by Gil Fronsdal
The primary purpose of the Eightfold Path is to bring an end to clinging and the suffering caused by clinging. In describing the fulfillment of this purpose the Buddha occasionally mentioned a Tenfold Path. In this expanded list, Right Knowledge and Right Release are added after the more familiar list of eight factors. When the Eightfold Path leads to the ending of clinging and suffering, Right Knowledge is the insight that brings about Right Release.
Right Knowledge is neither an abstract truth nor something we learn from a teaching; nor is it mysterious or supernatural. As a continuation of the Eightfold Path, Right Knowledge is knowing firsthand the benefits experienced through living the path and the suffering experienced when we don’t live the path. The benefits include greater peace, compassion, well-being, integrity, and spiritual freedom. The suffering includes agitation, fear, conceit, greed, and hostility. The more strongly we experience the benefits, the more clearly we see the differences between being attached and being free, having ill will and having goodwill, having ethical integrity and not having integrity. As we begin to make different choices, the contracted and agitated states of clinging begin to lose their appeal and power over us and we learn that they are neither hardwired nor necessary. As we see and experience healthy alternatives, these painful states begin to diminish in strength and frequency.
Right Knowledge is the understanding we gain from directly experiencing the absence of suffering. The more the Eightfold Path alleviates suffering, the better we understand that clinging causes suffering. And experiencing the expansive, peaceful, and happy states that come with the absence of clinging makes us increasingly sensitive to the reappearance of clinging, even in its most subtle forms. It becomes more and more clear that contracting, attacking, resisting, and other expressions of clinging are painful and cause harm.
Right Knowledge also includes recognizing that letting go of clinging is reliable and trustworthy. It is not something we need to fear, even if what we are releasing is our most precious and tenacious attachments to self. Freedom from clinging doesn’t diminish us. Rather, it leads to some of the healthiest and most beneficial states of mind humans can experience.
Through the mindfulness and concentration factors of the Eightfold Path, Right Knowledge shows us how all our perceptions and conceptions are constantly in flux. With their fleeting appearance and disappearance, they are not stable and thus cannot provide the fullest experience of peace. They cannot be the basis for a liberated mind. Instead, the basis for liberation is release.
Right Knowledge sets the stage for Right Release by helping the mind relax and appreciate the process of letting go. Knowing the tangible suffering of clinging brings a disinclination to cling. Knowing the peace and well-being of non-clinging teaches that letting go of clinging is letting go into peace.
Right Release differs from ordinary letting go by being more impactful and lasting. It is a ceasing of clinging so clear that Right Knowledge then becomes a knowing that is always available to us. Just as one is no longer fooled by a magic trick after being shown how it is performed, so we begin to see through the tricks of the mind as we release ourselves from clinging.
For most people Right Release includes a gradual process of becoming free in more and more areas of their life. The Buddha described these areas in terms of beliefs, biological drives, and subtle mental tendencies.
Because freedom does not come from beliefs, Buddhism is particularly sensitive to the problems of holding on to beliefs, interpretations, and stories. An important part of living the Eightfold Path is loosening the grip on our views, including views about ourselves. A significant experience of release shows us that we don’t need to be defined by any self-concept or identity.
More tenacious than clinging to beliefs is the clinging that stems from the biological drives of sensual desire and hostility. Even when we know that such clinging causes suffering, it can be difficult to let go. Even the wisest people can easily succumb to it. This is where practicing the Eightfold Path is especially important. It provides a satisfying sense of well-being that is an effective alternative to desire or anger. Our strong biological drives can relax and fade away when we are experiencing something better. Often, it is not enough to be instructed to let go of desire and aversions. More useful is relaxing deeply, settling into a unified sense of being, and enjoying the pleasant feelings that can come with non-clinging. Sensual desire and hostility can then simply fade away.
The most difficult areas of clinging to overcome are subtle forms of conceit, agitation, and ignorance. In thinking of oneself as someone who is trying to let go of these, a person may be reinforcing the idea of being a “doer”; the effort to let go promotes agitation; and believing there is something to release supports ignorance. The way to final release is to settle deeply into a relaxed, alert state where one doesn’t try to do anything. Some people refer to this as a state of equanimity. Others refer to it as resting in being. It is with this kind of ease that the mind can let go of itself.
The Eightfold Path is called a Noble Path because of the integrity and dignity it bestows. As it is not based on beliefs, those who walk this path do not champion Buddhism in opposition to the beliefs of others. In overcoming clinging, people on the path do not create conflict. Instead, practicing the Eightfold Path develops an open mind, an open heart, and an open hand. May this openness benefit the whole world.