On the first lines of the Dhammapada

I think we had a back and forth about this a while back. There is a fuller parallel in the Chinese Iti that makes clear (at least in that canon) that the context is skillful and unskillful things in general. But the reading of the verses is a little different than the Pali too. The end of the first verse is interpreted as a cart running over a track as an example of the bad things that happen to people as a result of bad intentions. The commentary in Chinese sources tell a story of someone run over by a cart to explain it. The Pali tradition doesn’t maintain that reading, though, so it becomes more abstract. It almost sounds like a Yogacara mind only passage.



Right. Another complication is that kusala can stretch in meaning, and might perhaps here mean something like “good” or “wholesome” which would fit better. But still, it feels like it should have its normal sense.

I’m playing around with it.

lol, that seems plausible!

Right. It seems that maybe there was a subtle shift, that the verse might have been back-formed from the prose? Or else perhaps the verse was slightly corrupted in transmission? I’m not really sure, it just feels odd to have two passages that are so obviously connected, yet with this subtle shift of sense.

Infact, now that I come to think of it, it reminds me of that ther mind-only-ish saying in the suttas, the “radiant mind”. In that case, the misunderstanding definitely stems from textual corruption. As a rule, it’s bad practice to derive major philosophical conclusions from ambiguous passages. But what if the modern tendency to read the Suttas as supporting a Yogacara-ish (or Upanishadic-ish) philosophy in fact stems in part from textual corruption?


Let me translate the prose passage as literally as I can:

“Ye keci, bhikkhave, dhammā akusalā akusalabhāgiyā akusalapakkhikā, sabbe te manopubbaṅgamā
Mendicants, intention is at the forefront of all phenomena whatsoever that are unskillful, part of the unskillful, on the side of the unskillful
Mano tesaṁ dhammānaṁ paṭhamaṁ uppajjati, anvadeva akusalā dhammā”ti.
Intention is the first of those phenomena to arise, and unskillful phenomena follow right behind.”

One thing the prose makes clear is that mano is regarded as one of the “phenomena”, not something that precedes them (mano tesaṁ dhammānaṁ). So “forefront” or “at the head” or something is better than “precedes” or “forerunner”.

I’m not suggesting a translation here, just clarifying the sense.


Xuanzang’s verses in the Iti are expanded with introductions that read like the second statement in AN’s prose.


諸不善法生, 為因能感苦,
Unskillful dharmas arise / That are causes for suffering; //
皆意為前導, 與煩惱俱生;
They are led by intention (manas) / (which) arises along with affliction (kleśa). //

There’s another Agama, EA 52.7, that has the Buddha saying the twin verses to sum up a teaching on the three kinds of karmic action. King Pasenadi complains about Nirgranthas telling him to give alms to them and not to anyone else. The conversation turns to which of the three kinds of actions are the most important. The Buddha says that manaḥ-saṃskāra is first and supreme of the three because intentional thought happens before speech. After speech, then the physical deed is done. The tongue and body don’t decide what to do, and after someone dies, they don’t do anything because intention doesn’t remain.

It’s interesting to read these other texts in that light. Unfortunately, though, it’s not the source for the sutras in AN and the Chinese Iti. They seem like extracts from a lost sutra.


Thanks for this, that makes it indeed clearer.

For translation I am still much in favor of “qualities”. It fits just best with skillful and unskillful. And if you decide for something different, that would also affect the Suttas that come after 57. Actually, many other Suttas.

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