The Dhammapada is the most famous collection of early Buddhist poetry. It is also one of the most beautiful. It is probably the best place for someone new to the dhamma to absorb some words of the early teachings. The text itself is mostly a collection of the Greatest Hits from other places in the suttas. It’s not so much a collection of suttas as a collection of short poems.
Part of what makes it so beautiful is that it can be so profound. Take, for example the opening stanza:
All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a corrupted mind,
And suffering follows
As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.
It’s a lovely verse, and a good translations. But there are dozens more translations! Here is one that is a little more direct.
We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with an impure mind
And trouble will follow you
As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.
And one that is more wordy with lots of explanation.
All that we experience begins with thought. Our words and deeds spring from thought. If we speak or act with evil thoughts, unpleasant circumstances and experiences inevitably result. Wherever we go, we create bad circumstances because we carry bad thoughts. We cannot shake off this suffering as long as we are tied to our evil thoughts. This is very much like the wheel of a cart following the hoofs of the ox yoked to the cart. The cart-wheel, along with the heavy load of the cart, keeps following the draught oxen. The animal is bound to this heavy load and cannot leave it.
-Ven. Weragoda Sarada Thero
Clearly this is not a direct translation of a 3 line poem! But it does get the message across.
Poems in general are compressed and powerful, but of course, that can make it very difficult to translate. The metaphor in the second half of the verse is clear enough, but those first few lines are trickier.
Here are a few more possibilities.
Preceded by perception are mental states,
For them is perception supreme,
From perception have they sprung.
Preceded by mind
led by mind,
formed by mind.
What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind.
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.
Mind is the forerunner of all actions.
All deeds are led by mind, created by mind.
-Balangoda Ananda Maitreya
Phenomena are preceded by the heart,
ruled by the heart,
made of the heart.
Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought.
Mind precedes its objects. They are mind-governed and mind-made.
Wow. Is it “mind” or “heart”? “Phenomena”, “objects”, “actions”, or “experience”? Clearly there is no universal agreement. This is why sometimes it’s impossible to take at face value when someone argues, “This is what the Buddha taught.” We have trouble agreeing what he even said! And of course what translators want him to have said can make a huge impact on how they decipher the text. Here is the “translation” from the deplorable Bare Bones Dhammapada.
everything luminous mind
ego invites anguish
Bleck. This is not a translation. It’s a scam. A lie. It’s putting words in the mouth of the Buddha that undermine his actual message. This is supposed to be the entire verse. Nothing about oxen here! But plenty of room for “luminous” which is plainly not in the original.
So what does it actually say? The original Pali is:
Manopubbaṅgamā dhammā, manoseṭṭhā manomayā
Four words! Shouldn’t be that hard, right? Here’s what a literal word-by-word PTS translation gets us:
Directed by mind
Mind is best
I think it’s translations like this that explain why some of later traditions love to play with confusion, mystery, and paradox. They got the mistaken impression that the Buddha loved these things, because the translations that came down to them were so confusing! The Buddha at heart was all about clarity and precision.
Anyway, let’s take that first translation and refine it a little. One key word is mano. The usual translation is “mind”. Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation of “heart” is a bit misleading because it really means the thinking faculty. At the time of the Buddha the “thinking” organ was thought to be the heart, not the brain, but in any case “mind” is the better translation.
The next key word is dhammā. Dhammā is a notoriously broad word in Pali. It can mean teaching (as in “the Buddha’s dhammā”) or fundamental law or experience. In the Abhidhamma period it came to mean “mental object” or even just “object”. In fact, it is sometimes almost indistinguishable from the Greek idea of atoms! The translations we have so far include: experience, the self, mental states, and phenomena. “The self” (and other similar things) is clearly wrong. There is nothing here about self. “Mental states” and “phenomena” are closer, but a bit off the mark. They are relying on the Abhidhamma version of dhammā that is different than the sutta (original) understanding. The best translation here is “experience”.
Throughout the suttas the Buddha teaches that everything that we know or can know comes from the experience of the senses. Where else could it come from? Every time the Buddha goes on a tear talking about the 6 sense you can be sure he is reinforcing this basic teaching.
A quick scan will show you that some translations have already completely missed the boat and are off doing their own thing completely divorced from the texts.
This leaves us pubbaṅgamā, seṭṭhā, and mayā which all modify “mind”.
Pubbaṅgamā is something like “directed” or “preceded”. So, all dhammā is “preceded by” or “directed by” mind. Seṭṭhā means “best”. Manoseṭṭhā is something like “led by mind” or “ruled by mind.” Manomayā is straightforwardly “made by mind.”
So this get us: “All experience is directed by mind, led by mind, made by mind.” Some of the above, like the Fronsdal and Buddharakkhita are right on track. Some are off the mark, like the Mascaro. And some like Sheridan appear to be working from a different text entirely.
One last word on this: I don’t claim that our little translation is perfect and best. It is after a poem, and they don’t call it “poetic license” for nothing. I think a decent argument could be made that I have it wrong after all. If you look at the next couple of lines, the “mind” being discussed now seems more like “moral compass” than “faculty of thinking”.
The best works of art keep us thinking, keep us talking, keep us working. They don’t let us off the hook easy.