Around 500 BC, according to tradition, a man set out on a quest to find the meaning of life. Disillusioned with the world, and the pain and suffering that people have to go through, he wandered from place to place, meditating, learning, and discovering. Today, this man is known as the Buddha, or the “Enlightened One”. Millions of people around the world follow his teachings. His wisdom has guided many to carve out their own path through existence.
There are a lot of Buddha quotes going around the internet, but not all of them were actually said by him. The Buddhist tradition is vast, but there are some general texts that many people agree as accurately reflecting his teachings. One of these is the “Dhammapada”.
This is a book of the basic sayings of the Buddha. The “Dhammapada” is especially favored in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, which is prevalent in Sri Lanka and South-East Asia. However, you don’t have to be a Buddhist in order to learn from its wisdom. Many lay people have also turned to it in order to find guidance.
Personally, I have read through the book several times, highlighting passages that speak to me. It’s a fast read, but every time I read it, I get a different perspective on things. If you are facing some sort of a problem in life, often you can find a solution there. Below I share some of my favorite quotes from the “Dhammapada”, and how I have interpreted them to help me in my life.
Lesson 1: Everything Springs from Your Thoughts
“All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts.”
— Verse 1
The “Dhammapada” begins with one fundamental observation of human behavior. Everything that you are is a result of your thoughts. Suffering follows bad thoughts, while happiness follows good thoughts.
Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis uses the metaphor of a rider and an elephant to show how the mind works. The elephant signifies the irrational part of your mind, the one which does things automatically and based on emotions. The rider sitting on top of the animal is the rational part of the mind. He is supposed to control the elephant, your brain’s irrational thoughts. However, usually the rider does not succeed, and your mind does whatever it wants.
This metaphor of the mind is quite ancient. It comes directly from Buddhist scriptures, but interestingly even Cicero used a similar way of describing the mind. The idea is for the rider to have the ability to tame the elephant. There are some tools that you can use to do that. One tool to reframe your mind comes from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and is called the ABC Method. It’s a way to transform your negative beliefs into positive ones.
I use this type of reframe when I am stuck in a bad spot. Having read through Buddhist books like the “Dhammapada”, and learned about Buddhist techniques, I noticed how similar many of them are to CBT. And indeed, psychologists have shown that they can be used concurrently together for a beneficial effect.
Lesson 2: Conquering Yourself is the Hardest Battle
“Though one may conquer a thousand times a thousand men in battle, yet he indeed is the noblest victor who conquers himself.”
— Verse 103
Conquering yourself is the hardest battle that you will ever fight in your life. There have been countless times in my past when my greatest enemy was myself. I have discovered that going through your existence, you sabotage yourself at every step.
This is one of the main lessons that the Buddha and the “Dhammapada” tried to hammer home. Just like in Star Wars when Luke descended into the cave on Dagobah in order to fight a great evil, but found out that he had actually fought himself.
It’s only by effort, discipline, and self-mastery that you can overcome this tendency to self-sabotage yourself.
“By effort and heedfulness, discipline and self-mastery, let the wise one make of himself an island which no flood can overwhelm.”
— Verse 25
Those who only live for constant gratification have weak willpower and get overpowered by emotions easily.
“He who lives looking for pleasures only, his senses uncontrolled, immoderate in his food, idle, and weak, the tempter will certainly overthrow him, as the wind throws down a weak tree.” — Verse 7
Reading through the book of Buddha’s lessons, one thought keeps repeating itself. The person who lives only looking for pleasure, will end up ultimately unhappy. This wisdom is at the basis of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. Suffering is caused by craving.
While this was true for the ancient world, it becomes even more pertinent in the modern world. If you live in the First World, you don’t have to worry about many of the things that your ancestors did. You live in a comfort that the previous generations could only dream of.
Yet, with this, we are also seeing a wave of materialism, and of craving for instant gratification. While in the past, most people understood that reward only comes with hard work, many people in the current generation haven’t learned that lesson. They crave constant satisfaction, and have weak willpower. This leads to the many problems of today such as obesity, drug addiction, and selfishness.
“He who lives without looking for pleasures, his senses well controlled, moderate in his food, faithful and strong, him temper will certainly not overthrow, any more than the wind throws down a rocky mountain.” — Verse 8
The “Dhammapada” gives a good solution for this modern problem. Stop looking for pleasures, control your senses, and moderate your wants. This is what will make you happy. As Socrates used to say, self-discipline is the key to happiness. Willpower is at the basis of all this. The people who have more of it, tend to be more successful.
In 1972, a group of scientists at Stanford University administered a simple test to a group of kids. A marshmallow was put in front of them. They were told that if they could wait a certain period of time without eating the treat, they would get another tasty snack. If they ate it before the time was up, then they would get nothing else.
As happens with kids, some of them ate the marshmallow before the time was up, while others waited and got the second treat. However, what is even more interesting are the findings of the follow-up to the test. According to a subsequent study of the kids as they grew up, scientists found that the ones who waited tended to have better outcomes in life.
“Those 4-year-old children who delayed gratification longer in certain laboratory situations developed into more cognitively and socially competent adolescents, achieving higher scholastic performance and coping better with frustration and stress.”
This shows how important your individual willpower is for good things to happen in your life.
A trained mind brings happiness.
A trained mind can even overcome pain, whether mental or physical. Scientific studies of physical pain have shown that the perception of pain is not objective, but instead based on various mental processes, such as beliefs or feelings. The same process applies to mental pain as well. As studies have demonstrated, perceived stress is also varied according to subjective matters.
Many successful athletes have risen to the top of their disciplines, not because of their physical prowess, but due to their mental capabilities. They were able to garner techniques to overcome physical pain, and apply them to their crafts.
“The mind is very hard to check and swift, it falls on what it wants. The training of the mind is good, a mind so tamed brings happiness.” — Verse 35
Playing sports and hiking in the mountains have also allowed me to discover the power of mind over matter. I used to be a quitter, quitting at any slight inkling of pain, however over time I have learned to control these urges to quit. It has helped me to achieve things that even a few years previously I would have found impossible.
Rain cannot penetrate a house that is well-thatched.
“As rain does never penetrate a house that is well-thatched, passion will not break through a well-reflecting mind.” Verse 14
As Charles Duhigg, author of the book The Power of Habit states, much of your life is based on habits, whether negative or positive. A large portion of what you do is automatic. If you create positive habits, and stick to them, you can build a well-thatched mental house that rain will never penetrate. This is the secret to success. Duhigg noted in his book that champions don’t do extraordinary things, they just follow good habits that they have learned:
“Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.”
Lesson 3: Find What Truly Matters
“They who imagine truth in untruth, and see untruth in truth, never arrive at truth, but follow vain desires.” — Verse 11
Buddhists have the goal of becoming a better person and seeing the world more clearly. For that, you cannot wallow in vain desires. You also cannot fall for your cognitive biases, and see truth in untruth. This is especially pertinent in the current modern age, where many people have a tendency to fall for all kinds of conspiracy theories, or other untruths.
“They who know truth in truth, and untruth in untruth, arrive at truth, and follow true desires.” — Verse 12
When I was younger, I used to think that the point of life was to get a good job, get money, and rise up in position, gaining more power. I have come to realize that the quest for fame and fortune that many people undertake is actually poison.
There are much more important things in life. It doesn’t matter how many Rolls Royces you drive, or how many famous people you took selfies with. When you realize that, much of the stress that you are feeling evaporates as if by magic. You start seeing value in the simple things, and are much happier as a result. Find what truly matters, and you are half-way there to feeling satisfied.
“Let the fool wish for a false reputation, for precedence among his peers, for lordship in the convents, for worship among other people!” — Verse 73
Lesson 4: Meditation Can Help to Open Up Your Mind
“He who is earnest and meditative, obtains ample joy.”
— Verse 27
Many Buddhists have made meditation a part of their daily routine. It helps them to keep a stable mind, and get leveled in a world full of distractions and pain. As noted by Robert Wright, lecturer at a popular online course on Buddhism and psychology, there are different types of meditation. The Tibetans focus on mental images, Zen Buddhists think about koans, and Thai Theravada adherents follow their internal mental processes.
While the techniques might be different, they all try to achieve similar goals. The aim is to stop your mind from ruminating, worrying about the past and the future, and instead allowing it to be free. You are supposed to be in the moment: be here now.
In recent years, scientists have started noticing the benefits that meditation brings to a person’s mind. Research has discovered that your brain can change. This is called neuroplasticity. In her TEDx Talk, neuroscientist Lara Boyd described that the best driver of changes in your brain is your own behavior.
For example, a study on taxi drivers in London has discovered that due to their need to be constantly orientated in space, and know all the different streets in the city, their posterior hippocampi region of the brain had grown much larger in comparison to normal people.
Studies have proven that meditation works in a similar way. It changes your brain. Not only does the structure of your brain change after thousands of hours of intense meditation, you also develop some cool powers. When advanced Buddhist practitioners were examined, their brains experienced intense surges of gamma oscillations. Of course this doesn’t mean that you can crush buildings just with the power of your thoughts. Instead this allows you to feel intense awareness.
Another study showed that you don’t even need to be an advanced practitioner to have benefits. A group of people went through an 8-week meditation retreat. At the end of the experience, they were given influenza vaccinations. When compared to the control group, their bodies showed increased levels of antibodies. This could be an interesting finding very relevant for the current pandemic times.
Regular meditation and mindfulness training can also help you to better regulate your emotions. The amygdala is a part of your brain that plays a huge role in stress responses. In this particular study, once again a group was tested after an 8-week meditation practice. The people in the group showed reduced perceived stress levels. Further studies have found other similar types of benefits.
While meditation can be very beneficial, the fact is that it is difficult. Sitting down every day and concentrating on being mindful is incredibly hard. However, doing hard things is how you learn the most. According to Lara Boyd’s scientific research, the more you struggle at practice, the more you learn, and the more your brain changes:
“And in fact, my research has shown increased difficulty, increased struggle if you will, during practice, actually leads to both more learning, and greater structural change in the brain.”
This of course applies not just for meditation, but any activity. Unfortunately, I have still not had the discipline or willpower to make meditation a part of my daily routine. However, I have tried to incorporate mindfulness in my life in other ways.
For me, I found that I experience mindfulness, or being present in the moment, when I go on hikes in the mountains. As you go higher and higher, things become progressively harder. In order to progress, you need to put thoughts away from your mind, and be in the moment. You could call it my own walking meditation.
Lesson 5: All Created Things Perish
“All created things perish. He who knows and sees this becomes passive in pain; this is the way that leads to purity.” — Verse 277
One thing that you should always keep in mind is your own mortality. As the Buddha in the “Dhammapada” said, all created things perish. The Stoics had a similar technique called “memento mori” or remembering that you will die. They would use it to ground themselves.
Buddhism teaches that the world is constantly changing. This is at the root of the Buddhist concept of impermanence. You are never the same self. You were different when you were small, and you will be different in the future. You are constantly changing. Your mind is constantly changing. Even the cells in your body are constantly changing. On average, your cells are replaced every 7 to 10 years! Keep that mind in order to gain perspective.
The main lesson to take away from Buddha’s teaching is to let go of your ego. Different Buddhist traditions view the final way to look at the “self” a bit differently. From “no self” to the “big mind”, the idea is to change how you view your being.
Lesson 6: Don’t Let Hatred and Anger Overcome You
“”He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,” — in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease.” — Verse 3
I bet that you have uttered the first part of Verse 3 of the “Dhammapada” quite a few times in your life. You got mad at someone, and kept repeating to yourself all the bad things that they did to you, sometimes real, but often imaginary. The brain has the tendency to exaggerate things out of proportion, and that is usually at the root of the conflicts that you engage in. Certain people can get angry at the slightest provocation. You might even be a person who is prone to chronic anger. This type of behavior can lead to hate. And as Yoda has often stated, hate leads to the Dark Side.
Buddhism is all about letting go of this dark side. It teaches you to acquire balance and mental peace. Techniques like meditation can help you to become a more level-headed person, one at peace with themselves and the world. Forgiveness and gratitude are the things you need to cultivate.
“Conquer anger by non-anger. Conquer evil by good. Conquer miserliness by liberality. Conquer a liar by truthfulness.” — Verse 223
Those who try to get ahead by hurting others, will never be happy.
“He who seeks his own happiness by hurting or killing beings, never finds happiness and will not escape from his sufferings.” — Verse 131
The thing about anger and hurting others is that while it might feel good temporarily, in the long run it is counter-productive. You become an angry hateful person. This will bring you more and more mental anguish and suffering, something that Buddhism says is the bane of existence. If you want to be truly happy, then you need to escape this cycle of anger and hate.
Lesson 7: Better Than A Thousand Hollow Words is One Word that Brings Peace
“Better than a thousand hollow words is one word that brings peace.”
— Verse 100
During the last few years, our planet seems to be descending further and further into chaos. There are countless conflicts around the world, and even the streets of the United States have been mired in violence. Nature is disappearing at an alarming pace. In the last year, we have been faced with images of the Amazon burning, Siberian forests being chopped down, Australian nature disappearing in an apocalyptic blaze, and the oceans being full of plastic.
David Attenborough’s 94 years on Earth have allowed him to witness how fast nature has receded. In his Netflix documentary David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet, he produced some frightening statistics. One frightening fact is that throughout his lifetime the entire animal population on our planet has been reduced by half!
People have said that one aspect of achieving enlightenment in Buddhism is through realizing how interconnected everything is. For Zen Buddhists, this is the essence of the “big mind”. Rather than focusing on how different we are, and always looking out for our own selfish interests, we need to start looking out for each other. Humans love to argue. They love drama and conflict. However, that should not be the way. We are all connected at the end.
One of the most powerful lessons I have taken away from the “Dhammapada” is that it is better to say one word that brings peace, instead of a thousand hollow words that bring turmoil.
How I Apply the Wisdom of The “Dhammapada” in My Life
“Better it is to live one day wise and meditative than to live a hundred years foolish and uncontrolled.”
— Verse 111
I am a person who likes to read a lot. My goal is to learn about the world and myself. I try to pick and choose different things from various traditions. Buddhism has been one of the pillars of my mental toolbox. I don’t consider myself a Buddhist, but I have adopted much of the wisdom that comes from that philosophy.
The “Dhammapada” is one of the books that I like to read from time to time. When I am facing a difficult period in my life, I find that it helps me to gain perspective. I take certain passages, and then combine them with other things that I have come across in order to find a solution to my problem.
I keep a journal, and write down in it the passages that speak to me. This might be the way to go for you. Or it might not. The great thing about reading the “Dhammapada” is that every experience is different. Reading the text with a particular problem in mind can illuminate certain passages. As is often said, the answer you get depends on the question you ask.
Maybe you want to gain a deeper understanding of the teachings of the Buddha. Remember that in order to gain a fuller view of the meaning, it is always good to consult various sources. That’s what I usually do.
The translator of one of the editions of the “Dhammapada” advises the same thing:
“As always when studying Buddhism, it is recommended to compare different editions, and read related texts if you want to understand what the Buddha really meant to say.”
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