Dhammapada, selection eight

If a man should do evil,
He should not do it again and again.
He should not take delight in it;
Suffering comes from the accumulation of evil.

If a man should do good,
He should do it again and again.
He should take delight in it;
Happiness stems from the accumulation of meritorious action.

Many of the verses in the Dhammapada come in related pairs, with parallel statements that show the consequences of different ways of acting.

Here the basic teaching is quite simple — happiness comes from skillful actions, while unhappiness comes from actions that are unskillful. Therefore, we should cultivate the habit of acting skillfully, repeating skillful actions over and over until they are second-nature.

The words “skillful” and “unskillful” (kusala and akusala) are Buddhist technical language for talking about the ethical status of our actions. Buddhist texts do sometimes talk — usually poetically — about “good” (puñña) and “evil” (papa) but more often it uses the more precise terminology of skillful and unskillful.

Unskillful actions are those that are based on the mental/emotional states of delusion, egoistic greed, and hatred and other forms of aversion. Skillful actions are those that are based on the opposites of these, which could be rendered as insight, contentment, and compassion.

So the practice of ethics in Buddhism, although it obviously has to do with actions in the external world, is fundamentally about internal choices we make about which mental states we are going to exercise. In any moment, in any situation, we have a choice about how we’re going to respond. Do we react with irritation or practice patience? Do we act selfishly or with regard for the wellbeing of others?

These paired verses tend to remind us that we have choice, or more precisely, that when we have mindfulness we have choice. Without mindful observation of the mind, it’s impossible for us to choose to act skillfully rather than unskillfully. It goes without saying that much of the time most people lack the mindfulness to make choices. That doesn’t mean that everything they do while on “automatic pilot” is unskillful, just that we will at times inadvertently create suffering for ourselves by blindly acting out unskillful impulses, and that we will miss opportunities for cultivating greater wellbeing.

There’s an implication also that it’s possible to “take delight” in unskillful acts. We see this when we become intoxicated with craving or with the desire to control others, for example. This “delight” is short-lived and eventually undermined by the painful consequences of our actions. In no way does it resemble the true sense of happiness and wellbeing that comes from acting skillfully.

Even the evildoer will find happiness
As long as his evil ripens not.
Once his evil ripens,
Then the evildoer experiences (the consequences of) his sins.

Even the doer of good will experience evil,
As long as his good does not ripen.
Once his good ripens,
The the good person experiences good.

Sometimes we’ll get away with acting unskillfully — perhaps for a long time. But eventually our evil (there’s an example of the poetic use of that term) will catch up with us, or at least the consequences will. Those who get their sense of security from accumulating wealth, for example, will often fear its loss, or they’ll compare themselves unfavorably with others who have accumulated even more.

I once heard an author talking on the radio. He’d written a book that I think was called “The Natural History of the Rich” and as part of his research he’d mingled with millionaires and even billionaires. He’d been talking to one man who had accumulated a billion dollars, and this man said something like,” You know I look around and see these people who have two or three billion dollars, and I think to myself, where did I go wrong?” It’s a great illustration about how we can never insulate ourselves by acting out our cravings. There’s always more to crave.

And it may also be (moving on to the second verse) that we do good but don’t immediately see the benefits. We may even doubt that there are benefits. This is often the case with meditation. I remember one time I was meditating on retreat and was really struggling. I was being assaulted by an endless stream of distractions, and no matter what I did my mind kept wandering. And I was assaulted also by a sense of doubt that what I was doing was having any beneficial effect at all. At the end of the sit I got up with a sense of some despondency and walked outside. And as soon as I did so I noticed that the colors were unusually vibrant. And then a deep sense of joy welled up.

Sometimes, like this, the fruits of our practice are a little way off. Other times it may take months before we realize that positive results are coming from our efforts to cultivate the skillful. It takes faith, sometimes, to keep plodding on with our practice, unsure of whether we’re actually making progress. But if we keep making an effort, progress is assured.

If there is no wound in the hand,
You may carry poison with the hand.
Poison does not enter the non-wound.
There is no evil for the non-doer of evil.

At first reading this verse may seem rather cryptic. I think it’s talking about what we can or can’t safely expose ourselves to. For example, if you’re among very cynical people you may well end up absorbing their cynicism via a kind of psychic osmosis. If you’re with people who are suffering greatly you might find yourself becoming depressed.

Without the “protective skin” of mindfulness we’re vulnerable to having our minds “poisoned” by negative mental states that we absorb from others. Of course we don’t really absorb them. Those negative states are already within us and they can resonate with the same mental states when they’re encountered in others.

Even mindfulness isn’t going to be enough in the long term. We need insight. As long as there are still poisons in our own mind that are able to be activated by contact with similar poisons outside of ourselves, we’re at risk.

Now this can be taken to extremes. I’m not saying that we have to be perfectly mindful or even enlightened before we engage with external difficulties. I’m far from perfectly mindful and I work in prisons. I know other Buddhists who work as therapists, or with the chronically ill or dying. But we do have to be aware that external factors affect us. So for example, what is the emotional and ethical climate within our circle of friends? Are there some people we hang out with who drag us down? Perhaps we might want to spend less time with them. Does compassionate work we do leave us feeling “burned out” or stressed or drained? Perhaps we need to be aware of a tendency to take on too much, or to make sure we get nourishment by going on retreat more often. We need to recognize when the mind is becoming “poisoned” and be prepared either to strengthen our mindfulness (developing a “wound-free hand”) or even to put the poison down until we’re prepared to handle it.

Some are (re)born in the womb.
The evil-doer proceeds to hell
And the righteous proceed to heaven.
The undefiled are freed at death.

These are the three gatas, or “farings.” Although later Buddhism talks of there being six realms of rebirth, early Buddhism talks of just three — this world in which we live, heaven, and hell. These can be taken literally and metaphorically. We can create our own hells or heavens by the kinds of mental states we cultivate through our actions.

The “undefiled” — those who are Awakened and therefore free from greed, hatred, and delusion, are said to be free from rebirth. What exactly this means is questionable. What happens to an awakened being after death? The Buddha said that this couldn’t be comprehended by the unawakened mind. This leaves us with the interesting situation where there’s a mystery surrounding the very goal of Buddhist practice! For most of us that’s not a problem: we’re following the path, becoming happier as we do so. The goal, perhaps, can take care of itself.

Verses translated by Bodhipaksa.

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