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Noble Eightfold Path - Questions and Answers Tuscany 1982

by Sangharakshita


Questions and Answers: Tuscany, 1982
Note from the Transcriptions Unit: Although these question and answer sessions were held
immediately prior to the ordinations of those attending the following sessions, their order
names are used throughout this transcription. At times Sangharakshita or members of the
Order Team refer to a person by their old (pre-order) name so these names have been
included in the list of those present.
Present: Sangharakshita, Amoghachitta (Chris Harper), Amoghavajra (Kenny McKay),
Amoghavira (Paul Holloway), Buddhapalita (Bipin Patel), Chakkhupala (Alan Morrow),
Chittapala (Robin Collett), Dhirananda (Kennet Nolcranz), Gunapala (Bernie Tisch),
Harshaprabha (Graham Stevens), Jinavamsa (Campbell McEwan), Khemananda (Tony Wall),
Khemapala (Mike Quaiff), Khemavira (Ken Chandler), Prasannasiddhi (Darren DeWitt),
Ratnaprabha (Robin Cooper), Silabhadra (Tony Bowall), Silaratna (Greg Harman),
Shantiprabha (Adrian Macro), Bodhiruchi (Gerry Corr), Richard Clayton.
Order Team: Vessantara, Devamitra, Aryamitra, Subhuti, Suvajra, Ratnaketu, Surata.
Day 1[Bhante explaining spellings. Groups say how far they got.]
Subhuti: We first of all wondered about the Dharmachakrapravartana Sutta, from which the
Eightfold Path and the commentaries come. How early is that sutta?
S: It's very difficult to actually date any Pali sutta. I think it is now generally agreed among
scholars - and this is certainly my own view - that on that notable occasion when the Buddha
got together with those five bhikkhus, let's call them, in the Deer Park at Visipatana near
Varanasi, he didn't just straightforwardly deliver a discourse enumerating the Four Truths and
the Noble Eightfold Path. The Four Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path are clearly a
codification of the teaching or of some aspects of the teaching, a codification which may well
have been carried out by the Buddha himself. But I have [2] referred somewhere - I think it
must be in a lecture, a quite early lecture, possibly a Dharmachakra Day lecture - to the fact
that there are accounts of the Buddha's initial meeting with those five bhikkhus after his
Enlightenment and of the subsequent happenings, where no actual mention is made to the
Dharmacakrapravartana Sutta and to the Four Truths and Noble Eightfold Path, but where it
simply says that day after day, week after week, for the period of three months of the rainy
season, the Buddha exhorted them; that there was discussion between them.
My own view is that very likely it was not known what exactly passed between the Buddha
and those five bhikkhus. After all, it was at the very beginning of the Buddha's ministry.
Ananda wasn't around. And it may well be that there was no clear tradition about what
actually did pass, except perhaps that it seemed obvious that the Buddha in the circumstances
should have spoken about a Middle Way. So when, later, what became the scriptures came to
be compiled, the compilers must have thought, they must have reflected, that on an occasion
like this, his first discourse, the Buddha must have mentioned something quite important, and
by that time, by the time that the compilation was made, obviously the Four Noble Truths and
the Eightfold Path were quite important; they were a well-known codification of the
Teaching; so the compilers might well have assumed that the Buddha must have spoken about
the Four Truths, he must have spoken about the Eightfold Path. And in that way the content
of that original discourse, that first turning of the Wheel of the Law, came to be regarded in
that way and eventually compiled and edited in that way as we have it. Do you see what I
But despite that fact, despite the fact that it is very doubtful, to say the least, whether the Four
Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path as such were the content of the Buddha's teaching to those
five bhikkhus, there's no doubt that that particular codification is a very early one, probably
attributable to the Buddha, and also a very useful one that does codify much of the teaching.
The fact that, for instance, the codification of the Path as eightfold may well be comparatively
late is the fact that it's mentioned, for instance, only once, I believe, in the Sutta Nipata, which
is a quite ancient text. So clearly, in those early days, it wasn't at exactly the forefront of the
Buddha's teaching. Yes, clearly the Buddha spoke about Perfect Vision; clearly he would
have spoken about [3] perfect means of livelihood; clearly he would have spoken about
Perfect Samadhi. But it was only somewhat later, it seems, probably in the Buddha's own
teaching career, that all those angas, all those things which were helpful to the spiritual life,
were collated in that particular way, codified in that particular way, no doubt for teaching
Subhuti: You have at times said that you thought that the image of the Path presented the
spiritual life only from one point of view, and you have suggested other images, images of
unfoldment. At one time you were saying that you thought that we needed to come up almost
with a new image, which would incorporate both the aspects of the Path and of unfoldment.
Have you thought any more about that?
S: I can't say that I have. It's as though the Path as a symbol, as an image, has its limitations,
as all symbols, all images, have; because if one takes it literally, which of course one
shouldn't, one thinks of it as leading to a clearly defined goal, just as a path has a destination,
and one thinks of the person walking the Path as quite distinct from the Path itself; whereas
the person is the Path, the Path is the person. The Path presents the spiritual life, one might
say, in terms of time - unfoldment or growth or development in time - whereas the other kind
of symbol that one has, that is to say of the lotus, or even of the rose or of the mandala,
represents the spiritual life as an unfolding, so to speak, from a static centre, provided one
goes deep enough. It's not that you go forward as you go in the image of the Path: you stay
where you are, but you go as it were deeper and deeper - the image is spatial rather than
temporal - and unfolds more and more from that deeper centre.
You could - though I tend less and less to bring in this sort of terminology - say that the one
approach was masculine and the other feminine, but obviously you need to have both.
Vessantara: Does not the Eightfold Path include both, inasmuch as it's the Astangikamagga?
S: One could say that, because in a way, yes, you are going forward on the Path. As regards
the mundane Eightfold Path, it is a path of prajna, sila, samadhi, prajna, so you are
progressing from one stage to another. But, on the other hand, as the Transcendental Path,
you have attained, so to speak, the Path of Vision; that vision is there, that's the centre; and
[4] you have as it were to go deeper and to unfold from that centre. The shoots have to come
forth from that centre, the angas have to come forth, representing different developing aspects
of your life or different unfolding aspects of your life. I think it would be possible - I don't
know whether this has ever been tried - not only to represent the mundane Eightfold Path as a
path of successive stages but to represent the Transcendental Path as a sort of flower, a sort of
lotus flower, with perhaps the Path of Transformation, Perfect Vision, at the centre, at the
calyx, so to speak; and the other angas as petals rather than angas, arranged around that
central calyx. Someone might even care to do this, undertake this. That would give one
another view of the Eightfold Path, one which was no doubt equally useful.
It does occur to me just now as I speak that you could combine both in a single image. You
could have the mundane Path represented as the stalk, with successive segments, and it would
culminate in Perfect Vision, which would then become the calyx around which would be
ranged petal-wise the remaining seven angas of the Transcendental 'Path',inverted commas, so
you are going up and then you are as it were going round. I think playing about with images
in this way enables us to realize not only the limitations of the images themselves but
certainly the limitations of concepts and even the limitations of words. It helps us to realize
that we need to get beyond these sort of limitations if we are really to get very far in the
spiritual life. We need continually to transcend our own limitations or, in the terms that I was
using yesterday, go beyond, outgrow, our original framework, our original framework of
Subhuti: We had another question arising out of something you said about Perfect Vision
being intuitive. Richard had a question in that connection.
Richard: Could you define intuition as related to the arising of Perfect Vision? Is it
synonymous with that which you previously termed the imaginal faculty?
S: The traditional terms in this connection are vipasyana, which is Sanskrit, or vipassana
which is Pali, and prajna, which we usually translate as wisdom, or panna; or even jnana or
jnana. If one wants to reproduce those terms in English, or if one wants to find English
equivalents, one is hard put to it. Usually one speaks of Insight with a capital I or Wisdom
with a [5] capital W, but these are really only makeshifts. One needs to go back to the
originals in ...

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