The Noble Eightfold Path

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s little writing on the constituents of the 4th honorable truth is a quick, by the numbers (and letters) summary of orthodox Theravadan opinion on the topic. As such it is a beneficial resource especially for beginners to the field, or for somebody who has an interest in “brushing up” on the principles. Factually, it is ensured accurate, though this is not to say it is particularly believed provoking or insightful. I’ll provide a few examples of what I’m speaking about.

BB in fact begins with an interesting quandary: we regular individuals undoubtedly come across suffering, and if we consider the nature of that suffering, we “seek a method to bring our disquietude to an end … But it is just then that we find ourselves dealing with a new difficulty. As soon as we concern recognize the need for a spiritual path we find that spiritual mentors are by no ways uniform and equally compatible” (pp. 1-2).

The issue then becomes trying to “decide which [mentor] is really liberative, a real option to our needs, and which is a sidetrack beset with hidden defects.”

He then uses up the concern of how to select a course (though we of course understand what his supreme response will be), ultimately concluding:

“To sum up, we discover 3 requirements for a teaching proposing to provide a real path to the end of suffering: initially, it needs to state a full and precise image of the variety of suffering; 2nd, it needs to present a correct analysis of the causes of suffering; and third, it should offer us the means to eliminate the reasons for suffering” (p. 5).

However then Bhikkhu Bodhi cops out of the task he set up: “This is not the place to examine the numerous spiritual disciplines in regards to these criteria,” he informs us. “Our concern is only with the Dhamma, the mentor of the Buddha …”

To which I believed, “Well if that held true, why did you lead me on this wild goose go after? Why didn’t you simply get to the point and not pretend you were going to philosophize about the serious difficulty of how one goes about choosing a worldview for oneself?” Simply put, BB acknowledges the obstacle, however does not rather have the gumption (or perhaps the intellectual devices) to truly justify to us why we must trouble getting a book on the Buddha’s teaching in the very first location. Anyway, I find it irritating when an author sets up a fascinating problem however then refuses to try to fix it. A not successful effort is vastly more gratifying than no effort at all.)

Another example of this kind of irritating superficiality in BB’s conversation concerns kamma (=karma in Sanskrit). He composes:

“The most essential function of kamma is its capability to produce results corresponding to the ethical quality of the action. An immanent universal law holds sway over volitional actions, bringing it about that these actions concern in retributive repercussions, called vipaka, ‘ripenings,’ or phala, ‘fruits'” (p. 20).

He then ensures us that

“the best view of kammic effectiveness of action need not stay solely a short article of belief … It can end up being a matter of direct seeing. Through the achievement of particular states of deep concentration it is possible to develop an unique professors called the “magnificent eye”… When this faculty is developed … one can then see for oneself, with immediate perception, how beings pass away and re-arise according to their kamma, how they fulfill happiness and suffering through the maturation of their great and evil deeds” (pp. 22-23).

My immediate reaction to reading this was to think, Okay Bhikkhu Bodhi, have you developed the divine eye? For anyone for whom the answer to this concern is “no”– and unless you are a psychic such will constantly be the answer– there is no option other than to faith, which might be true or not. Plainly, this is not a practicable test of this main tenet, but the simple reality BB talks about kamma in this fashion indicates how bound he is by a conventional, non-scientific understanding of his own tradition.

If you take the Buddha’s teaching for what it is– as an applied psychology– kamma can be understood as just conditioning, the shaping or molding of the mind by thoughts, words and actions. Whatever you believe, state or do affects your state of consciousness and scenarios, and this is not a matter of faith however of direct observation here and now. This can be seen on gross levels or fine (e.g. exercising makes you buff and depressed ideas land you in the shrink’s workplace); plainly our actions have consequences– they identify not only our characters but the course of our lives. Kamma is not wonderful and ought to not be thought about as such; the word, after all, suggests “deliberate action,” and anyone can see the importance of both objectives and actions.

Bhikkhu Bodhi is best understood for his translations, and the above examples make it clear why. He is not a very first rate thinker or communicator; whenever he takes part in drawn out exposition (as in the case of a book in his own words), what he composes tends to read like a technical manual composed by someone who reads technical handbooks for a living. I presume this is a personality thing, but it also comes from him being very first and foremost a “man of the texts”– a translator and scholar as opposed to specialist.

This emerges too in the general the feel of the book, and goes method beyond the quotes above. Though this brief manual is great for novices thinking about the fundamental “things” of Buddhism, there is little sense of living practice here. You do not get the stories a meditation teacher is likely to amass from resting on the front cushion, nor do you get glib, funny anecdotes from the author’s everyday life experience. Everything is distant, formal, abstract, leavened with stilted expressions and multi-syllabic words … such as “concomitant.”


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