While living in Thailand in the early 1960’s, I bought a book on Buddha published by the Buddhist Society of Ceylon, as I recall. Recently I wanted to find a copy.
I finally found a translation by Paul Carus, The Gospel of Buddha Paperback, that matched my version of Buddha’s four noble truths word-for-word so I figured that was my long lost book, although, parts of the eight-fold path oddly differed.
The differences strike me as profound, especially in how the seventh and eighth fold relate so directly to the Tao Te Ching.
Now into the weeds…
This is the eight-fold path that I learned from that book in 1964: Right Understanding, Right Mindfulness, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Attentiveness, and Right Concentration.
The online edition I found states, “This is a pre-1923 historical reproduction that was curated for quality.” This may account for the differences I noticed in the eight-fold path.
I list below the four major differences I found in this pre-1923 edition. The three in bold I consider very significant improvements to what I’ve been pondering all these years. One difficulty I’ve long had was distinguishing a practical difference between “mindfulness”, “attentiveness”, and “concentration”. I have read longer commentaries on the eight-fold path, but nothing really clarified this. If anything, more words can obfuscate the plain truth. What’s more, I never came across anything that was better than what I had… until now (1).
Understanding –> Comprehension
Mindfulness –> Resolution
Attentiveness –> Thought
Concentration –> Right State of Peaceful Mind
How close are these or any others to the original Sanskrit in which they were first written? Based on my experience translating the Tao Te Ching, I assume that the original has many meanings due to synonyms and partial synonyms. It rests upon one’s own mind and experience to determine the deeper meaning. Not inclined to learn Sanskrit, I’ll just have to play it by ear, and follow Buddha’s advice to rely on my own experience (2).
The first “Right”, Right Understanding isn’t significantly different from Right comprehension. The other three are a different story: Right Resolution, Right Thought, and Right State of Peaceful Mind.
It is easy to see how everything rests on one’s understanding. Our personal comprehension of the world sets the stage for every aspect of our life. Next is the importance of Right Resolution. This directs our will to walk the walk, not simply talk the talk that arises from our comprehension of life.
Understanding and thought are so intertwined that any missteps in thought weaken our chances of Right Comprehension. The advantage of Right Thought over Right Attentiveness lies in how it focuses caution on the narratives that form our worldview. This coincides perfectly with chapter 71’s cautionary view of thought: Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease. (In fact, the whole of the Tao Te Ching, from chapter 1 on, cautions us against placing our faith in names, words, and thoughts.)
Right Thought is the weakest link in life. That is because our primary emotions drive thinking and skew judgment to support our ego’s agenda. That means fear and need are in the driver seat most of the time. See Fear & Need Born in Nothing (p.486) for a deeper look at this aspect.
The eighth fold of Buddha’s path is the ultimate human quest, Right State of Peaceful Mind, although, perhaps some will disagree. They will claim how much they enjoy challenges, the rush of excitement, and the pleasures of success. I have no argument there. Indeed, this is how the bio hoodwink hooks us (p.100). The bio-illusion that we can catch our tail drives us to chase our tail relentlessly. Our underlying hope lies in our dreams of success and ultimate satisfaction. Once achieved, we strongly feel that peace will be at hand.
Of course, any success or peace we find evaporates before we know it… that’s why I call it the bio-hoodwink. Buddha’s Four Nobel Truths (p.604) are the most succinct account of this natural process. To the extent we can ponder and remember them, these truths may help some avoid some of the extreme pitfalls of the bio-hoodwink. Naturally, the proof of this claim lies in the pudding of one’s own life.
There is something strange about various editions of Paul Carus’s book, including many of the Kindle editions of this text available through Amazon. In the EBook of The Gospel of Buddha, you’ll see the four noble truths mentioned, but for some reason they are truncated. On the other hand, the print version I have (The Gospel of Buddha Paperback) has the full text of these truths.
Were there different printings? Still, I find it unthinkable that they would omit the most important part of chapter XII Enlightenment, which contains the concise, yet complete text of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths.
The Fourth Noble Truth
I think it fitting to wrap this up with the Fourth Noble Truth and the Eight-fold path.
The Fourth Noble Truth is the Middle Path that leads to the cessation of suffering. There is salvation for him whose self disappears before truth, whose will is bent on what he ought to do, whose sole desire is the performance of his duty. He who is wise will enter this path and make an end to suffering. Eight steps on the Middle Path are: (1) Right Comprehension; (2) Right Resolution; (3) Right Speech; (4) Right Action; (5) Right Living; (6) Right Effort; (7) Right Thought; (8) Right State of Peaceful Mind.
A few questions can arise for some. For example, what is “duty” and what is “right”? First, duty is not what other people or one’s culture touts. One way to describe duty goes like this: Hurry up and do what you want to postpone; Delay what you want to hurry up and do. When the two poles are almost indistinguishable, then you are close to doing your duty. We all know in our heart of hearts where our personal duty — our self-integrity — lies. Our emotions just thwart our best intentions.
What is “Right”? About 20 years ago, somebody asked me what the “Right” meant. At the time, I said you have no chance opening a jar by turning its cap clockwise. Counterclockwise is the “Right” way to open it. Now I can update that since I see there is more (or less) to this.
Frankly, we are unable to understand what we don’t know. (See We only understand what we already know, p.254) Sure, something will generally make sense and we’ll readily think we understand. This delusion parallels chapter 71’s counsel on thinking. We are actually only able to understand that which we are ready to hear (i.e., intuitively know). The beauty here is that over the years, life experience helps us realize more deeply what Right means in each particular fold, i.e., Right Comprehension; Right Resolution; Right Speech, etcetera. We certainly never cease growing up.
The nature of Right unfolds as self-understanding deepens. However, at any moment in time, we do know the deeper Right for us than our actions are able to express. Need and fear constantly throw up roadblocks. The trick is to accept we are doing the best we can with what we have, and that what we have is usually more than we need. As chapter 46 says, Therefore, in being contented with one’s lot, enough is usually enough indeed.
(1) Admittedly, the reason I never came across anything just right may be due to the uncomfortable truth that we can only understand what we already intuitively know. If so, then perhaps I just wasn’t ready to see.
(2) In case you wish to dig deeper, google [The Buddha and His Teachings Nárada Maháthera]. This PDF book is published by the Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka.
- Right Understanding (samma dihi)
2. Right Thoughts (samma sankappa)
3. Right Speech (samma vaca)
4. Right Action (samma kammanta)
5. Right Livelihood (samma ajiva)
6. Right Effort (samma vayama)
7. Right Mindfulness (samma sati)
8. Right Concentration (samma samadhi)
Thank you, well written, and enjoyed seeing the sanskrit.