04 September 2012

Dhammapada moments

A few days ago, as I was switching channels on the radio, looking for commentary on a cricket match, I chanced on a Buddhist sermon.  The learned bikkhu delivering it was quoting from the ‘Dhammapada’.  The Venerable Thero described it as ‘bauddhayinge athpota’ (‘The Handbook for Buddhists’).  That stopped my commentary-search.  It was strange because the past few weeks have seen the Handbook encountering me in many ways, almost saying, ‘Use me!’   
A few weeks ago, a Saturday if I remember right, I gave a lift to a stranger as I am wont to do if I see people at the ‘Kudamaduwa’ bus halt on the Polgasovita-Kottawa road.  Several people got in. Among them an elderly and rather frail man who greeted me thus: ‘Theruwan Saranai’ (May you be blessed by the Noble Triple Gem, i.e. the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha).  The others got off at Kottawa.  He told me he was going near Town Hall, so I said I will take him all the way. 

We spoke about all kinds of things, but mostly about the Dhamma, or rather, he spoke and I listened, for the most part.  He told me that he spends most of his time reflecting on the doctrine.   

‘We have no way of knowing where we go after death.  I am scared therefore.  I am scared of doing something that would lengthen by sojourn in sansara.’

And so he elaborated on what he did and did not do.  All the way to Town Hall.  He also told me his name: Henry.  He worked as a sub-editor at the Lankadeepa, he said, and added that he is very particular when processing copy, making sure that nothing said would cause anyone any harm.   

Before he got down, he gifted me a book.  The Dhammapada. 

A week later, attending a presentation of short films on Buddhist themes at the residence of Naveen Gunaratne, I had cause to mention the above.  One of the films was about a young couple who had found an old letter written by a man to his wife mentioning that he was sending her his most prized possession.  Burdened by aspirations for the good life and struggling with the mismatches between incomes and prices of the ‘musts’ associated with those aspirations, the young couple see in the letter a last-chance glimmer of hope.  They ransack her room but don’t find anything.  The recipient of the letter, also resident in that house, is old and suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease. Unable to think ‘treasure’ without thinking of glitter, they cajole the old lady to give them a clue.  Unable to comprehend, she points towards random spots in the garden, which are duly dug up.  Finally, they show her the letter and she smiles.  She takes out an old and ornate wooden box.  In it is a time-yellowed copy of the Dhammapada with a neatly written dedication by her late husband. 

The Dhammapada was part of my growing up and only because there was a tradition in my school to ‘read from the scriptures’ at the beginning of the school assembly.  We had boys reading from the Dhammapada, the Thirukkural, the Quran and the Bible.  Just verse and explanation. Short. Sweet.  In one ear and out the other, most times.  Until I came to Grade 10.

Mrs. B.H.P.R. Weerasooriya, a strict, small made, no-nonsense lady taught us Buddhism.  I was among the poorer students, totally uninterested in all school work except Mathematics.  We had to learn 10 stanzas from the Dhammapada for the O/L Examination.  She went through each: the stanza in Pali, its Sinhala meaning and its nidhana kathava (or the story which prompted the relevant words from the Buddha).  The story fascinated me.  Her narration and explanation kept each stanza alive, long after the O/L Exam was done.  She made me realize that school is easy and interesting.  All my grades, floundering in the 30-40/100 range for several years, moved up.  Who knows, perhaps it was a different kind of fear – that of failing – but that’s just a technicality.  

All that matters is that the book teaches (and I will not say this is the only teaching-book; for every book has lessons and usually if one is in tune with the elemental processes of the universe a random page on a random book often yields answers to the questions that you have, even if you’ve not formulated the question clearly in your mind, noting of course that ‘book’ here can be metaphorical as well).

So here’s the random page-verse of this moment, courtesy Henry who taught me much in half an hour and a quick internet search for English translation:

Who checks arising anger
as with chariot away,
that one I call a charioteer,
others merely grip the reins.

That person who is capable of curbing sudden anger is like the expert charioteer who restrains a chariot rushing out of control. That person I describe as a true charioteer. The other charioteer is a mere holder of the reins.

It requires expert touch, with the right mix of the delicate and firm, or put another way the correct composite of pragna (wisdom) and metta (compassion).  Going off the path, not going anywhere or crashing the vehicle is all in our hands.  So says (I think) the Dhammapada.



Ramzeen Azeez said...

The words of sages once said, are etched in time forever. No deletions, erasures or amendments. The problem is that we treat our born-into religions as our own property and even kill in its name. Whereas it belongs to every human being.

h. said...

That's a very nice 'morning inspection' logo.

Ranil J said...

Well..at least Buddhism is known in the west as the only religion that didnt kill in its name...