Our VIMS community begins its collective study of the Eightfold Path starting in September. Please be sure to visit the related material posted on our website, which we will be using as part of our core curriculum in the three sitting groups. It includes an audio dharma talk by Gil Fronsdal, as well as his suggestions for contemplating and working with each Path Factor. The Eightfold Path is one of the important teachings of early Buddhism and is designed to help us find our way towards the liberated heart, which is free from the reactivity and unskillful habits of mind associated with perpetuating suffering. The Path described is referred to in the Metta Sutta as “the Path of Peace,” and it presents a map for our bodies, hearts, and minds to the ease of heart and peace of mind needed to live a wise and kind life.
In the Zen tradition of Buddhism, this Path teaching is woven into what is called The Great Way. In a collection with this title, there is a verse attributed to the Sixth Zen Patriarch that has been important to me. It speaks of the energy needed for this path:
The Great Way is not difficult for one who has no attachment to preferences.
For me, the verse has often morphed into the thought that perhaps the way is differently difficult than we think; we walk this path in a different way than we have done most things in our lives. We don’t “do” it directly; we nurture its unfolding. We are not asked to make ourselves into something we are not already or to import blissful mind states that are foreign to our makeup. We are not asked to do anything other than to pay attention, to find our balance––again and again; to not be hijacked by what we find attractive or unattractive, but to keep waking up to what is actually happening right now. At the end of a six-week silent retreat, some of the first words I spoke were to a teacher friend who asked, “How was it?” I answered, “It was hard.” To her question about what was hard, I answered, “Sustaining mindfulness for six weeks.” It was hard for the body, the heart, and the mind––all three ached at times––and it was also joyous, freeing, stunningly beautiful, fun, and profoundly deepening. Something shifted in me. It was well worth the effort.
Over the years since then, as I explored my initial, spontaneous response, I have realized that what was challenging was “holding with care” the understanding, the intention, the self-compassion, the energy, and the concentration that supported the organic growth and maturation of mindful awareness. In a recent sitting group conversation about faith, in terms of this Eightfold Path and in answer to “where do we place our heart,” one sangha member said that what she could believe in was her practice; she can trust being in the moment and returning to the moment––that and only that. Another person said that her understanding was growing in such a way that she no longer differentiated between “secular” and “spiritual”; that her life was her practice. This very life is our practice; this very life is the path of peace. The way itself is not difficult.
“There is a sense of ease and fearlessness coming from the Eightfold Path––a sense of equanimity and emotional balance. We feel at ease rather than that sense of anxiety, that tension and emotional conflict. There is clarity, there is peacefulness, stillness, knowing. This insight of the Eightfold Path should be developed; this is bhavana. We use the word bhavana to signify development.” ––Ajahn Sumedho, The Four Noble Truths