13.6 Letting go
The eightfold path is the blueprint for a certain kind of self. By acquiring right view, one aims at mastering intentionality in a certain way, by letting go of thirsting. By cultivating right intention and the factors of morality (right speech, right action, right livelihood), one creates a certain persona, a moral character devoted to not causing harm to other living beings, to creating a sense of safety for those around, and possibly contributing to relieve some of their discomfort wherever the occasion arises. By developing composure, one constructs a whole domain of experience in which it is possible to dwell peacefully, in full contentment. The commentarial tradition came to regard the states of composure in cosmological terms, as realms of existence in which beings can be reborn and spend long and happy lives.
However, this selfhood constructed through the practice of the eightfold path is only instrumental or strategic. The path is not only a tool for building this specific form of self, but also for undermining it. Whoever has right view will have to realize that one particularly profound form of thirsting is thirst for views, attachment to beliefs, and doctrines, Buddhist doctrines included. Hence, fully realizing right view (the letting go of all thirsting) will eventually confront the practitioner with the need to relinquish their own thirst for right view itself. The same applies to moral practice. One builds a moral persona, entirely devoted to rightfulness. And yet, living amongst other living beings, it is inevitable that one will have to make some compromise at some point. Either leave them to their own destiny and prioritize one’s own practice (by undermining the attitudes of compassion and friendliness prescribed by right intention), or accept that one might have to concede something to the way other untrained beings live (which means accepting exceptions to one’s ideals of righteousness, while still trying to abide by right livelihood). The same applies to composure. One will have to spends thousands of hours developing the four contemplations to a degree of proficiency (this is no surprise; the same is necessary for developing proficiency in any more mundane skill, like speaking a language or playing a musical instrument). But the pinnacle of this proficiency is nothing but the ability to seeing the entirely constructed, fabricated, concocted, uncertain nature of those states of composure, and learn how to let go of them.
The sort of undermining of the path that arises within the path is completely different from the undermining of the path that simply prevents it from working. For someone without right view, there is no question of the need to relinquish right view. For someone who is not established in moral conduct, there is no issue about considering ad hoc exceptions in one’s way of life in order to accommodate one’s living among others. And for one without any skill in composure, the idea of building a blissful experience for the sake of relinquishing it would not even make sense in the first place.
Mastery of the path leads one to appreciate that the path is also a training in mastery. What the path aims to train (intentionality) is uncertain, and thus this form of mastery also cannot entirely succeed, it cannot be fully and definitively established. But at this point, one has enacted a certain selfhood (‘me, the one who practices the path’) that prevents any possibility from simply going back, or reverting to the ordinary untrained condition (‘I can no longer pretend that I do not know or value right view, moral conduct, or composure’), while also recognizing that such a selfhood can neither be fully established, preserved, or secured (‘this me wanting to be the perfect practitioner is nothing but conceit, it is itself a defilement that needs to be abandoned’). I cannot go back (to ordinary life), I cannot move forward (to full mastery), and I cannot stand still, because I’m still walking the path (cf. SN 1.1). I am both this self that is enacted through the practice of the path, and the collapse of this same self. I am both a master, and someone who has failed in achieving full mastery. I am both, I am neither. In this dissonance, in this contradiction, the path dissolves selfhood and reveals the freedom that lies beyond. Having built your sandcastle, you watch the tide dismantling it, and by the time the castle is gone, the shore is gone too: you have now arrived at the other shore.
On one occasion (MN 37), the Buddha is asked by Sakka, the king of deities, to explain his teaching in brief. The Buddha replies that there is only one thing that one needs to learn, understand, and practice: ‘all realities are unsuitable for fully settling in’ (sabbe dhammā nālaṃ abhinivesāyā). On another occasion (MN 62), he instructs his son, Rahula, to develop his meditation in a way that makes it like the element of space, which ‘does not stand steadily somewhere’ (na katthaci patiṭṭhito). And in his instructions on the establishment of recollection (MN 10), a central quality of the practitioner is to be ‘unestablished’ (anissito). These references all point to a state in which one is present but not yoked, still but not rooted, free to move anywhere but without having to run away from anything. The instability that comes with uncertainty is no longer a threat, but something that can be welcomed with relief. What is uncertain is something that cannot bind, chain, or constrict. Perhaps the oldest monument in which this ideal has been encoded and ‘written down’ is in the very lifestyle of the Buddhist practitioner, the wandering mendicant, the homeless, the one who deliberately decide to be unattached to any place. This is a story written on sands and grounds, step by step, by feet rather than hands. Those who have walked the lands of history have impressed on it a soft trace, a reminder: the sage is someone who is at ‘peace, free from misery, / neither takes, nor rejects’ (Sn 4.15).
- The emphasis on not holding to any fixed view is particularly prominent in what is regarded as perhaps one of the oldest parts of the Pāli canon of discourses, the Aṭṭhakavagga (‘Collections of Eights’ or ‘Collections on the Goal’, depending on how one reads Aṭṭha) included in Sutta Nipata. For a fuller exploration of this point see, Paul Fuller, The Notion of Diṭṭhi in Theravāda Buddhism. The Point of View (2005). ↵
- This trend is detectable even in the way monastic practices developed at different periods in different countries. The ordained disciples of the Buddha described in the discourses are wandering mendicants without any particularly settled infrastructure. Later monastic orders, while preserving a more or less strict adherence to the monastic rules set in the Vinaya, present a different way of life, usually centered around a fixed residence (the monastery), which in many cases can also become a cultural center for the local population, it can eventually possess lands and administrate money, and its resident monks might not always be dedicated primarily to meditation practice (which is most central among so-called ‘forest’ monks and monasteries). One might interpret these compromises as a form of ‘corruption’ of the original ideal presented by the discourses, but perhaps it is better to see it as one way in which the inevitable compromise between the guiding ideals of the eightfold path and the actual historical circumstances with which practice must be matched and adjusted. ↵