In November of 2018, I gave a talk on the Noble Eightfold Path at an Annual Old Student Meeting at Dhamma Patāpa, a center in rural Georgia in the tradition of SN Goenka, or Goenkaji as he is affectionately known. My intent was to present a perspective about how the Eightfold Path intersects with our meditation practice and daily lives, based on my teaching experience, practice, and reading over the decades in this tradition.
The intervening years have been a period of particularly rich and fruitful Dhamma investigation for me, and I found myself periodically circling back to topics from this talk in my mind. Then with the creation of the Pariyatti Journal, it seemed like revisiting that talk in the form of an essay in light of my deepened Dhamma exploration might be worthwhile, helping to clarify some common areas where I’ve seen students struggle. Amazingly to me, this process evolved into a four-part essay! This first part is an introduction to the more in-depth discussion in the subsequent three parts.
I want to stress that this essay is self-reflective rather than scholarly. The Eightfold Noble Path has been written about extensively by many erudite Buddhist scholars whose commentaries, I’m sure, are more insightful and eloquent than mine. But as I say, this is a personal “reflection” based on curious inquiry into understanding and practice.
While the emphasis in the tradition of U Ba Khin and taught by SN Goenka is on paṭipatti (walking on the path, practice), Goenkaji also encouraged serious students to study pariyatti (the theory behind the practice). He explained that it is very supportive of and complementary to our practice.
One of Goenkaji’s greatest strengths as a master teacher was his ability to explain the profound Dhamma teachings of the Buddha through simple, accessible analogies and stories ~ all with his notoriously playful humor. When we listen to Goenkaji, we can sense that his discourse style comes from a place of deep experience and insight. However, because he is mostly introducing the Dhamma to beginners, there is sometimes scant explanation on a number of important points. With this in mind, I will attempt to provide a little more background and perspective. This is in no way intended to diminish or replace Goenkaji’s teaching, but rather to support and help provide a broader context from which to reflect for those who are so inclined or feel the need.
In my teaching experience, I have noticed some common areas where students struggle in their understanding, as noted above. This often results in confusion, which can turn into a cascading sense of feeling stuck and plateauing in practice. Many students will be familiar with the sense of taking a few steps forward ~ and maybe a few back. This can, at times, seem overwhelming and lead to a loss of inspiration and faith.
Confusion and a feeling of no progress lead to doubt. Excessive doubt, one of the five hindrances (nīvaraṇas), is understandably viewed as a negative state of mind where one spins one’s wheels, resulting in a spiral into feelings of hopelessness and disillusionment. However, if seen through a different framework, doubt can, in fact, be the very impetus for deeper growth and inquiry. If we become dis-illusioned, it means we have broken through some illusion that we had been clinging to. Hidden within the space of “not knowing” lies the opportunity for deeper wisdom to arise. In this way, we can harness a sense of inquiry to build confidence and dispel skeptical doubt.
Hopefully, this essay will help to clarify some common areas where students often struggle, or maybe open up a fresh perspective of the Path.
And of course, I take full responsibility for any factual errors, and if there are any comments that some might find objectionable.
Initial Steps on a Spiritual Path
A search for a spiritual path is usually not born out of complacency, a life that seems to be going on smoothly. More often, it is propelled by life’s hard knocks and challenges, or a lingering cloud of dissatisfaction. For reasons we sometimes don’t quite understand, we can no longer just glide along in the status quo, ignoring life’s deeper mysteries. Of course, it is different for every individual, but dissatisfaction is most often the trigger for an earnest search for a spiritual path.
That said, seeking out a spiritual path can seem overwhelming, especially in the vast “spiritual supermarket” that is now easily accessible on the internet. In the beginning, we might experiment ~ a bit like shopping for new clothes. We might try on different styles, colors, etc., before choosing, wearing…and eventually discarding the clothing. This often typifies the beginning of the search, and it can certainly be a start in the right direction.
However, window shopping can soon evolve into a mishmash of eclecticism ~ a colorful blending of spiritual and meditative practices, resulting in additional layers of belief that become a new source of clinging. While it may appear at first that there is benefit, many seekers find it does not go deep enough, and the search for a more meaningful and deeper path begins. It is at this juncture where a seeker begins to grapple with the need to discover a real solution to the human predicament of finding lasting happiness, instead of staying mired in life’s dissatisfactions and discontents, both great and small.
If we are humble enough to acknowledge that we likely do not know how to do this ourselves, it is reasonable to look for a path and a teacher who can guide us. Finding a path and teacher is more like choosing a career or life partner than buying new clothes. For example, a career choice sets the course of our life far into the future. And the choice of a life partner is even more important. It involves compatibility in so many crucial areas ~ trust, respect and the ability to negotiate the inevitable crises that are bound to arise in any lifelong partnership. It is a mammoth commitment and one that is driven by both the heart and mind. Choosing a path and teacher involves the same kind of care, consideration and thought.
But even when we surrender to a path and a teacher, there also lie hidden dangers. For instance, we might blindly accept the teaching and feel greatly comforted by the echo chamber of fellow believers. Without the willingness to think critically, one’s initial strong faith in the teacher and teaching can easily and seductively morph into a tacit conversion to blind faith, buttressed by the identity-affirming memes that get circulated within the group. This is particularly sticky and problematic when the messaging is wrapped in a narrative of “exceptionalism.” The teacher and community of Dhamma friends are both critical and even paramount on the path. But the Buddha challenges us to approach the Path with a discerning, curious and investigative mind (dhamma-vicaya). While understanding the obvious limitations of the cognitive mind, reality-as-it-is needs to be explored not only on the cushion but also in our daily lives. Together, they blossom into a richly integrated Dhamma practice.
All of us come to this Path in different ways, for different reasons, and with different motivations. It matters little why we came. We came! It is a beginning no matter where we start. As a sincere seeker begins their practice, the realization arises that the path of Dhamma is more than just becoming a “better person.” It is a complete path for the overcoming and eradication of all suffering, one that results in the fruition of full enlightenment (nibbāna).
The Path addresses suffering at its root cause, its source. For us, Vipassana meditation is an integral part of the Path. It is not just a “self-help” technique, which clearly distinguishes it from many other contemporary therapies and practices. However, even though the effort to “just be a better human being” and the “final goal of liberation” may seem far apart, they are in fact complementary, and delicately at play in every aspect of our Dhamma practice. It can be a trap to ignore one for the other! For example, a wise practitioner should avoid striving for spiritual attainments and experiences at the expense of developing as an emotionally and psychologically well-rounded human being, living in an increasingly complicated world.
The Buddha uniquely made understanding the inevitability of dissatisfaction, discontent and suffering in this life, and the way out, the cornerstones of his teaching. He says emphatically that what he teaches is singular: that life is unpredictable and full of sufferings both great and small (dukkha) and that the Eightfold Noble Path is the way out of dukkha (nirodha).
Even the experiences we so often seek out and seem so “obviously” pleasurable, the Buddha says, are not immune from suffering, as they do not last forever. They inevitably pass away and leave us with a renewed craving that requires further pursuit of yet other pleasures to take their place. This perplexing problem is squarely addressed by the Four Noble Truths, which includes the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Noble Eightfold Path
At the age of 35, Gotama the Buddha attained Enlightenment by realizing the Four Noble Truths.
- The Truth that dukkha ~ petty annoyances, frustration, unsatisfactoriness, discontent, sadness, and suffering ~ is inextricably woven into the human condition.
- Craving, aversion, and ignorance is the cause of dukkha.
- A way out of dukkha exists for us all.
- The direct path to the cessation of dukkha is the Noble Eightfold Path.
One version of the Buddha’s Awakening says that after his Enlightenment, he spent a week experiencing the bliss of his attainment, and delved deeper into the laws governing human suffering. This is called Dependent Origination (paṭicca samuppāda). The Buddha then spent another six weeks in solitude enjoying the bliss of nibbāna, and pondering more about Dhamma. After that, he compassionately decided to teach his discovery to humanity. He first chose to share it to five ascetics with whom he had previously practiced extreme austerities. He found them in the holy city of Varanasi, and on a full moon night delivered his first sermon, outlining the Four Noble Truths. This teaching set in motion the “Wheel of Dhamma.” The Four Noble Truths were repeatedly referenced in the Buddha’s discourses throughout the many years of his Dhamma dispensation.
It can be inspirational and helpful to reflect on how fortunate we all are to be practicing this Buddha Dhamma some 2,600 years later.
To illustrate this, I’d like to share an anecdote from a Vipassana course I conducted in a maximum security prison, near Birmingham, Alabama, in 2002. An inmate-meditator passionately articulated how overjoyed he was at getting this life-changing teaching, and in that hell-hole of a prison, no less. Even more astonishing to me was his recognition that the practice he was learning was put in motion some twenty-six centuries ago. He made the connection between his own experience and the Buddha’s efforts to share this Path so long ago. It was a powerful moment to hear this student, who in my view had experienced incomprehensible misery, express such a profound sense of insight and gratitude, and on his very first Vipassana course, no less.
The Noble Eightfold Path consists of the following sections:
This Path is not necessarily intended as a linear progression, even though it is often traditionally taught that way. Goenkaji clusters the eight steps into three mutually supportive categories: sīla (moral conduct), samādhi (concentration) and paññā (wisdom). This, he explains, is for the simplicity of engaging the entry level student. However, in the more advanced, long courses, Goenkaji explains the path in a more traditional manner starting with Right View/Understanding (sammā diṭṭhi), and how Right View frames the entire path. The Buddha made it clear that Right View, or critical discernment, is fundamental, as it relates to every aspect of the aspirant’s Dhamma journey. This four-part essay approaches its exploration of the Noble Eightfold Path as Goenka-ji frames it in his 10-day courses, through the lens of sīla, samādhi and paññā.
The journey can be explored and understood on a number of different levels, but two that are relevant here are the mundane and the sublime. While initially this duality may not be apparent, gradually we begin to understand that we cannot ignore one for the other. For example, it’s crucial that we lovingly embrace the complexities of the so-called “self” (relative truth) before letting it go (ultimate truth). The Buddha illustrates this apparent contradiction when he uses the phrase, “thus he trains himself” in his ānāpāna teaching, for example, and yet elsewhere gives important teachings on anattā (not-self) and sunññāta (emptiness).
We have now arrived at the start of the Path. Part 2 will explore sīla, the three sections of the Noble Eightfold Path that address ethical speech and behavior.