The Noble Eightfold Path

“These eight things, friends, when developed and cultivated lead to Nibbāna,
have Nibbāna as their ultimate destination, have Nibbāna as their final goal!”

The Grouped Sayings of the Buddha on the Way. SN V (56)

So just growing up doesn’t sound all that hard. Chances are you’ve already done at least some of that. I don’t think toddlers are the intended audience for this book, although if you’re a toddler out there reading this, welcome. More power to you.

But achieving enlightenment sounds kind of intimidating. You may be surrounded by people whom you think have more or less mastered the whole being an adult thingy, but never met anyone who was fully enlightened. Part of the problem is that people who are fully enlightened tend not to say that about themselves. They tend to be very modest. In fact, if someone tells you s/he is fully enlightened, tread with caution. Watch the person with care for a while and decide for yourself if you think that person’s conduct is consistent with her/his claims. As always, actions speak louder than words.

Even so, the Buddha was very clear. He once said flat out, if it were not possible to achieve the same level of realization he had achieved, he would not tell people to do so. He was, after all, the embodiment of compassion, and telling people to spend their lives in a fruitless quest is not very compassionate. To help us out, he gave us the Noble Eightfold Path, which consists of Right View, Right Intention/Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. We usually group them as follows: the first two, Right View and Right Intention/Thought comprise Wisdom. The next three, Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood comprise Morality. The last three, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration comprise Meditation.

Note, it is NOT eight paths, it is the Noble Eightfold Path. We don’t much use words like “eightfold” these days, so that part might not be immediately clear. Think of the word “manifold,” which one might also render as “manyfold.” Like drapes or a pleated skirt, a single object can have many folds and still be a single object. Similarly, the Noble Eightfold Path is a single path that we should follow if we want to be good Buddhists, and it has eight different facets or components. Such are the limitations of writing that I can only explain them to you one at a time, and at first, you should feel free to focus on them one at a time as you master them, but once you have mastered them, they should all add up, or multiply, to a gestalt, or worldview that informs your choices and your life from top to bottom, stem to stern, inside and out.

Some of this is REALLY obvious. The three under Morality are pretty simple. The Buddha himself identified five precepts for all Buddhists to follow: avoid harming other living creatures, meaning insects as well as all animals, so don’t kill bugs unless you absolutely have to; avoid stealing (duh); avoid sexual misconduct (note it does NOT say, avoid sex — just behave yourself); avoid harmful speech; and avoid intoxicants that lead to carelessness, which they pretty much all do, so your hard drinking days are over, although you can have the odd glass of wine or beer, or other, um, intoxicant, all in moderation. Also, Right Livelihood is pretty obvious. Don’t make a living in a way that harms other people. So being an arms dealer is right out.

Some of the other points? Not so obvious. Right View? Huh? What does THAT mean? It consists of two components: right understanding of the dharma, or the truth of Buddhism as expounded by the Buddha himself and various subsequent teachers (depending on the school you practice in, on which more later), and right experience of the dharma. It especially refers to understanding the Four Noble Truths, which seem simple on their face but will reward careful contemplation. This is the familiar distinction between theoretical understanding, or what some call book learning, and the deeper, more useful understanding that comes from actually putting knowledge to use. You can read any number of books about how to drive a car, but you can’t be sure you know how to do it until you actually try. So the Buddha encouraged us to study what he and others have written, and to listen to what others have said, about the truth of Buddhism, but then we have to put it into practice. It is a path and we have to travel it.

So we can understand “view” here in its broadest sense. Narrowly, “view” just refers to the sense of sight, but broadly it refers to everything that goes into how you understand the world, as in worldview, including all those subconscious, repetitive thoughts, on which see below. As we noted before, Buddhism is a totalizing system in that, if you practice it and take it seriously, it will take over your whole life. The way you see and think about the world at the most fundamental level will change. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. This is closely related to the next point.

Right Intention/Thought is kind of obvious, but it’s not immediately obvious how hugely important it is. Once you know, as modern brain researchers have proven, that your brain instantaneously and automatically processes all sensory information before presenting a coherent package to your consciousness — there is no such thing as direct perception of anything, all perceptions get filtered — you begin to appreciate the way in which it is true that the world is what you think it is, or the world is what your brain makes it out to be, since virtually all of this “thought” is subconscious. When you’ve meditated for a while, you also notice that the vast majority of what you think all day every day is just mindless, repetitive chatter that mostly has the effect of shoring up your idea of who you are, which, again, is a mistake anyway. Many of our repetitive, self-reinforcing thoughts come from our culture, and the most important, influential thoughts are subconscious.

The Buddha was a strong advocate of the proposition that our thoughts make us what we are, both in the sense, as above, that our brain processes our perceptions before offering them to consciousness, meaning that most of your reactions at any given moment are habitual and unconsidered, and in the sense that what one thinks about all the time, one becomes. There is the old parable about the holy man who lived across the street from a prostitute. Every morning, the holy man would awaken and think about how unfortunate he was to have to live across from a prostitute. Every morning, the prostitute would awaken and think about how fortunate she was to live across from a holy man. When they died, the holy man went to hell because he had spent his life thinking about the prostitute, while the prostitute went to heaven because she had spent her life thinking about the holy man. Buddhists don’t do heaven and hell in that sense, but the point is, your thoughts set out the direction of your life.

Some of the most interesting and important things the Buddha had to say involve how to eliminate a lot of that mindless, repetitive chatter and free up more space and time for more directed thinking that will get you further down the eightfold path. The good news is that you can just decide you want to do that, you want to practice Buddhism and want to achieve the highest level of realization you can in this lifetime, and just setting that intention gives you major points. Using the path metaphor, before you picked up this book, you were just sort of hanging out in the yard of the house where you were born, which may be a beautiful meadow or a malarial swamp or a salt mine, but once you learn that there is a path that will take you away from all suffering, you now know what direction to walk in, which is a hugely important start. Whether you walk the path or not is entirely up to you. No one can do it for you or make you do it.

Another way to think about thought is to move onto the next folds, Right Speech and Right Action. Ultimately, everything you do and say grows out of thoughts. Many of the thoughts that motivate you on a daily basis may be so deeply engrained and habitual that you don’t even recognize them as thoughts. Indeed, a lot of modern conveniences have the effect of relieving us of having to think about what we’re doing. These days it’s a simple matter to have an alarm clock that remains set for the same time all the time so you don’t have to think about setting it, and you can have a coffee maker that you set up the night before with a timer such that it starts to spit out coffee just before the alarm goes off so you never have to do without coffee. You may or may not spend some time thinking about what to wear, although that can become highly mechanical, depending on what you do for a living and your personal taste.

As for getting to work, you can test this. The next time you go to work, make a point to pay attention to how you do it. If you drive, it is a simple matter to drive the usual route and get from point A to point B without really noticing anything in between. This is true no matter where you start or where you end up, if you’re driving a route you drive frequently. When you don’t know where you’re going, of course, you have to pay close attention. The same is true if you walk or use public transportation. Once you start to notice, it’s amazing how much of your time you spend on autopilot. But that does not mean you’re not thinking about what you’re doing. It means that the thoughts are so familiar and you’ve repeated them so many times that you no longer notice them. Obviously, this is what we call habit. While you’re on your way to work, instead of paying attention to getting there, you can obsess about how you think the day is going to go, or how it went yesterday, or any number of other things that you likely have little or no control over but that feed your sense of who you are.

The point is not that you absolutely have to become fully aware of everything you do as you’re doing it. The point is that you need to become aware enough that you can catalog all of the habitual thoughts and eradicate the ones that will lead to future suffering. Again, one of the most fascinating things about becoming a Buddhist is that, after you’ve been meditating for a while, you start to notice all these amazing things that are going on inside your head that you hadn’t noticed before, some of which can be quite frightful. Don’t beat yourself up for the icky thoughts, and don’t feel like the lone stranger. We’re all that way. It’s part of being human. One way of understanding the point of Buddhism is to cultivate the willingness and ability to accept all of your experience, good, bad, or indifferent, as it is without wishing it were otherwise. Partly, this goes back to wanting your cake and eating it, too. Time you spend wailing and gnashing your teeth over the scary thoughts you find when you meditate is time you waste that you could use getting rid of the scary thoughts. We’ll discuss this in more detail in the chapter on meditation instructions.

And, since your thoughts inform everything else you say and do, logically, from Right Intention/Thought should follow Right Speech and Right Action. Again, this part is pretty simple, unless you’re a sociopath, which I doubt. Think about the things you say automatically, without thinking about them. This most likely happens with people you interact with regularly, such as your spouse or any children, or your coworkers. The Buddha defined Right Speech as speech that is truthful, useful, timely, and compassionate. There are various formulations of this concept, many of which are not explicitly Buddhist. Again, one of the advantages of meditation is that it causes both the speed and volume of thoughts to decline, such that you are more likely to notice what you’re saying and how you’re acting and the thoughts that lead to each so that you can improve them. What you do automatically, you have no control over. But you haven’t always done anything automatically. Well, okay, from birth, you started breathing, eating, pooping, and sleeping automatically, but that’s about it. Your automatic responses are habits that build up over time, and what you’ve built, you can unbuild. Again, a key part of the message is that, with practice, you can exercise increasing control over all of this, and, since you can, you should.

Similarly, Right Action is pretty simple. Refer above to the paragraph on morality: don’t kill or otherwise harm any living being, including ants, cockroaches, spiders, etc., don’t take anything from anyone except what someone has freely offered, don’t engage in sexual misconduct, and don’t get too drunk or stoned. Again, just behave yourself. We all know how to do this, we just think sometimes it will be more fun to misbehave. The Buddha says, misbehaving will be more fun right now, but in the long run, it will make you miserable.

Written by

Uppity gay, Buddhist, author, historian.

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