Thursday, January 10, 2008

Wrapping up the Eight-Fold Path

The statue of Prajñ p ramit  the Goddess of tr...Image via Wikipedia
When we set off on a journey we want to know where we’re starting from, where we are going and how to get to our destination. This line of inquiry is perfectly natural. In the Diamond Sutra, Subhuti wanted to know the same thing about traveling the Path of a Bodhisattva. He asked about the nature of sentient beings and how to conduct himself in the mission to liberate them. And right off the bat the Buddha threw out a curve ball and thus set the tone for the entire Sutra. In response to Subhuti’s questions the Buddha said,

“...And though I thus liberate countless beings, not a single being is liberated. And why not? Subhuti, a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a being cannot be called a ‘bodhisattva’. And why not? Subhuti, no one can be called a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a self or who creates the perception of a being, life or a soul.”

This response is repeated numerous times throughout this Perfection of Wisdom Sutra. Understanding this statement is central to properly traveling the Nobel Eight-Fold Path.

As the Sutra unfolds, Subhuti’s depth of understanding advances but never wavers from this initial starting point. The Buddha explains that a self is an illusion which manifests in an infinite cascade of further illusions, all of which obscure and block enlightenment and thus undermines the mission of liberation. Beings are just other selves who are likewise illusions and an illusion can’t be saved since an illusion doesn’t exist. There are a couple of points regarding a “self” which must be grasped to start off on the right foot.

● A self is a fabrication; an ego; a thought and abstraction of our identities. Any thought, and particularly this thought, is not real. A thought has no substance. It is a pure mental product.

● The Buddhist understanding of something real is what has intrinsic substance. An independent entity with its own substance (not dependent upon anything else) would be real. But dependent origination correctly points out that nothing within the realm of ordinary existence possesses independent status and is thus not real. A self has no independent status and is thus not real.

By misidentifying with this self we don't see our true nature as Buddha-Nature, which is unconditional and the same for all sentient beings. Throughout the Sutra the Buddha builds the case that because there is no self, there are no beings to liberate, thus no path. Yet without a path beings would remain in bondage, attached to delusions. Consequently the Buddha says there is a Path and there are beings to liberate. The Buddha employs expedient means in order to free them.

Centuries later Nagarjuna addressed this conundrum with what has become known as the Two-Truth Doctrine. Essentially this doctrine acknowledges that in order to lead someone to a deep sublimity it is necessary to begin from where they can understand. There are partial truths of the world and truths which are sublime. To coin a modern day term, You cant get there from here. To arrive at the sublime you must first know there are two truths and then go through the partial to reach the sublime.

The Buddha says furthermore that because the true nature of beings is Buddha-Nature, they are already liberated and thus can’t be set free and finally, given the true nature of the Buddha—as the Dharmakaya, at the level of our existence which alone is real—there is no beginning nor end to the Path nor beings to liberate. The Dharmakaya is the realm of non-conditions, thus non-karma, completely without differentiation of any kind. The realm of Nirvana is therefore the same realm as delusions. Accepting this truth releases us from the desire to leave the realm of delusion and seek the realm of Nirvana. They are one and the same realm and both leaving and seeking are forms of attachment which lies at the heart of suffering. Being ignorant of this truth is what binds beings who continue in samsara as ones who die of thirst in a vast sea of water.

Taking the first step on this Path, which is no Path, with this Right View is the only way to realize enlightenment (which already exists).

The next step is Right Intentions which flows from the first right view. Because of the non-differentiated nature of our essential being we are in fact no different from other beings and our intentions must therefore be measured in a selfless fashion. By genuinely seeing ourselves, others and Buddha as One we can then move on to right actions to mete out behavior on the other side of karma (which Buddhas are not subject to).

Right actions thus result in no merit since they are selfless, and within the Dharmakaya merit is already full. The truth is that in the realm of Dharmakaya there is no difference between merit and non-merit because there is no difference between anything: everything is non-dual. Precepts which emerge from such selfless intentions are not done to gain merit but rather as expressions of a goal which has already been reached. Actions are thus gifts which we pass on having already received them ourselves.

Right speech is another form of action and is constructed within the spirit of doing no harm. Guidelines for determining speech that is right are useful but must not be clung to lest they become objects of attachment. Every disease is unique and requires special medicine tailor-made to fit the specific disease.

Right livelihood is likewise “right” when we are employed in professions which don’t bring harm to ourselves and others while being free of the three poisons (greed, anger and delusion). To be thus employed will further the cause of emancipation by creating good karma and therefore assisting the reduction of delusions emanating from a false self.

Right effort flows from a developed understanding that we are truly interdependent with life. Such effort is no-effort. It is wu-wei—a natural extension of non-attachment. It is to surrender or give oneself over to the ubiquitous, flow of Buddha-nature. In the words of Bodhidharma, “To know clearly the bliss of detachment is to walk on the path of the Tao. This is the rule of non-attachment.”

And finally the Path comes full-circle back to the ground of all Buddhas by engaging the two-fold practice of right mindfulness and right concentration. Through the practice of meditation those who travel the Eight-Fold Path deepen their insight and experience Hishiryo consciousness where all preoccupation with thoughts and non-thoughts come to an end and subject (self) melds with objects (manifestations of self). When this state is realized delusions cease and we arrive back at our True Nature—A Nature with no beginning nor end.

The Nobel Eight-Fold Path is thus The Middle Way between the extremes of denial of existence (All things are empty—Nihilism) and the belief in permanence (everything has independence and permanence). Both are true united and neither are true apart. It is a matter of perspective. From the perspective of the Dharmakaya everything exists eternally without conditions. But from the perspective of nirmanakaya and the sambhogakaya things are born and die dependent upon causal conditions. By traveling this Path with these Rights in mind we free ourselves from delusions which create suffering and come to both understand and experience our true natures.
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