The Scientific Study of Buddhism and the Noble Eightfold Path:
Dividing the Whole into Many
The Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path is sometimes referred to as the “eight steps to freedom”. This tends to give the impression of a graded approach to liberation – we begin at white belt and then progress through the various colours until we reach black belt. However, this is decidedly not the case with the Noble Eightfold Path. As the Mahãcattãrisaka Sutra (The Great Forty Sutra, Majjhima Nikãya, 117) explains, each of the eight factors that comprise the Noble Eightfold Path (i.e., right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration) are the individual parts that make up the whole. They are like the single strands that collectively make up a mountaineer’s rope – the rope is at its strongest when all of these fundamental strands are present and closely interwoven.
However, in certain scientific and medical contexts, the intricate and complex process of meditation has been dissected into the individual practices of ‘mindfulness’, ‘concentrative meditation’, ‘insight meditation’, ‘self-compassion’, ‘compassion’, ‘loving kindness’, and so forth. Consequently, a growing number of scholars (including ourselves) have expressed concerns in the academic literature that by isolating these elements from one another, we may be taking unnecessary risks. Indeed, if we start to remove strands from a rope or work with only a single rope strand, there is a danger that the rope will snap. In this week’s post, we briefly attempt to highlight the deeply interconnected and interwoven nature of the Noble Eightfold Path, and of Buddhist meditation more generally.
Right view(Sanskrit: samyag-drsti / Pali: sammā-ditthi) essentially refers to the ability to see and understand the absolute nature of reality. Seeing that both we and reality are empty of inherent existence liberates us from suffering. However, in order to develop this clarity of vision, we first need to be able to give rise to a particular form of concentration. In this case we don’t just mean the ability to keep our attention placed on a particular task or object. Right concentration (samyak-samādhi / sammā-samādhi) refers to the meditative state whereby we have completely encompassed all mental activity within a single state of meditative calm. It means that we have effectively tranquilised the mind and in this state, we are profoundly aware of everything that is happening both internally and externally. The only problem with right concentration is that because this state is so blissful, we can forget that the blissful experience is also empty of inherent existence. Thus, although right concentration is a prerequisite for cultivating right view, we need the wisdom of right view to help us transcend any attachment and ignorance that remains when we are dwelling in right concentration.
If we want to develop meditative concentration, then we need to know when the mind is succumbing to attachment or aversion. If we are attempting to engulf the mind in tranquillity but we become attached to a particular thought or object, then this will interfere with our concentration and it may well cause us to lose awareness altogether. Consequently, we need to watch over the concentrating mind to ensure that it is in fact still in a state of meditative concentration. This is where mindfulness comes in. Right mindfulness (samyak-smrti / sammā-sati) allows the mind to remain fully concentrated in the here and now. If the mind becomes too excited or too drowsy and begins to drift out of its state of concentration, mindfulness observes that this is happening, so that we gently loosen or tighten our concentration as required.
As you can imagine, until we reach a certain level of awakening, constantly being mindful of the mind requires a lot of determination. So right effort(samyag-vyāyāma / sammā-vāyāma) is needed to continuously remind ourselves to be mindful. However, it is not just with regard to right mindfulness where we require right effort – right effort essentially underlies and fuels every other element of the Noble Eightfold Path. For example, right effort is required to cultivate right speech (samyag-vāc / sammā-vācā), right action (samyak-karmānta / sammā-kammanta), right livelihood (samyag-ājīva / sammā-ājīva) and so forth. Likewise, an active and focussed effort is required to cultivate right view and to see all phenomena exactly as they are – empty of intrinsic existence. Thus, as with every other aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path, right effort cannot be treated in isolation.
Right speech, right action and right livelihood are basically concerned with our ethical conduct. Everything we think, say and do in this present moment will create the next present moment – not just for ourselves but also for others. In other words, before we open our mouths we should stop and ask ourselves “is what I am about to say going to cause me or anybody else harm”? If we are not very nice to other people or to ourselves, then this is actually going to cause us a lot of worry and a lot of bother. We are constantly going to be involved in internal and external squabbles. If we get caught up in things it is extremely difficult for the mind to relax and find peace. It becomes difficult to establish right effort and, therefore, it becomes difficult to establish right mindfulness. Without maintaining mindfulness of our mental processes, it is impossible to rest in meditative concentration and – in turn – cultivating right view and meditative wisdom becomes a very distant prospect.
Thus, it is absolutely essential for effective spiritual and meditative development that we infuse all of our actions with gentleness, awareness, and compassion. This is where right intention (samyak-samkalpa/sammā sankappa) comes in. Right intention means that we live our whole life with the primary goal of helping ourselves and others to develop spiritually. Right intention should permeate each of the other seven aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path. For example, when we are practicing mindfulness, we should be practicing with others’ long-term wellbeing in mind. Some people have told us that they practice mindfulness in order to overcome a medical problem or to get ahead in their career. However, this doesn’t embody the meaning of right intention and so actually, these individuals are not practicing mindfulness at all.
Because we allow right intention to completely pervade our being, everything else falls nicely into place. By having the right intention, the spiritual path becomes very enjoyable and progress happens automatically. As we discussed in our recent post on the ‘Top Ten Mistakes Made by Buddhist Meditation Practitioners’, it is because people don’t have the right intention that their spiritual practice fails to bear fruit. Some people sit in meditation for hours each day and/or they diligently study the teachings for many decades. But right intention is something that comes from within – it can be learned but it is actually quite intuitive. You either really want to evolve spiritually or you don’t. You’re either willing to subdue your ego or you’re not. It is quite simple. In a nutshell, right intention means that due to knowing all phenomena are impermanent and our time here is limited, we are ready to work hard in order to leave suffering behind.
To summarise, each aspect of the meditative journey is intrinsically connected to every other aspect. We need to practice all of the components of the Noble Eightfold Path at the start of our journey, and we need to practice them all at the end. If we only focus on one component of the path, things will be unbalanced. We will end up like one of those people who only works on their biceps when they go to the gymnasium – they end up with huge arms stuck onto a matchstick body. If we dissect the individual elements of the spiritual path and we treat them as isolated units, then we are basically misconstruing the Buddha’s instructions of how to practice and apply the teachings. By getting caught up in categorising and analysing things – it is a sign that we are becoming attached to the teachings. No doubt some people find this very interesting, but it basically means that we are moving things from the spiritual to the academic plane. At this point, the practice is no longer going to be of any long-term benefit. The Buddha explained that the Buddhist teachings are rather like a raft or a boat that we can build and use in order to cross the ocean or a wide and turbulent river. We are born on one shore of this turbulent river (life) and in order to get to the other shore, we build ourselves a boat. When built, we set sail with joyful effort, great diligence, and equanimity. However, when we arrive on the other shore, we don’t lift the boat onto our shoulders and carry it around with us. We let go of the raft, we let go of the teachings.
Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon
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