Beyond the Noble Eightfold Path

Quarter Moon Teaching

The Suttas recount the following conversation:

As he was sitting there, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, “This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.”

“Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life.

The question I want to raise is, What happened to the Noble Eightfold Path in this dialog? Isn’t it the whole of the holy life? The Buddha goes on to answer this, but let’s enjoy the suspense for a while.

The Noble Eightfold path is pragmatic, rational, integrated and rather self-contained. As you continue your studies you will find that most of the Buddhist teachings relate to one or more of the eight steps of the path: as you learn about Emptiness, about meditation techniques, about Karma and Rebirth, about the many mental factors, about the various systems of Precepts, and so on, things I have only begun to touch on in my brief overview. However, like everything, a path is embedded in a larger context: A physical path winds its way through a forest to the top of a hill, down the other side, over a bridge spanning a creek, past a hornet’s nest across a meadow and home. What keeps the traveler on the path when he or she might just as well go off swimming or rock climbing, or prospecting. And it is also so with the Noble Eightfold Path. It has to begin somewhere, what are the conditions for entering the path in the first place? What keeps one on the path? How does one find out that there is a path and where it leads?

We have seen that our friend the potter also follows a path, one that leads to the perfection of the skills of a master potter. Is there also some part of being a potter that lies outside the potter’s studio? Yes, the potter is embedded in a context that has material, social and motivational aspects:

The Potter’s Material context. The potter had to rent or purchase his studio and all of the equipment needed, and probably has required a source of income, possibly from selling the fruits of the potter’s skills. The potter had to make a commitment of money and time to the practice of the potter’s craft, to rearrange his or her life simply to make room for practicing his or her craft.

The Potter’s Social context. The potter has placed him- or herself into a tradition that has been transmitted through history to the present moment. The potter has probably spend innumerable hours studying the work of others, at craft shows, in craft shops and finally in museums. The potter found some source of training, perhaps as an apprentice to a master potter, or through college courses. The potter probably spends a lot of time talking with, and being encouraged and inspired by, other similar-minded craftspeople, and may belong to a guild or professional society. And the potter may also have become a resource for others who aspire to learn the potter’s craft perhaps.

The Potter’s Motivational context. Probably the potter has learned a lot about art, and has been inspired by certain artists and certain trends. The potter has, if he or she is not too poor, purchased a lot of ceramics, other crafts and general art to bring home and live with as a constant source of inspiration. Almost certainly the potter subscribes to some potterly publications and reads potterly books. And the potter’s stained clothes and fingers are a constant reminder to him- or herself and to others that, “Here Stands a Potter.” All of these help keep pottering at the center of the potter’s life, ensures the unquestioned devotion of the potter to his or her craft, even when there are so many other interesting this to do in life.

Buddhism is not much different:

The Buddhist Material Context. The practitioner may share a practice space with a community, or may have invested some time and effort in fixing one up at home. The practitioner probably helps sustain a temple. The dedicated practitioner will have made a deep commitment to making room in his or her life, often with a complete reorientation of priorities, abandonment of livelihood and so on.

The Buddhist Social Context.The practitioner has begun training, through reading, through lectures, through individual instruction from an admirable teacher, maybe joined a Buddhist center or a monastery. In fact, the practioner has placed him- or herself into a tradition that has been preserved and transmitted from ancient times through the centuries to the present moment. He or she probably belongs to a Buddhist community and has frequent contact with like-minded people, and it is here he or she discovers admirable people, those who have most benefited from and best embody Buddhist practice. The practitioner with time will become a resource for others drawn to practice perhaps even a deep inspiration for those taking their first steps on the path.

The Buddhist Motivational Context. Similarly, the Buddhist practitioner has had the opportunity of contact with admirable Buddhist practitioners, which has often been the point at which entering the path is first considered, has read the Life of the Buddha and gained a deeply respectful attitude toward the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, the admirable teacher, his admirable teachings and those admirable ones who transmit his teachings to new generations, thereby opening one’s mind to the three sources of influence. The practitioner has viewed Buddhist art, depictions of the Buddha and other aspects of what is admirable Buddhism. He or she will be inclined to undertake ritual symbolic activities such as chanting, bowing and offering incense, around an altar or a pagoda to reinforce a sense of devotion and respect for that which is admirable. All of these help keep Buddhist practice at the center of the practitioner’s life, even while there are so many other interesting things to do in life, to keep the practitioner on the path.

The surprising thing about the material, social and motivational context in which one practices the Noble Eightfold Path is that it gives Buddhism its religiosity. It is organized, communal and devotional, very much like other religions. Many Westerners who are giving Buddhism the eye like to think that Buddhism is not a religion, but a philosophy or a way of life, but in any case something entirely rational. What gives?

First of all, these elements are not uniquely religious, as we have seen in the case of the potter. Similarly a marriage has a material, social and motivational context, as does a hobby, probably anything one wants to be doing as a profession, scholarship, sports, both spectator and participatory. The relevant aspects of the respective contexts differ in form, the elements of the context manifest according to subject domain. For instance motivational aspects of marriage include a solemn ceremony, the wearing of rings as a constant reminder of one’s vows, a lot of daily ritual expressions of affection; motivational aspects of sports includes cheer leaders, pep talks, wearing certain symbols of the home team as well as attire of the appropriate color, ritual chanting, worship of prominent athletes, often even displaying their pictures, and so on. Naturally the broad domain of religion has certain characteristics that carry over to Buddhism as well.

Second, the context of the Noble Eightfold Path not only provides conditions for embarking and remaining on the path, but the context by itself seems to support many of the aims of the Noble Eightfold Path by itself, albeit in a very unsophisticated way. In particular devotional practices, bodily expressions of respect, involvement in a mutually supporting community tend to give rise to skillful states of mind. They dethrone the ego and encourage humility, gratitude, compassion and generosity. I think developing these qualities is the common project of most religions, which might explain why they seem to have a common “religiosity.” The Buddhist project takes this to another level by adding the Noble Eightfold Path, a technology that capable of bringing these admirable human characteristics progressively toward perfection. Buddhism at the same time makes living breathing people, not gods, as objects of devotion and respect, those admirable people that best embody the Noble Eightfold Path in their lives. The Buddha finishes the quote above as follows:

Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk [read practitioner] has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.

On this Uposatha Day of the first quarter moon, take some time and reflect, what are the factors that inspire me to take the Buddhist Path or that sustain me on the Path.  Of course many of the people involved will have reached you through books, on-line lectures, etc. Then consider, how do I show my appreciation for this, and how do I open my heart and mind to better accept this influence.

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