Stephen Batchelor on a ‘Secular Perspective on the Eightfold Path’

Stephen Batchelor led a meditation and offered a dharma talk to the Community Meditation Center (CMC) on 15 November 2020. CMC is an Insight meditation center based in Manhattan’s Upper West Side in New York City, USA.  Stephen’s talk was on a ‘Secular Perspective on the Eightfold Path.’

The traditional Buddhist account of the eightfold path divides the path factors into three sections:

WISDOM
1. Right understanding (sammā diṭṭhi)
2. Right thought (sammā saṅkappa)

ETHICS
3. Right speech (sammā vācā)
4. Right action (sammā kammanta)
5. Right livelihood (sammā ājīva)

MENTAL DISCIPLINE
6. Right effort (sammā vāyāma)
7. Right mindfulness (sammā sati)
8. Right concentration (sammā samādhi)

In his talk at CMC Stephen not only presented the path factors in a different order than the standard account but offered a new interpretation of each path factor’s role in the path. Stephen’s iteration of the Eightfold Path is:

(1) Perspective (diṭṭhi)  (2) Imagination (sankappa)   (3) Application (vāyāma)   (4) Mindfulness (sati)   (5) Focus (samādhi)   (6) Voice (vācā)    (7) Work (kammanta)   and (8) Survival (ājīva)

In integrating these dimensions of our life as an ethical being who participates in a community, the Eightfold Path facilitates individual human flourishing and a culture of awakening.

In the Bhavana Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya 7:71) , the historical Buddha, Gotama, compared the eight limbs of the path to eight fertilized eggs that the mother hen turns and rearranges with her feet to ensure that all will be kept equally warm. Stephen noted that the cluster of eight shifting eggs has no intrinsic order and thus the sequence in which the limbs of the eightfold path is traditionally presented is just one of many possible iterations.

By reordering the limbs to end with work and survival – rather than mindfulness (sati) and focus (samādhi) – Stephen’s secular reconfiguration of the Path focuses on the way in which the dharma helps us face our uncertain future on earth. Emphasizing work and survival highlights the challenge of living on together in a world of ‘fences, walls, tiles, and pebbles.’


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