This week we come to the fourth noble truth: that there is a path that leads to the end of suffering.
The first Noble Truth states that there is suffering. The second, that suffering is caused by grasping: grasping the desire for sensual experiences and at the objects of the senses, grasping at becoming and taking birth as a certain personality and grasping at the desire to cease.
Having diagnosed the illness, the Buddha goes on to give the cure, the way of practice that leads to freedom.
The Buddha summarised this most succinctly by saying: cease to do that which harms, learn to do that which nourishes, and purify your heart and mind.
This is outlined in more detail in the eight fold path:
The path is not linear, it is often depicted as a wheel and as such it is all arising at the same moment. But it can be broken down into the separate parts, just as a wheel has spokes. Without one of the spokes the wheel looses its strength. In the same way all parts of the eightfold path interact and work together.
1. Looking at it as a list the first section relates to Wisdom.
Right view is the intuitive and felt understanding that actions have consequences. This understanding motivates one in one’s practice. Ajahn Sumedho describes this as knowing something to be true in your gut as opposed to an intellectual knowledge. It is the intuition that there is suffering and that there is an end to suffering which leads one to begin the spiritual journey and in its maturity it is the direct knowing of the end of suffering through letting go of all clinging. It’s the feeling that brings us to meditation, knowing that there is something out of balance in our lives and sensing that another approach may give a way of rebalancing ourselves. It’s also the insights and deeper understanding we gain as we meditate and see how holding onto thoughts and feelings or rejecting what we do not want gives rise to suffering, whereas learning to let go and embrace things as they are in the moment starts to open up a space of greater contentment and ease.
Right Intention, or right aspiration arises out of right view. It’s the wholesome desire to aspire to freedom from suffering for ourself and others out of a sense that this is the freedom we are all naturally born to but have forgotten. It’s the intention to follow the path out of compassion for ourselves and others rather than out of any desire for selfish gain.
2. The second section relates to ethical conduct. Living ethically is said to be the support for meditation, which is the third section.
Right Speech is that which avoids lying, divisive speech, abusive speech, and idle chatter and encourages telling the truth, harmonious speech that brings people together, kindly speech and conversations with purpose. Sounds quite demanding especially on a Friday night out! What we can notice in our speech is how often there is a sense of using our conversation to hold on to a sense of bing right, of wanting to gain power over another or gain advantage for ourself through being economical with the truth! Right speech encourages us to consider what effect our words will have. They are like a flock of birds, once set free it is hard to net them. How often have we said something in a moment or anger or hurt only to regret the impact it has? Reflecting on what we say and how it impacts on others, taking a breath before saying that cutting remark, feeling the wish to hurt another and then letting it go and feeling compassion for the other person can transform an argument into a place of healing. When we let go of being right we may open to new possibilities for being happy.
Right action brings attention to how we use our bodies through abstaining from taking life, from stealing, and sexual misconduct. The first two seem fine – don’t kill or steal. But is the third another religious assault on sex, making it liked or wrong? By sexual misconduct is meant any action that harms another or is done against their will – rape, incest, abuse – but because it includes actions done against the will of another it can include a normally consenting partner if they are then forced to do something when not willing. It means respecting and being sensitive to anyone with whom we are having sex.
This part of the path encourages respecting life – as all beings wish to live and not to have it taken from them, to respect the property of others and note our greed to acquire, and if possible shift it to sympathetic joy (being pleased for the good fortune of others and their enjoyment of the things they have rather than envy and covetousness). This can lead to greater peace of mind and heart. The Buddha never said sex was wrong or a sin. He had courtesans as disciples and treated them no differently to the kings who visited him. Monks and nuns were obliged to be celibate. But lay followers were encouraged to use their sexual energies wisely, to note the way sexual desire opens the door to a sense of lack, craving, longing and to see how one can find fulfilment through consenting and caring sexual relationships with another or others.
Right Livelihood refers to earning a living though honest and ethical business dealings which do not involve cheating, lying or stealing. The following were specifically prohibited:
Business in weapons: trading in all kinds of weapons and instruments for killing.
Business in human beings: slave trading, prostitution, or the buying and selling of children or adults.
Business in meat: “meat” refers to the bodies of beings after they are killed. This includes breeding animals for slaughter.
Business in intoxicants: manufacturing or selling intoxicating drinks or addictive drugs.
Business in poison: producing or trading in any kind of poison or a toxic product designed to kill.
3. The third section, Meditation or concentration is said to be supported by living an ethical life as it is harder to meditate with a bad conscience! This raises an interesting question for modern mindfulness teaching which focuses on teaching meditation but without addressing the ethical behaviour of those learning it. But I’ll leave that as an open question! Meditation in turn provides the support for wisdom to arise. Hence the end of the list brings us back to the beginning – and in this sense it is not a list but a circle. And even as a circle each aspect of the path interrelates and supports the other so there is no one point or simple progression from one aspect to the next – each is mutually supportive of the other and to be applied as needed and appropriate in one’s life.
Right Effort is the diligent exertion to maintain skilful states which lead to peace of mind and heart that are already arisen and to avoid acting on unskilful motivations that may lead to unethical behaviour or actions that do not lead to peace.
Right mindfulness, the cultivation of attentiveness and alertness, which according to the Buddha involves bringing awareness to the body and physical sensations; feelings; thoughts; and all mental processes.
Right concentration which is the state of focused meditation on a single object. Right mindfulness in this sense is seen as more of a moment by moment awareness that may occur at any time whether meditating or not. Right concentration is the experience of bring attention to a focus on one object, such as the breath.