Understanding Right in the Eightfold Path Download
A look at the word ‘right’ as it is used in the traditional Buddhist method of The Noble Eightfold Path.
I’m going to start with the traditional Buddhist method of implementation. All of you probably are familiar with it: the noble eightfold path; it consists of right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right recollection (you can read mindfulness for that if you want), right attention, right view, and right intention. Now the first point I want to make here is an extended footnote on the word “right.” This is not “right” in the sense of right-versus-wrong. Randy made a comment earlier about being in trouble with Mercedes-Benz, and it was exactly on this point, If I recall. Many people, I won’t say most, but many people approaching the eightfold path, see “right speech” (for instance), and they have translated that as their VIEW of right speech, which is saying the right thing in the right way at the right time, which brings to mind a quotation from Aristotle, ““ANYBODY can become angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power, that is not easy.”
This I find very interesting, because Aristotle is talking about bringing attention to your anger. Most of us, when we get angry with somebody, and nine times out of 10, the person who we’re actually angry with isn’t the one in front of us. It’s somebody else, but this poor person is getting the brunt of it. So my understanding of the noble eightfold path: it has absolutely nothing to do with right versus wrong. And I think this is a childish way of approaching spiritual practice, because if you’re approaching it in terms of right versus wrong, then you have in you some idea of authority, that has defined what is right and what is wrong. And basically you’re relating to that authority as a parent, which makes you a child, and then off you go! It is how most people approach spiritual practice and religion.
When we talk about right speech, it is: “when you are talking, your attention is active.” “Now,” you may say, “how do you do that?” Well with speech, actually, it’s one of the easier ones. And it’s just an extremely effective practice—you listen to the sound of your own voice, as you’re speaking, as if you were listening to another person. This has some very interesting results. A consultant studied with me many years ago, and at one time I gave him this practice. He called me up a week later. He said, “Ken?” I replied, “Yeah?” He went on, “You know, that practice about listening to the sound of your own voice as if it was another person, you know, this attention in speaking thing?” I said, “Yeah.” After a pause, he sighed and said, “Yeah. I’m screwed!”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Well,” he explained, “I’ve been doing that when I’m talking with my clients. It’s complete bullshit. The only thing I’m doing when I’m talking to the clients is persuading them to give me more business. I’m not helping them at all. I can’t work anymore.” So I said something like, “Well, you might consider when you work, actually helping your clients rather than just persuading them.” So he admitted, “Yeah, I suppose you’re right.”
And in the consulting world, this is extraordinarily prevalent: that everything you’re doing is about maneuvering the clients so they give you another piece of business. This is not right speech. It’s also not right livelihood. And if you look at it, in terms of the relationships we talked about at the beginning, it’s not a shared-aim relationship, where you’re looking purely for mutual benefit, where the consultants role is it’s a shared aim, with the client’s welfare in mind with that particular problem. So, in this particular case, with just few days of listening to himself, he realized that he wasn’t practicing what his profession actually was. I gave him a lot of credit for that recognition.
Another person came in after this and I asked her, “Well, how’d the exercise go?” And she just looked at me like this and said, “she never shuts up! She just talks and talks. I don’t know how anybody can stand listening to her.” That was the first time she’d ever heard herself. This is the practice of right speech. When we do this, we hear what we are saying, how we are saying it—and there’s automatic adjustments. We immediately detect whether what we’re saying is appropriate to the situation or not. And then we don’t have to clean up so many messes afterwards. The result of this kind of practice is that we will say what is true, we will say it in a way that it can be heard, our speech is more than likely to be gentle and so forth, which are the traditional characteristics of right speech. What we forget is that much of what we read about the characteristics that arise in practice are the results of the effort of practice, NOT what you “try to do.”
I was very grateful for someone who wrote to me recently connected with the Then and Now class, saying that after our discussion of the teacher-student relationship she finally understood that the effort was not to emulate the teacher, but to learn from the teacher. I thought, “Oh, this is good.” This is not about emulation. This is about learning how to be awake—and how that looks for you is the way that it looks for you… not for anybody else. So you don’t try to copy people. You bring attention to how you move. That’s “right action.” And if you bring attention to how you move, you’re not going to knock over water bottles. It just doesn’t happen. Because as soon as you touch the water bottle, you’re aware of it and your hand stops, and now you pick it up. Almost all accidents happen because one isn’t paying attention at that moment. Oh, we’ll not say a hundred percent, but probably somewhere between 95 and 99.
“Right livelihood” is the same thing. We bring attention, moment to moment, day to day, month to month and so forth, to what we are doing for earning a living. And of course this can be absolutely devastating to your career, but it may save your life. Several years ago, as many of you know, I went on sabbatical, and there was a very simple reason: I didn’t know what I was doing teaching at that point. So I stopped. And everybody was like, “You can’t do that!” A lot of people were angry with me because they’d come to rely on certain things (and I could have gone on teaching quite easily), but it would have been acting, it wouldn’t have felt right,or true. And I wouldn’t have been in any sense awake in the process. I knew I would be living the lie if I went on, so I had to stop. So as I said, this can be devastating for your career, but it may save your life.
So when I say, “Bring attention to this,” it means experiencing what is actually going on when you are doing these things—experience what is going on in you when you are talking; experience what is going on when you are moving (that’s “right action”), experience what is going on when you are working.
Anybody see the movie “Michael Clayton?” Yeah, a B+ movie, but it’s very much about a person who comes to the point of, “I can’t do this anymore!” And there are certain consequences to that. Actually, there are a couple of characters who experience consequences—one of them actually is killed because he can’t do it anymore. Buddhism is not interested in your career. That’s: no interest whatsoever. It’s quite interested in your life. So you may have to decide what’s more important.
It’s the same thing with “right effort.” This is something I’ve had to wrestle with intensely myself, because for various physical reasons, I’m not able to do, what it says you’re meant to do, in all the books. And I tried, for decades, and just kept making myself ill, which varied from just being in pain, to being really quite seriously incapacitated. I just kinda suffered, and I wouldn’t stop until my head actually couldn’t hit the wall anymore. Because the wall was always there, and I’m just long past bloody, to where it’s just not possible to hit the wall another time. So I had to learn a very, very different idea of what “right effort” actually means. And it’s an exploration. I heartily encourage each of you to explore—what does right effort mean for me? Because the synonym for effort in Buddhism is enthusiasm. And when you feel enthusiastic about something, you pour your energy into it, and you’re pouring your energy into it in a good way. So it doesn’t have any of this Victorian nose-to-the-grindstone, stiff-upper-lip, grin-and-bear-it quality. And so there’s a very interesting exploration of what prevents me from being able to engage this activity with enthusiasm. That’s a very, very interesting inquiry.
And “right recollection, right mindfulness” (we’re going to have to retire the word “mindfulness”)—it’s been hopelessly corrupted in English, but its meaning, its fundamental meaning, is to remember where you are and what you are doing. That’s what the word translated as “mindfulness” means in Tibetan and Sanskrit and Pali: “to remember” (so I’m not sure where “mindfulness” came from English-wise, but it did). There’s certain things that are constructive and helpful to remember (just as there are certain things that it’s not constructive or helpful to remember—wallowing in the memory of things ill-done and done to others, harm and things that were done to you—is not particularly constructive, and it reinforces a whole bunch of tendencies, et cetera.) So there’s a way of practicing mindfulness, or recollection, which has been official. That’s what “right mindfulness” is.
Similarly with “right attention:” there are all kinds of ways one can move into states of attention… trance states and so forth, bliss states, high-energy states… not all of them are helpful to waking up. Some of them are the antithesis of waking up. So what is the quality you experience when you’re exercising attention? Same as how to consider “view,” and “intention.”
I wanted to say a word or two about “intention” here. In the Mahayana, We have the bodhisattva vow, which is the intention to wake up in order to help others wake up. That’s putting it in plain English. Now, it’s very powerful. It’s very, very deep. You take the bodhisattva vow, you’re not always aware of it, but basically you’ve taken the vow never to indulge your own confusion. And that’s a different way of looking at it.
Another way of looking at it or understanding it, it is the resolution to have that quality of wakefulness permeate every aspect of one’s experience; which means that you get to experience everything in all of the dark hidden corners that you have avoided shining a light on for the last quarter of a billion years. Sorry, the universe is 14 billion years old, so make that a quarter of a trillion. One of the extraordinary qualities of the bodhisattva vow, which Shantideva sings of in the Bodhicaryavatara is that once this becomes stable in you, when that intention really sinks in, then everything you do, whether it’s sleeping or eating or playing, is in service of waking up.
Because since that intention has really come in to everything you do, it is part of that. So when you’re relaxing, you’re relaxing in order to be able to create the conditions so that you can be awake and help others to be awake. So this intention infuses everything in your life, or imbues everything you’re doing with your life, with meaning and purpose. It’s quite extraordinary that way. So, this is one way that you can implement: to become very, very clear about your intention in your life, and follow the principle of bringing attention into every aspect and every action of your life.
One which I skipped over was “right view.” Right view means, in terms of the way we’ve been talking, not to get lost in the world of materialism, but to remember the world that we actually experience. What we tend to do over and over again, as some of you probably got to see from that little “scores” thing that we did, is that most of the time we’re lost in the world of materialism. We do not set about living our lives to create the conditions to experience well-being in the life that we actually experience—the actual thoughts, feelings, and sensations. And if we did that, we would live very, very differently, many of us.
I think at this point, it’s good to go back and pick up the exercise that we did at the end. Are you ready? I asked you three questions. What would you do if you knew you had exactly one year to live? Now, by all means you can talk about what you would do, but I’m more interested in what is the difference between what you wrote down and what you’re doing now.
Catherine, give her the microphone, please.
Paticipant 1 (21:06):
What came up for me is not that much would actually change because I have been changing my life a lot, but the idea of status would disappear altogether, I believe.
MmHmm. You would no longer be concerned with status. Yes. Okay. What would that be like?
Paticipant 1 (21:30):
Just so relaxing. And I’m just thinking of all the tension that comes from that and all of the…
Well, you know what the next question is?
Paticipant 1 (21:39):
No. What is it? I’m dying to hear?
What are you holding on to it for?
Paticipant 1 (21:46):
That’s a, that’s a very good question.
Okay. Then you can take and work with that just as you wish. Okay? Because it causes you a lot of tension by the sound of it. Okay. So that would be appropriate to think, okay, what am I holding on to? And why? Okay. Anybody else, Diane?
Paticipant 1 (22:17):
This would probably come as no surprise, but I would quit my job.
Oh, you haven’t done that yet? (Diane happens to be extremely good at the job she doesn’t like)…
Well, it just takes away from doing other things. It’s all-consuming and it just takes time away from other things.
Yep. What you really want to be doing with your life. Okay. Anybody else?