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The Dhammapada: A Translation

The Dhammapada


The Dhammapada

A Translation

translated from the Pali by

Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Alternate formats: dhammapada_en.pdf (136pp./0.8MB) A printed copy of this book is available upon request from Mettā Forest Monastery.



Another translation of the Dhammapada.

Many other English translations are already available — the fingers of at least five people would be needed to count them — so I suppose that a new translation has to be justified, to prove that it's not “just” another one. In doing so, though, I'd rather not criticize the efforts of earlier translators, for I owe them a great deal. Instead, I'll ask you to read the Introduction and Historical Notes, to gain an idea of what is distinctive about the approach I have taken, and the translation itself, which I hope will stand on its own merits. The original impulse for making the translation came from my conviction that the text deserved to be offered freely as a gift of Dhamma. As I knew of no existing translations available as gifts, I made my own.

The explanatory material is designed to meet with the needs of two sorts of readers: those who want to read the text as a text, in the context of the religious history of Buddhism — viewed from the outside — and those who want to read the text as a guide to the personal conduct of their lives. Although there is no clear line dividing these groups, the Introduction is aimed more at the second group, and the Historical Notes more at the first. The End Notes and Glossary contain material that should be of interest to both. Verses marked with an asterisk in the translation are discussed in the End Notes. Pali terms — as well as English terms used in a special sense, such as effluent, enlightened one, fabrication, stress, and Unbinding — when they appear in more than one verse, are explained in the Glossary.

In addition to the previous translators and editors from whose work I have borrowed, I owe a special debt of gratitude to Jeanne Larsen for her help in honing down the language of the translation. Also, John Bullitt, Gil Fronsdal, Charles Hallisey, Karen King, Andrew Olendzki, Ruth Stiles, Clark Strand, Paula Trahan, and Jane Yudelman offered many helpful comments that improved the quality of the book as a whole. Any mistakes that remain, of course, are my own responsibility.

— Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Metta Forest Monastery
Valley Center, CA 92082-1409
December, 1997


The Dhammapada, an anthology of verses attributed to the Buddha, has long been recognized as one of the masterpieces of early Buddhist literature. Only more recently have scholars realized that it is also one of the early masterpieces in the Indian tradition of kavya, or belles lettres.

This translation of the Dhammapada is an attempt to render the verses into English in a way that does justice to both of the traditions to which the text belongs. Although it is tempting to view these traditions as distinct, dealing with form (kavya) and content (Buddhism), the ideals of kavya aimed at combining form and content into a seamless whole. At the same time, the early Buddhists adopted and adapted the conventions of kavya in a way that skillfully dovetailed with their views of how teaching and listening played a role in their path of practice. My hope is that the translation presented here will convey the same seamlessness and skill.

As an example of kavya, the Dhammapada has a fairly complete body of ethical and aesthetic theory behind it, for the purpose of kavya was to instruct in the highest ends of life while simultaneously giving delight. The ethical teaching of the Dhammapada is expressed in the first pair of verses: the mind, through its actions (kamma), is the chief architect of one's happiness and suffering both in this life and beyond. The first three chapters elaborate on this point, to show that there are two major ways of relating to this fact: as a wise person, who is heedful enough to make the necessary effort to train his/her own mind to be a skillful architect; and as a fool, who is heedless and sees no reason to train the mind.

The work as a whole elaborates on this distinction, showing in more detail both the path of the wise person and that of the fool, together with the rewards of the former and the dangers of the latter: the path of the wise person can lead not only to happiness within the cycle of death and rebirth, but also to total escape into the Deathless, beyond the cycle entirely; the path of the fool leads not only to suffering now and in the future, but also to further entrapment within the cycle. The purpose of the Dhammapada is to make the wise path attractive to the reader so that he/she will follow it — for the dilemma posited by the first pair of verses is not one in the imaginary world of fiction; it is the dilemma in which the reader is already placed by the fact of being born.

To make the wise path attractive, the techniques of poetry are used to give “savor” (rasa) to the message. Ancient Indian aesthetic treatises devoted a great deal of discussion to the notion of savor and how it could be conveyed. The basic theory was this: Artistic composition expressed states of emotion or states of mind called “bhava.” The standard list of basic emotions included love (delight), humor, grief, anger, energy, fear, disgust, and astonishment. The reader or listener exposed to these presentations of emotion did not participate in them directly; rather, he/she savored them as an aesthetic experience at one remove from the emotion. Thus, the savor of grief is not grief, but compassion. The savor of energy is not energy itself, but admiration for heroism. The savor of love is not love but an experience of sensitivity. The savor of astonishment is a sense of the marvelous. The proof of the indirectness of the aesthetic experience was that some of the basic emotions were decidedly unpleasant, while the savor of the emotion was to be enjoyed.

Although a work of art might depict many emotions, and thus — like a good meal — offer many savors for the reader/listener to taste, one savor was supposed to dominate. Writers made a common practice of announcing the savor they were trying to produce, usually stating in passing that their particular savor was the highest of all. The Dhammapada {354} states explicitly that the savor of Dhamma is the highest savor, which indicates that that is the basic savor of the work. Classic aesthetic theory lists the savor of Dhamma, or justice, as one of the three basic varieties of the heroic savor (the other two deal with generosity and war): thus we would expect the majority of the verses to depict energy, and in fact they do, with their exhortations to action, strong verbs, repeated imperatives, and frequent use of the imagery from battles, races, and conquests.

Dhamma, in the Buddhist sense, implies more than the “justice” of Dhamma in aesthetic theory. However, the long section of the Dhammapada devoted to “The Judge” — beginning with a definition of a good judge, and continuing with examples of good judgment — shows that the Buddhist concept of Dhamma has room for the aesthetic meaning of the term as well.

Classic theory also holds that the heroic savor should, especially at the end of a piece, shade into the marvelous. This, in fact, is what happens periodically throughout the Dhammapada, and especially at the end, where the verses express astonishment at the amazing and paradoxical qualities of a person who has followed the path of heedfulness to its end, becoming “pathless” 92-93; 179-180} — totally indescribable, transcending conflicts and dualities of every sort. Thus the predominant emotions that the verses express in Pali — and should also express in translation — are energy and astonishment, so as to produce qualities of the heroic and marvelous for the reader to savor. This savor is then what inspires the reader to follow the path of wisdom, with the result that he/she will reach a direct experience of the true happiness, transcending all dualities, found at the end of the path.

Classic aesthetic theory lists a variety of rhetorical features that can produce savor. Examples from these lists that can be found in the Dhammapada include: accumulation (padoccaya) {137-140}, admonitions (upadista) 47-48, 246-248, et. al.], ambiguity (aksarasamghata) 97, 294-295}, benedictions (asis) {337}, distinctions (visesana) 19-20, 21-22, 318-319}, encouragement (protsahana) 35, 43, 46, et. al.], etymology (nirukta) 388}, examples (drstanta) {30}, explanations of cause and effect (hetu) {1-2}, illustrations (udaharana) {344}, implications (arthapatti) {341}, rhetorical questions (prccha) 44, 62, 143, et. al.], praise (gunakirtana) 54-56, 58-59, 92-93, et. al.], prohibitions (pratisedha) 121-122, 271-272, 371, et. al.], and ornamentation (bhusana) [passim].

Of these, ornamentation is the most complex, including four figures of speech and ten “qualities.” The figures of speech are simile [passim], extended metaphor {398}, rhyme (including alliteration and assonance), and “lamps” [passim]. This last figure is a peculiarity of Pali — a heavily inflected language — that allows, say, one adjective to modify two different nouns, or one verb to function in two separate sentences. (The name of the figure derives from the idea that the two nouns radiate from the one adjective, or the two sentences from the one verb.) In English, the closest we have to this is parallelism combined with ellipsis. An example from the translation is in verse 7

Mara overcomes him as the wind, a weak tree

— where “overcomes” functions as the verb in both clauses, even though it is elided from the second. This is how I have rendered lamps in most of the verses, although in two cases 174, 206} I found it more effective to repeat the lamp-word.

The ten “qualities” are more general attributes of sound, syntax, and sense, including such attributes as charm, clarity, delicacy, evenness, exaltation, sweetness, and strength. The ancient texts are not especially clear on what some of these terms mean in practice. Even where they are clear, the terms deal in aspects of Pali/Sanskrit syntax not always applicable to English. What is important, though, is that some qualities are seen as more suited to a particular savor than others: strength and exaltation, for example, best convey a taste of the heroic and marvelous. Of these characteristics, strength (ojas) is the easiest to quantify, for it is marked by long compounded words. In the Dhammapada, approximately one tenth of the verses contain compounds that are as long as a whole line of verse, and one verse {39} has three of its four lines made up of such compounds. By the standards of later Sanskrit verse, this is rather mild, but when compared with verses in the rest of the Pali Canon and other early masterpieces of kavya, the Dhammapada is quite strong.

The text also explicitly adds to the theory of characteristics in saying that “sweetness” is not just an attribute of words, but of the person speaking {363}. If the person is a true example of the virtue espoused, his/her words are sweet. This point could be generalized to cover many of the other qualities as well.

Another point from classic aesthetic theory that may be relevant to the Dhammapada is the principle of how a literary work is given unity. Although the text does not provide a step-by-step sequential portrait of the path of wisdom, as a lyric anthology it is much more unified than most Indian examples of that genre. The classic theory of dramatic plot construction may be playing an indirect role here. On the one hand, a plot must exhibit unity by presenting a conflict or dilemma, and depicting the attainment of a goal through overcoming that conflict. This is precisely what unifies the Dhammapada: it begins with the duality between heedless and heedful ways of living, and ends with the final attainment of total mastery. On the other hand, the plot must not show smooth, systematic progress; otherwise the work would turn into a treatise. There must be reversals and diversions to maintain interest. This principle is at work in the fairly unsystematic ordering of the Dhammapada's middle sections. Verses dealing with the beginning stages of the path are mixed together with those dealing with later stages and even stages beyond the completion of the path.

One more point is that the ideal plot should be constructed with a sub-plot in which a secondary character gains his/her goal, and in so doing helps the main character attain his or hers. In addition to the aesthetic pleasure offered by the sub-plot, the ethical lesson is one of human cooperation: people attain their goals by working together. In the Dhammapada, the same dynamic is at work. The main “plot” is that of the person who masters the principle of kamma to the point of total release from kamma and the round of rebirth; the “sub-plot” depicts the person who masters the principle of kamma to the point of gaining a good rebirth on the human or heavenly planes. The second person gains his/her goal, in part, by being generous and respectful to the first person 106-109, 177}, thus enabling the first person to practice to the point of total mastery. In return, the first person gives counsel to the second person on how to pursue his/her goal 76-77, 363}. In this way the Dhammapada depicts the play of life in a way that offers two potentially heroic roles for the reader to choose from, and delineates those roles in such a way that all people can choose to be heroic, working together for the attainment of their own true well being.

Perhaps the best way to summarize the confluence of Buddhist and kavya traditions in the Dhammapada is in light of a teaching from another early Buddhist text, the Samyutta Nikaya (55.5), on the factors needed to attain one's first taste of the goal of the Buddhist path. Those factors are four: associating with people of integrity, listening to their teachings, using appropriate attention to inquire into the way those teachings apply to one's life, and practicing in line with the teachings in a way that does them justice. Early Buddhists used the traditions of kavya — concerning savor, rhetoric, structure, and figures of speech — primarily in connection with the second of these factors, in order to make the teachings appealing to the listener. However, the question of savor is related to the other three factors as well. The words of a teaching must be spoken by a person of integrity who embodies their message in his/her actions if their savor is to be sweet 158, 363}. The listener must reflect on them appropriately and then put them into practice if they are to have more than a passing, superficial taste. Thus both the speaker and listener must act in line with the words of a teaching if it is to bear fruit. This point is reflected in a pair of verses from the Dhammapada itself {51-52}:

Just like a blossom, bright colored but scentless: a well-spoken word is fruitless when not carried out. Just like a blossom, bright colored & full of scent: a well-spoken word is fruitful when well carried out.

Appropriate reflection, the first step a listener should follow in carrying out the well-spoken word, means contemplating one's own life to see the dangers of following the path of foolishness and the need to follow the path of wisdom. The Buddhist tradition recognizes two emotions as playing a role in this reflection. The first is samvega, a strong sense of dismay that comes with realizing the futility and meaningless of life as it is normally lived, together with a feeling of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle. The second emotion is pasada, the clarity and serenity that come when one recognizes a teaching that presents the truth of the dilemma of existence and at the same time points the way out. One function of the verses in the Dhammapada is to provide this sense of clarity, which is why verse 82 states that the wise grow serene on hearing the Dhamma, and 102 states that the most worthwhile verse is the meaningful one that, on hearing, brings peace.

However, the process does not stop with these preliminary feelings of peace and serenity. The listener must carry through with the path of practice that the verses recommend. Although much of the impetus for doing so comes from the emotions of samvega and pasada sparked by the content of the verses, the heroic and marvelous savor of the verses plays a role as well, by inspiring the listener to rouse within him or herself the energy and strength that the path will require. When the path is brought to fruition, it brings the peace and delight of the Deathless {373-374}. This is where the process initiated by hearing or reading the Dhamma bears its deepest savor, surpassing all others. It is the highest sense in which the meaningful verses of the Dhammapada bring peace.

In preparing the following translation, I have kept the above points in mind, motivated both by a firm belief in the truth of the message of the Dhammapada, and by a desire to present it in a compelling way that will induce the reader to put it into practice. Although trying to stay as close as possible to the literal meaning of the text, I've also tried to convey its savor. I'm operating on the classic assumption that, although there may be a tension between giving instruction (being scrupulously accurate) and giving delight (providing an enjoyable taste of the mental states that the words depict), the best translation is one that plays with that tension without submitting totally to one side at the expense of the other.

To convey the savor of the work, I have aimed at a spare style flexible enough to express not only its dominant emotions — energy and astonishment — but also its transient emotions, such as humor, delight, and fear. Although the original verses conform to metrical rules, the translations are in free verse. This is the form that requires the fewest deviations from literal accuracy and allows for a terse directness that conforms with the heroic savor of the original. The freedom I have used in placing words on the page also allows many of the poetic effects of Pali syntax — especially the parallelism and ellipsis of the “lamps” — to shine through.

I have been relatively consistent in choosing English equivalents for Pali terms, especially where the terms have a technical meaning. Total consistency, although it may be a logical goal, is by no means a rational one, especially in translating poetry. Anyone who is truly bilingual will appreciate this point. Words in the original were chosen for their sound and connotations, as well as their literal sense, so the same principles — within reasonable limits — have been used in the translation. Deviations from the original syntax are rare, and have been limited primarily to six sorts. The first four are for the sake of immediacy: occasional use of the American “you” for “one”; occasional use of imperatives (“Do this!”) for optatives (“One should do this”); substituting active for passive voice; and replacing “he who does this” with “he does this” in many of the verses defining the true brahman in Chapter 26. The remaining two deviations are: making minor adjustments in sentence structure to keep a word at the beginning or end of a verse when this position seems important (e.g., 158, 384); and changing the number from singular (“the wise person”) to plural (“the wise”) when talking about personality types, both to streamline the language and to lighten the gender bias of the original Pali. (As most of the verses were originally addressed to monks, I have found it impossible to eliminate the gender bias entirely, and so apologize for whatever bias remains.)

In verses where I sense that a particular Pali word or phrase is meant to carry multiple meanings, I have explicitly given all of those meanings in the English, even where this has meant a considerable expansion of the verse. (Many of these verses are discussed in the notes.) Otherwise, I have tried to make the translation as transparent as possible, in order to allow the light and energy of the original to pass through with minimal distortion.

The Dhammapada has for centuries been used as an introduction to the Buddhist point of view. However, the text is by no means elementary, either in terms of content or style. Many of the verses presuppose at least a passing knowledge of Buddhist doctrine; others employ multiple levels of meaning and wordplay typical of polished kavya. For this reason, I have added notes to the translation to help draw out some of the implications of verses that might not be obvious to people who are new to either of the two traditions that the text represents.

I hope that whatever delight you gain from this translation will inspire you to put the Buddha's words into practice, so that you will someday taste the savor, not just of the words, but of the Deathless to which they point.

Historical Notes

The Text & the Translation

There are many versions of the Dhammapada now extant: several recensions of the Pali Dhammapada from Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, and Thailand; two incomplete manuscripts of a Gandhari Dharmapada found in central Asia; and a manuscript of a Buddhist Hybrid-Sanskrit Dharmapada found in a library in Tibet, called the Patna Dharmapada because photographs of this manuscript are now kept in Patna, India. There is also a Chinese translation of the Dharmapada made in the third century C.E. from a Prakrit original, now no longer extant, similar to — but not identical with — the Pali Dhammapada. Parts of a Dharmapada text are included in the Mahavastu, a text belonging to the Lokottaravadin Mahasanghika school. In addition, there are Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese versions of a text called the Udanavarga, which is known in at least four recensions, all of them containing many verses in common with the Dhammapada/Dharmapada (Dhp) texts. To further complicate matters, there are Jain anthologies that contain verses clearly related to some of those found in these Buddhist anthologies as well.

Despite the many similarities among these texts, they contain enough discrepancies to have fueled a small scholarly industry. The different recensions of the Pali Dhp contain so many variant readings that there isn't yet — even after more than a century of Western scholarship on the topic — a single edition covering them all. The discrepancies among the Pali and non-Pali versions are even greater. They arrange verses in different orders, each contains verses not found in the others, and among the verses in different versions that are related, the similarity in terms of imagery or message is sometimes fairly tenuous.

Fortunately for anyone looking to the Dhp for spiritual guidance, the differences among the various recensions — though many in number — range in importance from fairly minor to minor in the extreme. Allowing for a few obvious scribal errors, none of them fall outside the pale of what has long been accepted as standard early Buddhist doctrine as derived from the Pali discourses. For example, does the milk in verse 71 come out, or does it curdle? Is the bond in verse 346 subtle, slack, or elastic? Is the brahman in verse 393 happy, or is he pure? For all practical purposes, these questions hardly matter. They become important only when one is forced to take sides in choosing which version to translate, and even then the nature of the choice is like that of a conductor deciding which of the many versions of a Handel oratorio to perform.

Unfortunately for the translator, though, the scholarly discussions that have grown around these issues have tended to blow them all out of proportion, to the point where they call into question the authenticity of the Dhp as a whole. Because the scholars who have devoted themselves to this topic have come up with such contradictory advice for the potential translator — including the suggestion that it's a waste of time to translate some of the verses at all — we need to sort through the discussions to see what, if any, reliable guidance they give.

Those who have worked on the issues raised by the variant versions of Dhp have, by and large, directed the discussion to figuring out which version is the oldest and most authentic, and which versions are later and more corrupt. Lacking any outside landmarks against which the versions can be sighted, scholars have attempted to reconstruct what must have been the earliest version by triangulating among the texts themselves. This textual trigonometry tends to rely on assumptions from among the following three types:

1) Assumptions concerning what is inherently an earlier or later form of a verse. These assumptions are the least reliable of the three, for they involve no truly objective criteria. If, for instance, two versions of a verse differ in that one is more internally consistent than the other, the consistent version will seem more genuine to one scholar, whereas another scholar will attribute the consistency to later efforts to “clean up” the verse. Similarly, if one version contains a rendition of a verse different from all other renditions of the same verse, one scholar will see that as a sign of deviance; another, as a sign of the authenticity that may have predated a later standardization among the texts. Thus the conclusions drawn by different scholars based on these assumptions tell us more about the scholars' presuppositions than they do about the texts themselves.

2) Assumptions concerning the meter of the verses in question. One of the great advances in recent Pali scholarship has been the rediscovery of the metrical rules underlying early Pali poetry. As the Buddha himself is quoted as saying, “Meter is the structural framework of verses.” (SN 1.60) Knowledge of metrical rules thus helps the editor or translator spot which readings of a verse deviate from the structure of a standard meter, and which ones follow it. Theoretically, the obvious choice would be to adopt the latter and reject the former. In practice, however, the issue is not so clear-cut. Early Pali poetry dates from a time of great metrical experimentation, and so there is always the possibility that a particular poem was composed in an experimental meter that never achieved widespread recognition. There is also the possibility that — as the poetry was spontaneous and oral — a fair amount of metrical license was allowed. This means that the more “correct” forms of a verse may have been the products of a later attempt to fit the poetry into standard molds. Thus the conclusions based on the assumption of standard meters are not as totally reliable as they might seem.

3) Assumptions concerning the language in which the original Dhp was first composed. These assumptions require an extensive knowledge of Middle Indic dialects. A scholar will assume a particular dialect to have been the original language of the text, and will further make assumptions about the types of translation mistakes that might have been common when translating from that dialect into the languages of the texts we now have. The textual trigonometry based on these assumptions often involves such complicated methods of sighting and computation that it can produce an “original” version of the text that is just that: very original, coinciding with none of the versions extant. In other words, where the current variants of a verse might be a, b, and c, the added assumption about the Dhp's original language and the ineptitude of ancient translators and copyists leads to the conclusion that the verse must have been d. However, for all the impressive erudition that this method involves, not even the most learned scholar can offer any proof as to what the Dhp's original language was. In fact, as we will consider below, it is possible that the Buddha — assuming that he was the author of the verses — composed poetry in more than one language, and more than one version of a particular verse. So, as with the first set of assumptions, the methods of triangulation based on an assumed original language of the Dhp tell us more about the individual scholar's position than they do about the position of the text.

Thus, although the scholarship devoted to the different recensions of the Dhp has provided a useful service in unearthing so many variant readings of the text, none of the assumptions used in trying to sort through those readings for “the original” Dhp have led to any definite conclusions. Their positive success has been limited mainly to offering food for academic speculation and educated guesses.

On the negative side, though, they have succeeded in accomplishing something totally useless: a wholesale sense of distrust for the early Buddhist texts, and the poetic texts in particular. If the texts contain so many varying reports, the feeling goes, and if their translators and transmitters were so incompetent, how can any of them be trusted? This distrust comes from accepting, unconsciously, the assumptions concerning authorship and authenticity within which our modern, predominately literate culture operates: that only one version of a verse could have been composed by its original author, and that all other versions must be later corruptions. In terms of the Dhp, this comes down to assuming that there was only one original version of the text, and that it was composed in a single language.

However, these assumptions are totally inappropriate for analyzing the oral culture in which the Buddha taught and in which the verses of the Dhp were first anthologized. If we look carefully at the nature of that culture — and in particular at clear statements from the early Buddhist texts concerning the events and principles that shaped those texts — we will see that it is perfectly natural that there should be a variety of reports about the Buddha's teachings, all of which might be essentially correct. In terms of the Dhp, we can view the multiple versions of the text as a sign, not of faulty transmission, but of an allegiance to their oral origins.

Oral prose and poetry are very different from their written counterparts. This fact is obvious even in our own culture. However, we have to make an active effort of the imagination to comprehend the expectations placed on oral transmission between speakers and listeners in a culture where there is no written word to fall back on. In such a setting, the verbal heritage is maintained totally through repetition and memorization. A speaker with something new to say has to repeat it often to different audiences — who, if they feel inspired by the message, are expected to memorize at least its essential parts. Because communication is face-to-face, a speaker is particularly prized for an ability to tailor his/her message to the moment of communication, in terms of the audience's background from the past, its state of mind at present, and its hoped-for benefits in the future.

This puts a double imperative on both the speaker and the listener. The speaker must choose his/her words with an eye both to how they will affect the audience in the present and to how they will be memorized for future reference. The listener must be attentive, both to appreciate the immediate impact of the words and to memorize them for future use. Although originality in teaching is appreciated, it is only one of a constellation of virtues expected of a teacher. Other expected virtues include a knowledge of common culture and an ability to play with that knowledge for the desired effect in terms of immediate impact or memorability. The Pali Dhp (verse 45) itself makes this point in comparing the act of teaching, not to creating something totally new out of nothing, but to selecting among available flowers to create a pleasing arrangement just right for the occasion.

Of course, there are situations in an oral culture where either immediate impact or memorability is emphasized at the expense of the other. In a classroom, listening for impact is sacrificed to the needs of listening for memorization, whereas in a theater, the emphasis is reversed. All indications show, however, that the Buddha as a teacher was especially sensitive to both aspects of oral communication, and that he trained his listeners to be sensitive to both as well. On the one hand, the repetitious style of many of his recorded teachings seems to have been aimed at hammering them into the listener's memory; also, at the end of many of his discourses, he would summarize the main points of the discussion in an easy-to-memorize verse.

On the other hand, there are many reports of instances in which his listeners gained immediate Awakening while listening to his words. And, there is a delightful section in one of his discourses (the Samaññaphala Suttanta, DN 2) satirizing the teachers of other religious sects for their inability to break away from the formulaic mode of their teachings to give a direct answer to specific questions (“It's as if, when asked about a mango, one were to answer with a breadfruit,” one of the interlocutors comments, “or, when asked about a breadfruit, to answer with a mango.”) The Buddha, in contrast, was famous for his ability to speak directly to his listeners' needs.

This sensitivity to both present impact and future use is in line with two well-known Buddhist teachings: first, the basic Buddhist principle of causality, that an act has repercussions both in the present and on into the future; second, the Buddha's realization, early on in his teaching career, that some of his listeners would attain Awakening immediately on hearing his words, whereas others would be able to awaken only after taking his words, contemplating them, and putting them into prolonged practice.

A survey of the Buddha's prose discourses recorded in the Pali Canon gives an idea of how the Buddha met the double demands placed on him as a teacher. In some cases, to respond to a particular situation, he would formulate an entirely original teaching. In others, he would simply repeat a formulaic answer that he kept in store for general use: either teachings original with him, or more traditional teachings — sometimes lightly tailored, sometimes not — that fit in with his message. In still others, he would take formulaic bits and pieces, and combine them in a new way for the needs at hand. A survey of his poetry reveals the same range of material: original works; set pieces — original or borrowed, occasionally altered in line with the occasion; and recyclings of old fragments in new juxtapositions.

Thus, although the Buddha insisted that all his teachings had the same taste — that of release — he taught different variations on the theme of that taste to different people on different occasions, in line with his perception of their short- and long-term needs. In reciting a verse to a particular audience, he might change a word, a line, or an image, to fit in with their backgrounds and individual needs.

Adding to this potential for variety was the fact that the people of northern India in his time spoke a number of different dialects, each with its own traditions of poetry and prose. The Pali Cullavagga (V.33.1) records the Buddha as insisting that his listeners memorize his teachings, not in a standardized lingua franca, but in their own dialects. There is no way of knowing whether he himself was multi-lingual enough to teach all of his students in their own dialects, or expected them to make the translations themselves. Still, it seems likely that, as a well-educated aristocrat of the time, he would have been fluent in at least two or three of the most prevalent dialects. Some of the discourses — such as DN 21 — depict the Buddha as an articulate connoisseur of poetry and song, so we can expect that he would also have been sensitive to the special problems involved in the effective translation of poetry — alive, for instance, to the fact that skilled translation requires more than simply substituting equivalent words. The Mahavagga (V.13.9) reports that the Buddha listened, with appreciation, as a monk from the southern country of Avanti recited some of his teachings — apparently in the Avanti dialect — in his presence. Although scholars have often raised questions about which language the Buddha spoke, it might be more appropriate to remain open to the possibility that he spoke — and could compose poetry in — several. This possibility makes the question of “the” original language or “the” original text of the Dhp somewhat irrelevant.

The texts suggest that even during the Buddha's lifetime his students made efforts to collect and memorize a standardized body of his teachings under a rubric of nine categories: dialogues, narratives of mixed prose and verse, explanations, verses, spontaneous exclamations, quotations, birth stories, amazing events, question and answer sessions. However, the act of collecting and memorizing was pursued by only a sub-group among his monks, while other monks, nuns, and lay people doubtlessly had their own individual memorized stores of teachings they had heard directly from the Buddha or indirectly through the reports of their friends and acquaintances.

The Buddha had the foresight to ensure that this less standardized fund of memories not be discounted by later generations; at the same time, he established norms so that mistaken reports, deviating from the principles of his teachings, would not be allowed to creep into the accepted body of doctrine. To discourage fabricated reports of his words, he warned that anyone who put words in his mouth was slandering him (AN 2.23). This, however, could in no way prevent mistaken reports based on honest misunderstandings. So, shortly before his death, he summarized the basic principles of his teachings: the 37 Wings to Awakening (bodhi-pakkhiyadhamma — see the note to verse 301) in the general framework of the development of virtue, concentration, and discernment, leading to release. Then he announced the general norms by which reports of his teachings were to be judged. The Maha-parinibbana Suttanta (DN 16) quotes him as saying:

“There is the case where a monk says this: 'In the Blessed One's presence have I heard this, in the Blessed One's presence have I received this… In the presence of a community with well-known leading elders… In a monastery with many learned elders who know the tradition… In the presence of a single elder who knows the tradition have I heard this, in his presence have I received this: This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher's instruction.' His statement is neither to be approved nor scorned. Without approval or scorn, take careful note of his words and make them stand against the discourses and tally them against the Vinaya. If, on making them stand against the discourses and tallying them against the Vinaya, you find that they don't stand with the discourses or tally with the Vinaya, you may conclude: 'This is not the word of the Blessed One; this monk has misunderstood it' — and you should reject it. But if… they stand with the discourses and tally with the Vinaya, you may conclude: 'This is the word of the Blessed One; this monk has understood it rightly.'”

Thus, a report of the Buddha's teachings was to be judged, not on the authority of the reporter or his sources, but on the principle of consistency: did it fit in with what was already known of the doctrine? This principle was designed to ensure that nothing at odds with the original would be accepted into the standard canon, but it did open the possibility that teachings in line with the Buddha's, yet not actually spoken by him, might find their way in. The early redactors of the canon seem to have been alert to this possibility, but not overly worried by it. As the Buddha himself pointed out many times, he did not design or create the Dhamma. He simply found it in nature. Anyone who developed the pitch of mental strengths and abilities needed for Awakening could discover the same principles as well. Thus the Dhamma was by no means exclusively his.

This attitude was carried over into the passages of the Vinaya that cite four categories of Dhamma statements: spoken by the Buddha, spoken by his disciples, spoken by seers (non-Buddhist sages), spoken by heavenly beings. As long as a statement was in accordance with the basic principles, the question of who first stated it did not matter. In an oral culture, where a saying might be associated with a person because he authored it, approved it, repeated it often, or inspired it by his/her words or actions, the question of authorship was not the overriding concern it has since become in literate cultures. The recent discovery of evidence that a number of teachings associated with the Buddha may have pre- or post-dated his time would not have fazed the early Buddhists at all, as long as those teachings were in accordance with the original principles.

Shortly after the Buddha's passing away, the Cullavagga (XI) reports, his disciples met to agree on a standardized canon of his teachings, abandoning the earlier nine-fold classification and organizing the material into something approaching the canon we have today. There is clear evidence that some of the passages in the extant canon do not date to the first convocation, as they report incidents that took place afterwards. The question naturally arises as to whether there are any other later additions not so obvious. This question is particularly relevant with regard to texts like the Dhp, whose organization differs considerably from redaction to redaction, and leads naturally to the further question of whether a later addition to the canon can be considered authentic. The Cullavagga (XI.1.11) recounts an incident that sheds light on this issue:

Now at that time, Ven. Purana was wandering on a tour of the Southern Hills with a large community of monks, approximately 500 in all. Then, having stayed as long as he liked in the Southern Hills while the elder monks were standardizing the Dhamma and Vinaya, he went to the Bamboo Park, the Squirrels' Sanctuary, in Rajagaha. On arrival, he went to the elder monks and, after exchanging pleasantries, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, they said to him, “Friend Purana, the Dhamma and Vinaya have been standardized by the elders. Switch over to their standardization.” [He replied:] “The Dhamma and Vinaya have been well-standardized by the elders. Still, I will hold simply to what I have heard and received in the Blessed One's presence.”

In other words, Ven. Purana maintained — and undoubtedly taught to his followers — a record of the Buddha's teachings that lay outside the standardized version, but was nevertheless authentic. As we have already noted, there were monks, nuns, and lay people like him even while the Buddha was alive, and there were probably others like him who continued maintaining personal memories of the Buddha's teachings even after the latter's death.

This story shows the official early Buddhist attitude toward such differing traditions: each accepted the trustworthiness of the others. As time passed, some of the early communities may have made an effort to include these “external” records in the standardized canon, resulting in various collections of prose and verse passages. The range of these collections would have been determined by the material that was available in, or could be effectively translated into, each individual dialect. Their organization would have depended on the taste and skill of the individual collectors. Thus, for instance, we find verses in the Pali Dhp that do not exist in other Dhps, as well as verses in the Patna and Gandhari Dhps that the Pali tradition assigns to the Jataka or Sutta Nipata. We also find verses in one redaction composed of lines scattered among several verses in another. In any event, the fact that a text was a later addition to the standardized canon does not necessarily mean that it was a later invention. Given the ad hoc way in which the Buddha sometimes taught, and the scattered nature of the communities who memorized his teachings, the later additions to the canons may simply represent earlier traditions that escaped standardization until relatively late.

When Buddhists began committing their canons to writing, approximately at the beginning of the common era, they brought a great change to the dynamic of how their traditions were maintained. The advantages of written over oral transmission are obvious: the texts are saved from the vagaries of human long-term memory and do not die out if those who have memorized them die before teaching others to memorize them as well. The disadvantages of written transmission, however, are less obvious but no less real. Not only is there the possibility of scribal error, but — because transmission is not face-to-face — there can also be the suspicion of scribal error. If a reading seems strange to a student, he has no way of checking with the scribe, perhaps several generations distant, to see if the reading was indeed a mistake. When confronted with such problems, he may “correct” the reading to fit in with his ideas of what must be right, even in cases where the reading was correct, and its perceived strangeness was simply a result of changes in the spoken dialect or of his own limited knowledge and imagination. The fact that manuscripts of other versions of the text were also available for comparison in such instances could have led scribes to homogenize the texts, removing unusual variants even when the variants themselves may have gone back to the earliest days of the tradition.

These considerations of how the Dhp may have been handed down to the present — and especially the possibility that (1) variant recensions might all be authentic, and that (2) agreement among the recensions might be the result of later homogenization — have determined the way in which I have approached this translation of the Pali Dhp. Unlike some other recent translators, I am treating the Pali Dhp as a text with its own integrity — just as each of the alternative traditions has its own integrity — and have not tried to homogenize the various traditions. Where the different Pali recensions are unanimous in their readings, even in cases where the reading seems strange (e.g., 71, 209, 259, 346), I have stuck with the Pali without trying to “rectify” it in light of less unusual readings given in the other traditions. Only in cases where the different Pali redactions are at variance with one another, and the variants seem equally plausible, have I checked the non-Pali texts to see which variant they support. The translation here is drawn from three editions of the text: the Pali Text Society (PTS) edition edited by O. by Hinüber and K.R. Norman (1995); the Oxford edition edited by John Ross Carter and Mahinda Palihawadana, together with its extensive notes (1987); and the Royal Thai edition of the Pali Canon (1982). The pts edition gives the most extensive list of variant readings among the Pali recensions, but even it is not complete. The Royal Thai edition, for example, contains 49 preferred and 8 variant readings not given in the PTS version at all. Passages where I have differed from the PTS reading are cited in the End Notes.

Drawing selectively on various recensions in this way, I cannot guarantee that the resulting reading of the Dhp corresponds exactly to the Buddha's words, or to any one text that once existed in ancient India. However, as I mentioned at the beginning of this note, all the recensions agree in their basic principles, so the question is immaterial. The true test of the reading — and the resulting translation — is if the reader feels engaged enough by the verses to put their principles into practice and finds that they do indeed lead to the release that the Buddha taught. In the final analysis, nothing else really counts.


(Numbers refer to verses.)


The fact that the word mano is paired here with dhamma would seem to suggest that it is meant in its role as “intellect,” the sense medium that conveys knowledge of ideas or mental objects (two possible meanings for the word dhamma). However, the illustrations in the second sentence of each verse show that it is actually meant in its role as the mental factor responsible for the quality of one's actions (as in mano-kamma), the factor of will and intention, shaping not only mental events, but also physical reality (on this point, see SN 35.145). Thus, following a Thai tradition, I have rendered it here as “heart.”

The images in these verses are carefully chosen. The cart, representing suffering, is a burden on the ox pulling it, and the weight of its wheels obliterates the ox's track. The shadow, representing happiness, is no weight on the body at all.

All Pali recensions of this verse give the reading, manomaya = made of the heart, while all other recensions give the reading manojava = impelled by the heart.


Focused on the foul: A meditative exercise in focusing on the foul aspects of the body so as to help undercut lust and attachment for the body (see MN 119). AN 3.16 gives a standard definition for restraint with the senses: “And how does a monk guard the doors to his sense faculties? There is the case where a monk, on seeing a form with the eye, does not grasp at any theme or particulars by which — if he were to dwell without restraint over the faculty of the eye — evil, unskillful qualities such as greed or distress might assail him. He practices with restraint. He guards the faculty of the eye. He achieves restraint with regard to the faculty of the eye. (Similarly with the ear, nose, tongue, body & intellect.) This is how a monk guards the doors to his sense faculties.”


Wrong resolves = mental resolves for sensuality, ill will, or harmfulness. Right resolves = mental resolves for freedom from sensuality, for freedom from ill will, and for harmlessness.


“Destination” in these two verses and throughout the text means one's destination after death.


The Deathless = Unbinding (nibbana/nirvana), which gives release from the cycle of death and rebirth.


“The range of the noble ones”: Any of the four stages of Awakening, as well as the total Unbinding to which they lead. The four stages are: (1) stream-entry, at which one abandons the first three mental fetters tying one to the round of rebirth: self-identity views, uncertainty, and grasping at habits and practices; (2) once-returning, at which passion, aversion, and delusion are further weakened; (3) non-returning, at which sensual passion and irritation are abandoned; and (4) arahantship, at which the final five fetters are abandoned: passion for form, passion for formless phenomena, conceit, restlessness, and ignorance. For other references to the “range of the noble ones,” see 92-93 and 179-180.


AN 4.10 lists four yokes: the yoke of sensuality, the yoke of becoming, the yoke of views, and the yoke of ignorance. To gain rest from the first three yokes, one must discern, as it actually is present, the origination, the passing away, the allure, the drawbacks, and the escape from that yoke. One will then not be obsessed with passion, delight, attraction, infatuation, thirst, fever, fascination, craving with regard to that yoke. To gain rest from the yoke of ignorance, one must discern, as it actually is present, the origination, the passing away, the allure, the drawbacks, and the escape from the six sense media. One will then not be obsessed with not-knowing.


“Lying in a cave”: According to the Dhp Commentary (hereafter referred to as DhpA), “cave” here means the physical heart, as well as the four great properties — earth (solidity), water (liquidity), fire (heat), and wind (motion) — that make up the body. Sn 4.2 also compares the body to a cave.


According to DhpA, “unsoddened mind” means one into which the rain of passion doesn't penetrate (see 13 and 14); “unassaulted awareness” means a mind not assaulted by anger. “Beyond merit & evil”: The arahant is beyond merit and evil in that he/she has none of the mental defilements — passion, aversion, or delusion — that would lead to evil actions, and none of the attachments that would cause his/her actions to bear kammic fruit of any sort, good or bad.


“Without settling there, without laying claim”: two meanings of the word anivesano.


AN 7.60 illustrates this point with seven ways that a person harms him/herself when angry, bringing on results that an enemy would wish: He/she becomes ugly, sleeps badly, mistakes profit for loss and loss for profit, loses wealth, loses his/her reputation, loses friends, and acts in such a way that — after death — he/she reappears in a bad rebirth.


“Dhamma-saying”: This is a translation for the term dhammapada. To ferret out the well-taught Dhamma-saying means to select the appropriate maxim to apply to a particular situation, in the same way that a flower-arranger chooses the right flower, from a heap of available flowers (see 53), to fit into a particular spot in the arrangement. “The learner-on-the-path”: A person who has attained any of the first three of the four stages of Awakening (see note 22).


According to DhpA, the End-maker is death. According to another ancient commentary, the End-maker is Mara.


The last line of the Pali here can be read in two ways, either “even so, many a skillful thing should be done by one born & mortal” or “even so, many a skillful thing should be done with what's born & mortal.” The first reading takes the phrase jatena maccena, born & mortal, as being analogous to the flower-arranger implicit in the image. The second takes it as analogous to the heap of flowers explicitly mentioned. In this sense, “what's born & is mortal” would stand for one's body, wealth, and talents.


Tagara = a shrub that, in powdered form, is used as a perfume. AN 3.78 explains the how the scent of a virtuous person goes against the wind and wafts to the devas, by saying that those human and celestial beings who know of the good character of a virtuous person will broadcast one's good name in all directions.


“Right knowing”: the knowledge of full Awakening.


“Doesn't — like ready milk — come out right away”: All Pali recensions of this verse give the verb muccati — “to come out” or “to be released” — whereas DhpA agrees with the Sanskrit recensions in reading the verb as if it were mucchati/murchati, “to curdle.” The former reading makes more sense, both in terms of the image of the poem — which contrasts coming out with staying hidden — and with the plain fact that fresh milk doesn't curdle right away. The Chinese translation of Dhp supports this reading, as do two of three scholarly editions of the Patna Dhp.


“Drinking the Dhamma, refreshed by the Dhamma”: two meanings of the word, dhammapiti. “Clear… calm”: two meanings of vipasannena.


“Stand apart”: reading cajanti with DhpA and many Asian editions.


The syntax of this verse yields the best sense if we take param as meaning “across,” and not as “the far shore.”


Factors for self-awakening = mindfulness, analysis of qualities, persistence, rapture, serenity, concentration, and equanimity.


“Having understood food… independent of nutriment”: The first question in the Novice's Questions (Khp 4) is “What is one?” The answer: “All animals subsist on nutriment.” The concept of food and nutriment here refers to the most basic way of understanding the causal principle that plays such a central role in the Buddha's teaching. As SN 12.64 points out, “There are these four nutriments for the establishing of beings who have taken birth or for the support of those in search of a place to be born. Which four? Physical nutriment, gross or refined; contact as the second, consciousness the third, and intellectual intention the fourth.” The present verses make the point that the arahant has so fully understood the process of physical and mental causality that he/she is totally independent of it, and thus will never take birth again. Such a person cannot be comprehended by any of the forms of understanding that operate within the causal realm.


“Such (tadin)”: an adjective used to describe one who has attained the goal of Buddhist practice, indicating that the person's state is indefinable but not subject to change or influences of any sort. “Right knowing”: the knowledge of full Awakening.


Indra's pillar = a post set up at the gate of a city. According to DhpA, there was an ancient custom of worshipping this post with flowers and offerings, although those who wanted to show their disrespect for this custom would urinate and defecate on the post. In either case, the post did not react.


This verse is a series of puns. The negative meanings of the puns are on the left side of the slashes; the positive meanings, on the right. The negative meanings are so extremely negative that they were probably intended to shock their listeners. One scholar has suggested that the last word — uttamaporiso, the ultimate person — should also be read as a pun, with the negative meaning, “the extreme of audacity,” but that would weaken the shock value of the verse.


According to DhpA, the word sahassam in this and the following verses means “by the thousands” rather than “a thousand.” The same principle would also seem to hold for satam — “by the hundreds” rather than “a hundred” — in 102.


“Doesn't come to a fourth”: DhpA: The merit produced by all sacrificial offerings given in the world in the course of a year doesn't equal even one fourth of the merit made by paying homage once to one who has gone the straight way to Unbinding.


“('It won't amount to much')”: reading na mattam agamissati with the Thai edition. Other editions read, na mantam agamissati, “It won't come to me.”


Heaven and hell, in the Buddhist view of the cosmos, are not eternal states. One may be reborn on one of the various levels of heaven or hell as the result of one's kamma on the human plane, and then leave that level when that particular store of kamma wears out.


Some translators have proposed that the verb apabodheti, here translated as “awakens” should be changed to appam bodheti, “to think little of.” This, however, goes against the sense of the verse and of a recurrent image in the Canon, that the better-bred the horse, the more sensitive it is even to the idea of the whip, to say nothing of the whip itself. See, for example, A 4.113

The question raised in this verse is answered in SN 1.18:

Those restrained by conscience are rare — those who go through life always mindful. Having reached the end of suffering & stress, they go through what is uneven evenly; go through what is out-of-tune in tune.


Muscles: This is a translation of the Pali mansani, which is usually rendered in this verse as “flesh.” However, because the Pali word is in the plural form, “muscles” seems more accurate — and more to the point.


DhpA: These verses were the Buddha's first utterance after his full Awakening. For some reason, they are not reported in any of the other canonical accounts of the events following on the Awakening

DhpA: “House” = selfhood; house-builder = craving. “House” may also refer to the nine abodes of beings — the seven stations of consciousness and two spheres (see Khp 4 and DN 15).

The word anibbisam in 153 can be read either as the negative gerund of nibbisati (“earning, gaining a reward”) or as the negative gerund of nivisati, altered to fit the meter, meaning “coming to a rest, settled, situated.” Both readings make sense in the context of the verse, so the word is probably intended to have a double meaning: without reward, without rest.


“The three watches of the night”: this is the literal meaning of the verse, but DhpA shows that the image of staying up to nurse someone in the night is meant to stand for being wakeful and attentive throughout the three stages of life: youth, middle age, and old age. The point here is that it is never too early or too late to wake up and begin nurturing the good qualities of mind that will lead to one's true benefit. On this point, see A 3.51 & 52, where the Buddha counsels two old brahmans, nearing the end of their life span, to begin practicing generosity along with restraint in thought, word, and deed.


DhpA completes the image of the poem by saying that one's vice brings about one's own downfall, just as a maluva creeper ultimately brings about the downfall of the tree it overspreads. See note 42.


A bamboo plant bears fruit only once and then dies soon after.


“No one purifies another. No other purifies one.” These are the two meanings of the one phrase, nañño aññam visodhaye.


AN 4.95 lists four types of people in descending order: those devoted to their own true welfare as well as that of others, those devoted to their own true welfare but not that of others, those devoted to the true welfare of others but not their own, and those devoted neither to their own true welfare nor that of others. SN 47.19 makes the point that if one is truly devoted to one's own welfare, others automatically benefit, in the same way that an acrobat maintaining his/her own balance helps his/her partner stay balanced as well.


The Sutta Nipata (Sn 5.15) reports a conversation between the Buddha and the brahman Mogharaja with a point similar to that of this verse:

Mogharaja: In what way does one view the world so as not to be seen by Death's king? The Buddha: View the world, Mogharaja, as empty — always mindful to have removed any view about self. This way one is above & beyond death. This is the way one views the world so as not to be seen by Death's king.


This verse is also found at Iti.25, where the context makes clear the meaning of ekam dhammam, or “this one thing”: the principle of truthfulness.


The fruit of stream-entry is the first of the four stages of Awakening (see note 22). A person who has attained stream entry — entry into the stream that flows inevitably to Unbinding — is destined to attain full Awakening within at most seven lifetimes, never falling below the human state in the interim.


These verses are a summary of a talk called the Ovada Patimokkha, which the Buddha is said to have delivered to an assembly of 1,250 arahants in the first year after his Awakening. Verse 183 is traditionally viewed as expressing the heart of the Buddha's teachings.


The noble eightfold path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.


Objectification = papañca. Alternative translations of this term would be proliferation, elaboration, exaggeration, complication. The term is used both in philosophical contexts — in connection with troubles and conflict — and in artistic contexts, in connection with the way in which an artistic theme is objectified and elaborated. Sn 4.14 states that the classifications of objectification begin with the perception by which one objectifies oneself — “I am thinker” — and then spread to objectify the rest of experience around the issues caused by that perception. MN 18 explains how this leads to conflict: “Dependent on eye & forms, eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as a requisite condition, there is feeling. What one feels, one perceives [labels in the mind]. What one perceives, one thinks about. What one thinks about, one objectifies. Based on what a person objectifies, the perceptions & categories of objectification assail him/her with regard to past, present, & future forms cognizable via the eye. [Similarly with the other senses.]… Now, with regard to the cause whereby the perceptions & categories of objectification assail a person: if there is nothing there to relish, welcome, or remain fastened to, then that is the end of obsession with passion, irritation, views, uncertainty, conceit, passion for becoming, & ignorance. That is the end of taking up rods & bladed weapons, of arguments, quarrels, disputes, accusations, divisive tale-bearing, & false speech. That is where these evil, unskillful actions cease without remainder.”


This verse plays with the various meanings of yoga (task, striving, application, meditation) and a related term, anuyuñjati (keeping after something, taking someone to task). In place of the Pali reading attanuyoginam, “those who kept after themselves,” the Patna Dhp reads atthanuyoginam, “those who kept after/remained devoted to the goal.”


“The up-flowing stream”: DhpA: the attainment of non-returning, the third of the four stages of Awakening (see note 22).


The Pali in these verses repeats the word “comes” three times, to emphasize the idea that if the results of meritorious actions await one after death, one's going to the next world is more like a homecoming.


Bodily misconduct = killing, stealing, engaging in illicit sex. Verbal misconduct = lies, divisive speech, harsh speech, idle chatter. Mental misconduct = covetousness, ill will, wrong views.


Yama = the god of the underworld. Yama's minions or underlings were believed to appear to a person just prior to the moment of death.


Impurities, blemishes = passion, aversion, delusion, and their various permutations, including envy, miserliness, hypocrisy, and boastfulness.


“One who lives slovenly”: As DhpA makes clear, this refers to one who uses the requisites of food, clothing, shelter, and medicine without the wisdom that comes with reflecting on their proper use. The Pali term here is atidhonacarin, a compound built around the word dhona, which means clean or pure. The ati- in the compound could mean “overly,” thus yielding, “one overly scrupulous in his behavior,” but it can also mean “transgressing,” thus, “transgressing against what is clean” = “slovenly.” The latter reading fits better with the image of rust as a deficiency in the iron resulting from carelessness.


“No outside contemplative”: No true contemplative, defined as a person who has attained any of the four stages of Awakening, exists outside of the practice of the Buddha's teachings (see note 22). In DN 16, the Buddha is quoted as teaching his final student: “In any doctrine & discipline where the noble eightfold path is not found, no contemplative of the first… second… third… fourth order [stream-winner, once-returner, non-returner, or arahant] is found. But in any doctrine & discipline where the noble eightfold path is found, contemplatives of the first… second… third… fourth order are found. The noble eightfold path is found in this doctrine & discipline, and right here there are contemplatives of the first… second… third… fourth order. Other teachings are empty of knowledgeable contemplatives. And if the monks dwell rightly, this world will not be empty of arahants.” (On the noble eightfold path, see note 191.)

On “objectification,” see note 195-196.


The sense of the verse, confirmed by DhpA, suggests that the Pali word dhammattho means “judge.” This, in fact, is the theme tying together the verses in this chapter. The duty of a judge is to correctly determine attha, a word that denotes both “meaning” and “judgment,” these two senses of the word being connected by the fact that the judge must interpret the meanings of words used in rules and principles to see how they correctly apply to the particulars of a case so that he can pass a correct verdict. The remaining verses in this chapter give examples of interpreting attha in an appropriate way.


“Sees Dhamma through his body”: The more common expression in the Pali Canon (e.g., in AN 6.46 and AN 9.45) is to touch Dhamma through or with the body (phusati or phassati, “he touches,” rather than passati, “he sees”). The Sanskrit recensions and the Patna Dhp all support the reading, “he would touch,” but all Pali recensions are unanimous in the reading, “he sees.” Some scholars regard this latter reading as a corruption of the verse; I personally find it a more striking image than the common expression.


This verse plays with a number of nouns and verbs related to the adjective sama, which means “even,” “equal,” “on pitch,” or “in tune.” Throughout ancient cultures, the terminology of music was used to describe the moral quality of people and acts. Discordant intervals or poorly-tuned musical instruments were metaphors for evil; harmonious intervals and well-tuned instruments, for good. Thus in Pali, samana, or contemplative, also means a person who is in tune with the principles of rightness and truth inherent in nature. Here and in 388, I've attempted to give a hint of these implications by associating the word “contemplative” with “consonance.”


This verse contains the Buddhist refutation of the idea that “those who know don't speak, those who speak don't know.” For another refutation of the same idea, see DN 12. In Vedic times, a sage (muni) was a person who took a vow of silence (mona) and was supposed to gain special knowledge as a result. The Buddhists adopted the term muni, but redefined it to show how true knowledge was attained and how it expressed itself in the sage's actions. For a fuller portrait of the ideal Buddhist sage, see AN 3.23 and Sn 1.12.


This verse has what seems to be a rare construction, in which na + instrumental nouns + a verb in the aorist tense gives the force of a prohibitive (“Don't, on account of x, do y”). “The renunciate ease that run-of-the-mill people don't know,” according to DhpA, is the state of non-returning, the third of the four stages of Awakening (see note 22). Because non-returners are still attached to subtle states of becoming on the level of form and formlessness, DhpA drives home the message that even non-returners should not be complacent by paraphrasing a passage from AN 1 (202 in the Thai edition; at the end of Chapter 19 in the PTS edition) that reads, “Just as even a small amount of excrement is foul-smelling, in the same way I do not praise even a small amount of becoming, even for the extent of a fingersnap.”


The four truths: stress, its cause, its cessation, and the path to its cessation (which is identical to the eightfold path). See note 191.


“I have taught you this path”: reading akkhato vo maya maggo with the Thai edition, a reading supported by the Patna Dhp. “Having known — for your knowing”: two ways of interpreting what is apparently a play on the Pali word, aññaya, which can be either be the gerund of ajanati or the dative of añña. On the extraction of arrows as a metaphor for the practice, see MN 63 and MN 105.


Although the first word in this verse, ucchinda, literally means “crush,” “destroy,” “annihilate,” I have found no previous English translation that renders it accordingly. Most translate it as “cut out” or “uproot,” which weakens the image. On the role played by self-allure in leading the heart to become fixated on others, see AN 7.48.


Ender = death.


Mindfulness immersed in the body = the practice of focusing on the body at all times simply as a phenomenon in and of itself, as a way of developing meditative absorption (jhana) and removing any sense of attraction to, distress over, or identification with the body. MN 119 lists the following practices as instances of mindfulness immersed in the body: mindfulness of breathing, awareness of the four postures of the body (standing, sitting, walking, lying down), alertness to all the actions of the body, analysis of the body into its 32 parts, analysis of it into its four properties (earth, water, fire, wind), and contemplation of the body's inevitable decomposition after death.


This verse and the one following it use terms with ambiguous meanings to shock the listener. According to DhpA, mother = craving; father = conceit; two warrior kings = views of eternalism (that one has an identity remaining constant through all time) and of annihilationism (that one is totally annihilated at death); kingdom = the twelve sense spheres (the senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, feeling, and ideation, together with their respective objects); dependency = passions for the sense spheres.


DhpA: two learned kings = views of eternalism and annihilationism; a tiger = the path where the tiger goes for food, i.e., the hindrance of uncertainty, or else all five hindrances (sensual desire, ill will, torpor & lethargy, restlessness & anxiety, and uncertainty). However, in Sanskrit literature, “tiger” is a term for a powerful and eminent man; if that is what is meant here, the term may stand for anger.


See note 293.


“Developing the mind” in terms of the 37 Wings to Awakening: the four frames of reference (ardent, mindful alertness to body, feelings, mind states, and mental qualities in and of themselves), the four right exertions (to abandon and avoid evil, unskillful mental qualities, and to foster and strengthen skillful mental qualities), the four bases of power (concentration based on desire, persistence, intentness, and discrimination), the five strengths and five faculties (conviction, persistence, mindfulness, concentration, and discernment), the seven factors for self-awakening (see note 89), and the noble eightfold path (see note 191). For a full treatment of this topic, see The Wings to Awakening.


DhpA: Wealth = both material wealth and the seven forms of noble wealth (ariya-dhana): conviction, virtue, shame, compunction (at the thought of doing evil), erudition, generosity, discernment.


DhpA: Dhanapalaka was a noble elephant captured for the king of Kasi. Although given palatial quarters with the finest food, he showed no interest, but thought only of the sorrow his mother felt, alone in the elephant wood, separated from her son.


DhpA: The bull elephant named Matanga, reflecting on the inconveniences of living in a herd crowded with she-elephants and young elephants — he was pushed around as he went into the river, had to drink muddied water, had to eat leaves that others had already nibbled, etc. — decided that he would find more pleasure in living alone. His story parallels that of the elephant in AN 9.40 and elephant the Buddha met in the Parileyyaka Forest (Mv X.4.6-7).


This verse provides a Buddhist twist to the typical benedictions found in works of kavya. Instead of expressing a wish that the listeners meet with wealth, fame, status, or other worldly forms of good fortune, it describes the highest good fortune, which can be accomplished only through one's own skillful kamma: the uprooting of craving and the resulting state of total freedom from the round of death and rebirth. A similar twist on the theme of good fortune is found in the Mangala Sutta (Khp.5, Sn 2.4), which teaches that the best protective charm is to develop skillful kamma, ultimately developing the mind to the point where it is untouched by the vagaries of the world.


36 streams = three forms of desire for each of the internal and external sense spheres (see note 294) — 3 x 2 x 6 = 36. According to one sub-commentary, the three forms of desire are desires focused on the present, past, and future. According to another, they are craving for sensuality, craving for becoming, and craving for no-becoming.


“Every which way”: Reading sabbadhi with the Thai and Burmese editions. The creeper, according to DhpA, is craving, which sends thoughts out to wrap around its objects, while it itself stays rooted in the mind.


This verse contains an implied simile: the terms “loosened & oiled,” here applied to joys, were commonly used to describe smooth bowel movements.


For the various meanings that attano — “for himself” — can have in this verse, see note 402.


“Elastic”: The usual translation for sithilam — “slack” — does not fit in this verse, but all the Pali recensions are unanimous on this reading, so I have chosen a near synonym that does. The Patna Dhp renders this term as “subtle,” whereas the Tibetan commentary to the Udanavarga explains the line as a whole as meaning “hard for the slack to untie.” Both alternatives make sense, but may be attempts to “correct” a term that could well have originally meant “elastic,” a meaning that got lost with the passage of time.


DhpA: In front = the aggregates of the past; behind = the aggregates of the future; in between = the aggregates of the present. See also note 385.


“A focus on the foul”: A meditative exercise in focusing on the foul parts of the body so as to help undercut lust and attachment for the body. See note 7-8.


“Astute in expression, knowing the combination of sounds — which comes first & which after”: Some arahants, in addition to their ability to overcome all of their defilements, are also endowed with four forms of acumen (patisambhida), one of which is acumen with regard to expression (nirutti-patisambhida), i.e., a total mastery of linguistic expression. This talent in particular must have been of interest to the anthologist(s) who put together the Dhp.

“Last-body”: Because an arahant will not be reborn, this present body is his/her last.


According to MN 26 and Mv I.6.7, one of the first people the Buddha met after his Awakening was an ascetic who commented on the clarity of his faculties and asked who his teacher was. This verse was part of the Buddha's response.


This verse contains several terms related to aesthetics. Both dhamma (justice) and dana (gift/generosity) are sub-types of the heroic rasa, or savor. (See the Introduction.) The third sub-type of the heroic — yuddha (warfare) — is suggested by the verb “conquer,” which occurs four times in the Pali. Rati (delight/love) is the emotion (bhava) that corresponds to the sensitive rasa. In effect, the verse is saying that the highest forms of rasa and emotion are those related to Dhamma; the highest expression of the heroic Dhamma rasa is in the ending of craving.


See note 7-8.


“Counsel”: In the context of Indian literary theory, this is the meaning of the word manta, which can also mean “chant.” The literary context seems to be the proper one here.


“Stilling-of-fabrications ease”: the true ease and freedom experienced when all five aggregates are stilled.


DhpA: The boat = one's own personhood (atta-bhava, the body-mind complex); the water that needs to be bailed out = wrong thoughts (imbued with passion, aversion, or delusion).


DhpA: Cut through five = the five lower fetters that tie the mind to the round of rebirth (self-identity views, uncertainty, grasping at habits & practices, sensual passion, irritation); let go of five = the five higher fetters (passion for form, passion for formless phenomena, conceit, restlessness, ignorance); develop five = the five faculties (conviction, persistence, mindfulness, concentration, discernment); five attachments = passion, aversion, delusion, conceit, views.


See note 368.


This verse, addressed to a member of the brahman caste, is one of the few in Dhp where the word brahman is used in its ordinary sense, as indicating caste membership, and not in its special Buddhist sense as indicating an arahant.


DhpA: two things = tranquility meditation and insight meditation.


DhpA: This verse refers to a person who has no sense of “I” or “mine,” either for the senses (“not-beyond”) or their objects (“beyond”). The passage may also refer to the sense of total limitlessness that makes the experience of Unbinding totally ineffable, as reflected in the following conversation (Sn 5.6):

Upasiva: He who has reached the end: Does he not exist, or is he for eternity free from dis-ease? Please, sage, declare this to me as this phenomenon has been known by you. The Buddha: One who has reached the end has no criterion by which anyone would say that — it doesn't exist for him. When all phenomena are done away with, all means of speaking are done away with as well.


Stains = the impurities listed in note 236. On “consonance,” see note 265.


The word “anger” here is added from DhpA, which interprets the “letting loose” as the act of retaliating with anger against one's assailant. Some translators read “brahman” as the subject not only of the second line, but also the first: “A brahman should/would not strike a brahman.” However, this reading is unlikely, for a brahman (in this context, an arahant) would not strike anyone at all. If a brahman retaliates with anger to being struck, that is a sign that he is not a true brahman: thus more shame on him for having assumed a status not truly his. On the topic of how to react to violent attack, see MN 21 and MN 145.


“What's endearing & not”: In the phrase manaso piyehi, piyehi can be read straight as it is, as “endearing,” or as an elided form of apiyehi, “not endearing.” The former reading is more straightforward, but given the reference to “harmful-heartedness” in the next line, the latter reading serves to tie the stanza together. It is also consistent with the fact that DhpA takes this verse to be a continuation of 389. Given the way in which kavya cultivated a taste for ambiguities and multiple interpretations, both readings may have been intended.


“Brahman” here is used in its ordinary sense, as indicating caste membership, and not in its special Buddhist sense as indicating an arahant.


“He is a pure one”: reading so suci with the Thai edition, a reading supported by the Chinese translation of the Dhp.


In India of the Buddha's day, matted hair, etc., were regarded as visible signs of spiritual status.


“Bho-sayer” — Brahmans addressed others as “bho” as a way of indicating their (the brahmans') superior caste. “If he has anything” (reading sa ce with the Burmese edition) = if he/she lays claim to anything as his/her own.


DhpA: strap = hatred; thong = craving; cord = 62 forms of wrong view (listed in the Brahmajala Suttanta, DN 1); bridle = obsessions (sensuality, becoming, anger, conceit, views, uncertainty, ignorance).


“With no overbearing pride”: reading anussadam with the Thai and Burmese editions. “Last-body”: see note 352.


“For himself, on his own, his own ending of stress”: Three different ways that the one word attano functions in this verse.


According to DhpA, “attachments/homes (alaya)” = cravings. “Knowing”: the knowledge of full Awakening.


See note 39.


See note 348.


The forms of mastery listed in this verse correspond to the three knowledges that comprised the Buddha's Awakening: knowledge of previous lives, knowledge of how beings pass away and are reborn in the various levels of being, and knowledge of the ending of the effluents that maintain the process of birth.


<dl class='glossary'>

Aggregate (khandha):

Any one of the five bases for clinging to a sense of self: form (physical phenomena, including the body), feelings, perceptions (mental labels), thought-fabrications, consciousness. Sanskrit form: Skandha.


A “worthy one” or “pure one”; a person whose mind is free of defilement and thus is not destined for further rebirth. A title for the Buddha and the highest level of his noble disciples.

Becoming (bhava):

States of being that develop first in the mind and allow for birth on any of three levels: the level of sensuality, the level of form, and the level of formlessness.


An inhabitant of the highest, non-sensual levels of heaven.


The Brahmans of India have long maintained that they, by their birth, are worthy of the highest respect. Buddhists borrowed the term “brahman” to apply to arahants to show that respect is earned not by birth, race, or caste, but by spiritual attainment through following the right path of practice. Most of the verses in the Dhammapada use the word brahman in this special sense; those using the word in its ordinary sense are indicated in the notes.


Literally, “shining one.” An inhabitant of the heavenly realms.


(1) Event; a phenomenon in and of itself; (2) mental quality; (3) doctrine, teaching; (4) nibbana. Sanskrit form: Dharma.

Effluent (asava):

One of four qualities — sensuality, views, becoming, and ignorance — that “flow out” of the mind and create the flood of the round of death and rebirth.

Enlightened one (dhira):

Throughout this translation I have rendered buddha as “Awakened,” and dhira as “enlightened.” As Jan Gonda points out in his book, The Vision of the Vedic Poets, the word dhira was used in Vedic and Buddhist poetry to mean a person who has the heightened powers of mental vision needed to perceive the “light” of the underlying principles of the cosmos, together with the expertise to implement those principles in the affairs of life and to reveal them to others. A person enlightened in this sense may also be awakened, but is not necessarily so.

Fabrication (sankhara):

Sankhara literally means “putting together,” and carries connotations of jerry-rigged artificiality. It is applied to physical and to mental processes, as well as to the products of those processes. In some contexts it functions as the fourth of the five aggregates — thought-fabrications; in others, it covers all five.


Celestial musician, a member of one of the lower deva realms.

Heart (manas):

The mind in its role as will and intention.


King of the devas in the Heaven of the Thirty-three.


Meditative absorption. A state of strong concentration, devoid of sensuality or unskillful thoughts, focused on a single physical sensation or mental notion that is then expanded to fill the whole range of one's awareness. Jhana is synonymous with right concentration, the eighth factor in the noble eightfold path (see note 191).


Intentional act, bearing fruit in terms of states of becoming and birth. Sanskrit form: Karma.


The personification of evil, temptation, and death.


Basic code of monastic discipline, composed of 227 rules for monks and 311 for nuns.


Transmigration; the “wandering-on”; the round of death and rebirth.


On the conventional (sammati) level, this term denotes the communities of Buddhist monks and nuns; on the ideal (ariya) level, it denotes those followers of the Buddha, lay or ordained, who have attained at least stream-entry (see note 22).

Stress (dukkha):

Alternative translations for dukkha include suffering, burdensomeness, and pain. However — despite the unfortunate connotations it has picked up from programs in “stress-management” and “stress-reduction” — the English word stress, in its basic meaning as the reaction to strain on the body or mind, has the advantage of covering much the same range as the Pali word dukkha. It applies both to physical and mental phenomena, ranging from the intense stress of acute anguish or pain to the innate burdensomeness of even the subtlest mental or physical fabrications. It also has the advantage of being universally recognized as something directly experienced in all life, and is at the same time a useful tool for cutting through the spiritual pride that keeps people attached to especially refined or sophisticated forms of suffering: once all suffering, no matter how noble or refined, is recognized as being nothing more than stress, the mind can abandon the pride that keeps it attached to that suffering, and so gain release from it. Still, in some of the verses of the Dhammapada, stress seems too weak to convey the meaning, so in those verses I have rendered dukkha as pain, suffering, or suffering & stress.


Literally, “one who has become authentic (tatha-agata),” or “one who is really gone (tatha-gata),” an epithet used in ancient India for a person who has attained the highest religious goal. In Buddhism, it usually denotes the Buddha, although occasionally it also denotes any of his arahant disciples.

Unbinding (nibbana, nirvana):

Because nibbana is used to denote not only the Buddhist goal, but also the extinguishing of a fire, it is usually rendered as “extinguishing” or, even worse, “extinction.” However, a study of ancient Indian views of the workings of fire (see The Mind Like Fire Unbound) reveals that people of the Buddha's time felt that a fire, in going out, did not go out of existence but was simply freed from its agitation, entrapment, and attachment to its fuel. Thus, when applied to the Buddhist goal, the primary connotation of nibbana is one of release, along with cooling and peace. Sanskrit form: Nirvana.


ANAnguttara Nikaya
DNDigha Nikaya
DhpADhammapada Commentary
MNMajjhima Nikaya
PTSPali Text Society
SNSamyutta Nikaya
SnSutta Nipata


Brough, John, ed. The Gandhari Dharmapada (London: Oxford University Press, 1962).

Carter, John Ross and Mahinda Palihawadana, trans. and ed. The Dhammapada (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

Cone, Margaret. “Patna Dharmapada, Part I: Text,” in Journal of the Pali Text Society, XIII, 1989: 101-217.

Dhammajoti, Bhikkhu Kuala Lumpur, trans. and ed. The Chinese Version of Dharmapada (Kelaniya, Sri Lanka: Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies, 1995).

Gonda, Jan. The Vision of the Vedic Poets (The Hague: Mouton, 1963).

by Hin&uuml;ber, O., and K.R. Norman, eds. Dhammapada (Oxford: The Pali Text Society, 1995).

Norman, K.R., trans. The Word of the Doctrine (Oxford: The Pali Text Society, 1997).

Warder, A.K. Indian Kavya Literature, vols. I and II, 2nd rev. eds. (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1989 and 1990).

In addition to the above works, I have also consulted many previous English translations and renderings of the Dhammapada, complete and incomplete, including those by Ven. Ananda Maitreya, Babbitt, Beyer, Ven. Buddharakkhita, Byrom, Cleary, Fronsdal, Kaviratna, Vens. Khantipalo and Susañña, Mascaro, Ven. Narada, Ven. Piyadassi, Radhakrishnan, and Wannapok, as well as Thai translations by Plengvithaya and Wannapok. In addition, I have consulted translations of the Udanavarga — again, complete and incomplete — by Sparham and Strong. I have also drawn from the Royal Thai Edition of the Pali Canon, published by Mahamakut Rajavidalaya Press, Bangkok, 1982.

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