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January 27, 2013: “Buddhism Part Three, Three Quarters of the Path”

This is the third in what was to have been a three part series on Buddhism. But since I had no specific preaching plans for next week, and since the content has burgeoned beyond what I anticipated, I will be adding a fourth part next week. By way of summary, we had a basic introduction including the Four Noble Truths the first week, then took a look at the precepts and mind hindrances the second week. Then last week, there was what could be considered a week off from the series, but in a way fit right in because last week’s service was on peace, which is so central to Buddhism, and peace activism even has its own term, “engaged Buddhism.” (One of its leaders is Thich Nhat Hahn if you want to know more.) So that brings us to today, when we will turn to the first six parts of the Eightfold Path. And next week will be the last two steps of the path, which focus on mindfulness and meditation. I am delighted to say that Ted Theofrastus will be joining me in leading next week’s service and as part of the service will be offering a time of guided meditation.

But for today, the first six steps of the Eightfold Path. And let me say that for this sermon, I am borrowing heavily from Houston Smith’s book, Buddhism: A Concise Introduction. He begins his discussion of the Eightfold Path by pointing out that the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path are actually seamlessly knit together. The Fourth Noble Truth states that freedom from the craving that underlies all suffering is to be found in walking the Eightfold Path, and the first step of the Eightfold Path is “right view” which means understanding the world through the Four Noble Truths, namely, that suffering is real, is caused by attachment and craving, and that that attachment can be loosened or healed by walking the path.

Also by way of providing a framework, let me mention that the path might be thought of as containing three general categories: The first category is the foundation, steps one and two dealing with right understanding and right intention, these get at the inner attitudes which underlie all external behavior. Then the second category, steps three through six, right speech, conduct, livelihood and effort, get into the specifics of our external behavior or way of being in the world. And finally, the last two pieces of the path, right mindfulness and concentration, return the focus to the inner life, having to do with ongoing monitoring and maintenance of our thoughts and attention.

And finally, by way of introduction, let me say that the language of the eightfold path can be translated a number of different ways. Traditionally, each step uses the adjective “right” as in “right understanding, right speech, etc.” But, as Sylvia Boorstein points out, that language evokes both shallow moralism and harsh judgment for many. She recommends, and I think helpfully so, the translation which uses the word “wise” instead of “right” and I will do so from here on out.

The first piece of the path, then, traditionally called right view, we will call wise understanding. This foundational piece reminds us of the need to keep clear and centered in the ever foundational wisdom of the Noble Truths; in understanding the cause of suffering, which is so often our own unconscious over attachment to our own thoughts and expectations and assumptions and opinions and judgments and agendas. When we remember that it is the nature of the mind to over attach to all of this, and to relate to the world then through blurry lenses about which we are usually unaware, then that very awareness is the beginning of loosening the attachments and the resulting suffering. I’ve heard it stated, I think very succinctly and helpfully, “don’t believe everything you think.” Indeed, sometimes I think we have done a disservice by what is sometimes an unqualified message that we should always trust our intuition or inner knowing. I for one am here to tell you that sometimes what feels like my intuition is actually some unconscious overreaction to something I have misunderstood or taken too personally or come to believe because of a selective perception which only takes in that which verifies my perceptions to begin with! Now certainly the message to trust our intuition or inner knowing is a good one as long as we take time really to clear the channel and to look honestly at our own thinking. And this is, I think, what this first step of the path is saying. Don’t automatically believe everything you think, create some space between you and your assumptions, you and your thoughts. Observe and witness your own unconscious tendency to see only that which verifies your beliefs and perceptions. Let a little fresh air in, clear your head and THEN, from this more spacious place, then listen to your intuition. It is this insipid and usually unconscious tendency to be over attached to our own thoughts that I believe is at the root of so much of our misery. And let me interject here a brief public service announcement that you can read about in the upcoming Beacon, which is that I will be leading a Sunday Morning, pre-church book discussion group on Eckhart Tolle’s book A New Earth which has so helped me with this tendency in myself. In a way that book is all about “Wise Understanding” and I invite you to consider participating.

The second step of the Eightfold Path is “wise intention.” Houston Smith suggests that at the deepest level, this can be thought of as sort of a personal “mission statement.” It helps to have some kind of clarity about what it is, in the words of Mary Oliver, that you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life? I don’t mean just that it helps to have goals, although that may be. But I think this is at a deeper level than that. For Siddhartha, the all consuming mission of his life was enlightenment, understanding suffering and waking up to the deeper meaning of his life. I think that’s what this step is about in the large sense. Having a broad sense of the overall purpose of life, which I think is spiritual growth into wholeness: Buddhists call it enlightenment; traditional Christians call it sanctification; Hindus call it transfiguration; some of us call it, simply, growing in love as the central source and ethic by which we seek to live. And when we stay rooted in this deep sense of “wise intention,” then it flows naturally to operate from there in the little stuff, too. We can assess intentions, and become aware when we are, for example, maybe subtly trying to turn the conversation to a different subject because we want to show how much knowledge we have in it. We can become more aware when our intention in teasing someone is not really humor, but instead trying to make a hurtful point without having to take responsibility for it, because we are, after all, “just kidding…”

And that of course leads directly to the third part of the path, wise speech. I really focused on this in the sermon about the Buddhist precepts, and won’t belabor it today. But suffice it to say that this is a really, REALLY important part of any spiritual practice across all religions or spiritualities. The New Testament book of James says: How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire…Every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (Alrighty then!)

And it’s not only hurtful speech either. Maybe it’s the sheer quantity of it. Maybe it’s the lack of any real silence in our lives. So many in our culture are so uncomfortable with silence that they have to have a TV running for ambient noise. If you have never taken on any discipline of silence, I would encourage you to consider it. Twice in my earlier life I made eight day silence retreats. The first time I did OK, the second time I wound up binging on words one evening in the corner of the laundry room with another recalcitrant retreatant. Both times I learned a lot and found a much deeper way of being in the world, binge chat notwithstanding. I learned a profound a lasting lesson about wise speech from a coworker long years ago. A group of us had been discussing a subject, I don’t even remember what. But the next day, when I was alone with the coworker, it came up that he had a personal friendship with a person who was quite famously a pioneer in the subject we had been discussing. Yet my friend had never mentioned that in our group discussion. I was quite frankly, staggered, that he had not been compelled to figure out some way to let us all know of this connection. And I remember thinking, “what must it be like to have no need whatsoever to share that bit of information that would have certainly conferred on him respect and a kind of social power? How much personal security and inner empowerment must this man just quietly possess to be able to pass up that kind of interpersonal opportunity to score some major points?” My admiration was profound, as well, my hunger to grow along those lines myself.

The fourth stepping stone on the eightfold path is wise action. At a basic level for Buddhists, this is a matter of following the five precepts, which you will remember are voluntarily to refrain from killing any living thing, from hurtful speech, from sexual misconduct, from addictions and from taking anything which is not freely given. But beyond this, wise action has to do with proactive positives; not just refraining from the hurtful but doing the helpful. In this, too, it is important to keep an eye on motivation, and to be honest about whether we are doing a thing for itself, or for the kudos we hope it generates. And I should also add that wise action is to be undertaken at every level. There are endless opportunities at a personal level, whether it’s letting someone into your lane in a traffic snafu, or walking your elderly neighbor’s newspaper from the street to the door so she won’t have to navigate the ice. I believe these things are not just isolated nice things to do, but that they generate or contribute to a larger sense of putting that kind of energy in the world. There are also opportunities at the larger, systemic level; activism that helps fix systems and prevents individual struggle in the first place. I was helped to understand this when I heard the example of “the good Samaritan.” It was a good thing that Samaritan did, to care for the traveler who had been attacked and left for dead on the infamously dangerous Jericho Rd. At another level, though, it would be better still to fix the Jericho Rd. and the whole larger system of poverty and neglect that caused it to be so dangerous. Some have said this represents the difference between charity and justice. There is need for wise action at both levels.

The fifth part of the path is wise livelihood and asks us to look at what we do for a living and how it contributes to the world. Everything I read on this was careful to point out how much more complicated this question is now than it was in Buddha’s day. His suggestions were fairly clear cut and simple then: do not earn your living as a poison peddler, a slave trader, an arms maker, a butcher or brewer. Now the world is more complicated, and the law of unintended consequences means that even the most life affirming of livelihoods can have destructive effects and even vocations which appear negative can in some ways do good. Indeed, there is ambiguity in absolutely everything, nuanced shades of grey virtually everywhere, and we judge at our own peril. But since, in our culture, we spend more time with our work, be it paid, volunteer, in the home or out of it, it does make sense to be intentional and reflective about it. We might ask questions like whether, in the broad sense, it does more harm or good in the world, whether it does more harm or good in our own life and the life of our family. And knowing that all work has its elements of drudge and drain, does it also sometimes give you passion and energy or does it at least not usually violate your basic sense of soul? These are all wider questions that Buddhism says get to count as we consider the topic of our work. Most of us spend as much or more time with our work than we do with our significant others, after all. Does it give to us as well as take? Does it give to the world in some way?

The sixth part of the path is wise effort. This has to do with suiting up and showing up even when we really, really don’t feel like it. William James called it “the slow, dull heave of the will,” and likened it to an ox marching through deep mire. Recovering people call it doing the next right thing. Nike calls it “just doing it.” Sylvia Boorstien says that sometimes all the attention to motives and intention and concentration can backfire, and sometimes we do need to just do a thing knowing that the wise inner motivation will return in time. I think it’s a good corrective and provides a really healthy balance, this particular step in the path.

And that is the final piece of the path that we will look at today, leaving two for next week. In conclusion, I want to reiterate that the eightfold path begins and ends with the inner life. Indeed, the first two steps, wise understanding and motivation, keep us first anchored in inner wisdom as source, and then the final two steps, wise mindfulness and concentration, keep us monitoring our thoughts and attention. It is only in the middle that we have the more external parts of the path. We might think of these middle, external parts as the tip of the iceberg which others can observe, but beneath the surface are the foundation and the reflectiveness of the first and last steps in the path. But the important thing to remember is that in all of it, the goal is simple. The point of all of it, says Boorstein, is to remember that suffering happens when we tighten our minds around anything. It even happens, she says, when we tighten our minds around a spiritual practice, around BUDDHISM! Trying to nail it down, to really figure it out and do it right! That’s the great irony. The antidote is to loosen the grip, allow the mind to untighten, let go, and let there be some blank spaces and fresh air up there. The eightfold path, she says, helps decondition the mind from impulsive, unconscious responses, and helps habituate the mind to a kind of spaciousness and a less tight grip.

It’s really very easy, my husband often reminds me, all you have to do is change your whole life.