The Noble Eightfold Middle Path

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The Noble Eightfold Path (ariya aṭṭhaṅgika magga) is the last of The Four Noble Truths, the central teachings of Buddhism. It is called noble (ariya) because it ennobles one who practices it; and it is called a path (magga) because it leads from one place to another, from the distress of samsara to the freedom of Nibbana. The Noble Eightfold Middle Path is also sometimes called the ‘Middle Way’ because it advocates a life-style that avoids both self-mortification and hedonism. The steps on the Eightfold Path are Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. Traditionally the Noble Eightfold Path is divided into three parts – Virtue, Concentration and Wisdom. Another useful way to divide it is as intellectual training, ethical training and psychological training.

The Eightfold Path

(adapted from a chapter from Buddha's Lists book by David N. Snyder, Ph.D.)

1. Right Understanding, samma ditthi

The first part of the Eightfold Middle Path is Right Understanding. It includes the Right Understanding of The Four Noble Truths, the truths of suffering and the cessation of suffering. This was explained in the last chapter.

One begins with an understanding based on the logic of the teachings, then knowledge, then experience through meditation, and finally an Understanding through the wisdom of enlightenment experiences.

All parts of the Eightfold Middle Path are worked on simultaneously, but there is somewhat of a “beginning” and “ending” with Right Understanding. This is because a superficial understanding is at the start of the Path and a complete wisdom awakening understanding is at the end.

“Bhikkhus, this is the forerunner and precursor of the rising of the sun, that is, the dawn. So too, bhikkhus, for a bhikkhu this is the forerunner and precursor of the breakthrough to the Four Noble Truths as they really are, that is, Right Understanding.” Samyutta Nikaya 56.37

2. Right Thought, samma sankappa

The second part of the eightfold middle path is Right Thought. All of the parts are not in any particular order except that you start with Right Understanding and end with Right Understanding. All of the parts are to be performed simultaneously. The difference with Right Understanding is simply that you begin with some understanding of the Buddha’s teachings and end with an experiential understanding of the Buddha’s teachings. All the while all eight parts are treaded simultaneously.

Right Thought includes thoughts of love and non-violence extending to all beings. In vipassana meditation awareness is placed on thoughts with intent to cease thoughts so that the meditation remains in the present moment free from unwholesome thoughts. Right Thought basically refers to wholesome thoughts, which is closely tied to Right Understanding because it results eventually through the practice and attainment of wisdom. The first two verses of the first chapter of the Dhammapada by the Buddha, are:

“All we are is the result of what we have thought, it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him like a shadow that never leaves him.”

Our thoughts are as important to us as our actions because they make up who we are, thus, it becomes imperative that we keep our thoughts pure.

An example is to imagine if your thoughts are filled with money and how to get more money. Greed becomes a big part of your life. It defines who you are. Your thoughts become fixated on money and this is who you become.

Another example is a person with what is commonly called, “a one track mind.” Such a person focuses his mind and thoughts on only one topic. All of this person’s conversation tends to run on this one subject. It begins with the thoughts and then permeates to define that person.

An optimistic person is one who sees things in a positive way. This person radiates happiness and loving kindness. Such a person greets people with a smile and it is from the heart and not just conformation to etiquette. This positive attitude had its start with good, positive thoughts.

By keeping our thoughts wholesome and in the present we encourage only productive thoughts. Thoughts can then be useful and not counter-productive.

Another quote from the Buddha in regard to the value of Right Thought is:

“Your worst enemy can not harm you as much as your own thoughts, unguarded. But once mastered, no one can help you as much, not even your father or your mother.” (Dhammapada, chapter 3)

3. Right Speech, samma vaca

One abstains from lies, hatred speech, and gossip. The famous saying puts it best, “one lie needs a thousand more to back it up.” When we lie we need to back up our story. This requires new lies to support the one we started.

Hatred speech is bad in especially two ways. The Buddha said that when one person attacks another through speech, two people get hurt. The one being attacked gets hurt and the one delivering the attack also gets hurt. It is like throwing a hot coal on someone. Sure, the person getting hit with the hot coal gets hurt. But first you get hurt as you get burned picking up the hot coal. The Buddha said that the agitation in the mind and the heat in the body from anger are causing all kinds of distress to the person doing the insulting and speech filled with hatred.

Modern science has since concurred with the Buddha that creating this stress in the body through violent hate filled speech causes an agitation that can cause heart disease and hypertension. Stress is one of the leading causes for heart related problems and early death. Engaging in insulting and hate filled speech only encourages the growth of this stress inside our bodies.

The Buddha was also opposed to gossip and idle chatter. He knew that this leads to hearsay and rumors which can cause much stress and may not even be factual. He preferred attention to productive and wholesome conversations since idle and useless chatter do nothing to get us to the “other shore” (of enlightenment).

4. Right Action, samma kammanta

No killing or causing to kill, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no taking of narcotics or intoxicating drinks.

Killing is considered one of the worst actions in any culture because it goes against nature. It involves the death of a being before their natural course. It is a crime against nature. As rational animals we must have an understanding of cause and effect. The Buddha knew that we must also avoid doing things which cause the death of beings too.

The guideline against stealing or taking what is not earned or given to us is a valuable precept to live by so that we may be at peace with others. We do not want things stolen from us, so we do not steal or take from others.

Sexual misconduct is engaging in any sexual activity if you are a monk or nun. For lay people, sexual misconduct means not abusing sexual relations through force or coercion. Certain relationships are to be avoided such as between teacher and student, adult and minor, employer and employee. In general, relationships of superior to subordinate are not to engage in sexual relations since there is an obvious power relationship in play and for ethical considerations to other subordinates and possible favoritism.

5. Right Livelihood, samma ajiva

Abstention from making a living that harms others, including trading weapons, trading in human beings (such as slavery), intoxicating drinks, narcotics, poisons, handling animal flesh such as a butcher, or killing animals.

The Buddha taught and lived the philosophy of ahimsa, or nonviolence. The Buddha had great compassion for all beings, not just humans. The Buddha understood that all beings feel pain and can suffer. For these reasons, the Buddha was opposed to specific professions which are aimed at harming people, animals, and / or the environment.

In the Buddha’s teachings, what matters most is the intention. Occupations which are specifically designed to harm another are not recommended. Some occupations which may appear to be harmful, may not be when you consider the intention. An example, is a casino black jack dealer. Gambling is certainly an activity that can end up doing much harm, with lost wages and wealth for a family. But, this is only if it gets to an addictive level. In moderation it can be a form of entertainment, just like watching television. A casino black jack dealer has no intention of creating a gambling addict anymore than a TV cable installer wants to create a TV watching addict. Therefore, a casino worker is not a wrong livelihood.

6. Right Effort, samma vayama

The energetic will to prevent evil and unwholesome states of mind from arising. This has to do with the drive of the practitioner to seek to do good and reach insights of enlightenment. Two key words that best describe how the Buddha obtained enlightenment are persistence and determination. President Calvin Coolidge (30th president of the U.S.) had the following to say about persistence and determination:

“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than the unsuccessful man with talent. Genius will not; un-rewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not -- the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination are omnipotent.”

The above quote is not saying that genius and education do not produce success. The important point of the quote is that none of these traits ensure success like persistence and determination.

“Therein, bhikkhus, the meditator who is both a thorough worker and a persistent worker regarding concentration is the chief . . . the most excellent of the kinds of meditators.” Samyutta Nikaya 34.53

There was a report on a news show recently about the most intelligent person in America. He had an I.Q. score off the charts. The number was “somewhere above 200” since he had no wrong answers, the testers do not know where the exact score is, it is so high. This person lives in a small house, barely making ends meet, working as a bouncer in a bar. Intelligence or I.Q. only shows what you are capable of. If you do not go to school or use your intelligence you can still be quite ignorant. Knowledge and wisdom must be attained, intelligence just gives you an idea of how fast you could absorb material, not how “smart” or “wise” you really are.

If you watch, hear, or read about many different famous business peoples’ biographies such as Donald Trump or Bill Gates, more than education or intelligence you find the common characteristics of not just hard work, but persistence and determination.

Another couple of examples are in the field of sports. There are many world class athletes who made it to the top after numerous failures. They simply persisted and with determination, became champions. The Ethiopian distance runner, Haile Gebrselassie, finished 99th place in his first marathon race. He later went on to win gold medals in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics. Michael Jordan, the famous basketball player was cut (rejected) from his high school basketball team. In the NBA league, he won six championships and broke several records.

Determination is the firm decision to do something. You have set yourself a goal and you really go for it. The Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree and vowed not to get up for anything until he was enlightened. He did not care if his “legs fell off” or even if he died. This is determination. Persistence is the effort to go for it, to keep at it in spite of obstacles that may arise. They are very related and that is why they are usually referred to in conversation and writing together.

We all have experienced this in some form or another. Maybe it is something as simple as wanting to get an “A” grade on some test in school or college. We put all our effort into studying and especially the night before the test we stay up and cram for hours. The goal is set and the effort is put in to reach the goal. Someone may call you or there might be some other distraction. You put off or ignore the distraction and continue with your studies.

In meditation practice there can be many distractions, from pain in the legs, to your mind wandering so much that it bothers you and stops you from meditating. Persistence is working through these obstacles anyway. Obstacles always arise in any endeavor. The more valuable the goal, it seems, the more obstacles that come up. Right Effort is this drive of persistence and determination.

7. Right Mindfulness, samma sati

To be diligently aware, mindful and attentive with regard to activities of the body, sensations or feelings, activities of the mind, ideas, thoughts, conceptions, and emotions.

The opposite of mindfulness would be something like forgetfulness or absent mindedness. To acquire more mindfulness in our daily activities we need to do the practice, which is insight meditation. This trains the body and the mind so that mindfulness can become more like second nature and be present in every moment.

8. Right Concentration, samma samadhi

The practice of vipassana meditation is the Path that will make the Middle Way clear, understandable, and alleviate all suffering, not only for the hereafter, but right here and now in the present moment while we are still alive. There are actually two types of meditation as taught by the Buddha. They are samatha, which is the calm, tranquil technique and then there is vipassana, which is the type leading to Insight. Most meditation techniques in the Buddha’s time and before and even still today are primarily the samatha type. That is, they lead to a relaxed peaceful state and sometimes to great experiences of joy, bliss, even trance, but no ultimate Insight of enlightenment. Right Concentration primarily deals with the samatha type of meditation which is aimed at these highly concentrative states. But vipassana meditation, when done correctly, can provide the inner calm of samatha and also can lead to the Insight wisdom of vipassana. Concentration meditation techniques include many different meditation subjects. There are 40 different meditation subjects of samatha and four major techniques or foundations for vipassana. It can be direct one-pointedness concentration on a devotional figure. The common subject for beginners is awareness of breath. The meditator remains in the present moment focusing on the in and out breath of the body. The mind and body become calm and free of negative thoughts. The different subjects and practices of vipassana are discussed more in later chapters.

Right Understanding

The Eightfold Middle Path consists of eight parts, but they are not stages. They are to be practiced as one, simultaneously. They are not commandments, but rather a voluntary guide for treading a Path to the Middle, avoiding extremes and awakening to Reality. Although the Eightfold Path is not progressive stages one necessarily begins with Right Understanding because without some concept of the Path or some acceptance of the Path based on logic or scientific analysis, one can not begin on the Middle Path. After diligent practice and with insights one comes back to Right Understanding, but this time with experiential wisdom.

Thus, as the cover text (see: Buddha's Lists) demonstrates, the Eightfold Middle Path is a full circle beginning with Right Understanding and ending with Right Understanding.

The Threefold Summary of the Middle Path

Meditation is the core of Buddhist practice since it provides Samādhi and leads to Paññā and also for the reasons and wisdom behind Sīla

The Eightfold Middle Path has been summarized to the three main categories:

  • 1. Wisdom (Paññā)
  • 2. Morality (Sīla)
  • 3. Concentration (Samādhi)

Right Understanding and Right Thought come under the “Wisdom” category. Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood come under the “Morality” category. And Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration come under the “Concentration” category. The Eightfold Middle Path develops the categories of Wisdom, Morality, and Concentration.

See also