The fourth Noble Truth is what we call the Eightfold Path. This is the path we develop in our lives as human beings. But it’s not a path like an ordinary path. It’s merely a series of reflections on the way things are. Once there is the clear insight into suffering, its origin, and cessation, then there is Right Understanding. In other words, no longer are we seeing things out of ignorance, out of a personality view, out of distortion, out of desire; we are seeing from the clarity, the true intelligence, of the mind. The mind is truly intelligent, clear, and bright; it is not personal. We are not taking things personally; we are not creating anything. So there is Right Understanding — seeing clearly the way things are. And from that comes Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration.
All the steps of this Eightfold path are called ‘right’. Or sometimes the word samma is translated as ‘perfect’ — Perfect Seeing, Perfect Understanding — because it’s a perfection, isn’t it? It’s seeing perfectly; it’s not seeing through distortion any more, not just ‘I’ consciousness, but wise seeing, knowing through wisdom. And this is what we can actually do as human beings. This kind of knowledge is not only for supermen, super human beings, special exalted types; it’s a teaching for what they call manutia, and deva, ‘virtuous beings’. Manutia is a Pali word for ‘a human being’. However, the word implies, not just a physical human being, but also a moral human being, a virtuous human being. So the way of virtue is very much a part of our way of relating to the world.
The way of virtue is respecting the world — respecting our own bodies, respecting the rights of other beings, living in a way that is not cruel, not harmful, not divisive, not insensitive, not brutal.
We can be brutes. So much in the news that we get is about brutality, isn’t it? These are human beings who, in the Buddhist sense, would not really be full human beings, because in Buddhist terms, a human being has to be a virtuous being. So just because we have human bodies doesn’t mean we are human beings! There are a lot of demons walking around in these bodies. They look like human beings, but they perform like demons.
Notice that the human form can sink to any level. We have this wide range within our experience of being demonic or angelic, and all gradations in between — the human side, or the manutia side — that is the most important emphasis the Buddha made. We can understand all the forces — the most demonic, devilish ones, to the most radiant, brahma-like ones. The most refined forms of consciousness are possible for us, within this form. The Buddha did not emphasise extreme consciousness, nor even refined consciousness, but ordinary sensory awareness — being aware on the sensory plane, using the ordinariness of life as our reflection, without the desire to become highly concentrated, or attain high levels of concentration.
The Four Noble Truths is a teaching very much aimed at ordinary living. For the Buddhist monk, our form of life in a Buddhist monastery is around ordinary behaviour. We live a very virtuous life, a harmless life. The whole vinaya discipline of a Buddhist monk is to be completely harmless. Sometimes unintentionally we harm, but our intention is to be harmless, sensitive, open, respectful, considerate to the beings around us. Our intention is to live our lives developing this Eightfold Path more and more and it integrates into just getting up in the morning, doing the chanting, sitting, standing, walking, lying down, eating our food, and just the ordinariness of human existence. There is nothing special in it — even though we look special, don’t we. You might think we are special. Actually, if you notice, the form is that we are not emphasising specialness: we all have shaven heads and saffron robes. So even though you can tell that we are different individuals, the emphasis is on the oneness of Sangha [community of monks], the pointing to Sangha, rather than to the individual.
Published in the February 1991 edition of Buddhism Now
Top image: Dharmachakrastambha (Buddhist Wheel of the Law) Relief, 2nd–3rd century AD. India (probably Nagarjunakonda, Andhra Pradesh) © The Metropolitan( Museum of Art.
This relief shows a Buddhist Wheel of the Law (Dharmachakra) supported by two seated lions atop a pillar (stambha). The Wheel of the Law—an iconic representation of Buddhist teachings (dharma)—is the most important of Buddhist symbols. It serves to evoke the Buddha’s First Sermon in the forest at Sarnath (“when he turned the word-wheel”) and as a generic symbol of all his teachings. This relief would have formed part of the adornment of a Buddhist stupa, as depicted in the reliefs from Amaravati on display adjacently.
Bottom image: Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, 7th century, Southern Thailand. © Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Bodhisattva of compassion is represented as an ascetic, dressed in a waistcloth secured with a cord, the details incised into the contours of his torso. He has a flayed antelope skin (ajina) across his left shoulder, an attribute of the earliest representations of this bodhisattva in early seventh-century northern India. The veneration of Avalokiteshvara assumed special importance in Mahayana Buddhism during this period. Soon after its development in India, it was shared with Southeast Asian practitioners.
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