Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Buddha's Noble Eightold Path (explained)

Chapter I: The Way to the End of Suffering
Noble Eightfold Path
The search for a spiritual path is born out of suffering [dukkha, disappointment, unsatisfactoriness, lack of fulfillment].

It does not start with lights and ecstasy but with the hard knocks of pain, disappointment, and confusion.

However, for suffering to give birth to a genuine spiritual search, it must amount to more than something passively received from outside ourselves. It has to trigger an inner realization, a perception that pierces through the complacency of our usual encounter with the world.

It has to do something so that we glimpse the insecurity perpetually underfoot. We are never on sure footing -- even by rebirth in the heavens. When this insight dawns, even if only momentarily, it can lead to a profound personal crisis.

The Path of Freedom
The realization overturns accustomed goals and values, mocks our routine preoccupations, leaves old enjoyments suddenly unsatisfying.
At first such changes are generally unwelcome. We try to deny this vision, smother our doubts; we struggle to drive away our discontent with new and more exciting pursuits.

But the flame of inquiry, once lit, continues to shine. If we keep from being swept away by superficialities, eventually the original glimmering of insight will again flare up.

Even if we slouch back into some patched up version of our desperate optimism, we will again confront our essential plight. It is precisely at that point, with all escape routes blocked, that we are ready to seek a way to bring our suffering to an end.
No longer can we continue to drift complacently through life, driven blindly by our thirst for sense pleasures oppressed by the pressure of prevailing (and changing) social norms. A deeper reality beckons us; we have heard the call of a more stable, more authentic happiness, and until we arrive at our goal we cannot rest contented.
But it is just then that we find ourselves facing a new difficulty. Once we come to recognize the need for a spiritual path we discover that spiritual teachings are by no means the same or even mutually compatible.

When we browse the shelves of humanity's spiritual heritage, ancient and contemporary, we find not a single tidy volume but a bazaar of spiritual systems and disciplines each offering themselves as the highest, fastest, most powerful, most profound "solution" to our quest for The Ultimate

Confronted with this variety, we fall into confusion trying to size them up -- to decide which truly leads to liberation, a real final solution to our need for freedom from suffering.
One approach to resolving this problem popular today is the eclectic solution: to pick and choose from the various traditions whatever seems cool or useful or easy or fast.

We weld together different practices and techniques into a synthetic whole that is personally satisfying. We might combine Buddhist "mindfulness meditation" (or MBSR, "mindfulness-based stress reduction" like at UCLA's MARC) with sessions of Hindu mantra recitation, Christian prayer with Sufi dancing, Jewish Kabbala with Tibetan Buddhist visualization exercises.

Eclecticism, however, while it may sometimes be helpful as we make a transition from a predominantly worldly and materialistic way of life to one that is spiritual and otherworldly, eventually wears thin.

While it may serve as a comfortable "halfway house," it is uncomfortable as a final vehicle.
There are two interrelated flaws in eclecticism that account for its ultimate inadequacy. One is that it compromises the very traditions it draws upon. The great spiritual traditions themselves do not propose their disciplines as independent techniques that can be excised from their setting and freely recombined to enhance the felt quality of our lives. (This is particularly true about the Buddha's teaching of mindfulness, satipatthana).

They present them, rather, as parts of an integral whole, a coherent vision regarding the fundamental nature of reality and the final goal of a spiritual quest.

A spiritual tradition is not some shallow stream one can wet one's feet in then beat a quick retreat to the shore. It is a mighty, tumultuous river that rushes through the entire landscape of one's life. If one truly wishes to travel it, one must be courageous enough to launch one's boat and head out according to all of the instructions for success.
  • The Buddha's path to enlightenment has as many as 37 factors or requisites, the bodhipakkhiya-dharma implicit in the Noble Eightfold Path, with virtue (sila) and mindfulness (sati) being the most fundamental.
The second defect in eclecticism follows from the first. As spiritual practices are built on visions regarding the nature of reality and the final good, such visions are not mutually compatible.

When we honestly examine the teachings of various traditions, we find that major differences in perspective reveal themselves, differences that cannot be easily dismissed as alternative ways of saying the same thing.

Rather, they point to very different experiences constituting the supreme goal and the path that must be trodden to reach that goal.
Hence, because of the differences in perspectives and practices that the different spiritual traditions propose, once we decide that we have outgrown eclecticism and feel that we are ready to make a serious commitment to one particular path, we find ourselves confronted with the challenge of choosing a path that will lead us to true enlightenment and liberation.

One cue to resolving this dilemma is to clarify to ourselves our fundamental aim, to determine what we seek in a genuine path to liberation. If we reflect carefully, it will become clear that the prime requirement is a way to the end of suffering.

All problems can ultimately be reduced to the problem of suffering. So what we need is a way that will end this problem finally and completely.

Both of these qualifying words are important. The path has to lead to a complete end of suffering, to an end of suffering in ALL its forms, and to a final end of suffering, to bring suffering to an irreversible stop.
But here we run up against another question. How are we to find such a path -- a path that has the capacity to lead us to the full and final end of suffering?

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