The Noble Eightfold Path was Siddhartha’s medicine for a sick world. It was designed to alleviate the symptom of suffering while treating its causes.
I’m not gonna go over all the Folds, because life is short and I’ve got a moon to watch. Also, people have been talking about them for thousands of years and most of them can do a better job at it than I can. However, we can basically break it into three chunks: morality, meditation, and clarity. These are the Three Pillars of practice.
- Not being an asshole, to yourself or others
- Serving others to your fullest extent
- Diligence & endurance
Lastly, clarity is:
- Studying the teachings
- Seeing those teachings in action
Suffering stems from an unsettled, one-sided mindset that seeks satisfaction in impermanent, dependently arisen things. We’re running around trying to complete ourselves, trying to fill this void, but we’re already complete. The Path gradually helps us see that fact directly.
The Three Pillars support each other, and together, they support our practice. But, how exactly do they make our lives better?
Being an asshole troubles the waters. The things we do have consequences. Each thought, word, and action serve as conditions for further cause and effect. Traditional Buddhism says that intention has a metaphysical influence over these effects, but I haven’t seen that to be the case. Recently, a relative of a close friend accidentally ran over someone he was trying to help and now he might serve five years in jail.
Some of the nicest people seem to have the worst luck. Traditional Buddhism says that intentional actions have a long shelf-life, so even though people might be decent now, they may have been indecent before—perhaps in a past life—and now those toxic seeds are sprouting.
I don’t believe that, I think it’s a stupid view that encourages dispassion and victim blaming. However, the psychology and social coherence behind morality is apparent.
If you’re angry all the time, and use that anger to lash out and harm others, it’s going to reinforce that anger and it’s going to drive people away or invite their wrath. Anger is unpleasant, but it’s also one of the ways we cope with unpleasantness.
Thanks to operant conditioning, since anger helps us to temporarily relieve unpleasantness, then anger is gonna seem inherently rewarding over time. This distracts us from actually dealing with the causes of all this unpleasantness and creates conditions for more of it.
Anything we do out self-interest reinforces unpleasantness. Selfless service, however, has been linked to alleviating the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Non-self-interest helps settle the mind enough for us to actually work with the causes of suffering. It also simplifies our lives and improves our relationships enough so that we have the time to meditate.
Meditation isn’t just sitting, it’s a way of life. It’s an open, attentive, collected, reflective, inquisitive, perseverant mind that adapts to circumstance as they arise.
We can cultivate or uncover this mindset through diligent concentration practice and mindfulness, self-inquiry, and enduring the coming and going of things without chasing them or running away from them.
Morality helps with meditation, but meditation also helps us to see the rationale behind morality clearly. In a flash, we can tell right from wrong, not by using some kind of dogmatic creed, but by seeing the immediate effects of our thoughts, words, and actions and the conditions that brought us to them.
All of our suffering ultimately stems from not seeing the lay of the land. We run when the situation demands that we walk, we crawl when we need to leap, we shout when it’s time to whisper and vice versa. We live out of tune with the season of the moment. We’re unable to navigate the terrain or identify which mushrooms are edible and which ones aren’t.
Clarity doesn’t mean turning away from ignorance to wallow in some kind of Absolute Truth, but to also clearly see the nature of our ignorance, to see how we could’ve gotten so turned around to begin with.
From a Zen perspective, clarity ultimately means seeing our True Nature: Vast Emptiness & Wondrous Existence.
All of this helps us to live freely without tripping over our own illusions. Like anything else, it’s all about causes and conditions. The things we do right now influence what’s happening right… now. If you believe in rebirth, it doesn’t end with this body, but carries mental processes onto another, but that doesn’t concern me.
The important take away is that this moment is just as it is and there’s nothing that we can do to change it. Anything we do right now only affects the “future,” the next appearance that the moment presents. Cause and effect never occur simultaneously (though some ancient Buddhists believed they do), conditions are unstable, constantly transforming.
Through practice, we uncover the capacity to shape the moment or leave it shapeless. We learn to use potential in skillful ways that benefit everyone. In Buddhist metaphysics, that’s characterized by Bodhisattvas being able to choose their rebirths.
If I consider that at all, I take it as a metaphor. When the block’s uncarved, it can become anything, whatever’s needed. When the mind’s unhindered by unsteadiness, misunderstanding, inattentiveness, scatteredness, fear, and the distractions caused by unskillful actions, we’re able to live deliberately, and roam about in an open world.