In this second part of lesson #, Stephen reflects on the topic of a secular eightfold path [#add text].
Talk ‘A Secular Eightfold Path’ [Download this audio file here]
Preparation for lesson #add links
You are invited to read Chapter 9 of After Bhuddism
as well as the introduction to Stephen’s translation of Naga#? called “The Verses from the Centre”.
and Stephen’s essay on “The Esthetics from Emptiness’
Additional material [#links need to be added]
#link to a lecture by David Foster Wallace: ‘This is water’
Chapter 8. A Secular Eightfold Path
“Unify your attention! Don’t listen with your ears, listen with your mind. No, don’t listen with your mind, listen with your life (qì). Listening stops with the ears, the mind stops with recognition, but life (qì) is an emptiness that is completely available. The Way gathers in this emptiness alone. Emptiness is the fasting of the mind.”
[Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi), Tr. Burton Watson, chapter 4.]
Likewise, from the perspective of the four tasks, beholding nirvana/emptiness is what leads to the eightfold path, the Way. It opens up the space for the eightfold path, the flourishing of life itself, to emerge.
As the source of the eightfold path, nirvana is the womb of the true person (tathagata-garbha), i.e. buddhanature.
Although the third and fourth task are differentiated into two distinct activities, in living practice they merge into each other.
The seven facets of awakening continue without interruption into the eight limbs of the eightfold path. From this non-reactive space emerges a non-binary perspective on life that is the first phase of the eightfold path: complete perspective = samma ditthi. We might say that this non-reactive space assumes the shape of a non-binary perspective.
This complete perspective is presented in the Kaccanagotta Sutta [Selected Discourses no. 7]:
The Teacher was living at Sāvatthi. Then the good Kaccānagotta approached him, greeted him, sat down to one side, and said: “You say, ‘complete perspective,’ sir. In what respects is this perspective complete?”
“By and large, Kaccāna, this world relies on the duality of ‘it is’ and ‘it is not.’ But one who sees the arising of the world as it happens with complete understanding has no sense of ‘it is not’ about the world. And one who sees the ceasing of the world as it happens with complete understanding has no sense of ‘it is’ about the world.”
[In most translations of this passage “as it happens” is translated by “as it really is”, which contradicts the very principle of no longer relying on the duality of “it is” and “it is not.” And “arising” (samudaya) is translated as “origin” in order to conform to the language of the four noble truths.
Bhikkhu Bodhi: “This world for the most part depends on a duality — upon the notion of existence and non-existence. But for one who sees the origin of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of non-existence in regard to the world…” (Connected Discourses of the Buddha, p. 544)]
This complete perspective is not ontological — about how the world is or is not — but ethical — about how the world happens, about what the world could or ought to be. Complete perspective has to do with refining one’s capacity to judge what is the appropriate thing to do. This is affirmed in the Discourse on Complete Perspective, where Sariputta opens his account by defining this perspective as ethical. He says:
When a noble disciple understands the unskilful and the roots of the unskilful, the skilful and the roots of the skilful, in that way he is one of complete perspective.
[Sammaditthi Sutta (M. 9)]
Roots of the unskilful = greed, hatred, delusion.
Roots of the skilful = generosity, love and wisdom.
This is reminiscent of Gotama’s statement to Janussoni about the person who has experienced nirvana as one who “neither plans for his own harm, nor for the harm of others, nor for the harm of both.” Nirvana too is the ethical space out of which this perspective is born (cf. womb).
In releasing one’s grip on such entrenched binaries as “is” and “isn’t” and “right” and “wrong,” in suspending the reactive patterns of greed, dislike and stupidity, this perspective frees you to imagine other ways of responding to life situations that face you.
Imagination, sankappa, is the second limb of the path. Usually, it is translated as “intention” or “thought.” But there are other words in Pali for intention (cetana) and thought (vitakka); sankappa implies something more. The term comes from the Pali kappeti, which means: “to cause to fit, to create, build, construct, arrange, prepare, order.”
Imagination is dulled and inhibited by received opinion, taste, bias and habit. As Gotama says in the Discourse to Kaccanagotta:
By and large, Kaccana, this world is bound to its prejudices and habits. But such a one (with complete perspective) does not get caught up in the habits, fixations, prejudices or biases of the mind.
The open and fluid perspective of a non-reactive vision liberates you to imagine different courses of action and their outcomes. It allows you to entertain possibilities you may not have considered before.
Imagination is as vital for an ethical life as it is for a creative life. I can empathize with the suffering of another person because I can imagine what it is like to be her. As I ponder what to say in response to her dilemma, I find myself imagining what it would be like for her to hear my words when I utter them.
At this point, my secular reading of the eightfold path departs from the traditional presentation:
- Perspective (diṭṭhi)
- Imagination (sankappa)
- Application (vāyāma)
- Mindfulness (sati)
- Focus (samādhi)
- Voice (vācā)
- Work (kammanta)
- Survival (ājīva)
Instead of the path culminating with application, mindfulness and focus (which work well if your goal is liberation), here it culminates with voice, work and survival (which work well if your goal is human flourishing).
To find my own voice and to engage in meaningful work is as essential to my sense of individual flourishing as it is to my achieving dignity and respect in society. When body and soul are aligned in the performance of a fulfilling task, when the juices of imagination and creativity are flowing, and when my efforts finally bear fruit: that is when I am most fully alive. For the time being, just bear this sequence in mind and reflect on it. We will look at it in greater detail during the second semester.
Gotama himself acknowledged the need to imaginatively reframe one’s dharma practice by comparing the practitioner with a chicken incubating her eggs. Bhavana Sutta (On Cultivation. [A. 7:71]):
Just as the mother hen turns and rearranges her eggs with her feet to ensure that all will be kept equally warm, so does the practitioner of the dharma constantly adjust and rebalance the elements of her practice to ensure that no one factor predominates while others are ignored. In the case of the eightfold path, over time meditation came to assume the dominant role, while factors such as imagination, work and survival were sidelined.
A clutch of eight shifting eggs in a nest has no intrinsic order. The sequence in which the limbs of the eightfold path is traditionally presented is just one of many possible iterations. Imagining the limbs of the path as a clutch of eggs liberates you to arrange them in ways that are adapted to the needs of changing circumstances. By reordering them to culminate with work and survival rather than meditation, such a secular iteration reconfigures the dharma to help us face our uncertain future on earth.
From this secular perspective, survival becomes the new rebirth. Rather than conceiving of the practice of dharma as being concerned with one’s future existence after death, here it is concerned about the survival and flourishing of life on this earth after one’s death as a way of addressing the threats posed by weapons of mass-destruction, man-made climate change, and the looming prospect of a world dominated by artificial intelligence.