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The Noble Eightfold Path, anatta and Buddhist expansion

The psychology of the principles behind the Noble Eightfold Path allows students to understand what the eight paths mean and how they are meant to be viewed. The doctrine of anatta, which concerns the original Buddhist view that the soul is as impermanent as all other things in the universe, also can be explained through the notion of flux. It concludes with the way Buddhism expands from its homeland in India into Central, East and Southeast Asia.

This should be read in conjunction with the discussion elsewhere in this Library entitled "Making Sense of Buddhism".

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[The discussion below complements another on the Four Noble Truths, to be found in the Solutions Library, called "Making Sense of Buddhism".]

The Buddhist Eightfold Path

By tradition, the Buddha meditated upon the human condition, and after achieving an awareness of how to approach the life and all its problem, developed an eightfold path for humanity. The various segments of the Eight-fold Path have an archaic, prescriptive and moralistic tone that can be quite misleading:

1. Right Views
2. Right Intent
3. Right Speech
4. Right Conduct
5. Right Livelihood
6. Right Effort
7. Right Mindfulness
8. Right Concentration

But what do they mean? The Eightfold Path is two things - it's a set of preconditions for the right way to look at the world, and it's a method of correcting our perception of the things that affect us. It's a discipline, and like all disciplines, it's something that usually comes over time and with a good deal of training. It may be compared with yoga in the Hindu tradition. It's not like a recipe or a packet cake mix. It's an environment in which release from ignorance and unhappiness can be achieved. It's not about extremes or damaging the body. It's a pointer to leading a contented life and a peaceful release from life at the end - but responsibility for life has to be accepted.

The Eightfold Path encourages us to get ourselves in the right mental and physical condition to correct our perception of the world, and then practice a technique or techniques that will help us get better and better at seeing things for what they are and making ourselves content. The technique is usually called meditation.

Meditation is a much misunderstood term. We think of rows and rows of people - or maybe just one person - sitting in a lotus position, eyes half closed, apparently half asleep or possibly comatose. What are they doing?

Mostly what they're doing is nothing more - but it's a big nothing than stilling their minds so that they can experience things directly, instead of through the fog of words, and thoughts and concepts and sensations, which constantly interrupt our chance to be directly conscious of what we are and what the world is. Why?

Because we have lost the art of experiencing things directly, except in the few times in our lives when we become ecstatic for some reason or another. Our football team just won the premiership, or we fall in love, or win the lottery. These are ecstasies - the kind where you forget your self in the primal scream or moment of passion. But these are far from the only ecstasies, and they are of a comparatively crude kind. There are quieter ecstasies every bit as mystical - bearing in mind the true meaning of the word ecstasy - "ex" = "out of" and "stasis" = "the self" - out of self. There are the quiet ecstasies of total absorption in something, where you lose that troublesome sense of self and maybe even experience a moment or two of mystical bliss - total identification of the experiencer and the object of that experience; a form of perfect if fleeting serenity and happiness where you want nothing more.

Supposing you accepted as a hypothesis that there was a way to prolong, more or less permanently, that blissful state of quiet ecstasy - that state of total absorption; that state in which you know intuitively how to deal with the world and all the challenges that it poses for you daily? Suppose that would put life, death, fear and happiness all into such crystal clear relief that nothing in life could ever trouble you again. Would you want that? Or is it such a fearful proposition that you want to cling to ego and selfish pleasures, even though you know that they ultimately end in suffering and pain and humiliation? Buddhism challenges you to test that hypothesis. It has a word for that state of total absorption, total ...

Solution Summary

This takes you through the various stages of understanding of Buddhist philosophy and practice in regard to the psychology of the principles behind the Noble Eightfold Path and the doctrine of anatta - one of the most subtle and difficult to understand ideas in philosophy. It explains these clearly and then shows how and where the expansion of Buddhism occurred. This is a substantial piece (2500 words) but provides a full explanation.