Practice Guides January 1, 2019

The Noble Eightfold Path

Sean Oakes

The heart of the Buddha’s teaching is expressed in the Four Noble Truths, which describe the reality of suffering, its cause, the end of suffering, and the path that leads to that end. The path laid out in the fourth Noble Truth lists eight aspects in three sets that cover the cultivation of ethics, meditation, and wisdom, or sīla, samādhi, and pañña. Everything we practice has its roots in this framework, which is called the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Buddha described the path as one each seeker must walk for themself. Teachers can give good directions, but we are on our own to follow the directions and attain the goal. With the support of beautiful spiritual friends (kalyāṇa mitta), the teachings (Dharma) as a guide, and wise teachers who care about our well-being, we can cultivate the path to its end: the end of suffering.

The Middle Way

Before his awakening as the Buddha, the young seeker Gotama first studied with two different meditation teachers, leaving each one when it became clear to him that their practices did not lead all the way to enlightenment. He then embraced a series of ascetic and yogic disciplines including extreme fasting, long-held postures, breath restraint, and intentionally causing the body many kinds of discomfort and pain. Nearly dying from starvation, he saw that this too did not bring about the peace and liberation he sought. He had still not found the path.

Reflecting on his practice, Gotama remembered a moment from his childhood when he had naturally settled into a meditative state that was very different from the practices he would learn later. He recognized that this relaxed, embodied, pleasurable state could be cultivated, and that this kind of meditation, called jhāna, would be the heart of the path he sought.

Gotama nourished his body by going for alms, and then while sitting at the foot of a great tree preparing to enter his final liberating meditation, a wealthy woman from the nearby town arrived with a bowl of extremely refined milk-rice. Her name was Sujātā, and she had been preparing this rich food as a yearly ceremonial offering to the spirit of the tree for over 20 years in gratitude for giving birth to her first child. Initially thinking he was the tree spirit, she gave the food to Gotama with the blessing, “My heart’s desire is fulfilled. So too, may your heart’s desire be fulfilled.” (Buddhavaṁsa) Said to have been the Buddha’s mother in 500 previous lives, Sujātā is honored as the first laywoman to go for refuge. That night, nourished and blessed, Gotama found the liberation he sought.

After his awakening, the Buddha traveled to Benares to teach five friends who had practiced austerities with him. In his first discourse to them, Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dhamma (SN 56.11), he described his new path as the “middle way.” He emphasized to these committed ascetics that neither the sensual indulgence made possible by wealth nor the self-harm of austerities was a path to freedom, but that a balanced approach to embodiment, pleasure, and mental training would succeed. The middle way he taught his friends is the Noble Eightfold Path.

And what, bhikkhus, is that middle way awakened to by the Tathāgata, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, which leads to Nibbāna? It is this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. (SN 56.11)

The Noble Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path (ariya aṭṭhaṅgika magga) contains eight components of a balanced practice, each prefaced by the word sammā, which can mean both “right” as the opposite of wrong, and “right” meaning balanced. It is also often translated as “wise,” emphasizing that these are practices that mature gradually toward wisdom and skillful application.

The Eightfold Path begins with two foundations relating to our worldview and approach to life. These constitute the wisdom (pañña) section of the path:

  1. Right/Wise View (sammā diṭṭhi)

  2. Right Intention (sammā saṅkappa)

Just as our deep beliefs and views influence our intentions, our intentions then shape our actions. The middle three limbs of the path deal with manifestations of action in our lives. These are the ethics (sīla) components of the path:

  1. Right Speech (sammā vācā)

  2. Right Action (sammā kammanta)

  3. Right Livelihood (sammā ājīva)

The final three limbs of the path turn toward the inner life, and hold the wealth of meditation instructions we practice, cultivating both concentration and liberating insight. These components of the path are known by their culminating discipline, the immersed states of meditation known as samādhi.

  1. Right Effort (sammā vāyāma)

  2. Right Mindfulness (sammā sati)

  3. Right Concentration/Immersion (sammā samādhi)

Though the list begins with pañña—the wisdom limbs—when the three sections are listed by themselves they are generally recited as “sīla, samādhi, pañña,” placing the ethical disciplines first. In this order, we understand the foundation of the entire path to be the relational practices of the ethical precepts and compassionate engagement with others. When our foundation is strong, and our role in the community is one of service and generosity, we can much more easily bring to fruition the meditative limbs, culminating in deep wisdom and liberation.

Basic definitions of each of the eight limbs can be found in the Discourse on Analysis [of the Eightfold Path] (SN 45.8). Each of them is outlined briefly here, with sutta references for further study.

The Wisdom Limbs: View & Intention

Right View (sammā-diṭṭhi)

Right view is most often defined in the texts through the orienting frameworks of the Four Noble Truths and the process of Dependent Origination. With these teachings as a guide, we begin to see the world and all our experiences in it as part of the path. We see what brings suffering and what brings peace, and we start to understand the relationship between craving, attachment, and identity.

Right view is explored in depth in the challenging but comprehensive Discourse on Right View (MN 9).

Right Intention (sammā-sankappa)

Right intention, also translated “right thought,” looks at how our deeply-held intentions determine our experience on the path. Right intention consists of three orientations of the heart-mind that are considered wholesome foundations for our practice:

  1. Renunciation (nekkhamma)

  2. Non-ill will (abyāpāda)

  3. Harmlessness (avihiṁsā)

Their positive corollaries are generosity, lovingkindness, and protecting life. The three wise intentions are the bridge between our deep views and the relational actions of the coming ethical limbs.

Right intention is explored in a beautiful, autobiographical discourse of the Buddha’s called Two Kinds of Thought (MN 19), in which he discusses practicing mindfulness of thinking before he was awakened.

The Ethics Limbs: Speech, Action, Livelihood

Right Speech (sammā-vācā)

At the heart of all our relationships is speech. We talk with each other, listen, write, and engage with the world largely through language. We know that deep support and deep harm can both be impacts of our words, and practicing with speech can be one of the most revealing—and rewarding—of all Dharma practices.

Right speech traditionally includes abstaining from four kinds of speaking: false speech, divisive speech, harsh speech, and idle chatter. Reading these in their corresponding positive forms, wise speech is true, brings people together, is kind, and is useful.

In a detailed discourse on how to skillfully teach the Dharma, The Analysis of Non-Conflict (MN 139), the Buddha discusses speaking in a way that is effective and attuned to the people one is speaking to.

Right Action (sammā-kammanta)

The limb of right action is the core ethics component of the path, defined by the five ethical precepts (although many lists, like that in Analysis [of the Eightfold Path] (SN 45.8) include only the first four). Because right speech has its own full limb of the path, the remaining three listed in the definition of right action are abstaining from:

  1. Taking life

  2. Stealing

  3. Sexual Misconduct

In their positive forms, these precepts become protecting life, respecting others boundaries, and nourishing wholesome relationships. The fifth precept—abstaining from drink and drugs that cause carelessness—while not explicitly included here, can be implied. All the ethical precepts are guides for restraint of unhealthy impulses that can hurt others and ourselves, and support the experience of safety and trust in relationships and communities.

The precepts are described in detail in The Brahmins of Sālā (MN 41).

Right Livelihood (sammā-ājīva)

Completing the ethical limbs, the practice of right livelihood touches on some of the ways our actions impact our broader community through including our economic activity as a factor on the path. Traditional definitions of right livelihood focus on professions to avoid, such as working as a butcher, arms dealer, or dishonest businessperson.

In contemporary global culture, we might reflect on how both our earning and our spending tie us into vast systems of commerce that bring both benefit and harm to countless beings. Recognizing this, right livelihood can be an inquiry into interconnectedness, craving, and accountability to all those we touch through our work and spending.

In Deeds of Substance (AN 4.61) and Debtlessness (4.62), the Buddha discusses livelihood and economics with his wealthy supporter, a banker named Anāthapiṇḍikā.

The Meditation Limbs: Effort, Mindfulness, Concentration

Right Effort (sammā-vāyāma)

With right effort, the focus of the Eightfold Path turns toward inner cultivation, beginning with the discernment of whether various states of mind/heart are wholesome or unwholesome (kusala/akusala, also translated as skillful/unskillful). The formula then adds the practice of supporting and increasing wholesome states, and decreasing and blocking unwholesome states. Wholesome states and qualities to cultivate include the seven factors of awakening and the ten perfections, while unwholesome states and qualities to avoid include the five hindrances and three poisons.

The four aspects of right effort are:

  1. To prevent the arising of unarisen unwholesome states

  2. To abandon unwholesome states that have already arisen

  3. To arouse wholesome states that have not yet arisen

  4. To maintain and perfect wholesome states already arisen

In a beloved and relatable story, With Soṇa (AN 6.55), the Buddha talks with a monk who is discouraged with his practice, and teaches him about making wise effort using the simile of the lute tuned neither too tight nor too loose.

Right Mindfulness (sammā-sati)

Mindfulness is the heart of our practice, and the centerpiece of the meditation section of the Eightfold Path. Mindfulness supports both deepening in tranquility (samatha) and clear seeing (vipassanā), and is a necessary skill for the profound immersion of samādhi to stabilize. Because the qualities of focus, self-observation, and non-reactivity are strengthened with mindfulness meditation, these practices have been shown to contribute to decreasing stress, anxiety, and depression, and to strengthen many healthy qualities of the mind.

Mindfulness in the Eightfold Path is developed in four aspects, beginning with mindfulness of the body, and includes methods for inquiry into the full spectrum of experience. The outline of this important limb includes many lists of qualities and practices that are central to the path. The four foundations of mindfulness with their subsections include:

  1. Mindfulness of the body (kāyā), including:
    1. In and out breathing

    2. Bodily postures and actions

    3. The body as anatomical parts

    4. The body as the four elements

    5. The body as a corpse in decay

  2. Mindfulness of feelings (vedanā)
    1. Pleasant feelings

    2. Unpleasant feelings

    3. Feelings that are neither pleasant nor unpleasant

  3. Mindfulness of mind/heart (citta), noting the presence or absence of:
    1. The three poisons (greed, hate, delusion)

    2. Distracted or collected mind

    3. Concentrated mind

    4. Liberated mind

  4. Mindfulness of qualities (dhamma)
    1. The five hindrances
      1. Sensual desire

      2. Ill-will

      3. Sloth and torpor

      4. Restlessness and worry

      5. Skeptical doubt

    2. The five aggregates
      1. Form

      2. Feeling

      3. Perceptions

      4. Formations

      5. Consciousness

    3. The six sense-bases
      1. Eye

      2. Ear

      3. Nose

      4. Tongue

      5. Body

      6. Mind

    4. The seven awakening factors
      1. Mindfulness

      2. Investigation

      3. Energy

      4. Rapture

      5. Tranquility

      6. Concentration

      7. Equanimity

    5. The Four Noble Truths
      1. Suffering

      2. The cause of suffering

      3. The cessation of suffering

      4. The path to the end of suffering

Perhaps the most important sutta in our lineage, the discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness (MN 10) contains the core meditation sequence we follow on retreat, and many of the major lists we reference in our practice.

Right Concentration (sammā-samādhi)

"Concentration” may be a poor translation for the complex word samādhi, which literally means “the bringing together of the mind,” suggesting that terms like "immersion" and "collectedness" may be more accurate to the relaxed steadiness that characterizes samādhi practice. This quality of the well-cultivated heart and mind is what we are training in when we bring the mind back when it has wandered, or practice staying with an anchor object like the breath or mettā phrases. As attention stabilizes, qualities like focus, clarity, and energy increase, leading for some practitioners to states of meditative absorption called jhāna.

The formal definition of the limb of samādhi in the Eightfold Path is the four absorptions (jhāna):

  1. First jhāna, characterized by:
    1. Connected and sustained thought (vitakka-vicāra)

    2. Rapture (pīti) and pleasure born of seclusion [from the senses]

  2. Second jhāna, characterized by:
    1. Rapture (pīti) and pleasure born of seclusion

    2. Without connected and sustained thought (vitakka-vicāra)

  3. Third jhāna, characterized by:
    1. Equanimity, mindfulness, & clear comprehension

    2. With happiness (sukha), but without rapture (pīti)

  4. Fourth jhāna, characterized by:
    1. The absence of pleasure or pain

    2. Single-pointedness (ekaggattā)

    3. The perfection of mindfulness

    4. Equanimity

The four jhāna are described in many places in the discourses. In The Longer Discourse at Assapura (MN 39), the Buddha describes the experience of these extraordinary meditations with four gorgeous similes.