Ariya Atthangika Magga, Part 1: Introduction to the Path
The Four Noble Truths, A Recap
Because the Fourth Noble Truth is the Ariya Atthangika Magga, there is little that can be said about it apart from a full discussion of the Eightfold Path. Thus, we find ourselves at a transitional point. To this point, we have been examining the Four Noble Truths (in some small detail). And from here, we shall leave behind the Truths (at least as the central focus of these posts) and move on to the subsequent material contained in the Path. So, perhaps it is good to take a brief moment and recap on the Four Noble Truths, with the hope that such a recap will refresh our minds and prepare us to carry these concepts into that which follows.
The Four Noble Truths were the content of the historical Buddha’s first sermon delivered after his enlightenment experience under the Bodhi-tree. In constructing his Noble Truths, he chose a familiar method of medical reasoning to give structure of his ideas. Thus, the Four Noble Truths move from diagnosis of disease (one) to identification of cause (two); and then again from recognition of cure (three) to prescription of treatment (four). In this way, then Buddha hoped to move humanity, as he himself had moved, from being subject to a disease of life (suffering) to the glorious peace of the cure (Nibbana).
In propositional form, the Four Noble Truths are as follows:
1) There is dukkha (suffering).
2) The cause of dukkha is tanha (clinging, craving or desire for self-fulfillment).
3) There is a lasting end to dukkha, found in the letting go of the illusion of soul and the consequent desires and aversions born from this illusion.
And the Fourth Noble Truth, which will serve as our conclusion to this initial encounter with these truths:
4) The way out of dukkha is the Eightfold Path (ariya atthangika magga).
Out of these Four Noble Truths, the Buddhist religion finds its worldview, its vision, and its path for life. These are absolutely central to both the genius of the teachings crafted by the Buddha, and the system which took his name. Thus, one final note is necessary: for the Buddhist, it is not enough to simply know the Four Noble Truths and to be able to repeat them (like Sunday School Bible verses); instead, the Four Noble Truths are to be understood, penetrated, internalized, lived. Obviously, the basic summary offered here does not fulfill this criteria; but then again it’s not supposed to. Suffice it to say that the life of the Buddhist must be inundated and centered around the Four Noble Truths–the heartbeat of the religion’s ideology.
The Eightfold Path, Introduction
That being said, it is time we moved on. Luckily, the Fourth Noble Truth points us in the right direction–the Eightfold Path. I offer only the briefest introductory remarks here, to be built upon in future posts.
I must admit that I function quite well on suspense and mystery. Thus, in my writing I sometimes enjoy obscuring, hinting at, and otherwise avoiding directness. However, such a tactic does not benefit the current discussion, for there is simply too much content within Buddhism to continually play games with one’s readers. So, I will neglect my desire for subtlety and simply provide, in list form, the content of the Eightfold Path. However, for the sake of visual stimulation, and out of organizational necessity, I provide the following chart:
As can be seen, the Eightfold Path is broken into three main categories–Wisdom, Morality, and Concentration. The three categories contain the eight facets of the Path (two in wisdom, three in morality and concentration). In this way, the Eightfold Path provides the pathway for religious/personal development within the Buddhist tradition. It is the way of Buddhism, encompassing the thoughts, values, disciplines, lifestyle and actions of the Buddhist. To follow the Eightfold Path is to live the Buddhist ideology. The eight facets are right (or perfect) understanding, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. (The next several weeks will be devoted to the Eightfold Path and a deeper examination of each of these facets).
It should be noted at the start, however, that this is not a sequential list. That is, the Buddhist does not master right understanding in order to move on to aspiration, and so forth onto speech, action, etc. One does not progress down the list, as if it were a checklist. They are all part of the Path, but it should not be assumed that Right Understanding is “Buddhism 101”–the class for beginners–while Right Concentration is the “Senior Project”–right before graduation. Instead, these facets of Buddhist life and thought are cultivated together, arise together, and are implemented into the life together. A daunting task for the initiate who has yet to cultivate any of them; I would prefer a sequential progression!
Much more can be said about the Eightfold Path, but I conclude this very brief introduction with the following insight, taken from the writings of Ven. Ajahn Sumedo. In describing the heart and meaning of the Noble Eightfold Path, he says:
… it [the Path] simply teaches us to reflect upon the importance of taking responsibility for what we say and do in our lives.
The Eightfold Path is about taking responsibility for one’s understanding, actions, speech, thoughts–in other words, the totality of one’s life. Those who, like me, come from religious traditions which rely upon God/gods for salvation may find this self-dependence to be a bit daunting (or at least different). But taking full responsibility for one’s own life (and destiny), not looking for a celestial savior to deliver peace unto us but seeking to cultivate it through our own faculties, seems more and more appropriate the longer I walk this path of the Buddha.
 Ven. Ajahn Sumedo, The Four Noble Truths, eBook ed. (Buddha Dharma Education Association), 49.