The Dhammapada is perhaps the most widely read and translated text in the history of Buddhism. The name Dhammapada means “path of Dharma,” suggesting that Buddhism is primarily a spiritual path, rather than a set of beliefs and dogmas. Here are some words from Bhikkhu Bodhi:
From ancient times to the present, the Dhammapada has been regarded as the most succinct expression of the Buddha’s teaching found in the Pali canon and the chief spiritual testament of early Buddhism…
It is an ever-fecund source of themes for sermons and discussions, a guidebook for resolving the countless problems of everyday life, a primer for the instruction of novices in the monasteries. Even the experienced contemplative, withdrawn to forest hermitage or mountainside cave for a life of meditation, can be expected to count a copy of the book among his few material possessions.
Yet the admiration the Dhammapada has elicited has not been confined to avowed followers of Buddhism. Wherever it has become known its moral earnestness, realistic understanding of human life, aphoristic wisdom and stirring message of a way to freedom from suffering have won for it the devotion and veneration of those responsive to the good and the true…
Whereas the longer discourses of the Buddha contained in the prose sections of the Canon usually proceed methodically, unfolding according to the sequential structure of the doctrine, the Dhammapada lacks such a systematic arrangement. The work is simply a collection of inspirational or pedagogical verses on the fundamentals of the Dhamma, to be used as a basis for personal edification and instruction.
While the Dhammapada is usually associated with Theravada Buddhism, it is not exclusively read by Theravadins:
There are a number of Mahayana works to which it appears to be closely related. There are in the Chinese scriptures 4 works resembling the Dhammapada. The nearest is the Fa Chu Ching, which was translated in AD 223. (translated by Beal), the first part of which seems to be a direct translation of the Pali Dhammapada. (It is intriguing to wonder how a Pali work found its way to China in those early years. The Introduction merely says it was brought from India and was translated as a joint venture by a Chinese and an Indian.) One small piece of evidence that the Chinese is a translation from the Pali is found in the verse corrsponding to the Pali verse 146. The Chinese here reads “remembering the everlasting burnings”, having mistaken the word “sati”, (which in the Pali is the locative case of the present participle of a verb for “being”) for the noun “sati”, memory, or recollection. The later part of the Chinese appears to be an anthology in its own right.