22 August 2008

Dhammapada verses 3 - 4

akkocchi maṃ avadhi maṃ ajinji maṃ ahāsi me
ye ca taṃ upanayhanti veraṃ tesaṃ na sammati

akkocchi maṃ avadhi maṃ ajinji maṃ ahāsi me
ye ca taṃ n'upanayhanti veraṃ tesaūpasammati

"He abused me, he beat me, he overpowered me, he took from me."
In those who bear these grudges hatred is not stilled

"He abused me, he beat me, he overpowered me, he took from me."
In those who don't bear these grudges hatred settles and ceases.

akkocchi is verbal abuse, while avadhi is physical abuse. ajini comes from the root ji which means "to have power" or "to conquer" and so can mean overpowered, conquered, vanquished. Āhara is the past tense of hara "to take" and me is probably the genitive, so āhara me literally means "he took mine" - it is most often translated as "robbed me" or "stole from me". Sangharakshita has pointed out that the second precept against "taking the not given" has a broader frame of reference - it is not just stealing material things, but taking from someone anything which they have not willingly given you - their time or energy for instance.

These verses are said to have been spoken by the Buddha approximately 25 centuries ago. What this immediately tells us is that some things have not changed. Back then people shouted abuse at each other, they physically attacked each other. Some people tried to dominate their fellows. Some people took things that weren't theirs or that they were not entitled to. I find this quite a thing to reflect on. In 2500 years the human species as a whole has not evolved at all in the ethical sphere. So much for progress. Fortunately some individuals have evolved, and as individuals we all have the potential to evolve ethically and spiritually.

These two verses are only the bear bones of a manifesto for an ethical evolution, even perhaps a revolution. What they are fundamentally saying is that bearing hatred (vera) towards someone is never justified, no matter what they have done to you. This is not what we have learnt in our lives, not what we do on the whole, and seems almost shocking on first contact. Hatred in all it's manifestations is never justified. There is no righteous anger in Buddhism, no room for righteous indignation. Both terms are oxymoronic according to the Buddha. Most of us feel justified in being angry about something or someone, and about cultivating that anger, keeping it alive, feeding it, allowing it to fester. But the Buddha says no to all of this. Never allow anger to persist.

Because we are human our first response to being shouted at, or hit, or if someone tries to overpower us, or take our stuff, may be fear; but anger is usually not far behind. This is understandable. We can see anger is helpful for survival: it marshals our energy reserves (by preparing the body for action) and moves us away from danger, or prepares us to fight for survival. Most often there is nothing we can do about our physiological response to a threat - the reaction is instinctive, and most of us might not be alive today if that response had not kicked in at some appropriate moment in the past.

It is important not to beat yourself up for getting angry. Angry is instinctual. The verb in the second line of each verse is upanayhati which means: 1. to come into touch with; 2. to bear enmity towards, grudge, scorn. I've translated as "bear a grudge" because this seems the most useful way to approach it. For most of us it's not the initial reaction that is problematic, it is the ongoing anger, the grudge, the holding onto hurt, the contemplation or seeking of revenge.

When we hold on to hateful thoughts what happens? One thing is that while we replay the images or the conversation in our head we continue to re-experience the physical responses associated with the event. Say someone shouts at us, and there is an altercation. Our body prepares for action: the adrenal glands release adrenaline into our blood; our heart rate jumps and blood pressure rises; muscles tense ready for action. This can all happen in a moment, and yet it takes quite a few minutes to allow everything to settle back to a resting state. If we constantly replay the events in our minds, then we stir our bodies up, we may even vividly re-experience the the upset or even trauma of an event. Our bodies may continue to maintain a state of alertness for danger, of readiness for action, without ever fully relaxing. Over a long period of time this can be quite damaging to our body and our mind: one thinks of heart problems for instance, or of clinical depression. So holding onto hateful thoughts might be bad for our health in the long term.

Another possibility is that we become "an angry person". When we are constantly stimulating anger in ourselves, we feel angry, and we look angry: we scowl, we frown and grimace. We SOUND angry! Our body language communicates anger as well. Other people will be aware of this incipient hatred and experience it as a threat. It is quite clear to us when someone is angry, and we all know from experience that angry people are the ones who shout and hit, who try to overpower us, and so what do we do? We avoid them. It's only logical to avoid angry people - it is self preservation. Compare for instance the Rev. Iain Paisley with the Dalai Lama. Who would you rather spend time with? One very angry man (though admittedly much less so these days) and one who despite provocation does not express anger (in public at least). What's more people who are angry find it hard to communicate: even if you have something reasonable to say, you'll find that people are much less willing to listen if you are angry (unless perhaps they are angry about the same thing). So if you're angry a lot you're likely also to be lonely.

Holding grudges and exacting revenge prolongs conflicts and creates the conditions for more and more people to be harmed. We've all of us been harmed by someone, and probably all done harm even if only inadvertently. As the proverb goes: if an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth were really the rule; we would all be blind and toothless. The cycle has to stop somewhere. Why not with you, in you, right now?

On a deeper level there is the underlying tendency to refuse painful experiences. We can't avoid some unpleasant sensations. It makes sense to avoid pain if it is avoidable, but sometimes we must simply have a painful experience. At the very least we are all going to die, and then we must be prepared to hold that pain in our awareness just as we would a pleasurable sensation. Holding of grudges suggests that somewhere in our being we are saying "it's not fair", and we are holding back from experiencing the pain of that injustice. This is a wrong view of the world. Such a view causes us constant disappointment. Of course it isn't fair if someone shouts at us or bashes us. But life isn't fair. Experiences arise in dependence on causes, and we must constantly be trying to see this process in action whether we enjoy the experience or not.

So I think it's clear that bearing grudges is counter-productive by any rational criteria - whether or not you believe in rebirth, or Awakening, or other traditional Buddhist beliefs. What these verses do not tell us is the "how". How can we possibly not hate the person who has inflicted harm on us? The next two verses go into this little, and I'll deal with them in my next post along with some help from another text.

See also my commentary on Dhammapada v.1-2.
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