Visiting Bath (a delightful spa town and World Heritage Site in South West England) last Saturday, I took the opportunity to explore the wonderful independent book shop Topping & Co. Whilst browsing the titles, I came across a group of staff assembling a new display of the ‘Penguin, Little Black Classic Books’. The publisher are celebrating their eightieth year with a collection of eighty titles. A broad appealing range includes over forty different translations. As the smiling staff member pointed out to me, each one costs only eighty pence ($1.20): ‘the third of a price of coffee’.
I scanned my eye across the collection. There was a booklet containing the letters of Mozart to his father, a short story by Dostoevsky, the Communist Manifesto. My eyes were drawn to a white Buddha image clearly printed on a black cover. The Dhammapada. The final book of the collection. An apt conclusion for the series. Penguin signing off with a succinct, practical guide book for the mind.
I studied Buddhism without any prior knowledge of self-help, only the foundation of an academic study of Western philosophy. After attending several classes it became clear that I was being offered a practical method to transform my busy mind into a place of peace. Most appealing was the relaxed delivery by the speaker: ‘try this technique and if it works in your life, then keep practicing it, if not, leave it to one side’ – no pressure, no agenda.
Buddha is often described as a doctor and his writings as the medicine to reduce the problems in our mind.
In the very first paragraph of the Dhammapada, Buddha states:
‘What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday and our present thoughts build our life tomorrow, our life is the creation of our mind.’
Taking the book off the display, I retreated into a corner of the shop, pausing for a few moments and quietly reflected upon these opening words, allowing myself to be be drawn into a natural, existential experience. A letting go. The busy mind slowing down with the appreciation that life is not dissimilar to a dream. My mind relaxed and found contentment in that moment.
Thousands of self-help manuals come out each year. Although it may not be explicitly stated, many of them are inspired by this short line. Knowing ones history can be encouraging and inspiring, especially learning where our knowledge and wisdom originates. The rapid growth of Mindfulness has inspired many people to challenge their busy minds and try to live in the moment. If you scratch beneath the surface of this modern advice you will see the influence of the Dhammapada.
If we benefit from Mindfulness and Meditation then spending time with this text is like offering an appreciative nod to the founder of a tradition that is helping us to find peace, calm and happiness; transform our relationships and bringing sanity into our mind and world.
When you are first guided through a Meditation at any class, workshop, yoga studio, retreat, or via a mobile app, you are being presented with an activity of mind that has been engaged in for thousands of years. A timeless, transformative training, that potentially can become your most important life skill.
The Dhammapada is not so much the wild elephant in the room of the self-help and Mindfulness boom, but the Buddha in the room that is, has and will, bring peace into the lives of many people from generation to generation.
Hot off the shelf, I purchased the little black book and walked out into the cool, winter evening of Bath, placing into my pocket four-hundred and twenty-three ancient aphorisms on endurance, self control and joyful living.
We can skim through this booklet, being briefly inspired, but then just return to our life as normal. Or we can take the time to savor these timeless words of advice, like a fine wine: gently swill around the mind, sample the body, tone and note, giving our self the mind space to enjoy their peaceful effect.