The Hero’s Journey begins with The Fool. He walks blithely along, not looking where he’s going and completely unaware he’s about to step over the edge of a precipice. He carries his past in a bag on a stick. In his other hand is a small white flower, and a dog follows at his heels.
This is the archetype of the Wise Fool whose lack of worldly experience appears to put him at a disadvantage, but it means his mind is open to another level of consciousness – whether he realises it or not. He lives on the edges of life and society, and goes his own way regardless of what others think. An example would be Peter Sellers’ character in the film Being There. He plays Chance, a gardener whose simplistic statements are taken as profound by everyone around him. The wise fool is the Holy Fool or Divine Child – a lunatic who hides genius within his madness.
Right Concentration is the final practice of Mental Discipline on the Eightfold Path and is about disciplining the mind to see reality as it is. It’s also known as Right Meditation or Samadhi, and is the practice of focusing your mind on one thing until you’ve reached meditative absorption or jhana.
Samadhi means concentration, and it’s called absorption because when the mind is intensely focused like this you become one with the present moment. It’s a non-dual state of oneness with reality where the self is gone, or absorbed in unity consciousness. When you meditate in samadhi there’s no effort involved – the meditation does itself. There’s no one breathing – the universe breathes.
Right Mindfulness is the second practice in Mental Discipline on the Eightfold Path and involves being aware of the present moment with a clear focus. Right Mindfulness is the heart of Buddhist practice and applies across the whole Eightfold Path. When you’re mindful, your thinking is Right Thought, your speech is Right Speech, your actions are Right Action, and so on.
The principle of mindfulness is very simple but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. All you have to do is pay attention to whatever you’re doing or experiencing without judging or interpreting, and without any unnecessary thought chatter. But it’s only when you try to stay present in the here and now that you realise what a challenge that can be.
Right Effort is the first practice in Mental Discipline on the Eightfold Path and is also known as Right Diligence. This practice supports all the others because it gives you the energy to keep practising, even through difficulties. It involves cultivating a positive attitude and cheerful determination on your quest for freedom from suffering.
Right Effort is about making a persistent effort to do the right thing from day to day, and follow all the various rules and precepts. In other words, you give it your best shot. But it also means doing so without complaining when things get difficult.
And things always get difficult.
Right Livelihood is the final practice in Ethical Conduct on the Eightfold Path and is about how you earn a living and take responsibility for your choices. The ideal is to earn a living without going against the principles of love and compassion, and to do work that expresses the truth of your deepest Self. That means you’re not just working for yourself, but working to benefit others too.
To practice Right Livelihood you should avoid work that involves receiving money for something that directly or indirectly harms either yourself or others. You should aim to work in a way that promotes respect, equality and fairness. This means being honest and ethical in all your business dealings, and doing your best to find work that is meaningful and life enhancing.
Right Action is the second Ethical Conduct practice on the Eightfold Path and is about acting appropriately in every situation. It builds on all the other practices and can only work if you’re mindful of your true intentions. If you watch your thoughts and develop the right understanding of yourself and reality, your actions shouldn’t cause unnecessary suffering.
Right Speech is the first practice in Ethical Conduct on the Eightfold Path and is about communicating with compassion and in a straightforward way. It follows from Right Thinking and Right Understanding, so you see reality as it is and then express that truth directly. It includes communication through speech and all forms of writing: letters and emails, books and articles, blog posts, tweets, texts, and status updates.
Right Thought is the second Wisdom practice of the Eightfold Path, and is also known as Right Intention. It follows directly from Right Understanding because your thoughts and intentions arise from your perception of reality. If you see reality as it is, you’ll have no problems. But if you see reality through a haze of assumptions and unconscious judgements and concepts, it will lead to some pretty twisted thinking. So Right Thought is about looking into your thoughts and intentions to see if they align with reality – or not.
Right Understanding is the first practice of the Eightfold Path, and is also known as Right View. It provides context and perspective for the whole path, and is the foundation for all the other practices because it’s about perception. Right Understanding is about seeing yourself and the world as they really are. Sounds simple, right?
Most of us like to think we have a pretty good grip on reality. When you take it at face value, reality appears to be mostly solid and relatively unchanging with lots of annoying obstacles for you to bump into. You also tend to assume you’re separate from the world because that’s how it appears. But the way you see the world is based on a misperception and your brain is fooling you.
Bare-chested, barefooted, he comes into the marketplace.
Muddied and dust-covered, how broadly he grins!
Without recourse to mystic powers,
withered trees he swiftly brings to bloom.
The full title of this picture is sometimes Entering the Marketplace with Helping Hands and it represents the stage of the path where you’re ready to share your wisdom and serve others. This is enlightenment proper, when you return to the world and bring the gifts of awakening with you.
He has returned to the Origin, come back to the Source,
but his steps have been taken in vain.
It is as though he were now blind and deaf.
Seated in his hut, he hankers not for things outside.
Streams meander on of themselves,
red flowers naturally bloom red.
After dissolving into Oneness, the world returns. This stage is where you understand the world as it is in its true nature, or suchness. In other words, you can see things as they are without conceptualising them. All constructs of self and other are dropped, and things are seen to arise spontaneously and naturally. Ordinary day to day life is experienced as profound. Everything is a manifestation of Buddha Nature, or the Source.
Whip, rope, Ox and man alike belong to Emptiness.
So vast and infinite the azure sky
that no concept of any sort can reach it,
over a blazing fire a snowflake cannot survive.
When this state of mind is realised
comes at last comprehension
of the spirit of the ancient Patriarchs.
In earlier Ox Herding Pictures this was the last in the series: the empty circle depicting the True Self or Oneness. It’s impossible to describe this stage. This is the moment when the veil finally drops and the truth is revealed, the truth you’ve been carrying inside you all along.
Only on the Ox was he able to come Home,
But lo, the Ox is now vanished, and alone and serene
sits the man.
The red sun rides high in the sky
as he dreams on placidly.
Yonder beneath the thatched roof
his idle whip and idle rope are lying.
Now the ox vanishes. This picture is sometimes called Ox Transcended because you realise the truth that you and the ox were never really separate. You know the ox is your own Buddha nature and you’ve had it all along. There’s no need to go running around searching for it because you have it right here. The path up to this point was just a means to an end: a way to wake up to this truth.
Riding free as air he buoyantly comes home
through evening mists in wide straw-hat and cape.
Wherever he may go he creates a fresh breeze,
while in his heart profound tranquillity prevails.
This Ox requires not a blade of grass.
Now you’re starting to get the hang of this awakening business – but don’t get cocky! The path may have become easier but you’re not enlightened yet. Your discipline has paid off and you’re happy riding the ox, playing a joyful tune on your flute. Old anxieties and fears no longer trouble you. You’ve overcome your conditioning and are able to freely express yourself.