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The Eightfold Path - East and West

by Kamalashila

The Eightfold Path – East and West [Bodh Gaya 00]
11/22/2006 02:25 PM
The Eightfold Path – East and West
Talk given at the Mahabodhi Society, Bodh Gaya, 28.12.2000
Many thanks, Venerable Sir, for your introduction, and your invitation to speak this afternoon. I am
extremely honoured that you have asked me to give an address on the Dharma in this, of all places.
For as I hardly need remind any of you, it is here, in this auspicious place, where the Buddha actually
entered nirvana and discovered the way to enlightenment. After his enlightenment, it is said that he spent
some time in this area under the Bodhi tree, and under various other trees. He is said, in part, to have
been pondering a rather big decision: was he actually going to teach the Dharma, to make the Way to
enlightenment available for others? You get the impression from the scriptures that this really was a
difficult, involved consideration. There is the well-known episode – the story or the myth – of Brahma
Sahampati. The great Brahma of 1000 Worlds appeared to the Buddha in a vision, and begged him to
reveal the Truth to the world. At that point, apparently, the Buddha had more or less decided against all
Well, as we know, other people can almost incredibly difficult. It is so very easy to misunderstand, or to
think that you do understand, when you don’t. Moreover, this Dharma was quite different from anything
that had gone before. No one had ever taught it. Maybe no one would understand it, and he would be
surrounded by bothersome people with all kinds of complicated misunderstandings and half
understandings. What a life! No, it was better just to be enlightened, simply to enjoy, and pursue his
However, as we all know, these thoughts didn’t stay around for long. Prince Siddhartha had grown up
with a sense of great responsibility. Everyone expected him to become king. Siddhartha’s Going Forth
was sparked off by reflection on humanity’s sufferings. What moved him to enter into full time spiritual
practice were the four sights – first an old man, a sick man, and a dead man, and then – a revelation – a
wandering holy man. Why do people have to grow old, why do they always suffer and always die?
What is really happening here, and can I do anything about it? As future king, is there anything that I
can do? These were the thoughts of a highly trained, educated man in the prime of his youth. They
were very idealistic, yet Siddhartha wasn’t just a dreamer. He had been brought up to be strong, to act,
to take responsibility – to take the leading part in society. Such an upbringing must have given him
tremendous confidence. In these reflections, he found the confidence that he, Siddhartha, could actually
do something about the sufferings of humanity; actually address the universal problems of death and
impermanence. Of course, as a future king, as a good and wise king, he would want to help with
material needs too – to help provide education, employment, justice, health and social welfare. However,
the four sights had aroused deeper questions in his mind. What about age, impermanence, death? What
about reality?
Whatever moved Siddhartha Gotama to act on this kind of consideration seems quite extraordinary. In
Buddhist terminology, we would call it Bodhicitta, the embryonic aspiration for enlightenment. So,
though it seems there took place something of a struggle in the Bodhisattva’s mind, as indicated by
Brahma Sahampati’s request, it is hard to imagine that the Buddha could really have decided not to
teach. Obviously, teaching was going to be difficult; obviously the rest of his life would be taken up
with communicating what he had achieved – but given his aspirations for others, he could hardly have
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The Eightfold Path – East and West [Bodh Gaya 00]
11/22/2006 02:25 PM
with communicating what he had achieved – but given his aspirations for others, he could hardly have
done anything else.
In this way, the Buddha decided to teach the Dharma. The best people to start with, he felt, would be his
five former companions. They were likely to understand. He knew them well; he knew they weren’t too
far away from the realisation he had gained. A few months before, they had all been ascetics, practising
together. However, when he decided to stop ascetic practices, such as extreme fasting, and took some
solid food, they were extremely disappointed, and left him. They weren’t to know that taking that
nourishment gave him the energy he needed to gain enlightenment.
The Buddha went to Sarnath, near Varanasi, to see them, and the Sutta describes the occasion like
Thus I have heard: on one occasion the Blessed One was staying at Varanasi in the Deer Park at
Isipatana. There he addressed the group of five monks:
(Of course they wouldn’t be literally monks like the monks here – they’d be dressed in dirty rags. They
probably looked very wild, and very thin.)
"There are these two extremes that are not to be indulged in by one who has gone forth. Which two
extremes? First, that which is devoted to sensual pleasure with reference to sensual objects: base,
vulgar, common, ignoble, unprofitable. Second, that which is devoted to self-affliction: painful, ignoble,
unprofitable. Avoiding both of these extremes, the middle way realized by the Tathagata – producing
vision, producing knowledge – leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to liberation.
So the Buddha at once raises the issue that had divided them a few months before: that of ascetic practice
or self-mortification. In the previous six years, he had been the most famous ascetic in the whole of
India. He had wanted to explore thoroughly, beyond any shadow of doubt, whether or not the intense
inhibition of the natural functions of the physical body offers a way to transcend suffering and
impermanence. On finding that it does not, he stopped. Self-mortification, he now says, is an extreme
practice that should be abandoned. Well, you have to admit, it is painful. Furthermore, it is ignoble¸
ugly, and inhuman. Crucially, it brings no spiritual benefit.
The opposite extreme is self-indulgence, something the five ascetics knew all about, just as everyone
does. Disgust with self-indulgence was the cause of their asceticism in the first place. Their mistake had
not been in going against self-indulgence, but in reacting to the opposite extreme. The Buddha’s
reaction had perhaps been even more extreme. He probably had more experience of sense pleasure than
anyone in the world. The young Siddhartha had had it all, every imaginable pleasurable opportunity. So
in his going forth Siddhartha had been, you could say, from one extreme to another, before he
discovered his Middle Way.
The Sutta goes on to ask:
And what is the middle way realized by the Tathagata that – producing vision, producing knowledge –
leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to liberation?
Precisely this Noble Eightfold Path: Right View, Right Intention, | Right Speech, Right Action, Right
Livelihood, | Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration. This is the middle way realized by
the Tathagata.
Firstly, the Buddha teaches Right View. We always have some kind of view, some kind of assumption,
some kind of hypothesis about what is happening. We have to – we can’t function otherwise. To
function in the ordinary world, we have to assume we know who we are and what the world is, even
though we don’t really have a clue. We usually assume that we are a clearly defined person – whatever
that is – living in a clearly defined world – whatever that might be. We may possibly assume that when
we die we will go back to some kind of unchanging essence, or we may assume that when we die, that’s
it, that’s the end. We may believe that some kinds of actions are better than others are, or we may think
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The Eightfold Path – East and West [Bodh Gaya 00]
11/22/2006 02:25 PM
it, that’s the end. We may believe that some kinds of actions are better than others are, or we may think
they’re all the same, or we may have our own special theory, or we may just never think about it. We
may or many not consider that our actions will have consequences for our future.
Most of these attitudes about life and values – most of these ditthis, as they are called – are unconscious,
and essentially, they are wrong: they are narrow and incomplete. We don’t really know anything about
the ultimate nature of things. We don’t know anything about who we are. We are like a blind man
groping along with a stick, forced to guess what might be in front of us, forced to guess what is
happening around us. The development of Right View is the antidote to this spiritual ignorance. We
need to understand that our actions have consequences; we need to learn about karma, and learn about
the value of ethics. We need to learn about the Four Noble Truths. We need to learn about the whole
path, the whole eightfold path. In doing so, we perfect, we Righten, we clarify our View. And over the
course of our lives, as we put ...

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