I would like to seek guidance from the dear and venerable friends active in this forum in how should the message found in the MN 117 be taken as a serious and reliable reference for one’s practice.
How MN117 helped me
As background, let me share that after many years of frustration and confusion with regards to how to constructively engage in the Eightfold Path I came across this beautiful sutta.
Since then, I have only gained from constantly studying and pondering on its practical meaning and implications. From my personal experience, the message of MN117 has represented a major qualitative shift in my practice of the Buddha Dhamma.
By tackling a factor at a time, in the order suggested by the Buddha in this sutta, and in a progressive and cumulative way throughout my day, I have been able to benefit from a much smoother and fruitful contemplative routine - i.e. right effort and right mindfulness come almost naturally, and time by time glimpses of samadhi (previously randomly rare at best) are seen over the horizon. In a nutshell, I strongly acknowledge how a positive and inspiring feedback loop seems to arise as the Eightfold Path is taken as a guideline for practice in the way suggested in this sutta.
Before I came accross the MN117 I was always puzzled by those who take the standard, crude, cold and bullet-point definition of the Eightfold Path as a reliable reference for a meaningful practice:
“And what is right view? Knowledge with regard to stress, knowledge with regard to the origination of stress, knowledge with regard to the cessation of stress, knowledge with regard to the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress: This is called right view.”
— DN 22
Note how the above by-the-book definition of right view repeats four times the term knowledge - nyana / ñāṇa - which can also be translated as insight. I truly believe this is the definition one would expect to see used by a Buddha when talking to an arahant (or an arahant talking to another arahant) about the Path.
Speaking from the standpoint of someone who has fullfilled the Path by having seen by himself things as they are (yatha bhuta nyana dassana) both parties of such dialogue would refer to right view a posteriori of the fruition of the path - hence defining it in terms of the knowledge / insights that lead them to the right view itself.
However, for us, mere mortals (and serious beginners), simply reading knowledge of such and such cannot help much in bringing us close to the knowledge right?
Once again, the MN117 proved to me immensely helpful in setting things straight: I found in it the Buddha providing me right view a valuable starting point and decipherable assumption for the practice of the Eightfold Path.
Differently from what is usually found repeated accross the suttas (and much of modern day textbooks on Buddhism) Right View is presented in the MN117 as a first step with clear and perfectly verifiable practical links/ramifications to the following factors of the Path, leading to the very right knowledge which the standard and aforementioned definition right view alludes to. Moreover, it shows clearly how this very factor of right insight naturally flourishes / allows for right liberation - hence making the path Tenfold.
The sutta in question presents very clearly an expected causality between the elements of the path, starting from right view and ending in right knowledge and deliverance - having right concentration as the factor of the path which serves the border line between this end and the other end of the practice-fruition process:
“Therein, bhikkhus, right view comes first.
And how does right view come first?
In one of right view, right intention comes into being;
in one of right intention, right speech comes into being;
in one of right speech, right action comes into being;
in one of right action, right livelihood comes into being;
in one of right livelihood, right effort comes into being;
in one of right effort, right mindfulness comes into being;
in one of right mindfulness, right concentration comes into being;
in one of right concentration, right knowledge comes into being;
in one of right knowledge, right deliverance comes into being.
Thus, bhikkhus, the path of the disciple in higher training possesses eight factors, the arahant possesses ten factors."
I did some research and found this interesting article written by Bhikkhu Analayo on this specific sutta.
Ven. Analyo’s article is clearly interested in identifying how the addition of the
concept of a supramundane aspect of the path factors was probably a
Theravadin advent, linked to its Abhidhamma tradition.
Nevertheless, his study is very helpful in identifying that this is a discourse not unique to the Theravadin Canon, with very close parallels found in both Tibetan and Chinese Canons. Keep in mind that the Chinese version of the sutta does not contain the late and Abhidhamma-influenced concept of supra mundane path factors which Ven. Analayo’s article aims at questioning.
Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater
Having in mind avoiding the error of rejecting the essential along with the inessential, one should appreciate that Ven. Analayo’s artcile on the MN117 greatly serves to confirm the shared validity main topic of the discourse accross different Canons, which in practical terms historically isolated pictures of the early Buddhis texts:
In all the parallels listed and translated by Ven. Analayo one sees the same Buddha bringing the message of how the development of right concentration is based on / supported by the other path factors, in particular how the cooperation of right view, right effort and right mindfulness takes place to drive one’s meditative practice to a fruitful state. This is summarized accross the suttas / sutras as follows:
Right view gives rise to right intention,
right intention gives rise to right speech,
right speech gives rise to right action,
right action gives rise to right livelihood,
right livelihood gives rise to right effort,
right effort gives rise to right mindfulness,
and right mindfulness gives rise to right concentration.
The noble disciple who has in this way rightly concentrated the mind will swiftly eradicate sensual desire, ill-will and delusion.
The noble disciple who has in this way rightly liberated the mind, swiftly comes to know that birth has been extinguished, the holy life has been established, what had to be done has been done, there is no more becoming to be experienced, coming to know this as it truly is.
MN117 and a Right View that suits us all, serious beginners
Another important element of the MN117 and its parallels is the definition and presentation by the Buddha of how the factor of Right View constitutes very first step of the serial development of the Path presented in this discourse. Note that this is a practical doctrinal feature found not only in both Pali and Chinese versions but as well in the closest Tibetan parallels of this sutta (explored in Ven. Analayo’s paper aforementioned):
What is right view?
This view, namely:
‘there is [efficacy] in giving, there is [efficacy] in offerings,
there is [efficacy] in reciting hymns,
there are wholesome and evil deeds,
there is a result of wholesome and evil deeds,
there are this world and another world,
there is [obligation towards one’s] father or mother, in the world
there are true men who have reached a wholesome attainment, who are well gone and have progressed well, who by their own knowledge and experience abide in having themselves realized this world and the other world’
This is reckoned right view.
Last but not least, I would like to flag that in Analayo’s article one will find the very interesting comment quoted below, which tell us of how important it was for members of the early
Sangha to know very well this interestingly practical and insightful discourse of the Buddha:
MN117 as a key element of the pariyatti tool set of a Bhikkhu
“… according to [the Canon commentary] a monk should ask another
monk if he is a “reciter of the ‘great forty’”.
This question reflects the significance that was attached to the
present discourse, whose recall the commentaries considered an
indispensable requirement for being able to engage in a discussion on
the supramundane noble path.”
After some more research I found that it seems that the practical and serial approach to the Eightfold Path MN117 (and the Tenfold Path it implies) is frequently the subject of Dhamma talks by venerable bhikkhus of the Sinhalese forest Sangha (see some links to YouTube videos in Sinhalese below) and was at least once approached by our venerable friend Ajahn Sujato in a Dhamma talk at BSWA (see link below as well).