Living a spiritual life
For the next two weeks, we're going to take a look at what is traditionally considered to be the first discourse given by the historical Buddha (SN56.11, the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta, 'the Discourse on Turning the Wheel of Dhamma'). There's some scholarly debate (of course!) about whether it's actually a later invention, but either way it's an excellent introduction to the core principles of Buddhism.
More than that, though, it also gives us a framework through which we can examine what it means to live a spiritual life. Whether or not you're interested in Buddhism per se, if we have a meditation practice which is confined to a specific period of time (say twenty minutes each morning) and which is unrelated to the rest of our lives, we'll soon find that the benefits of our meditation practice are likewise rather limited. If, on the other hand, we can find a way to approach our whole lives from the standpoint of contemplative practice, the consequences can be much more transformational.
So hold on to your hats, we're going in!
The opening of the First Discourse
Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling at Baraṇasi in the Deer Park at Isipatana. There the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus of the group of five thus:
Hang on a minute - who are the 'bhikkhus of the group of five'?
The earlier part of the Buddha's story can be pieced together from a variety of other discourses. Briefly, the young Siddhatta Gotama (aka Siddharta Gautama in Sanskrit) was born into a life of privilege, but soon realised that he, like everyone else, would grow old, fall ill and ultimately die, and he would be separated from all that he found dear and delightful in this world. In search of a lasting solution to life's existential problems, he left home and became a wandering ascetic.
During his travels he tried all the popular methods of the age, including severe austerities such as eating almost nothing - basically trying to torture himself into enlightenment. This approach didn't work, and ultimately just made him miserable. After a time, he realised that if he took better care of himself, he would be in a better condition to contemplate the nature of the world, and so he abandoned his ascetic practices in favour of meditation. Finally, he attained enlightenment.
Wanting to share his insights, he first sought out some of the teachers he'd trained with - but, sadly, they'd already passed away. Then he remembered a group of five fellow ascetics who he'd spent time with during his period of self-mortification, and so he tracked them down. And those are the 'group of five bhikkhus' in the discourse. (The word 'bhikkhu' is often translated as 'monk' but more accurately means something like 'spiritually inclined wanderer', and that's how it's meant here.)
So, having located his five friends, what did he say to them?
“Bhikkhus, these two extremes should not be followed by one who has gone forth into homelessness. What two? The pursuit of sensual happiness in sensual pleasures, which is low, vulgar, the way of worldlings, ignoble, unbeneficial; and the pursuit of self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, unbeneficial. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathagata has awakened to the middle way, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna.
Here we see the Buddha explaining to his old friends that the self-punishment they've been undertaking is not what ultimately led to his release from suffering - but nor did he simply return to his life of luxury. Instead, he found a 'middle way' between the two - neither indulgent nor excessively ascetic.
We might well imagine a certain scepticism. The five friends could well have been experiencing a bit of the sunk cost fallacy here - they've been doing all these painful practices the whole time, and now this guy who dropped out has come back saying that they never needed to do them in the first place?
And yet the Buddha is saying very clearly that he's found something really valuable. He calls himself 'the Tathagata' - literally, 'one gone to suchness', but meaning something like 'one who sees reality as it really is'.
So what does this 'middle way' consist of?
Introducing the Eightfold Path
The Buddha continues:
“And what, bhikkhus, is that middle way awakened to by the Tathagata, which gives rise to vision ... which leads to Nibbāna? It is this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This, bhikkhus, is that middle way awakened to by the Tathagata, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna.
Here, in highly concentrated form, the Buddha lays out the central framework of his new approach: the Eightfold Path.
This discourse doesn't actually expand on the eight bullet points given above, but from elsewhere in the early discourses we can get a sense of what each involves. So let's take a look at each of the eight steps to see what might be involved, and whether we can see any relevance to our modern, non-monastic lives, here and now - whether we, too, can find an Eightfold Path for each of us.
Aside: a note about the word 'Right'
It can be easy to read a kind of moralistic or superior tone into the Eightfold Path - like the Buddhists are saying they have the right way to do everything, and everybody else is wrong about everything. In this case, however, 'right' really means something more like 'helpful' or 'supportive to the path'. Some teachers prefer to translate it as 'wise' or 'appropriate' instead, to convey this nuance. Nevertheless, I'll stick with 'right' for today's article - feel free to tell me I'm wrong to do so!
Right View (aka Right Understanding)
In some ways, the Buddhist path begins and ends with Right View. One of the central ideas in Buddhism is that we don't see things clearly right now, and as a result of that lack of clear seeing, we cause ourselves to suffer unnecessarily. If we could just see more clearly what's actually going on, a great deal of our suffering would evaporate like morning dew.
Sometimes, Right View is elaborated in terms of some of the deeper insights of early Buddhism, such as Dependent Origination. In other places, Right View is equated with an understanding of the Four Noble Truths, which we'll talk about next time. In all cases, there's a great emphasis on exploring the nature of cause and effect - looking to see how our experience comes to be what it is, and what gives rise to the presence or absence of suffering. This is very much the realm of insight practice, and is a major focus of the early Buddhist tradition.
Whether or not you're interested in 'being a Buddhist', there's a lot to be said for cultivating greater self-knowledge. It's remarkable how little we understand ourselves, really. Socrates claimed that the unexamined life was not worth living, and I think he was on to something. There are tremendous benefits available from doing pretty much any kind of insight practice, and those benefits greatly enrich our lives. Moreover, approaching life with a sense of curiosity, an attitude of continuous learning, seems to me to be a much more interesting way to live than sticking our heads in the sand and becoming set in our ways.
Right Intention (aka Right Thought)
Three intentions are suggested in the early discourses under the banner of 'Right Intention'. These are: the intention of renunciation/non-craving (and the cultivation of generosity); the intention of non-ill-will (and the cultivation of kindness, joy and peace); and the intention of non-cruelty and harmlessness (and the cultivation of compassion).
Perhaps these intentions speak to you, perhaps not. One thing is for sure - our intentions have great power, especially when we take the time to identify them clearly and commit to them formally. Pretty much everything around us has been shaped by someone's intention in one way or another. In a meditation practice, clarity of intention is tremendously important - if we aren't clear about what we're trying to do, we can easily spend countless practice hours getting absolutely nowhere.
What are your intentions for your practice?
Traditionally, the advice here is to speak in a way which is truthful, helpful and timely, and also delivered considerately - so if you need to say something which is true, helpful and timely but won't go down well with the listener, you should choose the right time to say it.
It can be extremely interesting to look at the way we speak, both to others and to ourselves. (Many readers will be familiar with a harsh 'inner critic', a voice that speaks to ourselves in a way we would never dream of speaking to someone else.) We can look both at the impact our words have on others, and the intentions behind what we choose to say. This can be a complete practice in its own right, and profoundly eye-opening. This doesn't need any kind of 'religious' commitment - it's simply a manner of examining our interactions, looking to see what we say, how we say it, and why.
Traditionally, Right Action is defined as the Buddhist precepts. These are: to refrain from killing living beings; to refrain from taking that which is not freely given; to refrain from sexual misconduct; to refrain from false speech; and to refrain from intoxicants (some teachers give this last one as refraining from the abuse of intoxicants).
Personally, I think these five points are pretty good advice, and I have no problem accepting them into my own life - although, when I really look closely at the situations in my life, I'll often find grey areas where it isn't quite as clear-cut as I'd like it to be.
It's perhaps also worth saying that the precepts are traditionally given as 'I undertake the training to refrain from...' - in other words, these are not 'commandments', handed down by Buddha and to be obeyed on pain of death or the threat of being sent to Hell. These are trainings, ways to engage with our lives which will hopefully have a positive effect both for ourselves and for those around us.
Even if these five precepts don't speak to you, it can be very worthwhile to take some time every now and again to reflect on what ethical behaviour means to you. Do you live up to your aspirations for yourself? And if not, what could you do about it to become the person you would like to be?
Again, there's a traditional list of livelihoods which the Buddha recommended against - things like selling weapons and poisons. More generally, though, we can ask whether the work that we do in this world allows us to live a life in line with our sense of Right Speech and Right Action. If we have a job which requires us to deceive others on a routine basis, for example, that's something worth looking at closely. Is this really making the world a better place? Or does it benefit you at the expense of others? In the latter case, is there something else you could do which would perhaps weigh less heavily on your conscience?
It's not for me to tell you what you should or shouldn't do with your life, of course. All I'm suggesting here is that this is another topic which rewards some quiet contemplation. Please give it some thought.
Earlier, I mentioned that a key part of the early Buddhist path is the cultivation of insight - Right View, coming to see things more clearly. In the long run, that approach will alleviate our suffering - but in the short term, it can be helpful to have some other tools in our belt as well.
Right Effort offers us the 'Four Great Efforts': to make an arisen unwholesome mind state go away; to prevent an unarisen unwholesome mind state from arising; to make an unarisen wholesome mind state arise; and to keep an arisen wholesome mind state around and bring it to perfection.
So the emphasis here is on noticing when we're in a bad place - generally speaking, in a state which is conditioned by greed, hatred or delusion - and finding a way to get to a better place - generally speaking, a state conditioned by generosity, kindness or wisdom. Again, there's a certain amount of cause and effect involved here - a process of learning what triggers our negative states and how to shift them into more positive states.
There's a big discussion here (which I don't have time for today) about the dangers of suppressing negative emotions. For now, suffice it to say that it can be very beneficial to spend time actively cultivating positive states, and it usually isn't terribly helpful to allow ourselves to wallow in negative states if we have an alternative.
In a nutshell, mindfulness means bringing presence of mind to whatever's going on. I've just recently completed a long series of articles discussing the many and varied mindfulness practices in the Satipatthana Sutta (the Discourse on Attending with Mindfulness), so go and check those out if you're interested.
Mindfulness is that rare quality which is always appropriate, no matter what's going on. Again, you don't have to be Buddhist to practise mindfulness - it's a really good idea to be mindful no matter who you are.
A key part of meditation is the cultivation of the skill of concentration - the ability to focus our minds where we want them to go, rather than being at the mercy of whatever distractions are around us.
On a deeper level, Right Concentration is often taken to refer to the jhanas, deep states of consciousness which can be reached through meditation. I recently taught an 11-day retreat on the jhanas with my teacher Leigh Brasington, and I plan to teach more such retreats in the future. If you're interested in attending one, I suggest you get on my mailing list (which is very low traffic and zero spam!), and I'll let you know when I have the next one coming up.
If it seems like I've given the least attention to the last two of these eight steps, it's because they're the most familiar to us already. Anyone with any kind of meditation practice already has at least some experience of cultivating both mindfulness and concentration. What I really wanted to expose in today's article was the other six steps - the rest of the early Buddhist roadmap for a rich, well-considered life.
So please give this some thought. Whether or not you ever choose to identify as a 'Buddhist', take a look at these principles and see what value you might be able to derive from them. Personally, I've found each to be a tremendous source of inspiration and insight in my own life - I hope the same is true for you too.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!