DT-Eightfold Path-Intro & Right View (re Gil Fronsdal)

Tonight, I will introduce a series of dharma talks based on Gil Fronsdal’s book Steps to Liberation: The Buddha’s Eightfold Path. 

After his enlightenment, the Buddha spoke in metaphors to motivate others to follow in his footsteps:

It is as if a person, traveling in the forest, were to see an ancient path, an ancient road, traveled by people of former times. Following it, the person would see an ancient city, and ancient capital inhibited by people of former times, complete with parks, groves, and ponds, walled, delightful. Then going to the ruler of the country, the person would say, “Your majesty, while traveling in the forest I saw an ancient path; I followed it and found an ancient city, an ancient, abandoned capital. Your majesty, restore that city!” 

In the same way, I saw an ancient path, and ancient road, traveled by the Awakened Ones of former times. And what is that ancient path…?” It is the noble eightfold path: right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. That is the ancient path, the ancient road leading to direct knowledge.

Likewise, we human beings have our own inner wilderness and need to clear a path to liberation through a dense undergrowth of mental and emotional obstacles. Because both the path and hindrances to our freedom lie within us, we must take responsibility for our thoughts, attitudes and actions. As we disengage from unwholesome perspectives and behaviors that cause us suffering, and replace them with wholesome ones, we free ourselves. 

The Buddhist path to liberation consists of eight interconnected steps, each of which are considered to be “right” or “wise.” “Right” is used with the meaning of being an appropriate or helpful practice and not in the context of moralistic judgments of right and wrong. On this path, self-benefit is not related to acquiring pleasure, status or wealth, but instead to cultivating beautiful and wholesome qualities of heart. Developing a kind, good-hearted presence is as important as performing beneficent actions. 

The eight factors of the Eightfold Path are both clues for finding a way out of the wilderness of suffering and also the path itself. The first step is Right View. Beneath almost everything we think, say or do are conscious or unconscious views—the orientations, perspectives and beliefs we hold in order to understand our self and the world around us. 

Many of our central views are so habitual and invisible that we mistakenly assume that they are the way things truly are. Even in the face of the truth of impermanence and continuous changes around us and within us, we tend to have a distorted view that whatever we grasp for comfort is permanent. Caught up in our attraction to a beautiful flower, we forget that its nature is to decay. 

Some of the views, opinions, beliefs and stories that we live by cause us suffering. For instance, if we hold the view that we should look and feel as young as possible, the inevitable aging process will be painful. If we believe that the more money we have, the happier we will be, we will never accumulate enough to feel content. And if our view of the earth is that its natural resources are endlessly exploitable, we will destroy the environment that sustains us. 

According to Joseph Goldstein, one of our greatest delusions is a wrong view of self. We spend time, energy and effort to gratify, defend, and hold on to what we view mistakenly as a solid self. Our ordinary way of viewing experience reflects this misunderstanding. We tend to react personally to impersonal feeling tones, clinging to what feels pleasant, avoiding what feels unpleasant, and ignoring what feels neutral. 

We constantly add “I” or “me” or “mine” to different mental states, moods, and emotions that arise. Instead of observing waves of happiness or sorrow arising and passing away, we say, “I feel happy” or “I am miserable.” Rather than noticing that mental states of effort or concentration are present, we declare, “I’m making an effort,” or “I have concentration.” Of course, the words “I” or “me” are necessary in order to communicate, but we can use them lightly, without so much attachment. 

Right View guides us to trust our direct experience instead of our ideas and fantasies about life. For example, when I am generous, my body, heart and mind feel at ease. During the moment of giving, I experience how wholesome it is to let go of attachments and to have friendly, loving feelings towards the recipient. 

In Buddhism, there are two forms of Right View. The first is the outlook that everything we think, say and do has karmic consequences. While thoughts, words and deeds motivated by hate or greed have harmful consequences, those motivated by kindness and generosity have beneficial consequences. 

The second kind of Right View is guided by the perspective of the Four Noble Truths. First, we recognize the truth that all beings suffer, seeing that 

we experience stress and discomfort whenever we do not accept the reality of what is arising. We’re often distracted from suffering by preoccupations that postpone facing and resolving it. If we want to suffer less, it’s helpful to notice when we are suffering. 

Secondly, we notice how we contribute to this suffering by craving and clinging to our preferences. Until we discover the attachments that create suffering, we cannot begin to release them. Thirdly, we learn that it’s possible to end suffering by letting go of clinging. This understanding gives us direction and encouragement. Fourthly, we embrace the Eightfold Path as the most accessible way to alleviate suffering. 

Right View helps us to keep in mind that the purpose of the Eightfold Path is to alleviate suffering. The Four Noble Truths reveal the cause of suffering, so that we stop pursuing mistaken beliefs and practices. With the Four Noble Truths as a guide, we cease blaming others or external circumstances, and we seek the cause for suffering within ourselves. On the Buddhist path to liberation, we take responsibility for our psychological contribution to the suffering. We see how our constant desires and cravings result in discontent. The more we use the Four Noble Truths to overcome attachments, the more we live at ease. Practicing Right View leads eventually to profound peace. 

On the Eightfold Path, Right View has a mutually supportive relationship with each of the other seven steps. With Right View, we can distinguish between thoughts, intentions, words, and actions that cause suffering and those that relieve it. 

The Eightfold Path balances caring for our self and others. Although each factor benefits us, four of the steps are practices that benefit others. Right Intention involves a motivation to treat others with good will and compassion. The practices of Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood all have positive effects on others. The fruits of ethical integrity in relationships are inner peace and a clear conscience. 

Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration are factors that focus on improving the quality of our hearts and minds. As we learn to increase our wholesome mental states and to make distinctions between what is wholesome and unwholesome, we lay the groundwork for a calm, peaceful mind. The more well-being we develop, the more we are inclined to care about others. As we practice each factor on the Eightfold Path, Right View becomes clearer.

Gil Fronsdal suggests a series of reflections about Right View that may be helpful for connecting to this first step on the Noble Eightfold Path. 

Sit comfortably and close your eyes. 

Breathe steadily and turn the attention inward.

Take a moment to explore what role views, beliefs and opinions have in your life….

What is your relationship to them?

Consider if any deep, unnoticed views underlie more obvious viewpoints. 

Behind many views is a desire that motivates you to adopt them. 

Are the desires and wishes that motivate your views helpful or not? 

Which views or beliefs do you have that are not beneficial for you?

Which views are beneficial for you?

Do you hold a view that leads to a state of ease, inner peace and harmony?

What views do you most want to guide your life? 

What ordinary or small experiences of liberation from suffering do you have in your daily life? 

Now we have some time to discuss any insights or questions about these reflections.