The Dhammapada

A Buddhist Book of Proverbs

Burmese novice reading the Buddhist book inside ancient temple in Bagan plain, Myanmar.
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The Dhammapada is only a tiny part of the Buddhist canon of scripture, but it has long been the most popular and most translated in the West. This slim volume of 423 short verses from the Pali Tripitaka is sometimes called the Buddhist Book of Proverbs. It is a treasury of gems that illuminate and inspire.

What is the Dhammapada?

The Dhammapada is part of the Sutta-pitaka (collection of sermons) of the Tripitaka and can be found in in the Khuddaka Nikaya ("collection of little texts"). This section was added to the canon about 250 BCE.

The verses, arranged in 26 chapters, are taken from several parts of the Pali Tripitaka and a few other early sources. In the 5th century, the sage Buddhaghosa wrote an important commentary that presented each verse in its original context to shed more light on their meaning.

The Pali word dhamma (in Sanskrit, dharma) in Buddhism has several meanings. It can refer to the cosmic law of cause, effect and rebirth; the doctrines taught by the Buddha; a thought object, phenomenon or manifestation of reality; and more. Pada means "foot" or "path."

The Dhammapada in English

In 1855, Viggo Fausboll had published the first translation of the Dhammapada into a western language. However, that language was Latin. It was not until 1881 that Clarendon Press of Oxford (now Oxford University Press) published what were most likely the first English translations of Buddhist sutras.

All of the translations were from the Pali Tripitaka. One of these was T. W. Rhys Davids's "Buddhist Suttas," selections that included the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the Buddha's first sermon. Another was Viggo Fausboll's "Sutta-Nipata." The third was F. Max Muller's translation of the Dhammapada. 

Today there are a great many translations in print and on the Web. The quality of those translations varies widely.

Translations Do Vary

Translating an ancient Asian language into contemporary English is a perilous thing. Ancient Pali has many words and phrases that have no equivalent in English, for example. For that reason, the accuracy of the translation depends as much on the translators' understanding of the text as on his translating skills.

For example, here is Muller's translation of the opening verse:

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.

Compare this with a recent translation by the Indian Buddhist monk, Acharya Buddharakkhita:

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

And one by the American Buddhist monk, Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

Phenomena are preceded by the heart,
ruled by the heart,
made of the heart.
If you speak or act
with a corrupted heart,
then suffering follows you --
as the wheel of the cart,
the track of the ox
that pulls it.

I bring this up because I have seen people interpret Muller's translation of the first verse as something like Descartes' "I think, therefore I am." Or, at least "I am what I think I am."

While there may be some truth in the latter interpretation if you read the Buddharakkhita and Thanissaro translations you see something else entirely. This verse primarily is about the creation of karma. In Buddhaghosa's commentary, we learn that the Buddha illustrated this verse with a story of a physician who spitefully made a woman blind, and so suffered blindness himself.

It's helpful also to have some understanding that "mind" in Buddhism is understood in particular ways. Usually "mind" is a translation of manas, which is understood to be a sense organ that has thoughts and ideas as its objects, in the same way a nose has an odor as its object. To more thoroughly understand this point and the role of perception, mental formation, and consciousness in the creation of karma, see "The Five Skandhas: An Introduction to the Aggregates."

The point is that it's wise not to be too attached to ideas about what any one verse means until you've compared three or four translations of it.

Favorite Verses

Choosing favorite verses from the Dhammapada is highly subjective, but here are a few that stand out. These are from the Acharya Buddharakkhita translation ("The Dhammapada: The Buddha's Path of Wisdom" --verse numbers are in parentheses).

  • Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal. (5)
  • Those who mistake the unessential to be essential and the essential to be unessential, dwelling in wrong thoughts, never arrive at the essential. (11)
  • Just as rain breaks through an ill-thatched house, so passion penetrates an undeveloped mind. (13)
  • The fool worries, thinking, "I have sons, I have wealth." Indeed, when he himself is not his own, whence are sons, whence is wealth? (62)
  • A fool who knows his foolishness is wise at least to that extent, but a fool who thinks himself wise is a fool indeed. (63)
  • Though all his life a fool associates with a wise man, he no more comprehends the Truth than a spoon tastes the flavor of the soup. (64)
  • Well done is that action of doing which one repents not later, and the fruit of which one, reaps with delight and happiness. (68)
  • Just as a solid rock is not shaken by the storm, even so the wise are not affected by praise or blame. (81)
  • Better than a thousand useless words is one useful word, hearing which one attains peace. (100)
  • Think not lightly of evil, saying, "It will not come to me." Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the fool, gathering it little by little, fills himself with evil. (121)
  • Think not lightly of good, saying, "It will not come to me." Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise man, gathering it little by little, fills himself with good. (122)
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Your Citation
O'Brien, Barbara. "The Dhammapada." Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, O'Brien, Barbara. (2020, August 27). The Dhammapada. Retrieved from O'Brien, Barbara. "The Dhammapada." Learn Religions. (accessed May 28, 2023).