The Sutta Nipata is probably one of the most diverse collections of discourses to be found in the Pali Tipitaka, and the chapter from which this sutta is taken, the Atthaka-vagga, may well be the oldest portion of the entire canon. It is composed mostly in verse, and includes some lovely poetry.
There is something particularly moving for me about this poem, perhaps because it is composed in the first person and appears to reveal the process through which the Buddha himself came to understanding; perhaps because of the vulnerability expressed in the opening stanzas, where he admits his fear and sense of dread over the nature of the human condition. Or maybe it is just the utter simplicity of first, the problem (people hurting each other), and then its cause (basic human selfishness, driven by desire), and finally, its solution (letting go of the ego's attachments). How easy he can so often make it all sound!
The first line alone is a counter-intuitive show-stopper. Conventional wisdom suggests that arming oneself is a prudent response to fear of self-injury. Yet the Buddha's wisdom goes deeper to observe how this actually contributes to the generation of more fear. Do we really feel more safe when we lash out at our critics and adversaries? Our culture certainly assumes so; but the Buddha is offering an alternative response, emerging from his own experience.
The phrase translated here as "arming oneself," which serves as the title of the sutta, is elsewhere rendered "embracing violence" (Norman) or "violent conduct" (Saddhatissa). The basic image is of a person taking up a stick, (danda); the stick being a common symbol in Indian literature for both violence and punishment.
The reader can hardly help feeling swept up in the emotional turmoil of the author. The tension mounts as the fear and despair builds, and then breaks suddenly with the insight that, like an animal driven to madness by an injury, mankind is not evil by nature but is only driven to violence by the relentless pressure of desire.
The latter half of the poem describes how to cultivate a state of mind — a stance within unfolding experience — that avoids the dysfunctional move of creating and projecting oneself on every situation.
These few verses embrace the whole of the four noble truths: the suffering manifest as violence, its cause by the thorn in the heart, the "unbinding" or crossing over this, and the way to cultivate the selflessness that constitutes real freedom.