What is the Noble Eightfold Path

Dharma Wheel at Jokhang Temple

Dharma Wheel at Jokhang Temple

Most simply put the Noble Eightfold Path is the course of actions as prescribed by the Buddha that leads to cessation of suffering and the achievement of liberation.

Divisions and Factors of the Noble Eightfold Path

Before we tackled the particulars of the Noble Eightfold Path, we need to have a basic understanding of the structure of the Path. The eight factors are grouped into 3 divisions: Wisdom that contains Right View and Right Intention, Moral Discipline with its factors of Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood, and Concentration enclosing Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. Wisdom awakens the ability to perceive things as they really are. Concentration develops the calm and tranquility needed to cultivate wisdom. Moral discipline dispels with unwholesome dispositions that negatively effect concentration. Thus, the path progresses towards enlightenment as moral discipline being the foundation for concentration, concentration is the foundation for wisdom, and wisdom being the instrument for reaching liberation. 

Division

Noble Eightfold Path Factors

Wisdom Right View
Right Intention
Moral Discipline Right Speech
Right Action
Right Livelihood
Concentration Right Effort
Right Mindfulness
Right Concentration

The Noble Eightfold Path in relation to the Four Noble Truths

The Buddha’s teachings can be boiled down to their essence with an understanding of the Four Noble Truths and their relation to the Noble Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths comprise the doctrine that leads to understanding, and the Noble Eightfold Path is conduct of code that is put into practice by the follower. This arrangement of doctrine and practice are united as the Dharma.  The last of the Truths is the prescription of the Noble Eightfold Path, and the first factor of the Path, Right View, is the proper understanding the Four Noble Truths. They are intertwined into one continuous path of understanding into the reality of nature.

Four Noble Truths

  1. The truth of suffering – Suffering appears in all events: birth, death, change, sickness, and pleasures
  2. The truth of the origin of suffering – Suffering stems from our own internal attachments to phenomena
  3. The truth of the cessation of suffering – If one ceases to craving, suffering ends.
  4. The truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering – This path is the Noble Eightfold Path

The Path to the End of Suffering

A spiritual tradition is not a shallow stream in which one can wet one’s feet and then beat a quick retreat to the shore. It is a mighty, tumultuous river, which would rush through the entire landscape of one’s life, and if one truly wishes to travel on it, one must be courageous enough to launch one’s boat and head out for the depths.

–  Bhikkhu Bodhi

Buddha sits serene

Buddha sits serene

The Noble Eightfold Path is the Buddha’s road map that ends dukkha and leads to liberation. Dukkha is defined conventionally as suffering, but its more nuanced connotation embodies the basic unsatisfactoriness of our lives. The Path is a practice of daily discipline (in its broadest sense) to leads one to cessation of dukkha and towards Enlightenment. The Noble Eightfold Path relies on actions, rather than scholarly knowledge; however, deep knowledge of the Four Noble Truths and their subsequent implications is required to dutifully implement the Noble Eightfold Path into your daily life. This is the point where Right View, the first factor of the Path, comes into play. The Noble Eightfold Path is not given in sequence as all factors can be practiced simultaneously with some degree of practice, the Right View factor is presented initially as it encompasses the proper view of Four Noble Truths. If you were to engage in the practice without a proper understanding of Right View, you run the risk of wandering aimlessly within a forest of teachings.

Right View

Right View can be understood as the correct understanding of entire Dharma, which can be broken further down into two breadths of scope. The first is the mundane Right View, which the correct understanding of karma and difference between unwholesome and wholesome actions with regard to the underlying motives of those particular actions. Karma has the capacity to produce effects that are equal to the ethical quality of the action. This continual cycle of action and result spans across lifetimes that cross eons of immeasurable time. The second type of Right View is the Superior Right View is the deep understanding of Four Noble Truths that leads one to enlightenment. 

Right Intention

Second factor within Wisdom division is Right Intention. This is the factor where the practitioner applies their conscientious decision-making abilities to direct their actions. Right Intention is a three-fold concept where correct intention counters wrong intention: the intention of renunciation counters the intention of desire, the intention of good will counters the intention of ill will, and the intention of harmlessness counters the intention of harm. The Intention of Renunciation runs quite contrary to our everyday existence, which is largely driven by our own grasping. Renunciation is more than a simple act of will; rather, it requires a radical change of perspective in terms of how we see the objects of our cherishing. We are to put our desires aside as the desire is the very root of dukkha, and the absense of craving leads to freedom from attachment. The Intention of Good Will is the foundation of metta or loving-kindness, the all-encompassing, radiating concern for others well-being and happiness. Loving-kindness is born out of a state that is free of obligation or the self. The last fold of Right Intention is the Intention of Happiness, which is arouses compassion for all living beings. Compassion is the partner of loving-kindness as it is the wish that beings be free from suffering and unhappiness.

The next three factors of the Noble Eightfold Path are grouped into the division of moral discipline. Taken together, they form the essential foundation of the other trainings. This morality in the Buddhist sense is not seen in terms of obligation, but as a harmony at all levels (social, psychological, karmic, and contemplative).

Right Speech

Right Speech as taught by the Buddha is composed of four elements: abstaining from false speech, abstaining from slanderous speech, abstaining for harsh speech, and abstaining from idle chatter. These elements of abstinence cover the spoken word as well as others forms of communication such the written word and art. Abstaining from false speech is simply entails not uttering untruths, regardless of situation, or the other side of coin is to always tell the truth when it is asked of one. Truthful speech is the foundation of any society. Lying is completely disruptive of the social contract. Abstaining from slanderous speech is staying away from communications that are intended to create the alienation of a person or group. The Buddha viewed slanderous speech has one of the gravest moral transgressions. Your speech should promote friendship and harmony. When you speak in a manner intended to cause others pain, it is considered to be harmful speech. Harmful speech can take the forms of abusive speech, insults, and sarcasm.  Idle chatter is speech devoid of purpose or any real depth. Much like the phrase, “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop,” idle speech is the playground of defilements of one’s own mind and those of others.

Right Action

Right Action is abstaining from those unwholesome actions that are expressed by the body. The Buddha, once again, has broken Right Action into three primary components: abstaining from the taking of life, abstaining from taking what is not freely given, and abstaining from sexual misconduct. The intentional taking of the life of a sentient being carries a karmic weight that is proportion with motive of the transgressor. Stealing, robbing, snatching, fraud, and deceitfulness are to be avoided as part of abstaining from taking what is not given freely. Sexual misconduct is viewed as sexual intercourse with other’s partners or those under the protection of relatives, or cheating on your own partner.

Right Livelihood

One earns their living from a righteous occupation, if they adhere to the factor of Right Livelihood. Wealth should be gained from means that are legal, peaceful, non-violent, honest, and cause no harm to other living beings. The Buddha was specific that five categories of occupations should be entirely avoided: weapons dealing, dealing in living beings (this includes raising animals for slaughter, slavery, and prostitution), butchery, dealing in poisons, and peddling intoxicants.

The final three factors of the Noble Eightfold Path compose the division of concentration, which is the training of the mind. Practicing these elements trains the mind to sustain concentration that leads to insight-wisdom.

Right Effort

The Buddha reiterated the need for diligent effort and unflagging perseverance when it comes to training the mind. The Buddha in following quote succinctly summarized Right Effort:

“I shall not give up my efforts until I have attained whatever is attainable by manly perseverance, energy, and endeavor”

The mental process of Right Effort is present in terms of four “great endeavors”:

  1. Prevention of the arising of unaroused unwholesome states
  2. Abandonment of unwholesome that have already arisen
  3. Arouse wholesome states that not arisen
  4. Maintain and prefect wholesome arisen states

Right Mindfulness

A 1000 Buddhas meditating

A 1000 Buddhas meditating

Mindfulness secures mind to present state of existence. The mind doesn’t swing from past, present, and future with all of the accompanying baggage of fears, regrets, hopes, and memories. Right Mindfulness cultivates a mental state where one experiences serenity and insight on the four objective spheres: body, sensations, mental states, and phenomena via contemplation. This contemplation is partly accomplished through specific meditation techniques that focus on each of objective spheres.

Right Concentration

Right Concentration is the wholesome one-pointedness of mind, which is a state called samadhi.  The result of Right Concentration is a tranquility of mind and unbroken attentiveness on the object in focus. Concentration is developed through two methods: the development of serenity and the development of insight. Before the practitioner can develop Right Concentration, they need to have developed pure moral discipline, severed ties to impediments, sought the counsel of a qualified teacher, and dwelled in space conducive to the practice.  Right Concentration is developed in stages, as are most of the factors in the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Noble Eightfold Path does not end with Right Concentration. Each factor of the Path synergizes the others, and the Noble Eightfold Path is transformed into a vehicle for exploration into ultimate nature of the truth. This process is the development of wisdom where defilements and ignorance peeled away in layers.

Written by Radd Icenoggle

I am a native Montanan, who has spent a lifetime as an outdoors and wildlife enthusiast. I earned a degree in biology with an emphasis on habitat relations. During my studies, I had the great fortune to research and compose a thesis that explored the effects of slope aspect on...
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