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Perfections and Imperfections on the Noble Path

Often in life, we wonder what makes us feel so dissatisfied and unhappy when we would rather be happy. The Buddha, in his time, asked the same question, and his teachers offered him no satisfactory answers.  

The Buddha struggled with the problem on his own and, eventually, after five long years of striving as an ascetic in the wilderness, he solved the problem and came up with a satisfactory answer based on replacing negative intentions with positive intentions. 

We may compare the untrained mind to a puppy, who, when he let off his leash, runs wildly around and doesn’t know where he’s going or what he’s nibbling on, and so he might unexpectedly run into trouble. Similarly, where the human mind wants to wander and what it needs to nourish itself will determine whether it becomes poisoned and pallid or grows glowingly healthy. The answer is often uncertain and this is why we all seem to suffer from the same sort of emotional insecurities.

The Buddha, with discerning mind development, began to notice which kinds of intentions lead to unhappy results and which kinds of intentions lead to happy results. He had a superior intelligence and a noble mindset, so he was able to note and remember and teach how negative emotions, such as greed, wanting, desire, craving, and lust, can never be satisfied because the mind always craves more and more; whereas the opposite, of positive emotions such as kindness, sharing, benevolence, generosity, and magnanimity were satisfying based on the effect of enjoying wholesome intentions, actions, and remembrances of giving. 

The Buddha noted a consistent pattern in the arising of intentions and emotions and the way acting on them made him feel. For example, when the mind acts on negative intentions such as selfishness, worldliness, ill-will, harmfulness, or aggression, we won’t feel particularly happy. But when we act on intentions of morality, ethics, virtue, kindness, and goodheartedness (barring the possibility of unforeseen catastrophes), we can feel happy as a result. 

And so the pattern goes. 

When we have intentions such as attachment, clinging, grasping, grabbing, cleaving-to, or hanging-on, we will feel dissatisfied and unhappy. But when we have intentions of renunciation, abstention, forswearing, doing without, or giving-up, we don’t feel stressed and so we can feel satisfied and happy.

When we have subjective intentions of being uncaring, clueless, not-knowing, oblivious, or ignorant because of constantly arising uncertainty, we will not be happy. But if we have the intention to develop our understanding, contemplation, comprehension, intelligence, and wisdom, we can be happy.

When we are drowsy, lazy, lethargic, dispirited, or listless, we won’t feel happy. But when we are energetic, spirited, vigorous, motivated, and determined, we can be happy.

When we are impatient, nervous, restless, agitated, or short-tempered, we will not be happy. But when we apply patience, diligence, endurance, perseverance, or persistence, we can be happy.

When we are moved to utter falsehoods, untruths, lies, or be deceitful, we will not be happy. But when we speak truthfully, honestly, with veracity, integrity, and authenticity, we can be happy.

When we are unsure, uncertain, doubtful, hesitant, or lacking-confidence, we will not be happy. But when we are ardent, determined, energetic, unwavering, and persevering, we can be happy.

When we are moved by feelings of dislike, disfavor, ill-will, prejudice, or hate, we will be unhappy. But when we have feelings of loving-kindness, caring, compassion, good-will, and noble-friendship, we can be happy.

When we have feelings of angst, distress, frustration, agitation, or apprehension, we will not be happy. But when we feel equanimity, equilibrium, calm, serenity, and peace, we can be happy.

What we have described above is only the beginning of how the Buddha developed and taught mind development based on his own experience of being a man born in this world. As a young prince, Siddhartha Gautama seemed to have everything that would make him happy, but with time he found mere worldly happiness empty, because it didn’t meet the needs of the mind to nourish its full potential. So one day, when the time was ripe, he simply walked away from his life in the palace—a life that other mortal men of his time could only have dreamed about.

The Buddha’s pressing questions included: “Why are we here?” and “Why do we have to suffer so much?” We suffer because we have not yet learned which of our motives, intentions, actions, and reactions are wholesome and pure, and which are unwholesome and impure. 

It takes a lot of diligent, ardent, discerning mind-sweeping (to use an analogy) to rid ourselves of the impurities, to sweep the dust out of the house and out of the eyes. Ordinary lay practitioners would have to do this kind of eye and household cleaning; whereas arahants have already done what needed to be done, having gradually followed the path of purity all the way to its final end.

We can compare these negative impulses to darkness and these positive impulses to light, and if we use the figurative analogy of the Moon, darkness symbolizes ignorance; whereas light symbolizes enlightenment. 

So when we become stream-enterers, we have just a little bit—a thin sliver of light. But as we develop our insight, the sliver continues growing slowly bigger and bigger, until we have a half-moon, symbolizing our having reached the half-way point along the Noble Eightfold Path. Then, as the light continues to increase, it becomes ever more bright until it becomes full, symbolizing that we have “seen the light,” and increases in brightness until we have a clear view, fully-freed of any defilements/darkness, finally becoming the full moon, symbolizing the achievement of full enlightenment.    

Clearing the path can be compared to dealing with imperfections and defilements, wherever and however and whenever they arise, and then gradually starving them, one-by-one, by not giving them any attention to feed upon.

We might also imagine the Moon covered over by dark clouds, which then gradually begin to dissolve, to slowly expose the face of the Moon: at first, showing a bit of its face, as through a veil darkly, and then, little by little, the face of the moon becomes fully free of even the tiniest speck of dust—dust meaning traces of bad intentions which would lead to bad actions which would bring back the black clouds of darkness which could begin to cloud up and cover over the moon again.

We want to keep the mind clear so that bad intentions will not cause us any suffering, so we must watch the mind with the same kind of loving care a mother would feel for her vulnerable child, or the same kind of careful training that a loving mother might give to her family’s pet puppy, so it stays safe once it has finally been freed from the leash.  

It is not easy to reach the end of the path. But for our own safety and security, it is best that we remain mindful of the guidelines on the stages of the path, as described by the Buddha, while striving to reach the sublime goal of Nibbana at the path’s ultimate end.

Related features from BDG

On the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, Part One
On the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, Part Two: Mindfulness and Keen Awareness
On the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, Part Three: Arousing Energy and Attaining Rapture
On the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, Part Four: Tranquility, Concentration, and Equanimity

More from Theravada Teachings by Prof. David Dale Holmes

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