A new dive into the Noble Eightfold Path (8FP), the Buddha’s brilliant scaffolding for integrated individual and collective liberation. We start, as is traditional, with Right View: the turning of the heart toward reality and away from delusion.
Right View is both the prerequisite for wisdom to arise and the manifestation of wisdom when it matures. It is described many ways, all of which illuminate a facet of wisdom in action:
Right View is understanding actions that are wholesome and unwholesome. Right View is understanding craving and its objects. Right View is understanding the Four Noble Truths. Right View is understanding aging and death, birth, being, clinging, craving, affect, contact, the senses, mind and body, consciousness, volitional formations, and ignorance […that’s the wheel of Dependent Origination in reverse]. Right View is understanding the defilements of sensory desire, being, and ignorance. And when the defilements are understood, they’re uprooted and you’re done.
This sequence is from the Discourse on Right View (MN 9), where the Buddha’s disciple Sariputta lays out the whole path in kaleidoscopic detail and then drops the mic. Read it here in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation.
So we’ll start with some portion of this, and then unfold into the 8FP map.
Right View starts with willingness to turn toward the truth
To get to the start of the 8FP sequence, we start with the process Gotama went through as he found his path: raised in wealth and privilege, he gives that up, then studies with two respected yoga teachers to learn deep formless concentration, then sees that although useful, those meditations don’t by themselves lead to liberation. Then he does the bodily mortifications of the ascetic path, and goes further than anyone, only to conclude in the end that those don’t liberate either. Then he remembers his childhood ease under the rose-apple tree, and intuits the path.
Why is this story the basis of Right View? Because the whole thing starts with seeing. With seeing old age, sickness, and the inevitability of death, and feeling the fear and anxiety that coming out of denial brings. This is the first hint of Right View: turning toward suffering, especially the existential suffering of these deep truths of embodied existence.
Talk: The Buddha’s path, turning toward reality, and the birth of Right View (5.21.19)
Right View: The Four Noble Truths. Truth 1: Pain
Talk: The Buddha almost decides not to teach because Dependent Origination is too subtle. How the task of the First Noble Truth is to understand it. What investigating suffering is like as a practice. A bit about craving, and a good question at the end about pain, suffering, and the numbness of delusion. (5.28.19)
Right View: The Four Noble Truths. Truth 2: Craving
Meditation: stretching out the pause between breaths as a way to get a feel for stretching out the pause between thoughts. (6.4.19)
Talk: After a bit more about pain (dukkha), mainly this is about understanding grasping as more autonomic than volitional, more ANS than psychology or will. And so how it’s not your fault and not your failing. Tending grasping as a manifestation of the ANS’s job of self-protection and threat assessment. A bit of Good Will Hunting got in here, and basic Polyvagal Theory. And the root resource of good friends at the end. (6.4.19)
(Here’s the sutta I mention at the end that says that the base condition for ignorance is not having good friends.)
Craving & Clinging as ANS responses
Now we’ll flesh out the proposal from last week that the 2nd Noble Truth (Craving is the Cause of Suffering) is talking about Autonomic Nervous System trauma rather than psychological weakness, as mostly implied.
“Craving” is the standard translation of taṇhā (literally thirst), but if it’s an ANS response, how about we translate it “impulse”?
Taṇhā in the wheel of Dependent Origination is followed immediately by upādāna, “clinging” but literally feeding, or taking hold of, or fueling. It’s the constriction that follows from the emotional impulse of craving. So I’ll translate it as “action”.
Now we have “impulse and action” as what happens when the senses encounter something with pleasant or unpleasant charge. Neither thirst nor feeding are complex psychological processes. They’re basic animal reactions to the environment.
And trauma is what we call it when these essentially simple, life-protective impulses get out of balance, and trigger emergency measures when unnecessary, which is most of the time.
So: suffering is the result of our natural animal responsivity getting thrown out of balance, and generating states of emergency [cue Björk flashback] on a hair trigger.
What if the implication that craving is a psychological weakness, which I think is implied in much Western Buddhist teaching, is just unintentional Christian conditioning? Craving isn’t sin, and trauma isn’t a personal failing.
Meditation: working with comfort & discomfort to understand reactivity as a nervous system impulse (6.11.19)
Talk: Let’s think about craving as an out-of-balance Autonomic Nervous System impulse. This is a continuation of last week’s talk, with basic ANS physiology and Polyvagal Theory for support. We look at the 3 kinds of craving: for sense pleasures, existence, and non-existence. (6.11.19)
(In the end of the discussion, we got into talking about craving for non-existence, and its relationship to both self-sacrifice for a cause, suicide, and euthanasia. More to be said about these, for sure! But I mentioned both the discourse about Channa, the monk who commits suicide, and the Vinaya passage about suicide being the origin of the first precept. Here’s links: Channa Uses the Knife (SN 35.87), The Third Training Rule (Bhikkhu Vinaya 3).)
Right View: The 4 Noble Truths. Truth 3: cessation.
The 3rd Noble Truth: allowing unnecessary and misattuned impulses to deactivate ends the pain those impulses were causing.
In this talk, we keep going with Right View through its primary lens, the 4 Noble Truths. We’ve been on pain and craving/reactionary impulses for 5 weeks, and finally, the awesome part: the end of distress & dissatisfaction.
After this, it’s like 7 enormous and difficult limbs of practice, so get the cessation while you can.
Meditation: Full body awareness & breath, observing activation & deactivation, emphasizing deactivation. Feeling cessation. (6.18.19)
Talk: Cessation of grasping = cessation of dissatisfaction. But mostly only got through the review of NT 1-2, so we’ll do more cessation next week. Talked about cessation as ANS deactivation, basically equating that return to PNS orientation with Buddhadāsa’s “Everyday Nibbāna” or “Nibbana for Everyone.”
Ended with some discussion of what might be left for volition if letting go is that complete. Next week we’ll look more at liberation itself. (6.18.19)
Cessation, Liberation, Letting Go
Meditation: Practicing letting go by relaxing body, and how relaxing the body can open into relaxing the mind (6.25.19)
Talk: The 3rd Noble Truth, and how letting go of craving can be understood as a kind of deactivation in the Autonomic Nervous System. (6.25.19)
Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dhamma
Now that we’ve gotten our teeth into Right View and the 4 Noble Truths, let’s spend a couple weeks looking at the mythic first discourse the Buddha gave, “Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dhamma.” (SN 56.11). This is the talk the Buddha gave to his 5 ascetic friends right after his awakening. It lays out the 4NT and 8Fold Path, and the Middle Way between indulgence and asceticism.
The upcoming holiday of Āsāḷhā Pūjā (on the July full moon, 7.16 this year) is called “Dhamma Day”, and celebrates this first talk, as well as the beginning of the Rains Retreat season.
Meditation: On wise effort. (7.2.19)
Talk: “Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dhamma.” The Buddha lays out a path for dealing with the aspect of life that is sensory. (7.2.19)
Why Kondañña shouts “Change!” when he awakens
Talk: Continuing with the “Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dhamma” discourse, we talk about time, including the Buddhist holidays, and why the stock phrase that practitioners say when they have a liberating insight is “Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation.” The relationship between grasping and insight into time. (7.9.19)
Āsāḷhā Pūjā: Celebrating the Turning of the Wheel
Meditation: Recollection of the Dhamma by bringing to mind a teaching you love. (7.16.19)
Talk: More on the five ascetics, the Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dhamma, Kondañña’s insight into impermanence, and the devas rejoicing. And I read the full discourse aloud. (7.16.19)
“The figured wheel rolls through shopping malls and prisons”
We’ve been talking about Wise View, and how we understand the world and life we find ourselves in. Last week we read the beautiful “Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dhamma” text, in which the whole cosmos celebrates the Buddha’s turning of the wheel, “which cannot be stopped by any ascetic or brahmin or deva or Māra or Brahmā or by anyone in the world.”
And among the many many things contributing to something I could call heartbreak lately, here’s just a fragment, posted by Rebecca Solnit this morning: a memorial in Iceland for the first glacier there lost to the climate apocalypse. Here’s what it says:
A Letter to the Future
Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and know what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.
Ágúst 2019Jon Henley, The Guardian
So the Wheel of Dhamma turns, and cannot be stopped. Ok. May it be so. But the word Dhamma, besides meaning “the liberation teachings of the Buddhas” also means, in other contexts, “the way things are, the law of nature, that which is simply how it is and how it works.” And that wheel rolls forth as well, of course.
Here’s the meditation and talk. To mark the end of the Right View series for now, I read this incredible poem by Robert Pinsky, “The Figured Wheel”, and include it below.
Meditation: breath, death, and letting go, over and over. (7.23.19)
Talk: Discernment, a letter to the future, the Wheel rolling forth. (7.23.19)
The Figured Wheel
The figured wheel rolls through shopping malls and prisons,
Over farms, small and immense, and the rotten little downtowns.
Covered with symbols, it mills everything alive and grinds
The remains of the dead in the cemeteries, in unmarked graves and oceans.
Sluiced by salt water and fresh, by pure and contaminated rivers,
By snow and sand, it separates and recombines all droplets and grains,
Even the infinite sub-atomic particles crushed under the illustrated,
Varying treads of its wide circumferenced track.
Spraying flecks of tar and molten rock it rumbles
Through the Antarctic station of American sailors and technicians,
And shakes the floors and windows of whorehouses for diggers and smelters
From Bethany, Pennsylvania to a practically nameless, semi-penal New Town
In the mineral-rich tundra of the Soviet northernmost settlements.
Artists illuminate it with pictures and incised mottoes
Taken from the Ten-Thousand Stories and the Register of True Dramas.
They hang it with colored ribbons and with bells of many pitches.
With paints and chisels and moving lights they record
On its rotating surface the elegant and terrifying doings
Of the inhabitants of the Hundred Pantheons of major Gods
Disposed in iconographic stations at the hub, spoke and concentric bands,
And also the grotesque demi-Gods, Hopi gargoyles and Ibo dryads.
They cover it with wind-chimes and electronic instruments
That vibrate as it rolls to make an all-but-unthinkable music,
So that the wheel hums and rings as it turns through the births of stars
And through the dead-world of bomb, fireblast and fallout
Where only a few doomed races of insects fumble in the smoking grasses.
It is Jesus oblivious to hurt turning to give words to the unrighteous,
And is also Gogol’s feeding pig that without knowing it eats a baby chick
And goes on feeding. It is the empty armor of My Cid, clattering
Into the arrows of the credulous unbelievers, a metal suit
Like the lost astronaut revolving with his useless umbilicus.
Through the cold streams, neither energy nor matter, that agitate
The cold, cyclical dark, turning and returning.
Even in the scorched and frozen world of the dead after the holocaust
The wheel as it turns goes on accreting ornaments.
Scientists and artists festoon it from the grave with brilliant
Toys and messages, jokes and zodiacs, tragedies conceived
From among the dreams of the unemployed and the pampered,
The listless and the tortured. It is hung with devices
By dead masters who have survived by reducing themselves magically
To tiny organisms, to wisps of matter, crumbs of soil,
Bits of dry skin, microscopic flakes, which is why they are called “great,”
In their humility that goes on celebrating the turning
Of the wheel as it rolls unrelentingly over
A cow plodding through car-traffic on a street in Iasi
And over the haunts of Robert Pinsky’s mother and father
And wife and children and his sweet self
Which he hereby unwillingly and inexpertly gives up, because it is
There, figured and pre-figured in the nothing-transfiguring wheel.
(Robert Pinsky, History of my Heart, 1984)
Next in the series: Right Intention…