RtO: The Dhammapada

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Each week, author and poet Y.S. Fing looks at the state of baseball, the movements of the game, the ebb and flow and soul of America’s pastime in Roaming the Outfield. This week: “The Dhammapada”

The best thing I can compare the Dhammapada to is School House Rock. I’m not sure how well known it is now, but School House Rock sought to distill historic and civic knowledge, and instill it via melody and verse. Some of those songs and videos were good, ‘I’m Just a Bill.’ Some were literally and figuratively atrocious, ‘Elbow Room.’ But all of them were readily transplanted into the brains of Americans like me through mid-1970’s Saturday morning TV.

DhammapadaI can recite the Preamble to the Constitution because of those songs. I can also recite the Nicean Creed (the Profession of Faith), so this method of conveying information through entertainment was not lost on the Catholic Church, nor the American Broadcasting Company. So it was with the Sangha (the body of Buddhist monks) in the third century BCE in India, who wanted “to laicize the ascetic impetus of the Buddha’s original words.”

My source here is the slim and lovely volume of The Dhammapada: Verses on the Way, by Glenn Wallis. In his solicitous Note on the Translation, Wallis admonishes us to read the verses over and over, “A second reading? Learning is slow; careful reading is tedious, understanding is elusive. So why not read the Dhammapada repeatedly, taking to heart its claim to be a revealer of treasures?” And this too leads me to think of baseball. Treasures are revealed in repeated study of any subject that takes one’s interest, and these essays are indicative that baseball takes mine.

In ‘Contrasting Pairs,’ ‘the harm-doer’ suffers in this and the next world. “In both worlds, the virtuous person is delighted. Thinking, ‘I have created value!’ he is delighted.” Creating value is the positive response to the existential dilemma. A baseball player creates value by strong fundamental play, sincere mental and physical effort, and solid sportsmanship. Winning is a by-product. The Washington Nationals this year have done nothing to forfeit my sense of their value.

Until mid-August, they hadn’t done much to add to the value, but they hadn’t taken any away. They are a young team. They are learning, and they would do well to consider the chapter on Diligence, “Those meditators who persevere,/persistently endeavoring,/are wise ones who touch the unbinding-/That perfect peace from bondage.” Can an entire team be in a state of Nirvana for an entire season? That’s hard to do, but 2012 had enough players peaking for long enough during the season to cover for those who weren’t peaking. They can all ‘persevere, persistently endeavoring,’ and see what that brings them. This year there has not demonstrated much of that.

We know that Siddhartha concerned himself with self-control, and in the chapter on Mind, we see, “There is no fear for the wide awake -/the one who has let go of gain and loss,’ whose mind is not moistened by passion,/whose thoughts are unassailed.” This is where the baseball player wants to be. But just to show the kind of scholar I am and how wonderful it can be to have two different translations of an ancient text, here is a translation of the same verse by Harischandra Kaviratna: “Fear has he none, whose mind is not defiled by passion, whose heart is devoid of hatred, who has surpassed (the dichotomy of) good and evil and who is vigilant.”

Note how passion is much stronger in the second. I think that accords with Siddhartha’s concern. And that vigilance is entirely reversed in the two of them; the first one starts with vigilance and the second one ends with it. What is ‘wide awake’ and ‘vigilant’ for a baseball player? It would probably be better to ask Kevin Millar, Harold Reynolds, or R.A Dickey. But I would say attentive to the game, in the present at all times, respectful and ready. Again, like all virtue, hard to do.Dhammapada, Buddha

But the writings of the Dhammapada remind us of the bottom line. From The Accomplished Person: “Calmed is the mind,/calmed, speech and action,/of one set free by genuine knowledge./For such a person/there is peace.” We can discipline ourselves to states of detachment while we steadily pursue our ideals. These are not mutually exclusive; they are just a difficult balance. We have to try.

In the Dhammapada, the last chapters define the Practitioner and the Superior Person, so that each chapter shows an ascension, revealing the states one may achieve when one practices Siddhartha’s way. “For the Practitioner whose mind is at peace,/who has entered into the empty place,/extraordinary delight arises/from perfect insight into the teaching.” “The person for whom there is nothing/in the beginning, middle, or end,/who, having nothing, is free from grasping,/ that one I call superior.” These strike me as fine summations of the secular, atheistic morality I have sought in these essays.

For the Washington Nationals, 2013 can’t be considered a failure. The wheel is still turning, the team is relaxing and beginning to score runs. It may be too little, too late, but it’s already the beginning of next season. The need for purposeful effort never ceases. Tomorrow steadily approaches.


Y.S Fing loves baseball the way that his parents wish he loved Catholicism.