Dear Noble Sangha
As we move into April we conclude our practice theme cycle on the Four Noble Truths. This month we look at the fourth and final truth: The Truth of the Path. This completes the Buddha’s assessment of the main spiritual problem for human beings: suffering and the end of suffering. The first noble truth identifies the problem and invites us to look clearly at suffering and understand it. The second noble truth points at the origin of the problem, which is essentially craving and grasping. Through craving, tanha, we wish for things to be other than they are. The Buddha does not end his assessment of our predicament here, but points to the truth that he realized under the Bodhi tree: the third noble truth, the truth of the end of suffering, the truth of Nirvana. The Buddha realized that by letting go of tanha we could actually end the cycle of dissatisfaction, disappointment, and suffering. There is suffering, but there is also an end to suffering. This leads us to the fourth noble truth: the truth of the Eightfold Path and the means to end suffering.
So how exactly do we reach this state? How do we go from a confused, grasping mind to one fully illuminated by wisdom and compassion? Is this state attained randomly by a few rare individuals? Is it given as a gift by celestial beings? The Buddha was adamant in his message: it is up to each of us to put the teachings into practice in our life and achieve enlightenment by our own efforts. As Ayya Khema was fond of saying, “Enlightenment is an inside job.”
The Buddha taught the Eightfold Path consisting of Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. These eight divisions were taught to be interdependent rather than sequential, and are therefore represented by a wheel with eight spokes. The Buddha further classified these eight elements into three categories: Sila (ethical conduct), Samadhi (meditation), and Panna (wisdom). This is the general outline of the Buddhist path.
Throughout the remainder of the year we will spend one month investigating each of these elements of the eightfold path. This month though, I would like to explore a number of issues about the spiritual path in general and the Buddhist path specifically. First, I would like to take a moment and ask you to consider what it is that brings a person onto the spiritual path? What brought you or brings you to the path?
The life of the Buddha is an excellent teaching and Buddha’s own path-entering story is very beautiful. First, we should note what did not bring the Buddha to the spiritual path. The Buddha did not leave his comfortable palace to go train as a priest, or to become a great philosopher or professor, or to discover the proper religion. The Buddha did not go out to found a religion or to be a famous teacher or even to be a Buddhist. The Buddha had questions about reality. He had genuine questions about the meaning of life. The Buddha started his journey with questions, not answers. What is suffering? What are its causes? What is the mind? Who am I? These questions propelled the Buddha on his journey. Likewise, as modern spiritual practitioners we should search our own heart for our own questions. This questioning, seeking, searching mind is one of the factors that bring us onto the spiritual path.
Next, we can see very clearly that Buddha’s motivation to enter the path was rooted in compassion. The four sights that the Buddha experienced (a sick person, old person, dead person, and yogi) are traditionally taught as the things which turned the Buddha’s mind towards the spiritual path and away from the luxury of his royal life as a prince. Yet, it wasn’t the case that only the Buddha saw these things. Everyone in the city saw these people at one point or another. It was the Buddha’s response to these sights that was different. The Buddha responded with compassion, with love, with empathy towards those who were suffering. The Buddha wanted to know if there was a path that led to the end of suffering. Was it possible to find lasting peace and joy? His heart was moved by compassion and this inspired him to enter the spiritual path. Therefore, we see that compassion is an important factor in bringing us to the spiritual path.
I think these two together, an inquisitive mind linked with a heart of compassion, are important factors that bring us onto and back to the spiritual path. When we connect with our inquisitive mind we keep our path alive, fresh, and personal. Without this aspect we run the risk of falling into a religious path: we do, say, and think things because this is what the religion says to do, say, and think. But, an authentic path is a path of questioning and seeking. Like the Buddha we start with questions and (hopefully) end with answers. And when we connect with our compassionate heart we remember that our path is not an academic exercise or a quest for far-away spiritual states, but is intimately connected with the daily issues and challenges of our lives. Without compassion we run the risk of making our path about some distant place called “Nirvana” or “awakening” that is completely unrelated to how we deal with our job, our partner, our friends, our neighbor, our world, or ourselves. We can become too busy worrying about enlightenment to be kind to the person in front of us. At least, this is my experience.
Again, I encourage you to explore what it is that brings you to the path. Please take some time to discover your questioning mind. Connect with your heart of compassion. These are teachings I have received from my teachers that have been very helpful for me, and so I share them here that perhaps they may be of benefit to you.