Theosophy

The Noble Eightfold Path – 2

Charles Webster Leadbeater

Theosophy CWL b

[A lecture delivered through an interpreter to the Burmese Ladies at Moulmein, Burma (now Myanmar), in March,1914.]

You ask me to tell you the way to Nirvana; the way to Nirvana is to follow the teachings of our Lord Buddha. It is not enough only to talk about following the Precepts, it is not enough to go to the Temples, to take Pancha Sila and offer flowers. The great thing is to live your lives as the Lord Buddha wished you to live. He has given certain Precepts which we are to follow. Each morning many Buddhists repeat those Precepts, but often they immediately forget all about them, and do not think about them until next morning. That is useless, because the Lord Buddha when He gave these Precepts meant people to carry them out day by day. He gave you, for example, the Noble Eightfold Path. Now I suppose every one of you has heard from childhood all about the Noble Eightfold Path. You may repeat its steps in a moment, but the question is not to be able to repeat them, but to carry them out; because, unless you carry them out, they are useless to you. You know the first Step in that Noble Eightfold Path is Right Belief. Now what are the things that we ought to believe and those that we ought not to believe? The first thing is to believe in the Law of Karma. That is, that whatever you do brings corresponding results. If you do good things, good will come; if you do bad things, evil will come. We should all say that that was so, if anyone asked us, but the question is, do you live all the time as though it were true?  Sometimes people say they believe things, but they do not behave accordingly. In such cases their belief is only form. There are some things you do believe. You believe fire will burn you, so you are careful not to put your hand in the fire, lest it might get hurt. You know that if you fall from a height your arms or legs may be broken, so you are careful in walking up a dangerously steep hill. Also if you believe that for every evil thought or word or act, evil will come to you, you will be careful. But if you say that you believe in that, and still sometimes speak evil of another person, then you do not believe that really.

You see some people think of religion as something to believe in with their minds, and that is all. They think of religion when they go to the Temples, or when they offer flowers, but forget that religion should be in their minds at all times and not only when they go to the Temples. You know a religious person not by the loudness of her prayers or by the frequency of her appearance at the Temples, but by the uprightness and kindliness of her daily life. So if you have Right Belief in the Law of Karma, you will be careful as to what you say or think. Then we must believe that to follow the Path of Holiness will lead us to Nirvana. That I am sure we are not only to believe; but to act accordingly is also meant thereby.

The second step is, you know, Right Thought. Now Right Thought means two separate things, about which I am going to tell you presently. First it means thought about right things and not about wrong things. You can have in your mind always beautiful religious thoughts or thoughts of common ordinary everyday matters. Some people fill their minds all day long with little thoughts that do not matter. You, ladies, have your household work or other duties in connection with your house. When you are doing that, you must see that everything is done properly and nothing is neglected; but when your work is done, you can turn aside and think of something else. You do not need to have your minds filled at all times with the price of rice - or dhal, or whether there is any reduction in the cost of ghee, etc. All these things have to be thought of at the proper time, but as soon as you are free from household work, you can turn your thoughts to religious matters. And when I say “religious matters", I mean to include many good things. When you speak of good meditation, you usually mean meditating on the virtues of our great Lord. That is indeed a wonderful and fertile subject upon which you can think for ever without exhausting it, but there are also two other divisions of thought suited to religion, and useful. You may think, since our Lord is a great example: “What can I do to make my life similar to His own? How can I improve myself so that I can show forth the beauty of the Lord to those around me?"  That is one thing. Another thing is: "What can I do to help other people?" Remember when the Lord attained Buddhahood He was perfectly free to pass away without coming back. Why did He not do that? Simply because of His great Love and Compassion for the world - because He saw it needed help. Now, I say that a good Buddhist must not take his refuge in the Lord Buddha and trust in His teachings only, but he must also do what the Lord Buddha did. We cannot teach as the Lord Buddha taught, we cannot live the glorious life He lived; but at least it is our duty to try to imitate His Life as closely as we can. After attaining freedom, for five-and-forty years He spent His Life in wandering along the Ganges Valley and preaching the Law. All this He did, not for Himself, but wholly, absolutely for the people. You cannot perhaps give your whole time to this work, because you have household duties. But even those household duties are work for others, not for yourself. When they are done you must think what else you can do to help somebody. Perhaps you can help the poor, the sick, and those who are in sorrow or suffering, to whom you can bear friendly sympathy. Remember, it is not only by giving food or other physical things that you can help people. If you give sympathy, that is also one way of helping. Often a few kind words and hearty sympathy will do more for a person in suffering than any money you can give. Everybody, even the poorest, can help others. So one form of religious thought would be to help others, and see what you can do for them. That is one kind of Right Thought, to think of the right thing and keep out useless things.

There is another meaning of Right Thought, and that is correct thought - to think truth. Often we think untruly and badly of persons when we should think well of them. You know when people meet together they talk of their friends and relations. There is no harm in that if what they say is good; but you know how often people think rather of the wrong things done by a person than of the good things he has done. When you are thinking of some wrong, that is not Right Thought. Often people have prejudices in their minds. You get an opinion that such and such a person is bad, and that what he does must be bad. Generally that is quite wrong; and in that case, that is an untrue thought. No person is all bad. There will be something at least that is good in him. So a prejudice is not Right Thought. Remember then that not only must you think of good things, but you must also think truly and correctly.

Now the next step is Right Speech. Here again there are the same two divisions. First you should always speak of good things. It is not your business to speak of the evil deeds of other people. In most cases what is said in gossip is not true. So if the man has not done what you are saying, your words are not true, and you are doing him harm. Even supposing it is true that he has done the thing, even then you ought not to talk about it. You cannot do any good to him by saying over and over again that he has done wrong. The kindest thing you could do is to say nothing about it. Supposing the person who did the bad thing was your husband, your son or your brother, I am sure you would feel you did not want to talk about it and to advertise it to many people who would not otherwise know about it. You would say: "He will not do it again; let it be forgotten." In the same way you should not talk about the wrong done by another person, even though he is not your brother by birth. We all make mistakes some time or other, and you know that the less you say about them the better, in order that there should be no fear of their spreading. You would know that, if it were your husband, or your brother or your son. We are all brothers and sisters, and so you have no right to speak so, even when the man is not related to you by birth. You should speak with regard to other people as you would like them to speak with regard to you. If you do something wrong, you do not wish to tell everybody about it and spread it abroad; so do not do that in the case of other people also. I said one side of Right Speech is to talk about good things and not bad things; but do not forget about the other side. You should be careful that your speech is exactly true. Often people speak inaccurately and exaggerate. They make little things into enormous stories; that is not Right Speech.

Now we come to Right Action. You see how these three things follow one from another. If you think of good things, you will not speak of bad things, because you speak what is in your mind; and if thought and speech are good, the action that follows is good. So one needs to be careful of what he thinks. One should think of the results of an action before doing it. Nowadays no person lives by himself alone like a monk. He lives among others, so that every time you think, your thought will affect a great many people. You should have unselfishness, and should be thinking of others more than of yourself. A person who thinks of himself only is constantly doing harm, even though he does not know it; so it is necessary to get into the attitude of mind that we think always of others, not of ourselves. The most unselfish life was that of our Lord Gautama Buddha because He thought never of Himself, never of Nirvana, but always of the world. Let us in our small way try to imitate Him by helping others. If we do that, then we may be sure that our thoughts, words, and actions will be right. Before you speak anything think: "Is it true, is it a kind thing, will it hurt anybody?" and then: "Is it useful, will it be helpful to somebody?" And unless you can answer these questions in the affirmative, and say that your words will be true, kind and useful, it is better not to speak. I know quite well that if this rule was followed there would be less conversation than now; but perhaps that would leave more time for Right Thought.

These then are the four steps. The fifth step is Right Means of Livelihood. The Right Means of Livelihood is that which causes no harm to any living thing. We can see at once that that rules out certain men such as butchers, fishermen; but remember it reaches much further than that. You shall not obtain your livelihood by harming any creature, therefore you can see that such a profession as toddy-selling is not a Right Means of Livelihood. The seller of alcohol does not necessarily kill people, but he is doing harm, and living on the harm he does to the people. Take the case of a merchant who in the course of his trade is dishonest; that is not Right Means of Livelihood, for his trading is not fair, he is cheating the people. If a merchant deals fairly, if he buys his articles wholesale and sells in retail at a reasonable price and gains thereby - that is a Right Means of Livelihood. But the moment he begins to mislead people and sells a poor article for a good one, he is cheating them. A Right Means of Livelihood becomes a wrong means, if treated in a wrong way. We must deal as honestly with people as we wish them to deal with us. If a person is a trader in a certain class of goods, he has special knowledge of those goods. The customer trusts himself in the hands of the trader, because he himself has not that special knowledge. When you trust a doctor or lawyer, you expect to be treated fairly. Remember, it is in the same way that the customer comes to the trader, and therefore he ought to be as honest with his customer as a lawyer or a doctor is with his client or his patient. When a man trusts you in that way, he puts you on your honour to do your best for him. You have a right to make a reasonable profit in the course of your bargain, but you must also look to your duty.

Then we come to the sixth step, which is called Right Exertion, or Right Endeavour. That is a very important step. Sometimes people studying Buddhism say that it advocates only meditation and quietness, and nothing else need be done. It has been held as a reproach against Buddhism that it taught men to keep quiet and not to do anything for other people. This step, taught by the Lord, contains a full and complete answer to this reproach. Here the Lord Himself tells you: "It is not enough to meditate, but you must also have Right Exertion."  What that means is that every person has a certain amount of strength and power. You know you have a certain amount of physical strength. When you have a day's work before you, you put aside that which you could not do, and do that work which the strength of your muscles permits. Also you have a certain amount of strength as to your mind and will, and you can perform only a certain amount of work in that way. Only so much work can be done, not more. Therefore you must take care how you spend that power. Every person has some influence among his friends and relations. That influence means power, and you are responsible for making good use of that power. You have many children, relations and servants, and you must be careful about what you do and say, because they will copy you; and so you are to remember that the influence you are spreading should be good and not bad. Right Exertion means putting your work into useful lines, not useless. There are many things that can be done, but some are immediate and more urgent than others. One of the things done here as a work of merit is the building of a pagoda or a monastery. These are very good things to do but there may be two or three people who would do them. Instead of two or three people doing the same thing, one might do it and the others might undertake other religious work. The most important part of your religious work is the education of your children. This matter should be seriously taken into your consideration in this country. I do not say you will not obtain merit by building pagodas; but there are many people to do that, and one who gives a school for Buddhist children is making just as much merit as he who builds a pagoda. Instead of all doing the same thing, divide the work among yourselves; and see where your exertion is most useful. In all cases our Lord Buddha expects us to use our own reason and common sense. We should not only believe in His teachings, but we should also carry them into effect. There are many good things to do; but do only at the moment that which is most useful; and see that your strength is used in the right direction, and not wasted.

Then you come to the seventh step, Right Memory, Right Remembrance. There again you may take it in two senses. The Right Memory of which the Lord Buddha spoke was memory of past incarnations. He Himself possessed that fully. You will note this in different Jataka stories. In one of these stories a person comes and speaks ill of Him. He turns to His disciples and says: "I have insulted him in a previous life and therefore he does it now."  No doubt if we remembered everything that happened before, we could arrange our present life better now. But we have not most of us the power of remembering our past lives. We must not, however therefore, think that this Right Memory has nothing to do with us. There is a real sense in which we can all of us have Right Memory. To all of us in our lives come pleasant things, and also unpleasant things. A wise person will remember the good things and put out of his mind the bad things. Suppose someone comes and speaks rudely to us. A foolish person will remember it for weeks, months and years, and continue to say that such and such a person spoke unkindly. It will rankle in his mind. What good will it do? None at all. It will annoy him, if he keeps it always fresh in his mind. That is not Right Memory. He should forget an evil thing done to him then and there. In that way you can exercise Right Memory. Always think of kind things that will stir up feelings of love and gratitude, but forget the unkind things.

 Once there came before the Lord Buddha two cousins, one of whom had injured the other greatly and tried to supplant him as an officer of a temple; also his wife had poisoned the child of the other cousin, that her own child might inherit the office. These two came before the Lord Buddha wishing to become His disciples and hear His preaching. So the Lord Buddha said to the elder: "Is your mind absolutely free from any resentment against anyone?  If you wish to become my disciple, your mind must be utterly free from any ill-will. Here is your cousin's wife who poisoned your child; are you utterly free from resentment against them?" The elder cousin said: "Yes, Lord; if they have injured me, I have already forgotten it." The, Lord said: "You have done well; and one day you shall become Buddha, even as I have done."  So there are some things that you must forget, and Right Memory consists not only in remembering the right things, but also in putting away the wrong things.

 The last step is Right Meditation, or Right Concentration. Once more, Right Meditation is that which takes you away to higher planes. Such meditation is for Arhats, and for those monks who devote a whole life to it. When you begin to meditate on our Lord, you can hardly expect such results; but what you can do is to keep for yourself right things in your mind. Another meaning is Right Concentration - fixing your mind on the right thing. See to it that the thing around which your thoughts turn as a centre is a right thing. Do you  not know how a person may have a thought in the background of his mind, which does not show itself when he is otherwise engaged, but, when he has nothing special to think of, it comes again? People treasure up the memory of some fancied wrong done to them by someone else. Such persons sometimes keep it in the background of their minds for years, and when they have nothing to think of, that thought comes up again. That is not Right Remembrance but foolish remembrance. If you have in the background the thought of the greatness and goodness of our Lord, at every time when you are not engaged in physical plane work, your thought, goes back to such ideas automatically and you will be surrounded with a holy atmosphere. There is a proverb in Europe that “like attracts like".  People of the same sort come together. You know that is true in the physical plane, but that is also true about thoughts. You think good thoughts and you will attract good thoughts. There are many nats and nature-spirits about us, though you cannot see them with your physical eyes. They have no physical bodies, but mental and astral bodies. You must not think those creatures are less real because you do not see them. Some of them are good, some bad. Those creatures are attracted by your thoughts. If your thoughts are good, high and holy, you will be surrounded by good influences and creatures of good type. On the other hand, if you have bad thoughts you will draw unpleasant creatures to you.

There are many men who can feel the atmosphere surrounding another. Sometimes when you meet a person, you feel instinctively that he is holy and good. Why is that? Because that person's thoughts are good and there is a pleasant devotional atmosphere surrounding him. You meet another person, and you know that there is a feeling of unrest and horror around him because that person has allowed himself to be influenced by stupid thoughts, and has drawn unpleasant surroundings to himself. Probably some of you have experienced that after talking to certain persons you feel tired. That is because his thought is unrestful. If you have Right concentration, you will draw around you right surroundings. Most of all our Lord drew splendid influences to Himself. If you go to Buddha Gaya, where 2,500 years ago our Lord attained Illumination, you will feel there how strong are the influences pouring down. You cannot call down such influence as our Lord did, but each one of you can fill a little circle round yourself with influences good and holy; so let me ask you to be careful about Right Concentration.

If in this way you take this Noble Eightfold Path, and try to lead a practical life, it will indeed be well for you. These are the steps leading to liberation. They will bring you to liberation only when you walk along those lines. It is useless to sit at the bottom of a staircase and say that the steps are beautiful, without climbing it. Try to make the teaching of our dear Lord practical in that way; so will you be true followers of Him, true and good Buddhists; and in this way may you attain Nirvana.

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