By David Jones
Let’s take a brief look into two verses from the Dhammapada.
I call my process The 3 Pass Method. The first pass is reading the text just to focus on the writer’s words. The second pass involves our research to figure out what the writer meant at the time as well as what traditional meanings and insights followed. Third, I work out its meaning and application to myself today (which might change tomorrow, because seeking Wisdom is a fluid and ongoing process).
Dhammapada verses 294 and 295:
Two warrior kings,
A kingdom and its subjects,
The brahmin, undisturbed, moves on.
Two learned kings,
And a tiger,
The brahmin, undisturbed, moves on.
1st pass: a brahmin is living his life. He has killed mother, father, kings, an entire kingdom and its subjects, and a tiger. This doesn’t disturb him, and he goes on living his life. (P.S. Gil Fronsdal uses “brahmin” instead of “brahman” here, while some other translators don’t.)
2nd pass: traditional meanings abound for these two verses. The categories of things killed can be matched up to many symbolic things—such as how the mother = craving, the father = arrogance, and how the inner and outer senses play into it, etc. Go look into this for yourself, it’s fascinating stuff.
These two verses are somewhat separate in content from the surrounding verses. I see them as a form of parallelism, something common in Wisdom verses. It’s a way to restate a teaching in different ways which clarify the meaning when taken together.
Different teachers saw different meanings, so there are many different traditional ways of understanding the two verses. We should remember that even two conflicting understandings could be correct. (Innumerable Meanings for the win!)
3rd pass: No one got killed literally, these verses are about attachment. One guy killed his parents, four kings, and an entire kingdom? Who let Shakespeare write a sutra?
It actually runs parallel with Buddha’s Great Renunciation. He left his mother and father, his wife and child, smart and powerful people, his kingdom and its subjects, in essence “killing” them and ending those attachments.
So if liberating oneself from attachment is referred to as “killing,” how do you know when you’ve actually succeeded in letting go of attachment? It’s when you can move on “undisturbed,” liberated from the things which disturbed (or distracted or hindered) you.
Our first conscious anchor or attachment in life is to our parent(s). It’s our first and often our most powerful and enduring attachment. It’s very easy to remain tied to their views and beliefs.
Two warrior kings—those who rule by force. Two learned kings—those who rule by understanding. Whether you choose to be ruled by brain or brawn, at some point you need to recognize the possible attachments you have towards them and work out your liberation from those attachments.
A kingdom and its subjects—your tribe and everyone in it. You choose to separate from them, leaving your group identity and obligations to them behind. It’s painful to do, because now you’re on your own.
A tiger? Tigers represent a lot of things in Buddhism (power, ferocity, cunning, etc.) so look at all those things as they are now and consider for yourself how they apply to attachment. Also, tigers were scary things an ascetic or ancient monastic might encounter out in the wild. Leaving behind our connection—our attachment—to fear is a great final piece to this puzzle.
How was he undisturbed? There are two ways I see it:
He wasn’t disturbed over having cut the anchor ropes which tethered him to these attachments. He wasn’t disturbed by those former attachments anymore because he took steps to free himself from them.
There’s even a seeming parallel in something Jesus taught: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:29 New International Version) There are benefits gained from such personal sacrifices (that is, the personal cost of letting go of our dearest attachments).
One translation of these Dhammapada verses ends by saying the brahmin “goes to Nibbana” instead of simply “moves on.” Whether attaining nirvana or simply moving on in one’s life, path walkers owe much of their growth and forward movement to severing their attachments. Indeed, moving on was impossible for the brahmin while his attachments remained. Why?
It’s kinda hard to move on to Point B when you’re still tied down to Point A, and sadly we sometimes want to carry or drag all of Point A along with us to Point B, only to eventually wonder why getting to Point D or E seems so impossible. Well, just look at everything we’re dragging with us!
To keep ancient texts alive we need to engage them from where we are right now. (Do I really need to leave all my family, friends, and responsibilities behind? If not, what is this passage telling me?) The old teachings and understandings are still important, but old words teach new lessons in 2022 and beyond.
There’s more to look at, but enough of my thoughts. What do these old words teach you? Please share your thoughts in the box below this piece or as a comment to this post on social media.
Let’s look for Wisdom together!
Editor: Dana Gornall