In the late 1970’s, between finishing high school and going to university, I opened a small book of ancient verses, and my life changed forever.
I’d been interested in Buddhism for years, but my local library only had one book on the subject — a rather dated “Teach Yourself” guide to Zen Buddhism. I’d read the book, and found it both intriguing and baffling, but struggled to get a sense of what difference Buddhism would make to my life. And I was looking for something life-changing.
One early autumn day I accompanied my parents on a shopping trip to the nearest large town, which was the possessor of that rare and precious thing — a book shop. I’d inherited a love of reading from my father, and so the two of us went (more or less) one way while my mother went hers. And after a period of browsing, I happened across a slender black-spined volume: “The Dhammapada,” translated by Juan Mascaró. I can still see exactly where in the bookshop, on which shelf, and where on the shelf the book sat, as clearly as I can see the book now on the desk in front of me.
I’d heard of the Dhammapada, and knew it was an early Buddhist scripture. I knew it was the real deal — the teaching of the Buddha — as opposed to being merely about Buddhism. And sitting in the passenger seat of my parents’ car, waiting for my mother to return from her bargain-hunting, with my father beside me listening to the droning incantation of the days’ football results, my eager hands slipped the slim book from its brown paper bag, and skipping past the introduction I read the following words:
What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind. If a man speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows him as the wheel of the cart follows the beast that draws the cart.
What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind. If a man speaks or acts with a pure mind, joy follows him as his own shadow.
Despite the fact that these verses had a big effect on me, this is a terrible translation. Nevertheless, these clear and simple words were revelatory. We have choices. The key to happiness and suffering lies in the quality of our thoughts, words, and actions. Reading these verses, I knew I was a Buddhist.
Inherent in these few lines is everything we need to know about what it means to live a Buddhist life. We can find out for ourselves, through experience and observation, which thoughts, words, and actions lead to suffering and which to joy. These choices lie before us in every moment of our lives: the skilful or the unskilful; joy or sorrow. Which are you going to choose? In every moment you make choices that change your life.
PS. A better translation would be:
All experiences (dhammā) are preceded by mind (manopubbaṅgamā), having mind as their master (manoseṭṭhā) created by mind (manomayā). If someone speaks or acts with a corrupted mind, suffering follows them like the wheel the hoof of the ox.
All experiences (dhammā) are preceded by mind (manopubbaṅgamā), having mind as their master (manoseṭṭhā) created by mind (manomayā). If someone speaks or acts with a pure mind, joy follows them like a shadow that never leaves.
Since this is a bad translation, I suggest either Narada Thera‘s version (available free in various formats), or Gil Fronsdal’s. Buddharakkhita’s translation is good, and is available free on Access to Insight. Bhikkhu Sujato’s is excellent, and is available free on Sutta Central, along with other translations.