Buddhism, Digha Nikaya, and the eightfold path
Continuing with our detour into the Buddhist scriptures- ‘wandering on the way’ as it were- I am struck by how little the western tradition has readied me to read them. In Christianity, for example, a complex and sophisticated mélange of story, poetry, parable, and myth delivers a message that ultimately comes down to the conviction that love and forgiveness compose the ultimate moral good. In Buddhism, the stories seem slighter at first glance than they actually are and deliver very complex ideas in a deceptively simple way. The effect is a bit like taking a powerful hallucinogen: at first, one feels irked at how little effect there seems to be, but, once absorbed, a powerful effect takes place, altering one’s view of the world and human existence in it.
In the Dhammapada (190), we learned that refuge in the Buddha comes from understanding the four noble truths: the truth of pain, the craving that leads to pain, the relinquishing of craving as the end of pain, and finally the noble eightfold path as the way to the cessation of craving. The text is a bit ambiguous about the eightfold path; however, it is well detailed in the Digha Nikaya (22.21), one of the collections within Theravada Buddhism (relevant passage here):
- The first step is to have the Right View: This is simply knowledge of the four noble truths. We now know how pain or stress arises, how it is ended, and are learning the way of practice to do so. This seems fairly straightforward, but again it’s not. Isn’t there pain that arises from events outside of craving? Say if the landlord raises the rent and kicks us out: certainly he causes us pain, but did it arise from craving? We require physical security. But do we renounce desire to the point of indifference? Or is it enough to accept events as they unfold without trying to prevent all change? This makes more sense. Besides, take the first approach and you could wind up a dead Buddhist.
- Right Resolve: “Aspiring to renunciation, to freedom from ill will, to harmlessness.” A bit harder than having the right view, isn’t it? It’s easy to stay in the right mindset, until some teenage shit yells at you from their car window. Ill will seems inescapable, especially on the Internet. However, at a certain point you realize how poisonous animosity can be- like keeping a mouthful of bile. It makes you sicker than it ever sickens its target. Furthermore, ill will seems tied to craving: by renouncing craving we dissolve the will that craves, and the will is the subject that holds animosity. Short version: I think I am not, therefore I am not hostile.
- Right Speech: Refraining from lying, slander, harsh speech, and frivolous speech. Lying is condemned in every ethical tradition I’ve encountered. Perhaps the universality of commands against lying comes from our painful awareness that human beings are uniquely susceptible to believing untruths and are hardly able to refrain from lying to ourselves, much less seeing through each others’ lies. Slander is quite often condemned; but harsh speech is permitted in many religious traditions: the holy scourge who brings fiery truth to the unwilling is utterly alien to Buddhism. Frivolous speech is the hardest to avoid; without it, we could hardly socialize! And, in the current media environment, we should add “no frivolous updates or tweets” or maybe just “thou shalt not broadcast”!
- Right Action: Refraining from taking life, taking what’s not given, and sexual misconduct. This is the easier translation to follow: many versions call for renunciation of sex altogether. Buddhist monks, of course, do not have sex. Nobody becomes a monk, of any sort, to get laid, and if a monk ever tries, for instance, to convince you to pose nude for a questionable sand mandala, he is not on the up-and-up. The logic is the same behind celibate Catholic priests: sex is a distraction from the contemplative life and children its arch enemy. However, it’s hard not to wonder if, without any experience of sexual intimacy, adult relationships, or family life, loving-kindness (metta) doesn’t remain somewhat theoretical. While the destructive aspects of sex are well-publicized, for many of us, “trying to get laid” led to a whole other dimension of loving acceptance of the other and renunciation of the will. Sex can make you good, too.
- Right Livelihood: Note that the first four steps were thou-shalt-nots, steps back from the din of human involvement. The fifth step acknowledges that most of us cannot live as mendicants. Refraining from any form of livelihood that would interfere with the fulfillment of the eightfold path, we maintain life through right livelihood. While the passage only speaks of “dishonest” work, reasonably we could take this to mean we avoid all the competitive professions that require us to maintain a certain ill will towards others. There are likely few rich Buddhists outside of California. Working to survive and not being consumed by work, as Lisa Kramer has recommended, is sufficient to maintain mental stability.
- Right Effort: “Effort” in terms of mental effort. We try to prevent harmful mental states from arising, overcome harmful mental states, and produce and maintain beneficial and wholesome mental states. Buddhism, again, strikes me as the first psychology. My therapist wife might recognize much of this as mental training, or even basic cognitive-behavioral therapy. It’s easier said that done, but it’s amazing how little pain arises in your life after you master your own cognition.
- Right Mindfulness: Contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed covetousness and displeasure in regard to the world. As we step up the ladder of difficulty, it’s fascinating that perception is posed as harder than cognition; there’s something profoundly true about this. Think of how many millions of pieces of sensory data we receive in an ordinary walk in the park. Now try to remain aware and present without retreating to the safety of our continual internal monologue.
- Right Concentration: Now we can achieve the four states of meditative absorption (jinas): 1. Rapture born from withdrawal, accompanied by pondering; 2. Rapture of composure, without pondering; 3. Beyond rapture, the joy of mindfulness and equanimity; finally, 4. Pure equanimity and mindfulness, beyond all pleasure and pain. This final stage strikes me as a bit like do it yourself nirvana and Buddhism seems to respond to the other-worldly nature of Hinduism. This isn’t a promise of moksha after death, but an actual program that can be followed in life. It’s also a subversion of the caste system: anyone can achieve enlightenment through their own effort. There’s also a case to be made here against centralized Buddhist authority.
So the process takes us first through renunciation of bad thoughts and habits, and then through basic ethical behaviors, and finally through a process of mental training. This reminds me a bit of Socrates, but meditative absorption here draws us away from abstract thought (i.e. contemplation of the forms) and towards something almost purely quiescent. While it is hard for me to imagine applying my life to Buddhism, I can understand why so many apply Buddhism to their lives.
1. Hoping to overcome my recent sloth, I’m planning to post on Medea tomorrow- although that would also mean succumbing to my ongoing randomness.
2. Socrates hasn’t heard the last of us either. Theaetetus seems to be in order.