Parallel Lines: The Mundane and Noble Eightfold Paths (Part 8 of A 13-Part Series)
In the Mahasalyatanika Sutta (M.149:9-10) the Buddha defines what constitutes the Noble Eightfold Path:
When one abides uninflamed by lust, unfettered, uninfatuated, contemplating danger, then the five aggregates affected by clinging (panc’upadanakkhandha) are diminished for oneself in the future [this describes the sekha]; and one’s craving—which brings renewal of being, is accompanied by delight and lust, and delights in this and that—is abandoned [=nirodha]. One’s bodily and mental troubles are abandoned, one’s bodily and mental torments are abandoned, one’s bodily and mental fevers are abandoned, and one experiences bodily and mental pleasure.
The view of a person such as this is right view. His intention is right intention, his effort is right effort, his mindfulness is right mindfulness, his concentration is right concentration. But his bodily action, his verbal action, and his livelihood have already been well purified earlier.
Clearly, the ariyamagga is Aryan only for those who have attained the path. Until then, the aspirant walks a mundane way, purifying first his actions, words and livelihood (his sila) in preparation for the higher stages. At the same time (hopefully), he undertakes those practices that are liberating, as are found in, for example, the Satipatthana Sutta: mindfulness of breathing, of bodily posture, feelings, mental states (i.e. vipassana), cultivating detachment from pleasant things (via asubha bhavana) and overcoming hostility by metta bhavana. None of these practices, however, constitute the Noble path until the path and fruit (maggaphala) are obtained and one “enters the stream”—or better. That the path-moment constitutes entry into Right View (sammaditthi) is affirmed by the Buddha in the Mahacattarisaka Sutta (M.117:34):
In one of right view, right intention comes into being; in one of right intention, right speech comes into being; in one of right speech, right action comes into being; in one of right action, right livelihood comes into being; in one of right livelihood, right effort comes into being; in one of right effort, right mindfulness comes into being; in one of right mindfulness, right concentration comes into being; in one of right concentration, right knowledge (vijja) comes into being; in one of right knowledge, right deliverance (vimutti) comes into being. Thus, bhikkhus, the path of the disciple in higher training (sekha) possesses eight factors, the arahant possesses ten factors.
Clearly, right view is the “gate” to everything else; it is equivalent to seeing the Four Noble Truths. (Cf. M.141:24: “And what, friends, is right view? Knowledge of suffering, knowledge of the origin of suffering, knowledge of the cessation of suffering, and knowledge of the way leading to the cessation of suffering—this is called right view.”) It needs to be pointed out, too, that for the sekha each of the eight supramundane factors “come into being” simultaneously; it is not a matter of first obtaining right view, and then a few days or months later getting right intention, and so on down the line. Just as we saw with Dependent Arising, the seeing (=accomplishment) of one element is the seeing/accomplishment of everything else. While one practices the mundane eightfold path over the course of time, the fruition-moment of the supramundane path is accomplished instantaneously—it is akalika (“without time”). (Note: We have here as well a further distinction between the sekha and the arhant: final knowledge and deliverance are the arhant’s special provinces and represent the consummation or completion—as opposed simply to the acquisition—of the noble path factors.)
I have written the above because it is a widespread misperception—and one that Mr. MacPherson perpetuates—that the putthujjana, by practicing meditation and restraint in accordance with the Teaching, is by this means practicing the noble eightfold path. He is not. The noble eightfold path is not perfectly practiced until it is attained; it is not attained until it is perfectly practiced. As two parallel lines do not, by definition, ever intersect, so these paths—the noble and mundane eightfold paths—are separated by a gulf, and that gulf (from the putthujjana’s standpoint) is avijja (“delusion”)—the non-seeing of the Four Noble Truths.
Clearly though, the Noble Path cannot be accomplished without the aspirant’s work on the mundane path. The former depends upon the latter not for its existence, but for its availability or visibility. And when the mundane path is practiced to perfection, then at the moment of attainment comes the “knowledge of change of lineage” (gotrabhu ñana)—the supramundane is accomplished and the worldling becomes a Noble One. To extend our metaphor from above, the disciple finds himself not on the mundane line he started on, but on the other, noble line—only now when he looks at the gap between them, he sees not avijja but nibbana.
This critical distinction between the two paths must be borne in mind when considering Mr. MacPherson’s argument that the Eightfold Path can be found in the Bible, which is predicated upon discovering resemblances between dhamma practice and Biblical passages. Resemblances I freely admit to, but they are the resemblances of one mundane path to another. In not a single chapter or verse from the Old and New Testaments is the complete picture obtained; there is no comprehension of a path (to nibbana), much less the realization or accomplishment of the Path. Putthujjanas abound in the pages of the Bible, but nowhere is discovered an indication that anyone—including Jesus—ever attained cessation or any of the stages of holiness described in the Buddha’s teaching.