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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