The Eightfold Path: The Buddhist Way of Enlightenment

by Luke Wayne
4/8/16

The "Eightfold Path" in Buddhism is the way prescribed by Buddha to live a holistic life of self-discipline by which one can reach enlightenment and realize nirvana. It is the last of the so-called "four noble truths" that make up the central core of Buddhist doctrine. These eight aspects of Buddhist self-discipline should not be thought of as sequential "steps," as one does not complete the first then begin the second and so on. There is, however, a logical progression that does make the order significant. The eight concepts in the path are:

Right View: The Buddhist must understand all things the way that Buddhism teaches them truly to be. This does not mean to merely accept a set of doctrines, though it certainly includes that. It means to see every aspect of life and every object from a Buddhist perspective. It means to hold a consistent Buddhist worldview at any given moment. It means to view everything as impermanent and to fully and consistently believe that you are not a personal and enduring self and that all things are interconnected and to accept all the implications of that on every experience.

Right Intention: The Buddhist's motives must be appropriate. The westerner who promotes the supposed personal physical and emotional benefits of Buddhist meditation has missed this point. If your intentions are rooted in the benefits to a personal self, the end cannot be enlightenment since enlightenment involves the denial that you exist as a personal self. If one's intention is to fulfill some deep longing or desire, one will never reach enlightenment, because enlightenment is the abandonment of all desires. If one's intention in Buddhist pursuit and practice is itself contrary to the stated goals of Buddhist teaching and practice, you will never reach enlightenment. One's intention must be commensurate with the aim of Nirvana, the realization of the nonexistence of self, and the abandonment of all desire.

Right Speech: One must avoid idle talk, deceit, slander, gossip, and the like. This is not because these things are wrong, but rather because they are centered in the existence of personal selves and employed in the attainment of desires or in the quest to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. Such talk gets in the way of the Buddhist goal of enlightenment, and therefore ought to be avoided. Indeed, one does not need to read very far in many Buddhist publications to find warnings about words and language in general. As Walpola Rahula put is, "Language is considered deceptive and misleading in the matter of understanding truth."1

Right Action: One must avoid killing, stealing, lying, unchastity, and consuming intoxicants. Again, this is not because these things are morally wrong. Buddhism is not here concerned with what is good, righteous, or just. It is simply, again, that these things are necessarily rooted in assumptions and motivations about self and others and objects and desires that take one away from the Buddhist goal. They are contrary to the purpose of enlightenment. Indeed, all volitional actions of purpose and will are Karma and therefore fuel the cycle of rebirth and suffering. Even if my purpose is selfless and helpful, to act on a purpose of the will is contrary to the Buddhist ideal. As one Buddhist instructor explains, "wise action is spontaneous and immediate,"2 and again, "actions governed by thought are commonly based on considerations of the appropriateness and safety of the situation. Our thinking is one step removed from the immediate action."3

Right Livelihood: It should come as no surprise that, if one's worldview, intentions, words, and actions all must be reevaluated and disciplined in accordance with Buddhist teaching, one's choice of career and vocation necessarily must be in line with this as well. There are, of course, careers that require one to think and act in ways that rule them out up front. Buddha himself specifically listed trades such as poison peddler, slave trader, prostitute, butcher, brewer, arms maker, tax collector, and caravan trader.4 There are also motivations in choosing a career which are not conducive with right intention. Right Livelihood is the natural extension of all the previous points.

It is impossible not to note the difficult position of Buddhism regarding the subject of livelihood, in that working is innately the task to pursuing our material wants and needs. Buddhism cannot teach everyone to simply not work, else all will starve and die. Yet Buddhism must also be careful how it encourages work because work is innately linked to our personal survival and the personal survival of our families and dependents, our acquiring of material wages, and our pursuit of desires. Buddhism denies a personal self or others and decries any material or personal attachment and any fulfillment of desire. When it comes to livelihood, however, even Buddhist writers often cannot help but smuggle these concepts back in, speaking of proper concern for things like the "needs of our household, including our own financial wellbeing, and the needs of the community."5

Right Effort: The Buddhist does not believe that one makes a snap decision or just thinks the right thing at the right time and then finds instant enlightenment. It takes effort and discipline over the course of life to reshape one's views, thoughts, and perspectives rightly. Buddhism sees the quest for enlightenment as one of careful balance in one's long-term effort, like pacing oneself for a marathon run. Buddha himself is quoted as saying:

"If effort is applied too strongly it will lead to restlessness, if too slack it will lead to lassitude. Therefore, keep your effort balanced."6

Without effort, one cannot make any of the changes Buddhism prescribes. Intense self-effort, however, has a tendency to reassert the idea of a "self" who is undergoing the discipline and effort. If one begins to think of oneself as personally bearing certain burdens, overcoming certain obstacles, or making certain changes, the effort has the opposite effect than the Buddhist intends. Therefore, the Buddhist teacher here strives to walk the impossible road of teaching one how to engage in self-discipline without a self and put in personal effort without personhood. This is the paradox of effort that the Buddhist must necessarily grapple with. As one Buddhist expresses the dilemma: "We have to be full hearted in our determination to end a problem that does not exist."7

Right Mindfulness: If one is fully to surrender to the assumptions of Buddhism, it must change what such a person is mindful of from one moment to the next. The thought life is central. The Dhammapada, one of the most famous and authoritative ancient Buddhist texts, says:

"All that we are is the result of what we have thought. Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think. Suffering follows unwholesome thought as the wheels of a cart follow the oxen that draw it. Joy follows wholesome thought like the shadow that never leaves."8

Buddhist mindfulness is having ever before one's mind the impermanence of all things, including things like thoughts and states of consciousness that give one the perception of being a distinct, personal self. As Buddha described it:

"A man is composed of six elements: solidity, fluidity, heat, motion, space, and consciousness. He analyzes them and finds that none of them are 'mine' or 'me' or 'myself'. He understands how consciousness appears and disappears; how pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral sensations appear and disappear. Through this knowledge, his mind becomes detached."9

While Buddhist mindfulness is often associated with Buddhist meditation exercises, the goal of Buddhism is to be consistently mindful of these things. Meditation is merely one of the tools the Buddhist uses to work toward this aim.

Right Samadhi (Concentration): Buddhism emphasizes the practice of Samadhi, a kind of focused attention on the present moment or an aspect therein. If everything is fleeting and nothing truly endures from one moment to the next, one must learn to focus on this moment alone without thoughts of the past or considerations of the future. Nothing that is present in this moment was present a moment before, nor will it be present a moment from now. The Buddhist must learn to concentrate on this moment without distraction by the false perceptions of past or future or distinct, enduring identities. Buddhist concentration is not to be confused with thinking deeply about a thing. It is learning to perceive and experience the moment without thinking about it and thus without becoming attached to it or coming to conceive of its objects as distinct and enduring things. As one Buddhist writes:

"Discerning the difference between thinking about something and directly experiencing it is the function of Samadhi. Through the quiet, abiding attention of Samadhi, we see clearly how the self comes into being through the commentary we infuse and the narrative we create."

Buddhist concentration is undistracted, focused experience rather than thoughtful consideration. If one can simply be and know of only the moment one is in, the Buddhist believes, it will demonstrate the fact that there is nothing permanent at that moment and nothing that can be thought of as a distinct self that is experiencing it. Samadhi, therefore, is essential to the Buddhist in attaining what they believe to be true enlightenment and the realization of Nirvana.

  • 1. Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada" (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 4
  • 2. Rodney Smith, "Stepping Out of Self Deception" (Shambhala Publications, 2010) 13
  • 3. ibid, 14
  • 4. Houston Smith and Philip Novak "Buddhism: A Concise Introduction" (HarperCollins Publishers, 2003) 45
  • 5. Rodney Smith, "Stepping Out of Self Deception" (Shambhala Publications, 2010) 14
  • 6. Houston Smith and Philip Novak "Buddhism: A Concise Introduction" (HarperCollins Publishers, 2003) 47
  • 7. Rodney Smith, "Stepping Out of Self Deception" (Shambhala Publications, 2010) 30
  • 8. Houston Smith and Philip Novak "Buddhism: A Concise Introduction" (HarperCollins Publishers, 2003) 47
  • 9. Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada" (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 4