Tonight I gave my first-ever Dharma Talk to my local sangha. It has been a couple years since I had to teach in public, and the first time that it wasn’t a church sermon; however, even with the jitters I believe it went ok. It was more of a wrap-up to a 4-part series lightly touching on The Four Nobel Truths — with an introduction to The Eightfold Path. I have been in “essay mode” for the past 6 months in all my theology classes so I spent the first half of the discussion giving more of a scholastic approach to the topic — followed with something of a more personal nature (reflection and commentary) to end the discussion. I was told that this was the first time someone opted to prepare their own Dharma Talk for the night instead of reading from a book, or playing a recording from another teacher. I hope what I chose to discuss came across OK — I am not against reading another person’s material, but after years of having to prepare my own material each week for my church-groups… this just felt more natural for me. I figured I would post it for you all online here as well. Maybe if I get to do more of these I can oneday look back at the archives and see the stages of progression I have gone through. That may be fun. Enjoy:
The Fourth Nobel Truth: The Way (Path)
Tonight ends our 4 week series on one of the most fundamental teachings in Buddhism – The 4 Nobel Truths. Although this series has been non-exhaustive, or more introductory, in nature; it is our hope that for those of you familiar with these truths that it served and refresher, a reminder, a guidepost – our proverbial breadcrumbs leading us back home, and for those of you who are new to these concepts – that you would become inspired to learn more.
Tonight is also special because in covering the 4th Nobel Truth we will also be covering another essential teaching of the Buddha – The Eightfold Path, or as some like to call it: The Dharma Wheel (Dharmacakra).
With this being the ending, let us start at the beginning – a brief re-cap of the 4 Nobel Truths… We suffer; suffering is due to attachment; attachment can be overcome; which brings to the 4th truth of: there is a Way (or Path) to accomplishing this.
Many scholars, teachers, monks and practitioners better than I have already made the assessment that the Buddha both diagnosed, then prescribed a remedy to our condition (suffering) with the precision and the pragmatism of a doctor – to which I must agree fully. He stripped down the prognosis and the remedy to its essentials – only concerned with what would alleviate the condition. In his pragmatism he became a rebel – stripping away many (if not all) of the common religious overtones prominent during his day. Removing much of the ceremony, chanting, prayers, gods, worship… and all of its resulting “pomp and circumstance”. However feeling free to keep some of it as well from time to time when necessary to communicate with people, help people understand… reach people with the message. Let this serve us as a reminder then that as Buddhism spread through different cultures, different people groups, and across different time periods; one could, and should, be able to even further strip down the practice of any religious overtones and still be keeping within the intent of the Buddha; and one could add ceremony to the teachings in order to reach people and be within the intent as well. What matters is the cessation of suffering. The problem, the cause, and the cure.
The diagnosis: We Suffer (or that there is suffering in this life)
The cause: That suffering comes from attachment
Then, before prescribing us our “cure” (or really a regiment to follow to put us on the right path towards the process of wellness) he lets us know that there is hope – that if we follow the regiment it can cease. For without the hope that the regiment will work then why would one submit themselves to the regiment? Just like a cancer patient removing themselves from the chemotherapy process after the doctors inform them that there is no chance for survival.
The hope: That there is a cure for suffering. That it can be overcome.
The cure: The Way (Path)
The regiment: The Eightfold Path – also known as The Dharma Wheel
Why a wheel? Because the eight aspects of the path are not to be understood as a sequence of single steps, instead they are highly interdependent principles that have to be seen in relationship with each other. Although the Four Nobel Truths with the Eightfold Path create the pivotal foundation for Buddhism we will only cover them in-brief tonight, not defining them too closely or with much restriction, but for good reason… which will be explained later on in the discussion.
The Eight are most commonly interpreted today as: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration; although people’s explanations pertaining to what these Eight will look like when lived-out differs from practice to practice – or even person to person.
Right View or Understanding
Right View is a mental understanding of the Four Nobel Truths coupled with an understanding of oneself as one really is. One may think to themselves, “Well if I had that I wouldn’t need the 7 others now would I!” but we must keep in mind that this knowing is not the knowing that comes from “enlightenment” but this is the knowing that results from our mental discipline. Right View is the cognitive aspect of wisdom – this is your study, your intelligence, your mind being put to good use. It is for this reason that Right View can also refer to scholarship, and lets us know that the Buddha never intended for us to “check our minds at the door” when entering the practice.
Right Intention or Right Thought
While Right View refers to the cognitive aspect of wisdom, Right Intention refers to the volitional aspect, the free will we have as human beings to choose and decide who we want to be and how we want to respond. Or better stated: Since it is impossible to define intention properly instead we focus that fact that Right Intention will eventually result in the mental action of us beginning to cultivate our minds. A common analogy for this aspect it the mind as a garden that can be neglected, polluted, or tended to. There are seeds of suffering that can take root within the mind which we have the ability to disrupt and uproot. We can also choose to cultivate Right Thoughts.
Right View and Right Intention make up the “Wisdom” portion of the Eightfold Path. The following 3 challenge us to strive to live ethically. This is not a diversion or leap in a different direction from the “Wisdom” portion of the Path since ethics in action both result from our mental state, and can help shape or cultivate our mental state.
Right Speech deals with refraining from falsehoods, slandering, harsh words and frivolous talk.
Respect life (avoid killing). Earn all that you have (not stealing). Control your desire, rather than allowing desire to control you (chastity). Chastity can be defined as purity in conduct and intention; restraint and simplicity; or personal integrity.
Right Livelihood means earring ones living in a way that is not harmful to others and is mindful of the environment. Do we invest in companies that mistreat their workers or oppress others? How do we treat our own laborers? What is our impact on the environment? Are we selling drugs or weapons? Are we causing harm to animals?
Is the thing that I am doing to better my life causing worsening the lives of others?
The last 3 spokes of The Dharma Wheel pertain to our Development, or growing, in the practice.
Without Effort there can be no achievement. If one wants to get to the top of a mountain, just sitting at the foot thinking about it will not bring one there. It is by making the effort of climbing up the mountain, step by step, that one eventually reaches the summit. Thus, no matter how great the Buddha’s achievement may be, or how excellent His Teaching is, one must put the Teaching into practice before one can expect to obtain the desired result.
Right Effort is fourfold, namely:
- The effort to discard negativities that have already arisen.
- The effort to prevent the arising of further negativities.
- The effort to further develop those good things which have already arisen.
- The effort to promote that good which has not already arisen.
Right Mindfulness is also fourfold:
- Mindfulness with regard to body.
- Mindfulness with regard to feeling.
- Mindfulness with regard to mind.
- Mindfulness with regard to mental objects (contemplation of the phenomena – the seemingly separate and temporal objects around us).
The Buddhist method of choice to develop right concentration is through the practice of meditation. Since there are so many different forms, theories, benefits, and beliefs on meditation we will not delve into this subject tonight – it being a subject unto itself. However, I believe that we can already safely assume that you know of (or at least suspect) their importance since you are sitting here tonight with us.
In closing, I feel the need to state that the topics tonight we purposefully covered liberally – as non-descript as possible while still allowing them to be informative. When one too closely defines what something (like Right Action for example) IS then one becomes in danger of creating rules, or religion – thus limiting the full degree to which the very thing’s real potential, and our own growth.
Is it wrong to eat meat? Can we wear leather? Should I have sex? Should I shop at this store? What is the right way to meditate? Give me the right list of things to do or not do in order to find peace in this world! This is nonsense – this is not the liberating Path.
What do these rules result in? They result in an external religion that never does us any internal good in this world. It creates a false world of action without heart — movement without being moved.
It creates good vs. bad – the sinful and the pious. We create a checklist and then we are able to compare ourselves to the checklist. “I am good today because I did this many of the list”. “He is bad because he did not.” With this we gain our class of the pious – the self-righteous upholders of the list. These fulfillers of the list at times can both fulfill the list and be so very far away from the original intent of the Master’s wishes – of kindness, goodness, awareness, charity.
We were given the task (and right of) self-government but this freedom is actually the harder path – so we look for rules instead. If we do not put a limit on what “kindness” to another is then our kindness becomes limitless.
We know of charity but what does that mean? We then define what charity is, and we set it up as some kind of a goal or checklist. We may decide that charity is giving money, and set a required amount that one must give in order to reach charity status. We may make a rule that in order to be a good follower one must give $10.00 a week to help the poor; thus fulfilling the charity requirement of our faith. Meeting our man-made requirement, but then totally missing the point and all the other opportunities that may present themselves to us.
If told to have kindness towards animals what does that mean? We make rules on what to eat or not eat; on where to buy or not buy, on having pets or not… Can we not safely say though that it would be possible to fulfill all of these things to the “T” but never have any love, or change of heart – any new awareness concerning animals or our roles in this Web of Existence? Could we not also assume that a different individual could potentially break every one of our new “rules” but commit every act with loving-kindness and respect for animals in their hearts?
No. Let us choose to keep our hearts, minds, and definitions limitless and open – wide open, like the vastness found in this very Path we are on.
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