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Dhammapada Verse 61: If a person seeking a companion cannot find one who is better than or equal to him, let him resolutely go on alone; there can be no companionship with a fool.

This is obviously self preserving pragmatism of the Aesop's Fables variety, it doesn't require a Buddha to say this, so perhaps there is a deeper meaning I don't spot.

Besides, I spot a couple of problems.

One: For me to associate with someone better, that person would have to accept me, his/her inferior. Ergo, one of us must break this rule and accept an inferior (not necessarily a fool) as partner or companion.

Two: This doesn't sound very loving and compassionate. Fools will remain fools without the company of intelligent partners or teachers, is it not? Plus, the Buddha himself tolerated Devadutta and others who were often comically stupid in his order.

The accompanying story of the Thera who blindly trusts his disciples is a little too simplistic, how is it that a senior teacher (Thera) needed to be schooled on such a trivial principle of common sense?

If someone is obviously lazy and scheming, even treacherous, he or she should not be trusted. Did the Thera get undermined by a false sense of duty or compassion?

  • Buddhism is full of common sense, that's not so common among people :). Also, the translation seems to be harsh, it should be unwise not fool. Another point is you maybe inferior to a person in knowledge but equal or superior in intelligence. – dev_nut Jun 26 '15 at 19:15
  • About the translation, the chapter is called balavagga or chapter on fools, in which this verse is the first. I could be wrong, but I think in Pali the meaning is harsher, the English equivalent would be retarded or idiot, the translations are soft. Unwise is an acceptable synonym for fool - "fool fuːl/ noun " a person who acts unwisely or imprudently; a silly person." – Buddho Jun 27 '15 at 6:07
  • @Buddho I think this verse may be specifically for the stage where a person's practice has not yet stabilized and they still have doubts about the validity of the four noble truths. Perhaps the fools refer to people of the world who might tempt the person away from the path. I think every practitioner is susceptible to being pulled back into the corporate/dualistic/achievement-oriented, etc mindset for a long amount of time even after beginning practice. Maybe the verse refers to the importance of keeping company of people higher ahead on the path so we don't fall back... – Parag Jun 28 '15 at 16:39
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    When someone who has not progressed as much as another seeks his company as a kalyana-mitra, the more advanced practitioner should certainly offer it, but if the former seeks company for fun and games, then the latter may be correct in declining. I think these verses are very terse because they were meant to be memorized - so very often they are easy prey for misunderstandings without a practitioner's commentary. Just my 2 cents though. – Parag Jun 28 '15 at 16:43
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The verse speaks from the point of view of the bhikku. The verse should be understood properly:

The bad and good bhikkhus were searching for companionship.

They found companionship with Thera.

The bad bhikkhu did not respect Thera, was not obedient and dutiful and was offended and extremely angry when Thera said something to him. Why? Because he thought that Thera was not better or equal to him. Thus, the bad bhikkhu choose a wrong companion. He should have let Thera go on alone and find a companion who is equal or better than him. There can be no companionship with a fool.

The good bhikku was respectful, obedient and dutiful. Why? Because he thought that Thera was equal or better than him. Thus, the good bhikku choose the right companion. He was not in a companionship with a fool.

One: For me to associate with someone better, that person would have to accept me, his/her inferior. Ergo, one of us must break this rule and accept an inferior (not necessarily a fool) as partner or companion.

This rule can apply and not be broken. If a man and a woman are seeking a relationship and they both think about each other as being equal or superior to the other, the relationship/companionship will work. Otherwise it will not work, as one will think about the other being a fool, or both will think about each other being a fool.

If a bhikku is seeking a companionship with a teacher and the bhikku thinks about the teacher being equal or superior to him, the companionship will work. Otherwise it will not work, as the bhikku will think about the teacher being a fool.

Two: This doesn't sound very loving and compassionate. Fools will remain fools without the company of intelligent partners or teachers, is it not? Plus, the Buddha himself tolerated Devadutta and others who were often comically stupid in his order.

The verse speaks from the point of view of the bhikku, not from the point of view of Thera/teacher.

If we were to apply this verse as you’re suggesting, then the Buddha would never have taught the Dhamma to people obviously inferior to him, or less developed than him. Or if we were to apply this verse as you’re suggesting, then the Buddha is contradicting himself. But he is not, which can be clearly seen by his actions - he thought the Dhamma, even to fools.

  • I love your answer and have upvoted it, but I don't think it's right. The sutta says specifically it was admonishing the Thera. When a bhikkhu from Rajagaha told the Buddha about this, the Buddha said that it would have been much better for Thera Mahakassapa to live alone than to live with a foolish companion. – Buddho Jun 27 '15 at 5:40
  • @Buddho you yourself said someone could be an inferior and not necessarily a fool. – Ryan Jun 28 '15 at 21:01
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This is obviously self preserving pragmatism

No. It's a Sila, Samadhi, Panna preserving and improving principle. It is very conducive to the practice of the noble eightfold path.

ex: The right effort

(1) to prevent the arising of unarisen unwholesome states;

(2) to abandon unwholesome states that have already arisen;

(3) to arouse wholesome states that have not yet arisen;

(4) to maintain and perfect wholesome states already arisen.

A person who is your equal will help you maintain your wholesome qualities and alert you when you start to let your standards slip.

A person who is higher than you will help you abandon your unwholesome states and help you develop new wholesome qualities as well as perfect your current standards.

So such persons are worthy of being considered as friends. But a fool is not worthy of being considered as a friend as he would only hinder your right effort and drag you down.

For me to associate with someone better, that person would have to accept me, his/her inferior. Ergo, one of us must break this rule...

Not necessarily. You can help someone to get better by giving him good advice. That doesn't make him your friend. That makes him your student or someone you practice compassion on. The other might consider you as a teacher or just a friend. But you don't follow him or participate in unworthy activities he might engage in. A monk might advise many lay people on a daily basis. That doesn't make them his friends.

This doesn't sound very loving and compassionate. Fools will remain fools...

Someone need not be your friend for you to practice compassion towards him or her. The Buddha did not seek companionship with those whom he helped to become liberated. It was always an act of compassion. Kesi Sutta explains how the Buddha dealt with those who are too haughty to give up their unwholesome ways:

"But if a tamable person doesn't submit either to a mild training or to a harsh training or to a mild & harsh training, then the Tathagata doesn't regard him as being worth speaking to or admonishing. His knowledgeable fellows in the holy life don't regard him as being worth speaking to or admonishing."

Buddha himself tolerated Devadatta and others

Tolerating is not the same as making friends with someone. You can tolerate a dog barking while you try to listen to something. That doesn't make the dog your friend.

The accompanying story of the Thera who blindly trusts his disciples is a little too simplistic

Venerable Maha Kassapa is not trusting the disciple. He's simply trying to make him better. But only the Buddha could definitely know if someone cannot be helped. Who would've thought that Angulimala and the demon Alavaka could be helped?

Did the Thera get undermined by a false sense of duty or compassion

No. Venerable Mahakassapa was an Arahanth. So his association with the student did not undermine him as he can never fall back. Lord Buddha probably used this as a pretext to give this sermon to the other good student. As you can see, he attained the state of Sotapatti after listening to it.

  • I love your answer, and have up voted it, but I have a few observations. Even Arahats can make mistakes, they are still human, they're incapable of breaking the five precepts. There are suttas where the Buddha admonishes arhats on their behavior. Ex., SS 1:132. Seeing the bright illumined pure mind in everyone it is possible for the Bodhisattva to treat everyone as a friend says Shantideva, in his teachings. – Buddho Jun 27 '15 at 5:55
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    Arahanths can have behavioral patterns which may not be exemplary to others. That is when the Buddha would advice them to change. But they are not mistakes that lead to one's spiritual degradation. Surangama sutra is Mahayana. – Sankha Kulathantille Jun 27 '15 at 6:29
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I think part of the problem is the translation as fools. Eknath Easwaran translates this as spiritually immature. In the introduction to chapter six of the Dhammapada in his translation he says

The title of chapter 5 is normally translated as "The Fool". [...]. However bala means not only "fool" but "child"

For me the term fool is ladened with harsh feeling and judgement. If I call someone "a fool" the chances are that I'm not speaking kindly. However if I think of a child then my heart goes out to that being. I might not want to spend time with the child playing childish games (well not all the time) but I want the best for them and I think kindly of them.

I am no Pali language expert so I can't speak to the accuracy of this translation. But when I'm reading this chapter the term fool doesn't seem helpful. Spiritual immature (or even child) helps me connect with the verses much better.

  • I agree, it does seem rather odd language for the Buddha - but he was also no fan of idiotic compassion. – Buddho Jul 1 '15 at 16:33

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