The essence of the Buddha’s teaching can be summed up in the Four Noble Truths, and within it, a valuable and practical guide aimed at ending suffering: the Eightfold Path.
The Noble Eightfold Path (called Hasshodo in Japanese) is the “prescription” the Buddha formulated for us so that all sentient beings (like you and me) can liberate themselves from their suffering (Dukkha) caused by their delusions, desires, and attachments.
The teachings of the Eightfold Path initially appeared in the first Four Noble Truths sermon of the Buddha, which he delivered after his Awakening where he described in detail to his followers the practical and clear Path to Nirvana.
These Eight Paths are divided into three main categories and consists of:
- Wisdom: Right Understanding and Right Thought,
- Conduct (or Morality): Right Speech, Right Livelihood, and Right Action,
- Discipline (or Meditation): Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.
These practices are intended to help us go beyond our conditioned mind that clouds or hide our true nature, our Buddha-Nature.
The Eightfold Path is often portrayed in Buddhist symbolism as a wheel with eight crosspieces called the Dharma Wheel, where each piece represents one teaching.
It’s important to note that these eight teachings of the Buddha don’t have to be followed in any particular order of sequence. They are not a list of successive steps but an explanation of the eight essential practices of a Buddhist follower. Each Path supports the other paths, and so they should be thought of as being interconnected.
What does “Right” means?
The Eightfold Path is filled with phrases using the word “right”, but it’s essential to have the correct understanding of it. The term ‘right’ should not be seen as a synonym of good (as in good vs. evil), it has no moral significance.
Instead, “right” is characteristic of action, words, or thoughts that generate happiness, inner peace for ourselves and others and drives us away from suffering.
The Path to the Cessation of Suffering
The following description of the Eightfold Path will help you properly understand the Path to the cessation of suffering by examining its eight factors and their components to determine exactly what they involve.
1. The Right View
Sometimes called Right Perspective, Right Outlook or Right Understanding, the right view is commonly viewed as the most important of the eight Paths as it influences our understanding of the Dharma and the seven other Paths.
The right view is essentially having a correct or accurate understanding of life (opposed to ignorant views) as described from the perspective of the system of Karma and Samsara, the cycle of rebirth. The Buddha explained that our actions, words, and thoughts have consequences and that they will generate repercussions after death. From a Buddhist viewpoint, death is not the end.
Moreover, the right view reminds us to correctly understand the Truth of Dukkha that tells us the suffering is created by our attachment to the desire to have (craving), our attachment to the desire not to have (aversion) and our attachment to delusions or ignorant views.
Another aspect of the right view is the importance to understand the world’s transient nature through the truths of impermanence and non-self doctrines about reality.
Ultimately we could say that the right view is actually seeing things as they genuinely are, without any illusions, confusion, and cognitive distortions
Summary of the Right View
- Understand the laws of Karma & Samsara (rebirth),
- Avoid creating suffering by letting go of attachment,
- Understand the impermanence of everything and the doctrine of non-self.
- Try to see over illusion, mental confusion, and cognitive distortions.
2. The Right Thought
The Right Thought is the second practice of the Eightfold Path. Also known as Right Intention, the right thought directly related from Right View because our thoughts and intentions arise from our perception of reality. You understand the connection here?
With the Right Thought, the Buddha instructed us that our thoughts (like our actions and our words) are continually generating Karma. Therefore, it’s quite evident why following the Path of Right thought or Right Intention is critical in order to avoid future suffering, whether in this lifetime or the next.
Our thoughts are very powerful, and they directly influence our mental states (such as happiness or sadness), which, in return, inevitably affects our actions. Having the Right Thought leads to the elimination of harmful thoughts (for ourselves as well as for others) and naturally encourage us to the development of wholesome states of mind such as compassion, kindness, non-attachment.
If our perception of reality is deformed and twisted through the fog of mental categories, concepts, assumptions, and judgments, we will end up with some incorrect and harmful thoughts.
While this can mean several different things, the right view is at its purest level, the ability to turn away from the vicious cycle of craving and desire by engaging in a life of personal development and ethical conduct. According to the Buddha, this state of mind is the root of happiness.
Summary of the Right Thought
- Thoughts, actions, and words are constantly generating Karma.
- Our thoughts and intentions arise from our perception of reality.
- If our perception of reality is deformed and twisted, we will end up generating harmful thoughts.
- Following the right mindset allows us future suffering brought to us by our Karma.
- Eliminating harmful thoughts develops wholesome states of mind, such as compassion, kindness, non-attachment.
- Ultimately, the Right Thought is turning away from craving and attachment.
3. The Right Speech
The Right Speech is the Third teaching of the Eightfold Path, and is in fact quite easy to understand because it’s less abstract than other Paths, and has to do with the direct application of right thoughts in verbal communication.
In Buddhism, the right speech is more profound than merely avoiding gossip and lies, it really means using the power of speech to benefit others, and not to benefit only ourselves. When we have wholesome thoughts, thoughts founded on kindness and compassion, we’ll inevitably speak words that’ll help, heal, and support others.
Too often, we use speech lightly and without much thought, without being mindful of the impact that our words can have on others. Being mindful of our speech is also part of this Path.
Generally speaking, there are four types of speeches to avoid:
- To avoid false speech, especially not to tell deliberate lies and not to speak deceitfully,
- To avoid slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others,
- To avoid harsh words that offend or hurt others, and
- To avoid mindless idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth.
Many people exercise very little control over their mouths, controlling the words that come out on the mouth is very hard. In fact, nothing is more difficult than controlling your mouth.
Mastering the wild mouth, refraining from the habit of saying whatever comes to mind when hurt or angry is an essential part of the right speech.
Never forget the power of speech, it has the capability to inflict a great deal of suffering, and even to destroy lives. Negative or harsh words can cause people who receive them to lose their sense of worth and can bring all kinds of insecurity and inferiority into their lives.
The right speech should be practice with honesty and sincerity, keeping the right thoughts at heart.
Let’s use speech to heal, not to hurt.
Summary of the Right Speech
- Speech has the capability to inflict a great deal of suffering, and even to destroy lives.
- Kindness and compassion leads to helpful, healing, and supportive words to others.
- Avoid false and slanderous speech.
- Avoid harsh words that offend or hurt others, avoid mindless chatter.
4. The Right Action
Along with Right Livelihood and Right Speech, the Right Action is part of the ethical portion of the Path.
It’s the part of the Buddha’s teachings that encourages us to cultivate wholesome actions through our daily lives, and ensure that those actions do not bring harm to ourselves and others.
The Right Action is motivated by kindness, generosity, patience, tolerance, and a vivid desire to help others and to preserve life. As a result, these positive actions purifies our Karma, therefore having a direct influence on this lifetime or the next.
At the heart of the Right Action is Mindfulness, the total awareness of all the things that happen inside and outside of oneself. It’s being aware of the infinite succession of present moments happenings in one’s body, mind, and consciousness and in the outside world. The right Mindfulness is not only remaining aware of these things at all times, but it is also to avoid becoming attached to them.
Traditionally, the Buddha divided the right action into three constituents: avoid killing, avoid stealing and avoid misusing sex.
1- Avoid killing
The first element of the Right Action involves respecting life. In any culture, killing is considered one of the worst actions because willingly take the life of a sentient being goes against nature.
By being mindful or aware of the suffering produced by the destruction of life, we strive to protect all living things, and this planet that sustains life. This kindness and compassion concern the well-being of all living beings, not just human beings. It also concerns the protection of the environment and our mother earth.
Because the heart of Buddhism is compassion, it means that we should value others. If you genuinely value other beings, if you value their well-being and are concerned by their suffering, it’s only natural that you avoid eating meat and fish. We have means to survive other than killing and causing suffering to other beings.
2- Avoid stealing
The second element of the Right Action is to avoid stealing. A more accurate translation of the ancient Buddhist texts would be “refraining from taking that which is not given”.
In the Buddhist tradition, avoid stealing refers not only to appropriating something that belongs to somebody without getting their consent but also acquiring things through trickery, scam or fraud – something unfortunately too common on the web.
Avoid stealing, from a Buddhist perspective, goes beyond the law. There are types of theft that are not necessarily covered by the law but are morally wrong. Those to should be avoided as well.
Refraining from stealing is also respecting the property of others, and preventing others from enriching themselves from means that causes the suffering to other beings.
It’s important to understand the state of mind behind stealing. If someone is willing to steal in order to get what he or she wants, that person is obviously immersed in grasping and attachment.
3- Avoid misusing sex
The third element in the Right Action is most commonly translated as “Do not indulge in sexual misconduct” or “Do not misuse sex.”
For monks, avoid sensual misconduct means strict celibacy with the exception of Japan where the government of Japan declared in 1872 that Buddhist monks should be free to marry if they wish to do so.
However, for laypeople, avoiding sexual misconduct can a bit challenging as we live in a time of sexual freedom where sexuality is everywhere.
From a Buddhist perspective, inappropriate sexual conduct can be described as causing harm to someone with a sexual act. This obviously includes rape, forcing someone to have sex when they do not want to, and having sex with an under-age child. Also, it includes avoiding sex relations with someone married as well as indulging in promiscuity.
The Buddha taught us that we must be vigilant when it comes to sexuality by reducing the grip of attachment, helping us being less distracted regarding the attainment of Enlightenment.
Being overly-attached to sexuality will inevitably lead to suffering not only for ourselves but also for others. Also, it will generate hurtful seeds of Karma that will manifest in this life or the next.
Summary of the Right Action
- Avoid killing and causing suffering to other beings.
- Strive to protect all living things, including our planet.
- Refrain from stealing or taking that which is not given.
- Avoid being overly-attached to sex, don’t indulge in promiscuity.
- Do not rape or forcing someone to have sex with you.
- Do not have sex with an under-age person or with someone married.
5. The Right Livelihood
By laying down this guideline, Buddha encouraged laypeople to earn their living righteously, without resorting to illegal, bad or nefarious treacherous activities.
Because practically every adult’s life includes a financial dimension, work and business need to be examined from a Buddhist viewpoint. Most of us spend such a significant portion of our time at work that it’s important to assess how it affects our hearts and our minds.
In today’s complex societies, what does the right livelihood actually mean?
In Zen, we see work, financial security, and prosperity as opportunities for laypeople to practice the Dharma. Rightful and appropriate economic activities for laypeople should be based on occupations that do not cause unnecessary harm or exploitation of other human beings, animals or the environment
For example, one should avoid working for a business that sells goods made by exploiting children, abusing workers, or in ways that harm the environment.
The Buddha encouraged people to engage in economic activities and to make a living in ways that promote compassion, kindness, and that is ethically right. He also advised laypeople not to work in the trade of weapons or intoxicants.
If we take this teaching further, we can see that when a person does not have a job and cannot support his or her family, it’s also a way to cause harm and suffering. Unreported employment, “working under the table” or “off the books” are likewise ways to create suffering – this time for society – as the collectivity cannot benefit from your financial participation.
Summary of the Right Livelihood
- The nature of our work affects our hearts and our minds.
- Avoid resorting to illegal, bad, or nefarious treacherous activities.
- Avoid occupations that cause harm or exploit other human beings, animals, or the environment.
- Make a living in ways that promote compassion, kindness, and that is ethically right.
- Work in legal ways so that society as a whole can benefit from your participation.
6. The Right Effort
Right effort, sometimes called Right Diligence, is the sixth part of the Eightfold Path of Buddhism. The right effort is first and foremost realizing that you – and no one but you – is responsible for your own Awakening.
The Buddha made it clear that no one can make efforts for you, not God, not a Master, but you, you must do it for yourself. This is a very important teaching.
In Buddhism, the right effort signifies avoiding and overcoming harmful tendencies and qualities, and cultivating attitudes that support the development of non-attachment, compassion, and inner peace.
Traditionally, the Right Effort is fundamentally the realization of wholesome (beneficial) qualities and the liberation from unwholesome (harmful) ones. The Buddha identified four types of effort, a.k.a the Four Great Efforts: the effort to avoid, to overcome, to develop, and to maintain.
- The effort to Avoid harmful qualities (greed, anger, ignorance, etc.) from arising.
- The effort to Overcome harmful qualities that have already arisen.
- The effort to Develop beneficial qualities (generosity, compassion, wisdom, etc.) that have not yet arisen.
- The effort to Maintain beneficial qualities that have already arisen.
We must make diligent efforts to develop ourselves and to grow spiritually, to let go of our attachments, and our mental conditioning. We must make persistent, continuous efforts in order to get rid of our suffering and reach inner peace and happiness.
As Dogen Zenji rightfully said: “We must practicing earnestly as though trying to extinguish a fire enveloping our heads“. In Zen, this is accomplished by simply let go of the body and mind.
Self-cultivation, becoming a better human being, is not easy, but it’s not impossible to accomplish. The Buddha himself and his disciples are the living proof that the task is not beyond our reach. They affirmed to us that anyone who follows the Eightfold Path wholeheartedly can accomplish the same goal and experience Satori or Enlightenment
Summary of the Right Effort
- Realize that you and nobody else is responsible for your own Awakening.
- Make steady efforts to develop yourselves and to grow spiritually.
- Stop harmful qualities from arising and make an effort to suppress those that did.
- Cultivate beneficial qualities and make an effort to maintain those qualities.
7. The Right Mindfulness
The Right Mindfulness is the heart of the Buddha’s teaching and the essence of the practice of Zen. Mindfulness represents our capacity to consciously be in the present moment, the here and now.
Through Mindfulness, the Buddha suggested we become aware of our mental faculties and emotions while non-attaching to worldly desires and other distractions. By being aware of the four domains, namely body, feelings, mind, and phenomena – we deeply connect not only with ourselves but with life itself.
The right Mindfulness also allows us to see reality as it is, without being a slave to anger, greed, desire, and ignorance. This way, we become detached and careful observers of what’s going on, and we see clearly and deeply.
Right Mindfulness also involves recognizing and liberating ourselves from mental habits and processes that sustain the illusion of a separate self. This includes abandoning the mental fixation of judging everything according to whether we like it or not.
Mindfulness comes with time, practice, and leads to the development of certain states of mind, where one attains a certain level of letting go over his or her impulses, thoughts, and desires. The individual doesn’t apply some sort of restrain or control over his or her unwholesome mental processes; they simply vanish by themselves.
The Buddha recognized breathing as the most basic way to bring the mind back in the present moment and cultivate and manifest the virtues of Mindfulness.
Summary of the Right Mindfulness
- Mindfulness is at the heart of Buddhism.
- By being aware of body, feelings, mind, and phenomena, we connect with ourselves and with life itself.
- Mindfulness prevents us from being a slave to anger, greed, desire, and ignorance.
- Mindful breathing is a great way to develop the qualities of Mindfulness.
8. The Right Concentration
The last and final Path of the Eightfold Path is the right concentration. The original Sanskrit word used was samadhi, and it often translates into English as concentration.
Samadhi is a particular type of one-pointedness concentration directed to oneself. It implies keeping one’s attention steadily – for an extensive period of time – on a single thing such as the posture or the breath for example.
The Right concentration is applying concentration to better ourselves, through the practice of Buddhist meditations like Vipassana or Zazen or Zen meditation.
In Theravada, meditation is used as a technique to bring the mind to Enlightenment. In Mahayana, meditation is not used as a tool; the practice itself is Enlightenment, – it’s not a means to an end, it is the end itself.
It is essential to understand Buddhism without meditation is not Buddhism. After all, the Buddha experienced Nirvana under the Bodhi tree while practicing meditation.
Summary of the Right Concentration
- Concentration is one-pointedness Mindfulness directed towards oneself.
- In its truest form, it’s the practice of Buddhist meditation.
- Without meditation, there is no Buddhism.
As you could see, the Buddha’s Eightfold Path is a series of practical, down to earth instructions oriented towards the attainment of the end of suffering and the reaching of Nirvana or Enlightenment.
These eight components of the Path to liberation were essentially the whole teaching of the Buddha, to which he devoted himself till the end of his life.
Being almost an early psychologist, the Buddha taught the Path differently to different people so that everybody could understand his teachings according to their personal degree of development.
One thing is certain, the Buddha teachings of the Eightfold Path are as relevant for us today as they were two and a half millennia ago, when he first gave them.