Uposatha Day Teaching

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:

  1. Right View,
  2. Right Intention,
  3. Right Action,
  4. Right Speech,
  5. Right Livelihood,
  6. Right Effort,
  7. RightMindfulness and
  8. 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?

5 Responses to “Uposatha Day Teaching”

  1. Journalist Maria de Fatima Machado Says:

    Congratulations for your Blog. I have just found it in Internet.

    At the same time, I am very happy to inform you that, right now, I am presenting a rare Buddhist book in http://buddhistjournalist.rsfblog.com

    It is entitled “Some Sayings of the Buddha – According to the Pali Canon”.
    Oxford Univesity Press, Madras, India, 1925.

    It is a translation from the Pali to the English language, by the British scholar F.L. Woodward, who was Principle of Mahinda Buddhist College, Galle, Ceylon [Sri Lanka].

    Congratulations for your article. I do consider the subject extremely necessary, at this precise moment, and always.

    Like

  2. Panchenlama Says:

    Correction – kindly, by mistake, I typed here the url of my journalistic blog in Reporters Without Borders.

    This is the url – http://panchenlama.wordpress.com

    Blessings.

    Journalist M.F.Machado

    Like

  3. randy Says:

    I have a recurring difficulty with the term ‘right’ and what seems to be a conflict between the idea that things are, ultimately, as they should be (please ignore the term ‘should’ but it was all I could think of to use), and the idea that there is ‘error’ or a right as opposed to a ‘not right’ in terms of making decisions or taking actions or perhaps even more profoundly, the ultimate value(s) upon which we base our decisions and behavior.

    I can, and have taken the position that the conflict disappears when I consider it from an ‘ultimate’ viewpoint, sort of like when one reflects on the idea that total blackness is equivalent to total whiteness?

    Conclusions are not conclusive.

    This is of course a fun game to play but I can’t help but wonder…

    This side of of conclusive, this side of ultimate, within the dream, a lion is a lion and a lamb is a lamb and being supper seems less desirable than having supper?

    What to play for?

    Like

    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Randy,

      Right is a human construct that we impose on the world. You are “right”: it is not part of universal reality.

      The thing is, when you talk about intentional action and decisions, and for that matter practice, we are in conventional reality. It is impossible to decide or act without some sense of right and wrong. Everything we decide is right in some way or another, otherwise we would choose an alternative. If you want to cook rice, there is a right way to hold the pot when you put water in (upside up rather than upside down), there is a right amount of water to put in the pot, corresponding to the right amount of rice needed to feed six people. We look for the right way to lead our lives because we look at how our lives are so far and see that that isn’t it. In short we cannot talk about developing a skill without some idea of a right way and a wrong way. Considering the universal helps us realize that we are making this up and can help us develop a softer idea of right and wrong, knowing it is all relative.

      Incidentally an arahant or a buddha does things without intention, so right and wrong don’t apply. Until we get there we are stuck in the conventional world of right and wrong.

      Like

  4. don Says:

    Well we certainly have to make a sincere decision and that is perhaps we need a new pair of glasses (view)

    When I asked a friend of mine what is the best way to develop a right view: he said just do the next right thing.

    Sounds simple but it is not always easy. Psychology, emotions, the sum of what we think we are is always in play.

    Look at me already saying we, like I am some grand master! LOL. I mean me of course. See how quickly I move into management?

    There is always a law at work behind any principle and I think a plan can be as simple as ” I don’t want to hurt or I don’t want to feel scared or angry or….” Nothing wrong in that. Better to be told a small lie than stay in a burning house.

    However like any law it can free me or put me in prison. The good news is that by working on a path that is ever unfolding, that has teachings and personal growth (imagine that personal growth by loosing ones self) will teach me when I have put myself back in prison or if I have been set free.

    It is really not a white light experience and it is a day to day hour to hour thing based on that next right action.

    So the experience of this path is really like a rear view mirror. I can’t always know if I had the right view until after I have taken the action.

    The question of which was first chicken or the egg? In this case it is the chicken: then we get to see the egg (the new us)

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: