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The Noble Eightfold Path

Our study group is currently studying Sangharakshita’s book on The Noble Eightfold Path. The book is also know as Vision and Transformation, it is available to be downloaded from Sangharakshita’s website for free. Here is a summary of the first chapter:

Noble Eightfold Path – 1) Perfect View – The Nature of Existence

The chapter begins by discussing the Eightfold Path in general. It is the path leading from suffering (Samsara) to enlightenment (Nirvana) and is the Fourth Noble Truth. Enlightenment is described as the truth, oneness with reality, the realisation of ones own Budhahood.

The Noble Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path is common to virtually all schools of Buddhism. The Sanskrit word arya is sometimes translated to mean holy rather than noble. It can be translated to mean eight-limbed path. The steps of the Eightfold Path should not be considered a set of steps to be completed in a certain order. It could also be translated as eight-limbed and a better analogy is to consider each step as a limb that needs to be worked simultaneously to reached Nirvana.

Perfect Vision is the first of these steps. This is sometimes translated as Right Understanding but we avoid this translation as it could imply ‘right’ as opposed to wrong’. It could also be translated as proper, whole, thorough or complete. We choose a translation of ‘vision’ as opposed to ‘understanding’ as it is not an intellectual understanding but a direct experience of the true nature of reality.

The Noble Eightfold path divided in to two categories, the path of Vision and the path of Transformation. Perfect View is the Path of Vision whilst Emotion, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Awareness and Meditation are the Path of Transformation.

The Path of Vision may arise in many different ways:

  • Personal tragedy, bereavement or loss
  • Mystical experience – a great, all pervading peace, stillness and tranquillity evoked by nature
  • Engaging with beautiful art or a piece of music
  • Deep thought and philosophy
  • Meditation, when all thoughts are banished
  • General life experience over many years

However the Path of Vision arises, the important thing is to cherish, cultivate, clarify and deepen it. Once Perfect Vision has been achieved the remaining limbs of the Eightfold path help us to transom our whole being in accordance with that vision.

Perfect Vision is a vision of the true nature of reality. It does not mean you understand all the Buddha’s teachings only that you directly experience the truth of the Four Noble Truths. The three main images used to represent Perfect Vision are The Wheel of Life, The Buddha and The Path.

Wheel of Life

The Wheel of Life consists of 4 concentric circles. At the centre are the root poisons of greed, hate and delusion. The second circle represents skilful and unskillful behaviour. The third circle is divided into the six worlds of existence. On the outside of the wheel are the twelve nidanas of dependent origination that depict the whole process of birth, life, death and rebirth.

Mandala of the Five Buddhas

The mandala of the Five Buddhas has a white buddha at the centre surrounded by blue to the east, yellow to the south, red to the west and green to the north. Each of the Buddhas embodies one of the five different aspects of enlightenment – teaching the Dharma, fearlessness, meditation, giving and humility.

The path of Spiritual progress, or spiral path, connects the two images. So our image to represent Perfect Vision is a a path leading from being trapped on the wheel of life to the potential future state of enlightenment.

Perfect Vision can also be thought of as seeing the truth of the Four Noble Truths, Conditioned Existence, Karma & Rebirth and the four Sunyatas.

The first two Noble Truths – suffering and the cause of suffering – are equivalent to the Wheel of Life. The third Noble Truths regading the cessation of suffering is equivalent to the mandala of the Five Buddhas. The fourth noble truth is equivalent to the spiral path.

The first of the three characteristics of conditioned existence is that conditioned existence is the cause of suffering because nothing mundane can give full or final satisfaction to the human heart and spirit. The second characteristic of conditioned existence is that it is impermanent and the third characteristic is that Conditioned Existence is devoid of True Selfhood. Nowhere in conditioned existence do we find true being, true individuality or reality of any sort.

Sunyata is a bewildering word that means voidness or emptiness but can also mean ‘real’, ‘unreal’, ‘neither real or unreal’. The four Sunyatas of the Mahayana are:

1) The Emptiness of the Conditioned of the characteristics of the unconditioned, namely: happiness, permanence, ultimate reality.

2) The Emptiness of the Unconditioned of the characteristics of the conditioned, ie no suffering, impermanence or unreality.

3) The Great Emptiness is the distinction between the unconditioned and the conditioned. This is where all dualities are obliterated and many people are afraid of disappearing into it.

4) The Emptiness of Emptiness tells us that emptiness itself is just a concept which ultimately has to be abandoned for clearest§ Nirvana to be reached.

If we want to climb a lofty peak we start by studying a map, which is equivalent to studying the Dharma. Eventually we climb high enough to see the peak and that direct experience is Perfect Vision. Once Perfect Vision has been achieved all of the remaining stages of the Eightfold path will get us to the virgin snows on the top.

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