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How to Wake Up: Gautama’s Eight Step Program

When Gautama realized his Enlightenment, as I’ve written about before, he “saw through” the whole problem he’d set out to solve: why do things suck so? Why is everyday life so unsatisfactory? Technically, why is there duhkha?

The answer he saw is called the Four Great Truths. Go ahead, follow the links, it won’t hurt for long. The Four Great Truths are easily summarized:

  1. Life seems painfully unsatisfactory. Things suck.
  2. Life is unsatisfactory because it’s transitory, and we insist on trying to deny it. We cling to things as they are. The sickness is duhkha and clinging is its cause.
  3. There is an escape from the pain of this unsatisfactory nature of our relationship to the world. There is a cure for duhkha.
  4. The cure for duhkha is to learn to cease to cling, and there are methods to learn to do that.

One imagines the five Samanas, the ascetics who had been his companions and who because his first students, saying two things: “Well, duh!” and “Right. And how do we do that, bwana?”

(No, I haven’t a clue how one says “bwana” in Sanskrit.)

So, Buddha laid out a program through which anyone could apply themselves, “see through” as he did to Reality, and free themselves of duhkha. This program has eight components, so it’s called the “Eight Step Path”.

Now, this may sound a little odd to my readers who are already familiar with Buddhism. In Sanskrit, its arya astanga marga, which is normally translated the “Holy Eightfold Path” but arya means, at its root, “well behaved” or “well mannered” or even “like a guest”. It became “noble” by a sort of subcontinental noblesse oblige: an upper-caste person was expected to be well-mannered, and it became “holy” because the best-mannered were supposed to be the Brahmanas, the preist caste. So the Sanskrit would also be something like “eight principles of good behavior” as well as “Holy Eightfold path.” Sanskrit is cool that way.

On the other hand, good old concrete Chinese just makes it ba1 zheng4 dao4 八正道, which is “eight correct principles .” Chinese is cool that way.

Okay, I’ll grant that “Eight Step Program” is an, um, idiosyncratic translation, but I think it’s a pretty good one. On my list of things to write in the future, I’ve got a to-do for “How to translate Sanskrit without sounding like a goon.” Until I write it, remember that Sanskrit became a high-falutin’ language of literature — and an extraordinarily beautiful one, if you ask me — about 1300 years after Gautama. What Gautama spoke was, well, just talk, and he wasn’t talking the talk to people with graduate degrees in literary Sanskrit. At least with Buddhism, I think we should prefer a simple, sort of Hemingway, translation.

For Gautama, this was language in which people gave directions to the next village, and the Eightfold Path is just Buddha giving directions.

The directions aren’t really very complicated, either, although following them means breaking some very ingrained habits, and that’s always hard. It can take a lot of practice, and and you have a lot of missteps and regressions and misatkes to make. But then, those are part of the practice as well.

So, when his Samana companions said “how the hell do we do that?”, Gautama laid it out in eight steps, eight practices. I’m going to summarize those eight practices here, and then I’ll have a series of posts on each practice in order to lay them out more clearly.

The Eight Steps really break down into three groups. First, there’s the group of simply understanding the goal.

The first step of the program is simple enough to understand. Before you can follow Gautama’s program, you have to recognize that things do suck around you, that this comes from clinging, and that the end of suckitude is to cease to cling: you have to at least start to grasp the Four Great Truths. Once your view of the world includes this correct understanding, you’ve got your start. So, the first step is called “Right (in the sense of ‘correct’) View.”

Next, you have to decide you want to stop being trapped by duhkha. Don’t think this is easy. Once you have, though, you establish the intention to “go beyond”. So this step is called “Right Intention.”

Now, how do we do this? The next three steps have to do with ordering our lives so we are living our lives in a way that doesn’t impede us from following our Right Intention. These are the basis of a Buddhist morality, but there’s a place at which we’re ready to fall into another “let’s be all religious about this” trap. As people who have grown up in a Judeo-Christian or Abrahamic framework, we’re trained, conditioned, to think of “religious” teachings in terms of Commandments.

Buddha’s program isn’t like that. There are no Judges (and no one, really, to be judged, just to be all Zen about it for a moment.) These — and in fact all the steps — are just recognition that there are things which make it easier to cease to cling, and things which make it harder. It’s like gravity: if you insist on carrying a hundred pound sandbag, it’ll be harder to climb a mountain. On the other hand, if you can put the sandbag down, it’ll be easier. With some training and a good coach, you can even learn to run up the mountain.

Which is really the key: Buddha isn’t Moses handing down stone tablets. Buddha is your coach. The next three steps, then, are really just the training program.

The third practice he suggests is to avoid lying, gossiping, and saying hurtful things, while trying always to be truthful, clear, and say compassionately helpful things. This is called “Right Speech.”

The fourth practice is to avoid doing things that will make trouble for us. Avoid taking life — even when it’s justified, as it sometimes is, the impact on us can be harsh. Better to avoid it when you can. Avoid taking things that aren’t freely given to you. And avoid sexual misconduct — which doesn’t mean simply “avoid sex” although that can be an easier way of it in some circumstances. But anyone who watches the E! Channel has seen how sexual conduct can get in the way of living a life free of clinging and suffering. This is called “Right Action.”

Even a Buddha has to eat. We need to make our livelihood, so Buddha coaches us to avoid things which lead us away from Right Action: stealing, deceitfully tricking people into doing things for us, “gold digging” and so on, while looking for things which lead to other people also having fewer obstacles, which can be anything from writing good software to massage therapy to collecting garbage. This is called “Right Livelihood.”

Let me point out, in passing because I intend to write more about it in another article, that this is also the basis for a fairly concise and attractive system of morality or ethics. A person who practices Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood will be a good neighbor, whatever else they might be.

These steps, though, are just preparing the ground. This third group is about changing ourselves. To finally cease from clinging, and thus be liberated from duhkha, we have to change not just our actions — although that’s important and helpful — we have to change our minds.

To do so, we have to pay attention, and make the effort to correct our thoughts and actions when they slip. This sixth step is called “Right Effort”.

Seventh, we have to learn to attend to our thoughts effectively. We need to notice what our thoughts are so we can learn to correct them; we need to know when we’re slipping to know when to catch ourselves. This is “Right Attention”.

Finally, the eighth step is to learn to free even our thoughts of clinging, especially clinging to words, thoughts, past troubles, and future desires. Buddha taught his students a couple of simple ways to do this, which he called upaya, “skillful means.” These practices, that clear the mind of clinging, are “Right Meditation.”

And that’s the list, then:

  1. Right View
  2. Right Intention
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Attention
  8. Right Meditation

{ 2 } Comments

  1. amba | 2008-Apr-13 at 23:15 (@010) | Permalink

    Before you can follow Gautama’s program, you have to recognize that things do suck

    End of denial. “Admitted that we were powerless over alcohol, and that our lives had become unmanageable.” Very cool translation.

  2. Charlie | 2008-Apr-14 at 09:38 (@443) | Permalink

    Aha, she sees through my devious plan.

{ 1 } Trackback

  1. On Obscurity | Explorations | 2008-Jun-10 at 15:01 (@667) | Permalink

    […] I’m forced to go back to things like the Sanskrit or Chinese, as I did to think about the Eightfold Path. When I feel like I can explain it, I feel confident that I understand […]

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