Walking the Eightfold Path

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Well. Hello. It’s been a while since I posted here.

This summer I was lucky enough to attend two long teaching events, one with the Dalai Lama in Washington, D.C., and one with Thich Nhat Hanh in Vancouver, Canada. In both cases, much of the teaching centered on the Noble Eightfold Path.

These teachings inspired me to read a deeper explanation of the Path. I searched online and found  this:

The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Access to Insight, 16 June 2011.

Wow.

Bhikkhu Bodhi is an American by birth and a Buddhist monk in the Theravada tradition. He has an earned doctorate in philosophy and studied Buddhism in Sri Lanka, where he was ordained as a novice in 1972. His book In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon was recommended to me by a respected Buddhism scholar.

I think I would like to write some posts about what I am learning from this wonderful, free online text. I am not sure whether I would have appreciated this text a few years ago, when I was just beginning to practice. When I was starting out, I found these lists that are so common in Buddhist teachings to be kind of intimidating. Am I supposed to learn these by heart? I wondered. They seem so redundant. Why are there so many lists? Why do they all say the same things?

This summer I felt like I had traveled in a big, long circle and come around to the start of it again, standing in the same place as before — but everything looked different now.

Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote:

Right view is the forerunner of the entire path, the guide for all the other factors. It enables us to understand our starting point, our destination, and the successive landmarks to pass as practice advances. To attempt to engage in the practice without a foundation of right view is to risk getting lost in the futility of undirected movement. Doing so might be compared to wanting to drive someplace without consulting a roadmap or listening to the suggestions of an experienced driver. One might get into the car and start to drive, but rather than approaching closer to one’s destination, one is more likely to move farther away from it. To arrive at the desired place one has to have some idea of its general direction and of the roads leading to it.

Reading that, I understood the circular interconnection of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path for the first time. Or maybe I already understood it, and as I read, I saw my understanding for the first time.

Right View — the first item on the list of eight in the Noble Eightfold Path — is the beginning and also the end. It is equivalent to the Four Noble Truths. In other words, if you have Right View, it is because you have attained the truth of each one of the Four Noble Truths. What used to bother me was that the fourth one of those is the Noble Eightfold Path. A Western mind can feel frustration right at the outset when confronting this.

Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote:

In its fullest measure right view involves a correct understanding of the entire Dhamma (Dharma) or teaching of the Buddha, and thus its scope is equal to the range of the Dhamma itself. But for practical purposes two kinds of right view stand out as primary. One is mundane right view, right view which operates within the confines of the world. The other is supramundane right view, the superior right view which leads to liberation from the world. The first is concerned with the laws governing material and spiritual progress within the round of becoming, with the principles that lead to higher and lower states of existence, to mundane happiness and suffering. The second is concerned with the principles essential to liberation. It does not aim merely at spiritual progress from life to life, but at emancipation from the cycle of recurring lives and deaths.

Once I began to meditate on this difference — between the mundane or simple Right View one needs to get started on the path, and the supramundane or complex Right View, which is associated with Wisdom (that is Buddhist Wisdom, with a capital W) — I saw how the teachings about the Four Noble Truths given by great teachers such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh are truly “a finger pointing at the moon” (to repeat one of those oft-repeated lessons).

When I heard a teaching about the Four Noble Truths, often I would feel a bit disappointed. I already know this, I thought. I was hoping for something different, something new.

Never fail to listen with your full attention.

Breathe.

The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Published by Access to Insight, 16 June 2011.

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