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Right Understanding

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by Sangharakshita

The Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path

Lecture 47: The Nature of Existence: Right Understanding Mr Chairman and Friends, Today we are beginning a new series of talks, and for me the beginning of a new series of talks is always something of an adventure, with an element, if I may say so, of excitement about it. There is certainly, one may say, an element of uncertainty, because after all one never knows how many people are going to turn up. Sometimes attendance depends upon very variable factors like the weather and whether your advertisement was inserted in time, and things like that. In fact sometimes one doesn't even know whether any people are going to turn up at all. And even if they do turn up one doesn't know what their response is going to be. One can't predict this, one can't judge this in advance. No doubt in the same way the beginning of a new series of talks is, especially for our regular people, our regular members and friends, also something of an adventure, because you don't know exactly what it is that you are going to get, or not get, as the case may be. When you come here, especially when you come for the first time after seeing our advertisement in the New Statesman, or one of the local Kensington papers, or having a circular pushed through your letterbox, as I believe has in fact been done, you don't know what you're going to get, and you don't know how you're going to respond or react. You don't know whether you're in for an evening of immeasurable boredom or whether you're going to be surprised and thrilled and really excited. You don't know when you come here for the first time whether you're never going to come again, or whether you're going to stick with us for life! You just don't know. So for the audience also, for all of you also, we hope that there's an element of excitement, an element of uncertainty, an element of adventure, in the beginning of a new series like this.

But at least, even if you don't know exactly what you are going to get in the course of the evening, at least you know in a very general way what the subject of the whole series is. For the next eight weeks we shall be dealing here, week by week, with The Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path. And there are quite a number of reasons why this particular topic is being taken up.

First of all there is of course its intrinsic importance. If we know anything about Buddhism at all, if we have even the merest glimmering of understanding about it, we know that Buddhism is essentially, above all else, a way or a path, a way or a path leading to a state of realisation of Truth, of oneness with Reality if you like, which we call Enlightenment, which we call nirvana, which we call the Realisation of one's own innate Buddha Nature. And the Noble Eightfold Path, we may say - The Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path - is perhaps the best known, certainly one of the most widely known, of all the formulations, of all the ways of explaining and expounding this way or this path to Enlightenment, to nirvana, or to Buddhahood. Moreover, as some at least of you will know, the Noble Eightfold Path is the fourth of the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Truths of suffering, its cause, its cessation, and then the way leading to the cessation of suffering, which is of course this same Noble Eightfold Path. And we find, if we look back to the early days of Buddhism, if we look back to the first occasion when, after his Enlightenment, the Buddha opened his mouth and taught - if we look back and recall the first sermon or the first discourse, the discourse of the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma in the Deerpark at Benares, some slides of which we saw in this very place only last Sunday, then we will find that the main content of the Buddha's first discourse, the main content of his first enunciation of his great spiritual discovery to humanity is again none else than this Noble Eightfold Path, as part of the Four Noble Truths. And if we follow the whole course of Buddhist history, if we examine school after school and teaching after teaching - whether in India, whether in Tibet or Burma or Thailand or Japan or Ceylon, or any other Buddhist country, wherever Buddhism has gone - we find constantly, in all these schools, in all these traditions, references, again and again, to the Four Noble Truths - especially to the Noble Eightfold Path.

So if we do not know something about these things, if we don't know, if we don't understand the Four Truths and the Eightfold Path in some detail, then we know very little indeed about Buddhism. If we wish to know, if we want to know anything, at least we should know these things - the Four Noble Truths and especially the Noble Eightfold Path. And this is one of the reasons, if not the main reason, why we are having this series of talks - and we've called them talks rather than lectures because they will be much more informal than the lectures which we had at Kingsway Hall. We are having them for this reason, because of the intrinsic importance of this topic of the Noble Eightfold Path.

These talks are, by the way, I should add, even insist, intended both for our old friends, old members, as well as for new friends and new members. They are intended for new friends, especially for those who have been coming now for quite a few months to our meditation classes at Sakura in Monmouth Street, to help give them some idea of basic Buddhist teaching as a sort of supplement to their practice of concentration and meditation. So far as the old members and friends are concerned, these talks are intended or devised to help them revise and refresh what they already know so that they can not only deepen the knowledge that they already have, but be in a position - perhaps later on - to communicate it to other people. Although our movement is a comparatively young one it's a growing one - classes and other activities are expanding all the time and there is a very great deal of teaching work involved, and sooner or later, therefore, some of our older and more experienced members and friends will have to share some of the, I won't say burden but certainly some of the responsibility, for teaching some of the new people, the new classes. So for the old members also this series of talks is intended. And week by week, as you will already have seen from the printed programme, we shall be dealing with just one step, one anga, to use the correct term, of the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path. And today, in our first talk in the series, under the heading of `The Nature of Existence' we are dealing with Right Understanding, which is the first step, the very first step of the Eightfold Path.

Now this evening we've got rather more ground to cover than we shall be having to cover in future talks. I want to speak principally about three things, or deal principally with three major topics. First of all I want to say something about the Noble Eightfold Path in general. Then I want to go on to say something about the relationship between Right Understanding, the first step or first anga of the path, and all the other seven steps. And lastly, most importantly of all, I want so say something about Right Understanding itself.

Now first of all the Noble Eightfold Path in general. Not very much, I feel, needs to be said here, just a few words of comment and explanation. The word which in English we render as `Noble' in the Sanskrit and Pali original is Arya. And originally in ancient times in India the word Arya was used more or less in a racial sense. The invaders that came down from central Asia, through the passes of the North West, pouring into the plains of India, subduing and conquering the local indigenous people - these were known as Aryas. So originally the word had a racial connotation, but gradually as the centuries went by the word assumed ethical and spiritual meaning. And in Buddhism the word Arya means connotes whatever pertains to, whether directly or indirectly, the realisation of Ultimate Reality, whatever is directly concerned with things spiritual, either with the spiritual path or the spiritual goal, or aspects of spiritual life. All this is called Arya. So Arya is not only, we may say, `noble', but also `holy'. It has that shade of meaning too. And some translators therefore speak not only of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, some translators speak of the Four Holy Truths and the Holy Eightfold Path.

I remember in this connection a rather amusing little story which was told me many years ago by Lama Anagarika Govinda, whom also we saw on the slides here last Sunday. I remember once in the early days of my contact with Lama Govinda, we were talking about Buddhism in Europe and especially Buddhism in Germany. So I happened to ask Lama Govinda how many different branches of Buddhism there were in Germany. So he said two, and he said they are always at loggerheads. So I was naturally interested and I enquired, what is the cause of the controversy, why are they always at loggerheads? So he said it was a long story - these are usually long stories, things of this sort - but he said the principal point of difference is this. One group in Germany (and this of course relates to affairs forty or fifty years ago - I hope they're different now), he said one group insists that Arya means `Noble'; the other insists it means `Holy'. So there are two groups. There are the `Noble Truthers' and the `Holy Truthers', and he said they are always at loggerheads! So this is an illustration of the sort of way in which people do fall out. But anyway this is just by the way, and it only goes to illustrate how careful one must be not to be carried away by, not to be swayed by, or emotionally influenced by, just words. Perhaps the whole controversy isn't very important at all.

Now ...

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