The Dhammapada (Dharmapada in Sanskrit) is one of the oldest and most well-known suttas (sutras in Sanskrit) in Buddhism. It is part of the Pali Canon of the Theravada tradition, but is also revered within the Mahayana traditions, that developed a bit later. Within Buddhist scripture, the suttas are teachings believed to have been spoken directly by the Buddha. Some may have been written down by his closest disciples, while others were transmitted orally for several generations before being committed to paper. The earliest versions of the Dhammapada may have been written down as early as the 3rd century BC.
'Dhamma' is usually translated as 'doctrine' or 'truth', while 'pada' means 'foundation', 'path' or 'verse'. As its name suggests, the Dhammapada contains a series of verses and aphorisms related to the foundations of Buddhism, particularly ethics and the nature of enlightenment. While later commentaries added stories associated with each verse, the Dhammapada itself is story-free, written in a very simple, straight-forward manner.
The Dhammapada begins with the chapter 'Choices', which starts with a now well-known quote:
"We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world."
(All quotes in this article are taken from the translation by Thomas Byrom offered in the Shambhala Pocketbook edition, my personal favorite, and linked to at the end of this article.)
The verse continues to expound on pure and impure thoughts:
"Speak or act with an impure mind
And trouble will follow you
As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.
Speak or act with a pure mind
And happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unshakable."
Later on, 'Choices' contains another now famous quote of the Buddha,
"In this world
Hate never yet dispelled hate,
Only love dispels hate.
This is the law,
Ancient and inexhaustible."
In total, the Pali Canon version of the Dhammapada contains 26 chapters, with titles including 'Wakefulness', 'Flowers', 'Mind', 'The Fool', 'The Wise Man', 'Violence', 'The True Master' and more. Each expounds on its topic in clear, simple language.
Another favorite of mine is 'The Thousands', which begins:
"Better than a thousand hollow words
Is one word that brings peace.
Better than a thousand hollow verses
Is one verse that brings peace.
Better than a thousand hollow lines
Is one line of the law, bringing peace.
It is better to conquer yourself
Than to win a thousand battles.
Then the victory is yours."
If you are looking for a straightforward, non-academic version of the Dhammapada that is small enough to carry around with you, I highly recommend Shambhala’s Pocketbook edition (link below) – I have had a copy in my purse for years, and turn to it often.
If you are new to Buddhism and enjoyed this article, consider getting my e-book Introduction to Buddhism and Buddhist Meditation.