Noble Eightfold Path, Introduction
Recall that every Uposatha Day, traditionally a day for connecting with Buddhist practice, I am posting a short teaching, and that today I begin a series of short teachings on the Noble Eightfold Path.
Buddhism is about the Perfection of Character. The Noble Eightfold Path is the Buddha’s instructions or how to do this. According to the earliest accounts it was the very first thing the Buddha taught after attaining Enlightenment.
Actually in declaring perfection of character as the function of the Noble Eightfold Path I am being a little vaguer than the Buddha. The Buddha, after unfolding the Eightfold Path then embedded it as the last of the Four Noble Truths: (1) There is suffering (dissatisfaction). (2) Suffering is caused by clinging. (3) This means there is a means to free ourselves from suffering. (4) The Noble Eightfold Path is that means. The Buddha was a master at matching his words to his audience. The problem is that most Westerners are initially perplexed by the Four Noble Truths and particularly have trouble finding any possible relevance of (4) to (1)-(3). For instance, (4) makes no mention of suffering or clinging. So let me try some different words.
“Perfection of Character” is deliberately vague, but think of it as being a joyful and benevolent presence in the world. It is good to leave it vague at this point because our idea of what a perfected character is will change as we travel the highly introspective Eightfold Path. But let me now describe it as a kind of craft, the skill of living one’s life joyfully and benevolently. This provides apt analogies with other crafts.
Take the craft of making pottery and imagine that you are with a group of people, each of which is given a big lump of clay and access to the tools of the craft, the potter’s wheel, a kiln and other tools. Chances are you will be able to craft something, an off-center plate, a snake with a frog and a mouse in different stages of digestion, a teapot whose lid does not fit, etc., but you will probably not be satisfied with the results. You might look around and cannot find anyone else who seems to have a better idea of what they are doing, so you get frustrated and look for distractions, start a clay fights or so on. Someone might come in and sell you more or better clay as if that were the root of your dissatisfaction, but that just gives you more material to be dissatisfied about. If you are really lucky you will be near someone who happens to be skilled in this medium, providing a good example or even instructions. You will then improve your skills and produce more satisfying results. Your skills will be found (1) in what you understand, for instance, about the properties of clay, about your tools and about what are desirable results; (2) in what you do, for instance, the sequence of steps you have learned in the process and the technique for centering clay on the potter’s wheel; and (3) in what mental factors you bring to bear on the task, for instance, mindfulness and concentration (maybe you will have learned that you cannot watch TV while crafting an urn). Significantly, as you become more atuned to the medium and the task, your sense of what the perfect pot might be will become more refined.
What we do in Buddhism is the same as what the potter does, except it is our characters, our lives that we are shaping. Uninstructed and without a good example you don’t have a clear idea what to do with this lump of life. You try different things and end up distracted. The Buddha once described good spiritual friends (kalyanamitta) as the “Whole of the spiritual life.” From them you learn that life is a matter of skill and we begin to pick up the skill involved. Notice how normative this all is. Before we talk about skill we are already assuming that there is such thing as a Right Result and a Wrong Result, that there is a Right Way to do things and a Wrong Way. This is not the way many people in the West think of Buddhism (“You’re just being like dualistic, man.”) In fact Buddhism is profoundly ethical at every stage, but ethics is not a matter of some invisible forces of Good and Evil, it is a matter of what is skillful (kusala) and unskillful(akusala) and those are within yourself and trainable. The Master List of skills in the Buddhist path is the Noble Eightfold Path:
- Right View,
- Right Intention,
- Right Action,
- Right Speech,
- Right Livelihood,
- Right Effort,
- RightMindfulness and
- Right Concentration.
In each case “Right” expresses the normative nature of a skill. And, as for the potter, these skills fall in three main groups; these define what we call the Three Trainings. First, Wisdom (pannya) is what the Buddhist practioner understands, and it consists of
Right View and Right Intention. Second, Conduct (sila) is what the Buddhist does, and it consists of Right Action, Right Speech and Right Livelihood. Third, Cultivation of Mind is the set of mental factors brought to bear in life’s tasks, and it consists of Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.
I suggest that, on this Uposatha Day, this day of the last quarter moon, you reflect on this lump of life before you. What is its shape and what shape would you like to give it? What do you know about the nature of character, what forces are at play? How do you conduct your life, beneficially for yourself and others? Where is your mind at, is it unwieldy, scattered, or is it a precise instrument ready to fulfil its purpose. What would it take to craft something exquisite of your life?