Dhammapada 1: The Pairs (Dhp 1–20)

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AN.1.56 is in Xuanzang’s Itivrttaka at T765.663c28, with prose and verse:

[0663c28] 吾從世尊聞如是語:「苾芻當知!世間所有惡不善法於生起時,諸不善品、諸不善類一切皆由意為前導。所以者何?意生起已,惡不善法皆隨後生。」爾時,世尊重攝此義而說頌曰:

I heard this from the Bhagavan: “Monks, you should know, when bad and unwholesome things arise in the world, all the sorts and kinds of unwholesome things have intention (mano) as their forerunner. Why is that? Intention has already arisen and bad and wholesome things arise afterwards.” Then the Bhagavan restated this in verse:

「諸不善法生, 為因能感苦,
皆意為前導, 與煩惱俱生;
Unwholesome things arise
To cause suffering;
They have intention as the forerunner,
And afflictions arise with them.

意為前導法, 意尊意所使。
由意有染污, 故有說有行,

Intention is the forerunning thing,
Intention is foremost, intention is what causes;
From mind, there is defilement,
So there is speech and action.

苦隨此而生, 如輪因手轉。」
Pain follows this and arises
Like a wheel is turned by the hand."

The next Iti sutra is the reverse, like the Dhammapada and AN.1.57.

So there’s the connection between the verse and the prose.

It’s interesting. I went looking for the gloss of unwholesome things in the Madhyama that I’d found. The reason I looked was when I was settling on my translation of the dhyana definitions. There’s the phrase “secluded from bad and unwholesome things.” Is it things or qualities? Well, in MA.68, which is the Sarvastivada version of DN.17, there’s a gloss of what those bad things are (which is not in the Pali):


“To the very last, I was mindful of desire, mindful of hate, mindful of harmfulness, argument, mutual dislike, flattery, fraud, deception, lying, and the measureless bad and unwholesome things to the very last.”

So, it refers to behaviors as well as mental states in the Madhyama. This would resolve the trouble of AN.1.56-57. Mind comes before these types of actions.


Oh, that’s really fascinating. It’s one of these things, it seems very simple, but the closer you look the trickier it gets. Let’s what happens if we (re?) constitute the Pali equivalent:

Ye keci, bhikkhave, dhammā akusalā akusalabhāgiyā akusalapakkhikā, sabbe te manopubbaṅgamā. Mano tesaṃ dhammānaṃ paṭhamaṃ uppajjati, anvadeva akusalā dhammā”ti.

Manopubbaṅgamā dhammā,
manoseṭṭhā manomayā;
Manasā ce paduṭṭhena,
bhāsati vā karoti vā;
Tato naṃ dukkhamanveti,
cakkaṃva vahato padaṃ.

One thing that strikes me is that neither Ven Bodhi nor myself have translated the tesaṁ. Let’s make that more explicit.

Manas is the forerunner of all dhammas whatsoever that are unskillful, part of the unskillful, on the side of the unskillful. Manas is the first of those dhammas to arise, and unskillful qualities follow right behind.

That makes it clear that manas is one of the skillful/unskillful dhammas, which agrees with the verse (manasā paduṭṭhena).

Right, so this argues for a broader sense than either “qualities” or “phenomena”.

I winder whether the Chinese “bad and unskillful” (presumably pāpakā akusalā) is not a broader, and hence better, term. Pāpa is commonly used in the sense, not just of morally bad actions, but of “bad things” generally, including bad experiences. This is typically not a sense we find for akusala. So perhaps it should be broadened here:

Ye keci, bhikkhave, dhammā akusalā akusalabhāgiyā akusalapakkhikā, sabbe te manopubbaṅgamā.
Mendicants, intention is the forerunner of all things whatsoever that are bad, part of the bad, on the side of the bad.
Mano tesaṃ dhammānaṃ paṭhamaṃ uppajjati, anvadeva akusalā dhammā”ti.
Intention is the first of those things to arise, and bad things follow right behind.

Manopubbaṅgamā dhammā,
Intention is the forerunner of all things;
manoseṭṭhā manomayā;
intention’s their chief, they’re made by intention.
Manasā ce paduṭṭhena,
If with a corrupt intention
bhāsati vā karoti vā;
you speak or act,
Tato naṃ dukkhamanveti,
suffering follows you
cakkaṃva vahato padaṃ.
like a wheel the ox’s foot.


I understand Dhamma to be phenomenon because Dhamma is not created or made by anyone. Dhamma just arises and ceases due to causes. It is the nature.

Mind, thought, consciousness (Mana, citta, vinnana) are Dhamma because they too are not created by anyone but arise and cease due to causes. It is due to not realizing that mind, thought and consciousness are phenomena, the worldlings take them for granted and act by body, speech or mind.

I think the translation needs to take these facts into consideration. Intention cetana is a constituent of name nama which precedes action giving rise to grasping.

In view of the above, I think the word “thought” is better than intention. But the fact that thought is also a phenomenon needs to be built into the translation. So, how about the following.

The phenomenon of thought is the forerunner
It is the master, it is just the arising of thought
If without mindfulness
you speak or act,
suffering follows you,
like a wheel the ox’s foot.

Just a little idea to contemplate on.
With Metta


I wish Xuanzang had translated more of these early texts. He is much more literal, so you can reconstruct the original once you understand his vocabulary and compare it to Sanskrit. Sometimes he’s hard to read because he’ll break sanskrit into parts and translate each to Chinese, refusing to be idiomatic with difficult terms.

Looking at my off-the-cuff translation, which I did without thinking about how we usually reading the Dhammapada, it shows how the Chinese can be difficult to read because of it’s ambiguity. Is 前導 a verb or an adjective, for instance?

I think, though, that in the context of the prose, dharma in the first line would refer back to the bad and unskillful dharmas, so we’d read it better as:

“Intention is the forerunner of (these) dharmas,
Intention’s foremost (of them), (they’re) caused by intention.
(Derived) from intention having defilement
Therefore speech and action have (defilement)
Pain follows these (three) and arises
Like a wheel caused (by) a hand that turns.”

That’s a closer reading. The final line almost seems to mean the wheel is an optical illusion caused by turning the hand quickly in circles. I’m not sure how else to read 因. The wheel wouldn’t be a cause for the hand to turn, so I don’t think it’s a noun.

The Sarvastivada seemed to use this term throughout for the most part. I think you’re right about the meaning of “bad.” At first I thought it was just a case of disambiguation found in later Buddhist texts in which synonyms are thrown in to narrow the range of possible interpretations.

But the glosses I found suggest that you are right. I think of it as a term that refers to both inner and outer things that instigate the afflictions and cause suffering. I think everyone experiences it at one time or another the way another person’s defiled behavior triggers our own afflictions to arise. Then if those afflictions instigate our own defiled behavior, the afflictions are strengthened in ourselves, and the other person has their afflictions amplified if they witness it, and so on like light bouncing between two mirrors.

So, I think “papa akusala” is trying to capture that full spectrum of inner and outer triggers. The question is, how generic is that understanding? The term occurs without context like in AN.1.56, but I think it may be reasonable to assume this is the basic reading in sutras taught to monks and nuns.

The opposite term in Xuanzang’s translation of the next sutra is “pure and skillful things.” The verses are identical except for the final line:
樂隨此而生, 如影隨形轉。
Happiness follows these and arises
Like a shadow following a form (as it) turns.

So, it’s definitely the same verses as the Dhammapada, just minus the ox’s foot.


I don’t know anything of Chinese. So this is just something that comes to mind when reading your thoughts about a wheel and a hand.

I think a hand can turn a wheel. By the movement of the hand the wheel is set in motion. The hand is the cause for the wheel to turn. Without the hand turning it, it would just stand still.

Could that be how this is to be understood?


Yes. It could be the word order is literally translated in passive voice and the verb 轉 belongs to the wheel and the shadow. I guess 因手 could be instrumental. In prose, the Chinese would have prepositions and pronouns to tell us these things.

Maybe the reading for each final line should be:

Like a wheel turns caused (by) a hand.

Like a shadow moves following a form.


Interesting. Note that the Sanskrit, Prakrit, and Gandhari versions all are basically identical to the Pali vahato padaṁ. Perhaps Xuanzang is being very literal here?

The confusion seems to stem from the rather obscure word vahatu = “ox”, almost literally “beast of burden”, which is apparently found only here (and is not listed in PTS dict.)

It is related to the root vahati in the sense of “bear, carry”, and words from this stem are given in DDB as being rendered by . So this is the word you translate as “turns”.

So it seems, perhaps, that Xuanzang misread this line, and took it to mean, not that the wheel follows the ox’s (vahatu) foot, but that the wheel is turned (vahati). This leaves “foot” hanging, and for some reason he rendered it as “hand”.

I’m too lazy to chase down an exact quote, but I’m sure the Pali treats akusala in the same way. But I’m suggesting that pāpa (and maybe akusala?) is even broader, not just “bad behaviors” but also “bad results”.

The PTS dictionary doesn’t clearly acknowledge this sense, but consider such uses as:

It seems pāpa has a similar semantic range to the English “bad”, although it’s most commonly used in Buddhism in an ethical sense.

I’m sorry if I’m belaboring this point, I’m just trying to get my head around how it should be translated!


The basic meaning of 轉 is to revolve, which can be abstracted to ideas like evolution, change, progress, motion (forwards) etc. That it’s associated with chariot wheels may be why it overlaps a little with meanings of transportation.

The problem with this theory is that the same verb is in last line of Xuanzang’s next verse, which doesn’t have a similar word in Pali. I translated it contextually as “move” in that line, since shadows don’t normally turn or revolve. But this is interesting. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve seen a sanskritization make a significant change to a passage.

One thing to note is that Xuanzang is a 7th century translator. The Itivrttaka is an EBT, but he was translating it somewhat later than the Agamas.

So, let’s look at the Chinese translations of the Dharmapada.

At T210.562a11, the oldest translation reads:

心為法本, 心尊心使,
Mind is the source of dharmas,
Mind is foremost, mind is the cause.
中心念惡, 即言即行,
Thoughts that are bad being in mind,
Then one speaks and acts.
罪苦自追, 車轢于轍;
Punishment and suffering chase themselves,
(As) a cart runs along a wheel rut.

心為法本, 心尊心使,
Mind is the source of dharmas
Mind is foremost, mind is the cause.
中心念善, 即言即行,
Thoughts that are good being in mind,
Then one speaks, then one acts.
福樂自追, 如影隨形。
Fortune an happiness chase themselves,
Like a shadow following a form.

So, this is the same in that no oxen are present (but neither are any hands). Any guesses what a wheel rut would be in Indic languages? DDB says it might be śakaṭa-patha.

轢 is a little awkward to translate. DDB says it could mean to be run over by a chariot, so I tried to translate it as the path a moving cart takes.

[Edit: Looking at Titus’s Gandhari text (verse 201), it reads cako va vahaṇe patʰi for the last line of the first verse. Perhaps pathi was being interpreted as a wheel rut, and vahane as a verb? Otherwise, the Chinese seems to be a little different in the old translations, too.]

T211 and T212 copy the translation in T210. The later T213.795c1 (dating to the 10th century) is only slightly edited compared to the others:

心為諸法本, 心尊是心使,
Mind is the source of (all) dharmas,
Mind is foremost, its mind that causes (them).
心若念惡行, 即言即惡行,
If the mind thinks of bad conduct,
Then one speaks, and so one acts badly.
罪苦自追隨, 車轢終于轍,
Punishment and suffering follow each other,
(As) a cart runs ultimately along its wheel rut.

心為諸法本, 心尊是心使,
Mind is the source of (all) dharmas,
Mind is foremost, this mind that causes them.
心若念善行, 即言即善行,
If the mind thinks of good conduct,
Then one speaks, and so one acts well.
福慶自追隨, 如影隨其形。
Fortune and happiness follow each other,
Like a shadow follows its form.

There’s still no oxen in sight. Maybe all of these translations are from the same canon that read differently? I expect Xuanzang was translating from the Sarvastivada canon, but I don’t know about the others.

[Edit: It turns out there’s another Chinese parallel: The verses are in the Ekottarika, EA.52.7 at 827b12. The text looks only slightly different than T210.]

Oh, I see. Yes, 善 and 惡 are very similar to English good and bad. 惡 can mean evil, ugly, and so on in context, like English “bad” (I can look bad, have bad intentions, or be bad at something). I tend to translate the bad destinies as “unpleasant,” which is more interpretive than I usually like to be, now that I think about it. I tend not to translate 善 as skillful, but it can mean skill like English “good” and “well.”