The first and last pages of the Dhammapada palm leaf manuscript (44.5 * 6.5 cm) in Sinhalese characters.
It is believed to be the oldest extant copy of the scripture.
Photo: Courtesy of K. D. Paranavitana, Assistant Archivist, Department of National Archives, Colombo, Sri Lanka.
The Dhammapada is one of the first Indian literary works outside of the corpus of Vedic literature. Although today it is accepted as just a book of pithy sayings that are used only as adjuncts to teachings, much as the popular sayings of grandfathers are used to make a point, they are a great deal more and can be correctly compared to the Chinese Dedaojing when the text is penetrated beyond the words themselves and taken as focus for more critical understanding.
Now, when we say that one must look behind the words, what do we really mean? We are not speaking of some special and difficult transcendental wisdom, but something natural and available to all human creatures with sufficient force to reach inside themselves and extract what is readily available.
It becomes particularly clear when we study the application of the Chinese language to the Dhammapada.
We all know in the West that words are produced by putting together different permutations of the symbols which make up our specific alphabet. While this gives incredible advantage in terms of logical and lateral thinking, for the words can be associated with apparently real or mental phenomena, the Chinese language eliminates the logical whole-part relationship of one identified element with another that is usual in our Western languages.
In Chinese, at least the ancient languge before romanization of the sounds, the content of the sign itself was identical with the immediately sensed characteristic of the experience associated with it. This makes each direct experience important and to know the context of that experience is highly relevant for a fuller understanding. As a result, the listener must be fully attentive to all the finer nunces of the experience of the moment or the finer sense will be completely lost or not be understood at all.
The Chinese symbols then convey particular experiences rather than logical universals. A single character can then have a number of different interpretations depending upon the context. The only thing being certain is that there is at least one or sometimes two thread ideas that join all meanings. On cannot expect to understand by making up one's own context, as the essential ambience of the transmitted idea will be lost. This becomes the great problem with Chinese modern translations where the essential has been lost and the translators mental set imposed upon any set of characters presented.
It is this capacity to experience the non-verbalized associations which are not related to sensation or emotion that is behind each word or set of words.