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Living in Mindfulness - The Eight Fold Path pt2 7jun17

posted Jun 12, 2017, 9:45 AM by Matthew Fisher

Spoken by Rev. Matthew Fisher

Good morning again - you are welcome in this Buddhist Temple….

We are here for New folks who are seeking a world view that resonates with them.   Something that feels like home.   And we are here for the long term members, the good work of caring for the temple engages you in the Dharma everyday. We are sustained by our study of the teachings and by the simple “chopping of wood and fetching of water” that is Buddhist life.


As we discussed last time - The Noble Eightfold Path is the basic framework for all the Buddha’s teachings. In the sutra we read last time, it was actually the first topic he mentioned in his first Dharma Talk, and the last thing he mentioned in his last talk.  In the first he taught the eightfold path was the true way to awakening, that it avoided the dead-ends of the two extreme views - selfish indulgence and self torment - this middle way.


Just before the Buddha died, Subhadda the wanderer asked him...

“Is it only in the Buddha’s teachings that there are awakened people or do other teachings have awakened people as well?”

At first the Buddha put the question aside to teach the Dharma.  But then after teaching he went on to say that only in teachings where the eight aspects of this noble path are taught will you find awakened people. And really, only in the Buddha’s teaching are all eight aspects taught. So when he put that question aside, it was simply a matter of being polite. He went on to answer the question, saying that this path is The Way: not simply an effective path. The effective path. Each aspect folded into each other in a supportive net.


What is the Eightfold path the Buddha taught?  

right understanding and right thought; right speech, right action, and right livelihood; right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.


The first two are right understanding and right thought; these come under the heading of discernment - clarity of mind. Then there’s right speech, right action, and right livelihood; these come under the heading of virtue or - good behavior.  And then right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration; these come under a heading of mental focus. It’s important to remember that each of these aspects is a part of a path. A trail leading to abiding joy.  This path goes someplace good. Its purpose is strategic - directed - effective.


Last time we talked about the first three folds of the path - Understanding, Thought, and Speech - Right Understanding includes knowing what karma is - the principle of action - that our actions come from our choices, and they do make a difference: that by acting on skillful intentions, we meet with pleasant results; by acting from unskillful intentions, we meet with unpleasant results.  Things are never totally predetermined by the past. If we really want to put an effort toward a joyful life, we have to accept the principle that our efforts, our actions, really do have consequences.


With Right Thought, the important point is that we chose what we think. We develop skillful habits to help direct our thoughts. That’s what the next level of right thought is about: thinking of things in terms of the four noble truths - Our lack of Joy is to be comprehended, its cause abandoned, its cessation can be realized, and the path to its cessation developed.  All these begin with clear thought.


This means that all the aspects of the eightfold path are skills or habits we develop.  In right thought. We realize that unskillful actions are going to cause trouble, so we resolve not to get tied up in thoughts of sensuality, ill will, or harmfulness, because we know these thoughts, if we foster them, are going to take us down the path to suffering.


Sometimes people get stuck on the RIGHT - in all these parts of the path. We don't mean right and wrong “right” - we mean Juuust Right -  Like Goldilocks’ choice of porridge or a beautiful note played on a violin, just so!  Whenever I say “Right” in this context please hear it as “Juuust right’.


We started looking at the virtue group - the good behavior part of the path last time. By considering Right Speech.  Actual actions of body, speech, and mind.  This is where right speech, right action, and right livelihood come in. We should ask, How do our words, our actions, and our livelihood actually effect other people? Do they cause harm to our self? The Buddha way uses this reflection as a way of developing honesty. In all of this the prime virtue is truthfulness. If we can’t admit to our self that the things we say or do are causing harm, or the way we gain your livelihood is causing harm, there are huge blind spots in our mind.  Seeing clearly through mindfulness is what is needed.


Juuuust right action includes everything we do. We act without harm to others and we act with clarity and consideration. Juuust Right Action.   We get in the habit of wholesome physical acts when we are mindful of our actions.   What actions does this include?  All bodily actions. Anything we do, can have a juuust right quality.   Anything we do can bring us closer to the Dharma.

The first practice in Buddhism is Dana - giving. When the first Buddhist, Sujata - the village girl - gave food to the weak and struggling Siddhartha - this was Dana.  Not ordinary giving, but giving expecting nothing back in return.  Our temple here, was built long ago, many people donated, many small sums and big sums, giving expecting nothing back in return.  That’s Dana.  Giving comes in many forms.  As simple as wearing your name tag so new folks can learn your name at the temple, or a complex as giving your service on the Sangha council which supports our priests.  


Just try going into any situation giving, expecting nothing at all - see what happens - there is a great spiritual fulfillment.  Even when we do a Buddhist practice.  We accept our limitations and just give our best effort.

S. Suzuki sensei said -
“we practice without any gaining idea.”


As strange as it sounds, this not expecting takes mindfulness. It takes some measure of noticing when we are expecting and relaxing into the universe and NOT EXPECTING, letting go of any outcome.


Another aspect of Juuuust right action is clarity. Some moments do call for decisive action. And in that moment, we do the best we can. But when your action is complete, when the conversation is done, the meeting is over, the interview finished, you walked the dog… when the action is over, let it be done.  This is clarity.  And the fold of juuust right thought comes in - not analysing or worrying about it after the fact.


Our livelihood is in this good behavior group. Juust Right Livelihood.

We avoid professions and jobs that defile or harm any sentient being.   Juuust right livelihood is important because we spend so much time at work.  The Buddha wanted to ensure that all our actions are building a kind and compassionate life.   The Buddha explicitly said there are five occupations that we should avoid…

“a lay follower should not engage in five types of business which five? -  trade in weapons,  trade in human beings,  trade in meat,  trade in intoxicants, and  trade in poison. These are the five types of business that a lay follower should not engage in”
                                                                            - Vanijja Sutta

Most of these seem obvious, but there is ambiguity in some of these. Trade in poisons shows us how context is important - Botulism is a poison but Botox is a Medicine - the dosage is the difference.  An obvious omission are soldiers.  The Buddha’s family were mostly soldiers of one type or another, he himself was well trained in martial arts.   A profession that occasionally uses force to defend the weak is a right livelihood.
If a job intends to directly or indirectly cause suffering to other beings we should try to avoid it.  When it comes to practicing right livelihood it is not just our actual occupation that is important, but how we conduct ourselves at work - if our job requires violate the five basic precepts it is not wholesome.

Shinran Shonin opened Buddhism to Farmers and Ranchers and Fisherfolk recognizing that their intentions were wholesome and essential to our society.   Vietnamese Zen priest Thich Nhat Hanh says,

"To practice Right Livelihood (samyag ajiva), you find a way to earn your living without compromising the ideals of love and compassion. The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self, or it can be a source of suffering for you and others.

Most of all.  If your job ethically eats you up, it can't be a right livelihood. Our work can nourish our understanding and compassion, or it can erode them. The Buddha recommended we open our eyes to the consequences, near and far, of the way we earn our living.  This is eyes open honesty.


Each aspect of the eightfold path encourages this quality of honesty. We reinforce and cultivate honesty with ourselves. If we want to follow the path, if we want to reach the end of suffering, we have to look very honestly at how we’re living our life, and make changes in the actions where we’re causing trouble.  That is what Shinran Shonin did.  He looked deeply into his life and saw how after all he had learned, he still had the petty jealousy and dreams of fame, we all do...

“Although my eyes, blinded by passions, do not see the brilliant light which embraces me, the Great Compassion never tires, always casting its light upon me.” - Shinran Shonin

Sometimes seeing is enough. He clearly saw his blindness. And he clearly saw the wonderful gifts of Amida Buddha - this is the deep hearing of the light, we talk about.  Nen-butsu - mindfulness of the Buddha in every moment.


All eight folds working together make it easier to take refuge in Amida Buddha - the Nembutsu.  Bringing the Buddha to mind. Notice that effort, mindfulness, and concentration all come under the last grouping of path elements, Mental Focus. The Buddha never talked about mindfulness as one kind of practice and concentration as something else. As with all the aspects of the eightfold path, we distinguished between them, but also see how they blend into each other. Just as discernment shades into virtue, and virtue shades into mental focus, right mindfulness and right concentration shade into each other.


The Buddha described the relationship between them, the four establishments of mindfulness are what we concentrate on. In mindfulness we put aside greed and distress of the world. We are ardent, alert, and mindful, focused on the body in and of itself, or feelings or mental qualities in and of themselves, focused on the Dharma in and of itself. That’s the practice of right mindfulness. Included within this habit is right effort, the quality of ardency. We make efforts to focus our intention, and persist in preventing unwholesome qualities from arising and focus on abandoning less skillful qualities that arise.  That’s how right effort gets folded into right mindfulness.


Right mindfulness folds into right concentration when the mind is able to stay with this present moment - until it settles down - abandoning all unskillful mental qualities - we concentrate.  If we are mindful enough to abandon our obsession with our thoughts, the mind can let go and settle into strong states of concentration.  Where we really do stay focused just on the object of of our mindfulness, This Present Moment or Great Compassion become real.


Those are the aspects of the path, the framework for what we’re doing here. When we look at our life and look at the mind, we can start to see. Are we actually on the path?  Or are we letting things wander off into the weeds?   What qualities need to be developed?  What qualities need to be abandoned?

This is part of what the Buddha calls the habits of the noble ones: that we learn how to delight in abandoning whatever we have to abandon, and to delight in developing whatever needs be developed. The path involves a fair amount of letting go. Right Thought involves letting go of unskillful thoughts. Right speech, right action, right livelihood, and right effort all involve letting go unskillful activities, and states of mind . Right mindfulness involves letting go of greed and stress about the world. The things we need to develop tend to be Right Understanding and Right Concentration, We are easily confused and easily distracted - the Shiny Object passes our view and poof!  What was I doing?  We also develop some skillful habits, those that help us see where we’re causing stress and suffering, so we can stop causing them.


The Buddha once said, of the folds of the path, right concentration is the main one, and the others are accessories. Right Concentration is the one we work at the most, to get the mind to stay with one object patiently and presently.  We learn how to do this through the Nembutsu - bringing the Buddha to mind - but also we cultivate the sense of value that reminds us of why this really is important. The Dharma is important to our lives. Without this skill, we miss everything else. Sometimes we feel like we know about all the folds of the path, “Yea I read all about that 8 fold stuff” we might think. You can read all about the path, but miss the whole point. “right understanding and right thought; right speech, right action, and right livelihood; right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. OK got it!”

No! we need to live it.


So it’s not just a matter of knowing about the folds of the path. We need to make this a priority, master them as skills and create lasting habits of mind. As we consider these and foster these aspects - they do their work on our mind. The mind becomes more sensitive, more alert to what it’s doing, more open to the possibility that the suffering you’re experiencing in life is not something to blame on other people, or on conditions beyond your control. The essential suffering that’s weighing us down is something that we are been creating through our own actions.  We can learn how to stop. That’s means letting go . We realize that there’s something we’ve been doing over and over again and we don’t have to do it. So we stop and things are better.


We use the teachings for their intended purpose. That way we get the most out of them and we fulfill the Buddha’s original intentions for teaching them. There’s a passage in the Mahaparinibbana Sutra - toward the end of his life - where the 9 devas are worshiping him with flowers, incense, and songs, and the Buddha explained to the sangha that this is not the best way to pay respect to the Buddha. We pay respect to the Buddha by practicing the Dharma in line with the Dharma.  We can re-habit the way we look at sights, sounds, tactile sensations, and ideas with the purpose of giving rise to breaking the illusion.  The illusion of our separateness. The illusion of our selfhood. We look for their inconsistencies. We look for the stress that’s involved in trying to find happiness in selfish pursuits. And we learn to see them as part of everything - emptiness of a separate self. That, he said, is how you pay true respect to the Buddha.


This is what the eightfold path does. What insight into the four noble truths brings us.   We can begin to see the way that we normally take the world and turn it into suffering: That’s the problem the Buddha saw clearly. We use the eightfold path as a window see how we make joyful experience into suffering. We can break these habits of mind. All the folds of the path help strengthen our right concentration. To the point where the mind is steady enough and still enough and sensitive enough to see what’s happening.  And these habits of mind make it possible for us to see clearly how the universe works. It’s Great Compassion and Great wisdom nurturing and caring for everything that is.


We can put great effort into following this path.   The Buddhas have made it as easy as it can be.  This seems like a big deal - a monumental task - we might ask, “How much effort is enough? How little do I have to put into it to see a result?”  We will look at this question in more detail in a few weeks.   But for now the answer to “How much effort is enough?” is a little more than you have so far. We make a habit of coming to the temple. We make a point of helping others. We make a habit of considering our actions.


Think about it - why did the Buddha put so much effort, for many kalpas into his quest for awakening, not to be voted most popular and serenaded by devas - He wanted to put an end to suffering. For the sake of all sentient beings, he wanted to share his insights with others in a way that they actually feel inspired to follow the path.

In juust right measure we follow this path - right understanding and right thought; right speech, right action, and right livelihood; right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

We follow the path and we feel positive   results. We do this for the sake of all beings. Not for ourselves.  This is the motivation of all the Buddhas. Filled with compassion. Filled with wisdom. They see what is truly important and share it with all sentient beings.   Let us join in the Buddha's wish for all... [say after me]

May you be happy;

                May you be free from harm:

                          May you receive boundless compassion;

                               And may peace and harmony fill your heart

- Namu Amida Butsu  Namu Amida Butsu  Namu Amida Butsu -