The Dhammapada is an excellent text for a daily sutta practice. The verses are packed with material for contemplation as well as implementation. The reading can usually be done in as little as five minutes a day plus as much reflection time as you are able to give. If you do not have an established sutta practice, this is a great text to begin with both because of the breadth and depth of the teaching as well as being very accessible. It is also very easy to commit to reading one chapter a day and develop this habit and hunger for the suttas.
Choosing a translation
If you are a Theravada Buddhist, it is important to use a translation of the Dhammapada that accurately reflects Theravada doctrine. Because of the pithy language of the original Pali text, it is easy for a translator from a non-Buddhist tradition to subtly insert concepts that are incompatible with the Dhamma. Be careful of books called “versions” or “renderings” as they sometimes play fast and loose with important concepts.
The following are good translations to use in terms of adhering to Theravada teachings:
All three are available on-line in some form but, as always, try to work directly from a book for your daily practice. To get a feel for which translation you like, read the same chapter in each one and pick the one that is most appealing. They are all good so there is no need to spend too much time laboring over your decision. Better just to get started. By reading a chapter every day you will be able to complete the book in less than a month so after several cycles of a single translation you can always try another one. If you stick with your favorite over several years you will begin to memorize important verses simply by repeated contact.
Regardless of the translation you use, at some point read Bhikkhu Bodhi’s introduction (available on line at accesstoinsight.org)
How much to read.
The easiest practice is to read one chapter per day. This has several advantages:
- You will always have time to do this practice. (See the 2nd P) The only reason to miss a day is if you forget. There is always five minutes to read the Dhamma, no matter what your life is like.
- There will always be at least one verse that you understand and connect with. In this way you will always have something to contemplate.
- You can read the entire Dhammapada in less than a month, fourteen times in one year.
The last chapter is about twice as long as the rest, so you may want to split that one and read it over two days.
After having done several cycles with one chapter a day, you may want to try reading the same chapter each day for a week. This will allow you to work more deeply with the verses. In this way you will read it a total of seven times in six months.
You could also simply read until you find a verse that strikes you and then contemplate on it for some time. Mark where you stopped with a post-it flag and pick up there the next day. In this way you will be sure to cover everything eventually.
Make it your story
The ancient commentaries contain a record of the events that lead the Buddha to utter each verse. These are an excellent source of inspiration and understanding.
For a sutta practice, however, it is beneficial to imagine how the Buddha might have uttered these verses as a result of events in our own lives. Can you remember a time when you were caught in an argument, causing much suffering for yourself and other people? How would it have been for the Buddha to have appeared and uttered verse number 6:
6. There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die. But those who do realize this settle their quarrels. A. Buddharakkhita, trans.
Imagine what it would have been like to hear the teachings in that moment. This is how we make the suttas come alive. When we do this, it will be easier to remember to bring these teachings to mind the next time a dispute arises.
Keep it a sutta practice
The Dhammapada is also an excellent text for deeper textual study, Pali language study, and even comparing different translations. However, during your designated practice time, try to work with the text on a personal, experiential level. To this end it is beneficial to:
- Stick with a single translation at a time, at least for a year. The translations listed above will be useful to illuminate areas for personal cultivation and reflection.
- Just read the text and not the background stories at least for the first three or four cycles.
- Focus on implementation not interpretation.
As you are reading you will come across many passages that talk about arahants, fully enlightened beings. This may not always be obvious because the language used is generally non-technical. But it may be clear that it is talking about someone who has reached a high level of perfection. We have to use these verses to lift up our hearts, fill them with happiness knowing that such a state is possible, and that the path leading to that state was taught by the Blessed One. These are our heroes and we need to get to know their qualities very personally.
As with any sutta practice, try to connect it with a regular daily activity. Really commit to reading every day. This will give you a lot of energy for your understanding and keep the Dhamma constantly in your life. Consider using the Don’t Break the Chain technique. And remember this can be a perpetual practice, so always begin again.
Some of these verses will surely end up in your Personal Anthology. And even if you haven’t started a Personal anthology, you can easily use the Almost Anthology technique with the Dhammapada, simply flagging verses as you find them.
In his excellent introduction to Ven Buddharakkhita’s translation of the Dhammapada, Bhikkhu Bodhi makes a wonderful case for using the Dhammapada as a constant companion in your sutta practice:
As a great religious classic and the chief spiritual testament of early Buddhism, the Dhammapada cannot be gauged in its true value by a single reading, even if that reading is done carefully and reverentially. It yields its riches only through repeated study, sustained reflection, and most importantly, through the application of its principles to daily life. Thence it might be suggested to the reader in search of spiritual guidance that the Dhammapada be used as a manual for contemplation. After his initial reading, he would do well to read several verses or even a whole chapter every day, slowly and carefully, relishing the words. He should reflect on the meaning of each verse deeply and thoroughly, investigate its relevance to his life, and apply it as a guide to conduct. If this is done repeatedly, with patience and perseverance, it is certain that the Dhammapada will confer upon his life a new meaning and sense of purpose. Infusing him with hope and inspiration, gradually it will lead him to discover a freedom and happiness far greater than anything the world can offer.