The Dhammapada (1st century BC)
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Reclining Buddha, Gal Vihare, Sri Lanka. Photograph: Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty
Cosmic spoiler alert: life is suffering. Thrown into a bewildering existence, we swing between the flames of agony and relief in fleeting pleasures, until old age and sickness finish us off. The Dhammapada, one of the canonical scriptures of Theravada Buddhism and a text that remains as relevant as anything that scrolls down one’s social media feeds, urges that it need not be this way. In 423 aphorisms aimed at the roots of human distress, it promises nothing less than the path to the cessation of suffering, or nirvana.
Buddhism has held an abiding appeal to westerners since it was introduced to our civilisation some two centuries ago. Instead of a faith-based belief system, it provides a rational framework of mental cultivation well-suited to post-Enlightenment skepticism towards revealed religion and divine authority. Moreover, Buddhism posits a world that is fundamentally moral: good, thoughtful actions will be rewarded by inner peace; and evil, thoughtless ones will bring about the “hell states” that afflict the cruel and unrighteous. “Even a wrongdoer is happy so long as his evil has not ripened; but when it bears its fruit he suffers.”
The aphorisms of The Dhammapada gain force from all that stands unsaid around them: the elegant Buddhist and Hindu metaphysics of anatta (non-self) and anicca (impermanence). Consider the third aphorism: “‘He reviled me, struck me, defeated me, robbed me.’ In those who harbour such thoughts hatred will never cease.” A blow is a blow, but we needlessly torture ourselves if we believe in the separate existence of a self on which these apparent wrongs have been inflicted. To disengage from the ego is to pour cool water on the red-hot coals of the psyche.
So can this 2,000-year-old text really offer relief to 21st-century neurosis? Yes, it can: it’s hard to live up to its ethical precepts, but even floundering efforts in that direction pay off. As Nietzsche remarked on the thought of suicide, by means of The Dhammapada one can get through many a bad night.