I have a pair of Birkenstocks — you just knew I wear Birkenstocks, didn’t you? — anyway, I have a pair of Birkenstocks that I bought on my honeymoon, thirty years ago this September. Now, Birkenstocks are pretty tough, but they do wear out; I’ve had the Vibram soles replaced three times, the uppers eventually broke a strap so I had them replaced, and while I was doing that they rebuilt the cork part where it had worn away.
You see the joke here, of course: at this point, I’ve replaced all the parts, but I think they’re “the same shoes”. It’s like the story about the farmer who bragged he had a pickaxe that was a hundred years old, handed down from his great-grandfather. Oh, he’d replaced the handle six or seven times, and he once broke the pick end trying to pull a stump so he’d had to replace the head, but the tool was a hundred years old.
This is actually a central point of Buddhism. In fact, the Heart Sutra says that Buddha became Enlightened by realizing, wholly and completely, that everything in the universe that we see and interact with, everything that is related to everything else by cause and effect, is just like my Birkenstocks: a collection of atoms that happen to be in one relationship at a particular time, but that came together from parts of other things in the past and will come apart and become something else in the future. When buddha really saw that, he saw through and recovered from the addiction of thinking there could be something permanent, and so ended the clinging to a fantasy of permanence that causes suffering.
Which is all well and good, but until we manage to Realize the Heart of Perfect Wisdom ourselves, what can we do?
That’s the Fourth Great Truth: that there are upaya — “skillful means” or “expedient means” or even “clever tricks” — through which one can reduce one’s own suffering now, and reduce the likelihood of suffering in the future. Siddhartha laid out some of these clever tricks in a program of eight steps that’s usually called, in English, the Holy Eightfold Path.
I’m going to take an aside here for one of my periodic rants about the Victorian Theosophist translations Buddhism is burdened with in English. The “Holy Eightfold Path” in Sanskrit is arya-ashtanga-marga; wherever you see “Holy” or “Noble” in something in Buddhism, you can bet the original word was “arya”. The problem is that arya doesn’t really mean holy, and only sort of means “noble” — it really means “valuable” or “precious”. The translation to “noble” happens because the term is often used for “noblemen” or aristocrats. Chinese is more straightforward — it’s 八正道, ba1 zheng4 dao4, or “road of eight valuable things”. What are these eight valuable things? They break down into three groups: wisdom, ethical behavior, and meditation.
The heart of wisdom is to develop the right view — that is, what Siddhartha himself did when he left home. He realized that there was a problem.
So he left home, having decided to find a way to put things right and quiet his own — and everyone else’s — suffering. This is called right intention.
The ethical behavior part of the Eight Valuable Things are things everyone already pretty much knows. Right Speech: don’t lie, don’t slander and gossip, don’t insult people. Right Action: don’t hurt people or animals without necessity, don’t steal, don’t be excessive about sex. (What counts as “excessive” with sex? I think there’s a whole column — at least — in that, but for now, it’s not to use sex in a way that increases suffering: don’t cheat, don’t sleep around enough that you feel bad about it.) More positively, Right Action means to be kind, compassionate, and not do things that hurt other people.
The third part of Ethical Conduct is Right Livelihood: making your living in a way that decreases suffering. Buddha’s list of things you shouldn’t do is: don’t sell weapons, don’t trade in slaves, don’t be a butcher, don’t sell intoxicants.
Again, these all show up in what Siddhartha did after he left home — this is basically the life he assumed when he became a wandering monk.
The last three of the Eight Valuable Things are Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. I’m piling them all together because, honestly, they all seem like parts of the same thing. Right effort is to direct your mind to suffering and the source of suffering; right mindfulness is to see and understand that source of suffering completely; and right concentration is to allow the mind to settle into a single point of focus, to bring all these things together without distraction.
Which brings us back around to my Birkenstocks. Thirty years ago, I was a young guy about to go to grad school, with a new wife, on his honeymoon, and those Birkenstocks were new and stiff. There’s really probably not an atom left that was part of “me” when that was happening, or if there is it’s just by chance; the Birkenstocks, with the new soles, and new uppers, and new cork, share very little with the Birkenstocks I bought that day in Berkeley. My Birkenstocks, and me, and you, and my cats, and the car I bought two weeks ago, and these cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the Great Globe itself, all are heaps of things that come together, and come back apart, and change forms, all as a result of cause and effect.
That’s really the key to all of Buddhism and all of Enlightenment — and each of the factors in the Eightfold Path really are there because they help you arrive at that understanding of things as they are.