July 2, 2015 full moon
After Buddhism: A New Idiom for a Pragmatic, Ethical Culture Based on the Teachings of Gotama
An Interview with Stephen Batchelor
Stephen teaches courses on Buddhism and leads meditation retreats all over the world. He is a guiding teacher at Gaia House and translator and author of various books and articles including the bestselling Buddhism Without Beliefs, Living with the Devil: A Meditation on Good and Evil, and Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. Stephen’s new book, After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, will be available this fall. He will be teaching at BCBS this November.
Insight Journal: With proper caveats about speculation, you go after a historical Buddha in this book—a real, if extraordinary, flesh-and-blood person. You do this through careful research of the texts and commentaries, and also by creating, based on that research, historical sketches of several other people who were his contemporaries. Some we know, such as Ānanda; others we recall from certain texts, such as King Pasenadi; and others such as Mahānāma we might pass by without much thought; also wanderers or ascetics that the Buddha encounters such as Vacchagotta. You’ve carefully figured out all the kinship, political, and other relationships these people have to the Buddha. What do you hope to accomplish with that?
Stephen Batchelor: I’ve been working on trying to reconstruct the Buddha’s life and social-political-economic world for more than 10 years now. This project actually started out as the foundation for a screenplay. Reading Majjhima 89, the Dhammacetiya Sutta: Discourse on the Monuments to the Dhamma, which is the final meeting between Pasenadi and Gotama, I had this odd experience of suddenly seeing how the whole life held together, almost like “your life passing before your eyes.” That sutta provided me with the missing link, and suddenly I figured out how it all worked. Since then I’ve been trying to bolster that understanding by getting more and more data. The screenplay never came to anything. Then I worked on a six-part TV miniseries with the same material; that didn’t go anywhere. In between doing those two things, I wrote it as a novel: the life of the Buddha from the point of view of Ānanda, as he recalls it on the eve of the First Council. That took me a year or more; that didn’t go anywhere either. Nobody wanted to publish it.
The next attempt was in my book, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, where the second part of the book interweaves a travelogue through modern-day India, a pilgrimage as it were, with a reconstruction of the life. The attempt in my new book is by far the most detailed and I think probably the most assured reading.
The great difference is that this version relies on the work of W. W. Rockhill. Rockhill was an American diplomat who lived in China in the 19th century, a linguistic genius who must have been the first American to know Tibetan; he also produced a Chinese-English dictionary. In 1884 he published a life of the Buddha according to the Tibetan canon. This draws from material of equivalent antiquity to that of the Pāli Canon; it’s called the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, and he went through this in the 1870s and pulled out of it a story almost identical to the story that I reconstructed from the Pāli materials. Somewhat embarrassingly, I hadn’t actually read Rockhill until quite recently. I didn’t think the Tibetan material would be relevant. But I was wrong. The Tibetan Vinaya, from the Mūlasarvāstivāda, gives us the same story, with the same characters, and the same relationships—all of that detail. The two versions don’t agree in every detail, but they’re remarkably similar. So we actually have two independent sources, pretty much, that seem to be referring to a common source, that must have predated both, that would go back I think very close to the Buddha’s time. So all of that work, in a sense, has come to fruition in this book.
IJ: Was Rockhill familiar with the Pāli Canon?
SB: He was a polymath. He refers to Sanskrit sources, to Pāli sources; how well he knew those languages, I don’t know. I don’t think he knew the Pāli Canon in detail. Certainly none of that had been translated or published in his lifetime. If he had known about it, it would have been through his own reading of the Pāli, but judging by his footnotes, he doesn’t seem to have much sense of it. So he was working independently.
IJ: It’s remarkable that we have two seemingly independent sources that agree so well.
SB: Yes, very remarkable, and I’m amazed nobody else has spotted that. G. P. Malalasekera [a pioneering Sri Lankan scholar], who I refer to in my book, quotes Rockhill quite a lot, actually, but he never really draws together all the threads in a way that allows a coherent narrative to unfold. So I’m very excited that at this distance in time we do seem to have far more material than anyone might have guessed. The trouble of course is that all of these stories are scattered through the Canon and Vinaya.
So when you find yourself reading through the Majjhima Nikāya, for example, you simply don’t get a sense of who these people are. It takes an awfully long time to pick out all the little fragments and reassemble them. What’s amazing is that these characterizations are always consistent. Even if a person only appears half a dozen times in the Canon, that person will appear in a consistent guise on each occasion—which to me suggests that there must at one time have been a single, freestanding account, probably retained orally, that actually told the story of the Buddha’s life—that then got lost in its entirety, leaving only disconnected fragments in the Canon.
IJ: The theme for your analysis of the teachings might be that the Buddha was not a metaphysician, but more of a physician, a healer—that his method was pragmatic, ethical, and philosophical. He was helping us see what to do, rather than what to believe. You say he wanted “a task-based ethics rather than a truth-based metaphysics.” You say, “The point of the doctrine is not to provide a true account of reality but an effective framework for the performance of a task.” Could you say more about that?
SB: Well, one obvious value is that at a single stroke we can dispense with having to worry about ancient Indian cosmology and metaphysics. It’s no longer a question of either being pro or contra—the doctrine of reincarnation, let’s say. Such metaphysical claims no longer have significance. It’s as simple as that. It also allows us to go back to that other quote that I used to open, I think, Chapter 11, where the Buddha says, “I do not dispute with the world; the world disputes with me. What the wise in the world would agree upon as existing, I too say that exists. What the wise in the world agree upon as non-existing, I too say that does not exist.” [SN 22:94] Now that’s a powerful statement, and it supports my whole approach very well. (That’s why I quote it!) But to me it shows quite explicitly that the Buddha is not actually interested in getting his view of reality correct. That’s not what he’s into, whereas Buddhism, from the Abhidhamma on, has more or less committed itself to that sort of approach. In other words, enlightenment becomes a cognitive understanding of the true nature of reality. The person who’s got that, who’s arrived at it through meditation, that’s the person we consider enlightened, and if somebody’s account of the nature of reality doesn’t agree with that, then they’re not enlightened. So in other words, the whole discourse around enlightenment becomes about being cognitively correct or incorrect. The whole way in which Buddhist epistemology developed, certainly in India in the early centuries CE, was very much down that track. It didn’t question that assumption.
By approaching the Dhamma as a task-based ethics, we don’t have to deal with that anymore. It’s no longer relevant to get into a battle with beliefs, because beliefs, in one way or another, are not terribly significant, and we kind of miss the point. We get sidetracked, much as the Buddha said in the parable of the arrow [Cūḷamāluṅkya Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya 63], where the person just endlessly discusses what kind of arrow it was, what kind of bow it was, what kind of person shot it. Other texts too seem to be clear that the approach of the Dhamma is entirely pragmatic and therapeutic and ethical. That’s what it’s all about. And somehow that idea got lost as Buddhism mutated into a metaphysical religious system dominated by people who claimed to know “the truth.”
IJ: Your analysis of the texts of the Pāli canon uncovers what seem to be a lot of contradictions in how the teachings are portrayed. To uncover the historical Buddha, you have to peel away a lot of later additions. Your hypothesis is that these were added later to bolster Buddhism in its competition with other Indian traditions such as Brahmanism and Jainism. You quote the scholar Johannes Bronkhorst as saying how “the brahmins colonized the past.” You even note that the contradictions help us uncover what might have been there before those additions. Can you say more about what this means for us today?
SB: I doubt that a group of monks actually sat down around a table and said, “OK, how are we going to do this?” I have a feeling that what happened probably felt quite organic to the people who were doing it, much in the same way as what we’re doing here! People read this book that I’ve written, and many of those who are acculturated in the West and a secular humanist background like me will say, “Oh, of course.” But we’re no different from those people who did the original shape-changing all that time ago. I think this is just how the Dhamma moves from one culture to another.
So I don’t want to make a case that the earlier generations got it all wrong and now we clever Westerners have got it right. I don’t think that’s true. I can’t rule out that in another two or three hundred years, we’ll be seen as just a bunch of guys in a smoke-filled room configuring Buddhism to our liking.
But I don’t think that this is how it works. If the texts speak to you—not in an intellectual way, but actually speak to your human condition—you enter into a dialogue with the texts. In the course of that dialogue, you start to argue with the text. You start to notice the conflicting voices. You start to prefer certain voices that seem to be speaking to you more truly, more honestly, more usefully, and they’re the ones you privilege. And every Buddhist tradition, I think, has done something very similar. No Buddhist tradition gives equal weight to every word in the Canon. It’s impossible. Every tradition is based on a relatively small percentage of the overall canonical material, upon which it builds its own particular orthodoxy.
We do have certain advantages, such as easy access to materials through the internet, that make us able to collate this data much more easily than in the past. But I still feel the basic process is a slow, organic adaptation that occurs through an ongoing dialogue and conversation with the texts themselves.
Some will say, “Batchelor is just cherry-picking the bits he likes. He just selects the passages that agree with his secular worldview and ignores everything else.” That’s a very common criticism, and I think it’s a good criticism. That’s why at the beginning of the book I try to lay out a hermeneutic strategy.
If my sole criterion for valuing a text were whether or not it conflicts with my view of the world, that would be a very poor way of constructing a theological thesis. So I try to identify the distinctive elements in the Buddha’s teaching that can not be derived from other sources. I also lay out that the suttas probably have the most authority, then the Vinaya, and then commentaries. Sometimes I have to deal with material that I might prefer to say, “Oh, this must be something that was added later.” That’s the easy way out of a problem, but if that doesn’t agree with the criteria that I’ve established, then I have to keep it in.
IJ: You trace a line of thought about the rejection of views in the Book of Eights, a very old text, through Nāgārjuna’s teachings centuries later on emptiness, and finally to the Sŏn or Korean Zen teachings about “great doubt.” Walk us through the connections and how this understanding might help us to practice today.
SB: I feel that this is very much another aspect of the Buddha’s suspicion of metaphysics. In other words, he adopts a position that in Western philosophy we would call skepticism. Now skepticism, in the early [Greek] Pyrrhonian sense, simply meant to always be inquiring, to not assume that there was a final end to your inquiry, and to valorize the quality of inquiry as a perspective, a sensibility that somehow underpins your whole practice. We see this in the Book of the Eights of the Atthakavagga; it’s very explicit, and as you point out, it also resurfaces in Nāgārjuna, but it resurfaces in Nāgārjuna by way of the Discourse to Kaccānagotta [S. 12:15], which again I make into a rather important sutta in my own presentation. It’s about finding a middle way that is not premised on the dualism of being or non-being, it is or it is not. Nāgārjuna then takes that starting point and develops his whole philosophy of emptiness. Likewise in Ch’an or Sŏn Buddhism, we have this very persistent emphasis on questioning, perplexity, or doubt.
In terms of its practice, this kind of questioning unavoidably entails suspending whether something either is or is not the case. If you ask, “Where is Boston?” and you don’t know where Boston is, you can’t say that it’s in Massachusetts or it’s not in Massachusetts—you just don’t know. So you’re put into a quandary where you simply hold the quality of questioning as a value in its own right. That I feel is quite compatible with the suspension of metaphysical belief; it’s also compatible with a kind of ongoing skepticism, inquiry, and examination of the condition you’re in, without being prejudiced with any particular habits, views, or opinions that you might have formed. It’s about keeping a very open mind, concerning yourself not with what is right or wrong, true or false, but with what is the most skillful, compassionate way to respond to this condition you find yourself in here and now. It’s not having a sort of a game plan that is already encoded in your belief system that you somehow just apply.
IJ: So we don’t have to wait until we feel like we have a perfectly coherent intellectual understanding of everything before we proceed to practice.
SB: Well, if it were, you’d never get round to practicing—that’s the problem. Orthodoxies, of course, like to suggest that that’s the case. That until you’ve understood the Buddha’s teaching—and usually that’s code for “Until you’ve understood our orthodox interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching”—you don’t have any authority that qualifies you as someone who can make any claims on your own behalf. It’s also political: claiming to have insight into an ultimate metaphysical truth is how representatives of a given orthodoxy maintain their authority over the unenlightened. So it also has a knock-on effect on the hierarchies and the political structures that Buddhism has evolved. You can’t separate metaphysics from issues of control and power.
IJ: To sum up about the value of this analysis for those of us practicing today, talk about the recasting of the Four Noble Truths as the Four Great Tasks. Why do you think that is closer to what the Buddha had in mind, and why is it helpful to us today? What would we be doing differently?
SB: Well, in some ways you may not be doing much different at all in terms of your actual day-to-day practice. But you will be operating from a different set of assumptions. I feel that in many ways each of the tasks is obviously a practice. But you’ll find that the practice, for example, of comprehending dukkha or embracing life as you might put it more colloquially, is an umbrella term that covers most Buddhist practices, from just a simple practice of mindfulness, to a practice of philosophical inquiry in Madhyamaka Buddhism, to a practice of Zen. They’re all ways of embracing dukkha, coming to terms with the condition that we are in.
What I find strange is that what is considered to be the first discourse, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, does in fact conclude with this “fully knowing dukkha, letting go of craving,” etcetera. But that language and that model somehow got lost. You find very, very few references in the Canon, in the suttas, to that sort of terminology. So I’ve tried to restore that terminology and paradigm.
In my own practice, I find it makes a big difference. I find that mindfulness, or let’s say Zen practice, no longer have to be thought of as being in any way in competition with one another. They’re just different ways of getting a handle on life. It somehow opens up a much more pluralistic kind of practice.
Take pariññā, which I translate as “comprehend.” Literally, pari means “around” or “about.” It means a kind of awareness that tries to look at things from as many different angles as possible. It’s a comprehensive kind of attention rather than one that focuses on a single point. That is something that one cultivates over the course of one’s life, which can lead into another rapport, another relationship with life as a whole, and that relationship in itself, I feel, begins to erode the habitual patterns of activity which commit you to a particular stance centered around “me”: getting what I want and getting rid of what I don’t like, a governing perspective that determines how most people, perhaps all people, lead their lives.
So we begin to see that there’s a very intimate connection between embracing the condition we’re in—which of course includes the reactivity that’s part of our dukkha—and having that embrace morph into a kind of release, which sounds paradoxical. But the more we embrace and open our hearts and minds in the deeper sense, the more that exposes the pettiness of our reactivity. We cease to be so much in thrall to it. It begins to fade away of its own nature, until we arrive at moments where we suddenly realize, “Oh, well—that’s stopped!” That reactivity is no longer such a dominant force. We’ve opened up a kind of clearing, a space within in which we’re no longer determined or conditioned by reactivity. That is nirvana. And it’s from that nirvanic experience that new possibilities open up.
So what I’ve done is taken the Four Noble Truths and “torqued” them into another shape. This reconfiguration enables us to revise the standard understanding of causality that underpins them. So instead of seeing craving as the cause of suffering, and the Noble Eightfold Path as what leads to the end of suffering, I’ve turned that on its head. The experience of dukkha is actually what gives rise to reactivity. And the experience of nibbāna is what allows the possibility of another way of life on this world.
Now there’s plenty of material in the Canon that supports that kind of reading, but orthodoxies, whether they’re Theravādan, Zen, or Tibetan, or whatever, have all more or less opted—in perfectly good faith—for the Four Noble Truths model with its two-fold causality built in.
So in offering a critique of the traditional view of the “operating system” of the Four Noble Truths, I’m basically attempting to re-write the operating system of the Dharma itself, at least as it’s been widely taught up to now. This is not going to go down terribly well, I suspect. But it’s very much the outcome or the fruition of all of the work and study I’ve been doing for the last 40-odd years. To me, it’s an entirely natural outcome from what I’ve been doing.
That’s basically what After Buddhism is trying to do. It’s trying to give that perspective the kind of canonical grounding that I feel would be necessary to be able to say, “This is another way in which we can do Buddhadharma.” It has as much canonical authority, I would argue, as that of the Four Noble Truths in the standard kind of orthodox views that we’re familiar with.
IJ: Do we need a whole new language game, to borrow the idea from Wittgenstein, whom you quote a few times?
SB: I think Wittgenstein’s idea of the language game is exactly what is evolving in the Western Dharma world. And I think in these sorts of conversations, books, discussions, and debates—although people get very hot under the collar about maintaining their position or their point—what’s actually going on, if we step back a bit, is the emergence of an idiom. We’re struggling and groping to find a language that speaks English, rather than what a friend of mine calls “Bunglish,” Buddhist English. Someone else calls it “Buddhist Hybrid English,” which is just jargon, really. This kind of speech might work perfectly well if you’re doing a retreat at IMS but sounds like gobbledygook when you go back home and try to explain to your family. So we do need to find a language that is both true to the tradition and the original discourses, but also is current in our own lexicon, in our own way of speaking in the 21st century. That’s not easy. How exactly it will play out, we don’t know. But yes, we’re trying to develop another language.
IJ: Would you encourage more people to study the texts themselves? Your insights appear to make this seem more fruitful for more people; it provides a wonderful set of analytical tools, in a way. How would people go about this?
SB: Whatever practice you’re doing, you cannot but be doing that in the framework of certain assumptions, ideas, preferences, and beliefs. You can’t get around that. You’re not a machine. You’re a philosophical being. So to deepen practice I think you can benefit enormously from a study of the canonical texts. And we’re extremely fortunate in the English-speaking world to have not only one, but several complete translations of the entire Canon. That’s extraordinary. In any other European language, you don’t even get close to the amounts of materials that we have available in English. We owe an extraordinary debt of gratitude to people all the way from T. W. and Caroline Rhys Davids, right through to Bhikkhu Bodhi and Ajahn Thanissaro today, for the incredible work they’ve done. It makes available a body of material that otherwise would be inaccessible to anyone apart from specialists in Pāli, Sanskrit, and Chinese.
Ultimately, I think, if you are to work with these Pāli texts, you do need some grasp of the Pāli language. There’s no way around that. If you don’t, then the best thing is to use as many different translations as you can of a single text and compare them. That will at least give you a sense of the range of possible translations. Also, look them up in the Pāli-English dictionary. It’s not terribly difficult. You don’t have to know all the syntax and the grammar and have a huge vocabulary. The words that obsess us the most are very, very key terms. What we really want to know is, “What is this word getting at?” We can get a certain amount from comparing the different translations. But also—and this is the real insight—it is what we gain through our practice including inquiry into what these things mean. In the end, it’s up to each practitioner to arrive at an understanding that they can articulate, in a language that speaks to them, their community, and their condition. Perhaps it doesn’t replicate what Bhikkhu Bodhi said or what Rhys Davids said, but it articulates these values in a way that is founded on experience as well as learning. It is founded on an ongoing inquiry rather than dogmatic conclusions.
IJ: Why do you prefer “the sublime” to “the sacred”?
SB: The background here is to remember that I was not brought up in a Christian family. I never identified as a Christian. I was brought up in a humanist, non-theistic world. I was educated in that world, and I’ve never really been able to make much sense of words like “God” or “the sacred.” The same goes for “the absolute” or “the non-dual” or other terms borrowed from Vedanta. That language doesn’t speak to me. And I’m somewhat uncomfortable when Buddhists start employing these terms. It seems like a last-ditch attempt to keep God in the picture somewhere, even though we don’t call it God. I think we have to go beyond God language altogether. There is a dimension of our experience—certainly as soon as we start doing mindfulness practice—that we open up to a kind of humility within ourselves with regard to the overwhelming experience of finding ourselves as this brief, little human being in a vast universe, that actually brings our minds to a stop. We’re simply thrown into a condition of awe or wonder. My sense is that Buddhism is not concerned at all with trying to say what that overwhelming sense of awe or wonder is about. What it’s interested in doing is cultivating certain forms of practice that actually make us more receptive to that kind of experience.
Again, I would go back to the same sources, the Book of the Eights, the suspicion of “is” and “is not,” the middle way between eternalism and nihilism, and the kind of questioning you find in Zen, of simply being able to enter the world in an open-minded, questioning kind of way.
Some of the Romantic poets did something somewhat similar. Coleridge, for example, talked of “the sublime” as the suspension of the powers of comparison. That’s not in my current book, it’s in Verses from the Center [Stephen Batchelor, 2001 –Ed.]. This again is something similar. It’s about learning to drop certain habits of mind that cause our experience of ourselves in the world to be very narrow, limited, self-interested, and driven by our wants and our dislikes. I think what Buddhist practice does is dismantle or erode that whole reactive strategy. One of the ways it does this is by encouraging us, as much as we can, to live in a state of questioning and inquiry. If that questioning and inquiry operate within the frame of a therapeutic practice, then that, I think, allows them to become more emotionally and bodily embedded in experiences that poets would call “the sublime.”
Now, if people are comfortable with words like “sacred” and so on, I don’t have a big issue with that. It just doesn’t work in my case. But I find the notion of the sublime a very helpful one. Admittedly, in our culture it becomes somewhat misused. But if we go back to its sources, it is a conveniently non-theological term that doesn’t have the whiff of God about it, even though some theologians have tried to turn it into a theology (Rudolf Otto, for example). But it allows us to come to an understanding of our experience in which the narrowness of our self-perspective is gone. The openness to the wonder of experience, if anything, is greatly enhanced. We can locate that experience as a part of the experience of nirvana, the unconditioned, the deathless, which opens up to a way of life, the Eightfold Path. And if we use the language of the sublime, this also allows us, I think, to valorize imagination and creativity as part of the process. It’s an experience that actually can become a turning point in how we express ourselves in the world, of how we relate to other people, of how we write poetry or music or art. That, to me, is a bit that is often missing in Buddhism—how does Buddhism understand the interface between contemplative experience and the making of art, poetry, or music? By bringing in notions of the sublime, as opposed to the sacred, we keep the experience as an aspect of our own tradition that is very intimately involved with imagination and creativity.
So I guess I’m confessing that my approach to the Dhamma is not that of a scientist or a technologist, but more that of a poet or an artist. I also start feeling uncomfortable when I hear claims such as, “Buddhism is a science of the mind.” I think that’s going off in the wrong direction. I’m looking for a vision—a framework—of how to live my life that will valorize creativity, imagination, poetry, and beauty. And the term that I currently use is that of “the everyday sublime.” I feel the sublime is not reducible to magnificent sunsets and vast views of the Himalayas. If you look carefully and mindfully at the tiniest detail of what’s going on, that is just as awe-inspiring as the stars in the night sky. When you look at a leaf or a blade of grass—very Zen, I suppose—that’s the sublime. The sublime has to be here and now. Your American artist, Barnett Newman, wrote an essay in the ‘60s called “The Sublime is Now.” That is a phrase I found very helpful and it seems to me central to the experience of mindfulness or Sŏn practice.
IJ: We first heard some of the ideas in this book at the conference on secular Buddhism here at BCBS in 2013. Have your feelings about the word “secular” changed?
SB: To be honest, in the writing of this book I’ve become a little more cautious in my use of the word “secular.” I don’t really know whether it’s so helpful to frame this argument in terms of whether it’s secular or religious, and to get into that debate. I think it is an important debate, but I don’t want to sideline what I think is far more important: whether we think of ourselves as being secular or religious Buddhists, we are involved in a much broader process than that of our own self-interest. We find ourselves as part of a growing community that is practicing similar values with deep sincerity—even though we may not agree with each other all the time—and the consequence of that will be the emergence of a culture. I think that such a “culture of awakening” has been evolving now for the last twenty or thirty years at least. There are certain signal moments such as the publication of Tricycle magazine, for example, which broke the mold of the parochial Buddhist newsletters that used to be all you could get. Suddenly you have a magazine that actually includes everybody and is non-denominational.
But the reason I want to emphasize culture is to get outside this idea that what we have to do is create another version of the Buddhist religion. Can we imagine a society and a practice that doesn’t carry any of the conventional tropes of religion—in other words, none of the devotional icons, prayers, incense, set dogmatic views, or non-negotiable beliefs? I find it dispiriting that some teachers still claim that “you can’t be a Buddhist unless you believe in reincarnation.”
If we can get around that kind of thinking and bring people together into a framework of value, meaning, purpose, and practice, it starts generating other possibilities of human culture. That’s something I’m very passionate about. And I’d far rather expend my energies working toward such a vision than setting up some sort of institution or defining things in a more narrow way.
I do think that parable of the city [Nagara Sutta: The City, SN 12.65 – Ed.]* is a very good foundation on which to develop that. It gets you back to the idea of people working together to produce something that they will then share and enjoy together—the building of a city. So it’s also about community and about providing imagery and metaphors that can help us work in a more creative and fruitful way together.
“It is just as if a man, traveling along a wilderness track, were to see an ancient path, an ancient road, traveled by people of former times. He would follow it. Following it, he would see an ancient city, an ancient capital inhabited by people of former times, complete with parks, groves, & ponds, walled, delightful. He would go to address the king or the king’s minister, saying, ‘Sire, you should know that while traveling along a wilderness track I saw an ancient path… I followed it… I saw an ancient city, an ancient capital… complete with parks, groves, & ponds, walled, delightful. Sire, rebuild that city!’ The king or king’s minister would rebuild the city, so that at a later date the city would become powerful, rich, & well-populated, fully grown & prosperous.
“In the same way I saw an ancient path, an ancient road, traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times. And what is that ancient path, that ancient road, traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times? Just this noble eightfold path: right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. That is the ancient path, the ancient road, traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times…”*
*Nagara Sutta: The City (SN 12.65), translated from the Pāli by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.