This illumination portrays a mandala—an image that can be used to concentrate and compose the mind for tranquillity and reflection. It is based upon a Celtic stone in Scotland which has four arcing motifs which I have adapted here into eight. Actually, you can see that it’s all just one line going around. Similarly, the Eightfold Path has eight limbs but it is only one Path, not eight Paths going in different directions. You cannot isolate just any one aspect of it and call it the Path, because it’s the wholeness of it which is important.
The symbols within the mandala typify factors of the Eightfold Path. Right View (samma ditthi) is the bodhi leaf representing awakening and enlightenment. Right Intention (samma sankappa) is the lotus flower which, like aspiration, grows out of the earth of mundane existence towards the heavens. The third is Right Speech (samma vaca), here symbolized by a star—a source of transmission of light across the vast spaces between us. The fourth is Right Action (samma kammanto) which is a hand—the open hand that holds nothing but is available for work in a selfless way. Right Livelihood (samma ajivo) is the hand in a caring and protective gesture—one of nurturing oneself and others with livelihood. The sixth factor is Right Effort (samma vayamo), the vajra sword—that is, the sense of determination and ability to limit, define and direct oneself. It has four aspects: to prevent the mind from being overwhelmed by ignorance; to cut away at wrong views and habits; to dig the soil for cultivation of what is good; and to maintain vigilance over the Path. This supports and is supported by Right Mindfulness (samma sati) shown as a flower, to represent the blossoming of the mind’s ability to know things as they are. The eight factor is Right Collectedness (samma samadhi), here symbolized by the hand in meditation mudra supporting the flower, the pure mind. And that takes us back to Right View, the purity that sees the way things are.
So this is another circle, one in which the interdependence of the links represents a process whereby wisdom is activated and regenerated. As with the other circles, the mandala interlinks in a cross weave as every single factor supports every other factor and is supported by it. This form makes the strongest weave.
In the picture, the Buddha is walking in the world. The image
of the walking Buddha implies relationship with the world of events. The
Buddha here has one hand raised in the mudra of spiritual protection of
blessing; this is called abhaya mudra, the “fearlessness gesture.” The other
hand is in the “giving gesture” (dana mudra). When the two are seen
together, they symbolize a relationship with the world which is calming and
benevolent. This formalized image, most commonly found in Japan, is one of
many that express different spiritual values.
More detail. Right view is the view, the perspective that arises from fully understanding the Four Noble Truths. That may be the first factor; it is also the last, since to understand the Four Noble Truths requires the practice of the other seven factors. So the Path is really two turns of the Wheel: the first is the mundane—the seven other factors without Right View; and the second is the supramundane—the Path factors with Right View. Mundane understanding is that which preserves the dualistic model of reality: “me” and “the world;” supramundane sees things holistically as “the way it is.”
Mundane Right Intention then is the intention not to do harm in the world—to stimulate considerations of kindness, forgiveness and service rather than vindictiveness, grudges and selfishness. Right Speech is speech which is honest, courteous, purposeful and conducive to concord. Right Action is harmlessness, trustworthiness and sexual responsibility. Right Livelihood is livelihood that rings no ill effects to the lives of other beings.
Right Effort is the training to avoid or abandon unwholesome states of mind, and to cultivate and maintain wholesome states of mind. Right Mindfulness is a particular kind of mental attention and recollection that can best be activated through meditation exercises and then developed as a general state of awareness in daily life. The Buddha said that it can be founded upon the body—being attentive to breathing in and out, walking, stretching, standing, lying down; physical and mental feelings; the general state of mind—whether it’s moody, depressed, relaxed or elated, for example; or through awareness of mind objects—thoughts, energies, doubts, joy … an innumerable array.
This last foundation is called “Dhamma” when those mental objects are seen, observed and responded to with mindfulness and objectivity. Thus they are understood as phenomena in the universe, as “the way it is,” rather than brooded over or delighted in as aspects of oneself. Other key features of mindfulness are that it does not require a high degree of tranquillity, working readily on the ordinary level of consciousness, and that its tone is equanimous. Mindfulness is the kind of attention that sees phenomena arising and ceasing; its focus is on the change and variability of experience. This is what makes mindfulness such a transformative practice. When the phenomena that we take as “our self” are experienced as something passing through consciousness, what happens to the sense of identity?
Right Concentration or Collectedness results from Right Mindfulness. When the mind sustains attention on the changing nature of things, just on that edge, it is not being drawn into judgements about experience. Things are just as they are. This means that the mind is not being stirred up by desires, fears or restlessness, and, in that serenity, it begins to be aware of its own reflective quality. The mind as an experience of consciousness has certain qualities—one is that it “knows,” it is sensitive; the other is that it has a wide range of focus—moving from a pinpoint on your body to philosophical speculations to poignant memories in a matter of moments. We all recognize these aspects, but normally the attention of the mind is limited to objects that bring up interest or aversion. But when we no longer linger upon them, the mind is freed from the limitations of those objects, and the habitual pattern of moods and reactions that accompany them. The “knowingness” becomes a clear sensitivity, and the range becomes boundless. This is quite delightful, and so certain attachments are inevitable unless concentration is linked to Right View.
It is here that the wholeness of the Eightfold Path becomes such an important teaching. Mindfulness will help to undercut the attachment to the delights of these meditative highs, because the nature of mindfulness is non-absorptive, and it notices that the highs also come and go. Then the less elevated aspects of the Path—the ethical training—are of further significance; they encourage a fine sense of discernment with regards to the conventions of human life. Dispassionate discernment, rather than absorption, is the tool of insight. If we are to respond to life as it happens with its instabilities and vicissitudes, we cannot remain absorbed in anything for too long.
The dilemma that everyone who experiences or inclines towards meditation has to resolve is, “How do I keep this sense of concentration going in my daily life?” The simple answer is by concentrating more completely on whatever one is doing. However, this is not always a realistic answer, as anyone living with telephones, business schedules and other human beings knows. Things often happen too quickly. Nor is the answer just about getting away from all that. The Buddha made a point of expounding a universal teaching, not one for hermits alone. A more complete answer lies in the second turning of the Wheel, the supramundane Path, or life lived beyond self.
The supramundane Path “begins” with Right View which results from getting beyond the compulsions of desire through living according to ethical standards, and training the mind to notice its own nature. A stillness is perceivable when the movement of mind objects no longer captures the focus of attention. This stillness may amount to the first taste of Nibbana and has its effects on the intentions and motivations of one’s life. You want to get back to that stillness, so you want to cultivate the ways that lead to freedom from the demands of the identity; you want to give up self-ness in body, speech, and mind.
The other factors of the Path are configurations on this theme. What is it that wants to manipulate people or impress others; what is it that wants to possess things and have its own way? Does that lead to permanent contentment or not? Is it comparable to the boundless ease of the mind at rest? Cultivation of the supramundane always looks at the dukkha of desire for things in terms of self. The result is an increase in personal modesty, gentleness and tolerance of others.
This is a very realistic Path, not a belief. You have to see for yourself what is really preferable. But most people have never found the possibility to test the Nibbana option; so some assessment of life lived under the normal set of assumptions has to take place. You have to know suffering for yourself, and come to the Fourth Truth through the other three. There are no short cuts.
As has been noted, this way is not the pretty route. It requires a good amount of personal motivation; but there are some encouragements. This teaching, the Dhamma, is part of that; the fellowship of those who practice the Dhamma—the Sangha—is a great help; and there is the Buddha.
The Buddha was a remarkable person. In some ways, it seems only natural that, having realized the fullness of Nibbana, all the compassion that a boundless mind is capable of could manifest through him. But that he was also able to devise a system, to formulate a teaching beyond systems and words, and then to tirelessly propound many variations around this theme of suffering and the cessation of it, is quite extraordinary.
The Buddha’s own life was spent walking through the forests, villages and cities of what is now Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in Northern India, teaching and being available as a reference and example for many people. He never spoke or acted in any way other than the way of Dhamma. Thus, he became a living icon of the teaching—he himself said that whoever saw the Dhamma saw the Buddha.¹ Conversely, he remarked that the death of his body should not pose a problem for anyone because the Dhamma-Vinaya would be alive to support the practice as long as people wanted it.
In my own practice, I like to think of “Buddha” in terms of
the ways in which I apply the teachings: when I apply myself rightly, there
is a calm and benevolent presence. And when I see Buddha images and reflect
on the gestures they make, sitting, standing, walking or lying down, they
help me to recollect the humanity of the Path. I am left feeling a deep
sense of gratitude, respect and joy. For those who wish to be trained, the
Buddha is still an available presence today. How many other people do we
carry around in our minds—without even wanting to? There is plenty of room
there for the Buddha; and the Buddha always encourages us to practice for
the realization of unconditioned happiness.
This Path is a whole way of living; it’s not a little time that you carve out of a busy day. Nor is it a matter of going somewhere for a day or a year until you “get it.” That’s still the habit of self and desire. The prefix “samma” implies a kind of completeness in which one is giving oneself without bias or expectation of gain. It is the spirit of entering into things for their own sake, to see them as they actually are, not as the habitual designations by which we value them. Another way of looking at the Eightfold Path is as a state of communion. At its mundane level, it is wholesome; at its supramundane, it is holistic; and, as such, it is the experience of consummation in a gentle and selfless life. This is why the true spiritual life is called the “Holy Life.”
Another reflection on what is “Right” is that it is real for each individual, not just an ideal; it is the variable level of what we can sincerely commit ourselves to. If we cling to it as an ideal of what we should be, it’s not “Right.” There’s not much point in making it into something to be done only for an hour or so while we have enough willpower; the Path should be something we can actually live and work with. As long as we give ourselves to it fully, then that level will always rise to complete fulfillment. But the here and now of it is that we cultivate the Path in a way that allows us to appreciate and respect our efforts, and to have enough confidence to continue. Then the Path begins to cultivate itself. This sets the tone for what is “Right” and gives each of us a sense of rightness or balance. Then we know without elation or dejection what has been cultivated and where attachment still remains. We follow the examples of the teachers, but we also have the confidence to walk this Path ourselves.
- As for example, in his advice to Bhikkhu Vakkali. (Samyutta Nikaya: , Elements, 87) [return to text]