Pali text, illustration and English translation of Dhammapada verse 7-8:
subhānupassiṃ viharantaṃ indriyesu asaṃvutaṃ |
bhojanambhi amattaññuṃ kusītaṃ hīnavīriyaṃ |
taṃ ve pasahati māro vāto rukkhaṃ’va dubbalaṃ || 7 ||
asubhānupassiṃ viharantaṃ indriyesu susaṃvutaṃ |
bhojanambhi ca mattaññuṃ saddhaṃ āraddhavīriyaṃ |
taṃ ve nappasahati māro vāto selaṃ’va pabbataṃ || 8 ||
7. One who beauty contemplates, whose faculties are unrestrained, in food no moderation knows, is languid, who is indolent: that one does Māra overthrow as wind a tree of little strength.
8. One who foulness contemplates, whose faculties are well-restrained, in food does moderation know, is full of faith, who’s diligent: that one no Māra overthrows, as wind does not a rocky mount.
The Story of Monk Mahākāla
While residing in the neighbourhood of the town of Setavya, the Buddha uttered these verses, with reference to Mahākāla and his brother Cūlakāla. For Cūlakāla, Majjhima Kāla, and Mahākāla were three householders who lived in Setavya, and they were brothers. Cūlakāla and Mahākāla, the oldest and youngest respectively, used to travel abroad with their caravan of five hundred carts and bring home goods to sell, and Majjhima Kāla sold the goods they brought. Now on a certain occasion the two brothers, taking wares of various kinds in their five hundred carts, set out for Sāvatthi, and halting between Sāvatthi and Jetavana, unharnessed their carts. In the evening Mahākāla saw Noble Disciples, residents of Sāvatthi, with garlands and perfumes in their hands, going to hear the Law. “Where are they going?” he asked. Receiving the answer that they were going to hear the Law, he thought to himself, “I will go too.” So he addressed his youngest brother, “Dear brother, keep watch over the carts; I am going to hear the Law.” So saying, he went and paid obeisance to the Buddha and sat down in the outer circle of the congregation.
On that day the Teacher preached the Law in orderly sequence with reference to Mahākāla’s disposition of mind, and quoting the Sutta on the Aggregate of Suffering, and other Suttas, discoursed on the sinfulness and folly and contamination of sensual pleasures. Mahākāla, after listening to the discourse, became a monk under the Teacher. Cūlakāla likewise became a monk. But the thought in Cūlakāla’s mind was, “After a time I will return to the world and take my brother with me.”
Somewhat later Mahākāla made his full profession, and approaching the Teacher, asked him, “How many duties are there in this Religion?” The Teacher informed him that there were two. Said Mahākāla, “Venerable, since I became a monk in old age, I shall not be able to fulfill the Duty of Study, but I can fulfill the Duty of Contemplation.” So he had the Teacher instruct him in the Practice of meditation in a cemetery, which leads to Arahatship. At the end of the first watch, when everyone else was asleep, he went to the cemetery; and at dawn, before anyone else had risen, he returned to the Monastery. Now a certain young woman of station was attacked by a disease, and the very moment the disease attacked her, she died, in the evening, without a sign of old age or weakness. In the evening her kinsfolk and friends brought her body to the burning-ground, with firewood, oil, and other requisites, and said to the keeper of the burning-ground, “Burn this body.” And paying the keeper the usual fee, they turned the body over to her and departed. When the keeper of the burning-ground removed the woman’s dress and beheld her beautiful golden-hued body, she straightway thought to herself, “This corpse is a suitable Subject of Meditation to show to His reverence.” So she went to the Venerable, paid obeisance to him, and said, “I have a remarkably good Subject of Meditation;pray look at it, Venerable.” “Very well,” said the Venerable. So he went and caused the dress which covered the corpse to be removed, and surveyed the body from the soles of the feet to the tips of the hair. Then he said, “Throw this beautiful golden-hued body into the fire, and as soon as the tongues of fire have laid hold of it, please tell me.” So saying, he went to his own place and sat down. The keeper of the burning-ground did as she was told and went and informed the Venerable. The Venerable came and surveyed the body. Where the flames had touched the flesh, the colour of her body was like that of a mottled cow; the feet stuck out and hung down; the hands were curled back; the forehead was without skin. The Venerable thought to himself, “This body, which but now caused those who looked thereon to forget the Sacred Word, has but now attained decay, has but now attained death.” And going to his night-quarters, he sat down, discerning clearly Decay and Death. Mahākāla developed Spiritual Insight and attained Arahatship, together with the Supernatural Faculties.
When Mahākāla attained Arahatship, the Buddha, surrounded by the Congregation of Monks, travelling from place to place, arrived at Setavya and entered the Simsapā forest. Cūlakāla’s wives, hearing that the Buddha had arrived, thought to themselves, “Now we shall recover our husband.” So they went and invited the Buddha. Now when a visit is expected from the Buddha, it is customary for a single monk to go in advance and give warning. When Cūlakāla went home to prepare for almsgiving his wives tore off his robes. Mahākāla’s eight wives also thought that they would get their husband to give up the robes. One day, they arranged an alms-giving for the Buddha and the Disciples and asked the Buddha to leave Mahākāla behind to pronounce the formula of thanksgiving after alms-giving. The Buddha left him at his former home and went away with the other disciples.
When the Buddha reached the village gate, the congregation of monks was offended and said, “What a thing for the Buddha to do! Did he do it wittingly or unwittingly? Yesterday Cūlakāla came and that was the end of his monastic life. But today, a different monk came and nothing of the sort happened.” The Buddha sent Mahākāla back and continued on his way. Said the monks, “The monk Mahākāla is virtuous and upright. Will they put an end to his monastic life?” Mahākāla’s wives tried to make him a layman but he rose into the air through his psychic power as an Arahat and appeared before the Buddha as he was reciting these two verses. Monk Mahākāla paid obeisance to the Buddha and the Buddha told the other monks that they were wrong about Arahat Mahākāla to compare him with Monk Cūlakāla.
Explanatory Translation (Verse 7)
subhānupassiṃ viharantaṃ indriyesu asaṃvutaṃ
bhojanamhi ca amattaññuṃ kusītaṃ hīnavīriyaṃ
taṃ ve pasahati māro vāto dubbalaṃ rukkhaṃ iva
subhānupassiṃ [subhānupassi]: dwelling on the attractiveness of sensual pleasures; viharantaṃ [viharanta]: he who lives; indriyesu: in senses; asaṃvutaṃ [asaṃvuta]: unguarded; bhojanamhi ca: in food also; amattaññuṃ [amattaññu]: immoderate; kusītaṃ [kusīta]: lazy; hīnavīriyaṃ [hīnavīriya]: weak in making an effort; taṃ: that person; Māro: emotion personified as ‘Māra’ (the equivalent of ‘Devil’); ve: indeed;pasahati: overpowers; vāto: the wind; dubbalaṃ [dubbala]: weak;rukkhaṃ [rukkha]: tree; iva: like.
Those who dwell on the attractiveness of sensual enjoyments, and live with the senses unguarded, and are immoderate in eating, they are slothful and weak in perseverance and will-power. Emotions overpower such persons as easily as the wind overpowers a weak tree.
Explanatory Translation (Verse 8)
asubhānupassiṃ viharantaṃ indriyesu susaṃvutaṃ
bhojanamhi ca mattaññuṃ saddhaṃ āraddha vīriyaṃ
māro taṃ ve nappasahati vāto selaṃ pabbataṃ iva.
asubhānupassiṃ [asubhānupassi]: dwelling on the unattractiveness of sensual pleasure; viharantaṃ [viharanta]: he who lives; indriyesu: in senses; susaṃvutaṃ [susaṃvuta]: well guarded; bhojanamhi ca: in food also; mattaññuṃ [mattaññu]: moderate; saddhaṃ [saddha]: devoted; āraddha vīriyaṃ [vīriya]: strong in effort; taṃ: that person; Māro: emotions personified as ‘Māra’ (the equivalent of ‘Devil’); nappasahati: does not overpower; vāto: the wind; selaṃ pabbataṃ [pabbata]: rocky mountain; iva: like.
Those who dwell on the unattractiveness of sensual enjoyments, and live with the senses well guarded, and moderate in eating, they are devoted to the Teaching and to persistent methodical practice. Such persons are not overpowered by emotions just as a rocky mountain is not shaken by the wind.
Commentary and exegetical material (Verse 7-8)
Those who have a false idea of optimism and think that life is a bed of roses without thorns, they keep focusing on the pleasant side of life and ignore the unpleasant. As a result, they become attached to things and call them “this is mine” or “this is myself”. When these things to which they are attached change and are parted from them, they lament that what is “theirs” and what is “themselves” is breaking up and dying. Those who look at the unpleasant side of life, the thorns in the roses, have their attachments weaken. When this happens, the change and separation from attached objects do not bring about much sorrow or grief.
Asubhānupassanā: does not mean the reflection on the painfulness of pain which produces hatred or aversion. That is called the cultivation of ‘the perception of repulsiveness’ (paṭhigha saññā), which is also to be avoided. Its true meaning is the reflection on the bad side of sensual pleasure, which people often like to ignore, and in so doing, run into suffering, the very thing that they are trying to avoid. True optimism is not a one-sided view of life but an ability to see a solution to the problems in life. This is the optimism of Buddhism.
This pair of verses reveals the method of finding happiness in life, by giving up attachment to things of the world. The first step is to think realistically. Guarding the senses is learning to stop reacting to pleasant and unpleasant circumstances with desire and aversion. Exercising control in our eating habits and overcoming laziness are necessary to maintain the practice of focusing attention on right things and thereby clearing the thoughts of emotional attachments.