8.1 Introduction to The Noble Eightfold Paths

The Noble Eightfold Paths are:

  1. Right Understanding
  2. Right Thought
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration
The Noble Eightfold Paths are the comprehensive paths leading to the end of suffering, designed to eliminate the causes of suffering and attain the enlightenment in the state of Nirvana. For convenience sake, the Noble Eightfold Paths have been divided into three groups of practice, called Three Practices. The Three Practices are:
  1. Morality - Sila, i.e. good conduct, taking precepts.
  2. Concentration - Samadhi, i.e. meditation, mental development.
  3. Wisdom - Prajna, i.e. insight, enlightenment.
Morality gives rise to concentration.

Concentration gives rise to wisdom.

If we want to be wise, we must be calm and concentrated in our mind. If we want to be calm and concentrated, we must take precepts with good conduct. As an analogy to a tree, morality is the root, concentration is the trunk and branches, while wisdom is the fruit.

Amongst the Eightfold Paths, the first two belong to wisdom, and the last three belong to concentration. The remaining three belong to morality.

8.2 The Three Practices

8.2.1. Morality/Good Conduct
Before Shakyamuni entered Nirvana, his disciple Anana said to Shakyamuni, "When you are in the world, you are my teacher whom I follow. However, when you leave this world and enter Nirvana, who is my teacher whom I follow?" Shakyamuni answered, "Morality (taking precepts) is your teacher." Morality is actually the dharma body of all Buddhas.

It is very important to note that morality is the foundation for the progress on the path, as it is the foundation of all qualities.

In Buddhism, the morality is based on the principle of equality and the principle of reciprocity. Equality means that all living things are equal in their essential attitudes (animals not excluded) e.g. happiness, security. Reciprocity means "do unto others what you want others to do unto you".

Nowadays, there is a dangerous tendency to neglect the importance of morality and to go just to the more exciting part of the paths, i.e. meditation and philosophy.

8.2.2. Mental Development/Concentration
In studying and practicing Buddhism, there are many goals and objectives. Besides the goal of happiness and good fortune, there is also the goal of freedom. If one wants to achieve the goal of freedom, the only way is through wisdom. In order to attain wisdom, one must purify the mind, develop the mind through meditation. Thus, mental development is necessary for wisdom. On the other hand, mental development can also safeguard our practice of good conduct/morality as it can strengthen and control our mind.

The Buddha says that the mind is the source of all mental states - Ten Dharma Realms are not beyond one single thought! Mind is the source of all merits and virtues. Mind is the key to changing the nature of our experience. As mind is important in all spheres of activities, mental development has an extremely important role in the practice of the Noble Eightfold Paths.

For Noble Eightfold Paths, the three paths in this group encourage and enable one to be self-reliant, attentive and calm.

In Sanskrit, the word Samadhi refers to the profound, yet subtle and fine spiritual state in the course of mediation. There are many kinds of Samadhi representing different states of happiness and bliss, freedom and comfort, calmness and peace, merits and virtues, and also spiritual powers.

8.2.3. Wisdom
Prajna is regarded as enlightenment, which is the ultimate goal of Buddhism, and the key element in Buddhism. Prajna is also regarded as the mother of all Buddhas. For simplicity, Prajna is expressed as wisdom. In practical terms, wisdom comes at the end of one's practice of the path.

In Sanskrit, the word Prajna refers to wisdom. Wisdom is different from knowledge. Knowledge is an accumulation of historical and experimental facts, which is mainly obtained through studying. Wisdom is somewhat intrinsic which is mainly obtained through cultivation and mental development/meditation. If your mind is pure and calm, your wisdom will emerge. Conversely, if your mind is full of defilements and annoyance, you will be ignorant with illusions.

In short, faith is preliminary while meditation is instrumental. However, the real heart of Buddhism is wisdom.

8.3 The Eightfold Paths

8.3.1. Right Understanding
It is the first step of the Noble Eightfold Paths, as it gives direction and orientation to the other steps of the Path. If it goes wrong, all are wrong.

Right Understanding is to see a thing as it really is, not just part of it nor its surface. It is the full and complete, objective and penetrative understanding and insight of all things. There are two types of understanding. One is the understanding that we acquire ourselves towards observation. The other is in the understanding that we acquire through others (through study). However, in both cases, to become part of one's living experience, one must meditate upon what one has observed and examined, studied and learned., considered and determined. This is the process of Right Understanding.

Right Understanding can be often divided into two aspects. Buddhism offers different goals. The ordinary level is happiness and good fortune, while the deeper level is ultimate liberation. For Right Understanding, the first aspect is the understanding of the Principle of Cause and Effect in the sphere of moral responsibility of our actions and behaviors. And, the second aspect is the understanding of Four Noble Truths, Noble Eightfold Path, Three Universal Truths, etc.

When we describe Right Understanding in various ways, all these understandings are opposed to ignorance, to attachment, to entanglement in the cycle of birth and death.

8.3.2. Right Thought
While Right Understanding removes ignorance, Right Thought removes desire/greed, hatred/anger and illusion/ignorance. So Right Understanding and Right Thought remove the causes of suffering. We need to cultivate, to purify our mind and our body. The way that this is done is through the other six of the Eightfold Paths. We purify our physical existence so that it will be easier to purify our mind and our body. And, we purify our mind so that it will be easier to attain Right Understanding. For instance, to remove desire and greed, we have to cultivate renunciation or detachment. To remove hatred and ill-will, we need to cultivate kindness and compassion.

Renunciation is cultivated by meditating upon the incomplete and imperfect nature of existence particularly the sensual pleasure and material things. Kindness and compassion are cultivated by recognizing the equality of all living things.

Finally, through wisdom, having eliminated ignorance and the Three Poisons, we can attain liberation, the final goal, i.e. the purpose of the Noble Eightfold Path--the bliss of Nirvana.

8.3.3. Right Speech
The first of the three paths related to morality is Right Speech. Based upon the principle of equality and reciprocity, Right Speech involves the respect for truth and the respect for the benefits of others.

  1. Avoid lying
    When we lie, we permit ourselves to live without integrity. Collectively, lying creates a society of deceit.

  2. Avoid slander/back biting
    It is divisive and creates quarrels among friends.

  3. Avoid harsh words
    A harsh word can wound others more deeply than weapons.

  4. Avoid idle talks
    Malicious gossips and recounting faults of others are idle talks.

These four actions are actually four of the Ten Wholesome Actions related to speech.

8.3.4. Right Action
Right Action entails respect for life, respect for property, and respect for personal relationship.

Keeping in mind the principles of equality and reciprocity,

  1. Do not kill - respect for life.

  2. Do not steal - respect for property.

  3. Do not have sexual misconduct and adultery - respect for personal relationship.

These three actions are actually the first three of the Five Precepts, and also the Ten Wholesome Actions.

If these guidelines are sincerely cultivated within a society, such society will be a better place to live in.

8.3.5. Right Livelihood
One ought not earn a living in violation to the principle of good conducts. Right Livelihood is an extension to the rules of Right Action.

Specifically, there are five kinds of livelihood that are discouraged for Buddhists.

  1. trading in animals for slaughter
  2. dealing in slaves
  3. dealing in weapons
  4. dealing in poisons
  5. dealing in intoxicants, e.g. drugs, alcoholic drinks

The practice of good conduct creates within the individual an inner peace, stability, security and strength. He/she is now ready to practice the other steps of the Path.

8.3.6. Right Effort
In mental development, Right Effort means cultivating vigorously a positive attitude towards our undertakings with enthusiasm. However, Right Effort should never become too tense, too extreme, and similarly, it should not become too slack, and abandoned. Taking the Middle Way, Right Effort is the controlled, sustained, enthusiastic and cheerful determination.

It is an effort to prevent unwholesome thought from rising. It is an effort to reject unwholesome thoughts once they have arisen. It is the effort to cultivate wholesome thoughts. An finally, it is the effort to maintain wholesome thoughts. The last one is particularly important because most people may retreat in the pursuit of the Buddhist Way.

8.3.7. Right Mindfulness
In simple terms, Right Mindfulness is awareness. It is an attention to avoid a distracted and confused state of mind. There will be many fewer mistakes if everyone is mindful.

In regard to the practice of the Dharma, mindfulness acts as a rein upon our mind. Our mind usually runs after objects of senses, thus it is never concentrated, calm and still.

Different from meditation, Right Mindfulness can be practiced at any time in any place. It simply entails being aware and attentive, watching our own mind, seeing where it is going and what it is doing.

Specifically, the practice of mindfulness has been developed to include four particular applications to:

  1. Body - awareness of the positions of our own physical body, such as limbs.

  2. Feeling - pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.

  3. Moments of consciousness.

  4. External objects - they have continued to play an important role in the practice of Buddhist meditation.

8.3.8. Right Concentration
It is sometimes called meditation or tranquillity. When one practices concentration, one repeatedly focuses the mind on an object, which may be physical or mental. Gradually and eventually, it leads to the ability to rest the mind upon the object without distraction. With the guidance of an experienced teacher, one can achieve single-pointedness.

When one's ability in this kind of meditation is developed, it has two main benefits.

  1. It leads to mental and physical well-being, comfort, joy, calm, tranquillity.

  2. It turns the mind into an instrument capable of seeing things as they really are, preparing the mind to attain wisdom.

Right Concentration is an instrument to attain wisdom, the real heart of Buddhism.