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The Noble Eightfold Path 1

This is the first of seven blogs that use notes from our 2017 ‘The Buddhist Background To Mindfulness’ course. Each session covers one aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path and ends with some questions and practices that may help you make the subject more personally real:

1. Right View (Skt. samyak-dṛuṣṭi / Pali sammā-diṭṭhi)

We are beings who need meaning – having a view, an understanding, a perspective, gives us a context and a direction to set off from. We all already have a view – the why we practice mindfulness and what for – but it is not necessarily that conscious and, in Buddhist terms, it may not be particularly wholesome or skilful.

In Buddhism we talk of mundane and super-mundane right view.

Mundane right view takes into account that actions have consequences and to have a happy life and future lives it is necessary to live a good life. This basically means not hurting oneself and others and holds the virtue of generosity as central.

Supermundane right view recognises that goodness is not enough for awakening – we need wisdom as well. In Buddhist terms wisdom arises from knowing how things really are – expressed in different ways: The Four Noble Truths, The Three Marks of Existence (impermanent, not-self, suffering), and much later, The Nature of Mind (empty, cognisant and without limit in its expression).

This also implies wrong right view – that which is driven by the three root poisons; grasping, hatred and ignorance. This presents a conundrum we will look at in a minute.

The first noble truth offers us a super-mundane right view that was arrived at through the Buddha’s awakening – it is the fruit of his enlightenment, what he realised at nibbana. And it is offered not as something to have faith in but rather as a set of empirical observations that we can test out for ourselves. This was true for him, is it true for us?

So what was this realisation?

The Four Noble Truths

These are often understood as the disease, what caused it, the cure and how to bring that cure about. Practical rather then a set of metaphysical beliefs to be embraced.

The Truth of Suffering – the Buddha believed that without a real understanding of dukkha no one would be sufficiently motivated to practice the Dharma. So this implies that we need to understand and value suffering in much the same way as he did – but do we?

The word suffering usually is used for the word dukkha but there are many occasions where it doesn’t quite fit – alternatives include angst, stress, discomfort and the ungainly but encompassing, unsatisfactoriness – the feeling that everything is never quite right even when it is on the surface.

Getting a real sense of how subtle the concept of dukkha is achieved when we look at what the Buddha actually said:

“Whatever is felt is included in dukkha.” – but not all feelings cause suffering.

“Whatever changes is dukkha” – but some changes brings pleasure and relief.

The etymology helps dukkha – it comes from words that pertain to an axle that badly fits the wheel giving a bumpy ride – so to be a human is to be in for a bumpy ride and there are things that make this better and things that make it worse. What are these bumpy rides?

The dukkha of painful experiences – most clearly suffering arising from external and internal events. Birth, old age, sickness and death. The 84,000 afflictive emotions.

The dukkha of the changing nature of things – that whatever arises will pass away, perhaps more a deep sadness then a sharp pain – everyone and everything I love and hold precious will be lost.

The dukkha of conditioned existence – the burdens of just surviving. Everything keeps falling to bits.

This may raise some questions. In our culture we value suffering in a different way – it gives life meaning, it’s valuable for forming a person, it inspires art – and we are therefore willing to put up with a certain amount for its supposed rewards. And at the same time we are highly suffering averse, doing anything to make our environment without any suffering at all and viewing suffering as something that makes the sufferer in some ways defective or weak. We may practice mindfulness to make our suffering go away but once this is partially accomplished draw back from going much deeper because the thought of ending all suffering for ever is deeply unattractive to us – even repellant, unhealthy. Clearly the issue of suffering is not a simple one.

The Truth of the Cause of Suffering – here the word that encompasses what causes suffering is tanha that usually translates as thirst, as in the ‘fever of unsatisfied longing’, or more punchy as ‘grasping’.

Tanha is seen to operate in three areas or domains: craving for sense pleasures, the desire for renewed or continuing existence and the desire for non-existence.

Craving for sense pleasures – this is so encompassing we do not usually see it until we are caught within an addiction we can’t satisfy – otherwise it’s business as usual in our pleasure seeking society. When young it is particularly invisible but with age and being sated it becomes more apparent. For me it is captured in the pain of just wanting MORE – more what? Just more anything. But this also throws up a question – is wanting per se in someway misguided, a cause of suffering – what about wanting awakening? What about wishing people should not suffer and wanting the circumstances that reduce suffering?

Craving for existence – this takes us deeper into our inbuilt drive to survive at almost any cost. In practice this becomes mixed with our endless fantasies about situations we would like to achieve that will then make us feel better in some way. This is the realm of being driven by hopes and fears – we could say the root of anxiety. An emotion that signals dissatisfaction and a pervasive feeling that our environment is unsafe. And it is – we crave for a dependable universe where things do not change in ways that threaten us but actually live in a universe where none of these conditions can be finally satisfied – everything is always changing, we can’t control it and it doesn’t always work out for the best.

Craving for non-existence – this works on several levels. Most extreme is the desire to die because our experience is unbearable. However more subtly it is the continuous craving to not have experiences we don’t like. If craving for existence is wanting then craving for non-existence is not-wanting.

Finally each of these forms of craving revolve around our sense of self and how we try to maintain it. Buddhism differentiates between a ‘mere self’ that we hold lightly and a much heavier self that we spend all our time cherishing. The first is necessary the second causes all the problems. Perhaps for us the question then is what constitutes a light hold and what a heavier hold? In psychotherapy we talk about the need for a healthy and robust ego that has at its foundation a ‘secure attachment’ to a maternal person. How do we balance this valuable observation against a teaching that could be read in away that says all attachments are bad?

We also say that suffering arises in the gap between how things are and how we want them to be.

The Truth of the Ending of Suffering – this is perhaps the most difficult truth to talk about. Nibbana (Pali) or nirvana (Sanskrit) seems so unimaginably distant from our present experience that it can seem almost a meaningless dream or fantasy. Look how the Buddha describes it:

“There is, monks, a domain where there is no earth, no water, no fire, no wind, no sphere of infinite space, no sphere of nothingness, no sphere of infinite consciousness, no sphere of neither awareness nor non-awareness; there is not this world, there is not another world, there is no sun or moon. I do not call this coming or going, nor standing nor dying, nor being reborn; it is without support, without occurrence, without object. Just this is the end of suffering.”

Yet in another way nibbana is extremely simple – the word is derived from the image of simply blowing out a fire. So here it means when the fires of craving, born of ignorance, greed and hatred, have been extinguished what is left is a state of profound non-clinging and it is this state, this experience, this event that is nibbana. In this sense nibbana is not some spiritual or transcendental altered state of sustained bliss and knowledge but rather the experience of what it feels like in the kitchen when the fridge suddenly is turned off – the hum hardly noticed before becomes thunderous in its absence.

In terms of the first two truths it is obvious that it is nibbana when all craving comes to an end. When the ignorance of how things really are comes to an end and all the wanting and not-wanting cease. In this sense wisdom is the deep recognition and acceptance of endless change and the ability to give up trying to get from it what it cannot give. It is true equanimity.

As the years unfolded the inexpressible experience of nibbana accumulated many new expressions. The essentially negative first attempts – it’s not this, it’s not that – gave way to more positive expressions such as the Dzogchen and Mahamudra definitions found in Tibetan Buddhism which connect it to the full realisation of the non-dual nature of the mind, pure and spontaneous intrinsic awareness. However there has always been a discomfort about what to say about awakening – make it too concrete and it becomes just another ‘thing’, make it too ephemeral and it becomes just nothing.

Yet in Buddhism it is what it’s all about so it is interesting to think a little about it – do I believe it’s possible and would such an event be valuable to me? And if I do believe and value it to what lengths am I willing to make the idea a felt reality?

The Truth of the Path that Leads To the End of Suffering – This then is the route map to nibbana that we are going to look at over the next seven evenings. Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Contemplation. What a lot of rights! Let’s start with that word next week.

For those following in Rupert Gethin’s, ‘The Foundations of Buddhism’, this first section is in Chapter 3.

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