Gathering 14: Wheels Within Wheels…

Opening Lines of the Dhammapada, “The Path of the Dhamma

Thinking leads the way; thinking establishes; thinking creates;
With thinking muddled, speech and action
Are followed by distress, as cart wheels follow oxen.

Thinking leads the way; thinking establishes; thinking creates;
With thinking cleared, speech and action
Shine with gladness, as constant as one’s shadow.

“I’ve been insulted, hurt, violated, defeated”—
By such thinking obsessed, one is overwhelmed with hatred.

“I’ve been insulted, hurt, violated, defeated”—
With such thinking abandoned, one gives hatred no way in.

Never by hatred has hatred been defeated—
Only by kindness; this has been so forever.

Some fail to pay attention to death’s constant presence.
Those who pay attention settle their quarrels.

The Dhammapada
Chapter I (“The Pairs”), Verses 1—6

Translated (pretty literally) by Richard Blumberg

The Path and the way

If we accept, provisionally, the identification of the Superior Eight-Part Path with the Buddha’s way, we can, I think, move more skillfully toward cultivating that way in our lives. We can begin to realize the benefits of being on the way, even as we hold in our minds the caution that such a purely logical identification of one thing with another will always be inadequate to deal with the complexities of a real and constantly shifting world.

So, with that caveat in mind, we can start with the assertion that the way we have been gathering to explore—the way we want to follow because we’re pretty sure that following it will help us to live more openly and be more loving friends, to live with compassion for all suffering beings, with joy in all skillful accomplishment, and with equanimity even in the midst of complication, injustice, and frequent disappointment—that way is “just this Superior Path with eight components: correct seeing, correct intending, correct speaking, correct acting, correct livelihood, correct application of energy, correct mindfulness, and correct concentration.”

The Buddha, in his first Discourse setting the Wheel of the Law in Motion, tells us two things about the Superior Eight-Part Path:

  • At the beginning of the Discourse, the Superior Eight-Part Path is presented as the Middle Way, the way that avoids the two common dead ends—striving for success in the material world, on the one hand, and, on the other, striving to burn away the pollution of the material world and free the pure spirit: the dead end of sensual gratification and the dead end of self-mortification. The attending bhikkhus are told to follow the Middle Way; that it leads to “the Deathless”, nibbana.
  • At the end of the Discourse, the Superior Eight-Part Path is presented as the way to let go of craving and to bring about the cessation of dukkha. Again, with the complete cessation of dukkha, one has achieved nibbana. To accomplish that, the Buddha tells his listeners (us included), we must cultivate the Superior Eight-Part Path, to bring it to life.

Last week, we discussed the overall structure of the Superior Path—the categorization of the eight parts of the path as belonging to the Wisdom Group (view, intention), the Virtue Group (speaking, acting, livelihood), or the Concentration Group (energy, mindfulness, concentration). This coming Sunday, I’d like to take a look at the interrelated nature of those groups and of the individual path factors.

Dependent Emergence

If you’ll recall from the “Discourse Setting the Wheel of the Dhamma in Motion”, the signal that the Buddha’s teaching had been understood came when the Bhikkhu Kondañña spoke the words, “All that arises will cease.” That terse phrase is recognized by most students of the Buddha’s teachings as the most concise possible utterance of what is normally called the Principle of Conditioned Arising (or Dependent Arising, or Dependent Emergence; there is no one right translation of the Pali paticcasamuppada). The basic idea is that all the phenomena that we experience arise, as phenomena, from precedent conditions (which include, notably, the conditioning of the mind that experiences them as distinct phenomena). Every phenomenon that arises as a distinct experience is destined, in time (the blink of an eye or a little longer), to cease. So dukkha arises; so dukkha ceases. So we arise as distinct personalities; so we will cease.

Someone (I think it was Kristen) pointed out at Sunday’s gathering that the Buddha’s teaching didn’t hold still for the kind of analytical dissection that we’re used to applying to concepts and theories. Noa Ronkin, a philosopher and Professor of Buddhist Studies at Stanford, explains that Buddhist ontology was concerned with process rather than substance. We’re used to thinking of existing things, with distinctive attributes, created by dynamic exchanges of mass and energy with other things. The Buddha, on the other hand, saw the world as a sequence of phenomena (the Pali word is dhamma, same as Dhamma, but, if you will, with a lower-case ‘d’), emerging from distinctive conditions and ceasing when those conditions changed.

There are innumerable passages in the teachings relating the idea of Dependent Emergence to the Superior Eight-Part Path. In the great sutta recounting the events of the Buddha’s final three months and his death, the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the Buddha travels slowly northward, from Rajagaha, the capital of the Kingdom of Magadha, to Kusinara, the small village in which he died. Along the way, he meets with many local sanghas, and he has various things to teach to all of them, but one consistent teaching, which he delivered to every group that he spoke to, was this:

“Such and such is virtue; such and such is concentration; and such and such is wisdom. Great becomes the fruit, great is the gain of concentration when it is fully developed by virtuous conduct; great becomes the fruit, great is the gain of wisdom when it is fully developed by concentration; utterly freed from the taints of lust, becoming, and ignorance is the mind that is fully developed in wisdom.”

In that statement of the relationship between the three Groups of Path factors, the one the Buddha leads with is the Virtue Group. Here, and in very many other places in the teachings, the Path to Awakening begins with virtuous behavior. In one of those suttas, the Cetanakaranaya Sutta (“The Discourse on How Things Progress”), the Buddha lays out a very specific sequence of steps via which Awakening emerges from virtuous behavior.

But there are other places in the teachings (most of them better known than the Cetanakarayana Sutta) where the sequence begins with Correct View. We’ll be looking at one of those suttas in detail next week, but here’s a short version from the Anguttara Nikaya 10.121:

Bhikkhus, as dawn is forerunner and herald of the rising sun, so correct view is forerunner and herald of a flourishing life.

For one of correct view, bhikkhus, correct intention emerges. For one of correct intention, correct speech emerges. For one of correct speech, correct action emerges. For one of correct action, correct livelihood emerges. For one of correct livelihood, correct effort emerges. For one of correct effort, correct mindfulness emerges. For one of correct mindfulness, correct concentration emerges. For one of correct concentration, correct knowledge emerges. For one of correct knowledge, correct liberation emerges.

On Sunday evening, I’d like to discuss the Superior Eight-Part Path as a dynamic process. Are there different things to be learned from that process by looking at it from different starting points? Is it simply a choice between starting with Correct Speech (the first factor in the Virtue Group) or starting with Correct View (the first factor in the Wisdom Group)? Or can we start on the Path at any point, depending on what we are dealing with at the time, and work our way around until we have the whole Path as an organic whole?

I started this with a reading from the Dhammapada on the importance of Mind; I’ll finish with a wonderful poem by Richard Wilbur on much the same theme:


Mind in its purest play is like some bat
That beats about in caverns all alone,
Contriving by a kind of senseless wit
Not to conclude against a wall of stone.

It has no need to falter or explore;
Darkly it knows what obstacles are there,
And so may weave and flitter, dip and soar
In perfect courses through the blackest air.

And has this simile a like perfection?
The mind is like a bat. Precisely. Save
That in the very happiest of intellection
A graceful error may correct the cave.

– Richard Wilbur