The Dhammapada and How To Use It

The Dhammapada is the oldest Buddhist scripture. It collects the sayings of the Buddha in their least corrupted form.

For readers new to the Dhammapada I recommend the translation by Eknath Easwaran (pronounced ESH–waran), who was originally from Kerala in India and became a professor of English at Berkeley. He first got interested in these texts from a literary angle, and ended up as a sage with an ashram in Marin County. I took darshan from him once.

This translation has the advantage of a superbly clear introduction setting out the context, along with the best introduction I know to the Life of the Buddha. I buy copies of this translation in bulk to give away. Don’t be intimidated by its heft – the actual text is only 423 verses, a little more than the Book of Nehemiah or the Epistle to the Romans.

Here’s how to use it.

  1. First, read the introduction right through before reading any of the main text.
  2. Then begin the text. Easwaran groups the chapters into groups of two or occasionally three. They are short. Read one group, then read the commentary (by Stephen Ruppenthal) on that group, then read the group again. And then stop and read no more that day. Think about what you have read. Next day, repeat the process with the next group.
  3. The reason for stopping is that the Dhammapada is so rich that reading more than that at one sitting would be too much, and it would all blend into one big indigestible lump of good advice. That is not the way to get the best out of this text. It is more than good advice – it is a way to radical rethinking. Plus you probably don’t have time to read more than a pair of chapters at one sitting.
  4. There is no hurry. If you read one pair of chapters a day you will be done in less than two weeks. Resist the impulse to keep going. When you finish all the chapters, start again. It is inexhaustible.
  5. Notice that there is no God in here. That is not to say there is or isn’t any God – it just means that God is beside the point of what the Buddha was teaching. Also no faith is required – all insights are experimental.
  6. Enjoy! The Dhammapada and the Life of the Buddha, and maybe a few meditation tips, are all the information a person needs to achieve enlightenment. All the rest is experiment and application.1

“Better than a hundred poems of vain stanzas is one word of the Dharma …” Dhammapada 102.

  1. For more on Buddhism, see my page on the subject.