Some Images for the Buddha’s Eightfold Path

ammonites

Not only did the Buddha attain awakening, but he subsequently taught a way for others to attain awakening. The ‘eightfold path’ is a summary of what it means to practise Buddhism – eight factors, which, developed together, lead to awakening. But, when one thinks about it, the idea of a ‘path’ being ‘eightfold’ is a little strange. How can a ‘path’, a way that leads somewhere, be ‘eightfold’? It is an example, I think, of a mixed metaphor: the Buddhist ‘way’ is at the same time a path to be travelled and set of qualities to be developed, so that the path consists in developing these qualities, and developing these qualities is the path. The ‘eightfold path’ is therefore, as a concept, somewhat awkward and complex, but the Pali discourses record that the Buddha gave some memorable images for the eightfold path, and images are a very effective way to communicate complex things – as the Buddha’s disciple Sāriputta said (in a different context), ‘some intelligent people understand better through similes (upamā) what the teachings mean’.[1]

Let us first revise the eight factors that make up the eightfold path:

  1. Right view or vision: the right way of seeing, or understanding, even belief, that supports the work of spiritual transformation.
  2. Right resolve or emotion: that which moves one from within to engage with the spiritual life, the resolve, the devotion needed to change.
  3. Right speech: speech that is truthful, kindly, harmonious and meaningful, the practice of which changes the climate of one’s communication and thought.
  4. Right action: abstaining from harming living beings, from taking the not given, and from sexual misconduct – guides to bodily conduct.
  5. Right livelihood: how we make our living, how we spend our working lives, is crucial for our spiritual well being – butchery and weapons-dealing will not help.
  6. Right effort: working on the mind – developing and maintaining wholesome states, preventing and eradicating unwholesome states.
  7. Right mindfulness: practising mindful awareness, especially of bodily experience in the present moment, a rich embodied awareness of what we experience.
  8. Right concentration: working in meditation to bring the mind into an integrated, concentrated state capable of transformative insight into how things really are.

These eight factors together represent a complete path, of body, speech and mind, and they cover three areas of training: ethics (3–5), meditation (6–8) and wisdom (1–2). And now for those images of how these factors work together.

The eightfold path as a natural unfolding

The first image for the eightfold path is that of a flower naturally unfolding.[2] Each of the factors of the eightfold path represents a necessary part or ‘petal’ of a flower, representing spiritual development. A flower in bloom could be said to represent the full unfolding of our Buddha-nature – that intrinsic potential of our minds and hearts for awakening. This image is not in fact one given by the Buddha specifically for the eightfold path, although he did compare the stages of spiritual development to the stages of unfolding of a lotus flower.[3] He also compared spiritual development to the full maturation of a tree.[4] Development is thus a kind of blossoming of an inner nature. It occurs naturally when the right conditions are present. This blossoming is not the result of an effort of will. From this point of view, one practices each of the factors of the eightfold path, as is required, depending on which need cultivating, and which are already matured. One’s effort is directed to creating the conditions for the overall development of the mind and heart.

The eightfold path as a middle way

An image, or simile, that does come from the Buddha is the eightfold path as a middle way between the life of indulgence and the life of self-mortification. After the Buddha had gained awakening, he made his way to Sarnath, to teach his former companions in the ascetic life what he had learned. Having found them, and persuaded them to listen, he gave his first discourse, which starts like this:

‘Monks, there are these two extremes which are not to be followed by one who has gone forth. What two? That which is devotion to indulgence in sense-pleasures, which is inferior, vulgar, ordinary, ignoble, not beneficial; and that which is devotion to self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, not beneficial. Monks, not falling into either of these extremes, the Realized One has attained complete understanding of the middle way, which brings about vision, brings about knowledge, and conduces to stillness, realization, awakening, nirvana.

‘And what, monks, is the middle way about which the Realized One has attained complete understanding, which brings about vision, brings about knowledge, and conduces to stillness, realization, awakening, nirvana? It is exactly this noble eightfold path, namely: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This, monks, is the middle way about which the Realized One has attained complete understanding, which brings about vision, brings about knowledge, and conduces to stilling, realization, awakening, nirvana.’[5]

The Buddha goes on to present the four noble truths, but these are another topic. As for the eightfold path as the middle way, this helps understand what the path is not. On the one side is a life of self-indulgence. It is very normal for us to believe at some level that a truly satisfying life will come from getting certain sense-pleasures. However, the Buddha consistently taught that sense-pleasures are impermanent and unreliable and therefore cannot be the basis of our well-being. But neither on the other hand does the Buddha teach that the life of self-mortification will lead to true satisfaction. We can see, even these days, how people punish their bodies and control their appetites in the hope of gaining happiness, through body-building, dieting, extreme sports. The Buddha also taught that this is not the way.

If the Buddha taught the noble eightfold path as a middle way, it means that the path is not about the pursuit of sense-pleasures, but neither is it about the rejection of the body. We might think of the spiritual life as involving getting away from matter and the body, but the Buddha’s teaching is not like this. The eightfold path involves awareness of the body and right action of the body, as well as development of the mind. The middle way means development of the body and of the mind, together, in harmony.[6] The eightfold path is balanced and complete.

The path leading to the city of awakening

The middle way is however not really an image, and while there is said to be an eightfold ‘path’, we haven’t yet encountered much ‘walking’. But with the image of the path leading to the city of awakening, we meet an image of the eightfold path as a path, that requires walking:

‘Monks, it is as if a man walking about in a wooded wilderness should see an old path, an unwinding old road travelled by people of former times: that man would follow it, and following it would see an old city, an ancient capital city inhabited by people of former times, a city having lovely parks, groves and ponds, and with a raised mound around it.

‘Then, monks, that man would tell his king or the prime minister about it, saying, “Your majesty should know that, while walking about in a wooded wilderness, I saw an old path, an unwinding old road travelled by people of former times; I followed it, and following it, I saw an old city, an ancient capital city inhabited by people of former times, a city having lovely parks, groves and ponds, and with a raised mound around it. Sir, please restore it!” Then, monks, the king or prime minister would restore that city, and after some time it might become prosperous and powerful, rich and populous, as successful as it had been before.

‘In the same way, monks, I saw an old path, an unwinding old road travelled by Buddhas of former times. And what, monks, is this old path, this unwinding old road travelled by Buddhas of former times? It is just this noble eightfold path, namely, right view, and so on, to right concentration. This, monks, is the old path, the unwinding old road travelled by Buddhas of former times. I followed it, and following it, understood [the way to end all suffering].’[7]

This is from a discourse in which the Buddha explains a train of thought he had had before he was awakened. He eventually rediscovered the ancient path to awakening – it’s not something he invented. This image of a path that the Buddha rediscovered is one that needs thinking about. We imagine perhaps a grassy track through the jungle, perhaps paved with stones. But how can the eightfold path be a path like that? It is not something that is there, given, that we can find and walk along. Rather, it is something that we give rise to by bringing it to mind and practising it. It is a ‘path’ or way of life that is there because we are ‘walking’ or practising it: a path made by walking.

This path-made-by-walking is said to go to a city – but what can this represent? These days the word ‘city’ suggests conurbation, hectic activity, crowds, an artificial lifestyle. In the Buddha’s time, however, there weren’t large cities. Hence we should think more of a market town, a place in touch with the surrounding countryside, which is nevertheless an image of civilisation – nature humanised, or even tamed. A city is a civilised place to live, where human values prevail. Likewise, the eightfold path leads to a state of civilised harmony in our bodies and minds. If the eightfold path ‘goes’ anywhere, it ‘goes’ to the experience of harmonious civilisation, like the prosperous, populous city of the Buddha’s simile.

The path as a holistic spiritual workout

Our final image for the eightfold path is perhaps the craziest. To understand it we need to know about nāgas, creatures from Indian mythology. The nāgas are aquatic serpent-dragons, giant snakes living in water. The nāgas are powerful, non-human, impressive creatures. (The Buddha is said to be a nāga).

‘Monks, in the Himalayas, the kings among mountains, the nāgas work out their bodies and build up their strength. Having worked out and built themselves up, they plunge into ponds. Having plunged into ponds, they plunge into lakes. Having plunged into lakes, they plunge into streams. Having plunged into streams, they plunge into rivers. Having plunged into rivers, they plunge into the great ocean, the sea. There they come into the full vastness of their bodily forms. Likewise, monks, a monk, relying on virtue, established in virtue, cultivating and multiplying the noble eightfold path, fulfils the full vastness of good qualities.’[8]

Practising the factors of the eightfold path is like a holistic spiritual workout. We can plunge into the flowing waters of our lives, down and through the many currents, on a playful journey to where all journeys end, the ocean. Each of the factors is like a different spiritual exercise. We may need to build up our right speech, or our right effort, so as to prepare ourselves for the next plunge. Riding the current of life, continuing to build spiritual strength, we may experience more expansive love, deeper wisdom, in the midst of the flowing waters. And so its goes on.

These images for the eightfold path evoke the cooperation of eight factors in one overall experience of unfolding of our potential for growth and development. What is it we develop? We could think that we are developing our ‘selves’, but an important aspect of the Buddha’s teaching is that, ultimately, there is no permanent or fixed self. It might be best to think that what we develop are good qualities, a whole range of excellent human qualities that together make up the awakened personality.

Based on a talk given to the Frome Triratna Sangha in March 2015

[1] From the Sheaves of Reeds Discourse, S 12:67 pts ii.112–5.

[2] See also Sangharakshita, Vision and Transformation, Windhorse, 1990, p.159.

[3] In the episode of Brahmā’s request, in M 18 pts i.169 (and elsewhere): “Just as in a pond of blue, red or white lotuses some lotus flowers that have sprouted and grown under water thrive submerged without breaking the surface; some lotus flowers that have sprouted and grown underwater rest at water-level; and some lotus flowers that have sprouted and grown under water stand right out of the water, unspoiled by it – likewise the Blessed One, surveying the world with Buddha-vision, saw beings with little dust and a lot of dust, who were intelligent and dull-witted, with good qualities and with bad qualities, easy to teach and hard to teach, and some who lived seeing dangers and faults in the other world.”

[4] For instance, in the Secret Causes discourse, A 10:3 pts v.4–5.

[5] From the first discourse, or Dhammacakkappavattanasutta, S 56:11 pts v.420.

[6] In the Greater Discourse to Saccaka, M 36 pts i.237–51, the Buddha explores the true meaning of the development of body and development of mind, against the background of the Jain layman Saccaka’s misunderstandings.

[7] From The City, S 12:65 pts ii.104–7.

[8] From The Nāgas discourse, S 45:151 pts v.47.

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2 thoughts on “Some Images for the Buddha’s Eightfold Path

  1. Thanks for clear explanation of the Buddha’s noble eight fold path.
    And for emphasising the benefits of images in understanding and practising the Dharma.
    As one who is in the process of carving 8 large nagas this way of regarding images is most helpful.
    Much appreciated.

  2. Thanks Douglas. Great to hear you’re carving nagas! These days I think of them as representing untamed natural forces – not limited at all to Buddhist mythology though that’s where the images come from.

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