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Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

Time Event
9:12a
Some core teachings ...
I'm almost done with the books I scored at the last Newberry Library Book Fair, and this is one of those. As I've noted in previous reviews, this is frequently a source of “dead people's books”, and the current book had both a smattering of pencil marks and a sheet of notes in it, which had the original price sticker, from ASUCLA, which operates the UCLA bookstores … so this managed to migrate from southern California to Chicago at some point between 1973 and 2011.

This is the Penguin Classics edition of the Dhammapada, translated by Juan Mascaro, and entitled The Dhammapada: The Path of Perfection. The Dhammapada is one of the core scriptures of Theravadan Buddhism, written in Pali. I have read other editions of this before, and I was quite impressed with how accessible Mascaro's translation is … which is enough to recommend this version. However, one of the most useful things here is his Introduction. About 1/3rd of this rather slim volume is taken up by Mascaro's essay, which provides a wealth of information on this work. Not only does he discuss the history and language issues, but he makes an effort to place this within the context of both other religious scriptures, from the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads to the Bible, the Christian mystics, and Sufi writings, and the expressions of poets from Rumi to Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats and Wordsworth. Here's how he closes the essay:

The message of Buddha is a message of joy. He found a treasure and he wants us to follow the path that leads to the treasure he found. He tells man that he is in deep darkness, but he also tells him that there is a path that leads to light. He wants us to arise from a life of dreams into a higher life where man loves and does not hate, where a man helps and does not hurt. His appeal is universal, because he appeals to reason and to the universal in us all … He achieves a supreme harmony of vision and wisdom by placing spiritual truth on the crucial test of experience; and only experience can satisfy the mind of modern man. He wants us to watch and be awake and he wants us to seek and to find.
The Dhammapada is purportedly a record of the actual words of the historical Buddha, prince Siddhattha Gotama (to use the Pali spelling), although these were only preserved in oral transmission until a century or two past his death. Which brings me to the difficult question of “what do I say about a 2,500-year-old collection of teaching materials?”, especially when my sense of how these were in the original is only 2nd or 3rd hand. There are parts of this which are, to the modern ear, very repetitive … but that makes sense in the context of something originally intended for oral transmission. The document here is divided into 26 chapters which contain a total of 423 verses … here's one section, Chapter 3 – The Mind:

33 – The mind is wavering and restless, difficult to guard and restrain: let the wise man straighten his mind as a maker of arrows makes his arrows straight.
34 – Like a fish which is thrown on dry land, taken from his home in the waters, the mind strives and struggles to get free from the power of Death.
35 – The mind is fickle and flighty, it flies after fancies wherever it likes: it is difficult indeed to restrain. But it is a great good to control the mind; a mind self-controlled is a source of great joy.
36 – Invisible and subtle is the mind, and it flies after fancies wherever it likes; but let the wise man guard well his mind, for a mind well guarded is a source of great joy.
37 – Hidden in the mystery of consciousness, the mind, incorporeal, flies alone far away. Those who set their mind in harmony become free from the bonds of death.
38 – He whose mind is unsteady, who knows not the path of Truth, whose faith and peace are ever wavering, he shall never reach fullness of wisdom.
39 – But he whose mind in calm self-control is free from the lust of desires, who has risen above good and evil, he is awake and has no fear.
40 – Considering that this body is frail like a jar, make your mind strong like a fortress and fight the great fight against MARA, all evil temptations. After victory guard well your conquests, and ever for ever watch.
41 – For before long, how sad, this body will lifeless lie on the earth, cast aside like a useless log.
42 – An enemy can hurt an enemy, and a man who hates can harm another man: but a man's own mind, if wrongly directed, can do him a far greater harm.
43 – A father or a mother, or a relative, can indeed do good to a man; but his own right-directed mind can do him a far greater good.
I have to assume that this has become a standard college text, as it is still in print and it has a fairly high cover price (for being under 100 pages). You can certainly find the text (in a different translation) out there for free on the web, but if you can get a hold of a used copy of The Dhammapada: The Path of Perfection the introductory material (and Mascaro's translation) is well worth it. This is available via the on-line guys, and I'm guessing it could obtained from the brick-and-mortars as well. If you want to dip into the basics of Buddhism, this would be a good place to start.


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