“These two extremes, monks, should not be followed by one who has gone forth: sensual indulgence, which is low, coarse, vulgar, ignoble, and unprofitable; and self-torture, which is painful, ignoble, and unprofitable.
“Monks, by avoiding these two extremes, the Tathagata has realized the Middle Way, which gives vision and understanding, which leads to calm, penetration, enlightenment, to Nirvana.
“And what, monks, is the Middle Way realized by the Tathagata, which gives vision and understanding, which leads to calm, penetration, enlightenment, to Nirvana?
“It is just this Noble Eightfold Path, namely:
“Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.
“Truly, monks, this Middle Way understood by the Tathagata produces vision, produces knowledge, and leads to calm, penetration, enlightenment, to Nirvana.”
In the above words ascribed to the Buddha in his first discourse, we have the heart of Buddhism, or what he calls in the Sutra the Middle Way. That Buddhists should endeavor to walk the Middle Way avoiding extremes of behavior in thought, deed, and word is well-known enough. But this is a pretty vague and wishy-washy guideline on which to base one’s life, especially if Nirvana is one’s aim. Of course, as the quotation above shows, Buddhism doesn’t leave it there, defining the Middle Way in a much more constructive manner: The Noble Eightfold Path.
So, the eight aspects of the Path exist to assist us to establish vision and understanding in our lives, which in turn lead to calm, penetration, enlightenment, and Nirvana. But, vision of what - gods, heavens, previous lives, aliens, dragons, fairies, and pixies? No, vision of the way things are, right now. (And, my guess is that you are not sat with Zeus, Tinkerbell, or E.T. as you read these words. Nor are you residing in some celestial realm, surrounded by angels, seventy-two virgins or the like. And what is this religious obsession with virginity, anyhow? Surely true spiritual purity is of the mind, not of the body?)
I am sat in my living room as I write these words, not amongst the clouds; and no deity sits with me, only my pet dog, Leo. And as for ‘fairies’, well there’s plenty of those here in Thailand, but they don’t live with me! I imagine your present circumstances are much the same as my own. Reality can be pretty boring sometimes, not colorful and exciting like a blue-tinged god playing the flute or a telepathic grey come to whisk you off to their planet. And yet, the kind of vision that the Eightfold Path points to is precisely that of the boring every day type; indeed, it is only this kind of vision that can lead to real understanding of the Dharma ('the-way-things-are'). Understanding the nature of ghosts and goblins isn’t liberation from the extremes of human suffering, rather, it is a form of escapism, like reading the Lord of the Rings books, only taking them for real.
Attaining this vision and understanding of reality leads us to calmness. We are no longer caught up in the highs and lows of life, avoiding such extremes of emotional attachment and aversion. We are walking the Middle Way to the penetration of life’s ultimate dilemma, our suffering, and becoming enlightened to its causes and cures. We are approaching Nirvana, the extinction of greed, hatred, and delusion.
The Noble Eightfold Path, it is claimed, leads us to the transcendence of suffering, to genuine, lasting contentment or happiness. And, this is done not by praying, reciting incantations, doing rituals, or invoking supernatural powers to intervene on one’s behalf. It is done through the effort of maintaining the eight aspects of the Path until their fulfillment. Each of us, as practitioners of the Way, can cultivate the wisdom and compassion that arise out of our dedicated efforts, not through the (non-existent?) assistance of certain celestial beings. (If, in reality, they are personifications of those qualities needed in us to transcend suffering, supernatural beings may be useful in walking the Path, but otherwise, they seem like self-created mirages in the desert of nescience.)
Dear reader, what is your experience of the Path – is it the down-to-earth system of practice described above, or is there ‘something more’ to it for you? Do celestial beings appear to you and assist in your efforts? Does the belief in such beings and the divine realms they are supposed to inhabit inspire you somehow, or do you find such ideas irrelevant to walking the Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha? As to the Path itself, is there a clear line between it and the supernatural and superstitious aspects of Buddhism for you, or are they inseparable? Please leave a comment below and let me know what you think.
For any Buddhist terms that you’re unfamiliar with, please click on ‘A Buddhist Glossary’, found on the right side of the blog.