Monday, February 23, 2009

The Noble Eightfold Path

“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.”
(Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta)

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.


They call him James Ure said...

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.

Well said. I'm a nuts and bolts, "boring" kind of guy when it comes to my Buddhism. Chop wood, carry water.

The Noble Eightfold path is a concrete method to me whereas praying to gods, devas, bodhisattvas, etc. seem like empty distractions to me.

That said, if such activities and things help you better understand and practice the Dharma then awesome.

Barry said...

Like James Ure, I'm pretty down to earth in my practice. Indeed, I spend little time thinking about the Eightfold Path or the Middle Way. I just practice every day - bowing, chanting, meditation, study.

And, most importantly, I make a serious effort to study my mind throughout the day, in the conviction that as I become more acquainted with my true self, I can make wise choices about impulses and actions.

G said...

Yes, James, Buddhism contains these beliefs as skillful means (upaya) to encourage understanding & practice in those that will be inspired by them.

This world is as wondrous as any heaven could possibly be - and as woeful as any hell. And we humans behave as if we were gods, demons, angels, monsters, and the like. Why imagine any more?!

Barry - practicing bowing, chanting, meditation, and study IS the Eightfold Path, isn't it? Occasionally taking stock of how practice relates to the framework of the Way can help us not to drift too far from the straight and narrow road to awakening. It is great to read how your own practice enables you to make wiser choices in life; a true fruit of the Path!

Be well,

Leander said...

My first comment here, so let me start off with saying that I've been following this (and your previous) blog for a while now and find it very enjoyable :)

So...when it comes to practice of Buddhism, I'd agree with my fellow commenters - I like to keep the practice clear and simple, and free from concerning myself with anything "supernatural". That is part of the appeal to me, but not because I'm offended by the "supernatural" - on the contrary, I'm very interested in these matters, I just don't see them as helpful to spiritual practice.

That being said, I have to object to your statement that "understanding the nature of ghosts and goblins" (and anything supernatural or occult besides these) is a form of escapism. To me it's no more a form of escapism than understanding the nature of black holes for example. Trying to understand whether these supernatural phenomena are all just figments of our imagination, or are essential yet poorely understood features of our psyche, or actual external, objective phenomena, simply means to investigate the world around us. I don't see anything escapist about that at all.

Especially not considering that there's many people having weird, for a lack of a better term, supernatural experiences - that are sometimes very upsetting ot even traumatizing to said people. So even if we'd find something wrong from a Buddhist perspective with investigating our world out of pure curiosity - such investigating and understanding can potentially be very helpful to people for whom supernatural experiences are far from escapist entertainment, but things that cause them suffering and confusion.

G said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Leander.

As you write, keeping the practice "clear and simple" and free from concerns with the supernatural is a very effective way to cultivate the mindfulness of the-way-things-are, the Dharma.

The difference between observing black holes and the supernatural (or superstitious) is that the latter is not corroborated by independent, rigorous scientific examination. Both, of course, from the Buddhist perspective, do not contribute to awakening; the Noble Eightfold Path does that.

Science, interestingly, is now beginning to explore the effects of meditation, along with other aspects of Buddhist practice, revealing some of the positive results of the Path. This is not airy-fairy fantasy, but fact-based observations. The Middle Way is being vindicated by both independent scientific experiments as well as the personal testaments of its practitioners. The same cannot be said for the existence of the supernatural, nor the efficacy of superstition.

The enlightening response to so-called supernatural phenomena is to see them for what they surely are: distortions of natural phenomena. The Way can help us in this. (Indeed, I have had many odd, occasionally disturbing and inexplicable experiences, and walking the Buddhist Path has helped me to put them into perspective and get on with the heart of the practice.)

Of course, Leander, when people have frightening hallucinations and the like, it isn't helpful to belittle them for it, and they deserve our compassion and assistance - but not our indulgence. (I worked in a psychiatric hospital and met many people who had what they considered miraculous but scary experiences. Medication and care, along with mindful awareness of their illnesses and individual needs helped them through their delusional pain.)

Here in Thailand, superstition often replaces the Eightfold Path taught by the Buddha for our liberation from suffering. Instead, people indulge in activities that distract them from life's darker side. The Four Noble Truths are known only by a minority of the populace (that is apparently ninety-five percent Buddhist).

Thanks again for your stimulating views, Leander - I hope that you will leave more in the future, encouraging more reflection on these important issues.

Yours in the Dharma,

Dhamma81 said...

I find the supernatural aspects of the path to be an inspiration for me. The Buddha was clear on heavens and hells and every time(or almost everytime) he mentioned something about one he stated "after death, at the breakup of the body" which to me is clear that these realms are real since it would take a lot of wordply to see that phrase in the light of metaphor.

I don't think belief in these realms is absolutely essential to the path but for me the idea of them helps give impetus to my own practice. If there is a hell or a heaven then what does that mean? Also, I truly belive I have seen ghosts before so I firmly believe that life doesn't end at death the way the scientists seem to believe.

Is it essential to believe in Devas and the like? Probably not, but for me it is inspiring to think of the Buddha's teachings in a more cosmological way and helps foster Samvega. If all these heavens and hells are possible and the only thing really pursuing is Enlightenment then how can that not help lead to a sense of dismay? At least this is how it is for me. Take care now.

G said...

Yes, Justin, among the zillion things ascribed to the Buddha in both the Theravadin & Mahayanist scriptures are descriptions of heavens & hells (along with gods, goddesses, demons, ghosts & nature spirits etc.). Whether the actual historical Buddha said any of this is debatable of course, and even if he did, in the world view of fifth century B.C. India, it would have been wise to include such teachings as skillful means to encourage dissemination of the Dharma. (In contrast, out and out atheist teachings of the time did not spread as both Buddhism & Jainism did.)

All this being said, as you write, belief in the supernatural is not actually essential to walking the Path, and unless clung to excessively, will not interfere with spiritual awakening. So, where's the harm in it? Perhaps in the fact that for many, many Buddhists belief in the supernatural replaces conviction in & practice of the Eightfold Path. Gods and goblins can be very distracting for some people!

As to odd experiences, Justin, as intimated previously, I've had a few myself: strange voices in the night, UFOs, unidentifiable visual objects, visions, premonitory dreams, and more! At present, science can explain some of these occurrences but not others. But, even if some were genuine supernatural events, they still have no bearing on practicing Buddhism. Worse, they could be a distraction, so I choose to give them no importance and let them go.

Your last paragraph above isn't so clear to me as to its meaning, Justin:

"If all these heavens and hells are possible and the only thing really pursuing is Enlightenment then how can that not help lead to a sense of dismay?"

I'd be grateful if you'd clarify that statement, as it seems to be an important element in your defense of belief in the supernatural. What a stimulating discussion! :)

Be well in the Dharma my friend,

Dhamma81 said...


If one thinks about the idea of being born in heavens or hells and that neither the heavens nor the hells lead to the peace of Enlightenment it can foster a sense of dispassion for wanting anything more then total release. The Buddha talked about the possibility of being born into a god realm for eons and then falling back into hell. His point was that there is no refuge apart from Enlightenment and in many places he listed that a human birth was the ideal for Enlightenment.

I find the cosmology and it's implications to be a significant factor in keeping me on the path and fostering the Samvega necessary to even consider the monastic life. I suppose it is not for everyone but for me considering the possibility of countless births and deaths and all the suffering that comes with those births and deaths is a motivator for me.

I think back to something Ajahn Jayasro once said, "The handful of leaves isn't just the four Noble Truths but also everything he taught in the Canon." Whether you or others choose to consider the implications of that idea is not my business but for me considering a world or many worlds filled with aging, illness, separation and death over and over again beyond this lifetime for those not Enlightened is a motivator. Be well now Gary.

G said...

Good points, Justin. Thank you for your clarity & honesty: important qualities in the Way! :)

To be truthful, Justin, my main concern is with the here and now, rather than what might or might not exist in other undiscovered realms. Whether one believes in supernatural places & beings or not, is not the goal of Buddhist practice, which Ajahn Sumedho has called 'ultimate simplicity'? We have to let go of it all, eventually, and in this letting go we will discover what's been here all along.

That being said, Buddhism is a Path, and on this Path we need to use what skillful means necessary to help us traverse the Way to awakening. So, if believing in such things assists you in your practice, Justin: Walk on!

One more thing, my friend. I think it is our concern what fellow Buddhists believe & do. For, if they use the name of the Buddha and the tradition that has grown out of his teachings to justify wicked or waylaying beliefs and activities, then it's our business to protect the reputation of the Dharma.

The kindness & compassion that arise out of practicing Buddhism impel us to help one another in the Way, don't they? And sometimes this may entail saying (or writing) things that other people don't like. But, then, the Buddhdharma is more important than our individual likes and dislikes, isn't it, Justin? So, please feel free to comment on my practices and views as represented on this blog - that's part of the reason for writing it.

Your friend in the Dharma,

Dhamma81 said...


Some good points on your comment on what I said. The Here and Now is what is most important and I suppose for some just trying to put an end to suffering in this life is enough regardless of rebirth or not. that is certainly valid. I guess for me it helps to take a longer viewpoint. I suppose I'm more of a faith based guy due to an upringing that placed little interest in science and more on the supernatural. Pehaps everyone goes in different directions in Buddhism based on personality traits?

In the end the end of suffering is all that matters and Ajahn Sumedho reducing things to an ultimate simplicity is a valid way of looking at it. After all, who am I to argue with a man that has dedicated his life to the Dhamma and worn the robes for longer then I have been alive, especially since he has never been caught in a scandal that would lead to my not believing him. Ajahn Sumedho is probably what the West needs, someone who is grounded in traditional Buddhism yet presents it in a non offensive authentic way that helps people get on that path.

I've always been a bit of a rebel in the way I do things and I don't personally think that I could do away with belief in heavens, hells or other beings even if I tried. If it works for me and helps me go in the right direction why not?

"One more thing, my friend. I think it is our concern what fellow Buddhists believe & do. For, if they use the name of the Buddha and the tradition that has grown out of his teachings to justify wicked or waylaying beliefs and activities, then it's our business to protect the reputation of the Dharma."

I liked that passage a lot because it really does make sense. Recently my sister came back from the UK and sent me a book by some guy name Sangharakshita or something and I read most of the book without knowing anything about him. It turns out he has been caught in many scandals and it is a sad thing to see when someone leads people in the wrong direction in the name of Buddhism.

Going too much into asking people to believe blindly in ghosts and the like could be dangerous since it isn't all that essential. In my own practice I keep it to myself or write about it from time to time in Dhamma Reflections because it is meaningful to me. Who knows what I'd do if I were to ever be a monk that teaches? I enjoy your discussions here Gary. Wishing you well.

G said...

Justin, I agree with the points you make above.

As you surely realize from reading 'Buddha Space' & 'Forest Wisdom', Ajahn Sumedho is held in high esteem by me. If, however, he was to be shown to be guilty of similar indiscretions to those admitted by Sangarakshita, I'd have no qualms about dumping him as an example of how to be a great Buddhist. His teachings would still retain their potency for me, however, as they've responded well to my use of them. (I seriously doubt any such revelations will emerge, though.)

As to the belief in the supernatural, the recent articles on this blog are explorations of some of the issues involved, and not meant as criticisms of those, like yourself, that hold such faith. It's all a matter of skillful means, really, isn't it?

Be well in the Dharma,