The Noble Eightfold Path

The Pali for “Noble Eightfold Path” is Ariya Aṭṭhangika Magga, literally the “Aryan Eight-Limbed Path.”   Nowadays, the word “Aryan” has negative connotations because of its appropriation by Nazis and white supremacists, but in ancient Pali it meant “noble” or “exalted,” and Buddhists reserved it as an honorific for practitioners who had reached a high level of realization: stream-enterers, once-returners, non-returners, and arahants.  The name “Noble Eightfold Path” is a bit misleading, because it’s not so much the path that’s noble, as it is the path that nobles follow to attain realization.  The Noble Eightfold Path is the path alluded to in the Fourth Noble Truth: the path towards release from suffering.  It’s the Buddha’s prescription for what ails us.

Traditionally, the Eightfold Path is subdivided into three aggregates: wisdom (pañña), virtue (sīla), and concentration (samādhi).

The wisdom aggregate has two components: right view (sammā ditthi) and right intention (sammā sankappa).  Right view, at an initial level, is an understanding of karma — that actions have consequences — as well as belief in rebirth and the possibility of liberation.  At a higher level of realization, it is also the ability to directly perceive the three marks of existence: unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), impermanence (anicca) and non-self (anattā) in all compound phenomena.  Right intention involves both a renunciation of clinging, and the adaptation of an attitude of good will and non-harming to all beings.

The virtue aggregate includes the components of right speech (sammā vācā), right action (sammā kammanta), and right livelihood (sammā ājīva).  Right speech refers to abstaining from lies, backbiting and slander, abusive and hurtful speech, and frivolous talk. Right action involves adhering to the ethical precepts of abstaining from killing, stealing, sexual impropriety, and intoxicants.  Right livelihood means earning one’s living in a way that adheres to the precepts.  Certain occupations are specifically proscribed for Buddhists including trafficking in human beings, weapons, meat, intoxicants, and poisons.

The concentration aggregate also has three components: right effort (sammā vāyāma), right mindfulness (sammā sati), and right concentration (sammā samādhi). Right effort means developing control over one’s mental state by abandoning unskillful thoughts, preventing unskillful thoughts from taking hold, and reinforcing skillful thoughts.  Right mindfulness means cultivating awareness of bodily sensations, feelings, mind, and mental objects in all one’s activities.  Right concentration is the development of one-pointed concentration through practicing the meditative absorptions (jhānas) in order to have sufficient stability of mind to develop insight into the marks of existence.

The Eightfold Path has both a mundane and supramundane level.  On the mundane level one follows the path elements to prepare for stream-entry, but at the point of stream-entry all eight elements coalesce into the supramundane path from stream-entry to arahantship.

One can think of each of the path elements separately, but one can also think about them as reflecting and reinforcing each other, like the jewels of Indra’s net, or like holograms, each element containing all the other elements within them.  For example, right speech requires right intention, abstaining from intoxicants, abandoning unskillful thoughts and maintaining right mindfulness.  When one is practicing one aspect of the path, one is reinforcing them all.

The Noble Eightfold Path is Theravāda Buddhism’s map for Destination Nirvana, but other schools have provided somewhat different maps for realization.  Mahāyāna Buddhism has its Bodhisattva path; Vajrayāna has Atiśa’s Stages of the Path. There’s even a Zen-inflected pathless path:  As Toni Packer has written:

“Awareness cannot be taught, and when it is present it has no context. All contexts are created by thought and are therefore corruptible by thought. Awareness simply throws light on what is, without any separation whatsoever.   Awareness, insight, enlightenment, wholeness — whatever words one may pick to label what cannot be caught in words — is not the effect of a cause. Activity does not destroy it and sitting does not create it. It isn’t a product of anything — no technique, method, environment, tradition, posture, activity, or nonactivity can create it. It is there, uncreated, freely functioning in wisdom and love, when self-centered conditioning is clearly revealed in all its grossness and subtleness and defused in the light of understanding.”

So what do I make of the Noble Eightfold Path?  After all, I’m an existential Buddhist who doesn’t believe in literal karma and rebirth.  Since I don’t believe in literal rebirth, I also don’t believe in the literal meaning of stream-entry, i.e., being on the glide path to non-rebirth.  According to the Theravāda map, I’m already hopelessly mired in wrong view.

With the exception of the karma/rebirth issue, however, the Noble Eightfold Path still seems like a pretty good prescription.  It emphasizes the importance of the interplay of intellectual understanding, intention, ethics, enlarging the heart, and meditation.  Practicing one of these without the support of the others is probably the fast track to nowhere.  Without an initial understanding of suffering, impermanence, and interdependence there is little motivation to practice.  Just meditating, however, without the larger envelope of the intention to help all beings can lead to detachment and withdrawal.  Trying to calm the mind while one’s immoral behavior is busy generating turbulence is like trying to erect a tent during a hurricane. Rushing out to save beings without developing discernment, mindfulness, and equanimity is a recipe for what Trungpa Rinpoche called “idiot compassion.”  Finally, a sterile intellectual understanding of Buddhist concepts without the direct experience of reality arrived at through meditation leads to a mistaking of the map for the territory.  One haggles over concepts without ever touching the reality the concepts merely point at.  Alan Watts called this eating the menu instead of eating the meal.  Compassion, ethics, meditative practice, and intellectual understanding are all necessary components of paths to realization — however one imagines that destination — if we are to avoid drifting too far off, either to the left or to the right, and winding up in a side-ditch.

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Tarantula!

Desire never stops.   There is always something else or new we want.  Something better.  Something new to obtain; something new to attain; some new way to be.  It’s the mainspring that drives our behavior in the world.

When we sit down to meditate the mind is flooded with desire:  We want the room we’re in to be warmer or cooler.  We want the environment to be quieter.   We want our posture to be better.  We want our sitting position to be more comfortable.  We want our minds to be more alert, more concentrated, more still.  We can watch the parade of these desires with some degree of detachment and bemusement.  It’s the same old “Wanting Game” again and again.

Buddhist legend tells us that Mara the Tempter appeared to the Buddha in various disguises following his Enlightenment.  Each time Mara would appear, the Buddha would see through his disguise saying “I see you, Mara!”  With that, Mara would disappear, sad and disappointed.  The Buddha didn’t have to struggle with Mara.  He just needed to see Mara for who he was.

Similarly, when we see desire clearly it loses it’s power to enchant.

When I was in elementary school I used to go to the movies every Saturday afternoon.  I could see a double feature, five color cartoons, and a newsreel all for twenty-six cents.  I especially liked science fiction and monster movies.  One Saturday afternoon the local theater was showing the movie Tarantula!

I had seen the coming attractions the previous Saturday, and couldn’t wait to see it.  This had to be the scariest, best movie of all time!  Unfortunately for me, my mother had other ideas.  She was taking me to the dentist for my annual check-up that afternoon.  I was beside myself!  I begged and I pleaded!  Not while Tarantula! was in town!  Couldn’t we call up the dentist and cancel?  Couldn’t we see the dentist next week?  My mother was unrelenting, and I can still remember the taste of my disappointment today, fifty-five years later.  Seeing that movie was the most important thing I could possibly imagine.  When I asked the other kids about it on Sunday, they all agreed it was the best movie ever.  And I had missed it! Sheer misery!

I got a chance to finally see Tarantula! recently.   Here’s what James O’Ehley, the webmaster at Scifimoviepage says about it:

“As far as 1950s giant insect movies go, this… isn’t all that bad. Acting isn’t too rotten… You can certainly do a lot worse….  The older movies such as Tarantula become, the less interesting they become as movies in themselves. It certainly ticks off all the conventions of this particular subgenre: small town in the Arizona desert setting (check), mad scientist (check), army fighting giant insect creature (check), and so on…  Tarantula is simply slow-moving and dull by modern standards. There is a lot of leisurely chatter going on and the finale is anticlimactic to say the least.”

The reviewer is being generous to a fault.  I couldn’t watch more than 15 minutes of the movie.

Isn’t that the way with so much of desire?  How many possessions we couldn’t wait to obtain have been long since sold-off at tag sales or on e-bay or are accumulating dust in some attic or basement?  How many events we wanted to attend were better in anticipation than in actuality?  How many record albums, CDs or MP3s, the one’s we just had to have, now lie unlistened to?  How many things did we wish for that actually turned out to be toxic for us in some way?  Like the sugar, fat, and salt that makes junk food so appealing?  Can we see desire for what it is?

I see you, Mara!”

This is not to say that all desiring is wrong.  We can desire to educate ourselves, parent our children better, be kinder to others.   All good things.  Right now I want to learn how to play Chopin on the piano, and I’m looking forward to a trip touring the National Parks.  I’m also looking forward to another tomato ripening in our garden; they’ve been spectacular this year.  Nothing wrong with that.

What is important is that we look at our desires with discriminating wisdom.  Is what we desire really good for us and others around us?  Is it really worth the price we’re going to have to pay to get it?  Not only the monetary price, but other costs as well: our time, effort and emotional involvement, and the effect it has on loved ones.  Also, the other things we couldn’t afford because of the resources expended on fulfilling that one particular desire.   Is our desire based on a true evaluation of our situation, or is it a senseless craving, an addiction, a whim?

One way to assist in the process of discerning the nature of the desire is to wait a bit.  If we want something now, what if we wait a few minutes, or hours, or days, and see if we still want it?  That is why when we sit down to meditate and the room is too hot or too cold or too noisy, we don’t do anything about our desire to make things better.  We just sit there.  It’s boot camp for life.

[Deep apologies to everyone connected with Tarantula! including director Jack Arnold who went on to direct the wonderfully mystical Incredible Shrinking Man two years later, and actor Leo G. Carroll, who was terrific as Topper on TV.  Apologies also to (genuflect! genuflect!) Clint Eastwood who played an uncredited jet squadron leader in the film.  I didn’t write about this movie because it was especially bad, only because of my memories of having missed it.]

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Spiritual Maturity

A few years back I described a model of adult development that included the idea of spiritual development. [1] The model posited adults as advancing along multiple developmental lines which were semi-independent but which could exert mutual influence on each other. Exceptional levels of functioning in one developmental line could exist side-by-side with pathological levels of functioning in another, and unremarkable levels in yet a third. In Piagetian terms, there were decalages between these semi-independent developmental lines, but the functional level of one line could assist or hinder progress in another. The model included the following developmental lines:

  1. Self-definition [2]
  2. Interpersonal relatedness [3]
  3. Cognitive Ability [4]
  4. Morality [5]
  5. Spirituality

A spiritually developed person would be wise, compassionate, aware, intuitive and authentic. These qualities are not the sole provenance of any particular religion or philosophy, although it may be that some religions or philosophies might be more effective in developing and cultivating them than others.

In this model, spiritual maturity involves the development of a variety of attitudes, capacities, and understandings including:

  1. Self-Decentration
  2. Integration of the Intuitive and Analytic Information Processing Systems
  3. Mindfulness
  4. Intimacy with Being
  5. Care and Concern for an Ever-Widening Circle of Beings.

It might be useful to say a few words about each of these five aspects of mature spirituality.

Self-Decentration

Piaget described how the developing child saw himself as being the center of the universe. For Piaget, cognitive development involved a series of decentrations in which the child gradually realized that the universe did not really revolve around himself. At first, for example, young children, noticing the moon’s presence in the night sky whether they were at home or at grandma’s, would think that the moon had followed them around. Later they understand the moon’s position is governed by natural law that doesn’t involve them personally. In the same way children learn that two people looking at the same object from differing vantage points see the objects differently. At first they assume that everyone sees things from the same vantage point they do. The understanding of Cartesian space, that spatial coordinates exist independently of our bodies, is yet another decentration. As the scientific revolution progressed, humankind’s understanding of its place in the universe underwent a similar series of decentrations. The earth was no longer the center of the solar system, the solar system was no longer the center of the universe, and human beings were no longer the center of the natural world.

This concept of decentration can also be usefully applied to the domains of interpersonal relationships and to social identification. Mature interpersonal relations require the ability to see others as having their own unique desires and points of view, and the ability to provisionally leave one’s own framework and see things as they might. They require the recognition that others’s desires and points of view might have equal existential standing to one’s own, even when one does not fully share them. They require the ability to put others’s needs before one’s own under a multiplicity of circumstances.

We are born with the tendency to draw an inclusive boundary around social groups we identify with, and then assign those outside the boundary to a lesser existential status. Mel Brooks, acting as the Two Thousand Year-Old Man, joked that the world’s first national anthem was “Let ‘Em All Go To Hell Except Cave 76.” Our identifications with family, clan, religion, political party, and region can be profound. This demarcation of our in-group against their out-group is a primary feature of teenage social behavior and is part of the process of identity formation. It is also, unfortunately, one of the primary factors underlying social discrimination, civil war, and genocide.

The ability to move beyond identifications with family, clan, class, religion, politics, and nationality and to see other groups and cultures as having equal rights and value is a process of decentration that continues (or doesn’t!) throughout adult development. Being able to see others as like ourselves and treat them fairly is an integral part of wisdom.

Integration of the Intuitive and Analytic Information Processing Systems

Psychology has long been aware that human beings have two separate information processing systems. Freud recognized this when he made a distinction between primary process and secondary process thinking. Seymour Epstein has made a similar distinction between intuitive-experiential and analytic-rational thought processes.

Analytic-rational processes involve linear thinking in words. They are organized and directed thought processes that use hypothetical-deductive reasoning and problem-solving algorithms to arrive at conclusions. They weigh and sift evidence and test theories. They take a bit of time to figure things out. They are the mainstay of science, mathematics, logic, and philosophy.

Intuitive-experiential processes provide information though imagery and subtle bodily sensations. They are vaguely sensed and operate according to non-linear gestalt principles. Information often emerges and manifests without directed effort. Intuitive-experiential processes are fast and dirty. They provide us with an amorphous intuition that something is not quite right long before our analytic abilities can figure out exactly what has gone awry. It is what we talk about when we talk about trusting our gut, or feeling something in our bones. It’s the mainstay of poetry, art, and mysticism.

Everyone has potential access to both of these systems, but some people rely more heavily on one than another. Wisdom requires an ability to tap into both, and to achieve an integrated balance through a process of shuttling back and forth between systems. Carl Jung was aware of this when he wrote about adult individuation as being, in part, a process of learning to balance thinking, feeling, sensing, and intuiting. Intuition without the check of logic can turn into prejudice and mistaken conviction. Logic without intuition can miss feeling, nuance, and common sense. Wise people know how to reason logically, but also know how to listen to their deepest selves.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness allows us to drop into the immediate present. It allows us to leave the business of mental proliferation, multitasking, and sensory overload and find a place of inner stability and stillness. It allows us to increase our awareness of both intuitive-experiential and verbal thought processes. It allows us to develop our sense of aliveness. Mindfulness serves an an antidote to obliviousness and impulsivity, and is an important component of wisdom.

Intimacy with Being

This refers to a sense of in-touchness and rootedness in the unfolding present moment that develops as a consequence of increasing mindfulness. As we increase out capacity to abide within the moment, in our bodies, and in intimate connection with whatever phenomena manifest within the circle of our awareness, we feel more deeply connected to ourselves, others, and the natural world in heartfelt way.

Care and Concern For An Ever-Widening Circle of Beings

This is an emotional capacity that develops as one decenters from one’s social identifications. The sense of caring and concern we have for loved ones can extend to friends and acquaintances, and eventually to strangers and even enemies. It can also extend to the non-human realm of animals and plants. In the traditional Pali lovingkindness chant we extend kind intentions to “sabbe satta,whatever beings there are. Kindness and compassion are talents or skills that can be enhanced through practiced intention. As we develop spiritually, we open our hearts to others we could not have cared about earlier. Spiritually developed persons are not only wise, but compassionate as well. The spiritually mature person lives at the intersection of wisdom and compassion, the two qualities both balancing and reinforcing each other. As the saying goes, “wisdom without compassion is not wisdom; compassion without wisdom is not compassion.”

These five qualities point to a concept of spiritual maturity but do not exhaustively define it. Readers might be able to think of other qualities that are also necessary features of spiritual maturity. Virtues like equanimity or courage, for example, or a wholesome sense of humor. Please feel free to add to this list in your comments below.

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  1. [1] Segall, S. (2005). Mindfulness and Self-Development in Psychotherapy, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 37 (2), 143-163
  2. [2] For more information about this see: Blatt, S.J. (2008). Polarities of Experience: Relatedness and Self Definition in Personality Development, Psychopathology, and the Psychotherapeutic Process. Washington, DC: APA
  3. [3] For more information about this see: Blatt, S.J. (2008). Polarities of Experience: Relatedness and Self Definition in Personality Development, Psychopathology, and the Psychotherapeutic Process. Washington, DC: APA
  4. [4] For more information about this see: Piaget, J. (1997). The Child’s Conception of the World. London: Routledge
  5. [5] For more information about this see: Kohlberg, L. (1984). The Psychology of Moral Development: The Nature and Validity of Moral Stages. San Francisco: Harper and Row.