The Dhammapada is, in terms of sequence, the second collection in the Pali Khuddhaka Nikāya; but in terms of fame and popularity it is, without any competitor, the first. It consists of 423 verses arranged in thematic chapters. Its powerful, engaging, and evocative verses have ensured its popularity from ancient times until now.
The Dhammapada is closely allied to the Udāna, and I refer you to my essay there for the relation between these texts. Many of the verses of the Dhammapada can be found elsewhere in the Pali Canon and are also widely shared across traditions. They are not restricted to Buddhist texts either, for they may also be found occasionally in the law books of Manu, in the Mahābhārata, in Jaina sutras, and in the Sanskrit collection of fables, the Pañcatantra. The special quality of the Dhammapada lies not in any doctrinal innovations, but in the appealing and meaningful selection and arrangement of verses by topic.
There are at least twelve versions of the Dhammapada, far more than any comparable ancient Buddhist text. They exist in Pali, Sanskrit, Prākrit, Gandhārī, Tibetan, and no less than four Chinese translations. Study of this large and linguistically-diverse mass of texts reveals much of the manner in which Buddhist texts were compiled and later translated. All differences aside, however, the texts share not just a name, but an overall structure and style, and many individual verses and lines of verse.
While the Dhammapada deservedly has a reputation for its practical and accessible nature, it is by no means a watered-down version of the Dhamma. It contains some of the most enigmatic and profound teachings of the Pali canon, and like all early Buddhist teachings, challenges our desires and assumptions to the core. It grants the reader, the practitioner, the audience, the foremost place in realizing its truths, acknowledging that its words alone are not enough. And as such, it reveals the deep love and compassion that lie at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching, his profound conviction that freedom is possible, and that we have what it takes.
What Others Have Said
Many words have been written in eulogy of the Dhammapada’s qualities, and I can do no better than quote them. In the Preface to his translation, Ven. Buddharakkhita says:
The contents of the verses, however, transcend the limited and particular circumstances of their origin, reaching out through the ages to various types of people in all the diverse situations of life. For the simple and unsophisticated the Dhammapada is a sympathetic counselor; for the intellectually overburdened its clear and direct teachings inspire humility and reflection; for the earnest seeker it is a perennial source of inspiration and practical instruction.
And Bhikkhu Bodhi, in his introduction to the same translation, says:
It is an ever-fecund source of themes for sermons and discussions, a guidebook for resolving the countless problems of everyday life, a primer for the instruction of novices in the monasteries. Even the experienced contemplative, withdrawn to forest hermitage or mountainside cave for a life of meditation, can be expected to count a copy of the book among his few material possessions. Yet the admiration the Dhammapada has elicited has not been confined to avowed followers of Buddhism. Wherever it has become known its moral earnestness, realistic understanding of human life, aphoristic wisdom and stirring message of a way to freedom from suffering have won for it the devotion and veneration of those responsive to the good and the true.
He proposes a four-fold scheme for understanding the aims of the diverse teachings found in the Dhammapada.
- Happiness in this life.
- Happiness in the next life.
- The path to freedom from suffering.
- Celebrations of freedom.
These are not incompatible purposes, but rather build on each other. He goes on to give a detailed analysis of the doctrinal content of the verses seen through this framework.
While some commentators have tended to tame and blandify the teachings of the Dhammapada, not so Albert Edmunds, whose 1902 translation Hymns of the Faith was one of the earliest into English, and whose introduction remains perhaps the most dramatic:
If ever an immortal classic was produced upon the continent of Asia, it was this. … No trite ephemeral songs are here, but red-hot lava from the abysses of the human soul … These old refrains from a life beyond time and sense, as it was wrought out by generations of earnest thinkers, have been fire in many a muse. They burned in the brains of the Chinese pilgrims, who braved the blasts of the Mongolian desert, climbed the cliffs of the Himalayas, swung by rope-bridges across the Indus where it rages through its gloomiest gorge, and faced the bandit and beast, to peregrinate the Holy Land of their religion and tread in the footsteps of their Master.
His description of the travails endured by the ancient Chinese pilgrims in search of the Dhamma is in no way exaggerated, and it serves as a timely reminder to us, in our age of lazy access to the world’s information, that some forms of wisdom are truly rare and priceless, and worth putting in effort.
The renowned meditation teacher Daw Mya Tin, known as Mother Sayamagyi, when introducing her 1984 translation on behalf of the Burma Pitaka Association under the title The Dhammapada: Verses and Stories notes the prevalence of the Dhammapada in Burmese Buddhism:
Through these verses, the Buddha exhorts one to achieve that greatest of all conquests, the conquest of self; to escape from the evils of passion, hatred and ignorance; andto strive hard to attain freedom from craving and freedom from the round of rebirths. Each verse contains a truth (dhamma), an exhortation, a piece of advice. … In Burma, translations have been made into Burmese, mostly in prose, some with paraphrases, explanations and abridgements of stories relating to the verses. In recent years, some books on Dhammapada with both Burmese and English translations, together with Pali verses, have also been published.
Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu applies the sophisticated aesthetic theories of later Indian philosophy to analyze the literary qualities of the Dhammapada, noting that:
The Dhammapada, an anthology of verses attributed to the Buddha, has long been recognized as one of the masterpieces of early Buddhist literature. Only more recently have scholars realized that it is also one of the early masterpieces in the Indian tradition of kavya, or belles lettres. … As an example of kavya, the Dhammapada has a fairly complete body of ethical and aesthetic theory behind it, for the purpose of kavya was to instruct in the highest ends of life while simultaneously giving delight.
Ānandajoti Bhikkhu has studied the Dhammapada literature extensively, in both Pali and other Indic languages, and in the introduction to his translation says:
The timeless ethical teachings contained in these verses are still considered relevant to people’s lives, and they are a good guide to living well, and show how to reap the rewards of good living. … The verses and stories are well known in traditional Theravāda Buddhist cultures, and most born and brought up in those societies will be able to recite many of the verses, and relate the stories that go with them, even from a young age.
As a jewel of Indian literature, the Dhammapada has been widely translated and commented on by Indian pundits. The celebrated Hindu scholar and second president of India, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, in the Preface to his revised edition of 1950, approaches the Dhammapada from a deeply humanistic perspective:
The effort to build one world requires a closer understanding among the peoples of the world and their cultures. This translation of the Dhammapada, the most popular and influential book of Buddhist canonical literature, is offered as a small contribution to world understanding. The central thesis of the book—that human conduct, righteous behavior, reflection, and meditation are more important than vain speculations about the transcendent—has an appeal to the modern mind. Its teaching—to repress the instincts entirely its to generate neuroses; to give them full rein is also to end up in neuroses—is supported by modern psychology. Books so rich in significance as the Dhammapada require to be understood by each generation in relation to its own problems.
Eknath Easwaran, a Hindu yogi and scholar is less circumspect in his approach. While quoting widely from brahmanical scriptures in his introduction, he does not hesitate to claim that, “if everything else were lost, we would need nothing more than the Dhammapada to follow the way of the Buddha.” It’s a debatable claim; but what is not debatable is that, were we to lose all other Dhamma, that would include all the many places the Buddha criticized brahmanism, its rituals, texts, beliefs, and practices.
This is the downside of the “context collapse” in the Dhammapada: it is one thing to enjoy the Dhamma in the form of delightful bon mots; it is quite another to reduce it to nothing more than that. The Dhammapada serves well as an introduction to the Buddha’s teaching and as an inspiring reminder for experienced practitioners, but it is no replacement for the detailed and careful presentations of the Buddha’s path found in the prose suttas.
As if to illustrate this point, Easwaran goes on to say that the Dhammapada is a guide to “nothing less than the highest goal life can offer: Self-realization.” He apparently does not notice that “self-realization” is nowhere mentioned in the Dhammapada, nor is it a goal of Buddhism. The goal of the Dhammapada is the same as that of all Buddhism: freedom from suffering. A careful study of the prose Suttas might have helped him to draw the Buddha’s message from the text, instead of reading his own ideas into it.
Despite his evident preconceptions, Easwaran is sincere in his approach. But not all those who comment on the Dhammapada do so from a place of learning or wisdom. A notorious cult leader like Osho cannot help but reveal his nature in the way he introduces his commentary.
My beloved Bodhisattvas … You are bodhisattvas because of your longing to be conscious … And THE DHAMMAPADA, the teaching of Gautama the Buddha, can only be taught to the bodhisattvas. It cannot be taught to the ordinary, mediocre humanity, because it cannot be understood by them.
The Buddha never spoke in this way, aiming to divide and separate, creating an egoistic in-group with special access to the truth. These are the ways of a con artist or a cult leader, and they show how readily and how swiftly the Dhamma may be turned into an instrument of manipulation, a tool in the hands of a grifter.
I am conscious that this selection of translators includes mostly men, reflecting the bias of the field as a whole, so it’s important to note that women have also made major contributions. Caroline A.F. Rhys Davids, then president of the PTS, translated the Dhammapada as Verses on Dhamma in volume 1 of The Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon in 1931. In 1997, Anne Bancroft together with Thomas Byrom published a translation through Element Books. And in Spanish, the erudite Argentinian philosopher Carmen Dragonetti pubished La enseñanza de Buda 2002, which went on to become one of the most popular renderings.
For a popular edition that is reliable and accessible, Valerie J Roebuck, an accomplished scholar of Sanskrit and Pali, as well as an experienced meditator, published a verse translation through Penguin in 2010 under the title The Dhammapada. A review by Elizabeth Harris described it as “a gem … energetic and direct … I do not know a version of this text that is so comprehensive and informative, both for the general reader and the scholar” (Religions of South Asia 6.1, 2012).
The Dhammapada has also stimulated a wide variety of creative responses. These began with the commentary itself, which paints a vivid if sometimes unlikely picture of the circumstances of the verses. Illustrated editions sometimes render these stories, or else pair the verses with more evocative images. There are at least two musical settings of the Dhammapada, and many individual verses have been set to song.
A forthcoming novel, The Lyrebird’s Cry by Samantha Sirimanne Hyde, begins each chapter with a quotation from the Dhammapada, in a manner that deliberately evokes the traditional manner of sermon-giving. The story tells of a “sensitive” young Sri Lankan man living in Sydney who is forced into an arranged marriage with a “good girl” from Colombo—despite the inconvenient fact that he is gay. It highlights the heartlessness that can so often underlie a pious adherence to the maxims of a sacred text.
On Translations of the Dhammapada
There are countless modern translations of the Dhammapada, and more than any other Pali text it is available and widely read: in massive illustrated coffee-table books, in cute inspirational booklets, in audio or on the web, or quoted on throw-pillows or coffee-mugs. There seems little need for another translation; indeed, for many decades now it has been a convention when introducing a new translation of the Dhammapada to apologize for its existence.
Yet if the proliferation of Dhammapada translations gives you the idea that it is a simple text that anyone can translate, consider the following. In the introduction to his translation of the Dhammapada for the Pali Text Society (PTS), Professor K.R. Norman—the greatest modern linguist of ancient Indic languages—said this in reference to the editor of the Gandhārī Dhammapada:
John Brough is reported as saying, when asked if he would produce a new translation of the Dhammapada for the PTS, that he could not, because it was “too difficult”. I regret to say that I must agree with him. My notes reveal how often I was quite unsure about the meaning of a verse.
Now, notwithstanding the fact that academics have a stricter standard for confidence than most people, the fact remains that the Dhammapada is by no means an easy or beginners text. Given that the greatest linguists of the field quail before the challenge of translating the Dhammapada, one might wonder at the degree of expertise brought to the task by the countless “translators” who have expressed no such qualms.
I am being coy here, so let me be plain. The vast majority of so-called “translations” of the Dhammapada are made by people unqualified to do so. They merely rehash old versions, leaving out what they find disagreeable, and rephrasing things to sound “poetic”—by which they mean inoffensive and unchallenging. Where the Buddha spoke with specificity, they gesture vaguely to universality. In the process the translations become a more reliable guide to the ideological priors of the “translators” than they are to anything that the Buddha taught. Such, sad to say, are most of the popular Dhammapadas that you might purchase through major publishing houses, or learn from various gurus or teachers.
Any new translation must be, in part, a dialogue with older versions, which exist both as texts on a page and as echoes in memory. And when writing, it is not just the translation that matters, but its reception: translators are in dialogue with both other translators and with readers. Sometimes we draw from what they have done, sometimes, we look at things from a fresh angle, and sometimes we try to correct old errors.
In my translation, I try to remain as close as possible to the meaning of the text, while believing that readability does not compromise accuracy. On the contrary, it is through natural and idiomatic diction that the meaning is most reliably conveyed. I aim for transparency in translation; it is the Buddha’s words, not mine, that matter. And I am someone who finds beauty in things that are raw and natural, so I don’t sand down rough edges.
All these qualities you might find in other translations, but in one thing my translation is unique: consistency with the rest of the Suttas. Since I undertook the Dhammapada as part of my overall translation project, I have tried as best I can to ensure that renderings make sense in different contexts. That doesn’t mean they must be identical everywhere, but it does mean that where context is lacking in the Dhammapada itself, renderings can often be informed by their occurrence elsewhere. The very first lines of the Dhammapada are a good example of this, for they echo a short prose passage in the Aṅguttara Nikāya (see below).
According to the traditions, each of the verses of the Dhammapada was spoken by the Buddha in response to a specific circumstance. In the Pali tradition, these background stories are preserved in the commentary edited and compiled by Buddhaghosa perhaps 800 years after the Buddha, based on much older texts. The stories are of mixed provenance. Many of them are obviously of a late origin. But the tradition of framing verses in a narrative context dates from the earliest times, and there is no reason to doubt that at least some of the stories preserve genuine historical details.
I’ll just make two observations regarding the commentary from my experience as a teacher. First, many Theravadins, hearing these stories many times since childhood, assume that they are “Suttas”, with no concept of the fact that they stem from centuries after the Buddha’s life. At the very least, we should be able to distinguish between Sutta and commentary. And second, when I taught a class, firstly just the verses, and then the verses with stories, the students universally said they preferred the verses without the stories. So the idea that the stories make the verses more meaningful or accessible doesn’t necessarily hold up in practice.
None of this, of course, is to question the inestimable value that the commentary holds for any translator. Like all Pali verse, the Dhammapada abounds in tricky idioms and difficult syntax, and the commentary stands by like a good friend ready to help the lonely and beleaguered scholar in time of need. No serious scholar would discount the value of the commentaries in making our modern understanding of the Pali texts possible.
Both elements of the word dhammapada can convey different meanings, and as a result translators have come up with a bewildering variety of renderings. Dhamma means “teachings, principles, the good, virtue, phenomena, justice” etc., and pada means “foot, footprint, track, step, word, passage, line of verse, state”. In such cases, the sense of words cannot be simply derived from combining the elements; rather, let us look at how it is used in the Pali canon itself.
The title Dhammapada does not feature among the nine sections of the early teachings (navaṅgadhamma). The word dhammapada however does appear in the early texts, in two primary meanings.
In AN 4.30 the Buddha speaks to a group of wanderers, naming three leaders as Annabhāra, Varadhara, and Sakuludāyī. He describes them as “very well known”, although they are, as it turns out, only referred to a couple of time elsewhere in the canon (MN 77, AN 4.185). Here he declares that there are four dhammapadas that are ancient and uncontested. He names them as contentment, good will, right mindfulness, and right immersion in samādhi. He argues that a spiritual practitioner must respect these four, and that one who does not can be legitimately criticized.
In this context, then, I have translated dhammapada as “basic principle”. Clearly it has no direct connection with the book named Dhammapada, although one might detect a distant kinship, given that the Dhammapada too consists of teachings that are, by and large, “basic principles” that speak to people across boundaries of religion and sect. In DN 33:1.11.138 we find the same four dhammapadas listed in summary, and they recur in later texts such as Pe 1.1:411.1, Ne 37:390.3 and Pe 2:144.1.
A quite different sense is found at SN 9.10, where a mendicant is admonished by a deity for no longer reciting the Dhamma as they did in the past. In the verses, the deity uses the term dhammapada which here must mean something like “passages of the teaching”. The same sense applies at SN 10.6. A similar sense is found at MN 12:62.10, where it is said that the Buddha would never run out of ways of explaining the Dhamma, here said to be dhammapadabyañjanaṁ, “words and phrases of the teachings”. At Snp 1.5:6.1 we find dhammapade sudesite which seems to have a similar meaning. The same phrase occurs in the Dhammapada itself (Dhp 44, Dhp 45). At SN 1.33:19.2 the dhammapada is said to excel even generosity; here it seems to mean the “way of the teaching”.
Turning now to later texts, the same meaning is found in Ja 424, where the gift of dhammapada excels the highest of worldly gifts. In Ja 532, on the other hand, dhammapada occurs in the midst of a discussion of the debt owed to parents and appears to mean “the path of duty”.
Finally the Dhammapada itself is referred to by name twice in the Milindapañha (Mil 7.3.8:1.5, Mil 7.7.3:1.6). The verses quoted do in fact appear in the Pali Dhammapada (Dhp 327, Dhp 32; the latter also appears at AN 4.37:8.1). So we know that the Pali Dhammapada in its current form must have existed no later than the creation of the Milindapañha. We don’t know the exact date of that, but it must have been after the time of King Menander (2nd century BCE).
Thus in the early texts we find the senses “basic principles” and “statements of the teaching”. The first is rather restricted and seems to apply only in the case of the four stated principles, which themselves are a statement of common ground between religions, rather than a presentation of the Buddha’s path. It seems, then, that the second meaning applies in this case. “Sayings of the Teaching” is an apt title for a work that gathers pithy verses from various places.
Commentators ancient and modern have drawn attention to a variety of more meaningful implications than the rather staid “Sayings of the Teaching”. Since a pada is a footprint and the dhamma is the truth, it might mean “tracks of truth”—the traces that the Buddha’s insight into reality have left in the world. Or, since a series of footprints is a path, and the dhamma is the “good”, it could be the “path to virtue”. As a translator, I need to focus on the primary literary sense that is justified by the text, but as a teacher and practitioner, I also appreciate the way that wordplay can enrich the nuances and implications of a simple title.
Formation of the Dhammapada
In his introduction, K.R. Norman suggests that, while the Dhammapada clearly borrows from elsewhere in the canon, it may also be true that the canonical texts generally borrowed from a store of relatively free-floating verses that predate the canon as we know it. Some such verses may even predate the Buddha.
The Buddha himself is recorded as quoting from pre-Buddhist verses on occasion, and it is true that, while the verses of the Dhammapada are in harmony with Buddhist teachings, many of them do not mention specifically Buddhist ideas and would be equally at home in any of the ancient Indian religions. The same may be said, it is worth noting, of the prose Suttas. There are countless Suttas that teach ethics or meditation or even philosophy in ways that do not assume a basis in basic Buddhist doctrines. This reflects the fact that the Buddha spoke to a diverse audience that often included non-Buddhists. We’ve already seen that the four dhammapadas were taught specially to emphasize the common ground between religions, and it may be that this idea influenced the selection of verses for the Dhammapada.
It seems likely to me that the genre of Dhammapada literature is associated with the popularization and spread of Buddhism in India, and especially with its adoption as the mainstream religion of the great emperor Ashoka. The flavor of the Dhammapada resonates closely with the tenor of Ashoka’s edicts, with its emphasis on practical teachings that are universally applicable, and a special interest in harmony and non-violence. I suspect that the Dhammapada collections were created, or at least popularized and expanded, in the Ashokan era, drawing on existing verses, and forming a handy and accessible way to bring the Dhamma to a much broader audience. In other words, its modern usage as an attractive access point to the Dhamma for Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike is precisely the reason why it was created in the first place.
The Teachings of the Dhammapada
Rather than a general overview of the teachings of the Dhammapada, which has been well undertaken by many previously, I will introduce the meaning of the text through the close study of a few verses in the opening chapters. In this way I’d like to suggest that, while the text may be read as an inspiring source of spiritual quotations, or as a verse summary of the Buddha’s doctrines, it may also be read as a carefully composed work of spiritual literature, one that repays careful attention to details, and which contains the keys to its own interpretation.
The Dhammapada announces its primary theme in its opening verses. As so often, lines that appear clear and simple in Pali turn out to be surprisingly difficult to catch exactly in English. A classic rendering, endlessly requoted, is:
Mind is the forerunner of all things.
It’s curiously difficult to locate the originator of this phrasing. Ven. Buddhadatta in 1922 had “Mind is the forerunner of all mental states”, Ven. Nārada (1946) has “Mind is the forerunner of (all evil) states”, while Caroline A.F. Rhys Davids has “Things are forerun by mind” (1931). The indefatigable Bodhipaksa—whose site “Fake Buddha Quotes” is essential—has traced this phrasing to an essay by Ven. Vajirañāṇa called The Importance of Thought in Buddhism (Maha-bodhi vol. 49, May/June 1941). Like so many after him, he presents this translation without naming his source, so we do not know whether the rendering was his or if it was already common parlance. Ven. Vajirañāṇa was famed not only for his erudition, but for his skill in presenting Dhamma in an accessible and relevant way for a modern audience. He was, in fact, the inventor of the modern Dhamma talk, and pioneered the practice of giving a focussed and thorough exposition of a specific verse or topic in a limited time. Such talks would frequently begin by quoting a verse from the Dhammapada. So, while I have not been able to identify a Dhammapada translation by Ven. Vajirañāṇa, it is entirely possible that he developed his own renderings while giving teachings, that he referred to these in his writings, and that they made their way into the Buddhist zeitgeist through his many students who became teachers in their own right.
But let us leave aside questions of authorship and focus on the text. The “all” here does not appear in the text, but is justified by the closely related passage at AN 1.56:1.1, where “all” unskilful qualities are said to have mind as the forerunner. The tricky terms here, however, are mano (“mind”) and dhamma. As we have seen with the title of the collection, the openness of the text has invited a range of renderings. But it is possible to narrow down the sense from a careful reading of the text in light of the full range of early teachings.
The verses are about cause and effect. By acting badly, suffering will come, while by acting well, happiness will follow. That much is clear.
The pair of terms mano and dhamma are found together in the standard exposition of the sixth kind of consciousness, mind consciousness. There, mano is the basis of mano-consciousness in the same way that the “eye” (etc.) is the basis of “eye-consciousness” (etc.). Here mano is usually rendered as “mind”. In this context, dhamma means the phenomena of which the mind is aware, and is typically rendered as “phenomena”, “thought”, or “mind object” (though I dislike that rendering).
It’s not clear, however, that this sense pertains here, for we are not speaking of the process of consciousness, but the creation of kamma. Of the many words for “mind” in Pali, mano often conveys the specific sense of “intentionality”. Mano is the active dimension of mind, the exercise of choice in performing morally potent deeds. And surely that must be the sense required here.
Dhamma must then refer to the experiences of pleasure and pain that are formed by the deed. The passage at AN 1.56:1.1 makes it clear that mano is not apart from the dhammas, but is one of them (tesaṁ dhammānaṁ). So a rendering like “at the forefront” would be better than “precedes”.
Even though the context makes it clear that ethical intention is the subject, the opening line invites an “idealist” interpretation so long as mano is rendered with “mind”. The Buddha, however, is emphasizing the creative power of mind in the world, rather than postulating that the entire world is nothing more than a projection of the mind. So I opted to emphasize the aspect of intention, while clarifying that dhamma refers to a person’s experiences rather than to all “things” in general.
Intention shapes experiences.
That’s a lot of work to establish just one line, and you will be delighted to know that I won’t be discussing every line in so much detail. But what is interesting is how this line functions as a meta-comment on the text itself. How you experience the Dhammapada depends on what you bring to it. It is not an objective reality to which one must become subject, but a living provocation. This is why the Dhamma cannot be forced on anyone, and why someone encountering Dhamma with a “fault-finding mind” (uparambhacitta) will never understand it.
And while it’s true that mano conveys the primary sense of “intentionality”, it’s also true that the sense is broader than merely “volition”: it implies a whole-hearted commitment to understanding, a unity of intellect and emotion and sensibility. Wisdom arises from a peaceful and clear mind, from critical inquiry when it is supported by faith. But it will come, though slower perhaps than we would like, and only if we are patient and humble enough to let it reveal itself to us.
The text immediately proceeds, as if impelled by the opening lines, to illustrate the point in a dazzling series of verses, each pair of which draw out a particular example of just how the mind creates suffering or happiness.
The second series of verses, which is really two pairs on the same theme, is almost as famous as the opening, and justly so.
For never is hatred
settled by hate,
it’s only settled by love
The last verse in this series (Dhp 6) invites two quite different renderings, depending on whether yamāmase is read with the root yam as “restrained” or, per the commentary, as a reference to Yama the god of the dead. The latter leads to such renderings as Buddharakkhita’s:
There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die.
Although enjoying the support of the commentary, it really is a double-stretch: yama is not really used in this way elsewhere; and to introduce death here is a dramatic shift.
While the verb yamāmase seems to be only found in this context and in this unusual form (3rd plural middle imperative), it’s a common Pali idiom to say that one should be “restrained” (saṁyama) regarding harming living creatures. We even find this in the very same verb form: pāṇesu ca saṁyamāmase (SN 10.6:3.1). This option doesn’t lack commentarial support, either, for an alternate explanation speaks of not amplifying conflicts that have arisen in the Sangha.
This reading has been adopted by linguistically-minded translators such as K.R. Norman and Ven. Ānandajoti, and I follow suit.
Others don’t understand
that here we need to be restrained.
This is a useful detail to bear in mind when comparing different translations. Older translations, especially those that cleave more closely to the traditional explanation, tend to use the sense of “death” here, while modern translations prefer “restraint”.
The final pair of verses undercut the authority of Buddhist texts themselves, arguing that one who does not practice is like “a cowherd who counts the cattle of others”, while even one of little learning may realize the truth. Here the Dhammapada is making a meta-comment on how to read the Dhammapada, drawing out the implication in the first verses.
That the unified character of the first chapter is no accident is borne out by a consideration of the second chapter, on heedfulness or diligence (appamāda). Here we open with an echo of the pairs of the first chapter, contrasting the heedless with the heedful.
The opening lines are, once again, not as easy to translate as they might appear, and they offer us another litmus test to understand the perspective of different translators.
Commonly we find something like:
Heedfulness is the path to the deathless.
Now, that the “deathless” (amata) refers to Nibbāna is not in dispute. Nibbāna is “deathless” because it is free from the cycle of transmigration through birth, old age, and death.
The tricky part is pada. The commentary glosses it with upāyo maggo “the way, the path” and this is followed by many translators. While pada doesn’t literally mean “path”, it is used in the sense of “footprint”, hence “tracks”, hence a path to follow. The elephant’s footprint is sometimes used as an example of following such tracks.
The problem is that in canonical Pali, while this exact phrase doesn’t appear elsewhere, the “deathless” pada, like the pada of Nibbāna, is not “followed” but “reached” (Tha-ap 415:11.4, Tha-ap 395:24.4, Tha-ap 340:17.4) or “understood” (Bv 1:68.4). It must, then, refer to the “state” of the deathless, not the path to it.
This is doctrinally challenging, since heedfulness is a practice, and normally the texts are quite scrupulous to distinguish the practice from the fruit. The “path” is said to be the best of conditioned things (AN 5.32:4.1) because it leads to Nibbāna, not because it is Nibbāna, which is the only “unconditioned” reality.
Despite this, however, the second half of the same verse makes it quite clear that this unlikely sense is, in fact, exactly what is meant:
The heedful do not die
That this, and by extension the whole verse, are spoken with a metaphorical force is clarified by the inclusion of yathā in the last line:
while the heedless are like the dead.
This gives us an idea of the subtle shifts in the text as explained by the commentary and back-read into the texts by translators. It’s a normalizing reading, smoothing the craggy text so that it is more easily reconciled with the systematic doctrines of the prose. The original is, to my mind, more powerful and dramatic precisely because it says something unexpected. What exactly can it mean to say that heedfulness is the state of deathlessness?
The commentary, of course, is no stranger to metaphor, and is quite happy to draw out metaphors where needed. Yet anyone familiar with traditional religious communities will recognize the way that playful and metaphorical scriptures are flattened and reduced by the dead hand of literalism, stripped of wit and nuance, driven by the fear that someone might not understand things correctly.
Once again, I see a meta-purpose in the arrangement of the text. The verse that invokes heedfulness is itself easily misread by the heedless. Heedfulness is more than just the path to the Deathless, it is itself a state of life, of active and vital response to the moment, of a continual reassessment and questioning of assumptions. The chapter deliberately opens with a verse that wakes the reader, even, and perhaps especially, one who is already versed in Buddhist doctrine.
As with the first chapter, a series of striking verses draw out the theme from various angles, but the force of the opening verses is revisited in the closing. One who loves diligence cannot fall back from the path, but is in the very presence of Nibbāna. Here again the line between metaphor and reality is deliberately blurred by the text, as if exceeding the limits of words.
I’ll leave my reading of the text there. Hopefully this is enough to show that the poetic strength of the text is not diminished by a close reading, but rather, that it allows hidden nuances and unexpected implications to reveal themselves. There is more to poetry than a wording that sounds nice, and more to teaching Dhamma than restating standard doctrines.
A Brief Textual History
The first 255 verses of the Dhammapada were translated by Daniel John Gogerly and published in the journal “The Friend” in Colombo in 1840. It was among the first translations of Pali into English. This is how he rendered the first verse:
Mind precedes action. The motive is chief: actions precede from mind. If any one speak or act from a corrupt mind, suffering will follow the action, as the wheel follows the lifted foot of the ox.
The 1855 edition edited by Viggo Fausbøll and published as Dhammapadam was perhaps the first of all canonical Pali texts published in book form and in Roman characters. (It had been preceded by editions of the Mahāvaṁsa—the great chronicle of Sri Lanka—by Eugène Burnouf in 1826 and George Turnour in 1837.) He also supplied excerpts from the commentary, and textual apparatus and literal translation both in Latin. For his text, Fausbøll relied primarily on three manuscripts in Sinhalese characters held at the Great Royal Library of Copenhagen. He introduced verse numbers, which were adopted by later editions and are still in use today. At such an early date, the means of Romanizing Pali had not yet been standardized, but the text remains clear and readable.
This was updated in 1900 and republished via Luzac & Co. under the title, The Dhammapada, Being a Collection of Moral Verses in Pali. Fausbøll notes several editions since his 1855 edition, in Sinhalese, Thai, and Burmese characters, as well as several new translations in various languages.
As an aside, Fausbøll remarks that the Thai characters are difficult to read, and argues that the Roman characters will become universal, advancing the curious opinion that English likewise will be the universal language “for it is a well known fact that in the beginning the Lord took all languages, boiled them in a pot, and forthwith extracted the English language as the essence of them all.” I felt I had to mention this, because it is rare in studies of Pali manuscripts to find evidence of a sense of humor!
As regards the Thai characters, it is noteworthy that, while printed Thai has become a perfectly readable script, it is nonetheless the case that the Mahāsaṅgīti edition, which is used by SuttaCentral, was published by a Thai consortium purely in Roman characters. This was because they had become frustrated with the mispronunciation of Pali in Thailand, caused by the fact that the same letter sometimes has a different value in Thai and Pali. The same is true of Pali written in other local scripts, and while Pali scholars are well aware of the issues, it is still the case that not only are Pali words often mispronounced, there are entire movements of Buddhism based on a misspelling of words due to ignorance of such basic details. Having said which, the use of Roman characters are by no means a sure way of guarding against mispronunciation or misunderstanding. Pali may be perfectly well represented by many scripts, and the only real guard against misunderstaning is, as the Dhammapada itself teaches us, heedfulness.
The first complete and rigorous translation into English was that by Max Müller through Clarendon Press in 1870, revised in 1881 and 1898. Müller was one of the founding fathers of Indology, although by his own admission Pali and Buddhism were not his primary focus. His work greatly influenced later translators, and in addition contained an extensive discussion of historical matters.
It was not until 1914 that the Pali Text Society published their own edition, which was edited by Sūriyagoda Sumaṅgala Thera based on printed editions in Burmese, Thai, and Singalese characters, as well as “two reliable manuscripts” in his possession. The edition carefully notes variant readings and cross-references, and became the standard edition for international Pali studies until replaced by the 1994 PTS edition by O. von Hinüber and K. R. Norman.
Finally I should mention the excellent edition of the Dhammapada by Ānandajoti Bhikkhu, originally in 2002 and last updated in 2016. This is primarily a revision and correction of the Buddha Jayanthi text, but takes into consideration the PTS and other editions, as well as an extensive comparative study with the Patna Dharmapada.
Thus far a cursory and incomplete survey of Pali editions has taken us, and I have barely scratched the surface of the translations, which number over 70 in English alone. I will simply note here that when looking for assistance in unraveling the knotty problems of the text I turned first of all to the work of K.R. Norman and Ven. Ānandajoti. I also referred from time to time to the translations of Ven. Buddharakkhita and Ven. Ṭhānissaro, the latter of whom sometimes catches aesthetic nuances that a linguist might miss.