Suffering is the reality of life. How to attain ultimate liberation from this suffering is the purpose of learning Buddhism. When the Buddha first awakened, he taught eight methods for cultivating the Way towards awakening in order to liberate all sentient beings from affliction and suffering. Together they are called the “Noble Eightfold Path.”
By following this Noble Eightfold Path, sentient beings can forever cut off their afflictions, suffering, and the causes of suffering, and attain the state of the sages—nirvana. Therefore, this path is called the eightfold path of the sages. The Noble Eightfold Path is like a boat that can carry sentient beings from the shore of ignorance to the other shore of awakening, so it is also known as the boat of eight Dharma methods.
To put it simply, the Noble Eightfold Path is the method for cultivating Buddhahood. It is the way to be free from defilement and suffering. It is the right path of cultivation for Buddhist practitioners. When we follow and practice the Noble Eightfold Path, we can accomplish the ultimate goal of Buddhism. For this reason, as Buddhist practitioners, we should understand the meaning of the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Noble Eightfold Path
After he attained awakening, the Buddha taught the Noble Eightfold Path in the first turning of the Dharma wheel. The Noble Eightfold Path is the best representation of Buddhist practice, and for this reason is used to discuss the entire path leading to the cessation of suffering. The Noble Eightfold Path consists of right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditative concentration.
“Right view” is to have the right concepts and right ideas. One concept can change a person’s life. The object of learning Buddhism and of cultivating ourselves is to correct mistakes and bad habitual tendencies. This is why having the right views is so important. In the Buddhist sutras, there are many interpretations and explanations of right view. According to the Lion’s Roar of Queen Srimala Sutra, right views are those views which are not subject to delusion or confusion. The Flower Adornment Sutra says that as we develop right view we move farther away from delusion. According to the Treatise on the Perfection of Great Wisdom, right view is wisdom. According to the Introduction to the Stages of Entering the Dharma Realm, “If one can cultivate without outflows the sixteen aspects of the Four Noble Truths, one will see them clearly; this is called right view.”
In summary, right view encompasses observations that lead us away from delusion and wrong views. It is the wisdom that truly comprehends cause and effect. It is the right understanding that results from contemplating phenomena through the three Dharma seals, the Four Noble Truths, and the twelve links of dependent origination. Looking at it from a broader perspective, we can see that all truths of Buddhism are right view.
“Right thought” is also known as right determination, right differentiation, right awareness, or right intention. The Treatise on the Stages of Yogacara Practitioners says, “When right view is strengthened, thought without anger and harmfulness arises; this is right thought.” Therefore, right thought means to not have thoughts of greed, anger, and ignorance. Instead, it is contemplating and distinguishing the true features of phenomena with wisdom.
The three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance bind us, and keep us from seeking the Way. At any given moment, these three poisons occupy the mind and pollute the purity of our intrinsic nature. If we wish to leave behind these three poisons, we must be firm in our resolve, we must always contemplate the right Dharma; and we must possess the mind of gentleness, compassion, and purity, free from anger. When our thoughts are in accord with the right Dharma at every moment, we can eliminate the three poisons and grow closer to becoming Buddhas.
“Right speech” is wholesome verbal karma, and also refers to four of the ten wholesome actions: refraining from dishonest speech, divisive speech, harsh speech, and idle chatter. Right speech is to refrain from all careless, slanderous, arrogant, scolding, insulting, mean, flattering, and untrue words. This is why right speech is known as words that are both “right” and “true.” When the Buddha taught the Dharma, his words were all true, immutable, and directed towards helping people awaken; this is right speech. There are four kinds of right speech:
Words of truth. These are words that are true, honest, and not duplicitous.
Words of compassion. These are words that are kind, soft, and give others confidence.
Words of praise. These are words that encourage others and bring them joy.
Words of altruism. These are words that help and benefit others.
“Right action” is behavior that is right and in accord with the truth. It is wholesome bodily karma, which includes three of the ten wholesome actions: not killing, not stealing, and not engaging in sexual misconduct. However, following this is just passively not committing unwholesome deeds. The active meaning of right action is to protect life, be compassionate, and give charity.
Furthermore, the Treatise on the Stages of Yogacara Practitioners says, “In our lives, or in the pursuit of daily necessities, whether we are walking, standing, sitting, or reclining, if we can perform them with right thought, this is called right action.” In other words, having a disciplined lifestyle is right action. For example, proper sleeping habits, diet, exercise, rest, and work habits, will not only improve our health and efficiency, but are also the main elements for a happy family and a peaceful society.
“Right livelihood” refers to the right occupation and right way to make a living. According to the Treatise on the Stages of Yogacara Practitioners, “Following the Dharma in our pursuit of clothing, food, and other items, or staying away from all the ways of living that give rise to unwholesomeness, is right livelihood.” Having a moral profession in life is extremely important because most unwholesomeness comes from doing things that harm others and ourselves. Occupations such as working in a gambling establishment or a brothel, or dealing drugs or arms are not examples of right livelihood because they involve killing, stealing, lying, engaging in sexual misconduct, and selling intoxicants.
“Right effort” is also known as right diligence, right skillful means, and caring for the Dharma. It means that we should move in the direction of truth with courage and diligence. The sutras say, “If laypeople are lazy, they lose the benefits of the mundane world. If monastics are indolent, they lose the Dharma Gem.” According to the Sutra of Mindfulness on the Right Dharma, indolence is the root of all unwholesome ways; it is the seed of the cycle of birth and death; it gives rise to all affliction and suffering in the world. If we wish to break the cycle of birth and death, we should be diligent and abandon indolence.
Diligence is not disorderly and does not retreat. It strives to do good and strives to not harm. The Treatise on the Perfection of Great Wisdom says that we should take the four right efforts as the goal in our cultivation of diligence. The four right efforts are: to prevent unwholesome states that have not yet arisen, to end unwholesome states that have arisen, to develop wholesome states that have not yet arisen, and to strengthen wholesome states that have arisen.
“Right mindfulness” is also known as true contemplation. It means to have a mind that is pure, aware, and does not give rise to unwholesome thoughts. It is contemplating the right path. The Sutra of Teachings Bequeathed by the Buddha says, “If we build a strong foundation of mindfulness, although we are surrounded by thieves of the five desires, we will not be harmed. It is like wearing armor into a battle and fearing nothing.” This is why Buddhist practitioners should not pay any attention to gossip, desire, gain or loss, winning or losing, money or fame, and should always maintain right mindfulness. There are four applications of right mindfulness. They are:
Contemplate the impurities of the body. Attachments and delusions arise because most people are attached to the body, especially to its beauty and health. In fact, our bodies are filled with urine, excrement, mucus, saliva, and other waste products. In fact, the body is where all such waste is produced. The Buddha taught us to contemplate the impurity of the body to eliminate our attachment to the body, so that we can learn to use the body for the sake of cultivation, to attain the Dharma body.
Contemplate the suffering of feelings. Both the mundane feelings of pain and happiness result in suffering. Life is full of many kinds of suffering, such as birth, aging, sickness, and death. Even when we have a happy feeling, because all phenomena are impermanent, that happy feeling will eventually come to an end. Therefore, we should realize that feelings lead to suffering.
Contemplate the impermanence of the mind. Our thoughts are changing every minute and every second. Suddenly, they are in heaven; then, they are in hell. Sometimes, they are good; sometimes, they are bad. Sometimes, they arise; sometimes, they recede. For this reason, the Buddha said that we should contemplate the impermanence of the mind.
Contemplate the non-selfhood of phenomena. The Diamond Sutra says, “All conditioned phenomena are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, or shadows, like dew and lightning. One should contemplate them in this way.” All phenomena in the world will eventually decay and extinguish; nothing in this world has a substantial existence that is completely separate from anything else. If we know how to contemplate the fact that all phenomena have no substantial existence, “non-self,” we can find our intrinsic nature amidst the five desires of wealth, sex, fame, food, and sleep.
By always being mindful of impermanence, suffering, and non-self, we will not be attached to worldly advantages, and can bravely walk towards the Way.
Right Meditative Concentration
“Right meditative concentration” is using samadhi to focus the mind and settle the distracted body so we can better cultivate ourselves. True samadhi is not merely a matter of sitting in meditation; it is also developing and exploring our inner capacity. Right meditative concentration should bring us good health. It should help us focus on single-mindedness and attain peace. It should clarify the mind and lead us from ignorance to the state of awakening. Ultimately, cultivating right meditative concentration will reveal our Buddha nature to us and allow us to discover our true self.
The Importance of the Noble Eightfold Path
The Treatise on the Great Compendium of the Abhidharma says, “Right view gives rise to right thought. Right thought leads to right speech. Right speech leads to right action. Right action initiates right livelihood. Right livelihood initiates right effort. Right effort then gives rise to right mindfulness. Right mindfulness can give rise to right meditative concentration.” If people have right view, they will be able to have right thought and determine what is right or wrong, good or bad, and true or false. They will then perform right action of body, speech, and mind, and move in the right direction with right effort. They will also develop right mindfulness and abide in right concentration. We should realize that the Noble Eightfold Path is a unified whole. For any one of them to be fulfilled, it must be accompanied by the other seven elements.
Right view is the first step in the Noble Eightfold Path. Right view is wisdom and the teacher of cultivation. Buddhist practitioners must have right view before they can see the truth of the universe. The Samyukta Agama says, “If one has a strong foundation of right view in the mundane world, although they will be reborn a thousand times, they will never fall into the three lower realms.” From this, we can see the significance of right view, and understand the importance of the Noble Eightfold Path without having to say a single word.
How to Practice the Noble Eightfold Path
The Dharma is not a theory, and we cannot understand it solely from a philosophical point of view. This is especially true of the Noble Eightfold Path, which gives us guidance in our lives. For this reason, we need to practice it each and every day. When we do not change our belief in Buddhism in spite of how difficult it is to practice Buddhism, this is right view. When our every thought is in accordance with the Dharma, this is right thought. When we speak with kind and compassionate words, giving others joy, hope, and confidence, this is right speech. When our actions are in accordance with morality; when we do not harm others just to satisfy our own desires; when we actively come to the aid of those in need of assistance; when we practice giving; when we strive to do good deeds and prevent evil; when we calmly use our wisdom to solve our problems in any kind of situation, these are all ways to practice the Noble Eightfold Path in our daily lives.