Eightfold Path — Right Action – Part 1a

“And what is right action? Abstaining from taking life, from stealing, and from illicit sex [or sexual misconduct]. This is called right action.” ( from wikipedia)

This is all very blunt. But what is the connection between these three things that we should have them listed under the one rubric, Right Action? Given that the whole point of Buddhism is to dissolve suffering, we can only conclude that killing, stealing and engaging in illicit sex cause suffering. Right Action then is simply to try not to increase suffering.

To set the tone of this discussion:

I am reminded of an incident that to this day often comes up in my memory. I know that we are always being told that it is unscientific to ascribe anthropomorphic characteristics to animals, but judge for yourself. I had use of a summer place on the Sunshine Coast. There was a set of steep stairs leading down from a cabin to a rocky shore. At the foot of the stairs, a cliff about twelve feet high, tangled all over with vines and small plants rooted in cracks in the rock. A small, wren-like bird had built a nest that clung to the cliff at about my eyes’ height. As I passed on my way to the beach, the bird, perched on a branch near the nest, chirping madly away not two feet from me, pleaded with me to save her children. The feet of one poor chick were sticking out of the displaced jaws of a garter snake who had it’s head resting on the edge of the nest. The snake, precariously but successfully clinging to the cliff, was totally within my power as it could not easily escape any action I might take towards it. There was a suspicious bulge some distance down the snake’s body which I surmised was the dead body of another baby chick.

A tableau punctuated by the mother bird’s impassioned chirping. What was I to do? I told the bird that there was nothing I could do. Both chicks were most likely dead. If they were not, I would be required to kill the snake in order to save them. The snake, well aware of the pleading of the bird, looked at me with what looked like a curious mixture of shame and pride: I am what I am and out of necessity I do what I have to do.

While I sympathized with the poor bird, I advised her that she needed to be more careful in building her nest. The bird, understanding that I would or could do nothing, turned all her ineffectual ire at the snake, forgetting me or any danger I might pose towards her. The snake carefully retreated, ungainly with two lumps in it’s length.

In the context of Right Action, I can only conclude that although there was suffering in the situation, it was unavoidable given the nature of the creatures involved. They all did only what was necessary. Nothing was done gratuitously. The snake was unavoidably a carnivore. The little bird would learn from its mistake. I everyday meditate on the fact that causing harm is unavoidable and all one can do is minimize it. Is what I do necessary?

source for the Taoist symbol above

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What is Buddhism For?

robes and rituals

Let’s back up a bit. Buddhism is a methodology for becoming aware in that true awareness relieves suffering. We do not have scientific proof for this assertion so we take it on faith. Through faith Buddhism becomes a religion. The danger with religions, for those of us who have the habit of attaching themselves to externals, is that religions can become elaborated with all sorts of easily misunderstood and rather seductive rituals, rules and robes. To be more exact, it is easy for people who join religions to get cluttered up with believing that the rituals, rules and robes are the point of the religion rather than just helpful tools for reaching the ‘goal’ stated by the religion. In Buddhism, when we forget that the RRRs are only there to help us realize the main purpose, we are no longer on the path to awareness, to being awake. We are merely falling into the delusion of dogmatism. This causes suffering.

The purpose and methodology of Buddhism is simply stated in the Four Noble Truths. The Forth Noble Truth unfolds to become the Eightfold Path. The first two parts of the Eightfold Path, Right View and Right Intention, tell us what we need to cultivate in ourselves in order to realized full awareness. The next three parts, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, outline what we need to do in the external world, on a daily basis, in order to realize the promise of the first two parts of the path. The last three parts, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration, give us the tools for dealing with our own monkey mind while we live in the day to day world.

According to Buddhism, the prescription for our day to day suffering is the Eightfold Path. The difficulty in taking our medicine is that we are being told that we need to pay attention to each one of the eight at each moment of our lives. How hard is that?

We can approach the problem of applying the eightfold path to our daily lives in the same way we approach the monkey mind when we are meditating. When we notice our minds (or our lives, or our actions) wandering away from the concerns indicated in the eightfold path, gently take ourselves back to an awareness of our situation. Watch how we are being. Do not judge. (Sit with it, run with it, work with it, eat with it) See if there is anything at the present time that we can do to align ourselves closer to the eight injunctions. This is what the religion of Buddhism is suggesting. This is what being a Buddhist means. Day by day, bringing oneself back to awareness. How hard to take on. How much easier it might seem to simply focus on the robes, or get caught up in the daily excitement of mass culture, or go looking for love, or fight for money. How much easier to externalize our aspirations. How much easier to think that the solution to our suffering lies outside our self.

picture of chinese monks in robes and ritual

Eightfold Path – 3 – Right Speech

Out in the garden the other day, two robins erupted in squawks, screams, and a flurry of tumbling blows with their wings. Over on the garden bench, beneath the overhang of the shed, a pile of sticks and moss lay scattered over my clutter of pots, trays and bags of various plant foods. Something had gone on. What exactly, I don’t know. But those two birds had no trouble telling each other in the most physical of ways what it was they wanted to impart. Communication. And then it was over.

For the last decade or so one of the big buzz words has been “communicate,’ as in,” I’m all about communication,” or, “I’m taking communication,” or, “If only people would try to communicate with each other better.” What is communication? Telling each other the important things? What are the important things?

Taking a step sideways:

Okay. I’ve been avoiding this topic for the last week because it makes me feel humiliated by my past actions. But I’d have to give up this blog if I don’t write about it.

Right Speech. Hoisted on my own petard. In my case, my petard was my penchant to talk. Not that I intended to do harm to anyone. But I am aware that more than one person did not want to know me because I talked too much and did not listen. Communication to me was telling everybody all about ‘me’, what ‘I’ was doing, thinking and feeling. But by being focused on me, on my pitiful state, justifying it, explaining it, and (the real kicker) telling others what they should do to solve their problems, I was doing inadvertent harm to myself and others because I could not see I was like a kid playing around with chemicals and inadvertently blowing himself up. Anyone standing nearby would get wounded – irritation being, in effect, a wound of the emotions. How could I listen to anyone, or to the world, when all my attention was taken up in thinking up things to say? How could I know what was really going on if I wasn’t paying attention to what was around me? Just lately, when I finally learned to shut up, I gained a friend.

I took me at least 27 years to learn that I had nothing really important to say. In 1975, a then friend told me that all I ever talked about was myself. It was so true, it was the best gift he ever gave me. Since then I had been working on the puzzle: Why did I need to talk so much? The short answer is because of anxiety. An anxiety caused primarily from the original sin, the birth trauma, which makes us all feel like we are personally responsible for all that happens in the universe. The anxiety is caused because we never seem able to fix the world, and yet we feel we should.

In my family you either shut up or you talked all the time. I was one of the talkers. None of the things I ever said was really important. I was merely wailing out my own suffering. Oh sure, I would answer questions and tell you the time of the day or the state of the weather. But all the other verbiage was just blowing off the panic caused by my inability to understand the world I found myself in. When I told you whatever I was going on about that day, I was trying to get you to act in ways that made my world better. Sort of like blaming you for me feeling bad.

Another friend told me I stalked the ferry looking for someone, anyone, to whom to impart the answers of the universe. He avoided me then. Now he says I listen. Thank heavens. Listening feels so much better.

How did I get out of my excessive verbiage trap? It was that fateful day when I discovered not only that I knew nothing but that I could know nothing (I mean in an absolute sense). All I could ever know was what was right there, now. So what am I doing writing these long screes? Hoisting myself on my own petard again?

What are we trying to communicate? Why are we communicating? The third of the Eightfold Path advises us to abandon false speech, in other words, to tell the truth. The truth is only that which is directly in front of us right now and that which we think we saw (admitting that we are all unreliable narrators). How we feel about what is right there is up to us. Talking about it is a tricky business. Are we elaborating beyond what we know in order to bolster our claims? To make people like us better? In order to make people make us feel better?

We are advised to avoid talking about people in a way that will set one against the other. Warmongering is thus to be avoided. As is gossip of a malicious kind. When we meet with others we want to have a good time. Abandon speech that is abusive.

I got in an argument early on in my attempts to clear my muddled mind. My ‘opponent’ and I were saying some terrible things to each other. Luckily enough, I remembered something my therapist told me: Our emotions are not caused by others. They are feelings we have about our own reactions to the world. If we use angry or hateful words about others, we are only illustrating our own feelings about ourselves. In the middle of the argument I apologized for all the hurtful things I had said. Moreover I told the man that what I had said was really about myself, about what I was feeling like in the situation and not about him at all. It took the next three weeks to figure out why I had blown up (hoisted!). The harm I did to him was that it took him about three years to speak to me again without fear or suspicion.

Now whenever I feel bad about something, if I get irritated or angry at, or if I get upset in any way at (or in response to) another, I know I am really upset about myself. I know to walk away from the fight because what I am feeling is my responsibility, not the other’s. I cannot feel better except through my own effort in working with my own angst. No other person can make me feel better. I can only feel joy in their joy or sadness at their suffering. If I speak, the Eightfold Path advises me to say kind words. This is the practice. Knowing when to speak and when not to speak those few things which can be known.

So, the birds I mentioned above? What were they arguing about? The mess of sticks and moss. Was it a nest? Why weren’t there any eggs? All the birds have lain their eggs…. And on and on trying to figure out who was to blame. That one or the other?

Birds rage.
Abrupt flight.
Then silence.

picture of buzzards fighting

Robes and Rituals

Taking a deep breath before I plunge into the third of the Eightfold Path (thereby avoiding for at least another day the terrifying implications that Right Speech has for me), I want to say a few things about a posting on my friend Daishin’s blog yesterday. He seemed to be chaffing in his metaphorical robes. Why do we wear these things, he asks? Why is zen so full of seemingly unnecessary, incomprehensible ritual?

The short answer is that rituals can give you deep insight if you enter into them in the right way. The danger with ritual is simply that we might, through misunderstanding, rebel against or get attached to the ritual and therefor miss the message. One extreme take on ritual was given by Carlos Casteneda. He suggested that we might try putting a silly hat on our head everyday and rolling an egg across the floor with our nose. Try it for a while. See what it tells you about yourself. I practised Iaido for thirteen years. I primarily studied ten, one minute katas. Over and over again.

While practising, iaidoka wear elaborate costumes, robes not very different from the robes worn by monks in zen monasteries. There were ritual ways of folding and wearing the various parts of the robes, but teh meaning of few of these rituals were ever spelled out to the newbie unless the various pieces of clothing were directly implicated in the kata. The way one was being urged to treat one’s clothing was usually illustrated by example – or sometimes by comments delivered with great sarcasm by senior students.

We often practised our Iai in school gyms. Such temporary dojos have limited changing facilities and we generally all changed into our gear to one side of the gym. When I first started practising, I would haphazardly throw my street clothes into a pile on the floor. After a while I started treating my street clothes with the same respect I was being taught to treat my hakama. This was illustrated by neatly folding the clothes into a pile, with larger items underneath to carry the smaller items on top.

In Iaido one practises in ways that can hurt or, potentially, kill the inattentive. Swords vary from wooden, to dull, to sharp enough to cut through a body. All types of swords can do damage to the unwary. As we all practised in the same room, it was worth your life if you failed to pay attention to where everyone else in the room was located and what they were doing. No one casually strolled across the gym. No one drew their sword without caution. Occasionally someone cut their own thumb to the bone. At least one rib was broken. But in all cases, anyone who practised for any while developed a greater respect for the way they handled the facilities, their clothing and each other – at least they did so in a formal manner while in the dojo.

Our sensei, Ken Maneker , always admonished us to bring our Iaido training, or rather whatever understanding we had gained from it, out into the world, into our lives. Iaido was not to be understood as a good way to win fights. We don’t carry swords around at this time in history. Iaido was all about developing awareness. The ritual aspects of the art were to teach us to see what really is, to inspire us to try to understand where we fit in the great dance of reality. Unless we bring our training into the day to day world, the training is for nothing. In the ten bulls, after achieving awakening, one returned to the market place.

There is a danger in a religion’s robes, rituals and skills. They can get in the way of understanding if they become the desired thing, a symbol for some holiness that exists only outside of our self. But equally, the clothes we wear everyday are dangerous in that they are our everyday robes, whether dictated by the rituals of fashion or by what we find in the thrift stores. Do we identify with our fashion statement? Are we attached? Do we let our attire, or our skill set, stand in for what we really feel about what is going on inside? What other personal rituals do we make up for ourselves. What purpose do they serve for us? How do we feel when we engage them? I just watched a DVD where in one character, after dinner without fail, for thirty five years, said, “That was tasty, dear.” To the couple this small ritualistic message stood in for an expression of love and appreciation.

Robes are like experimental apparatus designed to reveal truths for those who observe carefully. If we object to Japanese, Korean, Indian, Chinese, or Tibetan rituals because they seem meaningless to us, then we can invent new ones – if we want. We just have to be careful we don’t get caught up in them as ultimate truths, whether in adoration or rejection.
photo of Sensei Ken Maneker practising iaido

The Eightfold Path – 2 – Right Intention

Park Bench

I was out in the garden doing a little watering, couldn’t help bending over to pull up the weeds. The garden is out of control. Got that way because I’m too busy finishing the floor so we can move back into the house we built with our own hands. House and garden: two topics I’ve done a lot of meditating on in respect to Right Intention. When I started building the house I had no idea what I needed. Now I know the house is too big. It’s unfinished twenty years later (I’ve built it on cash flow, no mortgage) but I am getting it nearer completion. Sometimes I contemplate all the harm I’ve done to the many trees I’ve cut down in order to build an oversized house. Then I worry about the necessity of harming a few more trees in order to finish building. I tell myself I’ve got to finish the house because if I don’t, it will fall into disrepair, in which case I’ll be compounding the harm I’ve done in building it in the first place.

Back in the garden, the situation is much the same. Garden choked with what, in order to justify their eradication, we call weeds. I watch the plants fighting with each other (albeit in slow motion) for a place in the sun. No gardener would ever tell you that plants were kind and considerate of each others’ needs. Nope. They shade, strangle, or poison each other out. Me! Me! Me! they cry. I want all the sun, water, and soil. Nor are plants above stabbing you, pricking you, tripping you up, leaving thorns deep under your fingernails, all to get you to leave them alone, to do them no harm. Some of them are totally prepared to kill you dead (the foxgloves are just starting to bud). So where do I get off, coming around and deciding which ones will survive? I pull them out if they are hindering what I think is useful. Decimate them so the ones remaining will either feed me or be pleasing to my eye. Elsewhere on the property I own (merely a legal fiction, but it makes me know I’m responsible), I let all the plants get on with their own karma. A deer wanders through, looking for sweet herbage to eat.

When you read up on Right Intention in Buddhism, you cannot escape the idea that it can only mean Do No Harm. And thus we’ve hit upon one of the rocks that all religions can easily flounder upon: Do no harm. Thou shalt not kill. Do onto others as you would have them do onto you. The problem is: how can we live and expect to do no harm? Life comes out of death. What a terrifying idea. Religions try to alleviate this terrible knowledge by making rules, lines in the sand, saying its okay to kill in these circumstances but not in these other situations. We must not kill but its okay during wars. Or, we can eat vegetables but not meat. Some of us only eat fruit as it seems that fruit is a gift from a plant whereas the pre-fruiting body of a lettuce is not. We get a flu shot so our body can kill off the influenza virus. Some people have at various times become so attached to the idea of doing no harm they gave up eating and died, thus falling foul of the tricky problem of doing no harm to other beings by doing harm to themselves. What ever we do, we do damage to either our selves or to some other living thing. If we are to have Right Intention, we have to accommodate to the inconvenient truths attendant to living and dying. As far as I can see, there is only one way to do so. Instead of being draconian in respect to doing no harm, we need only minimize the harm we do.

Do we need a big house, or will a smaller one do? Do we need lobster steak and four desserts, or will a bowl of rice do? Constantly asking ourselves if what we are using at any moment actually needs to be used. Will we be better off doing without? Will something simpler be adequate? And so we choose. And after we choose, new things happen. This brings us to another facet of the problem, going right back to Right View. Are we being aware of what is really happening in the outer world? Can we see our motivating emotions? What are we really doing? Are we aware of the harm done to the lettuce when we eat it? Do we thank the lettuce for sustaining us? Do we eat everything we take or do we throw it away? Do we waste it?

To throw another spanner in the works, how aware are we that we are not separate from the rest of the world in being subject to the same inevitability? We cannot live out our lives without being harmed anymore than we can live without doing harm. When we pull out a weed, are we paying attention and acknowledging our brotherhood/sisterhood with that bit of greenery?

There is no absolute answer to the problem of wanting to do no harm when by simply living we do harm. We cannot make a list of rules and forbid some things and allow other things that potentially cause just as much harm. Such list making can be a useful technique to help develop understanding. But the only possible answer to the problem of Right Intention is to be aware of what we are doing, why we are doing it and to keep the harm we have to do to a minimum.

So, getting older and more wrinkled every day, I continue to weed my garden and to build my house, thanking the universe for the strange experience of life. No absolute answer to the problem of harm, just the process of living with it and learning from it. Being attentive to and responsible for the outcomes of my choices.

painting at my website

The Eightfold Path – 1 – Right View

My partner, J, woke up and got out of bed, as ever, at about 6:00 this morning. She made a fire. It’s cold in the lower level because we’re deep in the forest, and the sun, if there is any, doesn’t hit us until about 9:00. Then she made her coffee, played the guitar. I pulled a pillow over my head to keep out the early morning light and to try to drown out her sounds so I could get back to sleep.

I’m usually a late riser, 8:00. This morning I can’t get back to sleep. I watch irritation start to rise up in the back of my mind as she crumples paper for the fire. She’s about three feet away from me and at first I don’t know what the heck she is doing. What ever it is, it seems awfully loud. No way I can sleep through that. The Irritation is old. Used to get it big time on those evening when I had to get up at 5:00 so I could be at work at 6:00, lying awake at night about 9:00 trying to sleep so I could go to a job I hated. This morning lying in bed I just watch the irritation like it was some strange animal in the dark forest. I’m trying to read its intention. Is it about to blow up and scream foul? That would be a bad move. Only three weeks ago I had explained to my partner that she didn’t have to worry about waking me up during this time of confusion while we do renos on our house. So what if I woke up? I told her. If I wake up then I obviously don’t need anymore sleep. And I also told her that when she played music, it felt like I was getting a free concert to help me drift off. So this morning I’m laying there getting far too hot with a pillow over my head. How long am I going to keep trying to go back to sleep? And why. Why not just get up? But I lie there, watching irritation try to find expression, but I don’t let it out. I’m not interested in playing the game of, “Why are you doing this to me?” It will only make me feel stupid and embarrassed afterword, and it irritates J.

Well then, I had to conclude that the irritation was misplaced. Digging deeper I figured out that the more appropriate question was: why was I trying to sleep when I was having such a hard time doing so? Other days my partner goes through all the same routines. Sometimes she plays the upright grand and I sleep right through it all. “I guess I better get up.” And so I do. The sun was threatening to shine through the clouds. A good day to get another coat of varnish on the kitchen floor. But first we were going to go and have brunch with a bunch of friends. Breakfast promised to be divine. (It was.)

Right view is seeing what really is. There are three things we have to see in order to say we have Right Viewing. We have to see what we are really doing inside our own heads. We have to see what is going on in the world around us. And we have to see of what our relationship with the universe consists.

When we are looking at our emotions, we have to know that our emotions are our emotions. We are responsible for them and no one makes us have them. Yes, other people or things do stuff we don’t like. While we can try to protect ourselves from such things, the emotions we have about those things or people tell us something about ourselves. It’s only the bombastic ego which tells us our emotions are about something other then our self. We have to pay close attention so we can hear what our emotions are trying to tell us about ourselves. Be aware.

Our relationship with the universe external to our own self is best explained by the concept of Indra’s Net. My paraphrase of all the explanations and descriptions of the Net is as follows:

Every being in the universe is a node. From every node there extends a piano string that extends out to every other node in the universe. Because every node is an active being, each node sends out vibrations along the infinite number of piano strings attached to it. This is the same for all nodes. Therefor, not only is each node sending out vibrations, each node is on the receiving end of vibrations from all the other nodes in the universe. The vibrations are information. Emotions are information.

The vibrations that travel back and forth along the piano stings have character. The vibrations can be either extremely harmful or extremely benign, or any where in between these extremes. The job of every node, is to take in whatever energy/vibration that comes to it and send it back out. What makes us an active member of the universe is that we have the ability to take both harmful and benign vibrations, modify them and send them back out as either harmful or benign vibrations.

So this morning, rather than send out harmful irritation because of a little noise, it was far better that I waited so as to let myself notice all the the benign vibrations that the universe was feeding me. Then I tried to develop benign vibrations inside of myself (by noticing them and choosing them) instead of attaching myself to complaint and irritation. And having reached that conclusion, I hardly noticed falling back asleep.

photo at the mystery of love Continue reading

Problems, Problems, Problems

I used to have this problem when talking with people. To be kind to myself I describe the problem as having needed to have the last witty word. A deeper level to the problem was that I needed to know everything because I believed, at an emotional level, that my duty was to fix all the suffering in the world. When I learned that I knew nothing, could know nothing, and so could not fix all the suffering (not even my own), I also eventually learned that it could not be my responsibility to fix everything. I could only be responsible for my own actions. I learned to shut up and listen. But old habits die hard. They sneak back in, into overlooked corners, when you least expect them.

While I had a good fix on a solution to the habit of talking too much and trying to find solutions to everyone’s problems, in my writing I suspect the old habit has crept back in, not as badly perhaps (we do learn) but probably enough to be off-putting. Specifically: when people have made comments on my posts, I have always made some quick comeback. This is not needed. It is enough that people have taken the time to read my post and have been kind enough to make comment. I get my say in the posts. Whenever anyone has commented, the exciting thing for me is that their ideas and observations have always inspired in me a fresh excitement and a renewed sense of possibility. There is no need for me to comment on the comments. So in the future, if anyone makes a comment I will not be replying. I will only listen. The only time I will reply to any comment is if the commenter uses a ‘?’. Question marks are a red flag. If you ask a question you might (or might not) get a reply. But whatever you say will probably inspire a post sometime in the future (although you might not notice) after I have digest your offered wisdom. So far, all the comment on my posts have caused me a lot of thought. So thank you.

If you wish to comment but don’t want to be public, feel free to contact me at ajbell@ajbell.ca.
I will not post emailed comments. And I will only (maybe) reply if you use a question mark.