Probably compiled in the third century B.C., the verses encompass the struggle towards Nirvana and point out the narrow Path of Perfection that leads to it.
Juan Mascaro, translator, writes:
"This gospel of light and love is amongst the greatest spiritual works of man. Each verse is like a small star and the whole has the radiance of eternity."
The following excerpts are taken from the book The Dhammapada translated by Juan Mascaro
1 - CONTRARY WAYS
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. - If a man speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering will follow him as the wheel of the cart follows the beast that draws the cart. - If a man speaks or acts with a pure mind, joy follows him as his own shadow.
Many do not know that we are here in this world to live in harmony. Those who know this do not fight against each other.
If a man speaks many holy words but he speaks and does not, this thoughtless man cannot enjoy the life of holiness: he is like a cowherd who counts the cows of his master.
Whereas if a man speaks but a few holy words and yet he lives the life of those words, free from passion and hate and illusion - with right vision and a mind free, craving for nothing both now and hereafter - the life of this man is a life of holiness.
2 - WATCHFULNESS
Watchfulness is the path of immortality: unwatchfulness is the path of death. Those who are watchful never die: those who do not watch are already as dead.
Those who with a clear mind have seen this truth, (watchfullness is the path of immortality) those who are wise and ever watchful, they feel the joy of watchfulness, the joy of the path of the Great.
And those who in high thought and in deep contemplation with ever-living power advance on the path, they in the end reach NIRVANA, the peace supreme and infinite joy.
Men who are foolish and ignorant are careless and never watchful; but the man who lives in watchfulness considers it his great treasure.
3 - THE MIND
The mind is wavering and restless, difficult to guard and restrain: let the wise man straighten his mind as a maker of arrows makes his arrows straight.
Invisible and subtle is the mind, and it flies after fancies wherever it likes; but let the wise man guard well his mind, for a mind well guarded is a source of great joy.
Hidden in the mystery of consciousness, the mind, incorporeal, flies alone far away. Those who set their mind in harmony become free from the bonds of death.
He whose mind is unsteady, who knows not the path of Truth, whose faith and peace are ever wavering, he shall never reach fullness of wisdom.
But he whose mind in calm self-control is free from the lust of desires, who has risen above good and evil, he is awake and has no fear.
4 - THE FLOWERS OF LIFE
As the bee takes the essence of a flower and flies away without destroying its beauty and perfume, so let the sage wander in this life.
Think not of the faults of others, of what they have done or not done. Think of your own sins, of the things you have done or not done.
And just like a beautiful flower which has colour and also has perfume are the beautiful fruitful words of the man who speaks and does what he says.
The perfume of flowers goes not against the wind, not even the perfume of sandalwood, of rose-bay, or of jasmine; but the perfume of virtue travels against the wind and reaches unto the ends of the world.
5 - THE FOOL
How long is the night to the watchman; how long is the road to the weary; how long is the wandering of lives ending in death for the fool who cannot find the path!
If on the great journey of life a man cannot find one who is better or at least as good as himself, let him joyfully travel alone: a fool cannot help him on his journey.
A fool may fast month after month eating his food with the sharp point of a blade of kusa grass, and his worth be not a sixteenth part of that of the wise man whose thoughts feed on truth.
But one is the path of earthly wealth, and another is the path of NIRVANA. Let the follower of Buddha think of this and, without striving for reputation, let him ever strive after freedom.
6 - THE WISE MAN
Have not for friends those whose soul is ugly; go not with men who have an evil soul. Have for friends those whose soul is beautiful; go with men whose soul is good.
Even as a great rock is not shaken by the wind, the wise man is not shaken by praise or by blame.
Leaving behind the path of darkness and following the path of light, let the wise man leave his home life and go into a life of freedom. In solitude that few enjoy, let him find his joy supreme: free from possessions, free from desires, and free from whatever may darken his mind.
For he whose mind is well trained in the ways that lead to light, who surrenders the bondage of attachments and find joy in his freedom from bondage, who free from the darkness of passions shines pure in a radiance of light, even in this mortal life he enjoys the immortal NIRVANA.
7 - INFINITE FREEDOM
The traveller has reached the end of the journey! In the freedom of the Infinite he is free from all sorrows, the fetters that bound him are thrown away, and the burning fever of life is no more.
Those who have high thoughts are ever striving: they are not happy to remain in the same place. Like swans that leave lake and rise into the air, they leave their home for a higher home.
The man who wisely controls his senses as a good driver controls his horses, and who is free from lower passions and pride, is admired even by the gods.
He is calm like the earth that endures; he is steady like a column that is firm; he is pure like a lake that is clear; he is free from Samsara, the ever-returning life-in-death.
In the light of his vision he has found his freedom: his thoughts are peace, his words are peace and his work is peace.
Wherever holy men dwell, that is indeed a place of joy - be it in the village, or in a forest, or in a valley or on the hills.
They make delightful the forests where other people could not dwell. Because they have not the burden of desires, they have that joy which others find not.
8 - BETTER THAN A THOUSAND
If a man should conquer in battle a thousand and a thousand more, and another man should conquer himself, his would be the greater victory, because the greatest of victories is the victory over oneself; and neither the gods in heaven above nor the demons down below can turn into defeat the victory of such a man.
Better than a hundred years lived in ignorance, without contemplation, is one single day of life lived in wisdom and in deep contemplation.
Better than a hundred years not seeing one's own immortality is one single day of life if one sees one's own immortality.
Better than a hundred years not seeing the Path supreme is one single day of life if one sees the Path supreme.
9 - GOOD AND EVIL
Make haste and do what is good; keep your mind away from evil. If a man is slow in doing good, his mind finds pleasure in evil.
A man may find pleasure in evil as long as his evil has not given fruit; but when the fruit of evil comes then that man finds evil indeed.
A man may find pain in doing good as long as his good has not given fruit; but when the fruit of good comes then that man finds good indeed.
The fool who does evil to a man who is good, to a man who is pure and fee from sin, the evil returns to him like the dust thrown against the wind.
The fool who does evil to a man who is good, to a man who is pure and fee from sin, the evil returns to him like the dust thrown against the wind.
Neither in the sky, nor deep in the ocean, nor in a mountain-cave, nor anywhere, can a man be free from the evil he has done.
Neither in the sky, nor deep in the ocean, nor in a mountain-cave, nor anywhere, can a man be free from the power of death.
10 - LIFE
He who for the sake of happiness hurts others who also want happiness, shall not hereafter find happiness.
He who for the sake of happiness does not hurt others who also want happiness, shall hereafter find happiness.
If you can be in silent quietness like a broken gong that is silent, you have reached the peace of NIRVANA and your anger is peace.
Neither nakedness, nor entangled hair, nor uncleanliness, nor fasting, nor sleeping on the ground, nor covering the body with ashes, nor ever-squatting, can purify a man who is not pure from doubts and desires.
11 - BEYOND LIFE
If a man tries not to learn he grows old just like an ox! His body indeed grows old but his wisdom does not grow.
I have gone round in vain the cycles of many lives ever striving to find the builder of the house of life and death. How great is the sorrow of life that must die! But now I have seen thee, housebuilder: never more shalt thou built this house. The rafters of sins are broken, the ridge-pole of ignorance is destroyed. The fever of craving is past: for my mortal mind is gone to the joy of the immortal NIRVANA.
12 - SELF-POSSESSION
Only a man himself can be the master of himself: who else from outside could be his master? When the Master and servant are one, then there is true help and self-possession.
By oneself the evil is done, and it is oneself who suffers: by oneself the evil is not done, and by one's self one becomes pure. The pure and the impure come from oneself: no man can purify another.
13 - ARISE! WATCH
Arise ! Watch. Walk on the right path. He who follows the right path has joy in this world and in the world beyond.
He who in early days was unwise but later found wisdom, he sheds a light over the world like that of the moon when free from clouds.
Better than power over all the earth, better than going to heaven and better than dominion over the world is the joy of the man who enters the river of life that leads to NIRVANA.
14 - THE BUDDHA
By what earthly path could you entice the Buddha who, enjoying all, can wander through the pathless ways of the Infinite? - the Buddha who is awake, whose victory cannot be turned into defeat, and whom no one can conquer?
Since a shower of golden coins could not satisfy craving desires and the end of all pleasure is pain, how could a wise man find satisfaction even in the pleasures of the gods? When desires go, joy comes: the follower of Buddha finds this truth.
Happy is the birth of a Buddha, happy is the teaching of DHAMMA, happy is the harmony of his followers, happy is the life of those who live in harmony.
Who could measure the excellence of the man who pays reverence to those worthy of reverence, a Buddha or his disciples, who have left evil behind and have crossed the river of sorrow, who, free from all fear, are in the glory of NIRVANA?
15 - JOY
O let us live in joy, in love amongst those who hate! Among men who hate, let us live in love.
O let us live in joy, although having nothing! In joy let us live like spirits of light!
Health is the greatest possession. Contentment is the greatest treasure. Confidence is the greatest friend. NIRVANA is the greatest joy.
When a man knows the solitude of silence, and feels the joy of quietness, he is then free from fear and sin and he feels the joy the the DHAMMA.
16 - TRANSIENT PLEASURES
He who does what should not be done and fails to do what should be done, who forgets the true aim of life and sinks into transients pleasures - he will one day envy the man who lives in high contemplation.
And the man whose mind, filled with determination, is longing for the infinite NIRVANA, and who is free from sensuous pleasures, is called uddham-soto, 'he who goes upstream', for against the current of passions and worldly life he is bound for the joy of the Infinite.
17 - FORSAKE ANGER
Forsake anger, give up pride. Sorrow cannot touch the man who is not in the bondage of anything, who owns nothing.
He who can control his rising anger as a coachman controls his carriage at full speed, this man I call a good driver: others merely hold the reins.
Watch for anger of words: let your words be self-controlled. Hurt not with words, but use your words well.
There are men steady and wise whose body, words and mind are self-controlled. They are the men of supreme self-control.
18 - HASTEN AND STRIVE
Yellow leaves hang on your tree of life. The messengers of death are waiting. You are going to travel far away. Have you any provisions for the journey?
Make an island for yourself. Hasten and strive. Be wise. With the dust of impurities blown off, and free from sinful passions, you will come unto the glorious land of the great.
You are at the end of your life. You are going to meet Death. There is no resting-place on your way, and you have no provision for the journey.
Make therefore an island for yourself. Hasten and strive. Be wise. With the dust of impurities blown off, and free from sinful passions, you will be free from birth that must die, you will be free from old age that ends in death.
There is no path in the sky and a monk must find the inner path. All things indeed pass away, but the Buddhas are for ever in Eternity.
19 - RIGHTEOUSNESS
A man is not on the path of righteousness if he settles matters in aviolent haste. A wise man calmly considers what is right and what is wrong, and faces different opinions with truth, non-violence and peace. This man is guarded by truth and is a guardian of truth. He is righteous and he is wise.
20 - THE PATH
The best of the paths is the path of eight. The best of truths, the four sayings. The best of states, freedom from passions. The best of men, the one who sees.
It is you who must make the effort. The Great of the past only show the way. Those who think and follow the path become free from the bondage of MARA.
Neither father, sons nor one's relations can stop the King of Death. When he comes with all his power, a man's relations cannot save him.
A man who is virtuous and wise understands the meaning of this, and swiftly strives with all his might to clear a path to NIRVANA
21 - WAKEFULNESS
If by forsaking a small pleasure one finds a great joy, he who is wise will look to the greater and leave what is less.
He who seeks happiness for himself by making others unhappy is bound in the chains of hate and from those he cannot be free.
He who can be alone and rest alone and is never weary of his great work, he can live in joy, when master of himself, by the edge of the forest of desires.
24 - CRAVINGS
Leave the past behind; leave the future behind; leave the present behind. Thou art then ready to go to the other shore. Never more shalt thou return to a life that ends in death.
The man who is disturbed by wrong thoughts, whose selfish passions are strong and who only seeks sensuous pleasures, increases his craving desires and makes stronger the chains he forges for himself.
Bu he who enjoys peaceful thoughts, who considers the sorrows of pleasure, and who ever remembers the light of his life - he will see the end of his cravings, he will break the chains of death.
The gift of Truth conquers all gifts. The taste of Truth conquers all sweetness. The joy of Truth conquers all pleasures. The loss of desires conquers all sorrows.
25 - THE MONK
The man whose hands are controlled, whose feet are controlled, whose words are controlled, who is self-controlled in all things, who finds the inner joy, whose mind is self-possessed, who is one and has found perfect peace - this man I call a monk.
He who has not wisdom has not contemplation, and he who has not contemplation has not wisdom; but he who has wisdom and contemplation, he is very near NIRVANA.
In a fullness of delight and of faith in the teaching of Buddha, the mendicant monk finds peace supreme and, beyond the transience of time, he will find the joy of Eternity, the joy supreme of NIRVANA.
26 - THE BRAHMIN
Go beyond the stream, Brahmin, go with all your soul: leave desires behind. When you have crossed the stream of Samsara, you will reach the land of NIRVANA.
When beyond meditation and contemplation a Brahmin has reached the other shore, then he attains the supreme vision and all his fetters are broken.
By day the sun shines, and by night shines the moon. The warrior shines in his armour, and the Brahmin priest in his meditation. But the Buddha shines by day and by night - in the brightness of his glory shines the man who is awake.
He who is free from the bondage of men and also from the bondage of the gods: who is free from all things in creation - him I call a Brahmin.
He who knows the river of his past lives and is free from life that ends in death, who knows the joys of heaven and the sorrows of hell, for he is a seer whose vision is pure, who in perfection is one with the Supreme Perfection - him I call a Brahmin.