The Noble Eightfold Path skilfully steers us between the extremes of these four philosophical stances. The path is taught as eight stages, but the totality of Buddhist method can be extrapolated from this simple structure. The fruit or destination of the path is the experience of the non-duality of emptiness and form.
The eight stages of the path are: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right vocation, right effort, right attention, and right presence. ‘Right’ can also be translated as ‘whole-hearted’, ‘appropriate’, or ‘congruent’. To engage in the practice of The Eightfold Path wholeheartedly, with total committed involvement, congruent with the view of openness and kindness, is to walk the path of the warrior. There is nothing half-hearted or wavering about a warrior’s adventure. The warrior stands on the edge of the unknown path, and steps out boldly without hope or fear.
The key to The Noble Eightfold Path is the cultivation of right view. Right view is Dharma. Dharma means as it is, so right view is the understanding of as it is. It is the view which has arisen from studying and understanding the first, second and third noble truths: ‘the truth of our experience of dissatisfaction’, ‘the truth of there being a cause of dissatisfaction’, and ‘the truth that dissatisfaction can cease’. Right view is the understanding of The Four Thoughts.
We understand that our being is an opportunity for realisation, that all appearances are impermanent, that we are responsible for our perceptions and responses, and that the distortion of perception and response are at the root of our experience of dissatisfaction.
Initially, view may only be the intellectual understanding that the causes of dissatisfaction can be severed – but as we travel the path, view becomes increasingly subtle and profound. Experience of resting in emptiness can be cultivated through meditation practice and this filters into our ordinary lives. We begin to undermine the fixation which judges every focus of perception in terms of aversion, attraction, and indifference. We develop an intellectual understanding that our experience of ourselves as solid, permanent, separate, continuous, and defined beings is not contradicted by our experience of ourselves as insubstantial, impermanent, inseparable, discontinuous, and undefined beings. Through the understanding that we can release the primary dualistic drives of obsession, aversion, and indifference, we can begin to play in the arena of our habitual response patterns. We can find ourselves more lightly involved. We begin to develop an openness of view toward others and to the particulars of our environment. We become less fixed and sure of our opinions with regard to the way in which things appear.
One aspect of living as a warrior is the development of vajra pride. Vajra pride is the awareness that one is always present in the potential to awaken to realisation. Trying to live with this awareness moment by moment helps us to act with the courage, dignity, and honour required for appropriate responsiveness. Vajra pride requires that we attempt to act in the way an enlightened being would act. A realised being does not slink away at the first sign of danger. A realised being does not break promises merely because keeping them would make life difficult.
warrior is bold and fearless.
The warrior gazes directly into the
nature of what is manifesting in any moment.
The warrior embodies his or her nature openly – as Ngak’chang Rinpoche would say:
… without grimy, greasy, or grotesque deceits.
The second step on The Noble Eightfold Path is intention. From view – intention arises. Intention, as we have seen, is the energy of karma. It is the power which motivates responses to perception, and which moves responses in the direction of duality or non-duality. Through understanding the causes of dissatisfaction, and developing spaciousness, we cultivate the intention and desire to remember that solidity, permanence, individuation, continuity, and self-definition are only half the story. We try to live with the understanding that we are the ebb and flow of existence and non-existence. We try to become aware of lapses into irritation, selfishness, and dullness. We try to become aware of indulgence in aggression, obsession, and depression. We try to remain true to the intention of living the view, in terms of ceasing to create the causes of the experience of unsatisfactoriness.
From this basis, our communication with the world begins to reflect our intention. We attempt to align the third step of right speech or communication with the first two of view and intention. We avoid communicating rigid preconceptions and mandatory requirements. We try to keep our communication open and fluid, without judgements and expectations. We try to be direct, and refrain from deviousness or manipulation in our communication. We intend to communicate kindness-intention. Through our attempts to maintain right view and right intention, our communication reflects this throughout the spectrum of our existence. It begins in terms of external communication – but becomes increasingly subtle as we allow spacious integrity to permeate what we are.
The fourth step is right action, or conduct. Our interaction with the world with regard to conduct reflects our attempt to maintain congruency with right view, right intention, and right communication. We are direct and open in all our activities. We do not attempt to manipulate people or our experience of them.
We respect others as beings who have the capacity for liberation, and we take responsibility for ourselves in that respect. We disallow the laziness or slovenliness that causes additional work for others, whilst respecting our physical requirements for relaxation and rest. We remember that it is only possible to discover the subtle nature of the experience of dissatisfaction with samsara through relative success, and therefore offer others opportunities for success in their lives. We help others whenever we can within the full capacity of our time and energy.
Warriors’ hearts are open and bold. They do not attempt to extricate themselves from situations which do not turn out as expected. They do not attempt to blame others for difficult life circumstances. In terms of karma, our ‘primary causes’ and ‘secondary causes’5 are the material for transformation. So the warrior does not indulge in blame or attempt to divert the maturation of causes.
Warriors are honourable. To have honour is to be open and direct in communication and action. To be honourable is not to sidestep difficult situations, but rather to face them. Honour concerns keeping one’s word. To act with honour is to see something through to the end. Honour does not leave tasks uncompleted or forgotten because it no longer suits our purpose. Honour concerns one’s respect and dignity: respect for others and also for ourselves. Honour requires that we behave with dignity alone or in company.
People usually have an instinctive feeling for what honour means – but even so it is often seen as ‘unfashionable’ by those who espouse modern process-oriented psychotherapeutic philosophies.
Children can be ridiculed by their peers for respecting and obeying their teachers. There is often more ‘street credibility’ in being the cleverest in the class at undermining the teacher’s authority. There is often more admiration available from avoiding work than from excelling in set projects. Children may be ridiculed by their peers if they show respect to their parents. Honour is often seen as contemptible, whereas impertinence and defiance are greeted with approval.
When we enjoy hearing the latest gossip reported in the press about a member of our country’s government, we may discount all possibility that they entered the profession with altruistic ideals. Though teachers, parents, or politicians may not always deserve our respect, to hold oneself with honour and dignity and to behave with respect is more personally important than politically sanctioned issues concerning the focus of respect. We lose power and integrity if we lose the capacity for dignity and respect.
We are habitually attached to form – so it is important for us to understand and connect with pawo and pamo principles within ourselves. Through personal understanding of these principles our activities become method. It is the form of how we are which interacts with the world and with circumstances – so we need to aim for impeccability with respect to form. Through impeccability we make contact with empty form. This means completing every task to the best of our ability. This means not being slovenly, lazy, or uncaring. This means being clear and direct in our communication. This means ensuring that our actions are congruent with the style of a warrior.
Knights ensured that their armour was cleaned and shining before setting out. Their armour would be emblazoned with the colours and symbols of their knightly lineage. Their departure would be marked by a trumpet fanfare. Knights did not leave by the back door or attempt to sneak out unnoticed.
The world of the knight is open and direct. Knights do not flinch in the face of danger or personal sacrifice if honour is at stake – and thus should we be in all our interactions with the world.
Right conduct extends to the nature of our means of supporting ourselves in the world. Right livelihood—or right vocation—is the extension of right communication and right conduct to include our entire environment. Our lifestyle reflects right view, and our sense of respect and responsibility extends into our environment. I recognise my interconnection with all beings and all things. I embrace my interconnection with all beings and all things. I understand that it is not appropriate for me to live at the overt or covert expense of others, whilst also acknowledging that it is impossible to live without inadvertently harming other beings. I avoid adopting fixed stances or manufacturing an artificial spiritual personality. I continue in the attempt to keep my view and intention open and fluid.
When we speak of right vocation, we need to disassociate this idea from fashionable ‘politically correct’ regulations. We are not dealing with spirituality at the level of ‘green politics’ in which we recycle rubbish, install solar heating and abandon disposable nappies. Right vocation involves being real in the world. This is not a question of utopianism – whether feasible or infeasible. It is a matter of essential kindness – a kind of caring which includes the broad picture. It is not a matter of refusing to drive cars because of pollution, nor of being oblivious to pollution.
Right vocation is the recognition that attempting to take a purist stance is essentially devoid of compassion. Right vocation is a matter of increasing one’s sense of connection with everything – with those whose livelihood depends upon the car industry as well as with those who suffer because of it. Right vocation is the acceptance of being utterly and passionately compromised by one’s situation.
Right vocation is not looking for a get-out clause which allows us to be pure whilst others are impure. Right vocation is being able to do what needs to be done – or to die in the attempt.
Maintaining right view, right intention, right communication, right conduct, and right vocation in our everyday lives requires effort, application, and enthusiasm. This is the sixth step of The Eightfold Path. We try to be totally involved with everything in which we engage. We partake thoroughly and participate whole-heartedly. We do not approach tasks with a half-hearted, ‘good enough’ attitude. We throw ourselves completely into whatever we are doing and do it to the best of our ability – whether it is our meditation or our laundry. We aspire to maintain right view and right intention.
Shakyamuni Buddha taught the Four Great Efforts: the ‘effort to develop’; the ‘effort to relinquish’; the ‘effort to maintain’; and the ‘effort to overcome’. In terms of the Four Great Efforts, we develop the depth and scope of our understanding and experience of view and intention. We relinquish unhelpful habits and neurotic patterning. We maintain practice and try not to fall into old patterns. We actively work to overcome our neuroses. Once effort has become realised manifestation, then these Four Efforts become the four Buddhakarmas of enriching, pacifying, magnetising, and destroying. The enthusiasm of our conduct manifests as appropriate, to benefit all beings in all situations.
Wholehearted effort in the practice of congruent view, intention, communication, conduct, and vocation creates a sense of spaciousness. With this more spacious experience we discover the seventh step of the path – our attention becomes naked and direct. It begins to be easier to maintain attention in all situations and experiences. We gradually find greater ease in bringing our attention to the present moment and remaining there.
It is not possible to be aware of the sparkling potentiality of the present moment if we are critical, dreaming, or abstracted. Right effort, view, and intention help us to keep our minds alert and present.
The final stage of the path is right presence or concentration. Ultimately, finding presence of awareness in the dimension of the moment is the experience of rigpa – the non-dual experience of emptiness and form. Within this experience, all manifestations become the ornaments of rigpa and are experienced as purely appropriate, natural, spontaneous, and free. Karma as a cause of dukkha no longer exists. Spontaneous non-dual perception manifests as simultaneous spontaneous non-dual response. We are freed from our neurotically patterned responses of attraction, aversion, and indifference, and our responses manifest as ornaments of rigpa. Our natural mode of being is to be Dharma Warriors. We are no longer tossed powerlessly like a leaky boat on the stormy waters of hope and fear, expectation and preconception.
5. Primary cause: the distortion created by duality; the primary distortion of perception and response. Secondary cause: the circumstances that arise in the course of our lives that spark response. We can never know what secondary causes may arise in our lives, or what primary causes they may spark.