The second element of the Eightfold path is samma sankappa. Sometimes this is translated as ‘Right Thought’, thinking in the right way. However, it actually has more of a dynamic quality – like ‘intention’, ‘attitude’ or ‘aspiration’. I like to use ‘aspiration’ which is somehow very meaningful in this Eightfold Path – because we do aspire.
It is important to see that aspiration is not desire. The Pali word ‘tanha’ means desire that comes out of ignorance, whereas ‘sankappa’ means aspiration not coming from ignorance. Aspiration might seem like a kind of desire to us because in English we use the word ‘desire’ for everything of that nature – either aspiring or wanting. You might think that aspiration is a kind of tanha, wanting to become enlightened (bhava tanha) – but samma sankappa comes from Right Understanding, seeing clearly. It is not wanting to become anything; it is not the desire to become an enlightened person. With Right Understanding, that whole illusion and way of thinking no longer makes sense.
Aspiration is a feeling, an intention, attitude or movement within us. Our spirit rises, it does not sink downwards – it is not desperation! When there is Right Understanding, we aspire to truth, beauty and goodness. Samma ditthi and samma sankappa, Right Understanding and Right Aspiration, are called panna or wisdom and they make up the first of the three sections in the Eightfold Path.
We can contemplate: Why is it that we still feel discontented, even when we have the best of everything? We are not completely happy even if we have a beautiful house, a car, the perfect marriage, lovely bright children and all the rest of it – and we are certainly not contented when we do not have all these things!….If we don’t have them, we can think, ‘Well, if I had the best, then I’d be content.’ But we wouldn’t be. The earth is not the place for our contentment; it’s not supposed to be. When we realise that, we no longer expect contentment from planet earth; we do not make that demand.
Until we realise that this planet cannot satisfy all our wants, we keep on asking, ‘Why can’t you make me content, Mother Earth?’ We are like little children who suckle their mother, constantly trying to get the most out of her and wanting her always to nurture and feed them and make them feel content.
If we were content, we would not wonder about things. Yet we do recognise that there is something more than just the ground under our feet; there is something above us that we cannot quite understand. We have the ability to wonder and ponder about life, to contemplate its meaning. If you want to know the meaning of your life, you cannot be content with material wealth, comfort and security alone.
So we aspire to know the truth. You might think that that is a kind of presumptuous desire or aspiration, ‘Who do I think I am? Little old me trying to know the truth about everything.’ But there is that aspiration. Why do we have it if it is not possible? Consider the concept of ultimate reality. An absolute or ultimate truth is a very refined concept; the idea of God, the Deathless or the immortal, is actually a very refined thought. We aspire to know that ultimate reality. The animal side of us does not aspire; it does not know anything about such aspirations. But there is in each of us an intuitive intelligence that wants to know; it is always with us but we tend to not notice it; we do not understand it. We tend to discard or mistrust it – especially modern materialists. They just think it is fantasy and not real.
As for myself, I was really happy when I realised that the planet is not my real home. I had always suspected it. I can remember even as a small child thinking, ‘I don’t really belong here.’ I have never particularly felt that planet Earth is where I really belong – even before I was a monk, I never felt that I fitted into the society. For some people, that could be just a neurotic problem, but perhaps it could also be a kind of intuition children often have. When you are innocent, your mind is very intuitive. The mind of a child is more intuitively in touch with the mysterious forces than most adult minds are. As we grow up we become conditioned to think in very set ways and to have fixed ideas about what is real and what is not. As we develop our egos, society dictates what is real and what is not, what is right and what is wrong, and we begin to interpret the world through these fixed perceptions. One thing we find charming in children is that they don’t do that yet; they still see the world with the intuitive mind that is not yet conditioned.
Meditation is a way of deconditioning the mind which helps us to let go of all the hard-line views and fixed ideas we have. Ordinarily, what is real is dismissed while what is not real is given all our attention. This is what ignorance (avijja) is.
The contemplation of our human aspiration connects us to something higher than just the animal kingdom or the planet earth. To me that connection seems more true than the idea that this is all there is; that once we die our bodies rot and there is nothing more than that. When we ponder and wonder about this universe we are living in, we see that it is very vast, mysterious and incomprehensible to us. However, when we trust more in our intuitive mind, we can be receptive to things that we may have forgotten or have never been open to before – we open when we let go of fixed, conditioned reactions.
We can have the fixed idea of being a personality, of being a man or a woman, being an English person or an American. These things can be very real to us, and we can get very upset and angry about them. We are even willing to kill each other over these conditioned views that we hold and believe in and never question. Without Right Aspiration and Right Understanding, without panna, we never see the true nature of these views.