In a short sutta, (Middle length discourses #22) the Buddha’s recommended approach to leading a wise and effective life that leads to awakening is sketched in with great economy. The results are somewhat surprising (e.g., he covers when to follow the path and when to set it aside). And it is clear that the Path did not originate as a list of eight elements, handy as that might be as a prompt to memory (see below), but as a strategic response to sometimes desperate circumstances.
Michael’s talk this Sunday centered on brief quotations from two Suttas in Middle Length Discourses and the Connected Discourses. In the first, The Buddha explains the process of getting from the ‘near shore’, our familiar life and its inherent suffering, to the ‘far shore’, nibbana, using a raft, the Eightfold Path, to cross the great uncertainties of undertaking spiritual development.
It is perhaps striking that, in contrast to the feeling of predictable regularity, conveyed by the many lists which organize the Dhamma, the Path here is presented as concocted from what is in one’s immediate environment and experience – whatever is at hand. And further, it may be surprising to learn that the Buddha recommends not ‘carrying’ the Path understanding once one has finished crossing the river, a passage both puzzling and often misunderstood.
Our discussion this week revolved around these features of the suttas, and around our own experiences of using elements of the Eightfold Path to help us make our way through our lives and to arrive at some degree of spiritual maturity.
For your convenience, here’s a quick summary of the elements of the Eightfold path:
- Wholesome View/Understanding — 4 noble truths, 3 marks of existence
- Wholesome Intention/Thinking — letting go/generosity, loving friendliness, compassion
- Wholesome Speech — refrain from lying, harsh/malicious language, useless chatter
- Wholesome Action — 5 precepts – no killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, intoxicants
- Wholesome Livelihood — work should not disrupt our spiritual development or harm others
- Wholesome Effort — avoid the 5 hindrances: desire, aversion, restlessness, sloth/torpor, and doubt
- Wholesome Mindfulness — apply present moment attention to mind states + marks of existence
- Wholesome Samadhi — develop unified mind by directed & sustained thought, joy, happiness and concentration.
Michael read the Sutta of the Raft, reproduced below, and emphasized that the metaphorical raft in question is not a pre-built construction which we discover, but a makeshift tool that we put together from the detritus and experience of our lives, and that we must get our hands and feet wet in the waters of suffering in order for it to get us anywhere at all.
“Monks, I will teach you the Dhamma compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto. Listen & pay close attention. I will speak.”
“As you say, lord,” the monks responded to the Blessed One.
The Blessed One said: “Suppose a man were traveling along a path. He would see a great expanse of water, with the near shore dubious & risky, the further shore secure & free from risk, but with neither a ferryboat nor a bridge going from this shore to the other. The thought would occur to him, ‘Here is this great expanse of water, with the near shore dubious & risky, the further shore secure & free from risk, but with neither a ferryboat nor a bridge going from this shore to the other. What if I were to gather grass, twigs, branches, & leaves and, having bound them together to make a raft, were to cross over to safety on the other shore in dependence on the raft, making an effort with my hands & feet?’ Then the man, having gathered grass, twigs, branches, & leaves, having bound them together to make a raft, would cross over to safety on the other shore in dependence on the raft, making an effort with his hands & feet. Having crossed over to the further shore, he might think, ‘How useful this raft has been to me! For it was in dependence on this raft that, making an effort with my hands & feet, I have crossed over to safety on the further shore. Why don’t I, having hoisted it on my head or carrying it on my back, go wherever I like?’ What do you think, monks: Would the man, in doing that, be doing what should be done with the raft?”
“And what should the man do in order to be doing what should be done with the raft? There is the case where the man, having crossed over, would think, ‘How useful this raft has been to me! For it was in dependence on this raft that, making an effort with my hands & feet, I have crossed over to safety on the further shore. Why don’t I, having dragged it on dry land or sinking it in the water, go wherever I like?’ In doing this, he would be doing what should be done with the raft. In the same way, monks, I have taught the Dhamma compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto. Understanding the Dhamma as taught compared to a raft, you should let go even of Dhammas, to say nothing of non-Dhammas.”– Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Access to Insight
The second quote was from the Asivisa Sutta:
“‘The great expanse of water’ stands for the fourfold flood: the flood of sensuality, the flood of becoming, the flood of views, & the flood of ignorance.
‘The near shore, dubious & risky’ stands for self-identification. ‘The further shore, secure and free from risk’ stands for Unbinding. ‘The raft’ stands for just this noble eightfold path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. ‘Making an effort with hands & feet’ stands for the arousing of persistence. ‘Crossed over, having gone to the other shore, he would stand on high ground, a brahman’ stands for the arahant.”– Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Access to Insight