A Ku Indeed!

Dhammapada I: Don’t Chill With the Vicious

Posted in Buddhism by Chris on June 4, 2008

I’m making my way through the verses of the Dhammapada – in the fall I’ll be teaching it for the first time (in “Asian Ethics”) so I need a fairly decent set of lecture notes. As I go, I’m marking off passages of personal interest to me that I’d like to comment on here. I’m also keeping tabs on verses that strike me as particularly Confucian, or anti-Confucian. In this first post, I want to draw attention to a possible similarity with Confucius, and a potential problem (or at least one that has always bothered me).

Chapter 5, verse 61 reads:

If a wayfarer fails to find

one better or equal,

steadfast he should fare alone

for a fool is no fellowship.

It seems clear that the point is this: don’t befriend a person who is your inferior. Only look to have company with those who are your equals, or your betters. Of course, Confucius says something pretty similar at Lun Yu 1.8. There it says:

The Master said, “If a gentleman is not serious, he will not inspire awe, and what he learns will be grasped only superficially. Let your actions be governed by dutifulness and trustworthiness, and do not accept as friend one who is not your equal. If you have committed a transgression, do not be afraid to change your ways.”

What has always interested me about LY 1.8 is this question of befriending an inferior, and why it’s so important not to do so. I suppose there are two (not mutually exclusive) reasons that seems to be possible here:

1. It harms your virtue by bringing you down to the level of the (bad) friend.

2. It harms the other person’s moral progress.

The reading of (2) would be clear if by “making a friend of” means “to treat as one’s equal.” To treat a moral inferior as an equal would be to collapse the “distance” of moral hierarchy, and to thus diminish the external efficacy of the superior’s de or virtue.

The reading for (1) would be straightforward – befriending the vicious brings their level “up” and thus has a corrosive effect on your own inward virtue.

Of course, the explanation could comfortably be both. Most commentaries I’ve encountered push (1). This has always seemed “out of place” to me, though, simply because it seems overly egoistic (and petty) to merely be concerned about one’s own isolated perfection, especially in light of the more relational notion of selfhood in Confucianism that it seems to me would encourage us to at least embrace (2) as well.

What about the Dhammapada? Well, a few verses later, at 62, it says:

Though all through life the fool

might wait upon the wise,

no more Dhamma can he sense

than spoon the taste of soup.

This is an interesting passage, and I’m not sure how to read it exactly. Prima facie, it looks as if it is saying that the fool cannot be educated or brought closer to the path of Dhamma through association with the virtuous, so a person with (2) in mind is more or less wasting her time. It is unlikely that a Confucian would argue an analogous point about the tao, of course, as it is the presence of the exemplar that has moral efficacy for the inferior. If this is the right reading of 64, however, then it would seem that the reason for not associating with one’s moral inferiors is straightforwardly self-interested, or (1) in the options above for LY 1.8.

Of course, there are other readings possible for 64. For one, we need to understand what “to wait upon the wise” means. This could mean to merely be in their proximity, as opposed to actually paying attention to them and to their example. Moreover, to fail to be able to “sense” the Dhamma might be a failure to climb a high bar — it could be that sensing the truth or reality of things is a bit much to ask, though association with the virtuous could lead one more effectively onto the path of trying to penetrate the Dhamma on one’s own, through mental cultivation of mindfulness (say). Similarly, surely a Confucian would say that merely being around the virtuous doesn’t entail that you walk the dao. So perhaps there’s a high bar smuggled in there.

As usual, lots of questions, and not sure how to answer them.


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