Buddhism 102: The Eightfold Path

In my last post about Buddhism, I talked about the Four Noble Truths. This time I’m going to concentrate on the fourth Noble Truth:

The path to the cessation of suffering is the Eightfold Path.

As I mentioned before, the fundamental problem of Buddhism is suffering. The Eightfold Path is the way out: a program of self-discipline by which one can attain the cessation of suffering. It is the core guide of Buddhist practice: everything that Buddhists do as Buddhists is connected to the eightfold path. In a sense, it’s the Buddhism HOWTO. This post runs a bit long, and for that I apologize, but there are eight things to talk about!

Before I talk about the Eightfold Path, I’d like to emphasize what it doesn’t say. Remember that the second Noble Truth observes that suffering is caused by attachment — clinging to a desire that things were not as they are — and that the third Noble Truth acknowledges that suffering can be stopped. From those one might be tempted to conclude that the way to stop suffering is to stop attachment.

This is, I think, roughly equivalent to observing that since overweight people have too much body fat, the solution is to take off the fat. While it’s probably accurate, it’s so impractical that it’s of no use. How do you take off fat, and more importantly, how do you prevent fat from coming back?

The same holds for attachment. Even Gautama Buddha — the man that people usually mean when they talk about “Buddha” as one person, and about whom I’ll write more later — tried extreme asceticism, but discovered that even self-denial and self-mortification were insufficient in quelling suffering. In fact, they brought on more attachment and suffering by drawing attention to the things being denied! We fallible humans can’t just turn desire off.

At the same time, we can’t satisfy desire just by giving in, either. No matter what we attain, there’s always more that we want, and illness, the loss of loved ones, and our own mortality always lurks around the corner.

So Buddhism suggests an alternative approach: the Middle Way, not because it is a compromise between self-denial and self-indulgence, but because it is a whole-cut alternative to those ineffective approaches.

* * *

The Eightfold Path is traditionally divided into three sections: wisdom, action, and mind. Before I list them, a brief word about the word “right”: All of the principles of the Eightfold Path traditionally begin with “right”. Some people substitute “ideal”, “perfect”, “appropriate”, or “wise” instead. I’m not sure that any of those five possibilities completely convey the meaning, but they’re enough to get the idea of what’s going on.


Right Understanding
The understanding of the Four Noble Truths themselves. Right understanding is sometimes called “right view”. To begin to practice is to know the Four Noble Truths, and to master Right Understanding is to fully understand them.
Right Intention
The intention in “Right Intention” is the attitude with which one approaches Buddhism and the Eightfold Path. At its simplest level, Right Intention is the intention to follow the Eightfold Path. It also involves one’s reasons for practicing. This leads into a couple of things I’ll be talking about later: first, that Zen makes a distinction between particular levels of practice, and second, the concept of the Bodhisattva, one who delays his own enlightenment in order to assist all others in acheiving theirs.


Right speech
According to the sutra in which the Eightfold Path is set out, right speech involves “abstaining from lying, abstaining from divisive speech, abstaining from abusive speech, abstaining from idle chatter”. So practicing right speech is not only abstaining from speech which harms others, but from that which detracts from your own practice. This doesn’t mean “if you have nothing good to say, don’t say it”; sometimes it is necessary to say things that the recipient does not want to hear. But those things must be the truth, and must not be gossipy, and must not be delivered to be harmful. In short, right speech is speaking when beneficial and not otherwise.
Right action
Right action, or right conduct, is about the way a Buddhist behaves while going about his regular day. Specifically, the practice of right action involves following the five (sometimes ten) Buddhist precepts (another numbered list, and another upcoming post!): not destroying life, not stealing, not engaging in sexual misconduct, not lying, and not taking intoxicants which lead to carelessness.
Right livelihood
Right livelihood is essentially a particular case of right action: one should not involve oneself in a career, job, or similar position which results in harm to others. Five kinds of employment are specifically mentioned: trade in deadly weapons, animals for slaughter, slavery, intoxicants, or poisons. But generally, right livelihood means a livelihood in the spirit of the rest of the Eightfold Path. Where Right Action insists that you follow the precepts, right livelihood insists that your job not cause others to break them.


Right effort
Right effort is essentially the effort involved in maintaining one’s Buddhist practice — following the Eightfold Path and the precepts. Where the other parts of the Path are the doing, right effort is the attitude: trying to improve one’s practice and get rid of negative impulses. Lying might break a precept, but trying to get rid of the need or desire to lie satisfies right effort.
Right mindfulness
In the West, this might as well say “mindfulness”, because we don’t really have a concept of wrong mindfulness — in the absence of right mindfulness, there just isn’t any mindfulness at all! Mindfulness, here, is something like attention or awareness: being fully engaged in whatever it is you are doing when you are doing it. (Mindfulness is, I think, what drives the connection between Zen and productivity which has been popular in the last decade or so.)
Right concentration
Here’s the one place where the Eightfold Path diverges, at least for some people, from being a list of good ideas that anyone ought to put effort into: right concentration directly refers to Buddhist meditation. I’ll be talking about Zen meditation, zazen, soon, but for now it’s enough to know that by “Buddhist meditation” this principle means the training of the mind to focus on a single object.

You might have noticed that a lot of the principles involve other principles. For instance, one must have Right Intention and Right Effort to engage in Right Action or Right Speech or any of the other principles; Right Livelihood depends on Right Action; and without Right Understanding, you wouldn’t be following the Eightfold Path in the first place! That’s expected — the Eightfold Path is meant to be that interconnected, and it isn’t a list of steps to be followed one at a time. Engaging in any means engaging in all.

So between the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, you’ve basically got the big picture of Buddhism now. And while a lot of the elements of those require a bit of trust or faith, you’ll notice that there’s no mysticism or supernatural interference involved at all. That (as well as the whole “cessation of suffering” business) is one of the things I particularly like about Buddhism: it’s a religion of action, something you do to improve your own situation and that of those around you.

Now that the very basics of Buddhism are out of the way (and please let me know about all of the things I’ve covered poorly or have otherwise confused you with!), shortly I’ll be talking specifically about what Zen is and how it relates to Buddhism as a whole. As always, if there’s something you want me to talk about, let me know!

Once all of these groundwork posts about the basics are out of the way, I’m going to go back to something closer to my usual blogging when it comes to Buddhism: what I’ve done, what I’ve read, what I think, rather than these long explanatory posts.

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