The Noble Eightfold Path by Bhikkhu Bodhi
Bhikkhu Bodhi’s little treatise on the constituents of the fourth noble truth is a quick, by the numbers (and letters) summary of orthodox Theravadan opinion on the subject. As such it is a useful resource especially for beginners to the field, or for someone who is interested in “brushing up” on the fundamentals. Factually, it is guaranteed accurate, though this is not to say it is particularly thought provoking or insightful. I’ll give a few examples of what I’m talking about.
BB actually starts off with an intriguing conundrum: we ordinary people inevitably encounter suffering, and if we consider the nature of that suffering, we
seek a way to bring our disquietude to an end… But it is just then that we find ourselves facing a new difficulty. Once we come to recognize the need for a spiritual path we discover that spiritual teachings are by no means homogeneous and mutually compatible (pp. 1-2).
The problem then becomes trying to “decide which [teaching] is truly liberative, a real solution to our needs, and which is a sidetrack beset with hidden flaws.”
He then takes up the question of how to decide on a path (though we of course know what his ultimate answer will be), eventually concluding:
To sum up, we find three requirements for a teaching proposing to offer a true path to the end of suffering: first, it has to set forth a full and accurate picture of the range of suffering; second, it must present a correct analysis of the causes of suffering; and third, it must give us the means to eradicate the causes of suffering (p. 5).
But then Bhikkhu Bodhi cops out of the project he set up: “This is not the place to evaluate the various spiritual disciplines in terms of these criteria,” he tells us. “Our concern is only with the Dhamma, the teaching of the Buddha…”
To which I thought, “Well if that was the case, why did you lead me on this wild goose chase? Why didn’t you just get to the point and not pretend you were going to philosophize about the serious challenge of how one goes about choosing a worldview for oneself?” In other words, BB acknowledges the challenge, but doesn’t quite have the gumption (or perhaps the intellectual equipment) to really justify to us why we should bother picking up a book on the Buddha’s teaching in the first place. Anyway, I find it irritating when a writer sets up an interesting problem but then refuses to try to solve it. (An unsuccessful attempt is vastly more satisfying than no attempt at all.)
Another example of this kind of irritating superficiality in BB’s discussion concerns kamma (=karma in Sanskrit). He writes:
The most important feature of kamma is its capacity to produce results corresponding to the ethical quality of the action. An immanent universal law holds sway over volitional actions, bringing it about that these actions issue in retributive consequences, called vipaka, “ripenings,” or phala, “fruits” (p.20).
He then assures us that
the right view of kammic efficacy of action need not remain exclusively an article of belief… It can become a matter of direct seeing. Through the attainment of certain states of deep concentration it is possible to develop a special faculty called the “divine eye”… When this faculty is developed… one can then see for oneself, with immediate perception, how beings pass away and re-arise according to their kamma, how they meet happiness and suffering through the maturation of their good and evil deeds (pp. 22-23).
My immediate response to reading this was to think, Okay Bhikkhu Bodhi, have you developed the divine eye? For anyone for whom the answer to this question is “no”—and unless you are a psychic such will always be the answer—there is no recourse except to faith, which may be true or not. Clearly, this is not a practicable test of this central tenet, but the mere fact BB discusses kamma in this fashion indicates how bound he is by a traditional, non-scientific understanding of his own tradition.
If you take the Buddha’s teaching for what it is—as an applied psychology—kamma can be understood as simply conditioning, the shaping or molding of the mind by thoughts, words and actions. Whatever you think, say or do affects your state of consciousness and circumstances, and this is not a matter of faith but of direct observation here and now. This can be seen on gross levels or fine (e.g. working out makes you buff and depressed thoughts land you in the shrink’s office); clearly our actions have consequences—they determine not only our characters but the course of our lives. Kamma is not magical and should not be considered as such; the word, after all, means “intentional action,” and anyone can see the importance of both intentions and actions.
Bhikkhu Bodhi is best known for his translations, and the above examples make it clear why. He is not a first rate thinker or communicator; whenever he engages in drawn out exposition (as in the case of a book in his own words), what he writes tends to read like a technical manual written by someone who reads technical manuals for a living. I suspect this is a personality thing, but it also comes from him being first and foremost a “man of the texts”—a translator and scholar as opposed to practitioner.
This emerges too in the overall the feel of the book, and goes way beyond the quotes above. Though this short manual is fine for beginners interested in the basic “stuff” of Buddhism, there is little sense of living practice here. You don’t get the stories a meditation teacher is likely to garner from sitting on the front cushion, nor do you get glib, funny anecdotes from the author’s everyday life experience. Everything is distant, formal, abstract, leavened with stilted phrases and multi-syllabic words…such as “concomitant.”
My Amazon rating: 2 stars