The Noble Eightfold Path to the End of Dissatisfaction

A new dive into the Noble Eightfold Path, 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, y’all…]

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)

“Where’d the meditation go?”

Because I’ve now recorded hella meditations, and the Tuesday group is largely regulars, and the meditation time just got shortened a bit along with the whole class, I’m doing an experiment of only giving fuller meditation instructions on the first Tuesday of the month, with mainly silence for the later ones. So there will be fewer meditations on these posts.

You can find guided meditations alongside many previous talks, and a basic series collected on this page.

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).)

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