The Buddha’s teaching of the Four Noble Truths goes like this: (1) all of our lives are characterized by dukkha, this chronic dissatisfaction; (2) dukkha is the result of attachment; (3) the way past dukkha, then, is to let go of attachment; and (4) the way to do that is through the Eightfold Path. The path has these parts: right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right meditation, and right view.
Now, if you’re like me, you look at those eight parts of the path and say, “Yeah, OK, those all seem reasonable.” After all, who doesn’t want to be engaged in right livelihood? Who doesn’t appreciate right speech? It may not seem obvious that they’re all tied to letting go of attachment, but at the very least, they seem nice.
But then (if you’re like me) you look again and ask, “Wait a minute—what does right mean, anyway?” In Pali, the word is samma, which means—yep—“right,” or “how it ought to be.” Not a big help.
There are, of course, plenty of texts and teachings that offer more direction. Right conduct, for example, is commonly understood to be living in accord with the five precepts (no killing, stealing, engaging in sexual misconduct, lying, or taking intoxicants). And right meditation, as defined by the various traditions withing Buddhism, is understood as “meditating in the way we (in this tradition) meditate.” These kinds of guidelines are helpful, especially when we’re feeling lost. They take some of the guesswork out of it.
But I want to offer a slightly different perspective, which is that most of us, most of the time, if we’re honest, aren’t actually all that lost. Most of us, in our guts, know what “right” means already.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think this is simple. If I have to write an essay describing the ins and outs of right view, it will be long—not because I have so much to say but because I don’t know exactly how to articulate it, so that essay fills up with questions and maybes and what-ifs. I think that’s true for most of us. Explaining in words something that arises from intuition—it’s like describing love. It’s the reason we have poetry, because as soon as we drop cliches and all our favorite quotations from other people, all the most memorable lines, we’re left with language that walks around the thing but doesn’t necessarily point directly at it. In staring at the thing we know, we’re overwhelmed with what we don’t know, what we don’t know how to say.
And that’s OK. For most of us, getting at what is “right” starts with trusting our gut about what is not right. In any given moment, I cannot possibly tell you what right speech is—in broad strokes, maybe, but in this moment, talking to this person about this topic, can I explain exactly what should be said, or how? No way. But I can notice all the things that feel wrong to say. That’s a lot—there’s usually more wrong than right—and it might be overwhelming. I might be so nervous about getting it wrong that I end up being silent. That’s OK too, some of the time. We can’t let every action be inaction, but erring on the side of caution is also part of the process. It’s how we learn.
In the thirty-plus years since I first read about the Eightfold Path, I’ve memorized and forgotten it more times than I can guess. It’s a good list—I say, go ahead and memorize it. But the point is not to refer to it like a chart or a recipe for right living. It’s more like a reminder: here are aspects of your life that, deep down, you may already see more clearly than you think you do. Notice that. Trust yourself a little. And try to do the right thing.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia (his talks can be found on the their podcast) and editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide.