Path to deliverance from suffering
By Dr. Justice Chandradasa Nanayakkara
The Buddha declared ‘the world is established on suffering, is founded on suffering’ (Dukke loko patititthhito). All problems in life bring about unsatisfactoriness as we attempt to put an end to them, they give rise to another. The solution of one problem leads to another problem in many other diverse ways. We are constantly confronted with fresh problems in our daily life and problems go on incessantly and interminably. Such is the nature of suffering, and it is the universal characteristic of sentient existence. Suffering constantly appears and passes away only to reappear in other forms. Suffering and impermanence continually present challenges and people are faced with various life obstacles that are out of their control. Suffering can be either physical or psychological. Buddha declared everything subject to origination is subject also to dissolution”.
The law of anicca or impermanent stipulates that all contingent existence is transitory. Nothing is in the exact state it was in the previous instant and nothing remains the same for two consecutive moments. What is built eventually crumbles and fall, whoever is born will eventually die, and what comes together will eventually separate. Coronavirus pandemic which is raging the whole world has brought into sharp relief the fact of suffering. Dukka is inescapable and ubiquitous and it constitutes the first of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism. This does not mean every facet of life or every one of our experiences is miserable. Buddhism does acknowledge that life can be replete with pleasures and delights of various kinds. But they are ephemeral and impermanent.
In one of the discourses recorded in Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha offers the following simile to explain the fleeting nature of human life. “Just as a dewdrop on the tip of a blade of grass will quickly vanish at sunrise and will not last long, so too Brahmin, human life like a drop of dew, it is limited, brief and fleeting and it has much suffering, full of tribulation …. none who is born can escape death. Therefore, given the limited and fleeting nature of human life, it becomes important for Buddhists to tread the path leading to the deliverance from suffering.
In the first Noble Truth, the Buddha defines the truth of dukkha thus: “What monks, is the Noble Truth of Dukka? Birth is dukkha, decay is dukkha, death is dukkha, sorrow, lamentation, pain displeasure and despair are dukkha; union with the unpleasant dukkha, separation from the pleasant dukkha, not what one wants is dukkha; in brief, the five aggregates of clinging are dukkha. These monks are the Noble Truth of Dukka”.
The solution for the aforesaid problems of dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) of life is the Noble Eightfold Path propounded by Lord Buddha more than 2600 years ago. This is the only way to the cessation of suffering and also a vital step in emancipating ourselves from the interminable cycle of rebirths.
It is said that this path leads to the cessation of dukkha. This path consists of a set of eight interconnected factors or conditions, that when developed together, lead to the cessation of dukkha.
The eight factors of the paths are 1. Right Understanding (sammaditthi) 2. Right Thought (sammasankappa) 3. Right Speech (Samma vaca). 4. Right Action (sammakammanta) 5. Right Livelihood (sammaajiva) Morality or Virtue Group sila 6. Right Effort, (Samma Vayama). 7. Right Mindfulness (samma sati) 8. Right concentration (Samma samadhi).
These eight factors aim at promoting and perfecting the three essentials of Buddhist training and discipline. For the purpose of coherent and better understanding of the eight divisions of the path have been grouped according to under mentioned three heads.
The first two are classified as Wisdom (Panna), the second three as Morality (sila) and the last three as Concentration (samadhi). These three stages in the Eightfold Path are encapsulated in a Buddhist stanza (sabba papassa akaranan – kusalassa upa sammapada – sacitta priyo dapanan – etan buddhanu sasanan). To ease from all evil to cultivate good to purify one’s mind that is the advice of all Buddhas.
The eight steps of the path are not expected to be realised in sequence, one after the other. Rather, they are considered a unity, an organic whole. They are interdependent and interrelated. All eight factors are preceded by the word “Right” classified as Right, which means perfect. It is a mode of transcendence and leads to the transcendence to arise, namely sotapanna sakadagami, anāgāmi and arahant. No doubt, it is a difficult feat to be achieved. The Noble Eightfold path is in effect the path to Nibbana., Which avoids the extreme of self-mortification that weakens the intellect and the extreme of self-indulgence that retards moral progress. Although it is generally spoken as a path to be treaded, in actual fact eight steps signify mental factors to be practised. All eight factors should converge simultaneously, each supporting other and reaching a sufficient level of development to the experience of sotapanna, salad game, anāgāmi or arahant. It is said the path proceeds from a lower state of purity to a higher state and factors of the path should coalesce at a certain level of perfection. The path is not meant to be practised a little each day.
According to Walpola Rahula, the divisions of the Noble Eightfold Paths should be developed more or less simultaneously, as far as possible according to the capacity of each individual. They are linked together and each helps the cultivation of the others.
As far as the Right Understanding in Wisdom group of the Noble Eightfold Path is concerned it is the understanding of things as they really are, particularly the clear comprehension of the Four Noble truths. The Right Understanding has been treated as the first step as an intuitive understanding as it provides the necessary motivation and impulse to start on the Eightfold Path. The importance of understanding in a general sense can be seen from the Buddhas own statement.
“Do not be guided by hearsay or by tradition, legendary lore or what has come down in holy scriptures; nor on grounds of reason or logical inference; nor because of preconceived opinions or simple likelihood, nor because of a teacher’s authority. Only when you know for yourselves: these things are good and beneficial, are praised by the wise, and when taken up and carried out lead to welfare and happiness-then you should make them your own and live in accordance with them Anguttara Nikaya.”
Right Thought in the Wisdom group is threefold and it denotes the thoughts of selfless renunciation or detachment, thoughts of love and thoughts of non-violence, which are extended to all beings. Cultivation of such thoughts enables a person to act accordingly at the appropriate time. One should practices benevolence and goodness in relation to indifferent people as well as those who are inimical or unfriendly. Persons should not entertain thoughts of selfish desire, ill will hatred and violence in all spheres of life whether individual, social or political.
The next group is Morality (Sila), based on love and compassion, in which are included three factors of the Noble Eightfold Path: namely Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. (Nos. 3, 4 and 5 in the list).
Right speech means abstention (i) from telling lies, (2) from backbiting and slander and talk that may bring about hatred, enmity, disunity and disharmony among individuals or groups of people, (3) from harsh, rude, impolite, malicious and abusive language, and (4) from idle, useless and foolish babble and gossip. When one abstains from these forms of wrong and harmful speech one naturally has to speak the truth, has to use words that are friendly and benevolent, pleasant and gentle, meaningful and useful. One should not speak carelessly: speech should be at the right time and place. If one cannot say something useful, one should keep a ‘noble silence’.
Right Action aims at promoting moral, honourable and peaceful conduct. It admonishes us that we should abstain from destroying life, from stealing, from dishonest dealings, from illegitimate sexual intercourse, and that we should also help others to lead a peaceful and honourable life in the right way.
As far as the Right Livelihood, in the Noble Eightfold is concerned, it should be stated that Lord Buddha has not expatiated much on it,. As the major part of one’s daily life is taken up by one’s employment, the way one earns his or her livelihood has ethical and social implications either positive or negative. Buddha simply declared that a layman should not pursue certain trades which are considered to be morally and ethically wrong. For this purpose, he listed five trades that he considered to be inimical and harmful to the people and society. They are trading in poison, trading in weapons, trading in meat, trading in intoxicants and trading in humans (Digha Nikaya).
However, these forbidden trades are the very ones that have increased phenomenally as a result of the free marketing forces and globalisation in the world today.
The next stage is the concentration (samadhi) group which Embodies three other factors of the Noble Eightfold Path namely Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.
These three factors Right Effort, Right mindfulness, and Right Concentration constitute mental culture or concentration. Together these three steps encourage and enable one to be self-reliant attentive and calm. Right effort means undertaking our tasks with energy and vigour with a will to carry them through.
Right Effort (Samma Vayama) in the general sense means cultivating a positive attitude towards whatever we undertake to do. It means undertaking our tasks with enthusiasm and energy with a will to carry them through. In other words, if we fail to put effort into whatever we do, we cannot hope to succeed. But the effort must be controlled and balanced so that effort should not become too tense or too extreme. Similarly, it should not become too slack and not abandoned. Right effort (Samma Vayama) involves persevering four great efforts”.
(1)The effort to avoid the arising of evil, unwholesome thoughts that have not arisen ye, by exercising right restraint of the senses and self-control, (2) the effort to overcome, to dispel quickly evil, unwholesome thoughts that have already arisen. (3) the effort to develop noble wholesome thoughts that have not yet arisen, (4), the effort to maintain noble, wholesome thoughts have already arisen Therefore, it is evident that the function of the right effort is to maintain constant endeavour and diligence in checking unhealthy thoughts, and to cultivate, promote and maintain wholesome and pure thoughts.
The second step of the Noble Eightfold Path that is embodied in the category of Concentration (mental development) is Right Mindfulness. Right Mindfulness is essential in our ordinary mundane activities. Mindfulness simply is awareness or attention avoiding a distracted and clouded state of mind.
It should be noted Right Mindfulness is the basis for all of the other components on the path. Unless one is mindful, there cannot be a right view, intention, speech, action livelihood, effort and concentration. Mindfulness is all about the presence of the mind and paying attention to what is happening in the present moment. Mindfulness leads to serenity, insight, deep concentration or wisdom. It does not lead to undirected unguarded thoughts. Right mindfulness is developing an accurate and precise awareness of the present moment unclouded by ideas beliefs, memories and expectations.
Right mindfulness is an essential requirement in our daily life. Mindfulness simply is awareness or attention, avoiding a distracted and clouded state of mind. This would be necessary even in our ordinary mundane activities. For example, when a person is driving a vehicle, crossing a busy street or doing some other task that requires attentiveness if one is unmindful of what one is doing there bound to be mishaps. It should be stated that most of the major traffic accidents that occur in Sri Lanka is due to a lack of mindfulness.
Therefore, the practice of mindfulness plays an important role in our day to day activities as enunciated in Buddhism. The practise of mindfulness has been, developed to include four particular applications. They are the application of mindfulness with regard to body (kayanupassana), (b) feelings or sensations (vedanupassana), (c) states of mind (cittanupassana) and (d) mental objects (dammanupassana). The discourse on “The Setting Forth of Mindfulness” (Satipatthana Sutta) deals dials with it.
Right Concentration is the steady fixing of the mind on a single object to the exclusion of all others. This is called samadhi or one-pointedness of the mind. The practice of concentration helps us to maintain the mind in a state of balance. It also refers to the sphere of meditation, especially to the four Jana (absorption). Meditation in Buddhism is classified into two systems, the concentration of mind (Samatha) and insight (vipassana) of these two, concentration has the function of calming the mind.
According to Buddhism, there are forty subjects of mediation that differ according to the temperaments of individuals.
It is said that before practising samadhi an aspirant should select carefully the subject of meditation. In the past, it was customary for aspirants who are bent on meditation to seek the guidance of a competent teacher to choose suitable subjects according to their temperament.
–– Ven. . Naradha