The Human Good Here And Now

The first level of instruction in the Dhammapada is addressed to the need to establish human welfare and happiness in the immediately visible domain of personal relation. The aim at this level is to show us the way to live at peace with ourselves and our fellow human beings, to fulfill our family and social responsibilities, and to remove the conflicts which infect human relationships and bring such immense suffering to the individual, society and the world as a whole.


The guidelines appropriate to this level of instruction are largely identical with the basic ethical injunctions proposed by most of the great world religions. However, in the Buddha’s teaching these ethical injunctions are not regarded as fiats imposed by an all-powerful God. Rather, they are presented as precepts or training rules grounded upon two directly verifiable foundations: concern for one’s own personal integrity and considerations for the welfare of those whom one’s actions may affect.


The most general advice the Dhammapada gives is to avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one’s own mind; this is said to be the counsel of all the Enlightened Ones (v. 183). More specific directives, however, are also given. To abstain from evil we are advised to avoid irritation in deed, word and thought and to exercise self-control over body, speech and mind (vv. 231-234). One should adhere scrupulously to the five moral precepts: abstinence from destroying life, from stealing, from sexual misconduct, from lying and from intoxicants (vv. 246-247). The disciple should treat all beings with kindness and compassion, live honestly, control his desires, speak the truth, and live a sober upright life. He should fulfill all his duties to parents, to immediate family, to friends, and to recluses and brahmans (vv. 331-333).


A large number of verses pertaining to this first level are concerned with the resolution of conflict and hostility. From other parts of the Sutta Pitaka we learn that the Buddha was a keen and sensitive observer of the social and political developments that were rapidly transforming the Indian states he visited on his preaching rounds. The violence, hatred, cruelty and sustained enmity that he witnessed have persisted right down to the present, and the Buddha’s answer to this problem is still the only answer that can work. The Buddha tells us that the key to solving the problem of violence and cruelty is the ancient maxim of using oneself as the standard for deciding how to treat others. I myself tremble at violence, wish to live in peace and do not want to die. Thus, putting myself in the place of others, I should recognize that all other beings tremble at violence, that all wish to live and do not want to die. Recognizing this, I should not intimidate others, harm them, or cause them to be harmed in any way (vv. 129-130).


The Buddha saw that hatred and enmity continue and spread in a self-expanding cycle: responding to hatred by hatred only breeds more hatred, more enmity, more violence, and feed the whole vicious whirlpool of vengeance and retaliation. The Dhammapada teaches us that the true conquest of hatred is achieved by non-hatred, by forbearance, by love (v. 5). When wronged by others we must be patient and forgiving. We must control our anger as a driver controls a chariot; we must bear angry words as the elephant in battle bears the arrows shot into its hide; when spoken to harshly we must remain silent like a broken bell (vv. 222, 320, 134).


According to the Dhammapada, the qualities distinguishing the superior human being (sapurisa) are generosity, truthfulness, patience and compassion. By following these ideals we can live at peace with our own conscience and in harmony with our fellows. The scent of virtue, the Buddha declares, is sweeter than the scent of flowers and perfume; the good man or woman shines from afar like the Himalayan mountains; just as the lotus flower rises up in all its beauty above the muck and mire of the roadside refuse heap, so does the disciple of the Buddha rise up in splendor of wisdom above the masses of ignorant worldlings (vv. 54, 304, 59).

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

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