Introductory thoughts

What the Buddha never said: “I teach only dukkha and the end of dukkha.”  What he did say, in a particular context, was: “In the past, monks, and also now, I teach suffering and the cessation of suffering.” (MN 22)

The Buddha’s teachings and all later forms of Buddhist thought are based on the Four Ennobling Truths: dukkha, the origin of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha, and the path leading to the cessation of dukkha.

The most important conclusion we can draw from the centrality of the Four Truths to the Buddha’s teaching is that the teachings are about human experience – not philosophy, not metaphysics, not beliefs – but about reality as we can experience it directly. This is why the Pali canon doesn’t contain the concept of non-dualism; it’s a mental construct rather than something any person might experience. The task of the Buddha was to describe and explain the nature of human existence in order to reveal what is hidden and to teach us how to wear away our obstructive modes of clinging so we can move towards an end of dukkha.

The Eightfold Path of the Buddha is a complete set of instructions – it both is the 4th truth and encompasses the Four Truths. We’ll learn a lot about how to become more free by examining the path factors and considering how they apply to our lives, but we can always fall back to the question: what’s the problem here? What is happening that we’re having trouble accepting as a present reality? Once we identify the specific instance of dukkha, we can look into its source – what grasping or pushing away is causing the discomfort? Once we see clearly how we are creating dukkha by attaching to views and opinions (often not an easy step), we instinctively loosen our grip and can feel the problem slide away. The Eightfold Path gives us a reference framework for how we cling and how we might let go.

When we begin to meditate, often there is a gap between sitting practice and the rest of our lives. This can lead us to conclude either that we can’t do the practice or that meditation “doesn’t work” in general. But the mistake there is the separation of meditation practice from the rest of our thoughts and actions, the habits we are cultivating and strengthening in our other waking hours. The Buddha’s Eightfold Path is a remedy for this separation; it helps us to see that there are not two realities, but one continuous stream of experience in which each event is conditioned by previous events and by current circumstances.

For those interested in taking a step back and learning some background to early Buddhist teachings, Bhikkhu Bodhi taught a six session “Short Introduction to Buddhism Course” in 2018. The first lecture is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9qP7zWzDtuY

Also, a trustworthy source for Pali canon teachings is a free daily sutta subscription. Information and subscription options are here: https://daily.readingfaithfully.org

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Discerning for ourselves

We might be thinking that the Buddha’s Eightfold Path is something we can use on an as-needed basis, only when we’re dissatisfied with something or when trouble strikes. That doesn’t work very well because it ignores the fact that the path is an integrated whole; it’s easy to misunderstand or misinterpret the Buddha’s teaching when it’s taken up in bits. The Eightfold Path is a comprehensive framework that we can rely on; the factors support and balance each other. It is likely that whatever the problem is, the Buddha’s Eightfold Path offers a way of seeing and a way forward that leads away from suffering and towards freedom.

It’s important to understand that we are responsible for our own progress, no one else.

Truly oneself is one’s own protector.
What other protector could there be?
Only by being well-trained oneself
Does one obtain the true protector, so hard to gain. (Dhp 160 translated by Peter Feldmeier)

In the same vein, on the path, we need to monitor our progress, our actions and their results, making adjustments as needed.

Suppose, Bhikkhus, a wise, competent, skillful cook were to present a king or a royal minister with various kinds of curries: sour, bitter, pungent, sweet, sharp, mild, salty, bland.
That wise, competent, skillful cook picks up the sign of his own master’s preference: “Today this curry pleased my master…or he spoke in praise of this bland one.”
That wise, competent, skillful cook gains clothing, wages, and bonuses…because that wise…cook picks up the sign of his own master’s preference.
So too, Bhikkhus, here some wise, competent, skillful bhikkhu dwells contemplating the body…his mind becomes concentrated, his corruptions are abandoned, he picks up that sign. He dwells contemplating feelings in feelings…mind in mind…phenomena in phenomena [the four frameworks for developing mindfulness]. While he dwells contemplating phenomena in phenomena, his mind becomes concentrated, his corruptions are abandoned, he picks up that sign.
That wise, competent, skillful bhikkhu gains pleasant dwelling in this very life and gains mindfulness and clear comprehension. For what reason? Because, Bhikkhus, that wise…bhikkhu picks up the sign of his own mind.  (SN 47.8.2 translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

There are a few preliminary questions we can think about as we approach the Ennobling Eightfold Path of the Buddha, and the first one is: Are we relying on some other person or group to direct our spiritual life? Choosing wise guides and mentors is important, but no matter how badly we might want to offload the responsibility, only we can decide how to proceed on a path to awakening, or at least on a path to reduced suffering.

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Your comments and what’s next

I’m grateful that a number of you responded to my request for recommendations; your suggestions were both helpful and kind. Where the blog will go from here is a deep dive into the Buddha’s eightfold path and related topics, which can nicely incorporate many of your ideas (precepts, immeasurables, paramitas) and refer to favorite teachers of yours and mine, e.g., Sayadaw U Tejaniya, among others. I was pleased to learn that there is a daily email message (selections from Sayadaw U Tejaniya’s teachings) available (http://mcgillreport.org/dailytejaniya.htm) and that they are archived back to 2015. Many of his books are also available for free download here https://ashintejaniya.org/post/123912505516/books

A guiding source for our exploration will be Gregory Kramer’s book, A Whole-Life Path: A Lay Buddhist’s Guide to Crafting a Dhamma-Infused Life (https://gregorykramer.org/a-whole-life-path/). It is an in-depth exploration of many ways that we can incorporate the Buddha’s foundational teachings into our everyday lives. Gregory Kramer is one of the originators of the Insight Dialogue training and community.

I do want to clarify at this point that I work from the framework of Theravadan Buddhism, in particular the Pali canon. Other forms of Buddhism are valid and effective for many people, but the teachings that are considered closest to what the historical Buddha taught happens to form the path that has worked for me, and while I appreciate teachings from other traditions, I don’t know them well enough to speak with authority on them.

In that spirit I’d like to respond to one question, which I’ve also had from others in the past:

… one topic that I would be interested in would be an exploration of nonduality within the context of Buddhism.

I was able to confirm with Bhikkhu Bodhi that “there is no concept of nonduality, as a philosophical idea, in the Pali Canon or in the Theravada school itself.” Nonduality, or nondualism as a concept can be found in some (most?) Mahayana schools of Buddhism, but their meanings are contextual and not uniform. From Bhikkhu Bodhi: “Even in relation to Mahayana Buddhism, the idea of nonduality is quite different from the nondualism of Advaita Vedanta. But that is another story.” So I’m going to have to leave it to those drawn to the question to pursue the investigation.

For now, onward to the Ennobling Eightfold Path, about which the Buddha said that it is the path to awakening, to realization, to the deathless, or in other words, to the fullest possible life.

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Dhammapada verses 391 to 423

Whoever does no ill
Through body, speech, and mind,
And is restrained in these three areas,
I call a brahmin. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

This last chapter of the Dhammapada (the Brahmin) includes a long series of verses that end with the words “I call a brahmin.” Using this method, the Buddha describes his monks’ and nuns’ behavior and their spiritual accomplishments, in this verse and in verses 395 right through to the end of the Dhammapada, verse 423.

Some of the verses call attention to rituals practiced by the caste of Brahmins (fire worship, etc.), but many of the later verses tell of esoteric meditative accomplishments of the Buddha’s followers.

Some of the monastics’ qualities mentioned are:

  • robed in discarded rags
  • having cut off every fetter
  • endures abuse, assault, and imprisonment without animosity
  • is without anger or craving
  • knows the end of suffering
  • who lets passion, aversion, conceit and hypocrisy fall away
  • has no longing for this world or the beyond
  • is established in the Deathless
  • is spotless, pure, clear, and undisturbed
  • having given up liking and disliking
  • whoever knows [one’s own] former lives

The two verses that give the most direct instructions for laypeople who are (probably) not on the brink of full awakening are “do no ill through body, speech, and mind”, and “having given up liking and disliking”. We can monitor and restrain our behavior of body, speech, and mind in an unlimited number of ways, always checking that our intentions and actions lean towards the harmless, the wholesome.

And while most of us have not yet given up liking and disliking, these are inclinations that we can bring more clearly into focus when we experience them. Sayadaw U Tejaniya once advised me to “stick with liking and not liking” as a mindfulness object, and his words have formed an extremely helpful guide to getting unstuck from clinging and aversion.

We’ve spent the past many months dipping into the Dhammapada, mining its wisdom for nuggets we can use to nudge ourselves in the direction of the wholesome. I have an idea where to go next with the blog, but I invite each of you to use the “Leave a comment” link on the bottom of this post to raise any questions or state any preferences for what subjects or sources you’d like to see as the basis of future posts. The comments come only to me and so are private, though (with your permission) I would like to share anything helpful with others on this subscription list.

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Dhammapada 388

Having banished evil,
One is called a brahmin.
Living peacefully,
One is called a renunciant.
Having driven out one’s own impurities,
One is called “one who has gone forth.” (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

The last chapter in the Dhammapada is called “The Brahmin” and sets out an important cultural shift that the Buddha initiated. In ancient India (that is, what we now call India) the Brahmin caste was at the top; they were the holders of religious authority and tradition and they (the men) were likely to be the only literate people. They became Brahmins by being born into a Brahmin family and they were at the top rung of the status ladder, no matter what they actually did. But the Buddha taught that one became a Brahmin, that is, earned the title, by making one’s behavior impeccable and by developing deep wisdom. As you can imagine, there was some social pushback to this radical re-definition of the upper rank of the caste system.

This verse begins by stating that one becomes a brahmin through banishing evil from one’s heart. This is not about eliminating external evil, but doing the internal work of uprooting our unwholesome, harmful impulses.

If we are living peacefully, we’re called a renunciant because we turn away from our inclinations to stir up trouble or to increase trouble when we encounter it. The renunciant, in this case, is a floating zone of peace, influencing those nearby to also drop their verbal or physical weapons.

The central point of this verse is that our own impurities hold us back from our highest potential. What does “impurities” mean in this context? In the Pali, the word is āsavas, and it is often translated as taints or corruptions.

From Gloria Taraniya Ambrosia ( https://www.buddhistinquiry.org/article/seeing-the-%C4%81savas/)

The patterns or taints are usually listed as three in number:

    • the taint of craving for sense pleasures (kamāsava),

    • the taint of becoming, often seen as [identifying with various experiences] (bhavāsava),

    • the taint of ignorance, that is, not understanding the true nature of things (avījjāsava).

In the sutta (MN 2), the Buddha teaches seven ways of working with the āsavas—seeing, developing, restraining, using, enduring, avoiding and removing. Of these, seeing the āsavas and developing the factors of awakening are the two most important approaches because they are concerned with eradicating or completely eliminating the taints. And in this context, Seeing means not only seeing these patterns when they arise, but also attending to them in the correct way, that is, with wise attention.

As with many of the Buddha’s teachings, the more closely we inquire, the more we find useful instructions. I recommend the linked article for a more complete explanation of “driving out one’s impurities”, but this verse will suffice for now.

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Dhammapada verse 382

Engaged in the Buddha’s teachings,
Even a young bhikkhu
Lights up this world
Like the moon
Set free from a cloud. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

This verse concludes the chapter in the Dhammapada called “The Bhikkhu”, or monk. It states explicitly that dramatic improvements can come through engaging with the Buddha’s teachings, even to a young monk or nun, presumably one who has been on the path for a short time. This is very inviting to the rest of us. Even if we are no longer young, significant wisdom can grow quickly through diligent practice.

What does the image of the moon set free from a cloud bring to mind? One thought is that the moon was somehow held prisoner or hostage by a cloud; this would be analogous to our own light being suppressed by our unwholesome behavior. If we remove the selfish intentions the light emerges. Another possible meaning is that the cloud represents our ignorance, our inability to see what we are doing and the consequences of our actions; by cultivating wisdom, the mist dissipates and our vision clears.

Another inspiring impression from this lovely verse is that we can be freed through our own efforts. It sounds so simple, and it is – simple but not easy. Our habits and inclinations are powerful forces, particularly if we don’t examine them with a discerning eye. Rather than bemoaning our own shortcomings, we can examine them impartially, accept the discomfort of admitting our flaws, and be encouraged by the opportunity to take a new path or to reaffirm our commitment to the path we are already on. Every move in this direction “lights up this world”.

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Dhammapada verse 380

One is one’s own protector,
one is one’s own refuge.
Therefore, one should control oneself,
even as a trader controls a noble steed. (translated by Ācāriya Buddharakkhita [on Sutta Central])

This verse offers us a an in-depth consideration of the theme of restraint which we’ve been exploring recently.

It’s often said that by keeping the precepts (harmlessness, generosity, sensual restraint, truthfulness, and sobriety) we protect ourselves and others. We offer freedom from fear to those around us when our words and actions are reliably harmless, and we avoid accumulating negative karma for ourselves.

In some Buddhist ceremonies, laypeople are given a temporary bracelet made of (blessed) string or thread, called a “protection cord”. A senior monk was once asked what the protection cord protects us from. He laughed and said, “From our own bad behavior”. So, the cord itself has no magical powers; it doesn’t confer any special status. It’s akin to keeping a rubber band around our wrist if we’re trying to quit smoking. It’s there all the time (the cords last until they fall off themselves, sometimes months later), and it has enough of a spiritual association to remind us of our best intentions. This is one way in which we can “be our own protector”.

Of course any effort we make to keep our words and actions wholesome can be counted as “protecting ourselves”, and these intentions will change and vary in intensity with time and depending on circumstances. What’s most urgent one week may be replaced by an entirely different matter the next, but reflection on the consequences of our actions remains constant.

One aspect of refuge is that it provides a type of protection. Where do we go when we’re in trouble? What do we consider our home, our place of safety, either physically or emotionally? A refuge is normally a place that we consider a stronghold, a place where we’ll be protected; that’s why we seek it out in times of distress or fear.

Becoming a Buddhist is simply a matter of declaring that we take refuge in the Buddha (as our main exemplar of awakening), the Dharma (the teachings, or the way things are), and the Sangha (the community of those practicing for liberation). Taking refuge can be done as part of a ceremony or entirely on our own; some of us take refuge out loud every day. These are not physical places we can go (usually), but a stable mental orientation that we can rely on.

The simile of the trader or merchant controlling a noble steed gives some color to the image. A horse is strong, like our impulses and inclinations, and can be quite wild. But with patience and effort, we can train ourselves to direct our energy into powerfully wholesome behaviors and mind states.

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Dhammapada verse 378 (peaceful)

Peaceful in body, peaceful in speech,
The bhikkhu peaceful and well-concentrated
Who has rejected the world’s bait
Is called “one at peace.” (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

To be peaceful in body, we need to be peaceful in mind; the two are inextricably linked. “Undisturbed” might be a more descriptive word – not agitated, not resisting our experience. Most of us have had times when we stopped driving ourselves towards one goal or another, and we could find those times either wonderful or concerning, depending on whether emptiness is a feeling we can tolerate. At first, it could be frightening, as if we might not be alive at all if there’s no wanting going on, but with practice and patience, we discover that the most peaceful moments are accompanied by a quiet joy, a subtle relief from constant turmoil. The mystical traditions of all religions provide training in achieving this state of (temporary) non-grasping or egolessness.

In another context, a friend observed that real openness happens in those moments when we are neither accepting nor rejecting what someone else is saying. This is the gap where peace can grow.

We become mentally well-concentrated only through patient practice, and it’s a progressive training. At first we simply try, with whatever meditative technique we are using, to cultivate a bit more calm than we had when we started. Gradually we meditate for longer periods and it takes a bit less time to settle. We might experiment with different teachers and approaches, but we always track our progress by checking in (with ourselves, usually) at the start and finish of each formal practice period. Some days it’s hard to quiet ourselves, even a little bit, which is not something to worry about. It’s the every-dayness of practice that will see us through.

In the third line of the verse,”bait” refers to sensual gratifications that lure us in and trap us. It points to the idea that “if we only had this or that, or a bit more of the other thing”, then we would be satisfied and happy. But of course every sensual pleasure is intrinsically temporary; it cannot satisfy us for more than a few minutes. Such is our nature.

When we encounter someone who seems to be at peace with herself, we recognize that this is not an ordinary state. We may be puzzled but we’re likely to be drawn to such a person. We may even be inspired to become “one at peace”.

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Dhammapada verse 376

Mix with spiritual friends,
who are tireless and pure of livelihood.
Share what you have with others,
being skillful in your conduct.
And when you’re full of joy,
you’ll make an end to suffering. (translated by Sujato Bhikkhu)

This verse is an encouragement to do things that will bring joy. Joy is different from happiness; it’s less temporary and less dependent on external circumstances. When you have built good friendships with people who are good, it brings a warm feeling to the heart, which can then be recalled at any time. Happiness (usually) is more analogous to a sugar rush; we get something we want and almost immediately afterwards, the thrill passes and our normal state of dissatisfaction returns.

Sharing and taking care in our relationships requires time and attention. We can gradually make all our words and actions more intentional, more thoughtful. This raises a classic question: Should we be good even when we don’t feel like it or should we wait until a sincere inspiration to be good comes to us? If we think this question through, we are likely to conclude that it’s best to behave in beneficial ways when we are inclined to and also when we’re not inclined to. If we’re having difficulty deciding whether to do a beneficial action or not, we can step back, wait, and consider our full range of options. Jack Kornfield once advised, “Never pass up an opportunity to be generous.”

It’s important that we try to make ourselves more and more skillful as friends. This effort will attract others who have similar values and will also deepen the friendships that we already have.

In practice, we’re likely to find that guiding our speech and actions in considered ways brings joy, or if not joy, then a relative state of peace. We will never regret doing a harmless act, that is, harmless to ourselves and others; we usually will regret doing a harmful act or missing the opportunity to do good. In any case, if we keep ourselves oriented towards making an end of suffering, we will surely make progress in that direction.

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Dhammapada verse 375

The starting point for an insightful bhikkhu is
Guarding the senses,
Contentment,
Restraint according to the monastic rules,
And associating with good spiritual friends
Who live purely and untiringly. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

Starting point? Hm. This implies that to even get off the ground spiritually, we need to develop our mindfulness to a point where we are aware of both positive and negative temptations that affect our body, speech and mind. Guarding the senses, contentment, and restraint are closely related – they all have to do with being aware of and curbing both our appetites for sensual gratification and our impulses to push away or negate things we don’t like.

Depending on one’s personality type, one of these is likely to be more habitual than the other, but we all experience greed and aversion at times. We have to start by knowing ourselves, acknowledging that we are not perfect, and doing an honest audit of both our virtues and our vices. As one example, if we have a weakness for rich desserts we can experiment with considering an array of sweets in a display cabinet, imagining eating each available option, noticing the details of how this makes us feel (can the reality be as good as the thought?), and then setting that desire aside. As another example, we can imagine speaking our nastiest thoughts to a person who annoys us, and thinking through how that conversation might play out. The odds are good that if we give ourselves an extra minute to consider consequences, restraint will seem the preferable option.

For monks and nuns the monastic rules cover every aspect of daily life. For laypeople, we can also refine our behavior over the course of a lifetime, but the best starting point is the five precepts: harmlessness, generosity (non-taking of what is not offered), restrain with sensuality/sexuality, truthfulness, and avoiding intoxicants because they cause heedlessness and tempt us to break the other four precepts. Any sincere effort we make to train ourselves in these ways is a form of restraint and moves us towards greater mindfulness and awareness of the impact our actions have on the welfare of others.

It is very difficult to train ourselves if we have no support in the endeavor; this is where good spiritual friendship comes in. An essential part of the path to awakening is to both be a good spiritual friend and to associate with others whose aim is to refine their behavior and minds. We could invite a likely candidate to enter into an intentional, mutually supportive relationship, e.g., a meditation buddy or a teacher-student association. If we direct our awareness to our friendships, we will soon discern which are (on the whole) supportive and which are not.

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