Eight Realizations

Buddhism: The Personal Element

Sutra of the Eight Realizations — Commentary

Day and night, at all times,
Buddha’s disciples should
Mindfully recite and contemplate
The eight realizations of Great Beings.

The First Realization:
All the world is impermanent.
The earth is fragile and perilous.
The four great elements in here, suffering and emptiness.
In the five skandhas there is no self.
All that arise, change, and perish,
Are illusive, unreal, and without a master.
Mind is the root of evil;
Body a reservoir of sin.
Thus observing and contemplating,
One gradually breaks free from birth and death.

The Second Realization:
Excessive desire is suffering.
Birth, death, and weariness in life
All originate from greed and desires.
Desiring less, being wu-wei,
Bodymind are at ease and free.
The Third Realization:
The mind is insatiable,
Always seeking, thirsty for more,
Thus increasing our cravings.
Bodhisattvas, and all others should renounce such conduct.
Always remember to follow the way,
Be content and at peace with poverty,
With wisdom as the sole vocation.

The Fourth Realization:
Indolence leads to degradation.
Always practice with diligence,
Vanquish all vexations,
Subdue the four maras,
And escape the prison of the skandhas.

The Fifth Realization:
Ignorance leads to birth and death.
Bodhisattvas, and all others should always be mindful
To study and learn extensively,
To increase their wisdom
And perfect their eloquence,
So they can teach and enlighten all beings,
And impart great joy to all.

The Sixth Realization:
Poverty and hardship breed resentment,
Creating harm and discord.
Bodhisattvas, and all others should practice dana,
Beholding the friendly and hostile equally;
They neither harbor grudges
Nor despise malicious people.

The Seventh Realization:
The five desires are perilous.
Even as laity, be not sullied by worldly pleasures;
Think frequently of the three robes,
The tiled bowl, and instruments of Dharma;
Aspire to the noble life
And cultivate the Way with purity;
Let your actions be noble and sublime,
Showering compassion on all.

The Eighth Realization:
Birth and death are like a blazing fire
Plagued with endless afflictions and suffering.
Vow to cultivate the
serene mind,
To bring relief to all;
To take on infinite sufferings for sentient beings,
And lead all to supreme joy.

Translated from Chinese by the Chung Tai Translation Committee with pragmatic cultural changes made by Wayne Ren-Cheng

It is important when reading and studying the sutras and other Buddhist texts that we do not always take the language and ideas literally. From Siddhartha’s language and concepts being tied so closely with the pre-Buddhism Hindi culture and faith, to the early Buddhist Councils where the sutras were first written down, all the way to contemporary translations there are the cultural dynamics and use of language at each stage that need close examination.

Siddhartha, with his central focus on teaching the Four Ennobling Truths, and the dharma of impermanence and dependent origination spoke with the language and worldview of the Hindu culture. Siddhartha understood that only through the skillful means using ideas that already resonated with the people could he reach them with his radically different message.

In the initial Buddhist Council, when Ananda and others recited what they had heard the Buddha had say there were others writing it down using words and concepts they were comfortable with. Later councils, some hundreds of years later interpreted the Buddha’s words within different cultural and religious contexts. The arising Buddhists of the Southeast Asian, East Asian, and Tibetan cultures did the same. Jumping ahead to Westerner’s first encounters with Buddhist philosophy and writings, the language they knew was that of Christianity so the language revealed that. It is fairly certain that the Buddha didn’t use the words “thee” and “thou” or talk about “sin” and “forgiveness”.

Pragmatically, in contemporary culture the language of Buddhism in the West is changing again. In Engaged Dharma we try to approach the sutras with what Richard Rorty (whose Neo-pragmatist philosophy plays a determining role in many arising American Buddhist traditions) would term pre-linguistic (before attaching words) awareness. Teachers and scholars who work to offer the traditional dharma to a contemporary audience work diligently to get beyond the words to the intent of any teaching so that its value can be realized. Siddhartha himself must have had a pre-linguistic awareness of the Dharma before it was necessary to put it into words. While the words are important, it is the INTENT that is critical.

The Origin of the Sutra

This sutra was translated from Pali to Chinese by the Parthian monk, An Shih Kao during the later Han Dynasty, 140-171 CE. The original Pali document has since been lost. Like the Sutra on the Six Paramitas it is thought to be combination of smaller works. The sutra is chanted and studied in both the Mahayana and Theravadan traditions, making it a text that broadly influences Buddhist practices.

Each of the eight realizations are meant to be subjects of meditation and moment-to-moment practice. Within each one there are levels of practice that lead to gradual realization of the paths to positive personal development. The sutra is lyrical, its simple words meant to be chanted and memorized. And, each of these subjects can be further divided to reveal the depth of ideals contained in Buddhist philosophy. The concepts of causality (dependent origination), not-self, karma, attachment, potential (emptiness), selflessness, impermanence, mindfulness and more are found in the Sutra of Eight Realizations.

Although the form of the sutra is simple, its content is extremely profound and marvelous. The Sutra on the Eight Realizations of the Great Beings is not an analysis of anything. It is a realistic and effective approach to meditation.

We’ll be discussing the Eight Realizations through a contemporary, pragmatic lens, one meant to reveal that even 2500 years later this work has relevance in practicing Buddhism in the West.

These Eight Realizations empower humans to make positive changes to alleviate suffering, and enable them to realize their potential as positive agents of change in the Universe. We can choose to be more aware of our carbon footprint and other environmental factors of living. Through that awareness followed by action we can make positive changes, or at least mitigate the negative. Personally we improve the matter (health) of our bodies. We can come to recognize that emotions and sensations are transitory phenomena and that we can choose how we react to them. Mental formations, our dispositions such as selfishness and attachment can be discarded and replaced with selflessness and generosity.

We will be creatively re-describing “evil and sin”, offering a more useful view for a contemporary practice. We develop mindfulness so we can recognize our dispositions and habits, we practice meditation to develop awareness so that we come to realize that each experience causes the “death” of what we were then and the “birth” of what we come to be. It is not a matter of WHO we are, it is a matter of HOW we are.

The First Realization clarifies the four basic subjects of Buddhist meditation: impermanence, suffering, not-self, and dispositions. Our meditation practice should develop deeper levels of mindfulness of these realities.

All things are impermanent. Moment-to-moment everything goes through changes dependent on their experiences and intent. Impermanence is a direct result of the core Buddhist concept of casuality or dependent origination. The Universe is a causal process where everything changes dependent on its experiences. We must always be aware and mindful that our actions have consequences.

The four great elements (earth, water, fire, air) that make up the world, and the five skandhas or aggregates (Matter, Feelings/Sensations, Perception, Mental Formations, Thought Processes, Consciousness) that make up the self are all impermanent.

There must be awareness of psychophysical suffering or unsatisfactoriness. Being aware of suffering leads us to our responsibility to work toward its alleviation in ourselves and the surrounding Universe.

Physical pain is a small part of the suffering that the Four Ennobling Truths reveal. More important is the psychophysical suffering; the suffering/unsatisfactoriness/discontent/anguish that comes from unnatural attachments and desires. The suffering that comes from not realizing the transitory/impermanent nature of phenomena, even pain.

There is no permanent self, there is the not-self that is subject to impermanence and the causal process of the Universe. This empowers us by making us mindful that our actions and thoughts can be changed for the better.

All of us have heard someone say, “I can’t change. This is who I am.” The Buddha would say, “Bull!” Stephen Batchelor, one of the most respected Buddhist teachers of our time has a suggestion for anyone who believes they “can never change”. Get your family photo albums and find every possible photo of yourself. Now, put them in chronological order. Begin with yourself as a baby and continue through to the present. Think about who you were at each stage, think about the experiences of each stage, and then try to convince yourself that you’ve never changed.

The skandhas, the five aggregates of material form, feelings, perception, mental formations, and the six senses arise and fall within moment-to-moment experience but they have no inherent existence, nor are they a permanent aspect of HOW we are. They are causal factors of our dispositions and habits but they are not us. Whether positive, negative or neutral they are transitory phenomena and can, and will change. Some change happens as a result of universal circumstances beyond our control, while other changes must be achieved through our own effort and commitment.

Anger can be changed to calm. Anxiety can be changed to action. Grasping can be changed to generosity. And, in this causal Universe good dispositions like contentment can be changed to depression. Buddhist practice, beginning with meditation can help one develop their positive dispositions and weaken the negative ones. Dispositions are as affected by impermanence as any other thing.

In Buddhist philosophy the mind is not a root of evil any more than it is the root of good. The mind, or consciousness is the root of choices, choices that are influenced by HOW we are. Ignorance is more likely to lead to negative choices, while a mind trained in the ways of equanimity and wisdom is likely to make positive choices. The body is not a reservoir of sin. The actions of the body are directly caused by the state of the mind which is why I prefer the term ‘bodymind’ as a reminder of that link. The body doesn’t store up the positive and negative experiences, it only responds to them.

As we observe and contemplate the Sutra of Eight Realizations the realizations of impermanence, of dependent causality, of not-self, and of the bodymind will arise, and the knowledge of our ability to transform from a state of ignorance, to one of equanimity and wisdom will follow.

The Second Realization:

Excessive desire is suffering.
Birth, death, and weariness in life
All originate from greed and desires.
Desiring less, being wu-wei,
Bodymind are at ease and free.

The Third Realization:
The mind is insatiable,
Always seeking, thirsty for more,
Thus increasing our cravings.
Bodhisattvas, and all others should renounce such conduct.
Always remember to follow the way,
Be content and at peace with poverty,
With wisdom as the sole vocation.

The second and third stanzas of the Sutra of Eight Realizations (of Great Beings) direct us to meditative practice designed to expose our excessive, or unnatural desires and cravings that stem from greediness. Through rigorous self-honesty and committed practice we can stay on the Middle Path avoiding the suffering to the bodymind that comes from unquenchable desire and craving for permanence.

The Second Realization speaks to desire and the cravings that can arise in an uncontrolled bodymind.

The Buddha teaches in the Four Ennobling Truths that there is craving, craving leads to suffering, there is a way to alleviate it, the Eightfold Path is the way. But . . . what is craving and how is it different from desire?

We’ll start with a contemporary definition of craving from the Oxford Desk Dictionary: strong desire or longing. Then craving is a fixation, an unhealthy want for something (think addiction).

Desire according to the same source is: longing or craving. Craving and desire are inexorably linked.

Craving is an activity of the mind that can lead us into unwholesome states of being like anger, depression, fear and anxiety. These states arise when one doesn’t get what they want, they don’t get it when they want, or it undergoes changes or is lost after it is obtained. It is the result of not recognizing that cravings are also subject to the realities of impermanence and dependent causality. What we crave can become impossible to find or hold on to (whether it is love, drugs or a host of other things) dependent on the circumstances of their arising and falling away. With the unique freedom that human beings have we can choose to let go of craving, make the changes physical and mental (bodymind) that release us from all unnatural cravings and attachments.

Some contemporary Buddhist scholars and masters are telling people that desire is BAD. They do so without making clear that it is when desire becomes uncontrolled and without realization of dependent causality and impermanence that desire becomes craving and thus a negative disposition. Desire itself, when creatively re-described as desirable leads to a positive disposition when used for goal-setting while recognizing causality and impermanence. Desirable is having such quality as to be worth seeking, worth waiting to do, and worth letting go of when it becomes a burden.

Would Siddhartha Guatama have worked so hard and long to find the answer to human suffering if he hadn’t seen a desirable outcome? Desirability, when put to positive use is the aspiration to make things better. Desirability becomes the initiative necessary to make good things happen. There is nothing wrong with desire leading us to make and keep goals that lead to our own positive personal development, then on to a more encompassing and corrective human flourishing.

Desiring an outcome begins with the individual and optimally it leads to a socially encompassing result. Desirability is desire + positive intent = encompassing action.

We are human beings with imaginations and the ability to plan future actions and this leads to WANTING. To want is not negative, just as to desire is not negative. Letting it reach the point of craving is when the negative begins, suffering begins. Craving is a psychoemotional, psychophysical state of intense want that becomes the delusion of an intense need.

In the Second Realization “birth, death” are not seen literally. Our desire when channeled positively can lead to the “birth” of new directions in life and new ideas that contribute positively; through mindfulness we learn to recognize when desire becomes craving that can lead to negative consequences. “Death” of negative dispositions and situations can happen only when we recognize craving and eliminate it from our bodymind.

Wu-wei” is taken from the Dao de Jing and brings a particular nuance to this stanza about desire. In early translations wu-wei was inaction, one relies on the cyclic nature of reality for results rather than engaging in direct action. Contemporary scholars like Roger Ames translate wu-wei as, “non-coercive actions in deference to the particular focus of things”. By practicing to desire less we can avoid the suffering that is brought on by craving. Further, we shape our desires, be they aspirations, goals or wants with the knowledge that impermanence WILL play its role. This is where acting wu-wei becomes important. We don’t cause further suffering by trying to take coercive actions to change the outcome as long as that outcome has positive potential.

Third Realization reminds us that craving ultimately arises in the mind, affecting the bodymind as a whole:

“The mind is insatiable . . .” so it is up to each of us to feed that insatiable mind with wholesome, valuable input. Feed the bodymind with the realities of form and emptiness that is the dharma. Practice the ways of the Middle Path. In these ways we train the bodymind and avoid the suffering of craving.

In our practice we meditate to learn to recognize our cravings and to realize our ability to change them. We practice to also recognize the positive desires we have and our ability to realize those desirable goals while keeping the reality of impermanence and causality in mind.

Learning and applying the Dharma to our everyday lives is a positive thing. Becoming so attached to one aspect of it, not realizing that it to, the Dharma is subject to impermanence can lead to suffering of ourselves and others.

Follow the Middle Path. Don’t take the word “poverty” too literally. As we’ll learn in later stanzas of the Eight Realizations, poverty too can lead to negative consequences beyond the scarcity of material goods. If for a time we “don’t have” that shouldn’t lead us into anxiety and worry because we are empowered by the teachings of the Buddha with the knowledge that change is not only possible, it is probable.

Training the bodymind to engage in non-coercive actions in deference to the particular focus of things, to be wu-wei will cause the falling away of cravings and unnatural attachments. The Middle Path is one of actions taken with positive intent, actions taken with the dharma of impermanence and dependent causality always in clear view.

Fourth Realization:

The Fourth Realization presents the dangers to our continuing practice of the Dharma and meditation. Laziness and procrastination can arise as major hindrances to a practice. My root teacher, Eubanks Sensei says, “It is when no one is watching that we must practice the hardest.” It is a reminder that sometimes we must be our own mentor and monitor.

Like the bodymind is one, so are meditation/practice. Beware of falling into thinking that you can practice Buddhism without having a committed mediation practice. Meditation is foundation where we begin to be mindful, where we begin to be aware of our wholesome and unwholesome habits and dispositions (skandhas), and begin to develop serenity and equanimity. Meditation is the beginning but it can’t end there. All of the ideals of Buddhist practice must be taken out into our everyday lives where it can be useful and productive.

It isn’t called practice because once you think, “I’ve got it,” you can abandon the “practice mind”.

It isn’t called practice because when you’ve slipped up, didn’t meditate, got angry, ignored an obligation, or craved a cheeseburger you can say, “Alright I’m a terrible Buddhist, I’m gonna quit”.

Writers, actors and painters, anyone in a creative field would sum this stanza up with these words. “Tell your inner editor/critic/procrastinator to shut the hell up.”

Hindrances come in many forms, but they are empty of power unless we allow them to have effect. Others can be finding the time to meditate and dealing with difficult people at home/work/play. Our inner editor may say “You don’t have time to listen deeply to . . .” – Our inner critic might say, “You really don’t do that well.” – Our inner procrastinator may say, “Tomorrow, we’ll do it tomorrow.” This is where creative re-description comes in. What some would view as vexations, we can turn around and make opportunities to practice. We can take the time to listen, try again, and do today.

The four maras are negative dispositions given legendary form. The mara of the aggregates: grasping/clinging to a permanent self – mara of disturbing emotions: habitual patterns of emotions – mara of death: death/fear – mara of the son of the gods: craving. Singly or in any combination they can impede our engagement of Buddhist practice. Meditation can lead us to the realization of these “maras” so through meditation we become aware of them before they impede our Buddhist practice in everyday life.

In short the Fourth Realization is all about commitment to practice. Practice on the cushion and practice off the cushion; Buddhist practice is a holistic endeavor.

Fifth Realization:

Engaged Dharma promotes attitudes and actions directed toward “life-long learning” and that is what the 5th Realization is all about. Simply put this means be open-minded and open-hearted to any and all new information, new experiences, and new opportunities. Learning begins with gathering information. Then we transform information into knowledge by putting it through the filter of experiential verification and then decide if it works. If it does we continue to make it a part of our approach to life; if not we discard it. In this way we transform knowledge into wisdom.

Ignorance is the condition of being unaware, uneducated or uninformed. This can result from cultural conditions that don’t offer to opportunity, or allow one to learn; or, it can be a product of not being interested in learning. Birth of bad decisions, and death of opportunities result from ignorance.

Learning extensively, increasing wisdom and refining eloquence is a very Daoist goal that fits well into Buddhist philosophy. The individual who does these things develops skillful ways to connect with others. Having some knowledge of the history and teachings of other Buddhist traditions, or other faiths will help us develop connections and relationships with others whose goal is human flourishing and the alleviation of suffering. When we have committed to a tradition we learn all we can, we practice diligently and become a positive example to others.

Sixth Realization:

In the Mahayana tradition the bodhisattva-in-training practices an encompassing compassion that is offered equally to all. The well-being of others is of equal importance as that of their self. This may seem contradictory unless one recalls that the Buddha made it clear that without caring for ourselves we would not be able to extend that care and compassion to others. It is through the practice of “generosity of the spirit” that practitioners develop this skill, the ability to give of ones self in a variety of ways – material goods, wealth, time, skills.

Hunger, poverty, and disease can block or slow the realization of the dharma so material generosity is the initial step. The sutra says, “Do give gifts! For poverty is a painful thing. One is unable, when poor, to accomplish one’s own welfare, much less that of others.” (Large Sutra of Perfect Wisdom, Edward Conze translator) Material gifts includes: food, drink, clothing, shelter, land; all of these are needed to sustain life.

INTENT is a critical aspect of generosity. The intent/attitude of the giver, the intent/spirit of the gift are essential, and the knowledge that the giving will need to end must be taken into account in any situation. The donor should be prompted by the need while being mindful of the encompassing effect their generosity may have. They should not be influenced by the possible rewards, material or otherwise that may come . . . this is selflessness. Any hope/expectation/self congratulation diminishes the act and demonstrates the immaturity of the giver’s practice.

The Seventh Realization:

The five desires (cravings or attachments being better descriptors) are phenomena that arise from the senses of touch, taste,sight, smell, and hearing. They are wealth, sex, fame, food, sleep. Food and sleep are necessary for human existence, sex is necessary for human continuing existence, and wealth and fame have value when used to help others, to promote human flourishing. With any of these it is the depth of craving that becomes perilous. In the case of wealth, food and sleep it is a matter of having the amount needed without struggling to, or being anxious when there isn’t more to be had. Sex may well fall under that same ideal. Fame can so quickly lead to selfishness if one doesn’t maintain a heightened state of mindfulness.
Being mindful of the three robes, the tiled bowl, and the instruments of the Dharma bring realization that possessions beyond our needs can lead to craving. The “three robes” are the traditional layers that Buddhist monastics wear: in the Ch’an tradition these are the gown (hai-ch’ing), the robe (chia-sa), and an outer robe for inclement weather (ch’ang kua). The tiled bowl is the monk’s begging bowl. Instruments of the Dharma are the wooden fish, the ching bowl or bell, the hand ching, and wooden blocks, all used in meditation and chanting. Other possessions, while they might bring us transitory pleasure are not necessary to practice the Dharma. We need clothes befitting the seasons, sustenance to power the bodymind, and the “music” of the Dharma to look to during the situations that life presents us.
It is living the noble life that is important. We begin that noble life with our meditation practice. A life of mindfulness and awareness of our interconnection with the causal Universe. A life of seeing things around us as they are, not how we might want them to be; and then reacting to life’s experiences with the best of intentions. It is simply doing our best to walk the Middle Path.

The Eighth Realization:
The initial lines of the stanza are daunting at first read, blazing fire and endless plague. In earlier stanzas we’ve talked about a different view of the ideas of birth and death being changes in the self brought on by experiences. Using this view then like a blazing fire causes changes in what it burns, then the continuous birth and death of the self is just as dynamic. There is the good, the not-so-good, and the neutral experiences that we must learn to deal with. We realize that afflictions and suffering will pass, or we can choose to react to them in such a way as to make them more positive experiences. Think of people like Steven Hawkins, astrophysicist and author whose afflictions didn’t stand in the way of his doing what he felt would add to human flourishing.

Serenity is not an ephemeral state of being that only the most practiced, spiritual leaders and gurus can reach. The Buddha taught that anyone willing to invest effort and commitment can develop a serene bodymind. We begin with awareness meditation where we gain the skill to stay attentive, focused and flexible while dealing with intense situations. Off the cushion when we encounter tense situations we have the ability to remain calm, to assess the situation and make the possible choice of responses. Seeing our abiding calm will have the effect of calming others, whether they realize it or not.
Taking on “infinite suffering” is a way of reminding us that suffering is real and all around us. We aren’t expected to shoulder the entire responsibility ourselves. We deal with the suffering we encounter, we strive to empower others through our example, and we stay mindful of that our actions and thoughts have consequences in the causal Universe. We want to avoid causing suffering while trying to alleviate it at the same time.

I bow with respect,
Ven. Wayne Hughes (VenerableWayne Slacker on Second Life)
(Ren Cheng)  仁 诚

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