An excerpt from The Dhammapada for Awakening, available for free online reading here, or as a paperback and ebook here.
“Of paths the Eightfold one is best, and of truths the Fourfold. Dispassion is the best of mental states, and of human beings the best is the seer” (Dhammapada 273).
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: “Of paths, the eightfold is best. Of truths, the four sayings. Of qualities, dispassion. Of two-footed beings, the one with the eyes to see.”
The Eightfold Path of Buddha
The Eightfold Path was mentioned in verse one hundred ninety-one, but for some reason it did not occur to me to include it in the commentary. Now it should be, because many people may not have read an exposition of it or memorized it. (As a Buddhist nun once said: “If you like lists, then Buddhism is the religion for you.”) It is very important, because in the next verse Buddha declares that this is the only path to the purification that enables us to attain Nirvana.
The Eightfold Path consists of:
- Right View;
- Right Intention;
- Right Speech;
- Right Action;
- Right Livelihood;
- Right Effort;
- Right Mindfulness;
- Right Concentration.
All of these are interrelated to some extent.
1. Right View
View–drishti–literally means the faculty of sight, but also includes a person’s view, opinion, or perception of something, and is right view of the right thing, namely the way to live so as to lead to Nirvana. The trivia which occupy the minds of nearly every human being ultimately mean nothing, and Buddha is not concerned with that. Right view is the right evaluation of things as well as the right understanding of them.
Right view is seeing things as they really are, and knowing which matter and which do not. Naturally this includes a right response to right view, including the right way to live. It is obviously a function of the buddhi, the intelligence, and not the sensory mind or the emotions. The mind is like a mirror, and if there is any distortion of the mirror then all perceptions will be distorted. So Right View presupposes right condition of the mind. Each of the eight parts of the path is psychological, even if some of them include external modes of behavior.
2. Right Intention
Sankalpa means resolution, will, determination, and intention. Obviously Right View is a prerequisite of Right Intention. Right intention, again, is focused on the right subjects–the ones that matter. It controls the direction of our life and the way we will live it. Certainly right intention includes a right understanding of the need to live and act in perfect accordance with the highest standards.
This does not admit of superficiality, mere dabbling, or moseying along through life. Self-discipline is another requisite to carry out Right Intention. The intention to reach Nirvana–and for the right reasons–is the sum of Right Intention.
3. Right Speech
Vak is speech–the ability to speak, the intelligence to speak (the thought behind speech), and the speaking itself. It is the last two that are referred to by Buddha. The wellsprings of our speech must be right, both our understanding and intention in speaking. So must our inner speaking, our thinking. Many people will relay a conversation and then say: “But in my mind I said….” Right speech does not allow of disparity between thought and word. Especially it does not allow of anyone thinking spiteful and injurious thoughts inwardly while speaking pacifically outwardly.
There are people who engage in this kind of dichotomy, feeling that “letting off steam” mentally is all right, forgetting that thoughts are realities and powerful vibrations that will certainly damage them if not the persons they are thought about. I have known of people that would regularly tell off or blast away mentally at others, considering that it would be picked up subliminally by their targets and effect changes in their behavior. But this is still violence, an infraction of the law of non-injury (ahimsa).
All speech must be beneficial, true, complete, useful, sincere, and an expression of friendliness (maitreya). Then it will be right in every aspect.
4. Right Action
Right Action (karmanta) can also be translated as Right Conduct. This is according to the codes established by the teachers of wisdom, including the five precepts of Buddhism: No lying, no stealing, no injury (of others or oneself), no immorality, and no intoxication. More complete is the yama-niyama of the Yoga Sutras.
One thing is certain: the code of Right Conduct must be as broad, as all-inclusive, as possible–in contrast to the Western attempts to limit the principles of right action to only glaring misconduct or only the things specifically mentioned in scriptures or other authoritative texts. Rather, general principles must be applied as thoroughly as possible, making sure that no infractions of any kind or degree occur. This is the way of the East, the only way that really succeeds.
5. Right Livelihood
This is an exceedingly broad precept, based on many moral principles. It is not just that we must abstain from livelihood that breaks those principles, we must engage in livelihood that embodies them. Our livelihood must not only not harm others, it must genuinely benefit others.
For example, we cannot be dishonest, but neither should we be persuading people to buy items or services that are unnecessary. Selling cosmetics is a prime example of parasitic livelihood. There are many ways to cheat or steal and we must be sure our mode of livelihood is far from them–not skirting or just avoiding them narrowly.
Scrupulous honesty on all levels is mandatory. Further, livelihood encompasses our relationships with others such as suppliers, employees, government regulations, promotion (advertising)–every single aspect of business. And it also includes the highest standards in all aspects, as well. As I say, the scope of this is so vast that it is impossible to spell it all out, and frankly a worthy aspirant can figure it out without having every detail set forth. (That, too, is the way of the West, the way of moral evasion and failure.)
6. Right Effort
Right Effort (vyayama) can also be translated as Right Endeavor. It is both doing the right thing and doing it in the right way. Here, too, the determination of “right” must be exceedingly broad and scrupulous. This includes action and acting in the right and beneficial and dharmic way. Right Effort has Nirvana for its goal. This, too, does not admit of superficiality, mere dabbling, or moseying along through life.
7. Right Mindfulness
Smriti means memory in the sense of keeping in mind what should be remembered, in other words holding the right perspective on things in the context of the principles of dharma that have been learned or experienced for oneself. However, the Pali word Sati means awareness and attention, as well.
This does not mean being totally absorbed “in the present moment” or in every tiny external activity. Such an interpretation is outright silly. Rather, this principle means that we must never for a moment permit the right perspective to slip from our minds, and we must also remain fully conscious of our inner being, not letting it be overshadowed by externals. Our attention must be mostly focused inwardly and only peripherally on outward things. However, our outer attention must be so perfectly clear that we do all outer activities well and carefully.
Nevertheless, our hearts must be intent on the inner work of attaining Buddhahood. Right Mindfulness includes being aware of the character of everything around us and the implications of all situations. It also means evaluating and responding to them in exactly the right way. It also entails knowing what should be paid attention to and what should be ignored.
8. Right Concentration
Although in later times samadhi became a technical yogic term for an intense state of interior union and superconsciousness, at the time of Buddha it simply referred to the state of meditative concentration. Samadhi included all meditative states, from the least to the highest, and was a matter of degree of contemplation. So samadhi could be spoken of as weak or strong, but the main point is that it must be Right.
Now what does that mean? It means that meditation must accomplish its sole purpose: Nirvana/Moksha. A lot of meditation practices can give a buzz, a “high,” and entertain and even give psychic experiences, but none of that has anything to do with liberation–in fact, very little contemporary “yoga” does. Right samadhi can only be produced by right practice, which includes both right methodology and the right way of doing it.
This concludes my analysis of the Eightfold Path, but I would like to include a summary taken from a Theravada Buddhist source as I think it has a value of its own.
- Right view=understanding suffering; understanding its origin; understanding its cessation; understanding the way leading to its cessation.
- Right intention=intention of renunciation; intention of good will; intention of harmlessness.
- Right speech=abstaining from false speech; abstaining from slanderous speech; abstaining from harsh speech; abstaining from idle chatter.
- Right action=abstaining from taking life; abstaining from stealing; abstaining from sexual misconduct.
- Right livelihood=giving up wrong livelihood; earning one’s living by a right form of livelihood.
- Right effort=the effort to restrain defilements; the effort to abandon defilements; the effort to develop wholesome states; the effort to maintain wholesome states.
- Right mindfulness=mindful contemplation of the body; mindful contemplation of feelings; mindful contemplation of the mind; mindful contemplation of phenomena.
- Right concentration=the four stages of meditation (jhana) culminating in liberation.
Further Reading and Listening on Buddha’s Eightfold Path:
- Buddha’s Wisdom for Every Day: A Podcast Interview of Abbot George by Bianca Vlahos
- Everyday Wisdom from Buddha: Podcast Part 2
- The Dhammapada for Awakening, paperback and ebook