Maintaining right view, right intention, right communication, right conduct and right vocation in our everyday lives requires effort, application, and enthusiasm. We try to be total in our activities, engaging and participating whole-heartedly. We do not approach tasks with a half-hearted, 'good enough' attitude. We throw ourselves completely into whatever we are doing and do it to the best of our ability, whether it's our meditation practice, or a mundane task like laundry. We aspire to maintain right view and right intention.
Shakyamuni Buddha taught that there are four great efforts: the effort to develop; the effort to avoid; the effort to maintain; and the effort to overcome. In terms of the four great efforts; we develop the depth and scope of our understanding and experience of view and intention. We avoid, or let go of, unhelpful habits and neurotic patterning. We maintain our practice and try not to fall back into old patterns. We actively work to overcome our neuroses. Once our effort has become realised manifestation, then these four efforts become the four Buddha-karmas of enriching, pacifying, magnetising & destroying. Khandro Déchen comments that each of the nine yanas can be expressed in terms of each of the nine yanas, and that viewing the four great efforts as the Buddha-karmas is the perspective of the Mahayoga Tantras.
Wholehearted effort in the practice of right view, right intention, right communication, right conduct and right vocation creates a sense of spaciousness. With this more spacious experience our attention becomes naked and direct. We start to find it easier to maintain our attention in all situations and experiences. We gradually find greater ease in bringing our attention back to the present moment and remaining there. It is not possible to be mindful of the present moment if we are always daydreaming or dull. Right effort, right view, and right intention help us to keep our minds alert and focused.
The Sutras teach that there are four stations of mindfulness: body, sensation, mind, and mind-objects. We attend to our awareness at the levels of body, energy and mind at all times to ensure that we continue to cut the causes of samsara and create the causes of nirvana. But ultimately it is possible to go beyond this as well. As Ngak'chang Rinpoche has said, in a teaching on the Ulukha-mukha Sutra: When we find the presence of awareness within the dimension of the spheres of body, energy, and mind there is no need to cut the causes of samsara or create the causes of nirvana. Finding presence of awareness in itself is the causelessness in which samsara and nirvana are non-dual.
The final stage of the path is right presence or right concentration. Once achieved, this is the fruit of the path. Ultimately, finding presence of awareness in the dimension of the moment is the experience of rigpa the non-dual experience of emptiness & form. Within this experience, all manifestations become the ornaments of rigpa and are experienced as purely appropriate, natural, spontaneous, and free. Karma as a cause of dukkha no longer exists. Spontaneous enlightened perception manifests as simultaneous spontaneous enlightened response. We are freed from our neurotically patterned responses of attraction, aversion & indifference; and our responses manifest as ornaments of rigpa. We are no longer tossed about on the stormy waters of hope & fear, expectation & preconception. The completion of the path leads us from an intellectual understanding of right view to direct intuitive experience, and the achievement of the cessation of dukkha.
Approaches to the Eightfold Path
The Eightfold Path can be looked at in many different ways. It is common for it to be presented in a linear way(5) in which we develop the view of wishing to end the causes of the experience of dukkha for ourselves and others. In the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism there are nine vehicles.(6) A vehicle is a body of teachings and practices which take us from the base of the vehicle to its fruit. These nine vehicles are the sravaka yana (hearers), the pratyékabuddha yana (solitary realisers) and the bodhisattva yana (those who vow to work for the realisation of all being through developing active-compassion); plus the six Tantric vehicles, divided into Outer and Inner Tantra.(7) The experience of these vehicles relates directly to the personal process of growing spiritual awareness from the very earliest stage of interest but this is often obscured by the sense in which they are seen as separately codified religious approaches.
Let me give an example of this process, in terms of my own experience. When I first became interested in Buddhism, I read a great deal. I was fascinated by the ideas and methods I studied, but that was all I did for several years. I heard the words, but did not identify their relevance in terms of doing anything with what I was hearing and studying. This was sravaka yana. Then something prompted me to actually try out the methods and receive teachings directly from a Lama. At this stage I had been touched by the First Noble Truth and was beginning to believe that the suffering I experienced had a cause, and that the suffering could cease. I had developed confidence that Buddhism could provide methods by which I could travel the path to happiness. It was my experience of pain and suffering which prompted my actions. I wanted to end my pain and suffering, so I began the path of the solitary realiser I started to practise for my own benefit. However, once I started to practise with a greater level of commitment, I began to see the benefits in my life, and the changes in my state of mind. Conscious of this, I become increasingly aware that there were many people, and many other beings around us, who were also finding their experience of their lives less than satisfying. At this point I realised that I could not disconnect myself from others, and that it wasn't actually possible to be truly happy when others around me were so obviously unhappy. In this way I naturally began to move toward some experience of the mind of bodhicitta. This development in my view made me want to live my life so as to do as little harm to others as possible and, hopefully, to benefit them in some way.
Ngak'chang Rinpoche & Khandro Déchen explain that the six levels of Tantra can also be viewed in terms of how they reflect human psychological development from infancy to adulthood. Dharma is a natural system. It is not fabricated, and therefore it reflects every nuance of human experience. Although Tantra is advanced view, method, & behaviour we can make analogies with developmental psychology and also with the experience of approaching the spiritual path. Everything within dharma speaks of everything else and when dharma is understood then everything else begins to speak about dharma.
The Eightfold Path can be viewed as a way to develop bodhicitta and mindfulness in order that we don't hurt others. Our motivation is to refrain from harm and to attempt to help those around us. The other stages of the path link in with this motivation. The first Noble Truth is the base of the Sutric path, and the Eightfold Path can be seen as the path of renunciation which leads to the realisation of emptiness. In the Sutric view, the Eightfold Path is split into three aspects of development: wisdom, virtue, and concentration. Right view and right intention are connected with the development of wisdom. Right speech, right action, and right livelihood are connected with the development of virtue. Right effort, mindfulness and presence are connected with the development of concentration. In this way the Eightfold Path represents the entire Sutric path. Ngak'chang Rinpoche & Khandro Déchen comment: The way in which the Eightfold Path encapsulates the entire spectrum of Sutric teaching is brought out with delicious grace in the Ulukha-mukha Upadesha Dakini Sutra. There we find that the Eightfold Path describes Tantra and Dzogchen as well. The Owl-faced Dakini of this teaching guards the knowledge that dharma is self-defined, inasmuch as each expression explains and interprets every other expression in such a way that the nine yanas are dissolved into Ekayana the solitary vehicle of Dzogchen.
Renunciation(8) arises from understanding the truth of dukkha, its cause, and the possibility of the cessation of its cause. From this arises the motivation to help all beings. Then the path of virtue is trodden with right communication, right conduct, and right vocation. Finally the training and concentration of the mind is developed through right effort, right mindfulness and right absorption. At this point emptiness, the fruit of Sutra, can be realised.
Another way to look at the path is one in which there are eight strands of a rope woven together. The rope cannot function as effectively if it loses a strand or if some strands are weaker than others. We can focus on different strands at different times, so that gradually each strand can be strengthened until the separate strands merge into an undivided experience. There may be times in our lives in which we are only able to spend small periods of time in formal practice but if we continue to live the view in our daily lives, we shall continue to progress until such time as we are able to increase our formal practice again. In this way, we can gain a concrete sense in which each of the strands of the eightfold rope supports the others.
Tantra is the path of transformation rather than that of renunciation. Tantra works actively with the form of our experience from the perspective of emptiness. The base of Tantra is emptiness the understanding of the illusory nature of all appearances, and of one's perceptions of appearances. This is understood through the experience of emptiness, and through realising the truth of the empty nature of dukkha and its cause. From this realisation arises the motivation to transform the energy of dukkha into the energy of liberation through the use of non-dual symbol. As Ngak'chang Rinpoche & Khandro Déchen explain: The term 'non-dual symbol' points to the fact that Tantric symbol is regarded as empty form. Symbolism in Tantra is an interface between a master a realised perceiver of non-duality and his or her disciples. The yidams are neither real nor unreal. They are neither existent nor non-existent.
The Tantric path works with emptiness & form and, as such, explores paradox & ambivalence at the levels of right speech, right conduct, and right vocation, in order that we are able to practise the transformation of our everyday experience into the mandala of the yidam. Then through effort and meditation we come to experience the non-duality of emptiness & form.
The path describes movement through the three spheres of being: emptiness,
energy & form chö-ku, long-ku & trül-ku. View arises within
chö-ku, the empty ground of our being. Intention & communication are
the initial movement of Mind into the sphere of energy or intangible appearance.
Within the sphere of long-ku, action & vocation are movements into form.
Within the sphere of trül-ku, effort & attention dissolve back into
the energy and intangibility of long-ku.
Then presence returns us to emptiness and unconditioned potentiality, in chö-ku. Khandro Déchen describes this movement as 'endless mudra' and, with this in mind, the potency of the lotus mudra of form & emptiness performed in empowerments represents a profound intuitive opportunity.
The Eightfold Path can also be seen as circle. It can be viewed as a continual turning of the mind, in which the view deepens and strengthens with every turn. The path then becomes a spiral, as view changes subtly with each rotation opening our view and experience.
Considering the eightfold path as circular, it is no wonder that the phrase 'turning the wheel of dharma' is used. Circling round the path can be understood in terms of the varying speeds at which these cycles manifest. It can be looked at as a cycle of a lifetime, or as a path of moment-by-moment turning. The differing approaches to the path as a circle will dictate differing views of the speed of the circling. The more we are able to circle around this path, encouraging congruency at each stage, the more we potentiate our capacity to live the view. This path then becomes the basis from which living the view becomes a reality, and from which all other methods flow. As long as view continues to deepen, the spiral continues to open. However, if view becomes constricted or distorted, the energy and concentration which have been developed through practice can cause us to fall or crawl into a constricting spiral of increasing neurosis. In this state our neuroses continually feed back upon themselves, creating a closing, narrowing spiral of paranoia and aggression.
With these linear views of the Eightfold Path it can be seen how important it is to continually return to motivation, inspiration and understanding of view. We need to continually check that the lessons of the Four Noble Truths are being maintained. This is why so many sadhanas begin with Refuge and the generation of bodhicitta, and end with dedication. It is important to continually renew our contact with inspiration and openness and not become blinkered or obsessed. We must continually remember unsatisfactoriness and its cause and the cessation of unsatisfactoriness and its method.
It is possible to get stuck in a groove in which we appear to be living the view and practising the path, but in which we are not really continuing to open the spiral. It is a little like getting stuck at sleepy shi-nè but believing we are stabilising shi-nè. This is why at a certain point a Lama becomes essential. The Lama can keep gently pushing us back into an expanding view, and out of the groove of our patterning. The Lama can trip us up as we return to preconception and habitual neurosis. The Lama encourages us to continually renew our connection with view in its most essential sense according to the teaching of Dzogchen.
From the perspective of the Ulukha-mukha Sutra, all aspects of the path are instantaneously realised through the spontaneous arising of view. In terms of Dzogchen, view is non-dual recognition. Emptiness & form are undivided in the experience of rigpa.
to view enables the path to manifest.
Remaining without doubt
is is the qualification of that manifestation at the levels of intention, communication, activity, vocation & effort. So all activity becomes self-accomplishing.
Continuing in the state
self-manifests with attention and presence, integrating rigpa with whatever arises. In this perspective we abandon the linear view of the Noble Eightfold Path and recognise that all eight aspects of the path are present simultaneously. View inevitably encompasses all seven of the other aspects of the path. Congruent effort is inevitably also congruent attention, motivation, conduct, etc. Congruent intention simultaneously manifests as congruent communication, action, presence, etc. The eight aspects of the path cannot exist separately, but only as a simultaneous expression of the Dzogchen path of self-liberation.
In his booklet Certainty, which draws on aspects of the Ulukha-mukha Sutra, Ngak'chang Rinpoche called the Four Noble Truths the Four Fundamental Certainties, and the Eightfold Path the Path of Alignment. The Four Noble Truths are certainties upon which we can rely, as the source of our aspiration and as the foundation of our practice. As fundamental practices, it could be easy to see them merely as preliminary and as something we move beyond; but they are a source of inspiration and renewal of Refuge at any stage of our life as practitioners. The Eightfold Path constantly aligns us with method and view. Awareness, understanding, and active memory of the path enables us to check ourselves. It expresses the entirety of the Buddhist path, whether our focus is that of Sutric, Tantric, or Dzogchen practitioners. It expresses the entirety of the Buddhist path when we move between the vehicles, as appropriate to how we find ourselves. The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path are a simple and direct teaching which we can authenticate for ourselves at an experiential level in order to be sure that we are working towards realisation for everyone and everything everywhere.