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Eightfold Path

Transcribed from a talk by Gil Fronsdal on August 18, 2003

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Yesterday I finished teaching a ten day retreat in Boulder Creek. It was a lovely retreat, and those of you who have been there before would share in the delight to know that for the first time in the eleven or twelve years we have done it, the weather was perfect. Usually it is blazingly hot. Occasionally it has been cold when the fog comes in, but this year it was just perfect weather the whole time. You couldn’t ask for better weather. At the end of the retreat yesterday morning, the three teachers leading the retreat, John Travis, myself, and Mary Orr, gave a talk together, breaking it up, on the Eightfold Path. I am still quite inspired, having left the retreat and having given part of this talk on the Eightfold Path, that I wanted to continue on the topic today.

The Eightfold Path is the earliest formulation from the teachings of the Buddha on the path of practice, on what people do when they engage in Buddhist practice. Someone who is new to Buddhism comes to Buddhism and says, “What do Buddhists do? What can I do? What should I be concerned about?” The simplest formulation of this would be the Eightfold Path. I love this notion of a path, the idea of a path. I have the image of a path in the woods. Without a path, the woods are overgrown, and you would have a very hard time finding your way through. But a path is a clearing in the woods that makes it easy to find your way because there is an opening there, an emptiness there, a space there.

Many spiritual traditions of India share the idea that spiritual life involves being on a path, which is the word marga in Sanskrit and magga in Pali. There are a number of connotations and ideas around the idea of a path. One is that you use a path to get from point A to point B. You want to get to someplace in the woods, or to the other side of the woods, and you go follow this path through the woods, and this makes it easier to follow the way. Our concern would be how to get quickly through the woods, to get from A to B as quickly as we can, because the point is the destination. Another kind of path is a path that is more like a path that has a vista or view. So you go along and the point is not to get quickly to the other side, but rather to walk on it and enjoy the view, enjoy the view of the forest, or you might go by some wonderful cliffs, or you have a great view of the valley below. The point is to enjoy the walk and enjoy what you see as you walk along. In a sense you might say that every step along the way is the fulfillment of the path. It is not a matter of getting somewhere. In this kind of walk with a vista, if the point were to get to the end, you would go really fast and you would not see anything.

In the spiritual life, both approaches are found with different kinds of teachers. Some teachers emphasize that the Buddhist path is for getting to the end, and the faster we can do it the better. Others teachers emphasize that the path is something that we fulfill in every step, in every moment of mindfulness, every breath. Every moment that we wake up is a fulfillment of the path, and the point is not to get to some end, but rather just to be fully present as we live our life moment by moment.

There is a third idea about the path, and that is that the same path can fulfill both functions. Some paths might be about getting someplace, from A to B, but at the same time, the path is a wonderful path to walk, and each step along the way is complete in itself. The two notions do not exclude each other. They can contain each other beautifully. It is my notion that this third option is what the Buddha had to offer to the spiritual life. There is a way which is complete in each moment of practice, and, at the same time, it puts us on a path that leads us someplace through the woods.

In the teachings of the Buddha, the primary place that the Buddha was emphasizing that the path leads to is, in shorthand, a life that is free from suffering. Each step along the way can be seen as a gradual letting go of suffering, letting go of the causes and conditions of suffering, until eventually we get to the other side of the woods where there is no suffering left at all. The absence of suffering is called liberation in Buddhism. It is quite a remarkable experience to have even a small glimmer of what it might be like. First, it is a remarkable experience to see the extent to which our minds and hearts suffer. One of the aspects of Buddhist practice which is not well advertised (because then people would not be interested), is that as people engage in Buddhist spirituality, one important aspect of it is that we become increasingly sensitive to the degree to which suffering is going on in our own life and in the world around us. I heard a Christian quote that said something like this: that for a saint, the smallest transgression is like putting sand in his or her eyes. There is an increase in sensitivity that goes on in any kind of spiritual discipline about what is really going in here in the life that we live. Part of that is the discovery about the extent to which suffering is a big part of this world and our lives.

You can see this in a small degree or even to a big degree if you become very sensitive to the quality and nature of your thinking. It really requires a very steady and concentrated mindful mind to really see that much of the thinking that we do has qualities of suffering or oppression or a burdensome nature in the thinking itself. If you are just driving around on the freeway and having a good time, thinking wonderful thoughts that bring you a lot of pleasure, the suffering is camouflaged. So, for example, you might be having wonderful thoughts about winning the California lottery. It is a nice thing to win, and fantasies about what you might do if you would win it. Mostly it seems like a pleasant kind of fantasy. But the attachment that is connected to that kind of thinking, the compulsion, the drivenness, the way in which we have a Velcro attachment to these kinds of thoughts, which perhaps we cannot let go of, all those aspects of that kind of thinking has suffering as part of it. But that suffering is camouflaged by the wonderful kind of engagement we might have with what it means to win the lottery. So as practice deepens, we become much more sensitive to the fact that suffering is part of much of our thinking. It is not an inherent part of it, but it is there. And then if you extrapolate from that, in seeing it in yourself, that there are six billion people in the world, many of them whose mind functions the same way, you realize the tremendous magnitude of suffering that exists in the world. And there are many other ways of realizing the magnitude of suffering in the world. Many of you read the newspaper and get a sense of it from that.

What the Buddha had to offer was a path that freed people from suffering. Another way of saying this is to say that this path is meant to free people from the causes and conditions where we cause harm. In order to live a life which is harmless, the Buddha offered this path of practice. We no longer cause harm for ourselves, and we no longer cause or intend harm to others around us.

There is a path to accomplish this. What are the elements of that path? The Buddha said that there are eight elements, eight steps, to this path, if you can follow them. The first of these steps is called right understanding or right view. It might be easier to translate the words as right orientation, because the idea of the word “view” suggests something like an opinion or a religious tenet, the right kind of truth to understand. But rather it is the right kind of orientation to have if you want to find the path. If you are interested in the path that leads to the liberation from suffering, the path that leads to compassion and peace, then you need a certain orientation to find that path. You need a compass that directs you to the right direction, a signpost that tells you where to go. The Buddha’s teaching was that the right orientation to have is that of understanding our life in the framework of the Four Noble Truths. The word “truth” appears in the formulation, and that suggests a kind of philosophical truth as if you have to believe this if you want to be a good Buddhist. But they are more like pragmatic truths. These are truths that are useful if you have a certain purpose in mind. If the purpose you have in mind is to be free of suffering, then this is a useful way of looking at yourself and your experience. There are a lot of different questions people can have about their lives, a lot of things that people are passionately seeking in life, including the spiritual life. For example, what is the truth, what is the true self, or we can try to find some kind of communion with some kind of ultimate spiritual reality. I believe that what the Buddha was suggesting was that, if you want to find liberation from suffering, then the easiest and simplest and cleanest way to do that is to focus on the questions and orientation that help you understand your life from the point of view of the Four Noble Truths. This clears away a lot of different questions that a person might have about the spiritual life and focuses on something that is very simple.

The Four Noble Truths are very simple. The First Noble Truth is that of suffering, that there is suffering. Suffering occurs in human life. The Second Noble Truth is that there is a cause of that suffering, and that cause is found in clinging. The Third is that there is a possibility to end that suffering, and that becomes the peace, the happiness, the compassionate abode of those who are enlightened. The Fourth Noble Truth is the path leading to this liberation, with is the Eightfold Path. It is kind of circular, right? We have this Eightfold Path, and the first step is to understand that this path is useful.

Then people complain: these Buddhists are pessimistic. They are telling us to pay attention to suffering. The analogy is that of going to your doctor. You go to your doctor at Kaiser and you get ten minutes. You have something that really ails you that is really serious—you are worried about it and you don’t know what it is yet. You show up, and your doctor asks you about what your hobby is. “Oh, that’s nice. How long have you been doing this hobby? Are you interested in sports? What’s your favorite sport? Oh, cricket. Do you follow the games in England? What’s your favorite team?” And you are looking at your watch. Eight or nine minutes have passed and your doctor still has not asked you what ails you. You feel a sense of camaraderie with this doctor because you share the same interests. It’s great, right? It makes you happy and excited to meet someone who shares the same interests. And now it’s nine and a half minutes, and the doctor still has not asked you what ails you. The cleanest and most efficient way of going to the doctor and getting cured is to go to the doctor and having the doctor ask you, “What’s going on?” You don’t want to deal with hobbies and sports and all that.

The Buddha was saying the same thing: the cleanest way of becoming free from suffering is to become sensitive to it, to tune in to it when it’s there. Human beings have a tremendous capacity to ignore their suffering, to not pay any attention to it, to deny its existence, to avoid it, or to overlook it. Sometimes people do pay attention to their suffering, but they do it ways which are not so useful. For example, people get attached to their suffering.

So the first thing is to look at the suffering. The second thing is to understand that there is a cause to the suffering. This requires some activity and effort on your part. You think, “I am aware of my suffering, but what is the cause of my suffering, the causes and conditions which brings the suffering into place?” The Buddha made it a little bit easier in that he was suggesting to look in a particular direction for the cause of your own suffering. To the surprise of many people, he did not say to look at it in the conditions around you, in the world around you, or in what the world does around you. He said the cleanest, quickest, and most effective way of ending your suffering is not to assign blame outside, even if people and situations have created conditions for you to suffer. He said, “Don’t look outside and blame the world outside you, but rather turn the attention in to see that particular cause within you which causes the rise of your suffering. This is not to deny that conditions around you contribute tremendously to your suffering, but if you want to do this efficiently and cleanly, you turn the attention inwardly and look at: “Where is the attachment? What am I clinging to here? Or what am I resisting?” (which is another way of saying it). “What is the compulsion operating right now?” It is not easy to find sometimes. But it is possible with the orientation to look at it.

The third Noble Truth is the happy news. Then you will taste the experience of peace, of liberation, of happiness. Some people talk about the innate happiness of the liberated heart. The heart is innately happy, at peace, but it is covered with these attachments. If you can learn to let go of the attachments, you will naturally be happy, because that is the nature of the heart itself. But it is all too easy to say there is suffering, there is a cause of suffering, and there is an end of suffering. It is much more difficult to do the work it takes to liberate oneself from suffering. It is a big endeavor. So the Buddha said you need a path, and this is the Eightfold Path.

The first step is to understand your experience from the point of view of the Four Noble Truths. Again, people might complain that this is simplistic, that this is depressing to look at my life only through the filter of whether I am suffering or not, whether there is clinging here or not, or whether I am happy or not. The answer is that sometimes having one very simple thing, the right thing, will draw everything to it, everything that really needs to be addressed in your life. The analogy that is given is that if you go to the great plains of Africa and you want to be a nature photographer, you can run around like crazy during the day all over looking for the animals, like some rare zebra, and you might be exhausted. But if you just stayed by the watering hole and waited, sooner or later, all the animals would come to the watering hole. The suggestion here is that the Four Noble Truths are the watering hole of the spiritual life. If you just pay attention to the fact of suffering, the causes of suffering, and the ending of suffering—just those simple things– every other spiritual question that is important will come to you as you just pay attention to those. If it does not come to you, maybe it is not so important, maybe it is not needed to be addressed. The Four Noble Truths are what help you find the path, and that’s why they are true. In a sense, you create the path for yourself in your own life by using this compass of the Four Noble Truths.

I find it very inspiring that it is so simple. Maybe this is my own mind, but I love the image of a forest monastic, a man or woman who becomes a monastic. Lay people can also do this, but you go into the forest in some beautiful jungle in Thailand, very beautiful and cool and peaceful (sometimes cool), and you have a very simple little hut that is usually built on little stilts. The hut is one room about eight feet by twelve feet and it usually has a little porch in front of it. You go inside and there is usually a little wooden bed with maybe a straw mat on top and maybe a table and chair if you are lucky, but maybe not. It may have a shelf to put all your worldly belongings which are your extra clothes, a plate and cup. You live there with a great simplicity and clarity with so much renunciation, so much freedom, so much to let go of that is extraneous to our life. The monastic life in Buddhism was not meant to be an ascetic life, but it was meant to be as simple as it could be without becoming ascetic. Isn’t that great? I don’t know if I have conveyed the beauty of this simplicity, kind of like Thoreau. I think of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path as embodying, in a spiritual sense, this simplicity. I hope you can appreciate the profundity of this simplicity.

Once you have found where the path is, then the next step in the Eightfold Path is right intention. As we go through these eight steps, you will find that some of these steps have to do with acquiring skills or building some understanding, and others have to do with letting go. The first step was about acquiring a framework, an understanding, and building up the strength of understanding the Four Noble Truths. The second step, right intention, is also something we do, which is to find the intention to plunge into the path. Once you see the path, there has to be some motivation to step onto the path. Without that motivation, you won’t do it. There are a lot of people whose relationship to spirituality is through books. They are very much like people who go to a restaurant and only read the menu. They are inspired because the menu is great—your mouth gets wet and you get very excited, but you never order the food. There has to be some motivation to get you on the path, to get you engaged. It has to be a very personal motivation, I hope. It means finding the capacity you have to have motivation, to have an intention, to have an aspiration. This takes some time of reflection, perhaps by going off quietly by yourself or taking a journey, to see what the deepest intention you have is. Once you have seen the path, what intention do you want to have in relationship to that path? What motivation do you want to have? That motivation has a lot to do with how thoroughly and completely you want to step onto the path. Some people find some motivation and step on a little bit, and they find great benefits from the practice. Some people find a very powerful aspiration to engage in the path, and they get involved in a much more thorough and complete way. It’s not that one is better than the other, but the degree to which we are fulfilled by the path or the degree to which we follow through with the potential the path has to offer us, has a lot to do with the strength of the motivation that we step onto the path with. Spending some time with yourself or reflecting by yourself, or with friends, about your intention is very important.

Intention can be seen in various ways. Buddha said that there are particular intentions or motivations that are very helpful to have if you want to walk on this path. If you want to walk on a path in the forest, there are some motivations that are more useful than others. One motivation that is very helpful is to travel lightly. Have you noticed that about backpacking? When I went to Asia the second time to practice there, my girlfriend came to join me after some months in Katmandu, and she had never really traveled lightly. She showed up with all these suitcases and duffle bags. This was not going to work at all, taking buses in India and other places. So I talked to her about it and we took all the stuff to a second hand store in Katmandu and sold it all. So we just had a little back pack to carry. It also helps when you go into the forest to have certain intentions about how you orient yourself to the world you see there, the people you encounter on the path, the animals you encounter. One of the intentions that is helpful for other people and animals is to be kind and harmless. If people feel that you will be harmless, other people on the path will be much more supportive of you.

The Buddha actually gave three intentions that are helpful when you go on the path. One is to be harmless. The second is the intention to be friendly or to have loving kindness. The third is the intention to renounce—renunciation. That is not very popular. Some of us are of the mind to carry all our suitcases with us. But renunciation is a very important part of being on the path, partly because it helps us travel lightly, but also because there are many worthwhile things to do in human life. And there are many not so worthwhile things for people to do. Let’s speak in the worthwhile things to do first. Many people really want to do a number of them. But if you really want to do one really well, it’s hard to do all of them. Some degree of choosing and focusing on one thing is really helpful. I have recently heard that people who choose professional vocations either understand this, and if they do not, they suffer. You really have to focus on this one thing in order to do it really well. You have to let go of a lot of other things because you can’t do it all. Spiritual life can be that way also. It requires some letting go of even worthwhile things if we want to follow the path thoroughly or completely and engage in it fully. Depending on how strong the intention is, the more useful it is to lighten the load so we don’t do too many different things. This is not a rejection of all the things of the world, but rather a pragmatic element depending on how strong your intention is. Letting go of things is a very important part.

Once you have the orientation and the intention, then you have to start walking on the path. Having the intention is not enough. You have to actually apply the intention to the capacity and application to engage the intention in action. This next part of the path has to do with putting it into action. These next three have to do with relatively coarse levels of our behavior. They have to do with our behavior as we actually act in the world. The next three are right speech, right action, and right livelihood. Some people want to get to the meditation quickly. They want to focus on the inner life and have great inner experiences. In a sense, the Buddha said, “Wait! Do these things first.”

Once you find the path and you have the intention to be on it, one of the first steps you take is to look at your speech and try to cultivate wise speech. You try to cultivate speech that does not harm, that is truthful, kind, and avoid speech that is not. Why? There are a number of reasons why. One is to avoid harm. Many people have found that it might take many years to develop a friendship, and it can take one sentence to end it. If we are not mindful of our speech and careful with it, a lot can get destroyed. Right speech, even though it’s difficult to bring mindfulness to it, is a grosser human activity than having a thought or having a feeling. So it is actually easier to monitor our speech than it is to monitor our thoughts or feelings.

The next step is right action, which is to live an ethical life. Don’t kill or steal or lie or harm through your sexuality, or harm yourself through intoxicants. Live a life of integrity. But those kinds of activities are relatively gross activities. In order to kill, you have to do something with your hands, and to lie or steal you have to do something with your body. The idea here is that it is easier to monitor your bodily activities.

The next one is right livelihood, to have a livelihood that seems in harmony with the intentions of the spiritual path. The intention of being harmless is the primary one. Is the job that you have that gives you livelihood, is it one that does not cause harm or only causes a minimum amount of harm? For someone on the path, it is not appropriate for one to be involved in the manufacture or sale of weapons. It is not appropriate to be involved in the purchasing and selling of human beings. It is not appropriate to be involved in the purchasing and selling of poison. It is also not appropriate to be involved in professions that are involved in killing animals, like being a butcher. It is a little bit unfortunate that in Buddhist countries people often eat meat, but it is not the Buddhists who kill the animals—they get the other religions to do it.

My suggestion here is that if you are going to take this seriously, it is easier to monitor yourself at this level. As you do that, you are developing mindfulness for yourself, which is one of the key aspects of Buddhism, and you are also creating a life which is more in harmony with being on the path, that supports you on the path. Once you have done that, it is a lot easier to engage in the last of the three steps of the eightfold path, all of which now focus the attention inward. They no longer focus externally on your relationship to the world outside, but now you are focusing on your relationship with yourself, the inner life.

The last three are right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Right effort is that effort to monitor your inner life, your intentions, and to begin adjusting them, choosing those aspects of the inner life that are helpful to following the spiritual life, and choosing not to engage in those aspects of our life which go against the grain of the spiritual life. So you find yourself driving down along the freeway, and you find yourself thinking about winning the California lottery. You really start thinking about what a wonderful idea that would be, and you start scheming about how you can do that, like by buying one ticket from every store on the Peninsula. Your motivation is one of greed. After awhile, you notice you are thinking this way and you realize that this is not a useful way of thinking, so you let go of it. Or you notice that you have a lot of anger towards someone. This is not a very useful thing to do. Can I choose not to engage in this anger? Can I choose not to indulge in it? Or you notice that you feel some happiness when someone else has some happiness in their life. Can you choose to allow that happiness to linger for awhile, to share the happiness with someone else? Right effort in the Buddha’s teaching involves monitoring yourself, to the degree that is easy or possible, in regards to the inner ecology or landscape that is useful or helpful. Start making choices about your inner life, not just letting it be as it is. In some aspects it is quite easy to do this, and in other aspects you cannot do it; it is not possible. You cannot pick and choose. Things arise and are there, and you cannot choose one or the other.

The next step is right mindfulness. It is also an inner capacity. We use mindfulness in all directions to be present, but in particular it is useful to become mindful of the inner life. Mindfulness has a lot of wonderful qualities. One of them that can feel quite liberating is the ability to meet our experience without reaction, without judging, without being for or against it. It is to become more sensitive to our life, to develop greater and greater sensitivity to what is going on in the depths of our lives. We do it in a way that is not for or against, that does not judge. It is so refreshing to have that kind of experience. Part of the value of deepening mindfulness is that, as mindfulness goes deeper and deeper, we see more and more subtlety in what makes us work. Subtlety does not mean that what we see is of a more trivial nature, but rather that the subtleties are often at the root of much of our behavior. As we become more and more subtle, we see more and more subtle or crucial or deeper places where we have a choice to let go or to participate in what is going on. That aspect of choosing to let go of that which is not useful, or choosing to let it be, which is what some people emphasize—letting it be as opposed to picking it up—or picking up what is useful, is part of the function of mindfulness. When mindfulness gets quite strong, then it is really important that mindfulness no longer picks up anything at all, even that which is helpful. At some point in practice, even the helpful things are not helpful any more.

The last of the Eightfold Path, the eight steps, is right concentration. Concentration involves yoking or joining together the mindfulness with a mind that is stable. The mind is able to be focused. The mind does not waver, does not move, when it sees something. It is a very still mind. The cultivation of concentration has many ways of doing it, and it is a very important aspect of Buddhism because reaching the deepest depths of our psyche, which we have to address to really uproot clinging, requires strong concentration. How do you develop concentration? I will give you one little analogy that I like. In order to be able to concentrate on your breath, you have to be able to hold your attention on the breath just right to sustain that attention over time. The analogy is like flying a kite. In flying a kite, you cannot let the string be too loose. If the string is loose, the kite will fall. But you cannot have the string be too tight either because if you pull too hard, the string will break or it will not give enough movement for the kite to glide with the wind. You have to keep the string taut, but not tight and not loose. If a really strong wind comes up, you have to let go a little bit to let the kite go further out. If the wind suddenly dies, you have to pull in to keep the tautness in order to keep it going just right. (I am not an expert kite flyer so don’t push the analogy too far.) It is the same thing that we do with the breath. We want to connect the breath with the attention, so the attention is touching the breath, and then you keep just the right pressure between the attention and the breath so that it does not become slack or become too tight. But the contact is kept continuously. As you do that, the mind, with time, will become more concentrated and still, and more relaxed. Relaxed and concentration in Buddhist terminology are synonymous. A relaxed, soft mind remains very mindful and alert to what is going on in the present moment. This mind will be able to cut through the deepest levels of attachment, leading to fulfillment of the path. You get through the woods to the other side.

I like to think that each step along the way is also a kind of completion of the path. The Buddha said that the Dharma is good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end. I hope that each of you, to the degree to which you engage in the path, will find fulfillment and happiness and joy with every breath you take. That’s the Eightfold Path. Thank you.