The Graduated Path

Ajahn Sucitto

The Graduated Path

Many Buddhists will be familiar with the Eightfold Noble Path, but this is just one example of the Path, one that was given to those whose minds were already prepared through training.

For those who had no previous training and weren’t committed to his teaching, the Buddha presented something of a more general relevance: a way of turning the heart towards its values and strengths. Through taking up this, a person would gain the view and the assurance that there is a way of progress, to be practised in oneself, and that it leads to the well-being of liberation – even if this is the relative liberation of not feeling so helpless.

This initial presentation is called the ‘graduated path’: it begins with generosity and sharing (dāna), and goes on to morality or integrity (sīla) and then, through pointing out the unsatisfying and stressful nature of materialism, encourages simplicity, restraint and renunciation (nekkhamma).

As these values become firmly established, the mind comes out of wrong views and fantasies and is ready for the teachings on the Four Noble Truths.

Although this graduated path may seem to be of a basic nature that we could easily get, or even skip over for more esoteric teachings, I don’t think the Buddha wasted his time in presenting soft options. Instead I consider this graduated path to be essential, to be constantly cultivated, and of far-reaching significance for the world in general.

Even after forty years of practice, I still seek and enjoy development in terms of this graduated path, looking for how I can give and share to people and other creatures, to how I can broaden my field of ethical concern, and how I can live in a way that uses material resources with wise restraint. And as anyone who sees the effect of unbridled materialism will agree, there is a need for all of us to live in accord with these values.

To practise sharing and cooperation and harmlessness and respect to all forms of life, as well as aligning our use of planetary resources to what is sustainable for the biosphere is an increasingly obvious responsibility.

Either we put a check on our desires or the planet deteriorates, and we’re in very deep trouble. It’s good to see that many people now get it: there are international movements and gatherings that indicate a shift of attitude that echoes what the Buddha meant by dāna, sīla and nekkhamma.

On the other end of the spectrum, with regard to personal liberation and the realization of nibbāna, the sensitivity and strengths that the graduated path develop in the mind are a necessity to counteract the push of self-obsession and bias.

Liberation means that in any degree, in any circumstance, that push is lessened – even if it’s just to the extent that we’re less self-critical or less compulsively busy.

Taken as a whole then, there is never a time when the teachings on giving, on non-abuse and on developing a life beyond material self-interest aren’t relevant.

This reflection by Ajahn Sucitto is from the article, The Graduated Path, (pdf) pp. 3-4.