Noble Eightfold Path: the Big Picture

Uposatha Day Teaching

During each of the last eight Uposatha Days we have taken up a successive step on the Noble Eightfold Path, the Buddha’s checklist for Buddhist practice, the path to the Perfection of the Human Character. Each step has been described concisely, in fact too briefly to do full justice. But I hope I have managed to convey three things: First is the reason behind each fold in the path. I’ve tried to make a clever concrete analogy with the training of a master craftsperson, a potter, wherever possible. Second is a handle on practice. The Noble Eightfold Path is very practical, and is almost entirely about action, action of body, speech and mind, which you can practice with and observe throughout the day, not just on the cushion. And third is an appreciation of the way all of the steps form an integrated whole, none working independently of the others. This appreciation should be an inducement to treat all of the steps as roughly equivalent in worth, not to neglect one in favor of another. This is the value of the checklist format of the Noble Eightfold Path; it is helpful to review the eight steps periodically and consider what you are doing to uphold each step. And continue to receive instruction and to practice diligently each of the steps.

How the trainings in the path work together.

The Perfection of the Human Character happens at three levels. Our actions form habit patterns, our habit patterns solidify into our character. Through Ethical Conduct we transform our actions directly, and through Cultivation of Mind we transform our habit patterns. However this will go only so far, because we generally continue to have very recalcitrant ways of cognizing and perceiving the world and our situation that will inhibit liberation at a very fundamental level. Through Wisdom we transform the most recalcitrant delusive views. For instance, and this is the most important instance, most of us have this very pronounced view that we are a separate self, and that is always an impediment to perfecting virtue. Most fundamentally this entails that we misperceive the world because of a consant bias in favor of this self. Nevertheless, through the practice of Ethical Conduct we can behave toward others as if that self were not there, by not stealing, by not harming, and so on. Through the practice of Cultivation of mind we can mitigate the affective mental factors that manifest that self and try to take control of our actions, that is, we can learn to put aside greed, anger and so on, that arise in the self’s quest for personal advantage. Now, all of this will tend to loosen the iron grip of the self, but not eliminate it. Through the practice of Wisdom we get at the most recalcitrant views, especially this view of the self.

How the path deepens Right View.

It is at this point we should reveal that the Eightfold path is not linear, and in fact among its many loops, Right Concentration brings us right back to Right View, from whence the path began. On the basis of a steady, pure and aware mind we gain Insight, a kind of Right View that is much more profound that the teachings we began with. To understand Insight, consider what the potter knows. The potter goes beyond mere conceptualizations of his domain and learns the materials and tools by feel or intuition, in ways that cannot readily be put into words. In fact, much of what the potter knows from experience is known not by the brain but by the fingers. By the same token, the greater part of Right View is a direct experience of the way things are, unmediated by conceptual thought. When we got into the path we found ourselves actually working with the material of life, just as the potter works with his or her materials and tools. Very prominent in the Buddhist path is the mind itself, which is the primary material we work with. This is made possible through the cumulative contributions of all of the folds of the Noble Eightfold Path that together support a mind that is utterly steady, pure, beyond manipulation and the filter of self-concern, beyond excuses , preconceptions or even opinions, simply open and aware.

What is it that the Buddhist practitioner becomes aware of? In short, the three marks of existence: impermanence, suffering and selflessness. We become aware of a world in constant flux, where changes propagate continuously through an ever evolving network of contingencies, in which we seek in vain for any semblance of solid ground, any constant we can grab onto. But as soon as we grasp something we think we can rely on it begins to melt away in the constant flux of existence. It is painful when our hopes and plans cannot keep pace with reality. What we seek more than anything in this flowing network of contingencies is a self, a constant reference point, a lasting identity, and trying to hold on to this becomes the most painful thing of all. No wonder we had always felt so insecure and anxious. The only way out is for our minds to become as open and as fluid as the world.

Where the Path Leads.

I’ve described the path as leading (in spite of its loops) to the perfection of human character. It has been described in alternative ways, but these are equivalent. It has been described as the path that leads to the end of karma (and thereby of the cycle of rebirths), to the realization of emptiness and to the end of suffering. These descriptions are respectively from the behavioral, cognitive and emotive perspectives associated with the trainings in Ethical Conduct, Wisdom and Cultivation of Mind. The difference between these perspectives sometimes raises the question of whether we practice for ourselves or for others. The answer is that we always practice in spite of ourselves, the practice always mitigates the influence of the delusion of a separate self. This has consequences at the same time for the harm one does to oneself and the harm one does to others. If I advise you to drive carefully, to make sure your windshield is not frosty, to make sure your breaks are in order, to avoid cell-phone or intoxicant use while driving, and so on, I can justify this in either of two ways, by adding either, “… or else you might injure yourself,” or, “… or else you might injure someone.” The fact is, a car not in control is a dangerous thing, and a mind not in control is a dangerous thing (in road rage we find both). This is why we follow the Noble Eightfold Path.

One Response to “Noble Eightfold Path: the Big Picture”

  1. Adrien Jacob Says:

    Wonderful explanation of the Noble Eightfold Path. Although I had already read or heard about it in many different ways, I find this one remarkable for its clarity and culturally adapted language ;).
    Much Metta to you Bhante,


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