After Siddhartha Guatama forever became the Buddha by attaining the covenant state of spiritual enlightenment when he was 35 years old, he’d spend the remaining 45 years of his life expounding life-affirming insights about human psychology and spiritual practice. While his instructional discourses unquestionably touched on a wide variety of topics, each and everyone of his wisdom filled lessons was in someway intimately connected to two most important teachings which serve as the foundational base of Buddhist theology: The Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.
It was during the Enlightened One’s iconic first sermon at the Deer Park outside of Varanasi when he outlined the Four Noble Truths by telling his earliest followers that (1) suffering exists, (2) there is a cause of suffering, (3) there is an end to suffering and (4) there is a path that one can take to end suffering in this lifetime. This path that the Buddha spoke of some 2,500 years ago not only represented the Fourth Noble Truth but also the Noble Eightfold Path he relied upon to attain liberation. He told his original disciples:
The Noble Truth of the Path leading to the Cessation of suffering is this: It is simply the Noble Eightfold Path, namely right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.”
The Noble Eightfold Path:
It was based upon the insights he learned while on an intensive six year spiritual journey that the Buddha conceptualized the sacred Middle Way approach commonly known as the Noble Eightfold Path. Although it’s easy to assume that, because of its name, the Noble Eightfold Path is comprised of eight sequential steps one must take to move closer towards achieving Nirvana, the path actually contains eight closely linked lifestyle principles and skills, referred to as factors, that are developmentally dependent upon each other and remain unceasingly important for practitioners to follow. Customarily, the eight doctrinal factors encompassed in the Noble Eightfold Path are separated into three overarching divisions of Wisdom, Ethical Conduct, and Mental Disciple.
While having knowledge of the Noble Eightfold Path is of course needed to progress spiritually, the Buddha went to great lengths to tell his followers that it’s not possible to achieve the ultimate goal of liberation with knowledge alone, and that they’d have to focus their energies on skillfully developing the ability to live in accordance with each of the eight pillars. He made sure they understood that although the divisions and factors of the Noble Eightfold Path, which we’ll explore more thoroughly below, could act as guideposts for their spiritual journey, their results would be determined by themselves alone. In the celebrated scriptures known as the Dhammapada, the Buddha proclaims:
This is the path itself, for none other leads to purity of vision: If you follow it and so confuse King Mara [prohibitive forces of enlightenment], all suffering will end. Since I have learned how to remove the thorns, I have revealed the path. You yourselves should always strive, Tathagatas [Buddhas] only teach.”
The Division of Ethical Conduct (Sila):
The initial stage of the Noble Eightfold Path is considered to be the Division of Ethical Conduct (Sila) and the three factors of Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood. Whereas the other divisions of Mental Discipline and Wisdom are primarily concerned with training and transforming the mind, the aims of this division, which acts as the Noble Eightfold Path’s code of conduct, more so relate to the cultivation of virtuous intentions and morals within the heart. This, however, isn’t to say that ethical conduct should be considered less important than the path’s other undertakings because it’s only possible to purify the mind when behaving and living in an honorable fashion.
Right Speech (Samma vaca):
The Buddha outlined four forms of speech that practitioners should abstain from using within the factor of Right Speech (Samma vaca) because they naturally hinder one’s spiritual growth. He told us we should avoid (1) lying and deceiving others, (2) speaking in ways that sow discord, (3) speaking in a harsh, rude, impolite, or abusive manner, and (4) partaking in activities of idle chatter such as gossip.
As a wholesome alternative to communicating in these ways, the Enlightened One advised us to tell nothing but the truth, speak in ways that promote unity, speak in a kind and loving manner, and speak at the appropriate time. Additionally, he advocated for maintaining a ‘Noble Silence‘ whenever we have nothing useful or beneficial to say. He told his followers to investigate their own speech by asking themselves:
Do I speak at the right time, or not? Do I speak of facts, or not? Do I speak gently or harshly? Do I speak profitable words or not? Do I speak with a kindly heart, or inwardly malicious?”
Right Action (Samma kammanta):
Whereas the Buddha laid out four forms of speaking that we should abstain from using, he pointed to three primary behaviors, that must be avoided, when discussing the factor of Right Action (Samma kammanta). He told us that if we are to move closer to the ultimate goal of Nirvana, it’ll be imperative to refrain from (1) killing, (2) stealing and (3) indulging in unwholesome sexual activities.
Instead, the Enlightened One encouraged us to unceasingly behave in honorable ways and prioritize actions that promote harmony within ourselves and our communities. When talking about the importance of Right Action, the Buddha compared the dissimilar outcomes that come from proper and improper behaviors:
Abandon wrongdoing. It can be done. If there were no likelihood, I would not ask you to do it. But since it is possible and since it brings blessing and happiness, I do ask of you: abandon wrongdoing. Cultivate doing good. It can be done. If it brought deprivation and sorrow, I would not ask you to do it. But since it brings blessing and happiness, I do ask of you: cultivate doing good.”
Right Livelihood (Samma ajiva):
In addition to the four precepts of Right Speech and three precepts of Right Action, the Buddha spoke of four unwholesome lifestyle choices in the factor of Right Livelihood (Samma ajiva). He told us that if we hope to move along the path, it’ll be vitally important to avoid making a living in an unethical profession or partake in activities related to industries that deal with (1) lethal weapons, (2) intoxicants, (3) human trafficking and (4) animals for slaughter.
As an alternative to these prohibitive ventures, the Enlightened One said that we should pursue an honorable profession that is blameless of worldly harm. Additionally, he determined that using our financial wealth in a dignified manner, practicing generosity, and avoiding both overindulgence and deprivation are similarly important for our spiritual growth. Of this balanced lifestyle approach, he said:
A person knows his or her income and expenditures and leads a balanced life, neither extravagant nor miserly, so that income exceeds expenditures rather than the reverse. Just as a goldsmith or his apprentice, holding a up a scale, knows, ‘By so much it has dipped down, by so much it has tilted up,’ so a family man or woman leads a balanced life.”
The Division of Mental Discipline (Samadhi):
According to Buddhist theology, the second stage of the Noble Eightfold Path is the Division of Mental Discipline (Samadhi) and the three factors of Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. It’s at this point of a practitioner’s spiritual journey when they strive to calm and focus their mind, objectively observe their thoughts and beliefs, and transform their negative ways of thinking into wholesome alternatives. It is worth mentioning that just as the factors of Ethical Conduct are needed to properly train the mind in this stage because our actions and behaviors largely shape our thoughts, so too is it necessary to develop the factors of Mental Discipline before moving into the third and final division of Wisdom.
Right Effort (Samma vayama):
The first factor of the Division of Mental Discipline, Right Effort (Samma vayama), relates to an individual’s steadfast commitment to monitor, analyze and transform their mind. In total, there are four important actionable components that make up the factor of Right Effort: (1) To prevent unwholesome thoughts and mental states from arising in the mind, (2) to discard the unwholesome thoughts and mental states that preexist in the mind, (3) to cultivate positive thoughts and wholesome mental states that have yet to arise in the mind, and (4) to strengthen the beneficial thoughts and wholesome states that already exist in the mind until they become perpetual.
The Buddha told us that Right Effort is a vital component of the path because diligence and perseverance will undoubtedly be needed to mentally purify ourselves. He was, however, quick to point out that our efforts must be superbly balanced rather than overly persistent or lackadaisical. The Enlightened One used the analogy of an Indian instrument known as a vina to illustrate the importance of balanced effort when famously talking to an overworked monk named Sona:
And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were neither too taut nor too loose, but tuned to be right on pitch, was your vina in tune & playable?… In the same way, Sona, over-aroused persistence leads to restlessness, overly slack persistence leads to laziness. Thus you should determine the right pitch for your persistence, attune the pitch of the faculties [to that], and there pick up your theme.”
Right Mindfulness (Samma sati):
The next two factors of the Noble Eightfold Path pertain directly to the practice of meditation and are generally regarded as the two foundational skills of one’s meditative adeptness. The Buddha told us that to practice Right Mindfulness (Samma sati), we must develop our ability to remain diligently aware of ourselves in regard to (1) activities of the body, (2) bodily sensations and feelings, (3) activities of the mind, and (4) mental phenomena that come in the form of ideas, thoughts, perceptions, and beliefs.
When practiced in accordance with Right Effort, the indispensable skill of Right Mindfulness, which is rooted in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness listed above, allows us to monitor, evaluate and transform unwholesome activities of the body and mind while also promoting understanding of important spiritual truths such as karma, attachment, and impermanence. In the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha’s cherished discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness, he tells us:
There is, monks, this way that leads only to the purification of beings, to the overcoming of sorrow and distress, to the disappearance of pain and sadness, to the gaining of the right path, to the realization of Nirvana—that is to say the four foundations of mindfulness.”
Right Concentration (Samma samadhi):
Whereas the factor of Right Mindfulness advises practitioners to cultivate an open and expansive awareness of their internal and external states, the factor of Right Concentration (Samma samadhi) encourages them to develop the capacity to fixate the mind on a single point of focus. It’s due to the fact that a wide variety of mental and sense phenomena can impede one’s spiritual growth that the Buddha said we must fully develop our concentrative abilities, which are inextricably linked to the faculties of effort and mindfulness until our minds resemble a motionless candle flame in a windless place.
Additionally, the Enlightened One told us that it’s only possible to progress through the four stages of meditative absorption, known as the dhyanas, that lead towards the ultimate goal by fully developing the skill of focusing the mind. Of the four dhyanas, he said:
These are the four developments of concentration. Which four? There is the development of concentration that, when developed & pursued, leads to a pleasant abiding in the here & now. There is the development of concentration that, when developed & pursued, leads to the attainment of knowledge & vision. There is the development of concentration that, when developed & pursued, leads to mindfulness & alertness. There is the development of concentration that, when developed & pursued, leads to the ending of the effluents.”
The Division of Wisdom (Prajna):
Once a practitioner masters their mind through Right Effort, mindfulness, and concentration, which is only made possible by upholding the appropriate ethical behavior standards, they’ll naturally progress to the last division of the Noble Eightfold Path, the Division of Wisdom (Prajna), where they’ll begin to gain the insights needed to attain liberation. Within this final stage, there are two factors, Right Thought, and Right Understanding, which relate to the intentions of an individual and also to how they comprehend and perceive the world. It should be pointed out that although it’s necessary to move through the first two divisions to progress to this point, The Buddha told us that individuals who’ve come thus far should consider these two pillars as the most important to practice and follow.
Right Thought (Samma sankappa):
The factor of Right Thought (Samma sankappa), which is also referred to as the factor of Right Resolve, points to the quality of an individual’s thoughts and their ability to discern between wholesome and unwholesome intentions. The Buddha told us that to truly live in line with this all-important factor, one’s cognitions not only have to be centralized in renunciation, loving-kindness, and non-violence but they also need to extend towards all living beings regardless of spice, race, sex, and religion.
Additionally, it’s at this stage of the path when individuals realize that thoughts of selfishness, ill-will, and aggression are what directly result from a lack of wisdom. When discussing the thinking patterns associated with this factor and their opposite counterparts, the Buddha recalled his own experience:
Monks, before my self-awakening, when I was still just an unawakened Bodhisatta, the thought occurred to me: ‘Why don’t I keep dividing my thinking into two sorts?’ So I made thinking imbued with sensuality, thinking imbued with ill will, & thinking imbued with harmfulness one sort, and thinking imbued with renunciation, thinking imbued with non-ill will, & thinking imbued with harmlessness another sort.”
Right Understanding (Samma ditthi):
In what should be considered the most important factor of the Noble Eightfold Path, because it naturally governs over the other seven factors, Right Understanding (Samma ditthi) or Right View relates to how an individual intimately perceives themselves, others, and the world at large. To accomplish this factor’s goal of acquiring the experientially based penetrative wisdom needed to clear the clouds of delusion and see things as they really are, the Buddha told us that we must maintain our commitment to the ethical code of conduct and persistently transform our minds in meditation practice with full understanding of the Four Noble Truths.
By coming to realize the validity of important spiritual realities such as impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self, we can peal back the veil of ignorance and begin seeing the world from a purified view. The Buddha talked about the auspicious nature of Right Understanding or Right View when he told us:
Just as when a sugar cane seed, a rice grain, or a grape seed is placed in moist soil, whatever nutriment it takes from the soil & the water, all conduces to its sweetness, tastiness, & unalloyed delectability. Why is that? Because the seed is auspicious. In the same way, when a person has right view… right release, whatever bodily deeds he undertakes in line with that view, whatever verbal deeds… whatever mental deeds he undertakes in line with that view, whatever intentions, whatever vows, whatever determinations, whatever fabrications, all lead to what is agreeable, pleasing, charming, profitable, & easeful. Why is that? Because the view is auspicious.”