Prajna. The Four Noble Truths. The Eightfold Path

Dear Friends,

It is believed Shakyamuni laid out the Four Noble Truths at a place called Deer Park in Saranath India. This first teaching is entitled Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta,  translated as The Setting of the Motion of the Wheel of the Dharma Sutta or The Promulgation of the Law Sutta. As usual, these translations are apt to set off a lot of reactivity because of our relationship to the words as a result of our own conditioning.  The way that I have experienced them in practice and in study, is a pointing to a straightforward way that Shakyamuni used to share his understanding of the nature of suffering, its causes and conditions, its cessation and practices to bring about that cessation. These are so broad and universal that each individual can find their way using their own immediate experiences of conditioning and freedom.  There was never any intention to set up rigid laws of right and wrong, or to take sole credit for a theology, or even to suggest that he had developed an ironclad perfect way to understand the nature of reality, suffering and freedom. He was initially hesitant because he knew the pitfalls of conceptualizing the experience of this truth and was only convinced to share his knowledge by the king of the gods, Bhrama. All of us have been stranded in silence at some point in our experience of life when we knew our words, photos, paintings, or physical expression could never touch the reality of that experience, and that concepts would be misunderstood or tied up into pretty packages to sell to the highest bidder.

Over these last three weeks I have been writing about the first three Noble Truths as one way to understand prajna or wisdom beyond wisdom. For the next nine weeks up to the Solstice Retreat in June, we’ll explore the Eightfold Path, the fourth Noble Truth.

Right Understanding

Right Thought

Right Speech

Right Action

Right Livelihood

Right Effort

Right Concentration

“Right”and sometimes “correct” are the standard translation of the Sanskrit word samyan. When using the online Sanskrit dictionary there are numerous translations with only a few using “right” or “correct”. The English word “Right” is loaded with all sorts of baggage that stimulate conceptual polarities, egoism, judgments and strong emotional responses, the very things that Shakyamuni taught were the causes of suffering and obstacles to truth.  Although there are uses of the word that translate as ”right” most of the references are to “wholeness”, “togetherness”, “agreeable”, “going together”.  The exact opposite of how it is generally used in today’s English. 

A few months ago I came across an essay about the Eightfold Path and this person (Apologies I have forgotten where I read this.) used “authentic” as a translation. This rang true for me in that moment; to be authentic in all that we do, think, say etc. To be authentic is to take responsibiltiy or acknowledge authorship. In other words, to come to know ourselves so completely that we can be responsible for how we are in the world and not attribute our ways of being to others.

Most recently I have been studying Tenshin Reb Anderson’s dharma talks ( https://rebanderson.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Vasubandhu_s-Thirty-Verses-commentary-94.pdf )  offered during a three month practice period at Tassajara in 1994 where he explores the “Thirty Verses” Treatise by Vasubandhu, a 5th century monk who was basically laying out how to come to know oneself and through that understanding know the causes of suffering and liberation. 

Tenshin Anderson introduces “uprightness” as a way to look at the approach to self awareness  outlined in the Eightfold Path. Substituting “upright” for “right” offers a completely different perspective on these ways of being. When I think of upright, I immediately think of trees. (and whippoorwills)  Deeply rooted in the earth, absorbing water and warmth, responding to wind and remaining in one space, not moving away from here or going toward somewhere else. No matter what the conditions of natural or man-made phenomenon, the tree is always moving in upright stillness. From sapling in the understory of the dense jungle, to the time that they break through to the light, and then topple to the earth, they do not waver. Or growing on a steep precipice above the ocean battered by intense storms, and clinging to crumbling cliff faces, they remain upright in stillness. 

This seems to be an accurate picture of the Eightfold Path. No matter what causes and conditions this life is exposed to, the practice is to remain upright in action and stillness in beingness. The tree does not try to stop the wind, or change the earth, or complain about the water or rail against the sun or move to a different space. And that is the practice of the Eightfold Path; always being here with what is here, not following it but letting it blow through like the wind in the branches, not rejecting but being rooted in this hereness, not becoming bitter or rigid as a result of past actions or being acted upon, but drawing up the nutrients of those experiences and allowing them to wash away fear, resentment and self doubt. In this upright stillness whether we’re sitting, standing, walking, singing, playing having sex, watching Netflix, or following the news, we let the fires of our conditioning to anger or hate burn through, obliterating clinging to positions or egoity and letting the warmth of sun-like love and compassion radiate through us without without holding on or trying to keep it all to ourselves or our chosen ones. To be as still and as big as space which allows for everything without clinging, grasping, pushing away, or imagining and dreaming that this here should be something else.

Tenshin Anderson describes this practice like sitting in a clearing surrounded by a dark impenetrable, unkowable forest. While we sit, sparks of light or little demons pop out and we remain still . They come towards the center and dissipate like shadows in the light of stillness. These sparks of light are the stuff we are habitually drawn to and want to keep like good feelings, profound concepts, pleasant experiences, even life itself. In the stillness of uprightness  these are allowed, in a sense, to be here in this open space and then allowed to dissipate or dissolve, in their own time and as they will, into the stillness. The demons are the ugly stuff, the self hate, the fear and loathing, things we don’t want near us. In the spacious open center of stillness they come and rock our stability, and tear us away from our practice, and trample our peace, and we still are still; rooted deep in the stillness, swaying with the storm, absorbing the water of wisdom and the sun of compassion for all suffering. In all of that, all of those habitual tendencies and conditionings, hopes and longings, we see how we are made and what we are made of. In time, the dark void of the forest seems to move further and further from the center as all of the sparks of light and demons are exposed to simple awareness, absent of grasping, aversion or delusion. There is an understanding that comes with not moving, from being on the spot, that I have constructed this forest and the clearing and that neither are substantial. That here, in this absolute, non-conceptual reality there is no separate self or separate other. That all of the demons and light, clearings and darkness, are entirely dependent on all of the other demons and light and clearings and darkness. In the flashing instances when this is the experience of this coalescence of stardust, there is the simple, unspeakable, unknowable truth of what is always here. And like the warmth of the sun, the cleansing nature of water, the freshness of wind and the unconditional welcoming of space, this stardust is drawn to cultivate space for universal goodness and freedom from suffering for the entirety.

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With these words I pay homage to all buddhas, bodhisattvas, sentient beings, and the totality. May these words not confuse, bring doubt, or harm, but bring ease and warmth and an end to suffering for all beings throughout all times and in all directions.

William

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Practice

Practicing in sangha, even virtually, supports the practice of meditation differently than practicing solitarily. The members of the Sangha of the Pandemic, invite you to practice with us. No experience is required. There is no cost. Everyone is welcome. 

 We practice on ZOOM:

Mornings

  • Mondays – Calm abiding. 6:30 AM Pacific Time
  • Tuesdays – Body awareness. 6:30 AM Pacific Time 
  • Thursdays – Tonglen, 6:30 AM Pacific Time 
  • Wednesdays and Fridays – Zazen Practice 7:00 AM Pacific Time.
  • Sundays – Paramitas. 7 AM Pacific Time 

ZOOM Link:   https://us02web.zoom.us/j/89989680789 

Please feel free to reach out with questions or insights. Please also feel free to forward this post and invite others to join the sangha. You may find more reflections, poetry, art at sanghaofthepandemic.org . If you would like to comment or offer feedback and insight you may do so in the comment section on the website or by email to wrgentner@gmail.com 

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Check-In

If you have questions about meditation practice, or would like to have a conversation about the practice or anything else, you can check in with William by making an appointment. Go to “Check In Appts.”

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