the dhammapada the pairs

11. An intro to the Dhammapada

[From meditation January 18th, 2021]

This evening we talked about one of the most known, most translated and most loved Buddhist texts, the Dhammapada. A sutta part of the Pali canon and thus considered to be the original word of Buddha.

The challenge with interpreting the Buddhist text is that Buddha was adapting his message to meet his audience where they were in their understanding of the path to wisdom, and so also is the case with the Dhammapada.

In the Dhammapada he speaks on four different levels, or through four different lenses, which we’ll try to understand today and I’ll also talk about the many different translations of the Dhammapada and give you an example of how different they can be.

Both the translation considered to be the more accurate representation of Buddha’s words and the translation that is considered the more poetic.

I’ll reference the translation by Acharya Buddharakkhita when talking about the four lenses, the translation by Gil Fronsdal when referring to the more accurate translation and the translation by Thomas Byrom when talking about the more poetic translation of the Dhammapada.

The translation by Thomas Byrom was actually my first Buddhist text back in 2006, and thanks to the compact and light-weight format I used to keep it in the pocket of my jack and bring it out to read a little here and there while waiting for the tram or a meeting.

The Dhammapada is a collection of verses that were collected at different points in Buddha’s life in response to unique situation so the essence of his teachings are distilled into a format that makes it available to anyone.

It starts with The Pair Verses, or The Dichotomies. Probably the most cited lines of all Buddhist texts and I will get back to these when comparing the translations.

The Four Levels of the Dhammapada

I recommend reading the introduction, written by Bhikkhu Bodhi, to Buddharakkhita’s translation for a detailed explanation of the levels and with references to the verses to illustrate the four levels but I think it can be valuable with a brief intro of the levels here.

  1. The first of level from which to Buddha talks is about wellbeing and happiness in our daily life, in the here and now.
  2. The second is levels is concerned with karma (or kamma as the original text is in Pali).
  3. The third level is about The Four Noble Truths, which we discussed in an earlier sitting, and The Eightfold Path.
  4. The fourth level is about the joy of reaching the goal of the Buddhist path – enlightenment.

After explaining the levels in detail Bhikku Bodhi proceeds to write:

The Dhammapada again and again sounds this challenge to human freedom: man is the maker and master of himself, the protector or destroyer of himself, the savior of himself.

Bhikku Bodhi

And makes an interesting observation to illustrate the importance of this:

In contrast to the Bible, which opens with an account of God’s creation of the world, the Dhammapada begins with an unequivocal assertion that mind is the forerunner of all that we are, the maker of our character, the creator of our destiny.

Bhikku Bodhi

Comparing two translations

The first pair in the Dhammapada is often quoted but depending on the translation it takes quite different meanings.

Let’s start with the poetic translation by Thomas Byrom:

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with an impure mind and trouble will follow you as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with a pure mind and happiness will follow you as your shadow, unshakable.

And then compare this to what is considered the more accurate translation by Fronsdal.

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a corrupted mind, and suffering follows as the wagon follow the hoof of the ox.


All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a peaceful mind, and happiness follows like a never-departing shadow.

Comparing the first three lines of these two translation I would say that quite different perspectives of Buddhism emerges.

Byrom translates it as We are what we think which is very different than All experience is preceded by mind. Fronsdal’s translation gives space for us to be more than what we think which I think much more true to the teachings of Buddha.

Fronsdal’s translation reminds of a Buddhist saying: Don’t believe everything you think.

So let’s round this conversation off. I recommend that you get the Dhammapada and read a few verses every now and then and reflect. Which translation you choose is matter of taste but you should be aware that Byrom’s translation may give you a slightly off interpretation of Buddha’s teachings.


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