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Notes on The Buddha-s Noble Eightfold Path

by Kamalashila

Notes on The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path
11/22/2006 02:25 PM
The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path (ariya atthangika magga)


The Eightfold Path in general: The Path of Vision and the Path of Transformation
the Path of Vision
initial flash of insight, which can arise, e.g.:
a. through meditation
b. through bereavement
c. through deep thought or aesthetic experience
d. through spontaneous spiritual experience
e. through general experience of life
f. through altruistic activity
flashes of insight generally: need to be kept alive
the Path of Transformation
all the other seven angas of the path
transformation of emotion, communication, behaviour, livelihood, effort, awareness, and
higher consciousness
these are not a path in the sense of a series of steps. Anga means limb – see them like
developing parts of a body, the body of your spiritual life. Or like spokes of a wheel,
growing out of a centre.
Even samyak drsti – the initial spark of vision – is like this: it’s a growing faculty. Flashes
of insight increase, grow and are supported by the development of the path of
transformation. Vision – transformation – more vision – more transformation.
Samyak Drsti
Not an intellectual understanding¸ though it may be conditioned and stimulated by right
intellectual understanding (samyak drsti in sense of Right View)
A seeing of the nature of existence
this seeing can be expressed in various different ways – these ways are concretised in
images and conceptual formulae
important to understand that these formulae are simply expressions, not the actual
seeing of reality. Understanding the image or the conceptual formula may point us
in the right direction, but it is not the insight itself.
Wheel of Life
the Buddha
the Path
conceptual formulae
the Four Noble Truths
1. unsatisfactoriness
2. its cause
3. its cessation or nirvana
1. the path to that cessation, i.e. the Eightfold Path.
Three Characteristics of Conditioned Existence
Conditioned existence is suffering
1. actual suffering i.e. pain
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Notes on The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path
11/22/2006 02:25 PM
2. potential suffering, i.e. you will lose everything
3. metaphysical suffering, i.e. nothing conditioned can fully satisfy the heart, only the
Conditioned existence is impermanent
this applies to everything. You can’t hang on to anything.
All existence is devoid of true selfhood
if everything is impermanent, if there is nothing that doesn’t change, it means that there is no centre, no
core, to anything – not even to ourselves. We can only think in those terms, but that is not the actual
Karma and Rebirth
This is also a kind of insight – one sees vividly how all beings are changing
themselves through their actions, and how they are continually reborn in the states
of being and consciousness which arise out of those actions.
The Four Sunyatas
Emptiness of the Conditioned: Samskrta sunyata
Samskrta means ‘put together’ or ‘constructed’. This is perhaps a better term than ‘conditioned’, because
it points to the fact that our experience of the world is our own construction of reality, our own
assembly. We add up all the experiences we have and we construct them into a particular kind of world.
But this world is seen very much from our individual point of view. Others have a different experience,
and certainly a Buddha, who sees things as they really are, will see things quite differently. So this
construction of ours is empty. The constructs of time, and space, and other mental concepts like ‘me’
and ‘you’ and ‘it’ which we use all the time, are not ultimately real. Reality is not describable in those
terms, reality is beyond description of any kind, beyond our constructions of language and ideas. So our
constructions are, as it were, empty. ‘Empty’ here is a poetic image. It doesn’t mean just a vacuum. It
really means ‘open’ or ‘unlimited by concepts’. So this is the first level of sunyata, when we start to see
more and more how our world consists of these constructs. We might notice it in quite small ways at
first. Someone might, for example, tell us a little home truth about ourselves. And with this little, well
meaning truth, our whole world tumbles down. Our self image has to change. Our self image is a
complex construct, and we depend on it very much. When we are forced to change our ideas, it’s
possible that we start to see that the whole way we see existence is like this. In this way we can see that
our unenlightened existence is a web of constructions.
In other words this conditioned experience of reality we have is empty of the real, unconstructed, nature
of existence. This unenlightened experience is characterised by unsatisfactoriness and impermanence.
Whereas the realm of the unconditioned, or the unconstructed, the real nature of things, is characterised
by complete satisfactoriness. It is also characterised by a transcendence of time and space, so the notion
of impermanence doesn’t fit any more.
Emptiness of the Unconditioned: asamskrta sunyata
Which brings us to the second level of sunyata, the Emptiness of what is unconstructed, or the asamskrta
sunyata. Reality as it is, is completely open in a way it is difficult for us to imagine. So it is said to be
empty of the characteristics of the world we construct. It just isn’t like that.
So with these first two levels of sunyata we look at samsara, and we look at nirvana, in complementary
terms. On the one hand, our samsaric experience, being a mere web of constructions, does not display
the characteristics of nirvana. It is empty of the characteristics of nirvana. On the other hand if we were
Enlightened and perceived things as they are, free from our ignorance, it would not be like we
experience it now. Nirvana is empty, or free, from the characteristics of samsara.
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Notes on The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path
11/22/2006 02:25 PM
Great Emptiness: Maha Sunyata
But there is a further level of sunyata which goes beyond this complementarity. This is Great Emptiness or
Maha Sunyata. Maha means great. This notion of Mahasunyata, great sunyata, refers to the fact that
ultimately you can’t make a distinction between our samsaric experience and a Buddha’s nirvanic experience.
Sure, one is unenlightened and the other is enlightened, but both Enlightenment and unEnlightenment pertain to
the same experience, the same basic stuff of life. The difference is in the interpretation. The unenlightened
person just misinterprets what is happening, constructs it wrongly, sees things wrongly. The Enlightened
person is free from this tendency to construct a world in terms of a permanent self, etcetera. He sees things as
they actually are. But the raw material, the basic reality, is the same. It’s the same reality, it’s just that one
sees it and one doesn’t. And that reality is empty, In other words it is totally free and unbounded. So in this
way, Mahasunyata refers to the non-difference between samsara and nirvana. They are equally empty.
the Emptiness of Emptiness: Sunyata Sunyata
The Emptiness of Emptiness, the Sunyata Sunyata is an important reminder that despite these
profound levels of sunyata, actually what we still have is an idea of sunyata. For us, sunyata
– even Mahasunyata – is a concept. We are constructing our own concept of sunyata as I speak.
That’s all we can do, unless we have the Buddha’s vision. That is the only way that we can
conceive of things, at present. But this teaching reminds us that that constructive, conceptual
understanding is what we are creating, even out of the idea of sunyata. So it undoes the concept of
sunyata itself, saying that that is also sunya, the concept of emptiness is itself empty.
In fact all these ways of expressing the Buddha’s samyak drsti or Perfect Vision, like the four sunyatas, or the
four noble truths, or the three characteristics of existence, are conceptual. They have to be. That’s why it’s
also good to speak in terms of images and symbols, like the image of the path. The eightfold path itself uses
an image, the image of a journey along a path. Even though, as we’ve seen, that also is inadequate as a
description, such an image is good as an alternative, as a counterweight to our more rational way of
In fact now we have a few ways of looking at Perfect vision, even the path of vision. Over the next few days
we’ll look at the next seven angas of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, which comprise what is known as the
Path of Transformation.
Difference between reason and emotion, theory and practice.
Chinese Emperor and Indian bhikshu: what is the essence of Buddhism? ‘Cease to evil, learn to do good’ –
easy to say, hard to practice.
We know– but it is so difficult to put into practice sometimes
We are not just reason. We are ...

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