The Buddha's Path of Wisdom
From ancient times to the present, the Dhammapada has been regarded as the most succinct expression of the Buddha's teaching and the chief spiritual testament of early Buddhism. In the countries following Theravada Buddhism, such as Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand, the influence of the Dhammapada is immeasurable. It is a prolific source of themes for sermons and discussions, a guidebook for resolving the countless problems of everyday life, and primer for the instruction of novices in the wisdoms of understanding. Even the experienced contemplative, withdrawn to a forest hermitage, can be expected to have a copy of this text among his few material possessions. Yet the admiration the Dhammapada has elicited has not been confined to avowed followers of Buddhism. Wherever it has become known, its moral earnestness, realistic understanding of human life, aphoristic wisdom and stirring message of a way to freedom from suffering have won for it the devotion and veneration of those responsive to the good and the true.
The expounder of the verses that comprise the Dhammapada is the Indian sage called the Buddha, an honorific title meaning "the Enlightened One" or "the Awakened One." The story of this venerable personage has often been overlaid with literary embellishment and the admixture of legend, but the historical essentials of his life are simple and clear. He was born in the sixth century B.C., the son of a king ruling over a small state in the Himalayan foothills, in what is now Nepal. His given name was Siddhattha and his family name Gotama (Sanskrit: Siddhartha Gautama). Raised in luxury, groomed by his father to be the heir to the throne, in his early manhood he went through a deeply disturbing encounter with the sufferings of life, and as a result, he lost all interest in the pleasures and privileges of rulership. One night, in his twenty-ninth year, he fled the royal city and entered the forest to live as an ascetic, resolved to find a way of deliverance from suffering. For six years he experimented with different systems of meditation and subjected himself to severe austerities, but found that these practices did not bring him any closer to his goal. Finally, in his thirty-fifth year, while sitting in deep meditation beneath a Bo tree at Gaya, he attained Supreme Enlightenment and became, in the proper sense of the title, the Buddha, the Enlightened One. Thereafter, for forty-five years, he traveled throughout northern India, proclaiming the truths he had discovered and founding an order of monks and nuns to carry on his message. At the age of eighty, after a long and fruitful life, he passed away peacefully in the small town of Kusinara, surrounded by a large number of his disciples. Shortly after his death, his followers gathered together and wrote down his most famous sayings and teachings. These have come down to us as the Dhammapada which contains 423 of his most profound verses.
To his followers, the Buddha is neither a god, a divine incarnation, or a prophet bearing a message of divine revelation, but a human being who by his own striving and intelligence has reached the highest spiritual attainment of which man is capable- -perfect wisdom, full enlightenment, complete purification of mind. His function in relation to humanity is that of a teacher- -a world teacher who, out of compassion, points out to others the way to Nibbana (Sanskrit: Nirvana), the final release from suffering. His teaching, known as the Dhamma, offers a body of instructions explaining the true nature of existence and showing the path that leads to liberation. Free from all dogmas and inscrutable claims to authority, the Dhamma is founded solidly upon the bedrock of the Buddha's own clear comprehension of reality, and it leads the one who practices it to that same understanding--the knowledge which extricates the roots of all suffering.