The Four Noble Truths BACK
4. The Eightfold Noble Path or the way leading to the cessation of sufferings = Makka Sacca
Programme four – Ajahn Sucitto(bbc)
What if by contemplating your own thoughts, actions and feelings and by noticing their causes and effects, you can establish ease and confidence in life. What if, without belief, supposition or ideology, you could find out how you get stressed and frustrated and put an end to all that? At any rate, since you’re living your life, you might as well pay attention to it, so why not fully awaken to what’s happening in and around you? In exploring these possibilities, millions of people throughout the world use the teachings of the Buddha. Some shy away from calling themselves ‘Buddhists’, feeling that such a label might compromise the authenticity of their inquiry. From a Buddhist point of view, there’s no problem with this.
The main point is to listen to the Buddhist teachings, mull them over, put them into practice and feel out the results. The teachings, called ‘a dharma’ are likened to medicine, and everyone who practises dharma can choose the medicine that they need in accordance with the nature of the problem that needs curing. But the general theme that covers all duma teachings is their aspects of the four noble truths, dukkha or suffering, its ceasing, and the path which leads to the end of suffering. This is called ‘the Noble Eight-fold Path’. The eight factors of this eight-fold path are Right View, right intent, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. I’ll give details on these factors later. But the first, the most important point is they are a way of living.
They’re not philosophical concepts, beliefs or descriptions of an ultimate truth or divinity. They lead to an awakening to ultimate truth, but do not define it. The Buddhists’ realisation was that the experience of ultimate truth was consonant with the ending of duka, and duka, whether this be depression, anxiety, frustration or a more general sense of pointlessness, concerns us all in the here and now of our lives. It’s not a matter of belief, nor in Buddhism do you have to believe that there is such a thing as liberation or ultimate truth. Just put an end to suffering and stress, but you know truth for yourself.
So the Buddhist approach is through direct experience, in which the first thing to consider is where both our innermost pain and our most reliable sense of well-being are to be found. Circumstances such as illness or good fortune come and go, but what lingers with us are internal conditions, a sense of being trusted and at peace or having regret or hatred gnawing away at our hearts. If we have peace of mind, we can weather through the rough patches, but guilt, hatred or depression can cloud the brightest day. A millionaire or a king can be beset with worry and mistrust, but a painless monk, like the Buddha, can dwell in ease and fulfilment. Suffering and cessation line our minds and hearts.
Mind and heart, we have an awareness that’s affected by and responds to experience. This awareness is what the Buddha would encourage a listener to attend to when putting the teachings to the test. In dialogue, you would encourage the inquiry: ‘How does it feel if someone abuses you, kills your friends and relatives? Is that suffering or not? And how is it when people treat you with generosity and kindness, and if you act in either of these ways, which brings about the results that would give you the most well-being? From using your own wisdom, how should you best act?’ Applying reasoned inquiry in this way, the Buddha was sketching the outline of his dharma.
However, for myself, as for many people, Buddhism began with meditation. I had graduated from university, had a head full of ideas and just as many questions as to what life was about, and before following any particular career, it seemed best to get my own take on what I really wanted. I eventually arrived in Thailand and happened across a class in Buddhist meditation being given in English. The venue was a room in a Buddhist monastery that had a few mats to sit on and nothing much else. It was lit by a lamp, which was placed next to the meditation teacher, who was sitting up front beside a window.
He was a westerner, who was wearing the ochre-brown robes of a Buddhist monk. Being a monastery in the tropics, there was no glass in the window and flying ants were coming in, attracted to the light. A few fluttered over the monk, but I noticed as he spoke, he wasn’t put off by the ants moving over his arms and just occasionally picked one carefully off his face, which seemed in danger of going into his mouth. He wasn’t getting agitated and he picked each ant off with specific awareness of its fragility, without losing the thread of what he was talking about. In the same situation, I would have killed a few ants, got irritated about the lack of glass and definitely lost the gist of what I was talking about. But the stress that I had got into would have been self-induced. The ants weren’t actually doing any harm. It was more a matter of responding to the sensation of full awareness, rather than reacting to it, which was a good introduction to what meditation was about, in the larger sense to what the Buddhist path was all about.
In a nutshell, the Eight-fold Path can be seen as covering ethics, meditation and understanding. In the class in Thailand, that meant don’t kill flying ants, be with what’s happening and guide your responses with an understanding of how to let go of the stress. Easy enough in theory, but I could see I needed some training. Meditation takes us to where we’re really being affected, but that’s why we tend to react blindly. To respond clearly to experience, we need to establish guidelines. The foundation for such guidelines is Right View. ‘Right View’ is the recognition what we do counts. We’re not in a pre-determined cosmos. We can be effective. We can be a source of benefit or harm for ourselves and others, but such a responsibility is not so much a moral obligation as a mandate. If we develop clarity and kindness, we can live with that kind of mind. If, however, we sustain prejudices or indifference, we become narrow and insensitive. We can act clearly and be at peace with ourselves or we can act out of compulsion and get stuck, because compulsion leads to addictive behaviour and loss of personal authority. In all cases, the chances are we’ll end up being associated with people who mirror our attitudes, so Right View is the recognition that our own integrity has to be the centre of our lives and that feels empowering.
‘Right Intent’, sometimes called ‘Right Thought’ proceeds from and understanding of cause and effect. It means setting up the intention to bring around skilful results through body, speech and mind and to relinquish the unskilful ones. This is the foundation of the teachings on action or ‘Karma’ as it’s called in Buddhism, for which mental intention is the agent. Since actions of body and speech proceed from mind states and emotions, if we can get the mind and heart clear, we can both act from a place of balance and be able to discern the results of our actions. This is the case with Right Speech and Right Action. We give up stealing, deception and violence and cultivate honesty and words that are worth treasuring. ‘Right Livelihood’ means avoiding trade in arms, prostitution, animal slaughter and it also broadens out into how one shares one’s life with others. Our relationships with other people profoundly influence our minds, so on occasion, the Buddha gave attention to husband and wife relationships, parenting, mutually supporting norms for employer and employee as well as on the benefits and qualities of friendship.
Right View, Right Effort and Right Mindfulness underline every other factor. For example, with Right Speech, one starts with Right View by recognising that how our talk affects others. We could bring something of value into someone’s mind with a well-attuned remark or we could ruin their day and we could be left with regret and mistrust, or with openness and peace of mind.
From there, ‘Right Effort’ means doing the work of steering one’s actions, while Right Mindfulness entails being fully there with what we do or say and what effects it has. A resolve to all this is we avoid distress and participate in something of immediate benefit. This is the process of the entire Eight-Fold Path.
Mindfulness and the last path factor, Right Concentration, take us into the domain of meditation, the cultivation of awareness. These factors are often what people are struck by in Buddhism, because they offer powerful deepening of the inner life, the possibilities of great serenity and joy, and the unconditioned peace that is called ‘Nirvana’. When this deepening begins, it is maintained with mindfulness, which entails being simply and purely present to what is going on.
If I go back to that first notation class in Thailand, the monk gave us some advice on how to sit upright in a state of relaxed alertness and start paying attention to the sensations that accompany the process of breathing. I couldn’t have filled up more than a breath or two before my mind was wandering. In fact, it was careening on a wave of speculations, memories and analyses. Every now and then, I would steer my attention back to the breath sensations and be able to maintain that for a few seconds before a fresh tide of thoughts came washing in. This is pretty much the standard beginners’ meditation. Nevertheless, what struck me deeply was that here I was witnessing my mind, and it was strangely peaceful, even reassuring. Somehow I didn’t have to make anything out of my thoughts or even out of my mind. It was just something happening.Moreover, if I was witnessing my mind, who was I and whose mind was this? The Buddha reckoned these to be unanswerable questions. Whatever you think or say you are, there is just more event passing through your mind. Now, the point is that there is always this present awareness, for what passes through it is changing and not what you really are, but the more you centre on that present awareness, whether using a focal point like the sensations of breathing to help you do that, the steadier and clearer you feel. You can let go of the impulses and sensations that come up or, as I learnt later, you can focus on them and allow the steadiness or awareness to bring them into harmony, which is what happens, whereas with practice, you can stop struggling with your body and your moods and that very quality of non-struggle to infuse and settle them. So bringing attention to the present is mindfulness and result. A steadiness that pervades the body and mind is concentration or somadi. Somadi is not a concentration that you do. It’s a centred and pleasurable unity that occurs as a result of Right View, Right Effort and Right Mindfulness.
All the practice of mindfulness and concentration is immensely remedial, in terms of clearing out stress, worry and obsessive moods. It has a further development, which is the understanding that liberates the practitioner from the very source of suffering and stress. This understanding, called ‘insight’, both attunes you to the ephemeral nature of what is happening and puts you in touch with the steady ever-presence of awareness itself. Sensing this time and time again, an involuntary shift takes place. Your centre moves to that pure awareness. In daily life, you can act from that awareness with compassion and clarity and in meditation, you can let all the events subside and dwell in the bright, unhindered presence. This leads to Nirvana, the fulfilment of the Eight-Fold Path. As you get to sense this, even in glimpses, you don’t get caught up in hankering and dejection. There’s no frustration, no need to defend and nothing you have to prove. Just this is an end to suffering and stress.
For me, personally, this is the best option which human life affords, but as the Buddha recommended, it’s up to each of us to know it for ourselves.