The Noble Path of Buddhism

A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation (Blacksburg, VA), February 26, 2006, by the Reverend Christine Brownlie.


Be loving, be kind
And follow the ways of goodness.
Committed and longing for the goal
Always keep going with courage.
To dally and delay will not help you
But to be ardent is sure and safe
When you see it, cultivate the path,
So you will be tough and make your own
The Deathless Way

Early Buddhist Psalm


Buddhism is one of the fastest growing religions in the Western World. Many of our UU congregations include small groups or sanghas that meet to meditate and study the teachings of Buddhism.

I understand the appeal that this spiritual path holds for UUs. Buddhism stresses “right living” and offers a clearly defined set of precepts to guide the disciple. This path also offers specific spiritual practices that are shared by all those who are serious about this way of the spirit. Buddhist teachings do not include a god of judgment or a savior who has died for the sins of humanity. While some sects of this faith venerate certain deities, these figures are usually called upon to assist, inspire, and protect humans in their daily lives.

Buddhism has deep roots in the beliefs and practices of Hinduism, just as Christianity and Islam have their roots in an older tradition. Like many other religious traditions, Buddhism is divided into smaller sects that generally fall into one the three major groupings of Buddhism: Theravada (“Way of the Elders”), Mahayana (“Greater Vehicle”), and Vajrayana (“Diamond Vehicle”). These groups hold different beliefs and have their own practices, but all are grounded in the teachings of the man we call the Buddha or “The Enlightened One.” This common thread is the focus of today’s sermon. As I always caution when I talk about other faiths, I am not a deep scholar of world religions, and what I say is the tip of a very large iceberg.

The essence of Buddhism lies in The Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eight Fold Path. Our western minds tend to think of the Four Noble Truths as the doctrines and the Noble Eight Fold Path as the practices of Buddhism. This is a misunderstanding. In Buddhism, doctrines and practices are interwoven, with the doctrines creating a foundation for the path, and the path giving life and expression to the doctrines. The Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eight-Fold Path are presented in a sequential format or a list, but this arrangement shouldn’t lead us to think of the first truth or the first step on the path as the most important. Each truth and each step are interrelated and of equal importance.

The first Noble Truth is that suffering exists. No big surprise here; we all experience suffering. This doesn’t mean that “suffering” is the sum total of life. We all know times of joy, fulfillment, and satisfaction — emotions that we might also call happiness. But suffering always returns and can destroy that happiness.

Religious scholar Huston Smith explains the First Noble Truth in these words.

Life, (in the condition it has got itself into) is dislocated. Something has gone wrong. It is out of joint.

The result is that we experience conflict, dissatisfaction, boredom, and disappointment. The other cause of suffering is the recognition that everything we experience or think of as belonging to us is transient. Even at its best, life is uncertain. All things, good and bad will pass. Our bodies decay; our minds lose function; people we love leave us; we worry about money, illness, loneliness, and death. We think of loss and worry as the cause of our suffering. Buddhism says that we need to look more deeply.

Now we are ready to move to the second Noble Truth, which says that the cause of suffering is the tendency to cling to what we have or grasp for what we want. Our clinging or grasping is driven by the Self (or Ego). We guard what is ours, whether it is a relationship, property, achievement or reputation. We fear losing those we love. We are beset by jealousy and desire when we see what others have or what we long to possess. We’re like children at a birthday party — we look around at all that we have, and we ask, “Is all this for me?”

When we lose something or someone we cherish or the good times end, we try to hang on to the past, or we wish that life were different. And so we suffer. As more than one sage has said, it’s not what happens that causes pain, it’s what we tell ourselves.

Let me share with you an example from my own life. Both of my sons live far away from me, and they are very busy men. They try to visit me at least once a year. Our times together are very important to me — and to them as well. It also makes me realize how much I miss them, and how much I long to share more of their lives. When I take them to the airport to fly home, the trip back to Blacksburg is always very difficult for me. Even though I’m very pleased that my sons have made their own lives and are independent of me, I still want to hold on to them and so I experience suffering.

I imagine that you can come up with similar examples in your own lives.

Buddhism teaches that the way to happiness or inner peace is to examine our suffering and to search for the cause of our suffering. This cause is always within ourselves even when our suffering is physical. Yes, broken bones or illness can be miserable experiences. But the grasping thoughts of our own minds will surely add to that pain. Why do I have to go through this difficult illness? It’s not fair! Getting old is awful. I wish I were young again!

The Buddhist alternative to this kind of grasping and clinging is to drop any thoughts that focus on a Self that is experiencing the pain. Instead we are counseled to become one with the simple sensation that is arising in the body.

If our pain is located in our emotions or thoughts, then we need to engage in self-examination to discover where the grasping or clinging are hiding out. We have to sit with our suffering, enter into it, and really get to know it. Only then can we discover the cause of our suffering and let go of it. This is the third Noble Truth.

Only when our tendency to grasp and cling to the transient thing of life is overcome, will we move toward the realization of the reality of life and true happiness; two goals that are truly worthy of our desire.

The fourth Noble Truth is that

The only way out of the trap of desire and suffering is to follow the Noble Eight-Fold Path.

The Noble Eight Fold Path is based on the concept of “the Middle Way.” This path avoids the extremes that we human beings are prone to. One of these extremes is a life of sensuality and possessiveness; the other is the ascetic life based on renunciation and the mortification of body and senses. The Buddha had lived both and found that they did not end his suffering, nor did they lead to true and lasting happiness.

Following this Noble Path is not like following a workout program or a diet that someone hands to you and you force yourself to follow without much thought or reflection. This path requires patience, reflection, and self-awareness. The “steps” on this path are not sequential. Think of them as bricks that are clustered together in no particular order — again, no hierarchy.

The first step on the path is right views. Buddhism views moral standards as objective and unchanging. While the morality of certain deeds may be conditioned by the circumstances surrounding the actions, Buddhists hold there are still objective standards of morality and that any action — or any moral code — can be evaluated according to these standards. Buddhists also hold that objective and lasting moral claims about what is right or wrong transcend popular opinions and even cultures.

This objective standard of morality is integral to the Dharma, the cosmic law of truth and righteousness. As I said earlier, Buddhism has no divine judge who assigns rewards and punishments. Even so, wrong actions have unpleasant consequences. You are likely to face problems in this life. You will certainly pay a price as you go through the cycles of life, death, and rebirth that eventually lead to enlightenment and the liberation of Nirvana (the release from the self). If you have committed a serious wrong, your next trip through this world might be in the body of an animal — or worse!

The second step is right intent. There is no virtue in any action that is done for the wrong reasons. If I am kind and generous to someone because I want a favor from him, then my actions are self-serving and wrong. Truly good actions are grounded in the intention of right relations, compassion and kindness.

Right speech is the third step. Gossip, lies, harsh speech, and idle chatter should be avoided. This rule might seem overly constraining, especially in a culture that places a high value on freedom of expression. But speech is a powerful tool that can break lives, create enemies, and start wars. Or it can give wisdom, heal divisions, and create peace. In this age of almost instantaneous and faceless communication, it has become even more important to be cautious about the choice of words and underlying intentions of those words. Maybe we should add right e-mails to this one.

The fourth place on the Noble Eight Fold Path belongs to the ideal of right conduct. Buddhists are admonished not to destroy life. Some Buddhists extend this precept to include all sentient beings and also the unborn fetus. Suicide, even at the end of life, is unacceptable to certain Buddhist sects. Stealing, sexual misconduct, and drinking alcoholic beverages are other forms of wrong conduct.

The Buddha also warned that certain professions or means of livelihood are incompatible with a good life. Any work that involves harm to others or a violation of any of the other steps on the path is off-limits. A devoted Buddhist would not be a butcher, a bar-tender, or work for a company that produces weapons. A follower of this spiritual path would select an occupation that is conducive to spiritual development. Workers are encouraged to co-operate rather than compete with one another. Setting yourself above other workers is not right livelihood

The sixth step is right effort. This is expressed in the Buddhist Psalm that I read for our reading. The Buddha frequently stressed that patience, diligence, and unflagging perseverance are crucial to achieving liberation from suffering. The work of self-cultivation is not easy and we must do it for ourselves. But it is not impossible.

Right effort requires right mindfulness and this is the seventh step. Right mindfulness is more than simply being aware of what’s going on around you and remembering where you put your keys. The mind is deliberately kept at the level of bare attention, a detached observation of what is happening within and around us in the present moment. In the practice of right mindfulness, the mind is trained to remain in the present: open, quiet, and alert — contemplating only the present moment. When we are mindful, our reactive judgments and assumptions do not distract us. We simply note such thoughts, and then allow those thoughts to float away. This practice keeps the mind from wandering into the past and the future, filling itself with worry, anticipations, memories, self-pity or aggrandizement, and other distracting emotions.

The last step on this path is right concentration. For most people, including the Buddha, developing right concentration requires a determined, patient and long-term effort to discipline and train the mind. The goal is to develop concentration to the point where it is no longer pushed and pulled into distraction by the body with all of its itches, aches, sleepiness, and other demands. This practice helps us gain insight into the workings of our mind and emotions that are the home of grasping and clinging — and thus the cause of our suffering.

Self-knowledge — insight into the workings and habits of one’s own mind and emotion through meditation — is not the end point of Buddhism. The goal is to learn to see past the surfaces and assumptions that we form and live with each day. We reach a new level of awareness that touches a truth about existence: that it is in a state of constant and continual change. Nothing is static, secure, or lasting.

But even this is not the final step

When the truth of impermanence is realized, the concept of the self and the solidity of the physical world begin to melt away. Now the practitioner comes to a closer connection with Dhamma. (Truth) The mind enters into a state of balance, silence, and the deep peace of no-self. It becomes open to what is beyond that process of ceaseless change. Experiences no longer belong to the self — nor even happen to the self. They are simply phenomena rising and passing without reference to an individual. One western author writes that in these moments, there is an “amazing simplicity”:

Life becomes so much less identified with any particular thought, sensation, emotion, or situation as being I. We are no longer imprisoned by the tight and narrow construct of self. With this awareness, our experiences become spacious and peaceful.”

Simple acts like reaching for a door knob are transformed from an action that I am doing to a series of constantly changing sensations, rising and passing, opening us to greater awareness of the realities that we are unable to see when we are trapped in the idea of self.

This sounds very abstract — even cold — to our western minds and hearts. But a Buddhist who had come to this point would tell us that this is not really so. Listen to this poem by a young man who died in Saigon some thirty years ago. I found it in an essay by Thich Nhat Hanh, the well-known Buddhist writer and teacher:

Standing quietly by the fence,
You smile your wondrous smile
I am speechless, and my senses are filled
By the sounds of your beautiful song,
Beginningless and endless.
I bow deeply to you.

How many of us have heard the beginningless and endless song of a small flower growing beside a fence post? How many of us would take the time to bow in gratitude to a flower, a bird, a bright planet in the early morning sky, or our own in-dwelling Buddha nature? How many of us could face the death of a loved one without feeling that our life was falling apart and meaningless, or contemplate our own demise with equanimity? Buddhism tells us that this is possible — and a more worthy path than the blinding and painful way of the self-ridden life that most of us live.

As one Zen master writes:

To use the self is to forget it. Anxiety turns into purposeful action. Brooding disappears, daydreaming disappears. All beings enrich the universe with uniquely varied creativity. Our experiences in practice, education, and realization function in synergy to give that enrichment its fullest possible blessing. It is the self-forgotten that achieves this.

If all of this seems both appealing and overwhelming, then perhaps this thought will help.

Each breath is a beginning, each moment a start.

May your path, whatever path you may choose, be truthful and lead you to peace and true happiness.

May it be so!

Copyright 2006, Helen Christine Brownlie; Commercial duplication prohibited without permission of the author
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