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I heard the famous Dhammapada's 183: “Not to do any evil, to cultivate good, to purify one’s mind, this is the teaching of the Buddhas.” tractated metaphorically as what one needs to do to have a beautiful garden: it must be protected from bad plants by a fence (not doing bad, precepts, etc), good seeds must be planted (cultivating kindness, generosity etc) and weed must be pulled (purifying the mind through meditation).

Is this a classical simile which can be attributed to a source, or a meme of unknown origin? If it can be attributed, where does it come from?

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Cultivate very naturally tends to be associated with the idea of nurturing or gardening. Such associated words - associated through similarity of ideas- have a host of similes, metaphors and analogies associated to them. There is no ONE simile to which it can be directly attributed. In Dhammapada itself, you will find this in more than one places. Buddha has used this available connection in the language of the masses to speak about certain things depending on context.

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A side-track but I wondered what Pali word is translated "cultivate".

It's translated as cultivate in this edition whose Preface says that it's edited by a Committee of 11.

Here is Ven. Sujato's translation ("embrace"):

Not to do any evil;
Sabbapāpassa akaraṇaṁ,
to embrace the good;
kusalassa upasampadā;

Here is the dictionary definition:

upasampadā

  • taking, acquiring; obtaining, taking upon oneself, undertaking DN.ii.49; MN.i.93; AN.iii.65; Dhp.183 (cp. Dhp-a.iii.236) Ne.44 (kusalassa).
  • (in special sense) taking up the bhikkhuship, higher ordination, admission to the privileges of recognized bhikkhus

So according to that definition it is "taking up, in the way that you 'take up' ordination".

I'm not sure where "embrace" comes from.

The dictionary word says the word is from upa + saṃ + pad -- so I don't see how it came to mean "take" -- from its components I would have guessed it means something like "near/close path" -- which might make more sense in the second sense, i.e. ordination.

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There's a different analogy in the suttas, arguably a better one.

It's about the purification of gold with coarse, medium and fine filtering.

“There are these gross impurities in gold: dirty sand, gravel, & grit. The dirt-washer or his apprentice, having placed [the gold] in a vat, washes it again & again until he has washed them away.

“When he is rid of them, there remain the moderate impurities in the gold: coarse sand & fine grit. He washes the gold again & again until he has washed them away.

“When he is rid of them, there remain the fine impurities in the gold: fine sand & black dust. The dirt-washer or his apprentice washes the gold again & again until he has washed them away.

“When he is rid of them, there remains just the gold dust. The goldsmith or his apprentice, having placed it in a crucible, blows on it again & again to blow away the dross. The gold, as long as it has not been blown on again & again to the point where the impurities are blown away, as long as it is not refined & free from dross, is not pliant, malleable, or luminous. It is brittle and not ready to be worked. But there comes a time when the goldsmith or his apprentice has blown on the gold again & again until the dross is blown away. The gold, having been blown on again & again to the point where the impurities are blown away, is then refined, free from dross, pliant, malleable, & luminous. It is not brittle, and is ready to be worked. Then whatever sort of ornament he has in mind—whether a belt, an earring, a necklace, or a gold chain—the gold would serve his purpose.

“In the same way, there are these gross impurities in a monk intent on heightened mind: misconduct in body, speech, & mind. These the monk—aware & able by nature—abandons, dispels, wipes out of existence. When he is rid of them, there remain in him the moderate impurities: thoughts of sensuality, ill will, & harmfulness. These he abandons, dispels, wipes out of existence. When he is rid of them there remain in him the fine impurities: thoughts of his caste, thoughts of his home district, thoughts related to not wanting to be despised. These he abandons, dispels, wipes out of existence.

“When he is rid of them, there remain only thoughts of the Dhamma. His concentration is neither calm nor refined, it has not yet attained serenity or unity, and is kept in place by the fabrication of forceful restraint.
AN 3.101

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Here is Ven. Sujato's translation:

Not to do any evil;
Sabbapāpassa akaraṇaṁ,
to embrace the good;
kusalassa upasampadā;

The Pali word 'kusala' includes the word 'kusa', which is a type of grass.

Importantly, kusa grass is a type of grass that can cut the hand. The Dhammapada says:

When kusa grass is wrongly grasped

Kuso yathā duggahito,

it only cuts the hand.

hatthamevānukantati;

So too, the ascetic life, when wrongly taken,

Sāmaññaṁ dupparāmaṭṭhaṁ,

drags you to hell.

nirayāyupakaḍḍhati.

Dhp 311

Therefore, contrary to what appears to be Sujato's antithetical translation of "embrace", the relevant Pali word "upasampadā" appears to mean "perfect" or "attain skill" or "handle with skill". It appears to mean to cultivate "the grass" or "the good" so the intention to do good does not lead to one's own harm. Again, the Dhammapada makes this clear, when it says:

Never neglect your own good

Attadatthaṁ paratthena,

for the sake of another, however great. bahunāpi na hāpaye;

Knowing well what’s good for you,

Attadatthamabhiññāya,

be intent upon your true goal.

sadatthapasuto siyā.

Attavagga

Also, SN 12.63 is about how the road to hell is paved with good intentions, as follows:

And how is the nutriment of intellectual intention to be regarded? Suppose there were a pit of glowing embers, deeper than a man's height, full of embers that were neither flaming nor smoking, and a man were to come along — loving life, hating death, loving pleasure, abhorring pain — and two strong men, having grabbed him by the arms, were to drag him to the pit of embers. To get far away would be that man's intention, far away would be his wish, far away would be his aspiration. Why is that? Because he would realize, 'If I fall into this pit of glowing embers, I will meet with death from that cause, or with death-like pain.' In the same way, I tell you, is the nutriment of intellectual intention to be regarded. When the nutriment of intellectual intention is comprehended, the three forms of craving [for sensuality, for becoming, and for non-becoming] are comprehended. When the three forms of craving are comprehended, I tell you, there is nothing further for a disciple of the noble ones to do.

If we struggle to understand the above & particularly why 'upasampadā" does not mean to 'embrace' [with lust] the grass that, when the ascetic life, when wrongly taken, drags you to hell, Sujato's latest wokevangelical offering to the world of worldlings makes this perfectly clear.

In any case, this makes it clear why the Sutta says the gandhabba must be present, while the Veda says Viśvāvasu must depart.... This is not something new, or something that has been left unaddressed by cultures in the past. Anxiety about potency and paternity is a fundamental component, perhaps the single most important distinguishing feature, of the male psyche, and forms the foundation of misogyny. Patriarchal institutions like marriage traditionally aimed to subjugate women, yes, but they also tried to temper the worst of men. In freeing women from patriarchal suppression, it is crucial to find ways to address this deeply irrational male anxiety.

On the gandhabba and male anxiety

We can also notice how Sujato's worldling wokevangelical offering above arguably contains the wrong view of denying mother & father, per MN 117.

In summary, Dhp 183 suggests to cultivate the grass to ensure one is not cut by the grass.

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  • According to the dictionary the derivation of kusala is uncertain, but I guess kusa (grass) is just a homophone, unrelated.
    – ChrisW
    Oct 22, 2023 at 22:52
  • Being "uncertain" does not make your comment certain. Kusaḷa (कुसळ).—n The beard, awn, or bristles of grains and grasses. v bōca, śira, lāga, aḍaka, mōḍa. Pr. dusaṛyācē ḍōḷyāntalēṃ ku0 (disatēṃ) āpalyā ḍōḷyāntalēṃ musaḷa (disata nāhīṃ). Matt. vii. 3 wisdomlib.org/definition/kushala Oct 22, 2023 at 23:29
  • I think kuśala (happy) and kusaḷa (bristles of grains) are different words though with similar Romanized spelling -- same alphabetic spelling so they're together in the Latin-alphabet dictionary, but they have different accents on the letters so they're pronounced differently.
    – ChrisW
    Oct 23, 2023 at 6:35
  • Maybe it was some kind of pun though in the original.
    – ChrisW
    Oct 23, 2023 at 7:23

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