The Dhammapada is probably the most popular piece of scripture among Buddhists, and the most widely translated. The name literally means “The Way of the Dharma”. Dharma, a Sanskrit word that is very complex to translate, in the Buddhist context most frequently means “the body of teachings given by the Buddha”. More broadly, it can refer to the entire Buddhist relgion (more precisely designated as Buddhadharma). As Christian contexts will sometimes refer to “the Faith” in the sense of “the Christian religion”, “the Dharma” can likewise be construed as a synonym for “Buddhism”. Thus “Dhammapada”–the Way of the Dharma–essentially means “the way of Buddhism” or “the way of the Buddhist religion”.
A slight pet peeve, by the way. Americans tend to assume, incorrectly, that “a” is pronounced as the “a” in “father”–ahhh–in all foreign languages. The letter अ in both Sanskrit and Pali is transliterated as “a”, and is pronounced not as “ahhh” but like the “u” in “but” or the last “a” in “America”. The letter आ, transliterated as “ā”, is properly pronounced “ahh”. I’m not always consistent about using all the proper diacritics, but all the a’s in “Dhammapada” are short. Thus, the proper pronunciation of it is something like “dum-muh-pud-uh”, accent on the first syllable. Likewise “dharma” and “karma” ought to be “duhr-muh” and “kuhr-muh”. I always pronounce “dharma” correctly (though very few Americans do), but “karma” is so much assimilated that I pronounce it “kahhr-muh”, since the correct pronunciation would sound odd and confuse people. Sigh.
The Dhammapada is a series of verses, arranged thematically into chapters, covering the basic teachings of the Buddha in the form of aphorisms. The original language of the Dhammapada is Pali, a language related to, but different from, Sanskrit. For various complicated reasons, Western scholars transmitted the Sanskrit forms of Buddhist terminology to the various Western languages. Thus, we speak of “dharma” (Sanskrit) rather than the Pali form, “dhamma” (thus the Sanskrit translation of this book is known as the Dharmapada). Likewise we speak of karma and give the Buddha’s name as Siddhartha Gautama, instead of “kamma” and “Siddhatta Gotama”, the Pali equivalents. In any case, various versions of the Dhammapada exist in Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan, Gāndhārī, and other ancient languages; but the oldest version is usually considered to be the Pali version.
As I discussed in my post on the Bhagavad Gita, I read intensively in the scriptures of various religions in my first year of college, reading not only the Gita, but the King James Bible, the Qur’an, the Tao Te Ching, and the Dhammapada. I’ve documented my reactions to and thoughts on the Bible at length. The Qur’an didn’t impress me much at the time, and while I liked the Bhagavad Gita, it didn’t resonate with me as much as when I later re-read it. The Tao Te Ching (which I’ll discuss at length in a later post) and the Dhammapada, though, struck a deep chord in me and influenced me profoundly.
The translation I read was the translation by Thomas Byrom. It was the Vintge paperback edition, a gorgeous coffee-table paperback with photographs by Sandra Weiner. During my turbulent and lonely freshman year at college, I read and re-read it many times. It was a source of comfort and solace that helped get me through it all. I returned to it on and off during the 80’s. Given this, it’s odd that, though I’ve read the Bible in full two times and am working through it again, and have read the Tao Te Ching several times in many translations, I haven’t re-read the Dhammapada in full since my college days (I’m planning to do so soon). In realizing this and thinking more broadly about why it struck me so profoundly then, I’ve tried to analyze my reactions.
In one respect, the Dhammapada was a gateway book. It led me to study Buddhism more broadly and intensively, moving on to books by D. T. Suzuki, Paul Reps, Robert Aitken, and many, many others. Thus I was so much immersed in other works that the Dhammapada got lost in the shuffle. About a year after I graduated from college, a long spiritual crisis culminated in my conversion to Catholicism, so my reading shifted from Buddhism to Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. When in my late 30’s I returned to studying Buddhism in order to integrate practices from it with my Catholic faith, I was interested in praxis, so I was getting books on meditation. Once more, the Dhammapada was lost in the shuffle. Now, at 49, as I have begun a project of reading books too long on my “to-read” list, and of revisiting books from my past, I am planning to return to the Dhammapada.
Looking back at my 18-year-old self, I think the following themes emerge in regard to the impact the Dhammapada had on me.
1. It showed me that religion didn’t have to be emotional. Though there is a thread of joy woven through the Dhammapada, it presents the typically Theravada view of religion as ultimately based in analyzing the mind. The Evengelicalism typical of my childhood milieu is very emotional, “hooked on a feeling”, all about how you feel. For a more cerebral type averse to emotional manipulation such as I, the Dhammapada was a bracing antidote. As I said when discussing the Bhagavad Gita, I’ve become more a bhakta and less a jñānin as I’ve grown older. Still, the calm, dispassionate air of the Dhammapada is something I was in desperate need of then.
2. It showed me that religion could be an active choice. The emphasis throughout the Dhammapada is on what you do, on making the effort to take the path. Once more, very much different from the “born again” Christianity of my youth with its emphasis on the powerlessness of the believer. I’ve come to appreciate the cat way more as I’ve aged; but once more, the way presented by the Dhammapada was a welcome relief at the time.
3. Byrom’s translation was very poetic and moving to me. Though I’ve not re-read the book in full, I’ve read excepts of other translations, and I still think Byrom’s version holds its own.
4. Finally, the Dhammapada showed me that there was grace, beauty, and holiness outside the Christian fold, and that one did not have to rigidly cleave to one faith with no appreciation for or input from other sources.
Thus, I can say that the Dhammapada has been a book that changed my life, and that, despite the fact that I haven’t re-read it in nearly thirty years, continues to influence me in ways both major and subtle. To the extent that I’ve followed its teachings, it’s been a blessing to me; and to the extent that I’ve failed to do so, I have learned how imperfect I am and how I must renew the aspirations and struggles to become a better and perhaps slightly more enlightened person.
Part of the series “Your Own Personal Canon“.
Also part of the series “Buddhism“.