The Highest Goal

The fourth level of teaching in the Dhammapada does not reveal any new principles of doctrine or approach to practice. This level shows us, rather, the fruit of the third level. The third level exposes the path to the highest goal, the way to break free from all bondage and suffering and to win the supreme peace of Nibbana. The fourth level is a celebration and acclamation of those who have gained the fruits of the path and won the final goal.


The stages of definite attainment along the way to Nibbana are enumerated in the Pali canon as four: stream-entry, when one enters irreversibly upon the path to liberation; once-returning, when one is assured that one will return to the sense sphere of existence only one more time; non-returning, when one will never return to the sense sphere at all but will take a spontaneous birth in a celestial plane and there reach the end of suffering; and arahantship, the stage of full liberation here and now. Although the Dhammapada contains several verses referring to those on the lower stages of attainment, its primary emphasis is on the individual who has reached the fourth and final fruit of liberation, the arahant, and the picture it gives us of the arahant is stirring and inspiring.


The arahant is depicted in two full chapters: in chapter 7 under his own name and in chapter 26, the last chapter, under the name “Brahmana,” the holy man. We are told that the arahant is no longer troubled by the fever of the passions; he is sorrowless and wholly set free; he has broken all ties. His taints are destroyed: he is not attached to food; his field is the void and unconditioned freedom. For ordinary worldlings the arahant is incomprehensible: his path cannot be traced, like that of birds in the sky. He has transcended all obstacles, passed beyond sorrow and lamentation, become peaceful and fearless. He is free from anger, devout, virtuous, without craving, self-subdued. He has profound knowledge and wisdom; he is skilled in discriminating the right path and the wrong path; he has reached the highest goal. He is friendly amidst the hostile, peaceful amidst the violent, and unattached amidst the attached.


In this very life the arahant has realized the end of suffering, laying down the burden of the five aggregates. He has transcended the ties of both merit and demerit; he is sorrowless, stainless and pure; he is free from attachment and has plunged into the Deathless. Like the moon he is spotless and pure, serene and clear. He has cast off all human bonds and transcended all celestial bonds; he has gotten rid of the substrata of existence and conquered all worlds. He knows the death and rebirth of beings; he is totally detached, blessed and enlightened. No gods, angels or human beings can find his tracks, for he clings to nothing, has no attachment, holds to nothing. He has reached the end of births, attained the perfection of insight, and reached the summit of spiritual excellence. Bearing his last body, perfectly at peace, the arahant is the living demonstration of the truth of the Dhamma. By his own example he shows that it is possible to free oneself from the stains of greed, hatred and delusion, to rise above suffering, and to win Nibbana in this very life.


The arahant ideal reaches its optimal exemplification in the first and highest of the arahants, the Buddha, and the Dhammapada makes a number of important pronouncements about the Master. The Buddha is the supreme teacher who depends on no one else for guidance, who has reached perfect enlightenment through his own self-evolved wisdom (v. 353). He is the giver of refuge and is himself the first of the three refuges; those who take refuge in the Buddha, his Doctrine, and his Order are released from all suffering, after seeing with proper wisdom the Four Noble Truths (vv.190-192). The Buddha’s attainment of perfect enlightenment elevates him to a level far above that of common humanity: the Enlightened One is trackless, of limitless range, free from worldliness, the conqueror of all, the knower of all, in all things untainted (vv. 179, 180, 353). The sun shines by day, the moon shines by night, the warrior shines in his armor, the brahman shines in meditation, but the Buddha, we are told, shines resplendent all day and all night (v. 387).




This will complete our discussion of the four basic levels of instruction found in the Dhammapada. Interwoven with the verses pertaining to these four main levels, there runs throughout the Dhammapada a large number of verses that cannot be tied down exclusively to any single level but have a wider application. These verses sketch for us the world view of early Buddhism and its distinctive insights into human existence. Fundamental to this world view, as it emerges from the text, is the inescapable duality of human life. Man walks a delicate balance between good and evil, purity and defilement, progress and decline; he seeks happiness, he fears suffering, loss and death. We are free to choose between good and evil, and must bear full responsibility for our decisions. Again and again the Dhammapada sounds this challenge to human freedom: we are the makers and masters of ourselves, the protectors or destroyers of ourselves, we are our own saviors and there is no one else who can save us (vv. 160, 165, 380). Even the Buddha can only indicate the path to deliverance; the work of treading it lies with the disciple (vv. 275- 276). In the end we must choose between the way that leads back into the world, to the round of becoming, and the way that leads out of the world, to Nibbana. And though this last course is extremely difficult, the voice of the Buddha speaks words of assurance confirming that it can be done, that it lies within our power to overcome all barriers and to triumph even over death itself.


The chief role in achieving progress in all spheres, the Dhammapada states, is played by the mind. The Dhammapada opens with a clear assertion that the mind is the forerunner of all that we are, the maker of our character, the creator of our destiny. The entire Buddhist discipline, from basic morality to the attainment of arahantship, hinges upon training the mind. A wrongly directed mind brings greater harm than any enemy; a rightly directed mind brings greater good than any relative or friend (vv. 42-43). The mind is unruly, fickle difficult to subdue, but by effort, mindfulness and self-discipline, one can master the mind, escape the flood of passions, and find “an island which no flood can overwhelm” (v. 25). The person who conquers himself, the victor over his own mind, achieves a conquest that can never be undone, a victory greater than that of the mightiest warriors (vv. 103-105).


What is needed most to train and subdue the mind, according to the Dhammapada, is a quality called heedfulness (appamada). Heedfulness combines critical self-awareness and unremitting energy in a process of constant self-observation in order to detect and expel the defilements whenever they seek an opportunity to come to the surface. In a world where we have no savior except ourselves, and where the means to deliverance lies in mental purification, heedfulness becomes the crucial factor for ensuring that we keep straight to the path of training without deviating due to the seductive lure of sense pleasures or the stagnating influences of laziness and complacency. The Buddha declares that heedfulness is the path to the Deathless, and heedlessness the path to death. The wise who understand this distinction abide in heedfulness and attain Nibbana, “the incomparable freedom from bondage” (vv. 21-23).

Source : “The Living Message of the Dhammapada”, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 5 June 2010, .

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