According to the Buddha, following the Eightfold Path is following the way to liberation. It’s the way [Sanskrit: marga; Pali: magga] to replacing life’s three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion with their opposites of nonattachment, loving kindness, and wisdom.
It’s the eight-dimensioned way of the Aryas, the noble ones, the sages (saints, successful philosophers). The list of its eight elements is called “right” [Sanskrit: samyak; Pali: samma], which may also be translated as ‘perfect,’ ‘appropriate,’ or ‘fitting.’ The path is a middle way between the indulgent, sensual way of householders and the self-mortifying way of extreme renunciates.
The Eightfold Path is a “world-transcending” or “supramundane” path from samsara to nirvana. Its purpose is to enable any practitioner who follows it to complete liberation from suffering [dissatisfaction, unease, imperfection, unfulfillment (Sanskrit: duhka; Pali: dukkha)].
The elements of the Eightfold Path fall under three categories: wisdom [Sanskrit: prajna; Pali: panna], moral discipline [Sanskrit/Pali: sila], and meditation [Sanskrit/Pali: samadhi]. It’s best if all elements are simultaneously present.
The first element of the Eightfold Path is right view. This is understanding the four realities or Noble Truths (suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the way leading to the cessation of suffering). Understanding them includes understanding the fourth Noble Truth, which is the Eightfold Path itself. Since all craving is ultimately to be abandoned, even this view should not be held with craving. In other words, right view itself should eventually be abandoned. In this sense, it may be taken not to be a view at all.
The second element of the Eightfold Path is right intention. Right intention is having the intention of renunciation, non-ill will, and harmlessness. It means letting go of attachment to worldly pleasures, possessions, and selfishness.
Conduct or Moral Discipline:
The third element is right speech. Right speech is abstaining from false, malicious, or harsh speech as well as from idle chatter. Wrong speech is not only false but hurtful, divisive, and distracting.
The fourth element is right action. Right action is behaving like sages behave. This usually means cherishing life, respecting the possessions of others, avoiding sexual misconduct, not lying, and keeping the mind clear.
The fifth element is right livelihood. Having a right livelihood means having a means of living that does not infringe upon right speech or right action. This rules out, for example, selling weapons, slaves, flesh, intoxicating substances, and poisons.
The sixth element is right effort. Right effort is working to prevent unarisen unwholesome states (such as greed, anger, and delusion) from arising and to abandon unwholesome states that have arisen; it also means working to arouse wholesome states that have not yet arisen and to sustain and develop wholesome states that have arisen.
The seventh element is right mindfulness. Right mindfulness is constant awareness of the body in the body, of feelings in feelings, of mind in mind, and phenomena in phenomena. It is to dwell constantly watching their arising and falling away, in other words, “seeing” them as impermanent and therefore automatically eroding any notion that they are worth craving or a means to lasting happiness.
The eighth element is right concentration. Right concentration is what is often referred to as “one-pointedness” of the mind, which is exclusively focusing on a single object. Right concentration involves successively attaining the four absorptions [Sanskrit: dhyanas; Pali: jhanas].
The first and lowest absorption excludes sensual pleasures and unwholesome states and “is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born of seclusion” (The Buddha, In The Buddha’s Words [Boston: Wisdom, 2005; Bhikkhu Bodhi, tr.], p. 240.). In the second absorption, thought and examination have subsided leaving internal confidence, unification of mind, and the rapture and happiness born of concentration. In the third absorption, rapture has subsided leaving a unified mind and the happiness born of equanimity. In the fourth absorption, all pain and pleasure have been abandoned, all dejection and joy have passed away, and the practitioner is dwelling happily in one-pointed mindfulness that has been purified by equanimity, which is a state of profound, peaceful stillness.
The Eightfold Path is the Buddha’s way of being a good friend to serious practitioners. When a seeker “has a good friend, a good companion, it is to be expected that he will develop and cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path” (In The Buddha’s Words, p. 240). The Buddha tells Ananda that when seekers rely on him as a good friend and follow the Eightfold Path:
“beings subject to birth are freed from birth; beings subject to aging are freed from aging; beings subject to death are freed from death; beings subject to sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection, and despair are freed from sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection, and despair” (IN THE BUDDHA’S WORDS, p. 241.).
Gandhi said that his ambition in life was “to wipe every tear from every eye.”
The Buddha’s doctrine of the Eightfold Path was his gift to us to enable us to do just that.
As always, if you know someone who might benefit from reading this, please pass it along.
Recommended post: The Buddha’s Footsteps.
RECOMMENDED READING: The Buddha, In the Buddha’s Words (Bhikkhu Bodhi, editor and translator); The Buddha, Basic Teachings of The Buddha (Glenn Wallis, editor and translator); Paul Williams with Anthony Tribe, Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition; and Rupert Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism (Chapter 3).