The Atthakavagga, or Book of Eights, is one of a group of texts that is considered to be one of the earliest in the Buddhist canon, although there is no reliable date of composition. The Atthakavagga itself, comprises sixteen poems. [I am using the 2016 translation by Gil Fronsdal] Another text in the group is a poem titled, An Auspicious Day. It includes the following lines:
Don’t chase the past
Or long for the future.
The past is left behind;
The future is not yet reached.
Have insight into whatever phenomenon is present,
Right where it is;
Not faltering not agitated,
By knowing whatever is present
One develops the mind.
In another poem in the same group of texts we find these lines:
Let what was in the past fade away,
Make nothing of the future.
If you don’t cling to what is in the present,
You can wander about calm.
The Book of Eights is about the qualities that a wise person (a sage – including the Buddha) manifests. Fronsdal argues that the sage, as portrayed in the Book of Eights, “is not interested in doctrines as much as how people relate to them. Freedom isn’t found through doctrines, though it does require not clinging to them”. Clinging to views, concepts, beliefs and doctrines tends to lead to disturbance, argument and conflict. The primary characteristics of the sage are: peace and equanimity or composure. It is these qualities that constitute freedom (from suffering).
Fronsdal also makes the point that in the Book of Eights there is almost no reference to attainment of “transcendent or extraordinary states of consciousness” or “psychic powers” – instead there is repeated mention of peace and equanimity, and ethical behaviour, the “qualities of inner virtue or character” manifested by a sage. “Such a person advocates peace, sees and knows peace, is at peace, and is peaceful”. However, the sage does not “depend on peace or intentionally take it up; instead, they let go”. Indeed, it is only by letting go, even of the search for peace, that peace is realised.
For the sage, it is not just that, I have peace of mind, it is that I am at peace with this or that idea, this or that person, the world and its ways. I am at peace with myself and with existence.
Fronsdal: “Sages know and see what is not harmonious and what is dangerous. They know the problems that come from pride and holding on to opinions. They see how people thrash about, get elated and deflated in their disputes, speak with arrogance and cling to teachings. By having insights into these afflictive states, a wise person knows not to get involved with them and to let go of them”.
The Book of Eights also makes clear that the qualities of a sage can be developed and realised by anyone – not by help gained from gods, gurus, or other people or external forces (an opinion that would have been considered unusual by contemporaries of the author) – but by practicing these qualities in one’s own daily life: “One trains by being what one is training to become. If the goal is to be peaceful, the way there is to be peaceful”.
The Book of Eights describes how to realise peace by: letting go of lust or “the craving for sensual pleasure”; letting go of clinging to self/perceptions/ideas by being present and mindful; “shaking off every view” – the clinging to views/doctines/beliefs that lead to conflict and disturbance; “nothing to grasp” – letting go of, rather than grasping at, anything – it is the clinging or craving that is more of a problem, than the object of clinging/craving; “living without conflict” – by letting go of absolutes, truth claims and dogmatic beliefs, sages “lay down their burden” and are at peace. “There is no peace in clinging”.
Fronsdal points out that there are some concepts notably not mentioned in the Book of Eights: eternity; deathlessness or reincarnation; peace as a transcendent, abstract state. This would have been seen as extraordinary by the author’s contemporaries, when beliefs in these concepts were widely held and seen as self-evident. The Book of Eights may well have been viewed as a radical departure from, and critique of, ideas and beliefs current at that time.
The Buddha before Buddhism: wisdom from the early teachings (a translation of the Atthakavagga with commentary) by Gil Fronsdal. Shambhala, 2016.