BP Belgrade Study Session 7: the Path
The Path: The Way Out of Suffering
Having realized that this is the goal—to achieve a permanent happiness that is not based upon external changing conditions—we then have to find out how to apply ourselves in order to achieve that goal. This is what the fourth Noble Truth explains. The fourth Noble Truth is the path, and this is the essence of Buddhist practice. Known as the Eightfold Noble Path, it is oriented toward developing three things in an individual: moral sensitivity, meditation or the concentrated mind, and wisdom. Through the practice of moral sensitivity we become better individuals, able to overcome our egocentric tendencies. We become more compassionate and more sensitive to the needs of others. Through the practice of meditation our mind becomes more focused, more resilient, and more aware, which in turn gives rise to wisdom.
The Eightfold Noble Path consists of Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. The first two truths of Right Understanding and Right Thought correspond to the development of wisdom. Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood all develop our moral sensitivities. The last three—Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration—foster our meditative capabilities.
Right Understanding means understanding the Buddhist view, which, as we saw, is the middle view between eternalism and nihilism. As the Buddha said, knowing how the world arises due to causes and conditions enables us not to fall into the extreme of nihilism. The other aspect of the middle view is knowing how everything ceases when causes and conditions cease. Therefore, we do not fall into the extreme of the substantialist, essentialist, or eternalist view, because we realize that, even though things come into being through causes and conditions, nothing that exists on the physical or mental plane endures when those causes and conditions are no longer present.
Right Thought is associated with seeing how our thoughts and emotions are closely linked, and how indulging in negative forms of thought leads to the development of negative emotions such as hatred and jealousy. Conversely, thinking in a positive way has an effect on our emotions, whereby we start to become more loving, more caring, and more sensitive to others.
Right Speech means that if we are not aware—as normally we are not—then we don’t know what we are saying or doing. Inadvertently, we indulge in all kinds of negative forms of speech such as lying, backbiting, haughty speech, and gossip. It is important to become aware of our speech, because what we say and how we say it have a direct influence on the kind of person we become. If we are always using harsh words, then we naturally become very aggressive.
Right Action relates to seeing how what we do is beneficial or harmful to ourselves and others. This is involved with developing skill in the way we act in the world. Instead of thinking that we already know what is the right thing to do and what is the wrong thing to do, in a clear-cut manner, it is important to look closely at the way we act. We should not simply rely on some pre-established rules or social norms; instead we should see how we as individuals act in the world and what the effects of our actions are upon ourselves, the environment, and other people.
With respect to Right Livelihood, the Buddha said that there is nothing wrong with making money and looking after one’s family, but we must know how to make a living in a way that does not cause harm to others or ourselves. So, for example, we do not engage in an occupation that involves cruelty to animals or human beings, or one that obliges us to use deception or inflict physical or mental pain on others. If these things are involved, then we should give up that form of livelihood.
Right Effort has four aspects. The first effort has to do with prevention: making an effort through meditation to ensure that one does not yield to unwholesome thoughts and emotions, and trying to prevent these from arising in the mind. Unwholesome thoughts originate in attachment, aversion, and ignorance. The second effort is to reduce the unwholesome thoughts and emotions that have already arisen in the mind. The third effort is to develop wholesome thoughts and emotions, and this also is done in meditation. Even if they are not yet present, we should make an effort to arouse them. The fourth effort is to cultivate further those wholesome thoughts and emotions that have already risen in the mind.
Right Mindfulness is associated with becoming more attentive to our thoughts, emotions, feelings, speech, and behavior in meditation. Whatever we experience, we become more conscious of it and more attentive to it, so that we gain more insight into the workings of the mind and how the mind influences our actions in everyday life.
Right Concentration also develops from meditation. The mind becomes more focused and less distracted. Even if we hear or see or think of something, the mind does not become distracted but is still able to maintain a state of concentration.
So that is the Eightfold Noble Path, which leads the individual from this condition of samsara to the attainment of nirvana, or enlightenment. As we can see, the Four Noble Truths are both descriptive and prescriptive. They describe the condition we are in—what sort of conditions are prevalent and what the problems are. They also prescribe in terms of how to improve our situation, overcome our sense of dissatisfaction, and attain enlightenment through following the Eightfold Noble Path and its training in morality, meditation, and wisdom.
The Four Noble Truths are the essence of all of the Buddha’s teachings. Without understanding them, we cannot proceed. All the later interpretations of the original Buddhist teachings are based on the understanding of the Four Noble Truths. There may be different ways of understanding how we can train in meditation, wisdom, or morality, but there is no disagreement in terms of the importance of the understanding of the Four Noble Truths. All other practices are based upon or elaborate these fundamental teachings of Buddhism.
from The Four Noble Truths
by Traleg Kyabgon
Adapted from The Essence of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its Philosophy and Practice.