“Of all paths the Eightfold Path is best;
Of all truths the Four Truths are best;
Of all states dispassion is best;
Of all humans the Seeing One is best.”
(The Dhammapada, verse 273)
At the heart of Buddhism lies the Buddha’s teaching of the Four Noble Truths, which in brief state that 1. Life is suffering (dukkha). 2. The cause of suffering is desire. 3. The ending of desire is the ending of suffering. 4. The Path leading to the ending of suffering. The Path, or Way, is divided into eight factors and is properly known as the Noble Eightfold Path (Ariya Atthangika Magga). The eight factors are:
- Samma-ditthi (Right Understanding)
- Samma-sankappa (Right Intention)
- Samma-vaca (Right Speech)
- Samma-kammanta (Right Action)
- Samma-ajiva (Right Livelihood)
- Samma-vayamo (Right Effort)
- Samma-sati (Right Mindfulness)
- Samma-samadhi (Right Concentration)
The eight factors are grouped into three aspects of the Path, each focusing on an important part of Buddhist practice. These aspects are panya, or wisdom (factors 1 &2), sila, or morality (factors 3, 4, & 5), and samadhi, or concentration (factors 6, 7, & 8). The factors aren’t to be thought of as being developed in turn, but rather like a wheel, they turn together along the Path. (The Noble Eightfold Path is often symbolized by an eight-spoked wheel, or Dharmacakra.)
Wisdom involves right, or correct, understanding. That is to say, understanding the way things are, the Dharma. It involves not mere intellectual knowledge that all that arises passes away, but actually understanding this through experience. Seeing the truth of suffering, its origins in desire, and its demise with the ending of desire are also to be experienced as part of right understanding. This is an opening up to the experience of suffering through our own bodies and minds, and seeing the truth of life as it is.
The other half of wisdom is right attitude, which is the aspiration to think without lust, ill-will, or cruelty. It is the intention to have positive, well-motivated thoughts that complement right understanding, leading one away from lustful, hateful, and cruel behavior, for as the Dhammapada says, “Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are mind-made.”
The second aspect to the Path is sila, or morality. This is a very important part of Dharma practice, which may be somewhat inconvenient to modern-minded types, but without basic moral standards, meditative progress will be inconsistent and short-lived. I used to be averse to abiding to a code of behavior myself, believing that living in the moment meant doing whatever came to mind. I was a slave to impulse. Adhering to the principles of right speech, action, and livelihood frees one from so much of the desires that chain one to ignorant and selfish modes of behavior. Right Speech involves speaking the truth, avoiding gossiping, harsh language, and vain talk (speaking what is useful and in accordance with the Dharma). As to right action, one abstains from killing living creatures, stealing, and sexual misconduct (promiscuity, adultery, rape etc.). Right livelihood means making a living that’s consistent with the previous elements of Buddhist morality. If one is a salesperson, a Buddhist shouldn’t trade in arms, living beings, flesh (meat), intoxicants (alcohol and drugs), and poisons. The Buddha taught that to practice deceit, treachery, soothsaying, trickery, and usury are wrong livelihood, as are (by implication) the professions of soldier, fisherman, and hunter. (In the Buddhist Scriptures, the Buddha tells a professional soldier that he will suffer a bad rebirth due to killing many people in battle.)
The third aspect of the Way is samadhi, or concentration, which begins with right effort, which is the effort to avoid that which is unwholesome, overcome unwholesome things already arisen, and the effort to develop and maintain wholesome states of thought. With a mind thus trained, right mindfulness will be easier to maintain, whether it is developed in sitting meditation, as when being mindful of the breath, or when being mindful of one’s actions, feelings, thoughts, or moods through the day. Right concentration is cultivated when meditating, and involves the development of the four absorptions (jhana), which arise through first achieving a fine focus of mind on a meditation object such as the breath. A process of letting go of the five hindrances to becoming ready for full enlightenment, which are lust, ill-will, laziness, restlessness, and doubt.
As said above, the eight factors are to be developed in unison, rather than one by one, for they support each other along the Way. When perfected, they do not produce enlightenment, which is the ultimate goal of Buddhism, for ‘it’ is unconditioned and uncreated. The Noble Eightfold Path can be understood as the parting of clouds that reveal the sun. They don’t create the sun, for it was already there shining its light ever so brightly, waiting to be revealed as soon as the clouds disperse. So, the eight factors produce a truly ripe fruit in the form of a perfected man or woman, who stands at the brink of enlightenment, the clouds about to part any moment.