the eightfold path: on skillful understanding + skillful thinking

3jewels-holysuffering

Sangha is studying how we “live into community” and the purpose of gathering as spiritual friends to build our capacity for skillfulness and resilience. To that end, we’re contemplating the Eightfold Path as a set of embodied practices that help us develop wisdom, ethical action, and various faculties that support our meditation.

The Eightfold Path is the fourth of the 4 Noble Truths:

There is Suffering.
There are Causes of Suffering (craving/attachment).
There is an End of Suffering.
The Noble Path is the End of Suffering.

Taking these meaty topics one by one and spending two sessions covering each (and allowing for overlaps as they are inextricably linked), we are inching our way from Skillful Understanding toward Skillful Thinking.

Skillful Understanding blooms from cultivating a receptive “big picture, fine detail” mind that sees clearly into the nature or roots of things as they arise. For example, having a skillful understanding of the 4 Noble Truths — being able to look deeply into each of these statements, turn them over, test them against experience, and create skillful actions based on this understanding.

Skillful Thinking is informed by Skillful Understanding. It is the active mind that generates wise responses to what arises, i.e. seeing the roots and conditions that create my anger in the moment and discerning how to tend to my anger.

How then do we develop these two wisdom aspects of the Eightfold Path? By asking, in our meditations, contemplations, and dharma discussions with friends:

What Is This? Is This True? Am I Sure? Is There More?

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a note about semantic preference

I have a particular fondness for the use of the word skillful here as a qualifier to describe each practice of the eightfold path; whereas, readers of the Buddhist Canon will most commonly see them framed by the term “right” from the Pali word sammā.

I recall first encountering the application of the word skillful to the eightfold path back in the Spring of 2005 in Buddhism for Mothers (which was an inspiring source of guidance for me, as a fairly new auntie who was closely engaged in the care of my first-born niece…and in extending patience to her very young parents). I was enthralled by the word and immediately used it in place of “right” because of its expansive quality.

It moves us beyond the dichotomous “either/or” world view of the ultimate two — right and wrong. And into the vast field of potential where we train toward our mastery of these spiritual capacities. Where there is room for beginning — clumsy, uncertain, doubtful, resistant; for gradually becoming proficient; and for continuously growing in our competency.

I recently discussed this over coffee with a dharma friend who is a Buddhist teacher, who prefers to use wise instead. Albeit more liberating even that, I admitted to her, feels finite. And worrisome to those (particularly younger practitioners) who wonder if being wise is strictly relegated to the loathsome domain of adulting…that wisdom precludes all lapses in skillfulness. So it can become an aspiration to get to. Someday.

As one who has been a spiritual seeker all my life, I am living into my aspiration to be a wise elder right now. It has not merely been a matter of adulting or aging or waiting for my hair to become gray enough for others to perceive me as wise. Wisdom has blossomed from years of deep inquiry and of meeting, owning, and transforming my unskillfulness, again and again, until skillful, compassionate actions become an effortless response to the world around me.