Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Eightfold Path: A Secular View of Right Understanding

The path of awakening begins with a step the Buddha called right understanding. Right understanding has two parts. To start with, it asks a question of our hearts. What do we really value, what do we really care about in this life? Our lives are quite short. Our childhood goes by very quickly, then adolescence and adult life go by. We can be complacent and let our lives disappear in a dream, or we can become aware. In the beginning of practice we must ask what is most important to us. When we’re ready to die, what will we want to have done? What will we care about most? At the time of death, people who have tried to live consciously ask only one or two questions about their life: Did I learn to live wisely? Did I love well? We can begin by asking them now.

This is the beginning of right understanding: looking at our lives, seeing that they are impermanent and fleeting, and taking into account what matters to us most deeply. In the same way, we can look at the world around us, where there is a tremendous amount of suffering, war, poverty, and disease. What does the world need to foster a safe and compassionate existence for all? Human suffering and hardship cannot be alleviated just by a simple change of government or a new monetary policy, although these things may help.

On the deepest level, problems such as war and starvation are not solved by economics and politics alone. Their source is prejudice and fear in the human heart— and their solution also lies in the human heart. What the world needs most is people who are less bound by prejudice. It needs more love, more generosity, more mercy, more openness. The root of human problems is not a lack of resources but comes from the misunderstanding, fear, and separateness that can be found in the hearts of people.

Right understanding starts by acknowledging the suffering and difficulties in the world around us as well as in our own lives. Then it asks us to touch what we really value inside, to find what we really care about, and to use that as the basis of our spiritual practice. When we see that things are not quite right in the world and in ourselves, we also become aware of another possibility, of the potential for us to open to greater loving-kindness and a deep intuitive wisdom. From our heart comes inspiration for the spiritual journey. For some of us this will come as a sense of the great possibility of living in an awake and free way.

Others of us are brought to practice as a way to come to terms with the power of suffering in our life. Some are inspired to seek understanding through a practice of discovery and inquiry, while some intuitively sense a connection with the divine or are inspired to practice as a way to open the heart more fully. Whatever brings us to spiritual practice can become a flame in our heart that guides and protects us and brings us to true understanding.

Right understanding also requires from us a recognition and understanding of the law of karma. Karma is not just a mystical idea about something esoteric like past lives in Tibet. The term karma refers to the law of cause and effect. It means that what we do and how we act create our future experiences. If we are angry at many people, we start to live in a climate of hate. People will get angry at us in return. If we cultivate love, it returns to us. It’s simply how the law works in our lives.

Someone asked a vipassana teacher, Ruth Dennison, if she could explain karma very simply. She said, ‘‘Sure. Karma means you don’t get away with nothing!’’ Whatever we do, however we act, creates how we become, how we will be, and how the world will be around us.

To understand karma is wonderful because within this law there are possibilities of changing the direction of our lives. We can actually train ourselves and transform the climate in which we live. We can practice being more loving, more aware, more conscious, or whatever we want. We can practice in retreats or while driving or in the supermarket checkout line. If we practice kindness, then spontaneously we start to experience more and more kindness within us and from the world around us.

There’s a story of the Sufi figure Mullah Nasruddin, who is both a fool and a wise man. He was out one day in his garden sprinkling breadcrumbs around the flowerbeds. A neighbor came by and asked,

‘‘Mullah, why are you doing that?’’

Nasruddin answered, ‘‘Oh, I do it to keep the tigers away.’’

The neighbor said, ‘‘But there aren’t any tigers within thousands of miles of here.’’

Nasruddin replied, ‘‘Effective, isn’t it?’’

Spiritual practice is not a mindless repetition of ritual or prayer. It works through consciously realizing the law of cause and effect and aligning our lives to it. Perhaps we can sense the potential of awakening in ourselves, but we must also see that it doesn’t happen by itself. There are laws that we can follow to actualize this potential. How we act, how we relate to ourselves, to our bodies, to the people around us, to our work, creates the kind of world we live in, creates our very freedom or suffering

Friday, January 08, 2016

A Secular Look at the Eightfold Path

The Dharma Wheel
The Eightfold Path is common to most Buddhist traditions, and secular Buddhists consider the Eightfold Path to be the heart of practice. The Eightfold Path, or path as it’s called, is a guide for areas to explore and practice. There is great wisdom in this path, all of which can be tried out and tested in everyday life. In following and practicing the path, you learn to see life realistically, without delusions crowding out your mind and creating a lot of mental noise and anguish, and you’ll benefit in many other ways.

The path is not linear. In fact, many of the areas of the path can’t really be explored without practicing other areas. For instance, Right Mindfulness and Right Intention go into all parts of the path. I would say all areas of the path are of equal importance.  Over time you’ll settle into exploring them naturally.

You’ll notice each of these areas of the path begins with the word Right. There is much discussion about this, and many would agree that the word right actually means something more like wholesome or skillful, with non-harm in mind. The meanings of these areas are mostly the same across traditions, but Right View differs a bit for secular Buddhists.

Right View
Seeing the world as it is is Right View, with an understanding of the Three Marks of Existence, and the Four Noble Truths. When you fully understand the marks and truths, then you see the world and yourself without delusion, hatred, greed, etc. Some of the traditions also include kamra (kamma) here, but most secular Buddhist view kamma as intention or action, so we place it under Right Action. Additionally, with secular Buddhists, kamma is not believed to be a system of justice that goes from one life to the next, but instead is about developing wholesome intention behind our actions so we behave ethically in this life, with Right Action.

Three marks of existence
In Buddhism, the three marks of existence are three characteristics shared by all sentient beings, namely impermanence (anicca), dissatisfaction or suffering (dukkha), and non-self (anattā). These three characteristics are mentioned in verses 277, 278 and 279 of the Dhammapada.

Right View also touches on our own views of the world, how we may cling to them, how we may consider them permanent, when they are really impermanent, and how we can get caught up in a “thicket of views”. Exploring the Three Marks of Existence helps you see through getting caught in your own views.

Right Intention
In order not to create more suffering, we need to rely on paying attention (mindfulness) to what our intentions are with others and with our actions. If our intentions stem from anger, resentment, or greed, then we are more likely to do harm than if our intentions are driven to help, to understand, to better our actions in the world. We also need to use intention when we sit for meditation, when we want to speak or act effectively, etc. and to practice the path. Learning how to be mindful to intentions before you act, speak, or write takes some time to learn. But it’s fascinating once you start digging deeply into this area. Once you are aware of your intentions, you sometimes need to consciously set new intentions and let go of the old ones. This is a big part of practice. And it takes practice!

Right Action
With wholesome intentions, our actions are more likely to be skillful as well. This part of the path asks us to pay attention (mindfulness) to how we act or behave in the world, that our actions go towards helping and not harming, that what we do is skillful and don’t do what leads to more suffering. Keep in mind, we are not giving you specifics of what you should do or shouldn’t do. Instead, you learn to develop an ethics meter so to speak, good judgement, based on whether or not your action will bring harm or suffering to yourself or others. You learn to make sure your actions don’t cause suffering.

Right Speech
From the above, you probably figured out already that Right Speech is talking, and includes emailing/messaging,  in such a way that you don’t hurt feelings, you don’t lie, don’t use deceptive or intentionally confusing language, that you don’t gossip, or intentionally make people angry with your speech. Why? Because doing so causes suffering to the people you speak or write harshly too. That doesn’t mean you have to withhold your opinion. It does mean, learning to pay attention (mindfulness) to the intention behind what you are saying, and deciding if it’s going to do more harm than good.

Intention plays a big role here. Examine your intentions for wanting to share your opinion, for wanting to correct or criticize, etc. Right Speech, can also be thought of as Right Writing as well, because what we are really talking about here is communication. We want our communications to be of benefit, not harm. This can be tricky in a world where we come across a multitude of opinions and ideas daily. Sometimes we know people’s views are skewed, wrong, delusion, or divisive. Set an example for healthy, helpful communications.

Right Livelihood
Right Livelihood addresses how we earn a living and more. I’ve seen a lot of debates online where people argue about whether it’s ok or not to work at certain places. Again, this is another part of the path that asks us to determine for ourselves if what we do for a living is causing suffering, or whether what we do is neutral or helping. It’s not a matter of this place is bad and that place is good. Mindfulness and intention come into play in how we interact with our coworkers (action), what our jobs ask of us, how we approach our work ethics. You could be working at a place that does service to others, but if you are treating coworkers unfairly, or you are cheating your employers out of hours or money, then you might want to examine your intentions. This is an area that is worth deep and detailed exploration. The Eightfold Path helps us learn to make our own judgement calls on where we work, how we can make the most of it, and how we interact with others while doing our jobs.

Right Effort
Without effort, our practice is toast. Of course, we all know that to accomplish anything we need to put effort in. For our practice, however, this effort has the motivation/intention of lessening suffering. So, the effort we put into our practice is the impetus for dropping whatever gets in the way of our developing ethics, compassion, and it motivates us to let go of greed, fear, angst, hatred, self loathing, etc. By practice, I mean all your interactions in the world. Being mindful of where we put our effort in our actions and speech each day is really important. And, of course, we need to apply effort toward other areas of our practice, such as developing mindfulness in meditation so that we can put it to good use throughout our days.

Right Mindfulness
Mindfulness in a nutshell is paying attention, but it stretches beyond that. The norm for many of us is to go through our days, living mostly in our heads, with thoughts of the past or future, in conversation with people who aren’t present, ruminating over and over problems. Now, that’s not to say thinking and problem solving aren’t necessary. They surely are, but there is a time and place for thinking and musing, and it’s not all day long. Mindfulness helps keep us anchored in the present, so we can interact in the world appropriately, so we can apply just the right effort to various tasks, and to help prevent from creating and worsening problems. Living entirely in our heads is a habit that is hard to break. Living in our heads can cause us to do poorly in our jobs, distract us from driving on the road well, and in general can just cause a lot of angst.

But with proper intention, effort, and mindfulness, you can train yourself to be present, and deal with whatever arises appropriately. You’ll find over time, mindfulness becomes the new mode of being, a new healthy habit, and you’ll find yourself lost in thoughts much less frequently. Meditation is the tool to develop mindfulness. As you develop mindfulness in the quiet, still environment of meditation, you then extend mindfulness to include all your daily life.

Right Concentration
Right Concentration, sometimes called Right Meditation, and is the practice of focusing the mind solely on one object. Where mindfulness is open to whatever arises, concentration is focusing on one thing to the exclusion of everything else. Both concentration and mindfulness are tools to sharpen the mind, and bring it out of the shadows of discursive thinking and root us in the present. In some traditions, concentration is developed through the practice of the jhanas. This is not a common practice in western Buddhism, but as neuroscience finds benefits to meditation, there seems to be renewed interest in using jhana techniques to develop very specialized forms of concentration.

Concentration also improves naturally through mindfulness meditation. Concentration requires use of Right Effort, Right Intention, and Right Mindfulness. Some argue that you can’t have really good concentration until you’ve developed the ability to let go of anger, hatred, discursive thinking, negativity, etc. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try developing concentration until you have a free mind. Indeed, working on concentration is what helps you to learn to drop unskillful thinking. Once mindfulness and concentration are established, then you can develop greater insight overall because your mind is cluttered with thoughts that inhibit wisdom.

It’s important to review the Eightfold Path from time to time, and to focus on areas as needed. Over time, you’ll notice the overlaps, how each part of the path works with other parts. Working the path is an ongoing lifetime effort that brings many rewards and improve the quality of life.