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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