Shakyamuni's Teachings

Walking the Path

How, for instance, do we practice right speech? Right speech does not mean saying “the right thing.” Ideas about the “right” thing usually come from conditioning. As a teacher, I field a lot of questions from students about different aspects of practice. Many are repetitive. I can easily fall into the habit of giving stock answers. If I give a stock answer, however, I am operating out of habituation, not presence. I am not really paying attention to the student, how he or she is asking the question, or how the question arises in the context of the student’s practice. A stock answer is not the practice of right speech, even though the answer may be “right” in a technical sense.

To cultivate right speech, listen as you talk so that you hear, with your own ears, exactly what you say and how you say it.

To travel the eightfold path, we make the same effort in each of eight areas. In addition to bringing attention to how we speak, we bring attention to how we act and behave, to what we do for a living, to the way we direct our efforts in practice and in life, to how we practice mindfulness and cultivate attention, and to how we look at the world and how we think.

The Three Disciplines

Fundamentally Buddhism is not a system of beliefs; instead, it is a set of instructions for entering the mystery of being. In the Buddha’s original formulation, these instructions are the eightfold path. The three disciplines — morality, meditation, and wisdom — show how the different elements of the eightfold path interact and provide a clear view of the key elements of practice.

“Prudent, cautious self-control
Is wisdom’s root.”
     — Robert Burns

The first three elements — right speech, right action, and right livelihood — constitute the discipline of morality. The practice of morality has two aspects. First, by bringing attention to the ways in which we speak, act, and live, we create the conditions needed in order to practice. Second, the way we live is the expression of what we understand through practice. Therefore, in Buddhism, morality is not a matter of observing rigid moral principles, but of giving expression to the wisdom of original mind.

Right effort, right mindfulness, and right attention constitute the discipline of meditation. In this context, meditation actually means stable attention. We begin with the effort of resting with the breath. We develop mindfulness first, then stable attention. Attention is the heart of Buddhist practice. Although we use formal meditation to cultivate attention, the real practice is to live in attention all the time.

The third discipline, wisdom or understanding, involves right cognition and right view. Right cognition means that we bring attention to the thinking process. We use cognitive processes to uncover and correct problems in our practice and in our lives. Right view is seeing things as they actually are. By bringing attention to how we see things, we step out of the projected “realities” of conditioning.

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