Noble Eightfold Path
(Based on talks by Ajahns Brahmali, Sujato and Amaro)
This is the path, described by the Buddha, that brings us to the end of suffering, to the ending of greed hatred and delusion. Or, to phrase it positively, the path that brings us to supreme peace and happiness, Nibbana/enlightenment/awakening/realization.
Nibbana is not part of the path. It is the state that the path brings one to, just as a road brings you to a lake. The lake is not part of the road.
This spiritual path is about overcoming the defilements, becoming more good hearted, more moral, more wholesome, having more integrity and practicing metta and compassion. It is a very pragmatic path.
The Buddha was special because he took the human potential to its maximum. When the Buddha realized Nibbana, he reviewed what led him to this realization. Most immediately, it was samadhi, being in jhana. What led to samadhi was the cultivation of his mind.....letting go of any hindrances/defilements and developing the factors of awakening. This was made possible by the application of effort. His efforts were supported by the purification of his speech and behaviour through right speech, right action and right livelihood. This followed his intention to practice non ill will, non harming and renunciation......or to phrase it positively, to practice kindness, compassion and letting go. And this intention arose out of his view of the world as it actually is.....not a deluded view of the world. This is the path described from end to beginning.
The Path described from the beginning to the end: The 8 steps of the Noble Eightfold Path occur in this sequence for a reason.....each step conditions the next step. Yes, there will be feedback loops, so subsequent steps will strengthen earlier steps, but the steps initially occur in this order. We won't be motivated to start on the path until we have some Right View i.e. that we see the suffering that arises from the sorrows and troubles inherent in the world are generated by our own mind states. Once we glimpse this, we develop the intention to decrease suffering by developing kindness and compassion and letting go of stress. This intention prompts our action of right speech, right action and right livelihood. This is the baseline of purification. From here we see that effort needs to be applied to address the more subtle purification of our thoughts.
This is accomplished through our meditation practice.....the practice of meditation is one of the meanings of right mindfulness in the suttas. And our meditation practice results in the development of stillness, a preliminary step towards jhana. Out of this stillness, our view of reality becomes clearer, which strengthens our intention and so on down the path. And at the end of the Path is wisdom, the ending of greed hatred and delusion, peace and happiness, Nibbana.
Now, in more detail. The first step to the ending of suffering or the realization of supreme happiness and peace, Nibbana, is Right View. This means seeing the world as it actually is. Reality is summarized in the Four Noble Truths, by the concept of kamma and rebirth, by Dependent Origination, the 3 perceptions of suffering, inconstancy and non self and by all the other wisdom teachings of the Buddha. They all point to the same truth.....they are just approaching it from a different direction.
How do we develop right view? This is done by:
1. Listening to people who have realized, at least partially, the path for themselves. They give one confidence that there are people in the world who have seen/know something that we don't know and that they have a wisdom beyond our own. We seek these teachers out because we believe they know something that can improve our life. Some examples of inspirational people:
- Tenzin Palmo's life as described in, "Cave in the Snow".
- Thich Naht Hanh spreading metta to people who murdered his fellow monastics (described in Sister Chan Khong's book, "Learning True Love".
- Ajahn Brahm's description of his 6 month solitary retreat, "Six Months of Bliss". bswa.org/teaching/six-months-of-bliss-by-ajahnbrahm/ "If they can do it, I can do it!"
2. The Buddha recommended that we listen to forest/wilderness monastics rather than those living in the cities. The latter are more likely to be tempted by the sensuality of the city and more likely to fall off the path. He suggested that you observe a teacher over time to see if they consistently speak and behave in a moral and kind way, without anger or irritation.
3. Creating supportive conditions for your practice......quiet place, a consistent routine, supportive friends who are also on the path. In addition to meditation practice, it's also important to reflect on the teachings and discuss them with others. Once you start to realize the truth for yourself, this gives you unshakable confidence in the teachings. Thus the teachings are to be treated as a proposition until you experience the truth of them for yourself.
4. Gaining confidence in rebirth. Ian Stevenson, a physician, studied stories of rebirth and has documented these in books. At first these stories only came from Asia. But his colleagues at his University are carrying on his research and they are now hearing many rebirth stories from children in North America. Another avenue is doing a past life regression. Often information from a past life can be researched and verified. This is a powerful motivator to follow the Eightfold Path.....once you realize your behaviour, thoughts, habit energy in this life condition your experience in your next rebirth, you are motivated to follow a tried and true solution to decrease and eventually end suffering. Also, once you glimpse how many lifetimes you have repeated various experiences, you develop a "been there, done" that feeling, making it very easy to renounce the ephemeral sensual pleasures of this world for the lasting peace and happiness that are the result of a cultivated mind. Glimpses into past lives also heightens your awareness of the inherent suffering in the world.
Step two is Right Intention. Due to Right View, we see the suffering in ourselves and others and we know our behaviour and thoughts have immediate and/or long term consequences regarding suffering or happiness for ourselves or other. To decrease suffering and increase happiness for ourself and others we make intentions aligned with metta/loving kindness/unconditional love, with compassion and further along the path, intentions of renunciation. This is because we start to have the experience that the happiness and peace that comes from developing our mind far exceeds the short term happiness derived from the sensory world.
Step three is Right Speech. This is speech that is harmless, truthful, gentle, heartfelt, pleasing to the ear, speech that unifies people rather than breaking them apart and speech that is meaningful and spoken at the right time. This speech does not generate suffering in others or lead to the suffering of remorse in yourself.
Step four is Right Action. The minimum Right Action is not taking what is not given, not causing harm to self or others and not engaging in sexual misconduct. Right Action prevents suffering. And the quickest way to eliminate suffering is helping others. Instead of asking, "What can I get out of this spiritual practice?", ask, "How can I be of benefit to others?"
Step five is Right Livelihood. This is earning your living at an occupation that doesn't cause harm to others or the environment and work that is meaningful.
Step six is Right Effort. Right Effort is made to prevent or let go of the hindrances (wanting, aversion, restlessness/remorse, sloth and torpor and delusion). These are the more subtle impurities that are addressed after the more gross acts of harm are addressed by Right Action. When admonished, having a fault pointed out, see this as a treasure. We can't change our defilements to which we are blind. So when another points them out, we have an opportunity to make a change. And Right Effort is made to cause the arising or further development of the Factors of Awakening (Mindfulness, investigation of Dhamma, energy/effort, piti/joy, calm, samadhi and equanimity). A crucial factor of Right Effort is persistence....not giving up. It's not about forcing yourself to do good things. It's about mindfulness and awareness of what is. When you see clearly, you naturally stop the causes of suffering and develop the causes of peace.
Step seven is Right Mindfulness. In the context of the suttas on the Noble Eightfold Path, mindfulness refers to meditation practice, to the cultivation of the mind. In other contexts, mindfulness refers to keeping in mind what you wish to pay attention to. Thus it is mindfulness that remembers your object of meditation when you wander in your meditation practice. It is mindfulness that reminds you that you don't want to be focusing on the hindrances, that you want to be focusing on the factors of Awakening. Once the gross acts of harm are ended and the subtle impurities start to be addressed, this is when you can start to meditate properly. And for this to really take off you need a degree of happiness. Kindness and generosity are the foundation stones of happiness. In your meditation practice bring to mind past acts of kindness and generosity to arouse joy.
Step eight is Right Samadhi. This is defined as the first four jhanas. These are states where all your sense doors have closed.....there is no seeing, hearing, tasting, touch sensations or thoughts. All that is left is pure awareness of the mind. This is experienced as bliss. Once you emerge from jhana, you are in threshold jhana for a period of time. During this time wisdom arises automatically....providing you have developed all 8 steps of the path. The Buddha's first 2 teachers were adept in the jhanas but hadn't developed Right View, so wisdom leading to Awakening was not realized by them.
The Noble Eightfold Path is also known as the Middle Way. This refers to avoiding the extremes of overindulgence and self mortification. Thinking it's a good idea to force yourself to sit through pain during meditation is a form of self mortification. The Middle Way is also a belief system between the belief in eternalism (that an unchanging soul goes from lifetime to lifetime....or at least from this life to the afterlife) and the belief in annihilation (after death there is nothing). The Buddha teaches us that a stream of consciousness goes from lifetime to lifetime, but it is constantly changing.....not fixed like the concept of a soul.
Both craving and aversion cause a sense of restlessness. Our hope is that achieving our desire or avoiding what we don't want will give us joy. The Middle Way of the Noble Eightfold Path is using kindness and generosity and morality to give us joy.....this is spiritually based joy. Jhana is also the Middle Way as no desire or aversion is present in jhana.
The Noble Eightfold Path is also known as the Gradual Training. We gradually let go of our defilements and substitute skillful aspects of the Path. Ideals are things to work towards, not to take on fully right away. It's too hard, you'll get discouraged and quit the path. The Buddha's last words were, "Things fall apart. Keep trying." Most of the Noble Eightfold Path is practiced during day to day life, not during meditation practice.....which is generally just a small part of our life. As long as you are seeing an increase in peacefulness and kindness and letting go, you are on the Path.