By following the Noble Eightfold Path, sentient beings can forever cut off their afflictions, suffering, and the causes of suffering, and attain the state of the sages – nirvana. ~ Ven. Master Hsing Yun
The core of all Buddhist practice is centered around the Noble Eightfold Path, which is what the Buddha talked about in his very first sermon (so you know it’s important!).
- The Eightfold Path is very much like a prescription that the Buddha (if he was a doctor) would write out in order for us to cure ourselves of an illness.
- The illness he identified (as explained in the Four Noble Truths) is called “Dukkha” which all sentient beings (such as humans) experience.
- Dukkha is often translated to mean “suffering”, but has many meanings such as dissatisfaction, anxiety, stress, etc.
- You can end Dukkha through the Eightfold Path
How do we use the Eightfold Path to cure us of this illness called Dukkha? Read on!
You Are An Origami
I always like to explain the Eightfold Path in Buddhism like Origami. Bear with me on this…
We’ve all probably seen Japanese “Origami” art before. It’s when you take a piece of paper and fold it into something amazing, such as a bird, elephant, flower, or other things. Who knew a plain old flat piece of paper could become something amazing? The Buddha, that’s who.
OK, the Buddha probably didn’t make any Origami elephants, but he did give us the Noble Eightfold Path…which (if followed correctly like the instructions for an Origami project) allows us to do Origami in reverse: revealing your true nature. And your true nature, as Mahayana Buddhists such as Ch’an and Zen believe, is Nirvana.
Let’s jump back to the Origami of the elephant. We look at it and know that it’s simply a piece of paper folded into the shape of an elephant by someone…it’s not really an elephant. From the piece of paper it was created out of, to someone folding it, that Origami elephant was created by “causes and conditions“.
But what about you? After all you are “flesh and blood” and you know you are “you”…right?
Actually, you too are “folded” like Origami into this belief that “you” are unchanging and have an independent self which doesn’t exist. Basically your views and attachments to things (including the concept of “you”) causes you this “dukkha”.
As Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh explains it:
If you suffer, it is not because things are impermanent. It is because you believe things are permanent. When a flower dies, you don’t suffer much, because you understand that flowers are impermanent. But you cannot accept the impermanence of your beloved one, and you suffer deeply when she passes away.
By understanding the concepts of impermanence and non-self (click here to read more), the eightfold path allows you to “unfold” this Origami of your perceptions of “permanance” and an “independent self” so that you can get rid of dukkha in your life.
Now let’s learn more about this eightfold path!
The Buddha’s Magical Mystery Tours
When I was a kid, I was sometimes told we were on a “magical mystery tour”…which really meant we were lost 😉
Before he was a Buddha, Prince Siddhārtha Gautama was on many magical mystery tours when he first set out on his own trying to find the end of dukkha. He tried all the known ‘paths’ at the time, including eating barely anything (it is often said he was eating one grain of rice a day). This lifestyle of extremes led him no closer to finding an end of dukkha, and instead only increased it.
His final “magical mystery tour” of barely eating made him very weak. One day he was being swept away in a stream (due to his weakness from not eating) and he barely made it back to shore. Thankfully, a young farm girl named Sujata (who just happened to be passing by) offered the future Buddha a meal of rice-milk and helped restore his strength.
The Buddha, now having his body replenished by nutrition, instantly understood that the life of extremes is not the way to end dukkha, and gave up his life of asceticism. He went to a nearby tree (later to be known as the Bodhi tree) and vowed to meditate until he understood the “truth” (thus attaining enlightenment / awakening).
I Can See Clearly Now That the Dukkha is Gone
Shortly after the Buddha attained enlightenment, his first sermon explained both the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path (as memorialized in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta). He continued to teach on the Four Truths and Eightfold Path right up until his death.
To this day, these two concepts form the entire foundation of Buddhism, and are found in all branches of Buddhism. If you want Buddhism in a nutshell, this is it.
The Four Noble Truths are:
- Life entails Dukkha (commonly translated to mean “suffering” in English)
- This Dukkha is caused by attachment, known as Trishna (The origin, roots, nature, cause, or arising of Dukkha)
- You can end Dukkha through a state of liberation, known as Nirvana (Cessation of creating Dukkha by refraining from things that make us suffer)
- The path to end Dukkha is accomplished through the Eightfold Path (“Marga“)
If we put that into modern terms, the Buddha was like a Doctor who identified:
- There is suffering or dissatisfaction in our world…
- Which is created by causes, conditions, views, and attachments…
- But not to worry because there is a way to prevent and end suffering, and…
- Curing yourself of suffering can be accomplished through an eight step program.
After explaining the Four Noble Truths, he explained the Noble Eightfold Path (which is the fourth noble truth). The Eightfold Path consists of:
- Right Understanding (or View)
- Right Thought
- Right Speech
- Right Action
- Right Livelihood
- Right Effort (or Diligence)
- Right Mindfulness
- Right [Meditative] Concentration
Each of these are grouped into one of three categories (often called the “Threefold Training” which is practiced by all branches of Buddhism):
- Wisdom: Right Understanding and Right Thought (Training: Cultivation of Wisdom)
- Conduct (or Morality): Right Speech, Right Livelihood, and Right Action (Training: Cultivation of Morality)
- Discipline (or Meditation): Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration (Training: Meditative Concentration)
From the book “For All Living Beings” by Ven. Master Hsing Yun:
The Buddhist scriptures themselves share a common structure with the threefold training. The Tripitaka, the core of the Buddhist canon, is divided into three divisions; sutra, vinaya, and abhidharma. The sutras contain the discourses of the Buddha and offer many teachings on developing meditative concentration; the vinaya details the discipline, rules, and morality for the Buddhist monastic order; and the abhidharma collects the analytical and commentarial tradition which focuses on the cultivation of wisdom. Anyone approaching the Buddhist teachings must bring the threefold training into their everyday thinking and living. [emphasis added]
In many ways, the Eightfold Path would probably be called an “eight-step program” in our modern world. By understanding, and following, the eightfold path we can cultivate the conditions for Buddhism’s ultimate goal: awakening (enlightenment) which allows you to be liberated from dukkha in your life (which is the state of the sages known as nirvana). Now that sounds good!
What was most notably unique about the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, was it allowed anyone to attain the ultimate state of Nirvana, by following a path of moderation and not in extremes. This wasn’t a path that only spiritual castes or nobility could follow, but anyone (which at the time caused quite an uproar).
Follow the Saffron Colored Road
Now that you know where the Noble Eightfold Path came from, how it relates to the Four Noble Truths, that it’s designed to help you eliminate Dukkha in your life, and that anyone can follow it…this leads us to what each step means.
Of course, this article won’t be able to go in extreme depths about each step (that is what teachers and books are for), but will give you a nice summary and overview:
- Right View: This is a very important step, as it is all about understanding the Four Noble Truths (and specifically Dukkha). With Right View, you will understand that others have transformed their Dukkha, know the difference between wholesome (kushala mala) and unwholesome (akushala mala) seeds (or roots). This is also a necessary step because all other steps are interconnected (as Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh called it: Interbeing). Each of the other Eightfold Path steps are connected to the other…none are independent.
- Right Thought (Thinking): This is the “speech of our mind”. Basically, you want to ensure your thoughts align with a Right View. Because often what you think, you act upon, Right Thought is very important to understand. Right View and Right Thought help you live in the present moment.
- Right Mindfulness: If you are looking for the keystone of the Buddha’s teachings, this is it. When we are “mindful”, we connect with all other steps in the Noble Eightfold Path. Everything we do should be done in a state of mindfulness. And while that may sound overwhelming, it’s simply a conditioning of yourself and your mind to achieve that (and others have!). It’s hard to practice meditation when you are not mindful and thinking about work, or it’s hard to not say the wrong thing when you are not mindful of your thoughts. Precepts often help us with this step along the path. As Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh said:
In many talks, the Buddha spoke about the Threefold training of the precepts (shila) is the practice of Right Mindfulness. If we don’t practice the precepts, we aren’t practicing mindfulness. I know some Zen students who think that they can practice meditation without practicing precepts, but that is not correct. The heart of Buddhist meditation is the practice of mindfulness, and mindfulness is the practice of the precepts. You cannot meditate without practicing the precepts.
- Right Speech: This step flows into Right Thought (Thinking). Your thoughts, which were private and just in your head, now come out of your mouth. In the simplest terms, you want to ensure you speak the truth (or don’t color the truth), don’t use hurtful or evil words, etc. Essentially, what you say have repercussions and depending on your position and/or circumstances, your words can kill, harm, or destroy someone in multiple ways. As before, the interbeing of all the steps on the path help you with this. Right View lets you know that your words can create Dukkha. Right Thought helps you focus on what your speech should be. Right Mindfulness helps you center yourself and not get caught up in saying something untruthful or hurtful.
- Right Action: This is closely linked with nonviolence, preventing harm and death, and mindfulness (part of the 5 Mindfulness Trainings). Do you work in a profession that causes death? Then you are practicing wrong action as that impacts the precepts, and not in line with Right View (you are causing Dukkha for others). There are many ways Right Action can be practiced from a small, to large level. Did you give some food to a starving cat or dog? You’ve alleviated some of it’s Dukkha. Did you stop someone from killing? Did you say a kind word? Do you live your life in accordance with the precepts?
- Right Diligence (Effort): Ask yourself right now without any thought…what are you expending your effort on? A new car? Romantic love? Are you a foodie? A big promotion? The perfect home and family? All of those things, while desirable by us, are possessions. Money, sex, food, relationships, cars, etc., are all conditional…they don’t exist forever. While I’m not saying you can’t pursue any of these (after all, we want a place to live, often need a car to get to work, having a loving family is beautiful, etc.), they won’t be able to fulfill you at all times because of their nature in the universe (impermanence). In Buddhism, Right Effort is about preventing unwholesome things (often called “seeds”), while nurturing wholesome things. What is wholesome and unwholesome? Anything that does not help with furthering you (or others) on the path is unwholesome, and anything that does help is wholesome. Greed, hatred, ignorance, and wrong views are all unwholesome.
- Right Concentration: This is actually a pretty cool step (at least to me), as it is all about keeping an “even” mind and to make ourselves “present” in the moment. This is often expressed during meditation, where you will often “concentrate” on your breath, or an object, etc. Meditation is like going to the gym for your brain, and helping you develop Right Concentration (among other things). Right Concentration ultimately leads you to being happy, doing the right thing (Right Action), etc.
- Right Livelihood: We often have had a job that we truly didn’t love or like what we did, but that’s not what this is about (well, maybe a little). Right Livelihood is not engaging in a life (and particularly a profession) that causes death and suffering (Dukkha). Ideally, your profession should help with love and compassion, but we all know that most of our jobs don’t directly do that…so at a minimum, it shouldn’t create Dukkha for others. Traditionally, this means not engaging in dealing arms (weapons), slave trade, meat trade, sale of alcohol, drugs, or poisons, or making prophecies / fortune telling. But also look deeply at what, and where, you work. While those were the traditional things the Buddha said to stay away from during his time (and still hold true today), what today would cause Dukkha for others? Would we consider in our modern times? However, what happens if you are in a profession like this at the moment? Explore the ways you can help those who may be impacted by your current profession. In the most extreme case: do good even when surrounded by evil.
It is important to note that it is quite OK if you don’t understand all of these steps right away, or are perhaps more proficient in some than others, or if you are completely struggling with all of them.
Because all of these steps are connected (interbeing), practicing one is helping you in another even if you don’t know it. And the effort you are putting in to even following the steps is a testament regardless. Practicing these steps is practicing Buddhism, and thus you are walking the path. If you can only focus on one step (or two or three), do that! For example, I always make an effort to practice Right Action at least once a day, even if that means feeding some hungry birds.
There is nothing wrong with starting where you are. All the steps are beneficial, so even practicing just one is better than practicing none at all 🙂
What If I Get Tired?
The Noble Eightfold Path is like any other path you may take in your life, and it can be easy to grow tired. While it’s true that the vast majority of us will not become enlightened /awakened, we still benefit from following the path. For example, as we start to understand the different parts of the path we will see ourselves become less upset, angry, and scared, and instead more compassionate, understanding, and calm.
This is perhaps not a correct Buddhist term to use, but you become confident in yourself as a sentient being through understanding the path. That person who insulted you? Well, you may now have the understanding that causes and conditions led him to say those things to you, and your compassion lets you forgive him. Or what if you are under a heavy deadline and workload at work? Right Mindfulness, Concentration, and Discipline will all come into helping you “center” yourself and get through the work without causing unnecessary stress on your body.
For many, attending Buddhist retreats at a temple which are specifically designed for laity (you and me) is a way to renew our commitment to the path, and also learn how we can apply it in our lives. It’s a definite must if you can attend one of these (often they can last a weekend, or a week).
Now, Let’s Make Some Origami!
Sometimes we all need a reminder of what the path is all about. I keep this quick reference card with me whenever I need to be reminded how to live and practice! Click the image below to download a high quality PDF you can print out (if the option presents itself when printing, be sure to have “page scaling” to “none”…you want to have this print out without it being shrunk down). Keep folding the piece of paper until it is the size of one of the boxes. Unfold when needed! 🙂
Bring a Map With You
As you walk the Eightfold Path, you might like to keep this handy map with you to help you remember, and keep you on the path! Click the image below to get a high quality PDF suitable for printing!