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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