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Eightfold Path

Transcribed from a talk given by Gil Fronsdal on September 3, 2006

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I would like to take today to talk about the Eightfold Path as both an introduction to the series and also because it is a nice topic to talk about.  The Eightfold Path is the most common way in which the Buddha talked about the spiritual life, the practice life of liberation he taught.  In a sense, it is a metaphor to talk about that life as a path.  The Buddha used a variety of metaphors for the practice life, and also for the path itself.  Sometimes he called the life of practice a path, sometimes a stream; sometimes he likened it to a wheel, and sometimes the path is you, not something out there, but something here in you.  In fact, that is the idea—the path is something you discover in yourself.  Initially, when you read about it, it seems like it is out there in the books or someplace else, but if you are actually looking for it, you may say, “Where is that path?  There is a little bit of a path in the bushes back there.  But where is that path?”  No matter where you go in the world, you won’t find the path outside of yourself.  You are the path.  You make the path. You create the path as you go.

Again, one of the common metaphors for the spiritual life in Buddhism is the path, in particular, the Eightfold Path.  It might be interesting to reflect a little that, given people’s life, given life’s circumstances, human beings often create different understandings of the religious life.  People who live oppressed lives with great poverty and oppression, and who see no way out of that in this lifetime, and who seem stuck in this situation, commonly create religions that are about the afterlife.  That’s where the hope is; there is no hope here so there has to be hope in the afterlife.  People who live in relatively comfortable circumstances don’t have to look for hope outside of their present life.  Sometimes they create religious world views about how wonderful life it.  The say that life is beautiful and they stress the innate goodness of our hearts and the innate benign quality of life itself.  In between those two extremes and based upon people’s circumstances, people create different understandings of what the religious life is or what religion is.  Recently I read that people in rural America have a different sense of what it means to be part of a church as compared with people in an urban or suburban area.  They have a different sense of what church life is like in terms of Christianity.

The Buddha also had a particular world view or life that he came out of, which influenced a little his sense of what religious life was like.  Depending on what you do in life, the activity you are involved in, what it calls for from you, what it requires from you, your life varies.  So, in some situations, what is called for is a lot of intentionality, a lot of engagement, a lot of taking responsibility, a lot of engaging.  A different situation is where you sit back in the passenger seat of the car and you are just being carried along.  Some religious world views are that you are the one in the drivers seat and you have to take charge, and other religious world views are that you are in the passenger seat and someone else is in the drivers seat and you will just be carried along.

In this metaphor of a path, it points to a certain kind of understanding of what it requires from us and what it means to be engaged in a religious life.  One of the stories or myths the Buddha told to explain the idea of the path is the fable of a woods person or jungle person, someone who explores the woods or jungle or forest, and that person goes out into the forest to explore, and they find little hints or traces of an ancient path, an ancient road, that is long since overgrown by the jungle.  If you have ever been to a jungle you have seen how quickly it overgrows everything.  That person, being a good tracker, is able to find the track and find the traces of that ancient path and follow it to its end deep in the jungle.  Deep in the jungle there is an ancient capital, an ancient palace, that is also long forgotten and long overgrown, kind of like the Aztec pyramids that have been overgrown and which the explorers have found.  This person then goes back to civilized society, to where the king and the queen of the realm are, and says to them, “I found this ancient path, this ancient road, which we have all forgotten about, but it is actually there.  It leads to a wonderful capital, a wonderful palace.”  The king and queen then go and see for themselves, and, with a lot of work, they are able to clear that ancient road, clear the brick path (the yellow brick road), and they are able to find the palace, and then they are able to repopulate it.  The Buddha said that he did not invent the Buddhist path, but rather he rediscovered an ancient path that had been forgotten and overgrown.  So there is some understanding, in the Buddha’s mind at least, that somehow inherent in human life is a path to walk, and that path has always been there, but it has been forgotten or overgrown.  The Buddha just discovers it—he does not invent it.

What does it mean to walk in a path in the woods or the forest?  What is required of us?  What comes to mind to me is backpacking.  Sometimes you may go on a beautiful long hike or even a day hike.  I did a long hike five years ago up in the Sierras, and one of the things that struck me was how parts of the path were so pastorally beautiful, romantically beautiful, like taking a stroll in a park.  But this was deceptive because I was out alone. I was several days away from anybody else, and I was one of the first people of the season backpacking in the back country, where there was still snow on the trails.  I might have a slip and fall, or there might be bears. There could be some great challenges out there that are hidden away.  I could get mesmerized by how beautiful it all is– the pastoral Alpine meadows where I was walking.  In fact, in today’s paper I read that they discovered the body of a man who was backpacking by himself in the King’s Canyon area. If you go backpacking or hiking, you are supposed to go with some caution.  It requires something of you, and you want to do it carefully.  You should tell a friend so they know to look for you.  You must be prepared with different kinds of clothes because in the high Sierras there are different kinds of circumstances, such as thunderstorms that quickly come along.  You might also get very cold and get hypothermia.

When you walk in those mountains, the walking is something you do—you are not in the passenger’s seat.  In doing the walking, you are actually required to pay attention in a certain way.  You need a certain attitude of mind or approach when you are there.  You have to be attentive and pay attention to the trail.  When I went there two years ago, the trail was covered with snow, and it was hard to tell the difference between where the trail was in some places and where the gullies were, the places where there was erosion and where the water was flowing.  You have to be very attentive, very present, and very mindful of the track or trail so you won’t get lost.  I actually lost the trail a few times because it looked like a trail to me, but actually it had ended and I realized, “No, this is not the trail.”  So you have to have a certain amount of mindfulness and focus and attention.

Ideally, when you go backpacking, you are supposed to travel light, because if you travel with both suitcases and you are in the high Sierras, you will not get very far.  I went backpacking a few weeks ago with my eight-year-old son, and it was not as flat as I had remembered previously, and there were several times going uphill where I had to carry his backpack too.  I thought we were not going to make it.  You want to travel light if you can.  There are people who are experts at getting the most lightweight material possible.  And you don’t want to bring anything extra.  Some backpackers will carefully go through all their stuff and cut off the labels that give washing instructions, or eliminate anything else that gives extra weight so that they have the absolute minimum of extra weight possible.  You also want to travel in a way that hopefully does not cause damage.  Some people say that when you go backpacking, you should travel with respect and kindness in your heart so that nature, the environment, and the animals that you encounter will treat you appropriately.  So there are certain attitudes and approaches that you need to develop or arouse in order to go backpacking in a way that is safe, respectful, and appropriate.  It requires something of you.

If you liken the spiritual life to a path that is going through the jungle or the woods, you realize that this metaphor is calling for something from us.  If you used a different metaphor, such as likening the spiritual life to watching television, then not much would be required from you, except perhaps to have good finger control.

If you extend the Buddha’s metaphor of finding the trail and going back to the palace and the king and queen, then you see that the king and queen is you, they are us.  Buddha discovered the path and came back to tell us about it.  I love the idea that, in the metaphor, the king and the queen are us—we are being told about the path.  It represents to me a very high degree of respect and dignity what each person is offered or seen as having.  As a king or queen, we are actually going to walk this path, not as a scared little kid or someone unworthy or incapable of it, but as a person with a certain degree of dignity and ability and royalty.  You are really special, you are someone.  The idea of self-effacement, the idea that you don’t count or you are not supposed to stand out, is often associated with Buddhism.  There is a certain letting go of egotism, and this is a very important part of the path.  But the idea of self-effacement, that you don’t count and aren’t allowed to have dignity, is not part of the Buddhist path at all.

The image of a king and queen—I don’t know what image you have of that, but I have the image of someone who stays somewhat balanced no matter what is going on.  They don’t get ruffled by things.  They stay balanced, they keep their heads up, they stay upright, and no matter how difficult or wonderful circumstances get, they stay balanced and poised.  I read last night about people who maintained a certain degree of balance, poise, and centeredness in the face of life in the concentration camps in Nazi Germany, or in the Chinese camps that the Tibetans are in.  They refused to give up their generosity, their spirit, their integrity, even in the face of tremendous hardship, when it would have been easy to give it all up.  The idea of a king and queen is calling forth from us our best qualities of self-possession and self-mastery, the sense that, “Here I am.  I am going to walk this path with balance and see what is going on here.” I like that image of the path.

When you walk a path in the woods, the first thing you need to do is to know how to find it, and so you have to have some process to find it.  Maybe you have someone who points it out to you, “Here it is;” or maybe you have a map, or some other way to help you find it.  When the Buddha taught the Eightfold Path, the first step was getting that correct orientation, finding it, and he called that “right view.”  Right view is different than right opinion.  Right view is more like right orientation.  How do you find the path you are going to walk?  Right view is the beginning.  Right view is inseparable from what the goal is in the Buddhist spiritual life.  The goal, if we use the metaphor of the palace, is the palace in ourselves.  It is the palace that is in ourselves, the palace of what we can become, and that is the palace of happiness, peace, well-being, and freedom from suffering.  It is often said that one of the most common and universal drives in human beings is the drive to be happy, and although it takes many different forms, the idea of happiness underlies much of it.  Sometimes it is maladaptive, when we are looking for happiness in the wrong ways.  The goal in Buddhism is that of being free from suffering, free from distress, worry, anxiety, free from all things that cloud the goodness, clarity, peacefulness, and happiness of the heart.  That’s the goal.  If that is the goal, if that is the palace we have to walk to, then we know what trail we have to walk.  If you want to find the lake in the jungle, and not the palace, then you have to follow a different trail.  You need to know where you are going in order to find the right path.  To be free of suffering is the shortest way of talking about the goal of Buddhist life.  Finding the right view is closely tied to the idea of being free of suffering.  The Buddha’s suggestion is that to do that in the simplest way possible, you need to understand your suffering.  He said that the Eightfold Path is the way by which you can understand your suffering really well.  Some people are going to hear this and say, “These Buddhists.  They are always kind of down, party poopers; they have this thing about suffering.  I even heard a rumor that they say life is suffering.  It is such a depressing religion.”  But that is not the point.  The point actually is not to be depressed but to find the conditions that help us to become happy.  In order to become happy and to be relieved of the illness of suffering, we have to understand it.  If you go to a doctor and you ask her about this health issue that really worries you a lot, and in your fifteen minutes at Kaiser, the first thing the doctor says is, “Did you see how the Giants did yesterday?  Do you think they will make it this season?  What sports are you interested in?  Do you have any hobbies?  How are your kids?”  And as you look at your watch and time goes ticking by, you don’t want them to ask you about those things.  You want them to ask you about what ails you, what is the problem?  That is what gets to the heart of the matter.

A very central part of finding the path is finding your suffering.  Some of you don’t have any trouble finding it, and some of us have to scratch the surface a little bit and look.  What is your suffering–what is it to really understand it, to admit it, to see it?  This is a huge undertaking for some people because some people are experts at avoiding it, denying it, pretending it is not there, covering it over with all kinds of affirmations and distractions.  Some religious world views sometimes function in a way of covering over our suffering.  I have actually heard some religious teachers say, “You have some suffering, but let’s just kind of put it aside, and let’s focus on this other thing, the good message that I have.”  Buddhism says, “Look at the suffering.  You need to understand it.”  If you see yourself as a king or queen, I see this as a very dignified thing to do, an appropriate thing to do.  You engage yourself in your life as it is and see where the suffering is that you are going to work with and work through so that you can get to the other side of it to become free of suffering and find happiness.  There is no freedom from suffering without first understanding it.  So the right view begins with understanding your suffering and being willing to look at it.

Part of looking at is it is looking at what the causes of that suffering are.  What generates it?  “My parents!  Those parents of mind just did me in.  They did it.  Or my government, or my neighbors, or my spouse.”  There was a study done of prisoners in California, and they asked many of them who was responsible for them being in jail.  The vast majority of them, about eighty percent of them, blamed someone else—my lawyer, the judge, the police.  Maybe some of them were framed, but there is a strong tendency to look elsewhere for the blame.  “It was those people—they did it.”  That is not to deny that the conditions of the world contribute to our suffering, but the dignified thing to do in following the path, in making ourselves the path, is to discover what it is that we contribute to this suffering.  One of the unfortunately fortunate things that can happen to you is to have some suffering, some terrible thing happen in your life, where it is really clear that you cannot do anything about the external world to make it better.  One of the reasons that that can be such a fortunate thing is that you realize that if there is going to be a difference, if you are going to cope with your suffering and find happiness and well being, you have to rely on yourself, change yourself, because you can’t change the circumstances around you.  As long as you think you can change the circumstances, you have a way out.  I’m not saying that you don’t try to change the world, but if you want to find the path that the Buddha pointed to, then the task at hand is to find out what it is that you are contributing to this suffering. Yu ask, “What is my role in this suffering?”

An example of this is something is that happened yesterday.  I was driving and I was very hot.  My car had been in the sun for awhile and it was really hot.  My first thought was, sitting in the heat, that this was a drag.  Then I thought that I had had this kind of heat before.  I remembered being in a dry sauna, and it was the same feeling.  The dry sauna was great.  Is it terrible or is it great?  How much am I contributing to the suffering of the drag of the heat?  How much is my contribution, my creation, the story that I am living in?  To find the path, you have to understand your suffering, stop for it (the Buddha’s bumper sticker is, “I stop for suffering”), and then you can look at what your contribution to this is  Then, hopefully, you get some sense of the possibility of freedom from that suffering.

There are two essential ingredients in Buddhist spiritual life.  One is to learn to be present in the present moment, to learn how to be here for this moment, to appreciate the value of being here.  Simultaneously, you have a vision of the possibility of what can be different from what is here if you are suffering, the possibility that you can be free of suffering, that you can be at peace, happy.  Right view has to do with having a vision, of being a visionary, of what is possible in your life in terms of some degree of freedom, of peace, of expression of compassion, some degree of being transformed and changed so the best of you can come out.  To have of vision is part of the path, and this is understood to be the cessation of suffering.  The first step to find the path, called right view, has, as an essential first element, the stopping for suffering. The second step is looking at our own contribution to that suffering, and the third step is having a vision of what is possible in terms of becoming free of that suffering.

There is one more element to the first step, this vision of finding the path.  That is, once you have a vision, you realize that it is not always going to be easy to fulfill that vision.  There are times when it will be easy, like driving yesterday in my car when it was so hot.  It only took me a few seconds to realize how much I was contributing to the story there.  I just let go of it and I was just driving and it was hot, but I was not adding to the suffering of it.  But there are times when it is not so easy.  Sometimes you have to realize how seriously difficult it is to overcome the complex of things that goes on inside of us that keeps us suffering  Because it is so complex and difficult, we need to have a very considered, mature way of looking at it all.  What the Buddha suggested was that, if you really want to get down to the heart and root of your suffering, you need to have an integrated approach where all of who you are is integrated on that path.  You bring all of yourself along, all of your resources, all of who you are.  You bring your sense of vision, your attitudes, your dispositions, your intentions, your speech, your actions, your livelihood, the strivings and efforts you make, the mindfulness you cultivate, and the concentration you develop.  All of these things broadly include much of our life.  Speech, action, intentionality, our minds, cultivating our hearts, is all part of the path.

It turns out that the right view is understanding the Four Noble Truths.  Understanding the Four Noble Truths ends with understanding the Eightfold Path.  So it is circular here.  The circular thing is that there are the Four Noble Truths, and the first step in the Eightfold Path is the Four Noble Truths.  And the last of the Four Noble Truths is the Eightfold Path.  The Four Noble Truths is the primary definition of right view.   If you have other things to do in our life besides becoming free from suffering, then don’t bother with the Four Noble Truths.  But if the palace you want to find is freedom from suffering, then the clearest and most direct way is the Four Noble Truths.  Once you have the view, once you have the map and orientation that that is where the path is, as you get ready to step on the path, just as you would if you were going backpacking in the woods, you need to reorient yourself and your attitude and your disposition.  The way you are disposed to go around in your own living room with your television on is very different from how you must be disposed if you walk in the woods.  You have to have a certain kind of care and attention to what you are doing, a certain presence of mind.

The second step of the Eightfold Path is having a certain disposition, a certain intention, a certain approach, and a certain way of thinking.  There are two primary aspects of this.  One is to be disposed to not being caught in your desires, and the other is to be disposed to not being caught in your ill will.  The human mind is often caught up in greed and hate, in wanting things and in pushing things away.  If you want to orient yourself on the path, you need to begin the work of changing your disposition, changing your orientation, changing your intention, so that you are not primarily motivated by wanting, and not primarily motivated by ill will, aversion.  It is very easy to have those things as the primary things that drive us.  Instead of those things, can we orient ourselves in practicing the simplicity of not clinging, of not wanting so much, of letting go of wanting?  The word “wanting” here that the Buddha used is “lust.”  So it means letting go of lust, the lust for power, for sex, for food, for alcohol.  It is a very powerful thing.  So the reorientation is simplification, simplifying ourselves away from wanting, wanting, wanting.  We also have to drop ill will, which is to orient ourselves to being kind, being friendly, being compassionate.  Try that. You cannot do that automatically. It is not so easy.  But you know that you are trying to make a shift.  The path involves the degree to which you are consciously trying to make a shift, to take responsibility for your disposition.  Even if it is just a tiny bit.  Can you be just a little inclined towards not being driven by desire or driven by hate and ill will?

Right view is finding the path and getting the right disposition for walking the path, and then you start walking the path.  The first three steps of the path have to do with what can be called in English, “ethics.”  It has to do with our relationship to other people.  It has to do with right speech, right action, and right livelihood.  I love the fact that the first steps of the path have to do with our relationship with others, because, in meditative circles, people often think that they just have to close their eyes and deal with themselves as a kind of solitary, inward thing.  But the suggestion is that when you first begin to approach the path, you begin by setting your relationship with others in order.  It is gift to yourself and a gift to others.  You benefit yourself and you benefit others.  When you practice right speech, you benefit others.  Your speech is kind and helpful.  When you do speech which is slanderous and spiteful, you are harming others.  When you do kind speech, you help yourself and when you do angry speech you harm yourself.  There is mutuality between self-benefit and other-benefit.  They are both actually the same thing, like two hands that wash each other.  We need both hands.  We start by beginning to practice our ethics, by practicing an ethical life, a life of integrity, by looking at our speech, looking at our actions, looking at our livelihood, so that it benefits everyone concerned.  That is laying the foundation.  This requires a high degree of mindfulness.  We cultivate mindfulness just by paying attention to how we speak and then by trying to speak in a way that is kind.

After those three steps of the path come the last three.  They have to do with taking responsibility for our hearts, for our minds, for our inner life.  Speech, action, and livelihood have to do with our action in the world, with what we do.  The last three steps have to do with ourselves, our inner life.  These steps are to pay attention to the quality of our minds, the state of our minds.  Is the quality of our mind one that is wholesome, healthy, or is it not?  Then I begin looking.  If what I am doing now with my mind is not healthy, can I let go of it?  If it is healthy, can I develop it, reinforce it?  I begin looking at what is going on in my mind, in my heart.  You can begin by finding out how angry you are with someone, and you might feel very justified in thinking about that, but if you analyze yourself from the point of view of whether or not it is healthy or unhealthy for you to have this kind of anger, chances are that you will find that this is unhealthy for yourself.  You are churning and churning away with this anger—it’s exhausting.  So it is possible to begin changing the state of your mind, the health of your mind and heart.  This is called right effort in Buddhism, and it is to make the effort and take responsibility for the quality of your heart and mind.

Part of the effort to take responsibility for the quality of our mind involves cultivating two particular qualities of mind, which are said to be centrally important for the task of becoming free from suffering.  These two qualities are the qualities of mindfulness and concentration.  To cultivate the ability to see more clearly, and to see with a mind that is stable and still, allows us to begin seeing into the depths of places where we have only seen shadows in the crevices, in the deep cellar of the mind.  This allows us to understand things that we normally can’t understand at all about ourselves.  Why do we suffer in certain ways?  It can be a mystery—why do I suffer so much, why is it so hard for me, why am I doing this?  You need to have a very mindful, alert mind to have the ability to be still and get down into the cellar of the mind.  The more you develop mindfulness and concentration, the more ability you have not to be caught by what is happening.  You have more ability to stay dignified and balanced in the conditions of the world.

So this is the integrated approach of the Buddha.  He called it a path, and he said there were eight elements of the path.  They can be seen as sequential, in that you build one on the other, or they can be seen as intertwining, as cords of a rope or cable in that they all go together and support each other.  In the end, when there is a distinction being made between the Eightfold Path and the Noble Eightfold Path, we can say that the Noble Eightfold Path is when you have become the path.  The path is not something you find and develop and cultivate, but the path is who you are.  You are the expression of right speech.  It is not that you practice right speech; it is rather what comes from you.  You are right action or mindfulness.  You are transformed, so you become it, rather than something you are cultivating and developing.

The last thing I’ll say is that part of the beauty of this approach to the spiritual life is that the goal and the means are basically the same.  The means of the Eightfold Path and the fulfillment of the Eightfold Path are to become the Eightfold Path.  So you are practicing the goal in the means.  The means is reflected in the goal and the goal is reflected in the means.  The path requires something of us.  We have to walk it.  No one can walk it for you.  It requires a dignified approach of being self-possessed, of being present, of being here, and engaging yourself in these different steps.  Thinking about: how can I speak more appropriately, how can I act rightly, how can I be more mindful?  My hope for each of you is that, if you want to walk this path,  you will find it ennobling, invigorating, strengthening, and that you will find that your inner core has a sense of being present and alive so that you can feel and say, “Oh, yes.  I can take responsibility for this life I am living in.  I don’t have to be a victim to the winds of circumstances.  Here I am:  present, alert, and responsible.”

The Eightfold Path is the central way the Buddha talked about the spiritual life. Over the next year, we will explore the path on these dharma practice days, and in the course of the year, I will be giving talks on each of these eightfold steps.  Thank you very much.