What is the Noble Eightfold Path in Buddhism?

The Noble Eightfold Path is the fourth of the Four Noble Truths and is generally considered, by both scholars and practicing Buddhists alike, to constitute a summary of Buddha’s course of practice leading to the cessation of suffering. This teaching is regarded as the first sermon of Buddha, which he gave after his enlightenment.

The Eightfold Path is also called the middle way according to which one’s journey should entail moderation and balance. The path does not incline one to extremes of self-indulgence or ascetic self-denial. The First Noble Truth affirms that life is suffering and the Eightfold Path contains the method or treatment for overcoming this. 

Each factor on the path starts with the word “right”. Right is the translation of the Pali term sammā, although the term could also be understood as: complete, authentic, skillful, appropriate, or correct. The eight “right” factors support each other to collectively lead one towards freedom from duḥkha

1. Right View. This is the very beginning of the path whereby the individual realizes that suffering and dissatisfaction permeate the entirety of ordinary, unenlightened existence. Right view also aids one in making skillful decisions and commitments to act in ways that are harmless, kind, and liberating.

2. Right Intent. This involves giving up selfish attitudes that lead to further suffering and replacing them with their opposites. One can replace thoughts that cause harm to oneself and others to bring happiness to all.  

3. Right Speech. The practitioner pays attention to language by becoming aware of the power of his words/speech and what they reveal about his character. He should avoid uncharitable speech and be aware of how his motives could prompt unkindness. Right speech is also about refraining from idle talk and avoiding using harsh words and lying.

4. Right Conduct. This is an effort for the individual to understand his behavior more objectively which, if successfully done, will then enable him to improve it. One should, for instance, try to learn how much of his conduct involved generosity as opposed to self-seeking. Ideally, he should be moving toward acts of selflessness and charity, protecting others, and refraining from stealing, killing, and engaging in sexual misconduct. These general directives are also explained in the Five Precepts (refrain from taking life, refrain from intoxicants that cloud the mind, etc.).

Both right speech and right conduct aid in one against causing harm to others. Right speech means avoiding causing harm with what one says and right action means avoiding causing harm with what one does.

5. Right Livelihood. This could entail one joining the monastic order and should involve avoiding occupations that cause harm and deception such as those contributing to killing animals and human beings. Living a life of honesty and kindness is essential.

6. Right Effort. This involves an individual’s practices. One should avoid laziness and put effort into practices that help him become aware of what arises in his mind. One should avoid negative thoughts and cultivate positive ones. 

7. Right Mindfulness. This involves paying attention to what’s happening right now in the present. It is maintaining constant awareness regarding the body, which includes one’s mind, feelings, and psychic factors that lead to bondage or release.

8. Right Concentration. This is the attempt to render the mind free of distraction to develop deep insight into the nature of reality. Part of this is the eight jhanas, which are eight progressive altered states of consciousness. Each stage facilitates a deeper and subtler state of awareness than the previous one. The jhanas require time, effort, and sincerity to realize them. 

The Eightfold Path is sequential as its order represents the sequence in which the factors are developed in practice. More straightforward practices appear to precede more specialized and sophisticated ones. A failure of a Buddhist to live faithfully in accord with the steps of the Eightfold Path can lead to him having various negative sentiments, 

“He [the ariyan disciple] comes to have shame (hiri); he is ashamed of wrong conduct of bodv, of wrong conduct of speech, of wrong conduct of mind… He comes to fear blame (ottappa); he fears blame for wrong conduct of body, for wrong conduct of speech, for wrong conduct of mind” (1).

References

Bucknell, Rob. 1984. “The Buddhist Path to Liberation: An Analysis of the Listing of Stages.” The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 7(2):7-41. p. 18.

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