Making Right Choices On the Eightfold Path

Right Choices, Buddhism

by Jayaram V

This essay is about how to overcome impurities of the mind and think correctly, to solve problems, make right choices and experience peace and equanimity.

Everyday morning, in various parts of the world, many people wake up with a troubled heart. Their feelings may range from a minor anxiety to a serious fear or insecurity. Something did not happen according to their expectations. Something went wrong. Someone said or did something that hurt them or left them feeling bad.

Someone seemed unhappy or dissatisfied with what they said or did, which made them anxious. The company where they work took a decision that appeared troublesome to their future or career. Their colleagues got a reward which was denied to them. They feel their children are going in the wrong direction or their marriage is not working well for them. Even a simple problem such as an unanswered email or phone call may make many people restless.

Philosophical enquiry into suffering

These are a few common problems which most people experience in their daily lives. You too must have your share of them according to your status or your duties and responsibilities. Your reactions may be different, but problems we all face. In retrospect, most of them may appear rather trite, but at the moment when they happen, they seem to take away our peace and happiness. Sometimes you may not even know what has been troubling you. It may be a vague feeling of dissatisfaction or misery, which weighs heavily upon your mind but you cannot find the exact cause. It may be dissatisfaction with yourself or with your life or with your achievements.

Most of the time people are assailed by negative feelings. we are rarely free from fear or insecurity. Even if we fortify our lives with many layers of security, fear refuses to go away. It is not surprising, therefore, that the seers and sages of ancient India found suffering the central problems of human life. The Buddha belonged to that lineage of great thinkers. He found life full of suffering and considered it the most dominant theme of existence itself. As a young man, who was brought up amidst royal opulence and luxuries, he found the vulnerability of life to death, disease and suffering rather troubling.

He was certainly not the first person who made that observation. It was the central premise of many schools of philosophy and ascetic sects in ancient India. The Classical Yoga of Patanjali, the Samkhya and the Vedanta schools, and all major sects of Hinduism consider suffering as the central problem of human life. They devised solutions to overcome it on a lasting basis. In ancient India that knowledge was confined to a few select students. Therefore, it had limited reach. The Buddha admitted everyone and made his teachings universal so that they could reach as many people as possible. He expressed his findings in such a way that they made sense and caught the attention of many people from various backgrounds.

Judgment and choice

Your knowledge of the right and wrong, or simply your judgment or discernment (buddhi) is the source of both your misery and happiness. It is also chiefly responsible for attraction and aversion and why people clings to certain things or aspects of life and discard others. They cling to things which they believe will give them what they desire and spurn those which they believe will give them pain, loss, hurt or injury.

Your judgment or discretion, which is responsible for such choices is shaped by your knowledge, perceptions, experience, beliefs, discernment and conditioning. Your needs, wants, desires, expectations, and attachments also play a significant role in shaping it. It is the sum of what you desire your life to be, how you want to lead it and experience it and how you want to interact with the world. Your inner world is shaped by your experience of the outer world. Your knowledge of right and wrong is part of it.

Importantly, your knowledge of right and wrong need not be correct. It may be influenced by a number of factors, which cloud your judgment, intelligence or discernment. What you may consider right from a worldly perspective may prove to be harmful to you in the long run. For example, worldly success may make you happy in the beginning but as time goes by you may realize that it has taken away your freedom and your peace of mind. Many relationships and choices in life which you think will make you happy may prove to be otherwise later in life. Your closest friends who you thought were your life may turn against you and give you unending torment. The job which you thought was a dream job may prove to be a nightmare.

Establishing the right principles

Neither your desires nor your attachments nor your knowledge of right and wrong should determine your choices in life. To be sure that you are on the right path and making right choices, you must first build a philosophy of your own which should be the foundation of your life and actions and which will ensure peace and happiness on a lasting basis. You must reduce that philosophy into a few clear principles which can be clearly understood and verified from your own experience. Having established those principles, you must use them to guide your life, actions and relationships.

The Buddha precisely followed this method. It was how he established the Four Noble Truths. He reduced his observations into few simple, verifiable principles, without the weight of dogma and a complex philosophy. Using those principles, he devised the Eightfold Path, to ensure that those who followed them made right choices in thinking, perceptions, beliefs and practices.

However, he did not formulate his principles from his narrow perspective alone. He broadened it, freeing his mind from its usual limitations to find a universal solution to resolve the problem of suffering on a lasting basis. With his mind freed from its shackles, his discernment perfected by practice, and a vision unhindered by delusion, he established the Four Noble Truths in such a way that they would apply not only to the followers of Buddhism but to all human beings, irrespective of their social or religious background. Whoever suffers in this world can find solace with the help of those four Truths.

Right Living

Right living is about right thinking, right perceptions, right intentions, right knowledge, right actions, right behavior, right attitude, right relationships, right pursuits, right choices and so on. To make those choices correctly, you have to be a Buddha or the one whose intelligence is not clouded by delusion and ignorance. The most important requirement in life is to cultivate right intelligence so that you can correctly discern truth and make right choices. To cultivate right intelligence or pure intelligence, you must free the mind from desires, attachments and habitual thought patterns (samskaras), which the Buddhists believe are acquired over several lives.

Since the emphasis is on intelligence, the philosophy which Siddhartha taught is known as Buddhism or the wisdom that arises from the purified Buddhi (intelligence). He who possesses pure intelligence and discernment is known as the Buddha, or the one with enlightened Buddhi. The key to attain it is self-transformation through right living, which consists of right thinking, right perception, right listening, right effort, right focus, right speech, and so on.

This was the approach used by the Buddha. Purify your intelligence (Buddhi) on the Eightfold Path. Use that purified, stabilized intelligence to observe life mindfully to understand the truths of life, yourself and the significance of the Four Noble Truths, and with that knowledge make right choices so that you become free from the causes that produce suffering.

The essence of Buddhism lies in the Four Noble Truths, which constitutes the Dharma, which is vital to understand the causes and the solution to existential suffering. The Eightfold Path is the guidance. It shows the Way of Life, or the Middle Path, which helps you make right choices, avoid the extremes and mitigate suffering. Thus, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path constitute the central teachings of the Buddha. They offer a simple, but powerful approach to take control of your mind and body and establish peace and happiness by renouncing the very things which want to control you and your life.

In his search for solutions, the Buddha did not go beyond Buddhi, which is considered the highest aspect of Nature in Hinduism. He did not speculate upon the Self since he rightly thought that from an empirical perspective it would be a distraction. Besides, he felt that there was nothing eternal or indestructible about life or existence. Hence, he proposed a down to earth philosophy, which focused exclusively upon suffering and its remedy and which could be practised, verified and validated by anyone who wanted to escape from it.

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