Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The True Eightfold Path

Venerable Ajahn Chah

“Traditionally the Eightfold Path is taught with eight steps such as Right Understanding, Right Speech, Right Concentration, and so forth. But the true Eightfold Path is within us – two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, a tongue, and a body. These eight doors are our entire Path and the mind is the one that walks on the Path. Know these doors, examine them, and all the dharmas will be revealed.”

(Ajahn Chah, taken from ‘A Still Forest Pool,’ edeited by Kornfield & Breiter.)

According to Ajahn Chah, we can cultivate wisdom through observation of our own body, which will show us the various conditions (dharmas) of our psychophysical existence. Correct Understanding - the first of the eight aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path - arises out of noticing the impermanent, unsatisfactory, and impersonal nature of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile objects. When all these phenomena are realized to be not self, the mind will turn inwards, seeking out what it might cling to as ‘me’. But if it looks with absolute clarity it will find emptiness. Behind sensations, feelings, thoughts, and consciousness, there lies clear, endless space. I sometimes call it ‘Buddha Space’.

This experience of ‘Buddha Space’ via the sense doors is not a replacement for the traditional Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism, however. Rather, it is the foundation on which the Noble Path is built. Ajahn Chah himself regularly taught about the eight aspects of the Way, emphasizing that this was a well-tested and proven method of awakening to the Dharma (the-way-things-are). We can use our senses to indulge in worldly pleasures; we can also punish ourselves through rigorous asceticism, but neither of these is the Middle Way that leads to emancipation from the yoke of suffering. It is using the Path to see life as it is that leads to such freedom, the result of understanding the three characteristics of all things and processes: They are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not self.

Sights come and go; they are impermanent. Sights do not totally satisfy us; they are unsatisfactory. Sights to not make a self; they are not self. This is so with the other physical senses…and the psychological ones, too. All phenomena can be observed to arise in this spaciousness which is without characteristics or limits. Therefore, it has been dubbed the Deathless. The true Eightfold Path, as Ajahn Chah describes it, is the opening up of the mind to the reality of created things, and the beginning of a wisdom born in emptiness. Dear reader, what are your views and experiences of the Path? And what do you make of Ajahn Chah’s view of the body as the doorway to enlightenment?


Peter Clothier said...

I love that quote--quite new to me! It has that kind of clarity that comes with the thought so often felt, but ne'er so well expressed. A resounding YES!

G said...

Yes, Peter, Ajahn Chah certainly had a way with words!


Anonymous said...

At least for me, no one gets to the heart of it like Ajahn Chah. Reminds me of the Adittapariyaya Sutta. I especially love teachings about vigilance and discernment at the six sense bases. Is there a better way to short circuit the chain of dependent origination?

One of my all time favorite Ajahn Chah quotes was how he summed up whole of the practice in just a few short words. He said something like "don't cling or hold onto anything. Harmonize with actuality, with things just as they are."

Good post Gary

G said...

Those words of Ajahn Chah's you mention ring a bell somewhere, Mike - but it's a faint bell that I can't quite place!

As to Ajahn Chah, he had (and has) his critics, but the meager points that have been leveled against him don't seem to hit the mark for me. He was a true spiritual one-off that transformed so many lives...and continues to do so to this day.

Thanks for the comment, Mike;

JD said...

Ajahn Chah as a poor man from a poor country who probably had little access to the Pali Canon and so he ended up being a practice monk and not a scholar monk. This turns off some in the West because our culture focuses almost exclusively on knowledge being the result of thinking and spending countless years getting degrees. What he's doing is pointing to the simple truth that the Dhamma is in the heart, books can point the way but they can't do more then that. If you really want to find the end of suffering you can't find it in a University, a lab manual or even within the Pali Canon, you have to find it inside. Nice post with a nice reminder from a simple but awesome monk unencumbered by the weight and the burden of Western ideas of what it means to have intelligence.

Barry said...

Where could the "path" exist, except within our body and mind? (I don't say this to diminish in any way the clarity of Ajahn Chah's teaching or the wisdom of your comment.)

Zen Master Seung Sahn called the eyes, ears, tongue, etc., "gates." And he often said that the mouth is the "number one problem gate."

Yet, we have to go through that gate, in nearly every moment of our life. How do we do that, without creating more problems?

G said...

Justin, your account of Ajahn Chah describes him wonderfully. More than that, you point to the essence of his words, that it is right here as this human being is where emancipation from delusion & suffering will occur, nowhere else.

Barry, some might think the Path exists in reading sutras or reading the stars or reading tea leaves etc. So it's important to emphasize the reading of this heart & mind , isn't it?

As to the 'number one problem gate', simply keeping one's mouth (& fingers!) still won't do, will it? Speaking without speaking, typing without typing - now there's the answer!

Be well in the Dharma,

Soh said...

Off topic -- but with regards to your comments on 'Buddha Space'... the clear endless space is not 'behind' sensations, feelings, thoughts, and consciousness. If we see it as 'behind' rather than 'as' all manifestation, we have not realised the true insight of Anatta.

See 'Thusness's Six Stages of Experience', http://awakeningtoreality.blogspot.com/2007/03/thusnesss-six-stages-of-experience.html

If we realise the following quotation by Douglas Harding from 'On Having No Head', then we realise Stage 5:

"Victim of a prolonged fit of madness, of a lifelong hallucination (and by "hallucination" I mean what my dictionary says: apparent perception of an object not actually present), I had invariably seen myself as pretty much like other people, and certainly never as a decapitated but still living biped. I had been blind to the one thing that is always present, and without which I am blind indeed -- to this marvelous substitute-for-a-head, this unbounded clarity, this luminous and absolutely pure void, which nevertheless is -- rather than contains -- all that's on offer. For, however carefully I attend, I fail to find here even so much as a blank screen on which these mountains and sun and sky are projected, or a clear mirror in which they are reflected, or a transparent lens or aperture through which they are viewed -- still less a person to whom they are presented, or a viewer (however shadowy) who is distinguishable from the view. Nothing whatever intervenes, not even that baffling and elusive obstacle called "distance": the visibly boundless blue sky, the pink-edged whiteness of the snows, the sparkling green of the grass -- how can these be remote, when there's nothing to be remote from? The headless void here refuses all definition and location: it is not round, or small, or big, or even here as distinct from there. (And even if there were a head here to measure outwards from, the measuring-rod stretching from it to that mountain peak would, when read end-on -- and there's no other way for me to read it -- reduce to a point, to nothing.) In fact, these coloured shapes present themselves in all its simplicity, without any such complications as near or far, this or that, mine or not mine, seen-by-me or merely given. All twoness -- all duality of subject and object -- has vanished: it is no longer read into a situation which has no room for it."

Anonymous said...

My own experience with meditation resonates very strongly with this post. It reminds me of these words of the Buddha, "Within this fathomlong body contains all the teachings..." The body/mind/heart is the best instrument for deeply experiencing the truth of things. In fact, it could be argued that it's all we have to investigate with! For every experience happens 'now', and is presented at one of the six sense doors. Fascinating stuff, really.

Thanks for a great post.

G said...

True enough, 'An Eternal Now' - the space and its contents are one. And yet, as Douglas himself often pointed out in his experiments & writings, it is often by realizing the spaciousness first that we come to see its union with what appears to be in it.

Of course, by using terms like 'the headless void', DEH leads his readers into a certain perception of this space. This is an ongoing experience for us all, and if a person thinks, "I'm enlightened already," he or she probably isn't. (And, as to 'headlessness,' I do have a head and can feel it to be here, as touch is just as valid a sense as sight. Douglas was a great teacher, but it's perhaps unwise to take everything he said as 'absolute truth', whatever that is.)

Your essential point is a crucial one, however, and I thank you for bringing it up.

Be well in the void/everything,

G said...

Ah, yes, Jackson, I like your reference to the six sense doors of Buddhism, rather than the five (physical) senses of the body that's often the focus of Western ideas of experience. Since it is "mind that precedes all states", it's a fundamental realization that there are six sense doors to contemplate, mind being the 'seat' of the others.

Nice comments,

Sir_Charles said...

Ajahn Chah's wisdom is much like a direct beam of light, reflecting Buddha Gautama's core teaching on the heart of the matter (i.e. the human experience). The futility of both indulging in "worldly pleasures" and taking the extremism of asceticism further reflect Buddha's "if you leave the string loose it will not play, if you pull the string too tight it will break" realization. A wonderful metaphor, indeed. Master Chah's words are concise, clarified, and consistently encouraging.

G said...

Thanks for the comments, Dorje.

Ajahn Chah does indeed 'cut to the chase' & focus his listener/reader to the central point of Dharma practice. How wonderful it is to have his teachings to reflect upon!

Be well in the Dharma,