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8 Rights: The Noble Eightfold Path — the Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching

8 Rights: The Noble Eightfold Path — the Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching

The Noble Eightfold Path distinguishes itself from many teachings in its positive, affirmative nature. Many spiritual teachings consist of “dont’s” — don’t do this, don’t do that. The Noble Eightfold Path speaks in positive, warm terms. Implied within the concept of “right” might be its opposite, “wrongs” — but Buddha taught self empowerment, not prohibitions. He taught the Eightfold Path in his first teaching at Deer Park.

(The full text of that teaching is at the end of this feature. It is short and makes a good “daily” read. In this teaching he introduced the Four Noble Truths, the concept of the Middle Way, and the Eightfold Path.)

Virtuous acts of compassion exemplify the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. Here, Buddha, often metaphorically called the “Doctor” helps a sick monk.

Buddha taught the “cure” to the disease of suffering, not by trying to govern us with “can’t” dos — but by coaching us on what we can do.

(In other words, in our concise examples below, illustrating the eight “rights”, if we say “do not swear” or “do not lie” this is a western cultural bias on our part. Buddha taught in much more affirmative terms. It’s just easier to say, “for example, do not lie” when we’re speaking about right speech.)

The Disease of Suffering and the Medicine of the Noble Path

Most precious in Buddhism are the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. As practicing Buddhists — regardless of school or level of practice — we take refuge in the Three Jewels each day. The Buddha is often described with the metaphor of “the Doctor”, the Dharma as “the medicine” and the Sangha as the supporting caregivers. Underlying this concept of medicine is the Buddha’s original and core “prescription” (Dharma teaching) — the Noble Eightfold Path. This path is not as simple as we’re about to map out, but having a high level “essence” view of the entire path, in as concise a form as possible, can be very helpful to practice.

 

Death, old age, suffering are expressed in the Four Noble Truths — along with a “prescription” for overcoming this suffering.

 

Before giving the “prescription”, Buddha first taught the Four Noble Truths, the Truth of Suffering, metaphorically, the “disease” we are treating.

“What, monks, is the truth of suffering? Birth is suffering, decay, sickness and death are suffering. To be separated from what you like is suffering. To want something and not get it is suffering. In short, the human personality, liable as it is to clinging and attachment brings suffering.” [1]

If this suffering is the disease, the prescription was the Eightfold Path. Although described alternately with the metaphor of “path” and “steps on the path” this teaching is not linear.

Not a Step-by-Step Teaching: Simultaneous Rights

“Right” might be the wrong word, an indelicate translation. It implies moral code and rules, which is not the true sense of the Eightfold Path. The word path might be slightly misleading too, because the “Eight Rights” are taken together as simultaneous and equally vital, meant to be transformative and complete. In other words, we don’t work on Right Speech first, then move on to Right Livelihood; they’re inextricably bound together. By taking them together, we bring the Dharma into our every-day lives.

 

The Buddha gives a teaching.

 

Buddha’s Word: The Eightfold Path

“This is the noble eightfold way, namely, right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right attention, right concentration, and right meditation.” — Shakyamuni Buddha at Deerpark

The word “right” (sometimes translated as “correct”) doesn’t imply there are also eight “wrongs.” There are no “thou shalt nots” in Buddhist teachings as a rule. This is an English translation of a concept that goes beyond right and wrong. It recognizes that action, in daily living, is Dharma.

As with all Buddhist teachings, we are asked to consider, contemplate and live the teachings. We are not asked to take anything on faith — it’s about self-discovery of the truth of the Buddha’s teachings.

Just as a quick overview, here is a tight synopsis of the eight “rights” — necessarily incomplete, but containing the gist.

In summary:

  • Right Understanding
  • Right Intent
  • Right Speech
  • Right Action
  • Right Livelihood
  • Right Effort
  • Right Mindfulness
  • Right Concentration.

1. Right Understanding

Right Understanding is clear knowledge of the Four Noble Truths, encompassing the “Three Basic Facts of Existence”: Anicca (Impermanence), Anatta (Pali for “non self” or “insubstantiality”; in Sankrit Anatman) and Dukkha (suffering or unsatisfactoriness). These are big topics, and we look to the Dharma teachings and commentaries, our own teachers, our own insight meditations for guidance on “right understanding.” Without understanding the Four Noble Truths (the “diseases”) of what use is the “cure” (The Eightfold Path)?

The wheel classically symbolizes the Buddha’s precious Eightfold Path teaching.

 

2. Right Thoughts

With clear knowledge, clear thinking follows suit. This is known as initial application (of knowledge).

Thoughts mould a person’s nature and direct their course and direction of action. Unwholesome thoughts will debase and erode a person’s character over time, while wholesome thoughts will lift him/her higher and higher up.

In particular, Right Thoughts are:

  • Renunciation (Nekkhamma) of worldly pleasures, and selflessness (altruism). This is opposed to insatiable desires and selfishness.
  • Loving-kindness (Metta) or good will towards people, including yourself; which is opposed to hatred, ill-will, aversion, dislike, detest and spite.
  • Harmlessness (Avihimsa) or compassion, as opposed to cruelty and callousness.

3. Right Speech

Verbal expression and communication need to match Right Thoughts. For instance, you are cursing and swearing, or being harsh and abusive, your thoughts will certainly match your speech, and vice versa.

 

The Buddha first taught the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. 

 

The specifics are:

  • Firstly, avoid speaking lies, slander, harsh words, and indulging in frivolous chatter (gossips, idle talk etc.)
  • Secondly, as mentioned earlier, a harmless mind that generates loving-kindness cannot be giving vent to harsh speech, which first debases the speaker, then hurts the listener(s).Last but not least, what is spoken should not only be true, but also sweet and gentle. If your comment is true, but hurtful and unnecessary / unconstructive; then just keep your noble silence.

 

 

4. Right Action

With good thoughts and wholesome speech, naturally, your actions have to be compatible. In particular, abstinence from killing, stealing and sexual misconduct (rape / molestation / deception / abuse). These three unwholesome deeds are caused by craving and anger, coupled to ignorance.

With the gradual elimination of these kammic causes (evil mental / verbal / physical actions) from your mind and body, blameworthy / bad tendencies will find no outlet nor route to express themselves.

 

Rebirth wheel and reincarnation cycle
The wheel of suffering is a graphic visualization of all forms of suffering, illustrating the concepts of karma. Right actions and right livelihood help break the chain of negative karma that keeps us in the trap of Samsara.

 

5. Right Livelihood

If you feel good about your job, it’s probably right livelihood. Do you help people? As long as you harm no one — and that would include the environment, since that impacts all beings — then it’s right livelihood. Buddha wouldn’t put things in a negative context, but it should be obvious that any attempt at purifying thoughts, words and actions would be severely hindered by five kinds of trade / business / job that clearly are NOT right livelihood:

  • Weapons (arms) production
  • Human slavery
  • Breeding of animals for slaughter / slaughtering animals per se
  • Illegal drugs (narcotics), alcohol, cigarettes and the like: producing anything known to be bad for sentient beings
  • Poisons: producing poisons, pollution and other harmful substances.

Hypocritical conduct is cited as wrong livelihood for monks.

 

 

6. Right Effort

To do anything in life requires determination, persistence and energy. The sustained, lifelong practice of the Noble Eightfold Path, to lead a pure and spiritual life, is the very definition of Right Effort. Right effort includes developing good habits, such as practicing right mindfulness, right meditation and other positive moral acts in your daily life — not just occasionally.

7. Right Mindfulness

Zen Mindfulness can be achieved many ways, including concentrated activities
Mindfulness can be achieved many ways, including concentrated activities such as “being one with the skateboard” or martial arts. See our previous story on the skateboarder who practiced mindfulness>>

The practice of Right Mindfulness, in particular, requires Right Effort. It is the constant watching / observation of your own body and actions, feelings, thoughts and mental objects (your imagination / images in your mind).

This self-observation is useful in two major ways:

  • It complements Vipassana (Insight) Meditation. As a subset to insight, it helps you gain better understanding of yourself, the ever-changing (impermanent) nature of your own mind and body.
  • It enables you to check any subconscious or careless mental / verbal / physical actions that are negative or bad.

Anapanasati, mindfulness of breath, helps cultivate the seven factors of awakening as defined the Anapanasati Sutta:

There are also subsets, such as the “mindfulness of feelings” which can help one overcome afflictive emotions such as anger. (See this story on Mindfulness of Feelings, Mahamudra Teachings)

8. Right Meditation

Simply put, Right Meditation is deep concentration or total focus. The purpose is to train your mind to obey you and not the other way round.

When you start practicing meditation, you will be shocked that your mind controls you, and how unruly it is, like a three-year child. (Sometimes we call it “monkey mind” because it won’t settle.) All sorts of thoughts will go and on in your mind. Initially, it will be like wrestling with a bull, or trying to ride a wild horse without getting thrown off. But, with persistence, strength and determination, you will gradually find it easier and easier to focus your mind. The key is to become the “observer.” Don’t judge what you observe, simply observe such as it is. Stay in the present, mindfully observing.

 

Shakyamuni Buddha meditated under the Bodhi Tree, ultimately attaining enlightenment. He wrestled with temptations, demons, and vile cravings. Mindfully watching these cravings or thoughts as an observer can help the meditator, ultimately, conquer obstacles.

 

Once you have succeeded in focusing your mind on a point, you can direct it / wield it, like a laser pointer. So, where do you point your laser-sharp and mirror-clear mind at? The answer is – the Five Aggregates that make up ‘you’. The Five Skandas (Aggregates or ‘heaps’) is a topic of its own, but in brief it is the realization that the Five Skandas entirely constitute sentient existence. The Skandas are: form (‘rupa’ or body), sensations (‘vedana’ or feelings), perceptions (‘samjna’), mental activity (‘sankhara’ or formations), and consciousness (‘vijnana’). These, interestingly, correspond to the Five Buddha Families (yet another feature story in its own right).

A popular visualized Buddha for “visualization meditation” is Medicine Buddha, a form of Shakyamuni Buddha. By visualizing healing blue light flowing from Buddha to your own body you can help yourself heal. Blue is symbolic of medicine.

Right meditation includes many methods from different paths, all equally valid:

  • Mindfulness meditation (Apannasati): sitting, lying, walking, skateboarding, just being mindful all day long. For previous stories on Mindfulness, please see these>>
  • Samatha: single-pointed meditation (concentrating single focus on breath, for example), helping to give insight into the transitory nature of reality. For helpful guidance on samatha, see this previous story on Mahamudra, with Venerable Zasep Rinpoche guiding samatha>>
  • Vipassana: seeing things as they really are, or discerning “formations” (conditioned phenomena based on the five aggregates)
  • Panna (in Pali), Prajna (in Sanskrit): wisdom meditation: advanced meditations on reason, wisdom, insight, knowledge, recognition.
  • Metta Meditation: meditating on loving kindness for all beings.
  • Analytical meditation: where is this “I” — a specific form of Vipassana and also a subset of Panna meditation
  • Visualization meditation: traditionally advanced Enlightened being or deity visualizations in Vajrayana: these guided meditations (in the sense that you typically recite the visualization) take the meditator through the full path, generation, completion, understanding shunyata through “rehearsal” style drama that ultimately bring insight and realizations. For one of our stories on Visualization meditation, see this interesting story where researchers found that Vajrayana visualized meditation is good for people with cognitive or memory issues>>
  • Mantra meditation: focusing on symbolically sacred sounds (often combined with meditation): can be considered a combination of Samatha (with sound as the focus) and Visualization. Some Buddhist include an element of faith in the use of mantra (or prayer) which can empower the sound. There is even some evidence mantra can have some effect even if there is no faith (See this story, “The Science of Mantras”>>).

There are many more. All of these methods, taught by our precious teachers, are designed to bring us — we, ourselves — to our own realizations, our own ultimate Enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Samatha, Panna, Vipassana

As we follow the eightfold path, we try to focus on Samatha, Panna, Vipassana. Here’s how it might look in simplified form (in a perfect practice):

At a future time, when your body and mind are pure in conduct (Morality), and your mind is entirely focused and concentrated (Samatha), and you come to realize the wisdom (Panna) of the Emptiness of the Five Aggregates, you might have a sudden flash of insight (Vipassana). Then, realizations — or even Enlightenment — becomes possible. Once you achieve all of these things, possibly ………..Nibbana! (Nirvana!)

 

Shakyamuni Buddha practiced the eightfold path and taught it to his disciples. He attained Enlightenment.

 

Of course, the actual ‘doing’ is a lot harder than described……

Never-the-less, this is the goal and the journey. Initial knowledge (Wisdom) guide moral conduct (Morality). Purified mind and body through morality assist concentration (Samatha). Using concentration, the Five Aggregates can be analysed thoroughly (Wisdom). Finally, with the realization that the ‘self’ is actually a composition of factors streaming along and intrinsically ‘empty’ – then, the actual breakthrough to Enlightenment (Bodhi) is possible.

 

Buddha’s First Teaching at Deer Park

These two extremes, monks, are not to be practiced
by one who has gone forth from the world.
What are the two?

That joined with the passions and luxury—
low, vulgar, common, ignoble, and useless,
and that joined with self-torture—
painful, ignoble, and useless.

Avoiding these two extremes the one who has thus come
has gained the enlightenment of the middle path,
which produces insight and knowledge,
and leads to peace, wisdom, enlightenment, and nirvana.

And what, monks, is the middle path, by which
the one who has thus come has gained enlightenment,
which produces knowledge and insight,
and leads to peace, wisdom, enlightenment, and nirvana?

This is the noble eightfold way, namely,
right understanding, right intention,
right speech, right action, right livelihood,
right attention, right concentration,
and right meditation.

This, monks, is the middle path, by which
the one who has thus come has gained enlightenment,
which produces insight and knowledge,
and leads to peace, wisdom, enlightenment, and nirvana.

Now this, monks, is the noble truth of pain:
birth is painful; old age is painful;
sickness is painful; death is painful;
sorrow, lamentation, dejection, and despair are painful.
Contact with unpleasant things is painful;
not getting what one wishes is painful.
In short the five groups of grasping are painful.

Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the cause of pain:
the craving, which leads to rebirth,
combined with pleasure and lust,
finding pleasure here and there,
namely the craving for passion,
the craving for existence,
and the craving for non-existence.

Now this, monks, is the noble truth
of the cessation of pain:
the cessation without a remainder of craving,
the abandonment, forsaking, release, and non-attachment.

Now this, monks, is the noble truth
of the way that leads to the cessation of pain:
this is the noble eightfold way, namely,
correct understanding, correct intention,
correct speech, correct action, correct livelihood,
correct attention, correct concentration,
and correct meditation.

“This is the noble truth of pain”:
Thus, monks, among doctrines unheard before,
in me insight, wisdom, knowledge, and light arose.

“This noble truth of pain must be comprehended.”
Thus, monks, among doctrines unheard before,
in me insight, wisdom, knowledge, and light arose.

“It has been comprehended.”
Thus, monks, among doctrines unheard before,
in me insight, wisdom, knowledge, and light arose.

“This is the noble truth of the cause of pain”:
Thus, monks, among doctrines unheard before,
in me insight, wisdom, knowledge, and light arose.

“The cause of pain must be abandoned.”
Thus, monks, among doctrines unheard before,
in me insight, wisdom, knowledge, and light arose.

“It has been abandoned.”
Thus, monks, among doctrines unheard before,
in me insight, wisdom, knowledge, and light arose.

“This is the noble truth of the cessation of pain”:
Thus, monks, among doctrines unheard before,
in me insight, wisdom, knowledge, and light arose.

“The cessation of pain must be realized.”
Thus, monks, among doctrines unheard before,
in me insight, wisdom, knowledge, and light arose.

“It has been realized.”
Thus, monks, among doctrines unheard before,
in me insight, wisdom, knowledge, and light arose.

“This is the noble truth
of the way that leads to the cessation of pain”:
Thus, monks, among doctrines unheard before,
in me insight, wisdom, knowledge, and light arose.

“The way must be practiced.”
Thus, monks, among doctrines unheard before,
in me insight, wisdom, knowledge, and light arose.

“It has been practiced.”
Thus, monks, among doctrines unheard before,
in me insight, wisdom, knowledge, and light arose.

As long as in these four noble truths
my due knowledge and insight
with the three sections and twelve divisions
was not well purified, even so long, monks,
in the world with its gods, Mara, Brahma,
its beings with ascetics, priests, gods, and men,
I had not attained the highest complete enlightenment.
This I recognized.

And when, monks, in these four noble truths
my due knowledge and insight
with its three sections and twelve divisions
was well purified, then monks,
in the world with its gods, Mara, Brahma,
its beings with ascetics, priests, gods, and men,
I had attained the highest complete enlightenment.
This I recognized.

Knowledge arose in me;
insight arose that the release of my mind is unshakable:
this is my last existence;
now there is no rebirth.

 

NOTES

[1] The Vision of the Buddha: The Path to Spiritual Enlightenment, by Tom Lowenstein.

3 Responses to 8 Rights: The Noble Eightfold Path — the Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching

  1. “The actual doing is a lot harder than described :)” That’s probably the greatest truism, period. We spend our lives trying, only to find out the doing is harder than we expected. At it’s most basic, it does seem simple, clear, and correct. Day to day, that basic logic falls away when set against the stress of daily living. Never more so was the eight-fold path more meaningful than today, in this stressful world. Thanks for posting.

  2. Theoretical knowledge of Dhamma is wonderful. It is like solid foundation. As for a grand building a solid foundation is must. But we do not construct, leave the foundation as it is, It looks ugly, haunted, ghostly. We must construct on it concurrently. Practice of Dhamma makes the theoretical knowledge useful, enduring and marvelous. Dhammavani-the vipassana radio is a mean to strengthen practice, taking Pariyatti to its logical goal,Patipatti which ultimately takes one to Vimutti passing through Pativadhan

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