The Eightfold Noble Path in Practice
According to the Nagara Sutra in the Pali Canon, the Noble Eightfold Path was rediscovered by Prince Siddhartha during his quest for enlightenment. The scriptures describe an ancient path which has been followed and practiced by all the previous Buddhas. The Noble Eightfold Path is a practice said to lead its practitioner toward self-awakening and liberation. The path was taught by the Buddha to his disciples so that they, too, could follow it.
"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...I followed that path. Following it, I came to direct knowledge of aging & death, direct knowledge of the origination of aging & death, direct knowledge of the cessation of aging & death, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of aging & death...Knowing that directly, I have revealed it to monks, nuns, male lay followers & female lay followers..."
The practice of the Noble Eightfold Path varies from one Buddhist school to another. Each Buddhist lineage implements the path in the manner most conducive to the development of the students drawn to that lineage.
In Mahayana Buddhism, this presentation -called the "Three Higher Trainings"-, deals with Higher Wisdom, Higher Ethical Conduct, and Higher Concentration.
"Higher" here refers to the fact that these trainings leading to liberation and enlightenment are engaged in with the motivation of Bodhicitta.
Higher Wisdom deals with the two factors of Right View and Right Intention;
Higher Ethical Conduct deals with the three factors of Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood;
Higher Concentration deals with the three factors of Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.
How is this unfolding in the practice?
Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, and Right Mindfulness are used as the support and requisite conditions for the practice of Right Concentration.
Understanding of the right view is the preliminary role and is also the forerunner of the entire Eightfold Noble Path.
The practitioner should first try to understand the concepts of right view. Once right view has been understood, it will inspire and encourage the arising of right intention within the practitioner. Right intention will lead to the arising of right speech. Right speech will lead to the arising of right action. Right action will lead to the arising of right livelihood. Right livelihood will lead to the arising of right effort. Right effort will lead to the arising of right mindfulness. The practitioner must make the right effort to abandon the wrong view and to enter into the right view. Right mindfulness is used to constantly remain in the right view.
This will help the practitioner restrain greed, hatred and delusion. Once these support and requisite conditions have been established, a practitioner can then practice right concentration more easily.
The eightfold Noble Path During the practice of right concentration, one will need to use right effort and right mindfulness to aid concentration practice. In the state of concentration, one will need to investigate and verify his or her understanding of right view.
This will then result in the arising of right knowledge, which will eliminate greed, hatred and delusion. The last and final factor to arise is right liberation.
Higher Wisdom - Sherab (Tib.) - Prajna (Skt.) provides the sense of direction with its conceptual understanding of reality. It is designed to awaken the faculty of penetrative understanding to see things as they really are. At a later stage, when the mind has been refined by training in moral discipline and concentration, and with the gradual arising of right knowledge, it will arrive at a superior right view and right intention.
1. Right view
Right view can also be translated as "right perspective", "right outlook" or "right understanding". It is the right way of looking at life, nature, and the world as they really are for us. It is to understand how our life reality works. It acts as the reasoning with which someone starts practicing the path. It explains the reasons for our human existence, suffering, sickness, aging, death, the existence of greed, hatred, and delusion.
Right view gives direction and efficacy to the other seven path factors. It begins with concepts and propositional knowledge, but through the practice of right concentration, it gradually becomes transmuted into wisdom, which can eradicate the ten fetters of the mind.
According to the Abhidharma, these are:
- Sensual lust
- Attachment to rites and rituals
- Lust for existence
An understanding of right view will inspire the person to lead a virtuous life in line with right view. Basically, it is composed of the correct understanding of the four Noble Truths. In the Pali scriptures, it is explained thus:
“And what is right view? Knowledge with reference to suffering, knowledge with reference to the origination of suffering, knowledge with reference to the cessation of suffering, knowledge with reference to the way of practice leading to the cessation of suffering: This is called right view.”
There are two types of right view:
- View with taints: this view is mundane. Having this type of view will bring merit and will support the favourable existence of the sentient being in the realm of samsara.
- View without taints: this view is supramundane. It is a factor of the path and will lead the holder of this view toward self-awakening and liberation from the realm of samsara.
The purpose of right view is to clear one's path of the majority of confusion, misunderstanding, and deluded thinking. It is a means to gain right understanding of reality. Right view should be held with a flexible, open mind, without clinging to that view as a dogmatic position. In this way, right view becomes wisdom, a route to liberation rather than an obstacle.
2. Right intention
Right intention can also be known as "right thought", "right resolve", "right conception", "right aspiration" or "the exertion of our own will to change". In this factor, the practitioners constantly aspire to rid themselves of whatever qualities they know to be wrong and immoral. Correct understanding of right view will help the practitioner to discern the differences between right intention and wrong intention.
"And what is right resolve? Being resolved on renunciation, on freedom from ill will, on harmlessness: This is called right resolve".
It means the renunciation of the worldly things and an accordant greater commitment to the spiritual path; good will; and a commitment to nonviolence, or harmlessness, towards other living beings.
Higher Ethical conduct
For the mind to be unified in concentration, it is necessary to refrain from unwholesome deeds of body and speech to prevent the faculties of bodily action and speech from becoming tools of the defilements. Ethical conduct (Tsultrim) is used primarily to facilitate mental purification.
3. Right speech
Right speech deals with the way in which a Buddhist practitioner would best make use of their words.
And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter: This is called right speech.
Abandoning false speech... He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world...
Abandoning divisive speech... What he has heard here he does not tell there to break those people apart from these people here...Thus reconciling those who have broken apart or cementing those who are united, he loves concord, delights in concord, enjoys concord, speaks things that create concord...
Abandoning abusive speech... He speaks words that are soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing and pleasing to people at large...
Abandoning idle chatter... He speaks in season, speaks what is factual, what is in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma, and the Vinaya. He speaks words worth treasuring, seasonable, reasonable, circumscribed, connected with the goal...
The Abhaya Sutta elaborates:
“In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be non-factual, untrue, unbeneficial, non-endearing and disagreeable to others, he does not say them.
In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, yet unbeneficial, non-endearing and disagreeable to others, he does not say them.
In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, yet non-endearing and disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.
In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be non-factual, untrue, unbeneficial, yet endearing and agreeable to others, he does not say them.
In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, but unbeneficial, yet endearing and agreeable to others, he does not say them.
In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing and agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings.”
4. Right action
Right action can also be translated as "right conduct". As such, the practitioner should train oneself to be morally upright in one's activities, not acting in ways that would be corrupt or bring harm to oneself or to others.
As stated in the Saccavibhanga Sutra:
“And what is right action? Abstaining from taking lifer, stealing, sexual misconduct. This is called right action”.
For the lay follower, the Cunda Kammaraputra Sutra elaborates:
And how is one made pure in three ways by bodily action? There is the case where a certain person, abandoning the taking of life, abstains from the taking of life. He dwells with his knife laid down, scrupulous, merciful, compassionate for the welfare of all living beings. Abandoning the taking of what is not given, he abstains from taking what is not given. He does not take, in the manner of a thief, things in a village or a wilderness that belong to others and have not been given by them. Abandoning sensual misconduct, he abstains from sensual misconduct. He does not get sexually involved with those who are protected by their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, their sisters, their relatives, or their Dhamma; those with husbands, those who entail punishments, or even those crowned with flowers by another man. This is how one is made pure in three ways by bodily action.
For the monastic, the Samaññaphala Sutra adds:
Abandoning non-celibacy, he lives a celibate life, aloof, refraining from the sexual act that is the villager's way.
5. Right livelihood
Right livelihood. This means that practitioners ought not to engage in trades or occupations which, either directly or indirectly, result in harm for other living beings.
And what is right livelihood? There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones, having abandoned dishonest livelihood, keeps his life going with right livelihood: This is called right livelihood.
More concretely today interpretations include "work and career need to be integrated into life as a Buddhist," it is also an ethical livelihood, "wealth obtained through rightful means" (Bhikku Basnagoda Rahula) - that means being honest and ethical in business dealings, not to cheat, lie or steal. As people are spending most of their time at work, it’s important to assess how our work affects our mind and heart. So important questions include "How can work become meaningful? How can it be a support, not a hindrance, to spiritual practice — a place to deepen our awareness and kindness?"
The five types of businesses that should not be undertaken:
• Business in weapons and instruments for killing.
• Business in human beings: slave trading and prostitution, or the buying and selling of children or adults.
• Business in meat: "meat" refers to the bodies of beings after they are killed. This includes breeding animals for slaughter.
• Business in intoxicants: manufacturing or selling intoxicating drinks or addictive drugs.
• Business in poison: producing or trading in any kind of poison or a toxic product designed to kill.
Concentration ("samadhi") is achieved through concentrating the attention on a single meditation object. This brings the calm and collectedness needed to develop true wisdom by direct experience.
6. Right effort
Right effort can also be translated as "right endeavour" or "right diligence". In this factor, the practitioners should make a persisting effort to abandon all the wrong and harmful thoughts, words, and deeds. The practitioner should instead be persisting in giving rise to what would be good and useful to themselves and others in their thoughts, words, and deeds, without a thought for the difficulty or weariness involved.
And what, monks, is right effort?
- There is the case where a monk generates desire, endeavours, activates persistence, upholds and exerts his intent for the sake of the non-arising of evil, unskilful qualities that have not yet arisen.
- He generates desire, endeavours, activates persistence, upholds and exerts his intent for the sake of the abandonment of evil, unskilful qualities that have arisen.
- He generates desire, endeavours, activates persistence, upholds and exerts his intent for the sake of the arising of skilful qualities that have not yet arisen.
- He generates desire, endeavours, activates persistence, upholds and exerts his intent for the maintenance, non-confusion, increase, plenitude, development, and culmination of skilful qualities that have arisen:
This, monks, is called right effort.
Although the above instruction is given to the male monastic order, it is also meant for the female monastic order and can be practiced by lay followers of both genders.
The above four phases of right effort mean to:
- Prevent the unwholesome that has not yet arisen in oneself.
- Let go of the unwholesome that has arisen in oneself.
- Bring up the wholesome that has not yet arisen in oneself.
- Maintain the wholesome that has arisen in oneself.
7. Right mindfulness
Right mindfulness, also translated as "right memory", "right awareness" or "right attention". Here, practitioners should constantly keep their minds alert to phenomena that affect the body and mind. They should be mindful and deliberate, making sure not to act or speak due to inattention or forgetfulness.
“And what, monks, is right mindfulness?
- There is the case where a monk remains focused on the body in and of itself—ardent, aware, and mindful—putting away greed and distress with reference to the world.
- He remains focused on feelings in and of themselves—ardent, aware, and mindful—putting away greed and distress with reference to the world.
- He remains focused on the mind in and of itself—ardent, aware, and mindful—putting away greed and distress with reference to the world.
- He remains focused on mental qualities in and of themselves—ardent, aware, and mindful—putting away greed and distress with reference to the world.
This, monks, is called right mindfulness.”
Although the above instruction is given to the male monastic order, it is also meant for the female monastic order and can be practiced by lay followers from both genders.
The mind is deliberately kept at the level of bare attention, a detached observation of what is happening within us and around us in the present moment. In the practice of right mindfulness, the mind is trained to remain in the present, open, quiet, and alert, contemplating the present event. All judgments and interpretations have to be suspended, or if they occur, just registered and dropped.
The Maha Satipatthana Sutra also teaches that by mindfully observing these phenomena, we begin to discern its arising and subsiding and the Three Characteristics of Dharma in direct experience, which leads to the arising of insight and the qualities of dispassion, non-clinging, and release.
8. Right concentration
Right concentration is the practice of concentration (samadhi). It is also known as right meditation. As such, the practitioner concentrates on an object of attention until reaching full concentration and a state of meditative absorption. Traditionally, the practice of samadhi can be developed through mindfulness of breathing, through visual objects, and through repetition of phrases (mantra). Samadhi is used to suppress the five hindrances (*) in order to enter into jnana - meditative absorption needed for developing wisdom by cultivating insight and using it to examine true nature of phenomena with direct cognition. This leads to cutting off the defilements, realizing the dharma and, finally, self-awakening. During the practice of right concentration, the practitioner will need to investigate and verify their right view. In the process right knowledge will arise, followed by right liberation.
“And what is right concentration?
- Herein a monk aloof from sense desires, aloof from unwholesome thoughts, attains to and abides in the first meditative absorption [jnana], which is detachment-born and accompanied by applied thought, sustained thought, joy and bliss.
- By allaying applied and sustained thought he attains to, and abides in the second jhana, which is inner tranquillity, which is unification of mind, devoid of applied and sustained thought, and which has joy and bliss.
- By detachment from joy he dwells in equanimity, mindful, and with clear comprehension and enjoys bliss in body, and attains to and abides in the third jnana, which the noble ones [aryas] call "dwelling in equanimity, mindfulness, and bliss".
- By giving up of bliss and suffering, by the disappearance already of joy and sorrow, he attains to, and abides in the fourth jnana, which is neither suffering nor bliss, and which is the purity of equanimity — mindfulness.
This is called right concentration.
Although this instruction is given to the male monastic order, it is also meant for the female monastic order and can be practiced by lay followers from both genders.
The Blessed One said:
"Now what, monks, is noble right concentration with its supports and requisite conditions? Any singleness of mind equipped with these seven factors - right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, and right mindfulness - is called noble right concentration with its supports and requisite conditions.”
(*) From the Mahayana View, these five hindrances are obstacle to developing Shinay or mental quiescence:
- Sensory desire: the particular type of wanting that seeks for happiness through the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and physical feeling.
- Ill-will: all kinds of thought related to wanting to reject, feelings of hostility, resentment, hatred and bitterness.
- Sloth-torpor: heaviness of body and dullness of mind which drag one down into disabling inertia and thick depression.
- Restlessness-worry: the inability to calm the mind.
- Doubt: lack of conviction or trust.