The Dhammapada, verses nineteen & twenty: “Learning without practice is of no worth”

It’s been a long time, but I finally found an excuse to do a Pāḷi word of the day again: pariyatti, which means studying the Dhamma, and patipatti, which means practicing the Dhamma. Okay, so that’s technically two Pāḷi words of the day. So sue me.

19. Bahum pi ce sahitaṃ bhāsamāno —

na takkaro hoti naro pamatto

Gopo’vo gāvo gaṇayaṃ paresaṃ —

na bhāgavā sāmaññassa hoti.

“Though much he recites the Sacred Texts, but acts not accordingly, that heedless man is like a cowherd who counts others’ kine. He has no share in the fruits of the Holy Life.”

20. Appam pi ce sahitaṃ bhāsamāno —

dhammassa hoti anudhammacārī

Rāgañ ca dosañ ca pahāya mohaṃ —

sammappajāno suvimuttacitto

Anupādiyāno idha vā huraṃ vā —

sa bhāgavā sāmaññassa hoti.

“Though little he recites the Sacred Texts, but acts in accordance with the teaching, forsaking lust, hatred, and ignorance, truly knowing, with mind well-freed, clinging to naught here and hereafter, he shares the fruits of the Holy Life.”

The heart of this teaching is hardly unique to the Buddha — indeed, almost every person, religious or not, is familiar with the concept of “walking the walk.”

Behind the verses is a story about two close friends who decided to become monks together. After their ordination, however, they realized that they had a big problem: they had apparently joined the Buddha’s order without knowing exactly what it was that monks were supposed to do. They approached their new teacher for guidance, and the Blessed One explained that His monks usually dedicated themselves to fulfilling one of two duties: that of practice (i.e. meditation,) and that of study. He gave a detailed description of each, and the two friends made their decisions: the older one would spend his time practicing meditation while the younger one committed himself to memorizing the Buddha’s teachings.

It should be noted that the commentary specifically states that the younger monk memorized the Tipiṭaka, even though the collection of sayings attributed to the Buddha and His disciples that make up the modern Pāḷi Canon wasn’t codified until about 230 years after His death; it wasn’t even committed to writing until sometime in the first century C.E. It’s possible that  the Buddha’s teachings were already being re-formulated into something like the suttas we have today for ease of memorization, but we’ll probably never know for sure. Some details regarding the origin and history of these stories are also worth mentioning: according to timeline of Buddhist history on Access to Insight, Buddhaghosa compiled the oldest commentaries at the Mahā Vihāra in Sri Lanka in the 5th century and translated them from their original Sinhalese into Pāḷi, presumably so that monks from all over could have access to them regardless of their native language. The Mahā Vihāra was the center of Buddhist orthodoxy at the time, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Buddhaghosa inserted the reference to the Tipiṭaka himself to lend his sect’s recension of the teachings an air of authority.

I think it’s always good to be aware of these kinds of details and the possible motivations behind them, but at the end of the day I don’t think it matters much. The most important thing to do is to see through the frills and get to the essence of what the commentaries have to teach us. Let’s get back to story, shall we?

Both friends performed their chosen duties extremely well: the older monk eventually gained enlightenment thanks to his dedicated practice, while the younger monk, having memorized the entire body of teachings, became something like the Buddhist equivalent of American Christianity’s itinerant preachers. By the time they became theras, or senior monks, both of them had significant followings; the commentary tells us that the younger of the two friends became particularly influential as the mentor of eighteen different communities of monks! Like most monks in Buddhist literature, though, his enormous influence eventually went to his head.

At some point a group of young initiates came to the older to learn meditation, and all attained enlightenment thanks to his instruction and guidance. Once they had completed their training, they expressed a desire to finally meet the Buddha and pay their respects in person. Their teaching gave them his blessing, adding that they should give his regards to the eighty chief elders as well as his old friend. They did as instructed, but when they told the preacher who their teacher was, he scoffed. “But what have you learned from him?” he asked. “Of the Dīgha Nikāya and the other Nikāyas, have you learned a single Nikāya? Of the three Piṭakas, have you learned a single Piṭaka?” Leadership of so many communities of monks was apparently not enough for him; he resented his less-knowledgable friend had become the object of considerable respect despite not having learned “a single Stanza of four verses.” Determined to demonstrate his superiority, young monk decided to try and outwit his friend in a debate.

The next time the older monk came to visit the Buddha, the younger monk invited him to sit and keep him company. Luckily for him, the Blessed One knew exactly what was going on. It always amazes me that the monks in these stories seem to consistently forget that a Buddha has the power read minds; fortunately, He always seemed to use this ability to look out for people instead of trying to embarrass them or make them feel condemned for misguided thoughts or intentions. He saw that the young monk was about to accumulate a considerable amount of unwholesome kamma by trying to embarrass his friend, and decided to intervene out of compassion (more specifically, the commentary states that the younger monk was risking a rebirth in Hell, but that’s not the point.) He dropped whatever He was doing to go straight to the hut where the two friends were talking and came in to sit down. The Buddha knew that his student’s arrogance and lack of respect would get him into a lot of trouble; the best way to humble him was for the Buddha to ask some questions of His own.

The young monk had learned a lot about the theory of meditation — he was well-versed in the ideas and methods that the Buddha had explained to the monks — but he had never taken the time to put those teachings into practice. He had in a sense memorized the roadmap without actually going anywhere. The Blessed One started there, asking the young monk a series of questions about the different stages and degrees of concentration, all of which he answered correctly. But when he was asked about the first stage of enlightenment, the beginnings of insight into the way things really are, he was at a loss. Then the Buddha turned to the older monk and asked the same question. To his friend’s surprise, the older monk gave the correct answer right away. The Lord responded with the one show of approval that the younger monk, with all his followers, had never received: His own. He clapped His hands and joyfully lavished praise on the master meditator. Three successive questions were likewise answered immediately and insightfully, and each time the Teacher heartily congratulated his student. It’s said that even the spirits and invisible beings who populated the different celestial planes joined in to celebrate the older monk’s monumental accomplishment.

The commentary doesn’t tell us what happened afterwards, but I’d like to think that the young monk got up from where he was sitting and rushed out the door, determined to stop wasting time and get down to the business of liberation and show his master that he could be worthy of praise, too.

After all this had taken place, the preacher’s students were nonplussed; why had the Lord praised an ignorant old man like that and neglected their own teacher? Always on the lookout for even the smallest teaching opportunity, the Buddha came to them and asked what they were talking about. When they aired their grievances to Him, He answered with a simile: “Monks, your own teacher is in my Religion like a man who tends cows for hire. But my son is like a master who enjoys the five products of the cow at his own good pleasure.” He then summed up his teaching in the two verses quoted above.

Superficially, the Buddha is telling us that paying lip-service to a principles and practices isn’t enough. What matters most is making a sincere effort to reflect those practices and principles in our behavior, and to allow them to make us into better human beings. Furthermore, while other verses in the Dhammapada have shown us that the early Buddhist community felt that knowledge — rather than age, social standing, or rank — is what makes one noble and worthy of respect, these verses and the story behind them tell us that there are two kinds of knowledge: knowledge obtained through learning, and knowledge obtained through direct experience. It’s not that knowledge is bad; after all, the Buddha Himself recommended study as a legitimate pursuit for monks. But there’s something even more important than knowledge: wisdom. In attempting to answer the Buddha’s questions, the young monk in our story showed that he had learned much but understood little; it was rather the deep and personal insights of the elder monk that the Buddha considered worthy of praise. This teaching isn’t the only valuable thing we can learn from the story though.

I’ll admit that there’s something that bothers me about the Pāḷi Canon: even though modern discussions of Buddhism really emphasize the value of compassion, I actually haven’t found many discussions of it in my study of the Buddha’s discourses themselves. It’s listed along with loving-kindness, sympathetic joy, and detachment as one of the four objects of meditation that the Blessed One offered as gateways to deep meditation, but the Buddha doesn’t seem to explicitly urge his disciples to go out and do compassionate things like feeding the poor. As someone who grew up in a Judeo-Christian culture, that troubles me.

However, I appreciate this particular story because it shows the Buddha’s care for people trapped in saṃsāra. When He realized that the younger monk’s hubris would ultimately lead to more unhappiness and suffering, He went to him “out of compassion.” Even His seeming lack of appreciation for the young monk’s intellectual accomplishments is in fact an act of compassion, because He’s attempting to benefit him in two ways: firstly by diminishing his ego and teaching him the value of humility and respect, and secondly by reminding him that the heart of the practice is just that — practice. The goal isn’t to embarrass him, but to encourage him with a demonstration of positive reinforcement.

I think it’s worth noting that just because traditional Theravāda has an intense focus on personal practice and detachment — as exemplified in this story — it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a self-centered spiritual path. If I remember right, Ajahn Chah once referred to sincere and committed practice as “making the heart good.” How many people have done immense harm, not from a lack of good intensions, but because of delusion and wrong view? Who could be better suited to acting for the good of all people than someone who regards everything and everyone with perfect equanimity, and therefore perfect disinterest? Maybe early Buddhism didn’t explicitly emphasize social justice and activism because it’s assumed that someone who’s “made the heart good” will naturally feel moved to help others. I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that only perfect love, perfect compassion, perfect empathy, and a complete lack of prejudice and self-interest — the very fruits of the brahmavihāras that the Buddha gave as a gift to the world — can lead to perfect service.

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