Reflections on the Noble Eightfold Path in Practice and Daily Life, Part 4 of 4

By | 5/23/2022

The final installment of the essay on the Noble Eightfold path concerns the cluster of factors that address the cultivation of wisdom, or paññā. In the Buddha’s teaching, with a strong base of sīla, one is well-grounded to more easily tamp down the hindrances, which leads one to more easily develop strong samādhi. And with the sharpened mind, one can penetrate into the laws that govern existence, and uproot the tendency towards experiencing dukkha at the deepest level of the mind. Paññā is also called “insight.” Bruce Stewart

The Divisions of Paññā: Right Thought/Intention, Right View/Right Understanding

Right Thought/Resolve/Intention (Sammā Saṅkappa)

Like many Pāli words, sammā saṅkappa has been translated in different ways, usually as “Right Intention,” “Right Resolve” or “Right Thought.” In the 10-day course, Goenkaji sticks to the definition, “Right Thought.” However, he only briefly touches on this. He explains that in a meditation course, as the practice gets established, Right Thought takes the form of wholesome thoughts that arise as the grosser impurities of the mind dissipate. In long courses, though, Goenkaji gives further explanation and encourages students to use Right Thought more in line with the meaning of Right Intention, as an aid when we struggle with any of the hindrances or go through a challenging emotional storm.

I’m guessing here, but I imagine Goenkaji did not give instructions to new students on actively using Right Thought in their practice out of a concern that they could easily misuse it, and stay superficially on the cognitive merry-go-round.

Intention can be understood in a number of ways. For example, when we take the precepts or practice mettā, it could be said that we are setting an intention ~ a positive focus away from more unwholesome states toward the wholesome.

Intention in our practice is critical! If we merely sit down to meditate with a sloppy frame of mind and dawdle away the hour, little will be gained. Conversely, if we sit with an intention to practice the Noble Eightfold Path, we are setting a clear resolve to earnestly investigate the path, how it is intertwined and unfolds. It goes without saying that our commitment to sit twice a day should be derived from our intention to develop in Dhamma, and not simply to comply, impress, or qualify for long courses.

Personally, I find it helpful to take refuge in the Triple Gem ~ Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha ~ and consider the Five Precepts before I begin to sit. This helps me set my intention.

As mentioned previously, whenever we find ourselves not working productively, it can be skillful to give the mind a positive or corrective intention, to recalibrate or reboot ourselves. Having a simple thought of kindness and gentleness (mettā) toward oneself is often a powerful antidote to mind states of self-loathing, insecurity, or doubt. Likewise, when thoughts of greed or aversion arise, it can be helpful to substitute these thoughts with their opposites.

The deep intention ~ or “desire,” in its most wholesome sense ~ to grow in Dhamma and attain full liberation is the most crucial of all our intentions. It propels and keeps us on the Path through the inevitable struggles and confusions that come our way. Having this deep faith or devotion (saddhā) in Dhamma is critical. Being clear about what this life is really for ~ progress toward liberation ~ is the most important intention we can make.


Right Understanding or View (Sammā Diṭṭhi)

Sammā Diṭṭhi is translated as “Right Understanding” or “Right View.” Goenkaji actually uses both interpretations, but in the 10-day course refers to it as Right Understanding; or, as he explains it, “wisdom” (paññā).

Ultimate wisdom culminates in one profound insight that all phenomena are impermanent….that all that gets compounded gets decomposed...that all phenomena are arising and passing awayThe Buddha declared these words as he was dying, and added that “this is my teaching.” In other words, he summarized the entire Dhamma teaching in this simple truth.

On a ten-day course, Goenkaji talks about the practice in terms of both “eradication” and “wisdom.” As the 10-day course progresses, he talks specifically about “eradicating saṇkhāras.” Some students seem to develop a mistaken mindset that all they have to do is rotely scan the body “in hope of eradicating their saṇkhāras.” I see this as somewhat problematic for two main reasons, but first, it is important to unpack the word saṇkhāra just a little.

Saṇkhāra is used in a number of ways in the Pāli Canon, but in two ways they are particularly germane to our practice. In its broadest meaning, it refers to anything that gets composed, or fabricated. In other words, it includes everything that we perceive/experience through our senses. So for example, our mental conditionings and habit patterns are saṇkhāras in this sense. The other key meaning of saṇkhāra is, like vedanā, one of the four factors of mind (nāma). In this sense, saṇkhāra is the reacting and volitional part of the mind, which propels the next moment of consciousness into existence. It is easy to mistakenly conflate these two different meanings of saṇkhāra.

With regard to the meaning of saṇkhāra as the volitional aspect of the mind, it is closely related to kamma. For example, a saṇkhāra can be neutral, such as deciding that we need to go to the bathroom. In contrast, a violent act or extraordinary act of generosity can have long-lasting kammic consequences. Goenka-ji teaches that we need to keep a close watch on our volitions, to avoid creating negative outcomes for ourselves, while at the same time creating wholesome ones.

In terms of where I see students confused, the first issue is when I detect a sort of “solidification” of the concept of saṇkhāra in a student’s mind, based on how they communicate their experience. Sometimes students say, “I got rid of a saṇkhāra,” or “I want to get rid of (a particular) saṇkhāra.” This confusion was especially brought home to me when a student on a recent course asked, “How do I know how many more saṇkhāras I have to eradicate?” While this turned into a rather comical moment as the student awoke to the folly of his question, it underscores how the practice around saṇkhāras can be quite misunderstood.

When students communicate about their experience in the above ways, they indicate that they understand “saṇkhāra” as an enduring entity that exists in and of itself. At the ultimate level, it does not exist (which is also true of the “I” which wants to get rid of it); of course, on the conventional level it does and when a student talks to a teacher, it is usually at that level. But as I interpret it, the student might be signaling a misunderstanding about the ultimate reality of saṇkhāra besides communicating their thinking at the conventional level. Of course, the full realization of the truths of anicca, dukkha and anattā is the culmination of one’s meditative journey; it is liberation. So there is no expectation that we fully know or embody these truths yet, especially as we start out on the path. That said, it is important to avoid hard-wiring fundamental misunderstandings into the core of our practice.

And this connects to my second concern, that when students say, “I’ve eradicated/I want to eradicate a saṇkhāra,” along with the above misunderstanding, they are insinuating craving into the very heart of their practice, creating a goal-oriented meditation based on this craving. This is perhaps even more tangibly concerning than the confusion I described above. If what a meditator wants or expects to happen in meditation around their notion of “cleaning out saṇkhāras” happens, they generate a heightened desire for those kinds of future experiences, but if it doesn’t happen, they generate aversion and feelings of disappointment. I have seen this steer even very earnest and dedicated meditators in a completely wrong direction.

Wisdom does not have to be with a capital “W.” Simple wisdom is needed to live a fulfilling mundane life as householders. Each day we make countless decisions that require some degree of wise discernment. It could be whether to go for that third slice of chocolate cake, or deal with a complex interpersonal challenge that could have life-changing implications, and everything in between. The wisdom we develop on the meditation cushion will influence the more mundane choices, both large and small, that we make in our lives day-to-day, moment-to-moment. Of course, it is also necessary to make continued efforts toward liberation. The mundane and the supermundane both need to be kept in mind.

As mentioned before, insight practice culminates in the full realization of the “three characteristics” (lakkhaṇa) of , anicca, dukkha and anattā. In the long instructions on Day 9, Goenkaji repeatedly makes reference to ~ and encourages students to understand their experience through ~ the “three characteristics” framework.

Paññā is not a preset belief. It is not possessed by any one person or group, or found in any one doctrine. It is vibrantly fluid and malleable, alive moment-to-moment. Besides “insight” and “wisdom,” another common translation for “paññā” is “discernment,” which to me has a more “active” feel to it. Knowing with discernment/wisdom (vijjā ñāṇa) what is beneficial and what is not, what is wholesome (kusala) versus what is unwholesome (akusala).

One of the most important insights we can gain from our practice is understanding the pivotal role of “clinging” (upādānā) in perpetuating dukkha. Broadly speaking, this means understanding how the mind works in reference to clinging in general, how it cements in the push-pull of craving and aversion. Specifically, it means clinging to the five aggregates (pañca khandha) through the moment-by-moment creation of a sense of self. By employing insightful practice, we increasingly understand the causes and conditions that go into the predicament of human suffering in any given moment, and how this clinging is insidiously entangled in–and in fact, at the root of–perpetuating dukkha.

As we know, having faith is critical on the Path, but in excess it is problematic because it can be like putting blinders on. We balance faith with wisdom. We leave our shoes at the entrance to the Dhamma Hall; Right View requires us not to leave our “discriminating intelligence” (viveka) parked there, too!

Wisdom could be viewed as the combination of Right Understanding and Right Intention. As mentioned before, Right Understanding or View is actually the first factor of the Noble Eightfold Path in the traditional rendering. It informs and guides us on every step of the Path.

The Buddha put it this way: “What, now, is Right View/Understanding? It is the understanding of suffering, the understanding of the cause of suffering, the understanding of the cessation of suffering, understanding of the way to the cessation of suffering. Of course, these are the Four Noble Truths, which includes the Noble Eightfold Path.

Cultivating Mettā

I’d like to conclude by reflecting on the practice and development of mettā, or lovingkindness. While mettā is not mentioned as a factor on the Eightfold Noble Path, it is without doubt a critical component of our practice. When we practice mettā, we first generate it for ourselves, and then for all beings who share in our collective suffering. This naturally develops into a feeling of gratitude for all who have helped us, in particular Gotama the Buddha, who uncovered this sublime path that leads us to the final goal.

Those walking on the Noble Eightfold Path are like plants ~ leaning away from darkness and toward the light. An empathetic, heartfelt, accepting and loving attitude towards ourselves and all beings is the fertile ground we cultivate in order to take progressive steps on this Noble Eightfold Path.

May all beings be liberated.

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