The Eight-Fold Praxis

How do we get free of conditioning so that we can know ourselves as we actually exist? Many of the practices of Buddhism are about seeing into and transforming our conditioning. But the most fundamental and thorough practice for freeing us from conditioning is the ‘Eight-Fold Path’ – the very first teaching of Buddhism. The ‘Four Noble Truths’ are the historical Buddha’s first teaching and the ‘Eight-Fold Path’ is the ‘Fourth Noble Truth’.

The Eight-Fold Path is: Right Views, Right Intentions, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. The practice-entry into the Teaching of the ‘Eightfold Path’ is through the Seventh and Eighth paths: Mindfulness and Concentration.

However philosophically, the first of the Eight-Fold Path is Right Views. (Right, Correct, Perfect, Complete Views. We could also say: Perfected and Perfecting Views.) This means Views that are in complete accordance with how we actually exist in this always-changing world. It is philosophically the first of the Path because we cannot really understand and accurately act in the world, unless the Views that condition (that are prior to) how we perceive and conceive of the world – are true, or as true as can be.

This is all well and good, but it is difficult, nay, impossible, to know what our existing worldviews are because they are our worldviews: they are experienced as the given, as just the way things are. There is no contrast that allows us to see their shadows. So we cannot start the practice of the ‘Eightfold Path’ with ‘Right Views’, because our worldviews already seem right and we know no others that feel right. Therefore, we begin the practice of the ‘Eightfold Path’ with ‘Right Mindfulness’ and ‘Right Concentration’.

Suzuki-roshi was given a scroll by his teacher on which was written “STONE IN AIR” in Chinese characters. Commenting on this, Suzuki-roshi said, “We are always fooled by our habits which make us skillful enough to go through a room even though there are several stones in the air. Most people have many stones in the air, not just one. We don’t see the problems that are hard to see, the problems that are stones in the air, the problems we have created because we don’t know ourselves and how we actually live in this world.”

‘Right Mindfulness’ is mindful-attention developed naturally through mindful-attention, and comprehensively through the traditional praxes of the ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’. The most basic, classic, and revolutionary practice of mindfulness is mindful-attention to the breath. [Sometimes, I will use ‘praxis’ and ‘praxes’ – instead of practice and practices – when I mean specifically the application of Buddhist teachings as a skill, a wisdom, and ‘way of being’ within our living world.]

The ‘Right Concentration’ of the ‘Eightfold Path’ is a mind, continuously present (in the body and in the immediate situation), cultivated through meditation, and free from hindrance.

Once we have developed some skill at mindfulness and concentration, the next ‘praxis-door’ is opened by joining mindfulness and concentration to our speech, conduct, and livelihood.

More specifically, this ‘praxis-door’ is through the ‘intention’ to bring ‘attention’ to the breath. Intention and attention are the mind – shapes of the mind. Attention particularly carries both the body and the mind. Once attention (carrying the mind) is established in the breath, that breath-attention is now brought to our speaking – we feel the breath in our speaking. (Of course, there is no way breath is not part of speaking, because we are physical bodies, lungs, lips, tongue, etc., but breath may be not in accord with our speaking. It may be joined to emotion, anxiety for example, or we might simply be inattentive.)

What I mean by in accord with our speaking is that breath is present in the phonemes, in the syllables, in the words, phrases, and sentences – and in the pauses and spaces. This is a bodily speaking, because when breath and speaking are in accord, the body, speaking, breath, and mind flow together in one attentive presence, one activity, modulated by the breath. (I use the word ‘accord’ with the sense of its etymology: (ac/ad-) near, toward, (kerd-) the heart.)

This mindful-attention weaves breath into speaking, into thinking, and into the body. This generates what we call a ‘Truth Body’. ‘Lie detectors’ work a large percentage of the time, because it’s hard for the body to lie. It’s easier for the thinking-mind to lie, than the embodied-thinking-mind to lie. However, when our thinking and speaking are joined through the breath to the body, the pace and presence of the body, then it is difficult to lie even to ourself in our private thinking.

When we sense this in a person, we are more likely to trust him or her. There is a German adage, Ich kann Dich gut riechen (I can smell you well). This is a bodily trust and acceptance. There is also the ancient English meaning of ‘common sense’ as ‘sense common to all the senses’ – a sixth sense. As Ivan Illich writes, this is “the sense organ believed to recognize the ‘good’, the ‘fit’, and the ‘fifth’” (the dominant in a given key or tonality). [The Challenges of Ivan Illich, SUNY, p. 233] In other words, to recognize through the sense common to all the senses, or through the ‘Truth Body’, how the world actually fits together: the proportionality of the world, the authenticity of our experience in the world.

The half-invisible to consciousness: imagery, associations, intuitions, and general mapping of latent thinking which is going on all the time, occurs extremely rapidly. It is mostly subliminal, always present, and leading into consciousness. It is so fast and pervasive, it almost cannot be measured in time.

This subliminal mentation, while part of our overall metabolism, of course, cannot be simply joined to breath. But the attention, the mental-light, we bring to our thinking and speaking can be joined to breath, can be inseparable from breath. This is a learned yogic skill. Perhaps the pre-languaged mentation of infants is usually joined to breath, but for the rest of us, breath-based-attention is a learned yogic skill. [See the post on Yogic Culture.]

Thinking through breath-based-attention is very powerful, because physicalized attention (attention, garnered and focused through the breath) synchronously gathers the physical and mental associations, imagery, and play of concepts which are the basis of thinking. In fact, our whole metabolism is gathered and brought into play in breath-based-attention.

Now we can enter the paths of ‘Right Conduct’ and ‘Right Livelihood’ through this new integrated sense of ourself, of embodiment, which I am calling the ‘Truth Body’. This ‘Breathbody’ or ‘Truth Body’ opens us to a deeper sense of what to do and what we want to do, we could even say to our conscience. We are also more in touch with the background of conscience, which is called ‘synderesis’, a Greek and Scholastic term for a natural sense of morality, of relationship: the way a mother loves her child, the way we trust a friend, what we expect from a stranger, what we expect from ourselves. I don’t have a familiar English word other than ‘conscience’ for this interiority of knowing, or synderesis, or entelechy. ‘Entelechy’ is originally an Aristotelian concept meaning an inner direction toward fulfillment – in the case of Buddhism, toward enlightenment. Suzuki-roshi often used the phrase, ‘innermost request’ to mean ‘conscience’, ‘synderesis’, entelechy, and even the inner speaking of Socrates ‘daemon’. Suzuki-roshi would have understood Ivan Illich speaking of the “interiority of my heart” where I can “grow and become comfortable and accommodating for other people.” [Ivan Illich In Conversation, David Cayley, Anansi, p. 114]

The American Heritage Dictionary defines ‘conscience’ as “conformity to one’s own sense of right conduct.” This definition fits with what is meant by ‘Right Conduct’ and ‘Right Livelihood’ in the praxis of the ‘Eightfold Path’, although the fearful, retributory sense often carried by the word ‘conscience’, does not fit. The etymology of ‘conscience’ is to be ‘near knowing’, to be ‘joined to knowing’. In this sense of the word, conscience is part of the dynamic which frees consciousness from being in conflict with itself.
Once we have established ourself in the ‘Truth Body’ – and this does happen through this praxis, we can see more clearly the presence of our worldviews in our thinking, activity, and assumptions. We can feel which views ‘compute’ and can be intended with good conscience, and which cannot be intended with good conscience. When our Views are established in accord with how we actually exist – and thus freed from delusion, our intentions are then also freed from delusion. While moral factors – conscience, virtue, character – are the basis of Zen practice, they function and are developed through intention, and intention functions most fully through Views free from delusion.

‘Right Livelihood’ is to work in the world in ways that do not harm others and do not harm the world. And positively, it is to work in ways that benefit others and the world. Through Right Speech, Conduct, and Livelihood our Right Views and Intentions extend and spread into the world. This is surprizingly true.

‘Right Effort’. Of course, it takes effort to bring attention to the breath, it takes effort to be alive, but this is not fully what is meant by ‘Right Effort’? The etymology of ‘effort’ is (ef) ‘exert’ and (fort) ‘strong’. And in English, it is hard to get away from the feeling of ‘exertion’ in ‘effort’. But ‘Right Effort’ in the Eightfold Path means something more like ‘right relationship’, ‘right application’, ‘right balance’, ‘right energy’, or ‘right directionality’.
‘Right Effort’ also is to be free from laxity and excitation. In the beginning of practice, we make an effort to do something; when our practice is mature, we more let things do themselves, by being awake in the middle of a situation. At first, we make it happen; later, we let it happen. Of course: ‘at first’ and ‘later’ are both ‘now’. It is a mixture. ‘Right Effort’ is the sensitivity and craft of this process.
Overall, ‘Right Effort’ means to bring ‘Right Views’ (including the ‘Four Noble Truths’) into each of the Eight Paths – and also to bring Right Intention into Right Speech, Right Speech into Right Conduct, and Right Conduct into Right Livelihood.

More specifically, in the traditional sequence of the Eight Paths, ‘Right Effort’ is the energy and Wisdom applied to unpack and articulate the first Five Paths. Once our views and intentions are truly right (in accord with how we actually exist), and in accord with our speaking, conduct, and livelihood, then we have a consolidated basis for bringing ‘Right Effort’ with power to mindfulness and concentration, especially meditative concentration.
This ‘consolidated basis’ in itself is ‘Right Effort’. Thus the Eightfold Path teaches us how to bring wholeness to our lived-life, and then how to bring this fullness and focus into the transformative buddha-activities of mindfulness and concentration. This is the way to bring forth, discover, and develop our fundamental Buddha Nature.

A praxis for the beginning of zazen

When we start a period of zazen-meditation, it is often helpful to begin with an exercise that brings body and mind together. The most common is to count exhales to ten, or just to follow the breathing. But we can also bring the Eightfold Path before us (or any teaching), performing it within ourselves. (You can also name the paths as you fall asleep – as a way of falling asleep.)

After finding your upright posture, begin with a feeling of openness to all views and simultaneously a freedom from all views – a feeling of possessing nothing, of needing nothing. Then release yourself into your Views and see what comes up. Then call forth your Views – and see what comes up. (This is a subtle, gentle calling and a waiting.) Then settle into your Views – into whatever came up. Study that, accept that, and then know it could be better or clearer.

You can also plug in ‘views’ if you want. I’m a good person. I feel guilty. I like myself. I don’t like myself. I hate the world. I am afraid of the world. I delight in the world. I care about other people. I mostly don’t like other people. I am better than most other people. I am worse than most people. I always or seldom compare myself to others. I find the best in situations. I find the worst in situations. Like some kind of psychological questionnaire, at test you give yourself. These are all worldviews which can transform how we view ourselves, when they are really noticed and consequentially accepted as patterns in our behavior.

We can also plug in teachings: the ‘Eightfold Path’ (this is what we are doing), the ‘Four Noble Truths’, interdependence; or insights; or antidotes to our wrong views.

Then go on to Right Intentions. Release yourself into your intentions. Call forth your intentions. Settle into your intentions. Then release yourself into your inner-speaking, call forth your inner voice, and then settle into it. Then release yourself into your conduct, review for a moment your conduct, and then settle into whatever your conduct is and has been. Then release yourself into your livelihood, your work in the world, examine it a bit, call forth what your work is and could be, and then settle into that.

Then release yourself into your effort, call forth your effort. Then release yourself from effort and settle into this release. Then release yourself into mindful-attention, into awareness, and settle into this awareness. Then release yourself into your body and mind, call forth this bodymind, and then settle into this wide bodymind.
Through this exercise during meditation, the ‘Eightfold Path’ will find its way, find its paths, into the whole of your life.

Commentary on the above meditation praxis

I don’t mean that when you call forth Views in this three-phased way that four Wise Views will appear, two Deluded Views, and one Inchoate View – or something like that. It could happen, but that is not the way it usually works. By bringing attention to each Path during meditation, you are entering the Path. You are standing (sitting) at the beginning of each Path and looking at it, noticing it, facing it, feeling it, wondering where the entry is. You are sensitizing yourself to the path, to the categories of the Path, imprinting it on yourself.

As a practical matter, in the beginning, you are ‘releasing’ yourself (it’s a feeling, an attitude, a direction) into the word, simply the word, ‘Views’. And the way the mind works, this has a tremendous power, because it leads the mind to the source or roots of a word. There is more to a word than its letters. The roots of the use of a word spread out widely into our mind and body and experience. Contemplating a word, or staying present to a word in this way, is a kind of tonic, a medicine, which only takes effect through repeated doses.

In this sense a ‘word’ is a surface of a whole area of mind indexed to that word. The word might be a manhole cover and it might a mountain top. A ‘word’ then is not just the horizontal part of a sentence, it has a vertical membership in the whole of the mind and in the history of the language. A word is a badge, a roadsign, a scent, a track, an appointment, an initiation, an archive, a subscription, a visitation.

I don’t want to use the word ‘symbol’ because it has a negative, rather dead connotation. I want a word more organically connected to the process of exploring a teaching and uncovering the wisdom embedded within us through words. The roots of words are the ghosts and angels that hover in our speaking and thinking. Every word to some extent carries the record of its history, embodies the record of its history. Each word has the body in it. Each word can be a gesture and a gesture is a gauge. Try it out! Let your hands talk each word, any word you think of, watch what happens (big words: mother, father; little words: clock, hair), each word will find a movement in your hands. You can tell what you think about a person. Call their name or image into your hands. It is a kind of dousing.

A word is not so much a symbol (symbolic of, a reminder) as it is a bamboo leaf, which if you follow it to its source, it leads to the branch, the trunk, the roots, and then all the other bamboo trunks and leaves of the grove because it is all one plant with separate trunks. This is the basic idea of the ‘huatou’, which is the kernel of koan practice. ‘Huatou’ is a Chinese Zen word which means to use words and phrases in a repeated way (it is a kind of plowing and sowing) which will activate and enliven the roots and associations of a word as they are spread out and incorporated in the mind – and affiliated in more complex ways within a phrase.

So in meditation, you bring your attention to the word, in this starting example, the word ‘Views’. And you just hold yourself present for some moments before the word ‘Views’ as if it was a door, the door of a house which sometimes opens a bit. Occasionally, you’ll enter and the rooms and stairs may seem to have no pattern. But it will get clearer. Then you go to the next door: ‘Intentions’ and wait a bit, etc., all the way through the Eightfold Path. Trust the process. The processes of knowing and revealing are more complex and also simpler than most of us realize.

You may not get past the first two or three path-categories, but sometimes you can push on to finish the eight. Pay attention to where you get stopped. We could say that through this practice you are changing the refractive index of the mind, putting in a prism which reveals the eight paths through which we can most fundamentally shape and transform our life.
The more you are familiar with these categories, these eight colors, you will understand how each should be known as a separate Path which is yet simultaneously integrated with the others. Through this praxis, you will find you are walking and living these paths in your daily life, living them in a way that feels ‘Right’ to you – and you will find that you are the judge of what feels Right.