SuttaCentral

On the first lines of the Dhammapada

I was writing a response to the post on a translation of the first lines of the Dhammapada:

And thanks to all those who have posted multiple translations. From there we can see that almost all the translations are very similar. Looking more closely, I believe that there are a number of issues with older translations that, while minor on their own, contribute to making the reading of the lines more vague and less specific than they should be.

Let’s take it bit by bit.

One of the key terms is mano, usually rendered “mind”, and occasionally as “thought”. I’ve discussed this before, but let me repeat here. Mano, citta, and viññāṇa are more-or-less synonymous terms meaning “mind”. Nevertheless, they tend to be used in specific contexts.

  • Mano tends to be active, it is used in the context of kamma, and often pertains to the second noble truth. It lies cloes to “intention”.
  • Citta is very general, but when used in technical contexts often refers to samadhi, i.e. it pertains to the fourth noble truth.
  • Viññāṇa in technical contexts pertains to the first noble truth.

These are just very general observations and there are many exceptions.

Now, clearly mano here has its normal active sense, as it is explicitly said to be a creative force. It’s not wrong to translate as “mind”, but it also opens up a less clear understanding of the passage, leaning potentially towards nominalism. So I render as “intention” for clarity.

If dhammā is rendered as “things”, then it sounds odd unless prefixed with “all”. The text doesn’t actually say “all” but it is not an unreasonable inference. There’s a closely related passage at AN 1.56 that emphasizes the universality: ye keci (whatever) … sabbe te (all those) …

Now, seṭṭha is a little tricky here. The normal meaning is “best”. But that seems to not really yield a good sense. Thus most translators follow the commentary in ascribing the meaning “chief” (adhipati). But to me this is also a little odd; the sense is allusive rather than repetitive and reinforcing in the normal style of the suttas. And elsewhere seṭṭha doesn’t really mean “chief”, or at least not in the sense of “dominator, ruler”, only in the sense of “most excellent”. No such sense is found in Sanskrit either.

If we look more closely at the commentary, it says that it means “chief” by analogy with a gang of bandits: the eldest among them is taken as the chief. This gives us a clue, I think, to the correct sense.

Throughout the suttas, we find seṭṭha used in the context of a god or divine being who is distinguished by the title seṭṭha, apparently in the sense of “the first, most senior, the progenitor”.

For example, in DN 20:14.9 Sakka is called the seṭṭha of the Vasu devas, and hence is known as “Vāsava”. Here we could translate seṭṭha as “first” or “progenitor”, or perhaps “premier”.

This sense is even stronger in the stock passage describing Brahmā, where we have the following series:

issaro kattā nimmātā seṭṭho sajitā
Lord God, the Maker, the Author, the First (or Progenitor), the Begetter

Once you start noticing this sense you see it everywhere. Most of these cases I have hitherto translated as “best”, but I’ll revise them.

For example, the following was attributed to Brahmā Sanaṅkumāra:

Khattiyo seṭṭho janetasmiṁ
The aristocrat is the best of people

Which seems straightforward. But in the Buddhist origin myth, the khattiyas displaced the brahmins, being the first clan to appear.

Or take the cases where the Buddha claims to be the jeṭṭho seṭṭho lokassa as in AN 8.11:12.2 or more famously as the baby bodhisatta in MN 123:20.2 and DN 14:1.29.1:

aggohamasmi lokassa, jeṭṭhohamasmi lokassa, seṭṭhohamasmi lokassa
I am the foremost in the world! I am the eldest in the world! I am the first in the world!

All these passages yield a more specific and satisfying sense if we understand seṭṭha as “first”.

Returning to the Dhammapada, in this light it seems clear this should be the meaning here. The second line is not introducing a new concept, the idea that the “mind” dominates or rules over all things. Rather, it is reinforcing the sense of the opening line: mind (or intention) comes first.

Intention is the forerunner of all things;
intention comes first, they’re made by intention.

I wonder if we could use “will” here.

Will is the forerunner of all things;
will comes first, they’re made by will.

13 Likes

Doing some revisions, I see now how the words agga and seṭṭha, both of which I often translate as “best”, are used in DN 27 Aggañña in a very deliberate way to echo the basic idea of what is the “first” thing, the earliest, the original (and hence the best). I’m trying to bring out this idea more clearly. The text is using a pretty sophisticated approach to language! It’s extremely disciplined and precise.

7 Likes

Thank you for the clarification, Bhante. I was breaking down the translations to find a sense of what was intended. The oldest translation sounded arcane to me. I thought Than Geoff’s use of heart stood out as an outlier. And the mind dominates all things didn’t seem to fit well. I would be interested to see how you would translate these two verses. :smiley:

5 Likes

In the context of the first two verses of the Dhammapada, I think “things” is too broad a term. These verses are about how pure or impure intentions create either happiness or suffering. My take is that happiness and suffering are the “things” (dhammas) in question. So I’d suggest a translation more like “Intention is the forerunner of all experiences.” The remainder of the verses provides the context for us to understand that it’s experiences of wellbeing and suffering that are being referred to.

5 Likes

I agree, in terms of meaning. It’s just there’s a slippery slope of ugliness, too.

Mind is the forerunner of all things

Is nice, evocative, interesting.

Intention is the forerunner of all experiences

Is … less so.

Perhaps:

Intention precedes experience.

Or even:

Intention shapes experience

6 Likes

Dear, lord! That’s so clear, simple, and accurate! Wonderful!

6 Likes

maybe we’ve got it!

Except we’ll probably have to keep the plural; it’s thematically important as the verses go on to divide good from bad experiences.

2 Likes

One thing that kind of nags me a little. When translating, I try to keep the renderings and ideas consistent right across the canon. And sometimes there seems to be these very subtle shifts.

If we look at AN 1.56 and AN 1.57, they are part of a series of prose texts talking about akusalā/kusalā dhammā, where these words have their normal meaning as qualities of the mind that create good or bad outcomes. And that’s the case in AN 1.56 and AN 1.57 too: the dhammā are those mental qualities that accompany intention. Here I want to translate dhammā as “qualities”.

But in the Dhammapada, the sense of dhammā shifts from the causes to focus on the outcomes, and there “experiences” is an accurate sense.

Is that just me, or is there a tension in the usages here?

2 Likes

That’s something I hadn’t considered. “Experience” here is a noncount noun rather than a singular, though. I’m not sufficiently versed in the ethics of translation to know if translating a plural as a noncount noun is kosher. What are your thoughts?

1 Like

Sure, it can be, but it depends on the context. I can’t think of examples off the top of my head, but that kind of thing happens all the time: one of the reasons why the whole idea of a “literal” translation is such a furphy.

Here the point is that diverse causes lead to diverse results, so I think a plural really is called for. But “experiences” is countable, at least here in Oz!

2 Likes

Maybe one consideration is that this is poetry, and in poetry technical detail isn’t as important as the general point being made. So if in prose, we have intention > akusalā/kusalā dhammā > unpleasant/pleasant consequences, in verse some of that chain of causality might be only implied.

Interesting. I’m pondering the difference between “Mind” in Chapter 1 Yamakavaggo and Mind in Chapter 3 Chittavaggo.

Would this be right? In Chapter 1, to “speak and act with pure mind” is something available to us - we can do it if we choose to. But in Chapter 3 - to “subdue the mind” is something we aspire to - we can’t do it yet. We can all make a sincere intention (chapter 1) but we can’t still the inner waves (chapter 3).

Then I had a go…

Mind comes first of everything
Mind their maker mind their king
Speak or act with spotted mind
Pain will follow close behind
Surely as the wagon wheel
Close behind the ox’s heel

Mind comes first of everything
Mind their maker, mind their king
Speak or act with spotless mind
Pleasure follows close behind
Surely as the wagon wheel
Close behind the ox’s heel

5 Likes

Experience can (with only a small difference in meaning) be either non-count or count.

Experience can (with only a small difference in meaning) be either non-count or count.

Yes indeed. I was referring specifically to how it’s used in the context of “Intention shapes experience,” where it’s noncount.

1 Like

I enjoyed the poetry! I admire when people have the ability to use words in that sway.

A small point: In the second verse the imagery should be of someone being followed by their shadow. Pleasure doesn’t seem right either, since it suggests a more fleeting pleasurable feeling, while the verse is more about a stable dispositional change.

2 Likes

Well, the first thing to remember is that these are different words, with different senses. In the first verses, it is mano, and in the third chapter, citta. I’ve talked about the differences in the OP.

Your description of the difference is nearly there. Certainly in the case of the mano in the first verses, it is simply a choice, we can either do good or do bad. And there’s nothing stopping us from making that choice right now.

As for citta, I wouldn’t quite say that we can’t do it yet, more that it’s a long term training. We can start the training, but it will usually take a while to finish, or sometimes even to see any results. Since the word citta here points more to the overall character of the mind, especially the mind stilled in meditation, it takes time.

And your translation is nice!

4 Likes

Thanks Bhante. I was thinking of the likes of:


37. Dwelling in the cave (of the heart), the mind, without form, wanders far and alone. Those who subdue this mind are liberated from the bonds of Mara.

Which I can’t do yet! But you’ve answered my question.

Cheers Bodhipaksa. Just having fun! I’ll ponder your points. I wonder if there’s a thread about Sukkha.

2 Likes

Right, so this is a metaphor for meditation, the moving of the mind all over the place, and to “subdue” it ultimately means to settle it in samadhi. Of course it applies at simpler levels as well—it’s poetry! But yes, to “subdue” it takes time.

2 Likes

So how about “Intention shapes esperiences?” was what I was driving at.

I don’t think it’s just you. To me the cases in the Dhp and in AN 1.56-57 have different emphasis.

As you noted, in the Dhp verses experience seems most appropriate in that it is the outcome of an action. If I do this, I experience the respective result.

By contrast, the AN passages speak about the skillful and unskillful, and I am wondering how an experience can be skillful or unskillful? Qualities can, but experiences?

And I see that you have changed your translation again to make it “experiences” in both places.

1 Like