Ken Ward's Thoughts on Buddhism

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The Noble Eightfold Path

(Pāli: ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo, Sanskrit: āryāṣṭāṅgamārga)

Although the Eightfold Path is called a path, it is not exactly a step by step guide such that when you reach the end, you reach Awakening. That is, you do not complete step 8 and then get enlightened (although you might do). The idea is to develop the path so you can use all or any of the 8 factors in the final actions. So, in learning the path, you are learning the whole heap of factors so they are immediately available when required. Of course, like any learning task, we need to jump in and start learning somewhere, even though it is the whole path that we need.

General Overview

Wisdom

Wisdom is the ability to apply knowledge, skills, understanding and insight. it is the ability to see things as they really are. It is deep, penetrating and immediate. Penetrating wisdom sees through wrong ideas and reveals wrong ideas. It is the ability to pick out what is important by distinguishing clearly between factors. It is the ability to quickly use knowledge to wisely deal with situations.

In Buddhism, wisdom is the development of right views and right intentions in relation to experience.

In another sense, wisdom is the whole of the path. Wisdom requires discernment (right mindfulness), the right skills (right effort) and concentration (right concentration). It also requires ethical behaviour to prevent the mind becoming disturbed (Right Speech, Right Action and Right Occupation).

Views and Intention are called the wisdom division of the Buddhist path. With Right View and Right Intention we develop wisdom, and act wisely. For beginners, this is the start of wisdom; for those who have completed the path, it is the development of enlightenment, when Right View and Right Intention are joined by the other path factors.

1 Views

What we see depends on where we stand and where we look. That is our physical view. Philip stands on a hill and looks in one direction and sees mountains, valleys and trees. He thinks, this is beautiful and decides to go there. That is one view.

Philip turns and looks in another direction, he sees chimneys, smoke and factories. He thinks, this is ugly and decides not to go there  That is another view.

In general, what we see, and what we think and do, depends on our view.

In the mind, our view becomes our attitudes, opinions, theories, images and beliefs in regard to the self and experience, which determines how we respond and act. Michele views the world as threatening, she thinks and responds to it in a fearful way. On the other hand, Margaret's view of the world is that it is an adventure, she thinks and responds to experience in an adventurous way.

In Buddhism, Right View is viewing the world in terms of the four noble truths. Buddhists view the world as impermanent. They view craving as the cause of suffering. And they view giving up craving as the cessation of suffering.

Our view affects our intentions.

2 Intention and Thought

Our thoughts and plans depend on our views. What we see, hear, etc, in the world or in our minds affects what we think and what we intend to do.

Right Intention is avoiding craving and aversion, and intentionally thinking about the world in terms of the four noble truths. Of course our intentions affect our behaviour, speech and action.

Ethical Behaviour

Right Speech, Right Action and Right Occupation are described as part of the ethical division of the path. However, like the other factors, they are wise means of reducing suffering. People who behave unethically disturb their minds. They do not have peace, so their disturbed minds prevent them following the path.

3 Speech

What we say, to ourselves (verbalisation) and to others follows in part from our views and our intentions.

Right Speech is basically honest and helpful. Buddhists can learn the rules of Right Speech, but in its deepest sense, Right Speech emerges from having Right View and Right Intention.

After a quarrel, our minds are disturbed, perhaps for days (or years), and this prevents us concentrating on the path. So, Right Speech is important in Buddhism.

4 Action

The actions we take, the things we do, are affected by our intentions and views. If our view is that the world is unsafe, our intention may be to keep away from it (action). We may talk about the world as being unsafe (speech) and we may tend to move away from life events (action).

Because Buddhists view the world involving suffering, they intend to avoid causing suffering, and act in ways that do not cause suffering. Right Action is avoiding killing, stealing and so on.

People who perform wrong actions are mentally disturbed by them, and may be continually looking out for the consequences. This makes spiritual development impossible.

This factor refers to actions we might take on a one-off basis. The next factor deals with actions we do on a regular, habitual basis.

5 Occupation

Our occupation is the actions we perform daily. What we do routinely affects us deeply because it develops habits. It affects our views and intentions and how we communicate. If our work involved deception, for instance, then this would affect what we say (and perhaps think). It also develops views. The work we do (or our daily routines) has a great effect on us.

Those who work in deception may continually doubt what others say, and so could not believe any spiritual advice. Doubt is a barrier to the path. Those whose work involves violence, cannot sincerely adopt the view of harmlessness. Those whose work involves alcohol and drugs cannot sincerely believe in mindfulness, or if they believe in it for themselves, they cannot generate true loving-kindness, because they have excluded their customers.

Therefore, Buddhists choose their occupation carefully, avoiding work that devops habits inconsistent with their views. This is called Right Occupation.

Concentration and Mental Composition

The remaining three factors of the path are concerned with meditation and with composing the mind.

6 Effort

Right Effort is appropriately directing the mind, or attention. If we accept Right View is viewing the world in terms of the Four Noble Truths, then we need to direct the mind accordingly. Thoughts of craving and aversion arise and we use the skills in Right Effort to prevent these thoughts arising and to turn off those that have arisen.

Also, we use Right Effort to bring thoughts that are wise, such as loving-kindness. And we use Right Effort to maintain those thoughts that have already arisen.

Right Effort appears in the other path factors. In Right Intention it is used to direct the mind to intending thoughts and actions according with Right View. And Right Effort is also used in Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

7 Mindfulness

Right Mindfulness is putting the attention somewhere to reduce suffering. In a lot of Buddhism, and other systems, you put your attention on the 'real' world to bring it out of the mind. For instance, being mindful of the breath, or mindful of walking. In this way, we practice putting our attention where we intend to put it. In ordinary life our attention may be drawn to parts of the world or our minds without our intending to put it there. Mindfulness is not wholly concentration because we stay aware of where we are and what we are doing.

8 Concentration

In order to solve a problem we need to concentrate on that problem, sometimes forgetting about everything else. We aren't drawn to the problem, but we put our attention fully on the problem. We are still mindful.

In Buddhism, we learn Right Concentration in order to understand fully the true nature of life.

Walking the Path

At first, we may just memorise and not understand very much. For instance, a medical doctor, when seeing one patient, might consider many aspects of medicine in order to diagnose and treat the patient. A medical student, however, needs to learn bits of medicine bit by bit. She cannot learn it all at once in one grand insight! This insight comes gradually. Just the same, with any other subject, including Buddhism. You have to learn bit by bit, and take some things on faith. It is only at the end that everything comes together, and this means reviewing and practising the path many times, each time with greater understanding.

Alternative Ways of Approaching the Path

It is possible to begin the Eightfold Path with steps 3-5, Right Speech, Right Action and Right Occupation. That is, the moral part (sila). The Buddhist then stops making unwholesome kamma, and builds good kamma.

Next come parts 6-8. That is, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. That is, the mental training (samadhi). The Buddhist learns wholesome mental skills and becomes more aware.

Lastly, come Right View and Right Intention. The wisdom bit (pañña). The Four Noble Truths are often presented at the start, and taught to children, but they are what Buddhism is about and they are (as something fully understood) the acme of Buddhism (the completion). When a Buddhist sees these noble truths in action, he or she can never fall back into samsara.

Normally, of course, Right View is presented first, so the beginning Buddhist needs to start with more faith and than knowledge or insight. But at the end of the path, at the highest level, Right View can be fully grasped as comprising the whole of the path.

This penetrating insight (vipassana) enables the four supra-mundane paths and the realization of the stages of Awakening. At this highest level, Buddhists realize that the path is right view, and they see the Four Noble Truths in everything, which is, of course, wisdom.

Summary of the Path

Noble Eightfold Path

 

Right View (sammā-ditthi)

This is the right attitude to the world and its inhabitants. It is understanding things as they really are. Right view removes misunderstanding, confusion and delusion. Wisdom (Sanskrit: prajñā, Pāli: paññā)

Right Intention (sammā-sankappa)

This is right thinking, right resolve, even will power. It is the force to let go of what is wrong or immoral. It is the intention to give up what causes suffering or what is wrong. It focuses on releasing ill will and adopting harmlessness.

Right Speech (sammā-vācā)

You should avoid lying. Speech should be truthful, You should speak of factual matters, not idle gossip. Speech should be helpful. And pleasant. Speech should be timely. So a true, helpful, but unpleasant thing might be said when the time is right.

Ethical Conduct (Sanskrit: śīla, Pāli: sīla)

Right Action (sammā-kammanta)

Avoiding taking life, stealing, illicit sex.

Right Livelihood (sammā-ājīva)

Abandoning dishonest or cruel livelihood.

Right Effort (sammā-vāyāma)

The abandonment of unwise thoughts, words and deeds.

Concentration (Sanskrit and Pāli: samādhi)

Right Mindfulness (sammā-sati)

Remain in the present as an observer, without judging or interpreting. Pure awareness.

Right Concentration (sammā-samādhi)

Right concentration is any singleness of mind equipped with these seven factors: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, and right mindfulness.