The Dhammapada, an anthology of verses attributed to the Buddha, has long been recognized as one of the masterpieces of early Buddhist literature. Only more recently have scholars realized that it is also one of the early masterpieces in the Indian tradition of kavya, or belles lettres.
This translation of the Dhammapada is an attempt to render the verses into English in a way that does justice to both of the traditions to which the text belongs. Although it is tempting to view these traditions as distinct, dealing with form (kavya) and content (Buddhism), the ideals of kavya aimed at combining form and content into a seamless whole. At the same time, the early Buddhists adopted and adapted the conventions of kavya in a way that skillfully dovetailed with their views of how teaching and listening played a role in their path of practice. My hope is that the translation presented here will convey the same seamlessness and skill.
As an example of kavya, the Dhammapada has a fairly complete body of ethical and aesthetic theory behind it, for the purpose of kavya was to instruct in the highest ends of life while simultaneously giving delight. The ethical teaching of the Dhammapada is expressed in the first pair of verses: the mind, through its actions (kamma), is the chief architect of one’s happiness and suffering both in this life and beyond. The first three chapters elaborate on this point, to show that there are two major ways of relating to this fact: as a wise person, who is heedful enough to make the necessary effort to train his/her own mind to be a skillful architect; and as a fool, who is heedless and sees no reason to train the mind.
The work as a whole elaborates on this distinction, showing in more detail both the path of the wise person and that of the fool, together with the rewards of the former and the dangers of the latter: the path of the wise person can lead not only to happiness within the cycle of death and rebirth, but also to total escape into the Deathless, beyond the cycle entirely; the path of the fool leads not only to suffering now and in the future, but also to further entrapment within the cycle. The purpose of the Dhammapada is to make the wise path attractive to the reader so that he/she will follow it–for the dilemma posited by the first pair of verses is not one in the imaginary world of fiction; it is the dilemma in which the reader is already placed by the fact of being born.
To make the wise path attractive, the techniques of poetry are used to give “savor” (rasa) to the message. Ancient Indian aesthetic treatises devoted a great deal of discussion to the notion of savor and how it could be conveyed. The basic theory was this: Artistic composition expressed states of emotion or states of mind called “bhava.” The standard list of basic emotions included love (delight), humor, grief, anger, energy, fear, disgust, and astonishment. The reader or listener exposed to these presentations of emotion did not participate in them directly; rather, he/she savored them as an aesthetic experience at one remove from the emotion. Thus, the savor of grief is not grief, but compassion. The savor of energy is not energy itself, but admiration for heroism. The savor of love is not love but an experience of sensitivity. The savor of astonishment is a sense of the marvelous. The proof of the indirectness of the aesthetic experience was that some of the basic emotions were decidedly unpleasant, while the savor of the emotion was to be enjoyed.
Although a work of art might depict many emotions, and thus–like a good meal–offer many savors for the reader/listener to taste, one savor was supposed to dominate. Writers made a common practice of announcing the savor they were trying to produce, usually stating in passing that their particular savor was the highest of all. The Dhammapada  states explicitly that the savor of Dhamma is the highest savor, which indicates that that is the basic savor of the work. Classic aesthetic theory lists the savor of Dhamma, or justice, as one of the three basic varieties of the heroic savor (the other two deal with generosity and war): thus we would expect the majority of the verses to depict energy, and in fact they do, with their exhortations to action, strong verbs, repeated imperatives, and frequent use of the imagery from battles, races, and conquests.
Dhamma, in the Buddhist sense, implies more than the “justice” of Dhamma in aesthetic theory. However, the long section of the Dhammapada devoted to “The Judge”–beginning with a definition of a good judge, and continuing with examples of good judgment–shows that the Buddhist concept of Dhamma has room for the aesthetic meaning of the term as well.
Classic theory also holds that the heroic savor should, especially at the end of a piece, shade into the marvelous. This, in fact, is what happens periodically throughout the Dhammapada, and especially at the end, where the verses express astonishment at the amazing and paradoxical qualities of a person who has followed the path of heedfulness to its end, becoming “pathless” [92-93; 179-180]–totally indescribable, transcending conflicts and dualities of every sort. Thus the predominant emotions that the verses express in Pali–and should also express in translation–are energy and astonishment, so as to produce qualities of the heroic and marvelous for the reader to savor. This savor is then what inspires the reader to follow the path of wisdom, with the result that he/she will reach a direct experience of the true happiness, transcending all dualities, found at the end of the path.
Classic aesthetic theory lists a variety of rhetorical features that can produce savor. Examples from these lists that can be found in the Dhammapada include: accumulation (padoccaya) [137-140], admonitions (upadista) [47-48, 246-248, et. al.], ambiguity (aksarasamghata) [97, 294-295], benedictions (asis) , distinctions (visesana) [19-20, 21-22, 318-319], encouragement (protsahana) [35, 43, 46, et. al.], etymology (nirukta) , examples (drstanta) , explanations of cause and effect (hetu) [1-2], illustrations (udaharana) , implications (arthapatti) , rhetorical questions (prccha) [44, 62, 143, et. al.], praise (gunakirtana) [54-56, 58-59, 92-93, et. al.], prohibitions (pratisedha) [121-122, 271-272, 371, et. al.], and ornamentation (bhusana) [passim].
Of these, ornamentation is the most complex, including four figures of speech and ten “qualities.” The figures of speech are simile [passim], extended metaphor , rhyme (including alliteration and assonance), and “lamps” [passim]. This last figure is a peculiarity of Pali–a heavily inflected language–that allows, say, one adjective to modify two different nouns, or one verb to function in two separate sentences. (The name of the figure derives from the idea that the two nouns radiate from the one adjective, or the two sentences from the one verb.) In English, the closest we have to this is parallelism combined with ellipsis. An example from the translation is in verse 7–
Mara overcomes him
as the wind, a weak tree
–where “overcomes” functions as the verb in both clauses, even though it is elided from the second. This is how I have rendered lamps in most of the verses, although in two cases [174, 206] I found it more effective to repeat the lamp-word.
The ten “qualities” are more general attributes of sound, syntax, and sense, including such attributes as charm, clarity, delicacy, evenness, exaltation, sweetness, and strength. The ancient texts are not especially clear on what some of these terms mean in practice. Even where they are clear, the terms deal in aspects of Pali/Sanskrit syntax not always applicable to English. What is important, though, is that some qualities are seen as more suited to a particular savor than others: strength and exaltation, for example, best convey a taste of the heroic and marvelous. Of these characteristics, strength (ojas) is the easiest to quantify, for it is marked by long compounded words. In the Dhammapada, approximately one tenth of the verses contain compounds that are as long as a whole line of verse, and one verse  has three of its four lines made up of such compounds. By the standards of later Sanskrit verse, this is rather mild, but when compared with verses in the rest of the Pali Canon and other early masterpieces of kavya, the Dhammapada is quite strong.
The text also explicitly adds to the theory of characteristics in saying that “sweetness” is not just an attribute of words, but of the person speaking . If the person is a true example of the virtue espoused, his/her words are sweet. This point could be generalized to cover many of the other qualities as well.
Another point from classic aesthetic theory that may be relevant to the Dhammapada is the principle of how a literary work is given unity. Although the text does not provide a step-by-step sequential portrait of the path of wisdom, as a lyric anthology it is much more unified than most Indian examples of that genre. The classic theory of dramatic plot construction may be playing an indirect role here. On the one hand, a plot must exhibit unity by presenting a conflict or dilemma, and depicting the attainment of a goal through overcoming that conflict. This is precisely what unifies the Dhammapada: it begins with the duality between heedless and heedful ways of living, and ends with the final attainment of total mastery. On the other hand, the plot must not show smooth, systematic progress; otherwise the work would turn into a treatise. There must be reversals and diversions to maintain interest. This principle is at work in the fairly unsystematic ordering of the Dhammapada’s middle sections. Verses dealing with the beginning stages of the path are mixed together with those dealing with later stages and even stages beyond the completion of the path.
One more point is that the ideal plot should be constructed with a sub-plot in which a secondary character gains his/her goal, and in so doing helps the main character attain his or hers. In addition to the aesthetic pleasure offered by the sub-plot, the ethical lesson is one of human cooperation: people attain their goals by working together. In the Dhammapada, the same dynamic is at work. The main “plot” is that of the person who masters the principle of kamma to the point of total release from kamma and the round of rebirth; the “sub-plot” depicts the person who masters the principle of kamma to the point of gaining a good rebirth on the human or heavenly planes. The second person gains his/her goal, in part, by being generous and respectful to the first person [106-109, 177], thus enabling the first person to practice to the point of total mastery. In return, the first person gives counsel to the second person on how to pursue his/her goal [76-77, 363]. In this way the Dhammapada depicts the play of life in a way that offers two potentially heroic roles for the reader to choose from, and delineates those roles in such a way that all people can choose to be heroic, working together for the attainment of their own true well being.
Perhaps the best way to summarize the confluence of Buddhist and kavya traditions in the Dhammapada is in light of a teaching from another early Buddhist text, the Samyutta Nikaya (SN 55:5), on the factors needed to attain one’s first taste of the goal of the Buddhist path. Those factors are four: associating with people of integrity, listening to their teachings, using appropriate attention to inquire into the way those teachings apply to one’s life, and practicing in line with the teachings in a way that does them justice. Early Buddhists used the traditions of kavya–concerning savor, rhetoric, structure, and figures of speech–primarily in connection with the second of these factors, in order to make the teachings appealing to the listener. However, the question of savor is related to the other three factors as well. The words of a teaching must be spoken by a person of integrity who embodies their message in his/her actions if their savor is to be sweet [158, 363]. The listener must reflect on them appropriately and then put them into practice if they are to have more than a passing, superficial taste. Thus both the speaker and listener must act in line with the words of a teaching if it is to bear fruit. This point is reflected in a pair of verses from the Dhammapada itself [51-52]:
Just like a blossom,
a well-spoken word
when not carried out.
Just like a blossom,
& full of scent:
a well-spoken word
when well carried out.
Appropriate reflection, the first step a listener should follow in carrying out the well-spoken word, means contemplating one’s own life to see the dangers of following the path of foolishness and the need to follow the path of wisdom. The Buddhist tradition recognizes two emotions as playing a role in this reflection. The first is samvega, a strong sense of dismay that comes with realizing the futility and meaningless of life as it is normally lived, together with a feeling of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle. The second emotion is pasada, the clarity and serenity that come when one recognizes a teaching that presents the truth of the dilemma of existence and at the same time points the way out. One function of the verses in the Dhammapada is to provide this sense of clarity, which is why verse 82 states that the wise grow serene on hearing the Dhamma, and 102 states that the most worthwhile verse is the meaningful one that, on hearing, brings peace.
However, the process does not stop with these preliminary feelings of peace and serenity. The listener must carry through with the path of practice that the verses recommend. Although much of the impetus for doing so comes from the emotions of samvega and pasada sparked by the content of the verses, the heroic and marvelous savor of the verses plays a role as well, by inspiring the listener to rouse within him or herself the energy and strength that the path will require. When the path is brought to fruition, it brings the peace and delight of the Deathless [373-374]. This is where the process initiated by hearing or reading the Dhamma bears its deepest savor, surpassing all others. It is the highest sense in which the meaningful verses of the Dhammapada bring peace.
* * *
In preparing the following translation, I have kept the above points in mind, motivated both by a firm belief in the truth of the message of the Dhammapada, and by a desire to present it in a compelling way that will induce the reader to put it into practice. Although trying to stay as close as possible to the literal meaning of the text, I’ve also tried to convey its savor. I’m operating on the classic assumption that, although there may be a tension between giving instruction (being scrupulously accurate) and giving delight (providing an enjoyable taste of the mental states that the words depict), the best translation is one that plays with that tension without submitting totally to one side at the expense of the other.
To convey the savor of the work, I have aimed at a spare style flexible enough to express not only its dominant emotions–energy and astonishment–but also its transient emotions, such as humor, delight, and fear. Although the original verses conform to metrical rules, the translations are in free verse. This is the form that requires the fewest deviations from literal accuracy and allows for a terse directness that conforms with the heroic savor of the original. The freedom I have used in placing words on the page also allows many of the poetic effects of Pali syntax–especially the parallelism and ellipsis of the “lamps”–to shine through.
I have been relatively consistent in choosing English equivalents for Pali terms, especially where the terms have a technical meaning. Total consistency, although it may be a logical goal, is by no means a rational one, especially in translating poetry. Anyone who is truly bilingual will appreciate this point. Words in the original were chosen for their sound and connotations, as well as their literal sense, so the same principles–within reasonable limits–have been used in the translation. Deviations from the original syntax are rare, and have been limited primarily to six sorts. The first four are for the sake of immediacy: occasional use of the American “you” for “one”; occasional use of imperatives (“Do this!”) for optatives (“One should do this”); substituting active for passive voice; and replacing “he who does this” with “he does this” in many of the verses defining the true brahman in Chapter 26. The remaining two deviations are: making minor adjustments in sentence structure to keep a word at the beginning or end of a verse when this position seems important (e.g., 158, 384); and changing the number from singular (“the wise person”) to plural (“the wise”) when talking about personality types, both to streamline the language and to lighten the gender bias of the original Pali. (As most of the verses were originally addressed to monks, I have found it impossible to eliminate the gender bias entirely, and so apologize for whatever bias remains.)
In verses where I sense that a particular Pali word or phrase is meant to carry multiple meanings, I have explicitly given all of those meanings in the English, even where this has meant a considerable expansion of the verse. (Many of these verses are discussed in the notes.) Otherwise, I have tried to make the translation as transparent as possible, in order to allow the light and energy of the original to pass through with minimal distortion.
The Dhammapada has for centuries been used as an introduction to the Buddhist point of view. However, the text is by no means elementary, either in terms of content or style. Many of the verses presuppose at least a passing knowledge of Buddhist doctrine; others employ multiple levels of meaning and wordplay typical of polished kavya. For this reason, I have added notes to the translation to help draw out some of the implications of verses that might not be obvious to people who are new to either of the two traditions that the text represents.
I hope that whatever delight you gain from this translation will inspire you to put the Buddha’s words into practice, so that you will someday taste the savor, not just of the words, but of the Deathless to which they point.