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Right Resolve

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by Sangharakshita

The Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path

Lecture 48: Reason and Emotion in the Spiritual Life: Right Resolve Mr Chairman and Friends In our present series of talks we are studying stage by stage or aspect by aspect the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path.

We are studying it in the first place because the concept of a path, the concept of a way leading from a state of ignorance to a state of Enlightenment, from darkness to light, is central to the whole philosophy of Buddhism. And we are studying the Noble Eightfold Path because it is one of the most important, one of the most significant and best known formulations of that path or way leading to Enlightenment. And we've embarked on this study, on this course of talks, for the benefit of both old and new friends and members - for the benefit of the new so that they can get at least a glimpse, a general idea of very basic Buddhist teaching which is so often neglected - and for the benefit of old members and friends so that they can revise what they have already learned so they can brush up on things they have perhaps understood for many years, and perhaps prepare themselves, little by little, to pass on their knowledge and understanding to others in due course.

Now last week we considered the first stage or the first aspect of the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path, which was, of course, Right Understanding, or as we saw it should be more properly translated Perfect Vision. We saw that Perfect Vision represents not just an intellectual, not just a theoretical understanding of the principles of Buddhism, we saw it's much more than that - it represents the initial spiritual insight and experience which sends us off on our whole religious quest and compels us or impels us to tread the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path. And this vision, this insight, this experience, pertains to, or has as its object, the nature, the true nature, of existence, of life itself.

We also saw last week that this insight into the nature of existence, this experience of the reality of things, can be expressed in two different ways, can be expressed in terms of images, can be expressed also in terms of abstract ideas, in terms of concepts, in terms, we saw, of images, Perfect Vision is represented by that great Buddhist symbol of the Wheel of Life, depicting the round of mundane existence by the figure or the image of the Buddha himself or a sacred circle, as it were of Buddhas, a mandala of Buddhas, as well as by the image or symbol or figure of the Path. And then again we saw that in terms of concepts this vision, this insight, this experience, is represented by the principal doctrinal categories of Buddhism, which are not something worked out intellectually but which are something which try to embody a vision, an experience of the true nature of things. And among these doctrinal categories, among the most important of them, we saw, were the Four Truths of suffering, its cause, its cessation and the way to its cessation. Then the three characteristics of existence, of conditioned existence - that it is impermanent, painful and without reality - then the four kinds of sunyata from the Mahayana point of view. All these we saw were attempts to represent on the intellectual level in conceptual terms what is essentially an experience, a vision, a Perfect Vision of the nature of things.

We also studied more incidentally the connection between Perfect Vision and the seven other stages of the Noble Eightfold Path. And we saw that if the first, if Perfect Vision, represents the initial, spiritual insight and experience, all the others, all the other seven steps, the other seven stages or aspects of the path represent a permeation, as it were, or penetration of all aspects of our being, all aspects of our life, in their height and in their depth, by that insight, by that vision and by that experience. This first step of the Eightfold Path, Perfect Vision, we saw also comprises what is technically called the Path of Vision, whereas all the other seven steps or seven stages comprise what is known as the Path of Transformation by following which all the aspects, all the levels, of one's being are transformed into an Enlightened being in accordance with the Path of Vision, the spiritual insight and experience which we have developed. And by following both these paths, the Path of Insight and the Path of Transformation or the Path of Vision and the Path of Transformation, Enlightenment is attained.

So so much ground we covered in our talk last week. This is just to refresh your memories, those of you who were here, and just to acquaint you, those of you who were not here last week, with how far we have proceeded to date.

Now today we come to the second stage or second aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path. And this is amyak-samkalpa as it is called in Sanskrit or samma samkappa as it is called in Pali. And this is usually translated as Right Resolve as in our printed programme, or Right Resolution. I shall have something to say a little later on about the correct translation of this term.

With this stage, with the stage of religion, into practice then we find that this is very much more difficult indeed. In this connection there's an anecdote which I often relate, some of you may not have heard it, illustrating this point from Buddhist history, from China in fact. It appears that in ancient times in China a number of Indian monks used to go from India to China to preach the doctrine and it seems that at one period of Chinese history there was a very pious Chinese Emperor who was always very eager to welcome great sages and teachers from India. And one day it so happened that one of the greatest of the Indian teachers turned up in the capital of China, and the Emperor as soon as he heard the news was very pleased indeed. He thought he'd have a wonderful philosophical discussion with this newly arrived teacher. So the teacher was invited to the palace, received with all pomp and ceremony and respect, and when all the formalities were over the teacher and the Emperor took their seats together and the Emperor put his first question. He said, `Tell me what is the fundamental principle of Buddhism?' Then he sat back to get it from the horse's mouth as it were. So the teacher said, `Ceasing to do all evil, learning to do good, purifying the heart, this is the fundamental principle of Buddhism!' So the Emperor was rather taken back, he'd heard all that before you see - usually we've heard it all before. So he said `Is that all? Is this the fundamental principle of Buddhism?' so the teacher said, Yes that's all, cease to do evil, learn to do good, purify the heart. It's as simple as that.' But the Emperor said, `But this is so simple even a child of three can understand that!'. So the teacher said. `yes your majesty that is true, even a child of three can understand this. But', he said, `Even an old man of eighty cannot put it into practice!' So this little story illustrates this great difference. We find it very easy to understand, we can understand the Abhidharma, we can understand the Madhyamika, we can understand the Yogacara, we can understand Plato, we can understand Aristotle, understand the Four Gospels, understand everything, but to put even a little of all that into practice, to make it operative in our lives, this we find very very difficult indeed. You probably all know, you probably all remember, the famous exclamation in this connection of St.Paul, who in one of his epistles says succinctly, very much to the point, `That which I would, that I do not. That which I would not, that I do'. So he knows what he ought to do but is unable to do it, and that which he knows he should not do, that he cannot help doing. So again we see this tremendous, this terrible disparity between understanding and practice.

And we may say that this is not exceptional, not just a question of the Chinese Emperor or St.Paul, we may say that all religious people find themselves, at some time or other, and sometimes even for years together, in this quite terrible and tragic predicament. They know the truth rationally. They know it from A to Z and from Z back to A.

They can talk about it, they can write books about it, they can give lectures about it, but they are unable to put it into practice. And this can be for those who are sincere, a source of very great suffering. They feel as it were, `Well, I know this, I know it very very well, I see it so clearly, but I'm unable to put it into practice, I'm unable to carry it out'. It's as though there was some blind spot in themselves, it's as though there was some X factor which was obstructing their efforts all the time. No sooner do they lift themselves up a few inches then they slip back, sometimes it seems a mile.

So this is what happens. So what is the reason for this situation? Why does this happen? Why this terrible gulf? Why this terrible chasm between our theory and our practice, our understanding and our operation? Why are we, most of the time, most of us, unable to act in accordance with what we know is true and what we know is right? Why do we fail so miserably again and again, and yet again? Now the answer to this question is to be sought, we may say, in the very depths of human nature. We say that we know something but how do we know it, in what way do we know it? We know it with the conscious mind, we know it with the rational part of ourselves. We know it theoretically, intellectually, abstractly, but then we must recollect that man is not just his conscious mind. He's not just reason. He may like to think that but he isn't just reason. There is another part of him - a part which is no less important than his reason and which is perhaps a much larger part of him than he cares to think and this other, this more important or no less important, this larger part, is ...

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