The Dhammapada, verse one: Evil begets evil

I spoke with Bhante Sumana, the abbott of my monstery, and asked him how I should begin my study of the Buddha’s teachings. He told me that the Dhammapada, a collection of verses attributed to the Buddha, would be a great place to start. This post is the first in a series I would like to do covering the entire Dhammapada from beginning to end. Each entry will begin with the verse in Pāḷi, followed by a translation by Nārada Thera. I’ll also include a summary of the traditional story that accompanies the verse, and be sure to discuss both.

Manopubbaṅgama dhammā,

Manoseṭṭhā, manomayā.

Manasā ce paduṭṭhenā

Bhāsata vā, karoti vā,

Tato naṃ dukkhamanveti

Cakkaṃva vahato padaṃ.

“Mind is the forerunner of (all evil) states. Mind is their chief; mind-made are they. If one speaks or acts with a wicked mind, because of that, suffering follows one, even as the wheel follows the hoof of the draught-ox.”

First, the surface meaning of the verse itself: All corrupt words and actions stem from a corrupt mind. Furthermore, all corrupt words and actions inevitably lead to suffering for (s)he who said or did them. That negative speech and behavior come from negative mental states is obvious enough; if I murder someone, I do it out of anger, hatred, or some other toxic emotion. Afterwards, I experience suffering — an arrest, a trial, a prison sentence, and the burden of living with what I did. But I think the significance of this verse extends beyond that: a bad attitude has an undeniably negative effect on the people and things around you. Someone I know recently told me an interesting story that illustrates this very well:

Junior year was a tough time for my girlfriend. Her mother and stepfather had decided to move to a new part of town, in a new school district, and she had to go with them. She was leaving a lot behind: close friends, beloved teachers, the chance to be first-chair clarinetist in band, and a thousand other things. When she started at her new school, she found the curriculum more demanding; suddenly, she wasn’t top of her class anymore, and for the first time, she had to work to keep up.

Her separation from her friends and from all these things which had come to define her was really difficult, as it would be for anybody. Understandably, she didn’t have a lot of positive things to say about the situation at the time, and she let people know it. For quite a while after moving, she would constantly complain to the new friends she had made that their school was an awful place. They listened patiently for a while, but after hearing the same thing every day for days on end, one friend had had enough.

“Look, I like you a lot. But I have sat here every day listening to you trash a place that love. Maybe if you stopped complaining for once and actually gave this school a chance, things would get better for you.”

My girlfriend’s response to this is something I will always be proud of:

“You know, you’re absolutely right.”

From that moment forward, she made a sincere attempt to see her situation in a more positive light. According to her, it worked. Bit by bit, things got easier. In the end, she says, she actually liked her school. By changing her mind-state, my girlfriend changed her environment. While she cultivated negative thoughts, negativity followed her like a wheel following the hoof of the draught-ox; when she started cultivating positive thoughts, that all changed. Psychology exploits this through self-affirmation, while New Age thought explains it via the Law of Attraction. You get what you give.

Here’s the story, also quoted from Nārada Thera:

“A middle-aged devout person, named Cakkhupāla, became and monk and was energetically leading a contemplative life. As a result of his strenuous endeavor he realized Arahantship (Enlightenment,) the final stage of Sainthood, but unfortunately went blind. One day as he was pacing up and down the ambulatory, he unintentionally killed many insects. Some visiting monks, noticing the blood-stained ambulatory, complained to the Buddha that he had committed the offense of killing. The Buddha explained that the monk had killed them unintentionally and that he was an Arahant.

The monks then wished to know the cause of his blindness.

The Buddha related that in a past birth, as a physician, that particular monk had given an ointment to a poor woman to restore her eyesight. She promised that, with her children, she would become his servant if her eyesight was restored. The physician’s remedy proved effective, but the woman, not willing to keep her promise, pretended that her eyes were getting worse. The cruel physician, yielding to a wicked thought, retaliated by giving her another ointment which blinded her eyes. In consequence of his past evil action the Arahant became blind.”

This reveals another layer of meaning to the verse. It refers not only to the immediate, mundane consequences of impure thought and action, but to the karmic consequences as well. Cakkhupāla had acted impulsively as the physician, and because that impulse was impure, he was karmically repaid in kind. So suffering not only follows you in the present life, but in future lives as well. Again, you get what you give.

I found an elaboration of the story that provides the following important details:

‘In the morning, some bhikkhus visiting the thera found the dead insects. They thought ill of the thera and reported the matter to the Buddha. The Buddha asked them whether they had seen the thera killing the insects. When they answered in the negative, the Buddha said, “Just as you had not seen him killing, so also he had not seen those living insects. Besides, as the thera had already attained arahatship he could have no intention of killing and so was quite innocent.”‘

Assuming that these details are consistent with the story as it was passed down, the verse gains an even richer significance. Besides what it says about karma and the importance of mind state, it makes an important point about Buddhism generally. Namely, the Buddha taught an ethics of intention, rather than a code of morality based on strict adherence to rules and customs. Even though killing is forbidden in Buddhism, it’s only intentional killing that’s considered morally wrong. Because Cakkhupāla crushed the insects unintentionally, his innocence was intact. Immorality is born in the mind first.

That’s a lot of meaning packed into six short lines of old poetry. I can already tell that this Dhammapada study is going to really pay off in terms of deepening my practice. Hopefully I can keep it up, and improve my presentation as I go!



One thought on “The Dhammapada, verse one: Evil begets evil

  1. Allen says:

    Keep doing these, man! I don’t own a Dhammapada, so I’d love to read these and learn with you in person. Although I may be much more relaxed and peaceful, you definitely tower over me when it comes to compassion, so I have a lot to learn from you! See you hopefully next week!

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