Syllabus: The Eightfold Path
The Pure, or Noble, Eightfold Path (Pali ariya aṭṭhangika magga) is at the core of the Buddha’s message. The message itself is known as the Dhamma (Dharma in Sanskrit), which is, very crudely, the framework of natural laws, statistical regularities, and recurring patterns from which our experience of the world emerges. A life lived in accord with the Dhamma is conducive to peace and well-being and is the starting point on the path to enlightenment. Living so as to challenge the Dhamma hinders progress and establishes one in pervasive misery.
The Eightfold Path—Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration—properly understood and cultivated, establishes one’s life in harmony with the Dhamma, and so leads to the diminution and eventual extinguishing of anguish, existential pain, discontent and disappointment. The Buddha articulated the Noble Eightfold Path in his very first teaching, as the culminating component of the four Truths that illuminate and comprehend the Dhamma. In a very significant sense, all of his teaching after that first discourse is, in one way or another, a gloss on those four Truths and the Eightfold Path which closes and completes them.
In our course on the Noble Eightfold Path, we will look at the historical context from which the Buddha emerged with his Dhamma; we will examine the extraordinarily original nature of his message; and we will see how the cornerstone of that message, the Path itself, is as relevant to our lives today as it was to the lives of those who listened to the Buddha’s teachings 2500 years ago and half a world away.
The course will be held at Adath Israel Synagogue on Ridge Road on Thursday mornings from 9:00 to 10:30.
From March 2nd through May 18th, I’ll also be leading a Dharma Study class on Wednesday evenings, 7:30-9:00PM, in a meeting room at Jewish Hospital in Kenwood (Southeast corner of Kenwood and Galbraith, across from Kenwood Mall). I will be posting further details regarding the content and structure of that class, but much of the material we cover will relate to material covered in this course on the Eightfold Path. If you are interested in attending the Dharma Study class, send me an email, and I’ll put you on the announcement list.
The following syllabus presents a conceptual outline of the course on the Noble Eightfold Path.
Part I: The Context
As an overview, the first class or two will cover the life of Siddhata Gotama, the son of a tribal leader in Northern India, who was born toward the middle of the 6th Century BCE, attained enlightenment after a difficult spiritual quest, and, with that enlightenment, became the Buddha. We’ll look at what we know of the Buddha’s life and times, at the intellectual and spiritual movements that formed the background for the doctrine which he formulated and taught, at his long teaching career, and, briefly, at the way in which his teachings were preserved and passed on after his death. We’ll take a specially careful look at the four Truths he expounded in his first teaching and see how the Eightfold Path gives shape and closure to that teaching.
Part II: The Path
Through the main part of the course, we will look at each of the Path factors in order, trying to see what each factor demands of the person who would practice the Buddha’s Path, how that factor relates to all the others, and how it can be understood so as to be meaningful and relevant to the interdependent lives we lead in our crowded, compromised world. We’ll look at each Path factor separately, but we’ll also try to understand the traditional three-fold grouping of those factors.
The Wisdom Group
- Right Understanding. The Path begins and ends with Right Understanding: a clear-eyed and fearless acknowledgment that all experience is corrupted by dukkha—pain, frustration, dissatisfaction, disillusionment; that the sufficient cause of dukkha is craving—wanting things to be other than they can ever be, wanting the good stuff to go on forever, wanting the bad stuff to end right now; that with the cessation of craving, dukkha will cease; and that the way to the cessation of craving is just this Noble Eightfold Path: Right Understanding, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.
- Right Intention. This factor, often translated as Right Resolve, establishes the practitioner in a condition of not constructing a sense of self that depends on having new stuff, building new relationships, holding particular ideas; with Right Resolve, we will not be driven by anger or hostile thoughts, or lured from the Path by delusional promises or wishful thinking.
The Action Group
- Right Speech. It is not enough that we are resolved not to lie. Right Speech is not only honest but also kind and generous, bringing people together and not driving them apart from one another. Recognizing the distracting nature of frivolous speech, gossip and idle chatter, Right Speech maintains its purpose, attempts to illuminate the Dhamma, helps both the speaker and the audience to see the path clearly and live accordingly.
- Right Action. It is necessary that our actions not create harm for ourselves or others, that we take only what clearly belongs to us, that everything we do is done openly and forthrightly, that we act with a clear head and accept responsibility for what we do.
- Right Livelihood. This is perhaps the most difficult Path factor for us to cultivate in the world we’ve inherited. In a world dominated by corporations, which have their own delusory, legalistic selfness, those whose livelihood involves selling their skills and their talents to those corporate entities too easily lose control over the purposes to which those skills and talents are turned. We will examine the difficulties of Right Livelihood in a corporate society, and we will also look at what Right Livelihood might mean to those of us who are retired from the kind of activity normally understood as livelihood.
The Concentration Group
- Right Effort. Buddhism is too often understood as a quietist kind of practice, the caution against craving being taken to mean a rejection of all desiring and all action to attain a goal. In fact, the Buddha emphasized, time and again, that diligent effort, “striving”, was necessary to the effective cultivation of the Path. Under the rubric of Right Effort, the Buddha emphasized the steady effort required to nurture and maintain wholesome qualities—generosity and kindness, honesty, energetic persistence—and to abandon and avoid harmful and unwholesome qualities.
- Right Mindfulness. This is perhaps the most distinctively Buddhist factor in the Path. We are advised to cultivate constant awareness of what’s going on around us and in our heads: our perceptions of the world via the senses, our emotional responses to what we perceive, the concepts we develop to bring order to the perceived world, the impulses and intentions and reactive feelings that emerge—in short, the entire complex of experience. We’ll look at what’s involved in maintaining mindfulness, the techniques the Buddha recommended for developing mindfulness, and the benefits that accrue from living mindfully.
- Right Concentration. Established in mindfulness, the Buddha teaches, one is then able to focus his or her concentration on a series of absorbtive states, through which it’s possible to abandon all of the distractions that prevent our experiencing the Dhamma directly. The series of absorbtive states are described vividly and consistently in the teachings; they culminate in the direct experience of unadorned reality—untranslated, unglossed, undistorted. And that reality, not surprisingly, consists of the direct experience of the Four Noble Truths with which the whole process started, and the Right Understanding of the Noble Eightfold Path.
Part III. Wrapup
At the end of the course, we will try very hard to protect some substantial time for questions and discussion, with a special focus on the resonance of what we’ve been studying with the individual experience of the people taking the class. We will be particularly interested in exploring how the truths of the Buddha’s Dhamma and the practice outlined in the Eightfold Path can be understood in the light of the spiritual traditions in which the members of the class have been brought up and the religious practices which they’ve followed through their lives.
Before each class, I’ll try to post a brief review of the content of the upcoming class on our Dharma Study blog, with pointers to other material on the Web, either on the Dharma Study site or elsewhere.
Our main reading materials, aside from what’s posted on the blog, will be two long essays from the invaluable Access to Insight web site:
- The Path to Peace and Freedom for the Mind by Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo, a monk in the Thai forest tradition.
- The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Bhikkhu Bodhi is an American-born Theravada monk, who has produced some of the best translations of texts from the Pali Canon, the oldest and most probably authentic collection of the Buddha’s teachings.
The two essays cover pretty much the same content, but with very different slants. Both authors are within the Theravada tradition of Buddhism, so they tend to focus on the teachings as those are delivered by the canonical texts. Bhikkhu Bodhi is more of a traditionalist in his interpretation; he sometimes seems a little defensive in his insistence that we take the texts at their most literal. Both authors have a great deal of insight to deliver, and both write well.
Another web page that’s worth reading is the Wikipedia page on the Eightfold Path. It’s thorough, with lots of interesting links to follow. From what I know, it seems to be quite reliable regarding the information it delivers.
In any postings I put up regarding a class session, I’ll refer to the particular sections of the Ajaan Lee and Bhikkhu Bodhi essays that are relevant to that class, and I’ll also post links to other web pages that bear on the subjects we’ll be covering in the class.
If you have any questions, please drop me a note.
I look forward to meeting you.