The Noble Eightfold Path; Wise View or Understanding

July 22, 2013
Last week we began looking at The Four Noble Truths, the Buddha’s teaching on the reality of suffering, dukkha in Pali. Dukkha is also defined as distress, anxiety, and a general level of inherent dissatisfaction brought on by our continual desire, striving, and craving for things to be other than they are.
The first Truth is that suffering exists. The second is that suffering is caused by our non-stop craving. The third is that this craving can be abandoned; peace of mind and heart are possible. And the fourth is the clear prescription of how to achieve this kind of peace, specifically the Eightfold Path leading to the end of suffering. Even though there appears to be an inordinate emphasis on suffering and dissatisfaction, I appreciate that “the Buddha himself expressly stated that realization of the Four Noble Truths will be accompanied by happiness, and the noble eightfold path productive of joy.”[1]It’s a hopeful message.
“Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, such as the blue sky, the sunshine, and the eyes of a baby. To suffer is not enough. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us and all around us, everywhere, in every moment.
                      ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
As we begin the exploration of the Eightfold Path, it’s important to point out a couple of characteristics of how it is often taught. Firstly, the classical descriptions of the factors of path begin with “Right,” as in Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, etc. This can be problematic for our western minds as we compare and contrast right from wrong. Right, in this sense is not referring to right and wrong. The word “right” has been translated from the Pali word samma, and can be more accurately described as appropriate, mature or wise. This makes more sense to me. Going forward, I’ll use these words interchangeably in discussing each factor.
Secondly, even though there are eight distinct path factors, none could exist without the other. They are mutually dependent components of a whole. In addition, the Eightfold Path is typically taught in order, but in practice, it is more like a spiral or even a figure eight. We are continually circling back through the factors that help us lead an awakened and happy life. The factors of the path are wise view or understanding, thought or intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. Further, they are typically separated into three categories or aspects of the path:
·        Wisdom includes View/Understanding and Thought/Intention
·        Morality & Ethics include Speech, Action and Livelihood
·        Meditation includes Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration
Wise View or Understanding is the starting point, the first step on the path because our views and understanding of ourselves and the world directly inform and guide our actions. The Buddha taught that mature view is established when one understands from one’s own direct experience the truth and implications of impermanence and the truth and implications of causality and conditionality, that all actions have consequences, karma.
Appropriate Understanding “is to know and experience that things come from a cause; that things are caused by other things; that they do not exist independently of the things that have formed them. But also it is to know that as conditions arise they will pass away, which takes us back to impermanence.”[2] While this may seem obvious, we still struggle with and are challenged by the continually changing conditions of our lives. And, despite ourselves and often much to our dismay, our bodies do degrade and eventually we will be separated from everything and everyone we hold dear. Yet even in light of everything we cannot control, (which is everything except our own responses) the fact remains that what we do in our lives really does matter.

When we truly understand for ourselves that our happiness and our unhappiness are dependent upon our own actions, it empowers and energizes us to make the wisest choices we can as often as possible. Clearly, difficulty arises even when we’ve put forth our best efforts. But when we act from our wisest self, the possibilities for happiness and living an awakened life increase. This is Wise Understanding.
And from one of my heroes, Pete Seeger…
Realize that little things lead to bigger things…Some seeds fall in the pathway and get stamped on, and they don’t grow. Some fall on the rocks, and they don’t grow. But some seeds fall on fallow ground, and they grow and multiply a thousand fold. Who knows where some good little thing that you’ve done may bring results years later that you never dreamed of?”

[1] Satipattana: The Direct Path to Realization, pg. 244, Analayo, 2003.
[2] The Spirit of the Buddha, pg. 35, Martine Batchelor, 2010