back to the vinaya expert’s students to throw that in their faces, and the vinaya expert responded by doing what religious authority figures do best: he excommunicated the other guy. And that’s when all Hell broke loose.

When the lay supporters heard about the conflict, they couldn’t help but take sides, each in defense of his or her favorite teacher. The nuns did the same, as did the monks’ friends. Even the spirits and heavenly beings, all the way up to the highest celestial plane, aligned themselves with one monk or the other. And that’s how a half-full water pot in a monastic outhouse turned the entire universe into the U.S. senate floor.

Eventually someone informed the Buddha that the community of monks had been split into two factions. Twice He sent a message bidding them to end their dispute and come together again, but both times they refused. Concerned that His community had become permanently divided, he went to the two parties Himself and chastised them both, pointing out their wrongdoing.

Although the Buddha tried to convince the monks to reconcile their differences in various ways, they were so stubborn that he eventually washed his hands of the whole affair. Weary of the crowded spaces of the monastery and the pointless bickering, He went to spend the rainy season by Himself in a secluded spot in the forest. When the lay supporters realized that the quarreling monks had effectively driven the Buddha off, depriving them of any opportunity to see Him or receive His guidance, they were pissed.

This childish farce had gone on long enough. The lay people of Kosambi agreed that they would no longer feed the foolish bhikkhus. In fact, they resolved to give the whole lot of them the coldest of shoulders. Funnily enough, this was exactly what the monks needed to pull their heads out of their asses; after all, one can only go so many days without food until one realizes that there are more important things than a pot of leftover washing-water. They made up with one another, and decided to seek out the Buddha to beg his forgiveness for how they had behaved. When the rainy season was over and they could travel again, the two factions journeyed together to the city of Sāvatthi, where the Blessed One was staying after His three months of solitude. When they had humbled themselves before Him, the Buddha recited the verse above so that they would remember how to handle disputes — and after all they’d been through, I’m sure they never forgot it!

This is a story about something that happened in a small Indian community 2,600 years ago, but its message remains relevant even in the 21st century. How often do we demand an apology from somebody only to discover that we’re still angry, even after they say they’re sorry? How often do we get caught up in silly arguments about trivial things, allowing them to snowball only because we’re too proud to admit we’re wrong, or too embarrassed to ask for forgiveness? Too often.

Most importantly, how much of our precious lives have been wasted being angry with one another, when we could have been loving each other instead? WAY too much.

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The Dhammapada, verse five: Anger is conquered through love

The Pāḷi word of the day is avihiṃsā, meaning “nonviolence”

5. Na hi verena verāni — sammantī’dha kudācancaṃ

Averenacasammanti — esa dhammo sanantano.

“Hatreds never cease through hatred in this world; through love alone they cease. This is an eternal law.”

The surface meaning of this verse is fairly obvious: love is more powerful than anger or hatred, and retaliation through violence only leads to more violence. The stories of nonviolent social reformers like Gandhi and Martin Luther King are often-cited examples, and with good reason. Even Malcolm X, who was by all accounts more aggressive in his outlook than the aforementioned two, had reportedly begun to soften somewhat when his life was tragically cut short. The fact that avihiṃsā has throughout history repeatedly accomplished what years of armed conflict could not makes it very clear that what the Buddha proclaimed in this verse is indeed an “eternal law,” something has been and will always be true.

At this point, I would normally reproduce Nārada Thera’s summary of the commentarial story, but unfortunately he leaves out a lot of details that I find meaningful. So, I’ll go ahead and retell the story myself.

Once, there was a young man who had an elderly mother to take care of. Although he was satisfied with being single and focused on looking after her health, she insisted on finding him someone suitable to marry. He eventually gave in, and she brought home a young woman from a family that he liked to be his wife. Unfortunately, the young woman was unable to conceive. His mother must have really wanted grandchildren, because her solution was to simply find him a second wife! The commentary says:

The barren wife heard the talk and thought to herself, “It is certain that sons cannot disobey the words of their mothers and fathers. Now if she fetches him a wife who is fruitful, they will treat me like a slave. Suppose I were to fetch him a young woman of my own selection?”

I’m not clear on how selecting the second wife herself would improve the first wife’s condition; maybe she hoped that the second wife would think of her as a kind of benefactress, and help protect her from mistreatment. In any case, she did manage to find an agreeable young woman to bring home to her husband, only to realize that this second wife would become mistress of the house if she were able to give birth. The poor barren woman resolved to prevent this at any cost, and to that end cooked up a truly awful scheme.

She went to the first wife and said,”As soon as you have conceived a child in your womb, pray let me know.” The second wife promised to do so, and when she became pregnant for the first time, she informed her sister-wife right away. The barren wife, who was accustomed to preparing a meal for the second wife every day, mixed in a drug that caused the pregnant woman to miscarry.

The next time that the second wife conceived, the barren wife did the same thing; but the third time, things did not go as planned. The drug was administered too late in the pregnancy, and led to fatal complications. The dying woman’s last words were, “When I have passed out of this existence, may I be reborn as an ogress able to devour your children!” Their husband was so furious upon discovering the cause of his second wife’s demise that he beat the first wife to death.

As a result of their rivalry, the two women were reborn together in the same house, the barren wife as a hen, and the fertile wife as a cat. Three times the hen laid eggs, and the cat consumed them all, along with the hen herself. They crossed paths again in their next lives; this time, the barren wife was born as a leopardess, the fertile wife as a doe. The doe gave birth to three fawns, all of whom were eaten by the leopardess, who finally killed and ate the doe, too. At last the barren wife was born as a human woman, and the fertile wife was born as a man-eating ogress, a fulfillment of her old aspiration.

Three times the young woman gave birth to sons, but the first two were eaten alive by the ogress, who had disguised herself as a human friend come to visit the mother and her newborns. The third time the woman finally wised up, and tried to escape the ogress by going with her husband to the her parents’ home to give birth instead. As soon as the ogress heard that her intended victim had escaped to the city, she went to hunt her down.

On the baby’s naming day, the mother and father took him to a pond near the monastery where the Buddha was staying so that they could bathe together; but after bathing, while she was breastfeeding her child, the mother saw that terrible ogress headed straight for her. In terror, she fled through the monastery gate, laid her son at the Buddha’s feet, and begged Him to save the boy’s life. The Lord’s response was unexpected. Instead of driving away the ogress, who was barred from passing through the gate by a benevolent spirit, He said to His attendant: “Go, Ānanda, summon that ogress within.”

The look on that poor woman’s face must have been priceless.

When the ogress had reached them, the Buddha admonished the both of them, saying, “…Had you not come face to face with a Buddha like me, you would have cherished hatred toward each other for an aeon…why do you return hatred for hatred? Hatred is quenched by love, not by hatred.”

Just these words alone were sufficient to change that bloodthirsty ogress’s heart forever. The Buddha asked the woman to give her the child, telling her not to be afraid. When the ogress took the baby in her arms, she kissed him and caressed him as though he were her very own son, handed him back, and wept.

Having seen the error of her ways, the ogress could never go back to eating human flesh. How was she supposed to find enough to eat? The Buddha’s answer was simple: he turned to the young wife and said, “Take this ogress home with you, let her live in your own house, and feed her with the choicest rice-porridge.” Amazing.

Even more amazing is that the wife actually DID it. She and her husband brought the ogress home to live with them. The ogress wasn’t really comfortable in their house, so they moved her to a quiet place near the village, and brought her food every day. Out of gratitude and compassion, the ogress told them when and where to plant their crops so that they could get the best possible yield; they became so prosperous that the other villagers demanded to know their secret. “I have a friend,” the wife explained, “an ogress, who tells me whether the season will be wet or dry, and I plant my crops according to her directions on high or low ground. Don’t you see? Every day the choicest rice-porridge and other kinds of food are carried out of our house; to her are they carried. Do you also carry the choicest rice-porridge and other kinds of food to her, and she will look after your crops also.”

The villagers did exactly that, and the ogress returned the favor by protecting all their crops, just as the wife had said she would. After lifetimes of conflict, hatred, and mutually-inflicted suffering, love ha finally saved these two poor women. Love saved the life of a little boy, and turned a murderous monster into a cherished friend. I love this story, because it shows us that no matter who we are, no matter what we’ve done, all of us have the capacity to make a different choice at any moment — the choice to change our relationships, and more importantly, to change ourselves.

I could wax poetic about this tale forever, but as always, an example from real life illustrates this verse’s significance best:

In a book by Ajahn Brahm, he tells a true story about his friend Jane. Jane had recently started her own small business in Sydney, and was contacted by a UK company interested in her products. She was invited to their head office in London to strike a very lucrative deal. Excited by what this could mean for her business and her family, Jane boarded a plane and made the long trip from Australia to England.

After she had checked in to her hotel, busily readied herself, and rushed to the office, she found all the directors waiting in the boardroom, except the CEO. They told her that she might as well go right on home, because the CEO was in a foul mood, and convincing him to sign any kind of contract would be impossible. Courageously, she insisted on speaking with him personally.

Instead of waiting meekly in the corner, Jane took a seat and started meditating on her favorite subject, lovingkindess (which is, incidentally, my favorite subject too!) When the CEO finally showed up, she was ready.

He was enraged to find some woman sitting in his boardroom, and wasn’t afraid to shout about it. Jane’s response was incredible: she stood up, calmly approached this furious, aggressive man, looked him in the face, and said, totally spontaneously, “You have such beautiful blue eyes, just like my baby Erica back in Sydney.”

After about a minute of confused silence, the CEO’s angry expression melted, and he responded with one word: “Really?”

It goes without saying that Jane landed that contract. THAT is Buddhism in action.

The light of love is the only thing that can dispel the darkness in this world. If we truly want peace, if we truly wish for the happiness and well-being of all people, someone has to make a change. Someone has to start loving somebody.

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The Dhammapada, verses three & four: Retaliation does not lead to peace

The second pair of verses in this chapter have only one story associated with them: the story of Tissa, the stubborn monk.

3. Akkocchi maṁ avadhi maṁ

Ajini maṁ ahāsi me

Ye taṁ upanayhanti

Veraṁ tesaṁ na sammati.

‘”He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,” in those who harbor such thoughts hatred is not appeased.”

4. Akkocchi maṁ avadhi maṁ

Ajini maṁ ahāsi me

Ye taṁ na upanayhanti

Veraṁ tesū pasammati.

‘”He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,” in those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred is appeased.’

Like the first two verses, these are pretty much self-explanatory. I can definitely say that holding on to negative feelings like anger has never helped me to move on from whatever made me feel that way in the first place. Since I’m a person who hates conflict, getting closure on things that frustrate me has always been difficult. When I was young, I tried to work out negative emotions by complaining to friends and family — what most people call “venting” — but looking back, it rarely helped me actually resolve anything. After a while, what I ended up with was a.) a lot of people who were sick of my whining, and b.) a ton of resentment, bitterness, and toxic feelings way deep down.

A long time ago, I read about a very interesting study on this exact topic. In order to find out what the effects were of different ways of coping with anger, a group of volunteers was subjected to something that made them angry (I don’t remember if the scientists just used insults, or had something more elaborate in place.) After that, they were divided into two groups. Group A was told to sit quietly and try to relax for something like ten minutes. The people in group B, on the other hand, were each given pillows and told to vent their anger by punching or beating on them.

Both groups were then asked to complete a test which consisted of word puzzles. Each word had letters omitted, like this: D _ _ D. When the volunteers filled in the blanks, the group who had sat quietly wrote, for example, “DEED.”, while the group who “vented” their anger wrote “DEAD.” It went on like this: group A’s “MOTHER” for group B’s “MURDER.” “KILT” vs. “KILL.” “SCAB” vs. “STAB.” So the results of the study suggested that venting or blowing off steam doesn’t get rid of anger, it only reinforces it. The same probably goes for all negative emotions. I love it when the Dhamma is borne out by science.

This idea is illustrated in a funny way by the story of Tissa:

‘The Venerable Tissa, proud of being a cousin of the Buddha, did not pay due respect to the senior monks. When they resented his improper conduct, he took offense and, threatening them, went up to the Buddha and made a complaint. The Buddha, who understood the [situation,] advised him to apologize, but the Venerable Tissa was obstinate. The Buddha then related a story to show that Tissa had done likewise in a previous birth. Later, the Venerable Tissa was compelled to seek pardon from the senior monks.”

There are some details missing that I’d like to add here, just for context:

1. Tissa waited to become a monk until he was very old.

2. The “senior monks” in question were probably actually younger than Tissa. Seniority among monks is determined by how long you’ve been a monk, not by how old you are. That might explain why Tissa was so offended by their criticism.

3. Tissa’s reaction was so extreme that when he went to complain to the Buddha, He saw Tissa and said, “Tissa, how is it that you come to me sad and sorrowful, with tears in your eyes, weeping?” We’re talking about an elderly man throwing a tantrum like a small child.

Even though the Buddha Himself told Tissa twice to apologize, Tissa’s only response was, “But they abused me, Reverend Sir. I will not ask their pardon.” I can almost see him making a pouty little face and harumphing to himself, his cheeks all red from bawling his eyes out.

Tissa is an extreme example, but to some extent this is what we all do. Whenever we have an argument with someone, there’s always a small part of us that doesn’t want to admit we’re wrong. We try to justify it to ourselves by nurturing the very thoughts that the Buddha tells us to abandon. We need to learn to let go, not only for the sake of making peace with others, but because hatred is a poison, and it will eat away at you.

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