“Meditation brings wisdom; lack of meditation leaves ignorance.”

meditation brings wisdom

A reader brought this one to my attention today:

Meditation brings wisdom; lack of meditation leaves ignorance. Know what leads you forward and what holds you back and choose the path that leads to wisdom.

He commented, “This feels odd – I think it’s the ‘holds you back’ phrasing.”

This phrasing does sound suspiciously contemporary, but in this case that’s the result of the translation rather than a modern saying being retroactively ascribed to the Buddha.

This quote is actually verse 282 from Eknath Easwaran’s translation of the Dhammapada, which is of course a well-known Buddhist canonical text, traditionally regarded as the word of the Buddha. The only difference is that Eknath has “Know well what leads you forward” rather than the “Know what leads you forward” that was passed on to me.

For comparison, here’s Buddharakkhita’s version from Access to Insight:

Wisdom springs from meditation; without meditation wisdom wanes. Having known these two paths of progress and decline, let a man so conduct himself that his wisdom may increase.

The phrasing Eknath has used is very contemporary, but I think it’s a fair rendering of bhavaya —progress — (“What moves you forward”), and vibhavaya —decline — (“what holds you back”).

Thannisaro’s version (also on ATI) is a bit different:

From striving comes wisdom;
from not, wisdom’s end.
Knowing these two courses
— to development,
decline —
conduct yourself
so that wisdom will grow.

Thanissaro has “striving” rather than Buddharakhita and Eknath’s “meditation.” The word in the original is “yoga” and although this is often translated as “practice” or “meditation,” the word does in Pali suggest “striving.” The Pali–English Dictionary includes as the fourth definition of “yoga” the meaning “application, endeavour, undertaking, effort.”

Anyway, I’m pleased to say that this one is genuine, despite the suspiciously modern phrasing.

4 thoughts on ““Meditation brings wisdom; lack of meditation leaves ignorance.””

    1. “Effort” would be fine (I edited the article having consulted the dictionary) but “sadhana” wouldn’t be widely understood, and it’s also a bit odd and anachronistic to use a Sanskrit term from later traditions in the context of a Pali text. (I think that in Buddhism sadhana” didn’t come into use until the arising of the Mahayana and Tantra.

    1. There are definitely times in translation that you want to leave a word in the original language (karman and “Dhamma” are two good examples.)

      The problem for many modern readers is that when they think of “yoga” what springs to mind is bodies in leotards. So you’d end up including a footnote to explain the term, which over-complicates things. It’s easier to find a reasonable English translation of yoga, like “striving” or “practice.”

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