Essence of the Dhammapada

The Buddha's Call to Nirvana

Easwaran gives a contemporary view of the Buddha’s teachings – a heroic confrontation with life as it really is, with straight, honest answers to our deepest and most awkward questions.

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We witness the heartbreak of death, for instance – what does that mean for us? What is love? How does karma work? How do we follow the spiritual life in the midst of work and family? Does nirvana really exist, and if so, what is it like to be illumined?

Easwaran presents the Dhammapada as a perfect map for the spiritual journey. This ancient text reveals a world that is remarkably like ours – less populated and polluted, but facing the same violence, greed, and suffering that we read in our media headlines. The Buddha’s own life was fraught with challenges, and his timeless appeal lies not just in his deep warmth and wisdom but also in his realism and emphasis on self-reliance. 

The Dhammapada verses are brief and often elusive, but Easwaran teases out the themes and highlights the Buddha’s often startling insights, illustrating them, as a master story-teller, with vivid episodes from the Buddha’s life. Easwaran also shares his own experiences, pointing out the joys and pitfalls on the spiritual journey, giving the advice that only a gifted spiritual writer can offer, and urging us, over and over, to answer for ourselves the Buddha’s call to nirvana –that mysterious and enduring state of wisdom, joy, and peace. 

Publisher’s Note

In his last editorial planning meeting, in 1998, Easwaran gave instructions about the books in progress that he wanted completed from his unpublished transcripts, outlines, and notes. Essence of the Dhammapada is part of the legacy of a gifted teacher sharing his immersion in a sacred text, conveyed in his talks and informal sessions with some of his closest students.

Essence of the Dhammapada is the latest posthumous book by Eknath Easwaran of the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation in Tomales, CA. This is a great book with brand new material covering topics in Buddhism which is definitely worth reading. In this book, Easwaran combines his extensive knowledge of Pali, the language used in Buddhist scriptures, with his practical knowledge based on living the truths outlined in the Dhammapada to bring the teachings of the Buddha to life for modern readers.

   This book is arranged as commentary on specific verses from the Dhammapada, a Buddhist scripture for lay practitioners which is free from dogma and speculation. The verses are grouped together by theme and are woven into a beautiful and coherent whole though the verses and commentary may at times not seem related to each other.

    Essence of the Dhammapada is more theoretical in nature than some of Easwaran's other books and serves as a great companion to Easwaran's translation of the Dhammapada. This book goes much more deeply into an exploration of the theory of Buddhism than the introduction to Easwaran's Dhammapada. There is brand new, previously unpublished material covering an exploration of topics including the concepts of no self, impermanence, the chain of cause and effect, and the doctrine of momentariness. In addition there are new stories about the Buddha's life which demonstrate the practicality of the Buddha's teachings.

     The first few chapters set the background of the journey which the Buddha says that all human beings will have to make to attain nirvana, the highest goal of life and the end of all sorrow. Information about the Buddha's own life story, the Four Noble Truths, and other basic Buddhist teachings help to set the background. Easwaran then goes on to illustrate the type of enthusiasm required for what will be a long, arduous journey. One important point to remember is that the battle waged in within and not external and the discovery to be made in nirvana is that all life is one.

     In later chapters, Easwaran describes the chain of cause and effect and delves into the different stages of meditation. In the Buddha's own story, he spent many years unsuccessfully experimenting with asceticism and other practices before settling on the Middle Path and practice of meditation. Easwaran's description of the unfathomable world of the unconscious is sublime and could only have been made by someone who had himself gone through the journey within into the depths of the unconscious.

     Easwaran ends with a description of how life seems through the perspective of someone who has attained the state of nirvana and how life as we currently know it is actually like a dream or illusion. The Buddha is well known for his scientific approach to religion and noble silence about speculative questions which have nothing to do with the attainment of the end of sorrow. In the same spirit, Easwaran has presented his own beautiful commentary on the Buddha's teachings. I hope that other readers will like Essence of the Dhammapada as much as I have!