Friday, May 10, 2013

Following the Jesus Centered Eightfold Path

A while back I had written a post where I spent a little time exploring Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism and some of its concepts that I felt had commonalities with my own faith.  I had found this to be a very mentally stimulating exercise that gave me new perspective.  Afterwards I had thought to myself that I really should spend a little time exploring some of the Buddhist teachings a little more to find out what else we have in common, and what else might give me new perspectives on my own faith.  But laziness and procrastination took over.

Then I read this article where the author spends some time exploring one of the divisions of the Noble Eightfold Path – right meditation.  One thing I love about what the author of this article says is that he mentions being uncomfortable with using the language “right” about each of the divisions since there is a certain feeling of pride and superiority to that language, and instead prefers language like “awakened meditation”, since the goal of Buddhism is to use the eightfold path to become more awakened.  I thought this had a certain profundity to it, as well as meshing with the Biblical attitude of humility.  And as I read the article with a curious mind I began to realize there were parallels that could be drawn to the Christian faith and the Noble Eightfold Path, and I’d like to explore that here.

First, a little bit about what the eightfold path is, and how it is split up.  The eightfold path is split up into a threefold division.  The first division is wisdom, and the factors that make up the quest for wisdom are awake view and awake intention.  The second division is ethical conduct, and is made up in the quest for awake speech, awake action, and awake livelihood.  And the third and last division of the eightfold path is concentration, made up of awake effort, awake mindfulness, and awake concentration.  Ok, let’s explore each of the eight factors of the eightfold path and how they relate to Biblical viewpoints.

Awake View
Awake view, which is usually spoken of as “right view”, can also be translated as “right perspective”, “right outlook”, or “right understanding”.  Involved in seeking awake view is the desire to understand the deeper reasons behind events in life.  It is not satisfied with simply perceiving, but deliberately seeks to understand why.  In the Pāli and Chinese canons, right view is explained thusly:
And what is right view? Knowledge with reference to suffering, knowledge with reference to the origination of suffering, knowledge with reference to the cessation of suffering, knowledge with reference to the way of practice leading to the cessation of suffering: This is called right view.

As soon as I read the above quote, I was reminded of another quote from a hero of the faith whose books have been highly influential – Dietrich Bonhoeffer – who said:
Nothing that we despise in other men is inherently absent from ourselves. We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or don't do, and more in light of what they suffer.

All too often I meet Christians who hold very legalistic views of the way a Christian should act.  But Jesus was not like this – Jesus defied religious convention.  All throughout His life he was a friend to those who had been rejected by the religious elite of His day.  Why is that?  Well, I Samuel 16:7 tells us that “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”  I believe that the reason why Jesus was often so accepting of the “sinners” he met was that he perceived the reason behind sinful behavior – the suffering that motivated them to commit desperate acts.  And we ought to learn to look deeper when we are faced with “sinners” – to look for the suffering, and to seek to alleviate it.  Because Jesus told us:
Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
Matthew 7:1-2

Because salvation is by grace through faith, I believe that among the countless number of people standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb, dressed in white robes and holding palms in their hands (see Revelation 7:9), I shall see the prostitute from the Kit-Kat Ranch in Carson City, Nevada, who tearfully told me that she could find no other employment to support her two-year-old son. I shall see the woman who had an abortion and is haunted by guilt and remorse but did the best she could faced with grueling alternatives; the businessman besieged with debt who sold his integrity in a series of desperate transactions; the insecure clergyman addicted to being liked, who never challenged his people from the pulpit and longed for unconditional love; the sexually abused teen molested by his father and now selling his body on the street, who, as he falls asleep each night after his last "trick", whispers the name of the unknown God he learned about in Sunday school.

"But how?" we ask.

Then the voice says, "They have washed their robes and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb."

There they are. There *we* are - the multitude who so wanted to be faithful, who at times got defeated, soiled by life, and bested by trials, wearing the bloodied garments of life's tribulations, but through it all clung to faith.

My friends, if this is not good news to you, you have never understood the gospel of grace.

Awake Intention
Usually described as “right intention”, this discipline is also known as “right thought”, “right resolve”, “right conception”, “right aspiration”, or “the exertion of our own will to change”.  In the Pāli and Chinese canons, it says:
And what is right resolve? Being resolved on renunciation, on freedom from ill will, on harmlessness: This is called right resolve.

I think the best way to sum this up is that it is renouncing worldly thought, and seeking to think spiritual thoughts of good-will towards other living beings.  Jesus often pointed out that it’s not simply outward adherence to the law that God is concerned with, but having the right intentions that He desires.  In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, Jesus said that if we speak to our brother in anger we have committed murder in our hearts, and if we look at a woman with lust in our hearts we have committed adultery in our hearts.  Jesus wants us to have the right intentions.  Some more passages that deal with the concept of our thoughts and intentions:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
Phillipians 4:8
Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.
I Peter 2:1
One whose heart is corrupt does not prosper.
Proverbs 17:20a


Awake Speech
Awake speech, usually referred to as “right speech”, deals with avoiding language that is harmful – as the Pāli canon explains it:
And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter: This is called right speech.

There are some other Buddhist writings which elaborate, and one I found to be very interesting was the Abhaya Sutta, which says:
In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, unendearing and disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, yet unbeneficial, unendearing and disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, yet unendearing and disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.

In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, yet endearing and agreeable to others, he does not say them.

In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, but unbeneficial, yet endearing and agreeable to others, he does not say them.

In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing and agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings.

Going back to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, Jesus said that if we express contempt for our brother we are answerable to the court and in danger of “the fire of hell”.  This is quite a tricky concept as Jesus also had harsh words to say to the Pharisees for their legalistic views when he called them hypocrites, whitewashed tombs, and broods of vipers.  But one must be careful to understand what it was that Jesus was criticizing when he did this – Jesus was constantly criticizing the religious views and philosophies of the day that were used to build up barriers between one group and another.  He attacked these aggressively, but was so gentle and forgiving to those who had committed “sins” in their desperation.  He recognized that offering condemning words to these “sinners” did not help them out of the desperate situations they found themselves in, and rather chose to offer them encouragement and a path out of their sorrow.

Some additional Biblical passages in regards to speech:
Those who guard their mouths and their tongues
keep themselves from calamity.
Proverbs 21:23

One whose tongue is perverse falls into trouble.
Proverbs 17:20b
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
Ephesians 4:29
But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.
Colossians 3:8
We all stumble in many ways.  Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.  
When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.  Or take ships as an example.  Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.  Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.  The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.  Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.
James 3:2-10

Awake Action
“Right action” can also be translated as “right conduct”.  This is one subject of the eightfold path I found very interesting because I think I differ with the way achieving this goal has been worded.  First off, in the Pāli and Chinese canons, it is described this way:
And what is right action? Abstaining from taking life, from stealing, and from illicit sex [or sexual misconduct]. This is called right action.
—Saccavibhanga Sutta

And what, monks, is right action? Abstaining from taking life, abstaining from stealing, abstaining from unchastity: This, monks, is called right action.
—Magga-vibhanga Sutta

Now this is very interesting, because it matches quite well the way many people are taught to live “Christian” lives.  But here is where I differ from what I feel has become the norm.  Because I’ve seen the harm that can be done by merely focusing on “don’t”.  I have a good friend who left his Christian background because he felt that was the only thing they were about – he calls his old church “the Church of Don’t”.  I think there’s much more to following Jesus than what we abstain from.  But I’m getting ahead of myself, because there’s another discipline of the eightfold path which deals with this issue….

Awake Livelihood
This one is an area I struggle with – not so much with the immediate application, but with the implications and the greater application.  “Right livelihood” is defined as taking the application of not harming another being further to abstaining from anything that indirectly harms another being – one who seeks the eightfold path should not engage in trades or occupations which directly or indirectly harm another living being either.  In the Pāli and Chinese canons, it is defined like so:
And what is right livelihood? There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones, having abandoned dishonest livelihood, keeps his life going with right livelihood: This is called right livelihood.

Some Buddhist teachers have expanded this teaching to define five types of business that should not be undertaken:
1.    Business in weapons: trading in all kinds of weapons and instruments for killing.
2.    Business in human beings: slave trading, prostitution, or the buying and selling of children or adults.
3.    Business in meat: "meat" refers to the bodies of beings after they are killed. This includes breeding animals for slaughter.
4.    Business in intoxicants: manufacturing or selling intoxicating drinks or addictive drugs.
5.    Business in poison: producing or trading in any kind of poison or a toxic product designed to kill.

Now, first off, I’ll say that I haven’t thought of any Biblical passages that deal directly with this concept.  But Jesus did say to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48).  And Proverbs 1:19 says:
Such are the paths of all who go after ill-gotten gain;
it takes away the life of those who get it.

But what haunts me is the larger application of this principle.  It is certainly a noble pursuit to abstain from anything which might cause harm, whether directly or indirectly.  And what I struggle with is the idea that maybe God wants me to give up meat.  That’s hard for me, because I love eating meat.  But I don’t like the idea of killing animals, and if I had to kill my own animals in order to eat meat it would be more unsavory to me to eat meat.  But maybe I need to stop letting the indirect nature of the harm I’m doing be an excuse to me.  What if God wants me to be so sensitive to harm that I refuse to even take part in actions which indirectly cause harm?  This is a real struggle for me.

Awake Effort
“Right effort” can also be translated as “right endeavor” or “right diligence”.  The focus of this discipline is to make a persisting effort to abandon any harmful thoughts, words, or deeds – but it doesn’t stop there.  One who seeks “right effort” must replace the time they spent on harmful thoughts, words, or deeds with a persistent effort in seeking good and useful thoughts, words, or deeds, without a thought for the difficulty or weariness involved in accomplishing this.  In the Pāli and Chinese canons, it is defined like so:
And what, monks, is right effort?
(i) There is the case where a monk generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds and exerts his intent for the sake of the non-arising of evil, unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen.

(ii) He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds and exerts his intent for the sake of the abandonment of evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen.

(iii) He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds and exerts his intent for the sake of the arising of skillful qualities that have not yet arisen.

(iv) He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds and exerts his intent for the maintenance, non-confusion, increase, plenitude, development, and culmination of skillful qualities that have arisen:

This, monks, is called right effort.

Now as I said when I spoke about “Awake action”, it seems that all too often the Christian life has been defined as a list of “don’ts”.  It’s become about what we abstain from, and this was the common perception among the religious leaders of Jesus day as well.  But Jesus turned things around.  He said the most important commandment was to love God, and the second most important was like it: to love everybody else as we love ourselves.  And love isn’t about “don’t” – love is an action.  Oh yes, love abstains from any kind of action that harms.  But it’s about so much more than that.  In Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus tells a parable about a man leaving 3 servants in charge of his affairs as he goes away on a long journey.  Two of the servants invest the wealth they are left in charge of, and gain more.  The man is very pleased with these servants.  But the third buries the money he is left in charge of in the ground for fear that he will lose some and displease the master.  But this choice displeases the master very much.  Then Jesus goes on to tell another parable - the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46.   In this story, love is about feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, inviting the stranger in, and giving to the needy.  Love is not simply a “don’t” – love is a “do”.  Love turns from thoughts, words, or deeds that cause harm, and turns toward thoughts, words, and deeds that bring healing, peace, and restoration.

Another interesting thing to note about the Bible is that whenever justice is mentioned, the concept of mercy always seems to follow.  Here are a few examples:
He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8
I put on righteousness as my clothing;
justice was my robe and my turban.
I was eyes to the blind
and feet to the lame.
I was a father to the needy;
I took up the case of the stranger.
I broke the fangs of the wicked
and snatched the victims from their teeth.

Job 29:14-17
Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you;
therefore he will rise up to show you compassion.
For the Lord is a God of justice.
Blessed are all who wait for him!

Isaiah 30:18

Actually it’s interesting that God’s sense of justice seems to be inverted from our own.  Jesus was always talking about how those who are viewed with disregard were the ones who were blessed.  He said that the poor are blessed but pronounced woe upon the rich in Luke 6:20-26.  He said if you want to be great you must be a servant (Mark 10:43), and He said that the last will be first and the first will be last (Matthew 20:16).  It’s interesting to note that often when God is instructing us to seek justice, He mentions the weak, such as the widow and the orphan and the alien (for example: Deuteronomy 27:19, Deuteronomy 10:18, Leviticus 19:9-11, Psalm 82:3-4, Jeremiah 22:13-17, just to name a few).  The strong don’t need us to seek justice for them – they are quite able to seek it on their own.  So the Bible lays out a clear duty for us to purposely seek a Godly form of justice that is tempered with mercy and love for the weak.  In another post on my blog – Praying In Jesus’ Name – I expound on this concept of living in a way that seeks God’s form of justice.  As I Corinthians 10:31 says:
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.

I’ll leave the musing on this discipline with one final thought.  I’ve heard it said that you cannot give up a bad habit – you can only replace it.  You see this played out when a smoker gives up cigarettes and then gains weight – he/she traded in one bad habit for another.  So what we must learn to do is to replace bad habits with good, useful, cultivating habits.  Habits that bring life, healing, and peace.

Awake Mindfulness
“Right mindfulness” is also translated as “right memory”, “right awareness”, or “right attention”.  In this discipline, practitioners seek to be constantly alert to phenomena that affect the body and the mind, and to eliminate any negative thought.  In the Pāli Canon, it is explained like this:
And what, monks, is right mindfulness?
(i) There is the case where a monk remains focused on the body in and of itself—ardent, aware, and mindful—putting away greed and distress with reference to the world.

(ii) He remains focused on feelings in and of themselves—ardent, aware, and mindful—putting away greed and distress with reference to the world.

(iii) He remains focused on the mind in and of itself—ardent, aware, and mindful—putting away greed and distress with reference to the world.

(iv) He remains focused on mental qualities in and of themselves—ardent, aware, and mindful—putting away greed and distress with reference to the world.

This, monks, is called right mindfulness.

In Matthew 6:25-34, Jesus instructs his disciples not to worry, but to take faith in the fact that our heavenly Father clothes the lilies of the fields and provides for the sparrows.  And a passage that I find particularly beautiful comes to mind when I compare right mindfulness to the Bible:
Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: Rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.  Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
Philippians 4:4-9

Awake Concentration
“Right concentration” is also known as “right meditation”.  Meditation is a practice of spending an amount of time concentrating fully on one thing and emptying your mind of all other thoughts.  Through focusing on nothing but their breathing, for example, a person can achieve a meditative state that often has better health effects than sleep (or so I’ve read – I really must try this, I’ve decided).  Meditation can also be developed through mindfulness of a visual object, or repetition of a phrase (known as a mantra).  The idea is that meditation helps one to suppress everything that might hinder you from developing wisdom – in fact, in the Buddhist tradition there are five hindrances:
1.    Sensory desire
2.    Ill-will
3.    Sloth
4.    Restlessness, or worry
5.    Doubt
In the Pāli canon, right concentration is defined like so:
And what is right concentration?
(i) Herein a monk aloof from sense desires, aloof from unwholesome thoughts, attains to and abides in the first meditative absorption [jhana], which is detachment-born and accompanied by applied thought, sustained thought, joy, and bliss.

(ii) By allaying applied and sustained thought he attains to, and abides in the second jhana, which is inner tranquillity, which is unification (of the mind), devoid of applied and sustained thought, and which has joy and bliss.

(iii) By detachment from joy he dwells in equanimity, mindful, and with clear comprehension and enjoys bliss in body, and attains to and abides in the third jhana, which the noble ones [ariyas] call "dwelling in equanimity, mindfulness, and bliss".

(iv) By giving up of bliss and suffering, by the disappearance already of joy and sorrow, he attains to, and abides in the fourth jhana, which is neither suffering nor bliss, and which is the purity of equanimity — mindfulness.

This is called right concentration.

Now, in the Bible I have not found a description of meditation that corresponds to the idea of concentration on breathing or on a visual object.  However, I do not see anything against this idea, if it can achieve benefits (which apparently it can).  But I do find the concept of meditation upon a phrase (or mantra) to be something Biblical.  Joshua 1:8 tells us to mediate on “the law” day and night.  And Jesus told us that all the law was summed up as loving God and loving people, while Galatians 5:14 tells us that the entire law is fulfilled in loving our neighbor as ourselves.  So perhaps we should spend considerable time meditating on the meaning of love, and how to love our neighbor.  A few more Bible verses on meditation:
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.

Psalm 1:1-2
I meditate on your precepts
and consider your ways.

Psalm 119:15
My mouth shall speak wisdom; the meditation of my heart shall be understanding.
Psalm 49:3
My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,
when I remember you upon my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.

Psalm 65:5-7
I remember the days of long ago;
I meditate on all your works
and consider what your hands have done.

Psalm 143:5

So I hope this has been helpful for you, and maybe helped you to look at things from a different angle, as it has for me.  It is definitely a discipline, but we should not tire of it:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.  And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.  For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Hebrews 12:1-3
Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress.
I Timothy 4:15

7 comments:

  1. This is pretty awesome. Thanks for this, i loved it! i myself always felt that the eastern philosophies have so much we can learn.

    i kind of feel like you feel i think. The first time i read the Tao Te King, i felt as if i was reading more Bible on some pages than in the Bible itself. At times, it was as if i read the unification of several different biblical passages converging in one thought. Other pages were a bit confusing back then, but i still fell in love with it. My little Tao booklet is full of bible references, and i always felt that these thoughts (and also the ones you presented here) is what christianity should have become. Yes, there are differences, but so much of it is in perfect harmony with scripture, and just helps to grow.

    Meditation is a christian thing through and through. We can make Jesus, or good thoughts, or wisdom, or our loved ones the object of our meditation, which is a pretty awesome thing to do. Not entirely buddhist maybe, but simply awesome.

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  2. Thank you for your insight and understanding........May all be filled with loving kindness and gratitude for being and becoming. Namaste

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    1. Amen, and thank you for your kind words.

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  3. u r awesome!!! Praise God😊 #abhroromeo13@gmail.com

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    1. Why thank you! This post never really received much of any attention, so I'm surprised to see another comment here now. :)

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  4. Thank you this helped me understand a paper I have to write about these writings.

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    1. Very glad to hear! If you still have time, I'd highly recommend one of the following:
      "Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings" - Marcus Borg (editor)
      "Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, and Lao Tzu: The Parallel Sayings" - Richard Hooper
      "Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian" - Paul F. Knitter
      "Living Buddha, Living Christ" - Thich Nhat Hanh

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