Buddha’s 8 Fold Path
Why Is The Eightfold Path Important? (Putting an End to Suffering)
Buddhism offers a map, a path of practice. This map is usually called the Buddha’s Eightfold Noble Path; the image is of a wheel with eight spokes. What are these eight elements? How does the path evolve into actions in our lives?
The path begins with the idea that we can come to a deeper understanding of the true nature of our lives and of the world around us. It involves investigation, beginning with taking an honest look at the actions we take in our lives and cultivating a deep understanding of their consequences. We don’t always like participating in this process of assessment—we just want to be able to do whatever we choose without considering the consequences, don’t we? It’s our inner teenager saying it will do as it pleases. But as we mature, we begin to realize that our actions have consequences.
The Practices of Wisdom and Insight
This first fold of the path is usually called right view, and it refers to an understanding of karma, of consequence. I also use the term “wise view.” I think it begins with finding a way to investigate or inventory our lives. To my mind, any valid spiritual path begins with this honest appraisal. It’s a way of saying, “Hey, what am I doing to cultivate either pain and suffering or happiness and well-being in my life?”
Right view, the understanding that actions have consequences, dovetails nicely into the second practice of right intention or resolve. My view informs my intention. I may or may not be fully aware of what I intend to do, but even so, it is these intentions that lead to actions.
The intentions that we cultivate in Buddhism are intentions of kindness and compassion. These qualities of the heart naturally give rise to conduct in line with the right view of actions and consequences. How do I develop and cultivate the heart? How do I bring ease and wellbeing into my life? Now that I recognize that my life energy has an impact, what do I want to do with that? How do I cultivate a heart that steers me away from those things that cause harm and towards the things that bring skillfulness and kindness into my life and the lives of others?
Right view and right intention are often bundled together in the category of wisdom or insight, the first of three categories—wisdom, ethical conduct, and meditative practice—that regroup the eight spokes of the wheel. Once we have begun to develop wisdom, that is, an understanding of right view and right intention, it’s time to look at the category of virtuous ethical conduct or morality. This category includes right speech, right livelihood, and right action. I see that if my conduct isn’t informed by wise intention and kindness, it isn’t going to be in line with my view.
Buddhist Practices of Moral Conduct or Discipline
The ethical conduct category begins with the third spoke of the eightfold path, right speech: how do I create relationship and community with others? In order to create wise community, my speech—the way that I connect with others—needs to be in integrity. Right speech is the practice, both internally and externally, of asking myself, “Is this true? Is it useful? Is it kind? Is it timely?”
Right speech is also wise listening. It’s knowing when not to speak, when to lean into what is being communicated and following that thread, rather than saying everything that pops into the mind.
I find that the community element is really important here. For my own individual practice, I need the community of others, I need wise friendships. Community emerges from both external and internal speech. The more advanced skillful speech practice is internal—that is, it’s really paying attention to what my mind is expressing and seeing that I have some agency over that. If an unwelcome thought or emotion appears in my mind, I can be in kinder relationship to it. I can say, “Oh, wow, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed today. How can I care for myself?” If somebody says something cruel to me, my reaction can be, “Oh, those words are really about their own suffering. How can I care about that?” I’m making an effort to see that others’ actions aren’t necessarily about me, that they may be more about what’s going on with them.
The fourth fold of the path is the idea of right action, of integrity and engagement. How am I focusing my actions in a way that brings me in line with this deep view and intention? How do I engage with the world in a way that doesn’t create more suffering, confusion, or clinging, but actually gives rise to more ease and greater clarity? How can I participate purposefully in the world from a place of kindness?
The three middle spokes—right speech, action, and livelihood—really propel my mindfulness into my activity. They force me to be mindful because I have to think about how I’m going to engage with others and why. The folds of right ethical conduct have the added benefit of slowing me down so that my actions are in sync with my deepest sense of who I am, who I want to be, and what my intention is for this world. They bring me into relationship instead of reactivity. They give me a way to say, no, I’m not doing that. I’m committed to not doing that thing.
The fifth fold of the eightfold path is right livelihood—the journey of how to engage in this enterprise that is such a huge part of our lives: our work. How can I have skillful work in this world? How do I bring my energy into a desired outcome?
The pressure is so strong just to achieve, to make money, to create security rather than to think about how to live and work a life of integrity. But my work is a connected thing. I’m not just working for myself, I’m also working for an ecosystem in which I participate. I am working for something that belongs to future generations. It belongs to my family and to my society, and I have a responsibility. If so much of my life is consumed by work, why would I want that to be disconnected from everything else in my practice?
Everything in my life is practice. There’s no not practice. Practice isn’t this thing that I do once a year in a special place, and then I go back to a separate life. With this eightfold path, as taught by the Buddha, I’m striving to build a life where there is no not mindfulness, no not Dharma.
Buddhist Meditative Practices
This leads us to the final three folds of the eightfold path, the meditative practice section. These three are right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Traditionally, we would enter the path through the practices of ethics—the middle three rather than the last three. But I think that we can enter the path wherever we need to. Some of us need to enter the path through understanding, through study; some of us need to practice; and some of us need to get our lives in order. The eightfold path is not a linear one-through-eight route; it can be entered at any point of the map.
Right effort comes back again to the idea of integrity, to the idea of how I choose to make an effort, and here it requires an evaluation of what will benefit my practice. What effort is needed to bring essential stability to my practice and my mind? What will generate more skillfulness? Different meditation practices are available and I can re-evaluate to determine which meditation is most appropriate and helpful for my practice at any time.
The seventh fold is the cultivation of right mindfulness, of meditation. This is classically taught as the four foundations of mindfulness: mindfulness of breath and body; mindfulness of feeling tone experienced as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral; mindfulness of mind states; and the contemplation of different “dharmas” or groups of phenomena that we can have. Here in the West, many practitioners are especially familiar with mindfulness of the breath and of physical sensations.
It’s worth investigating how we approach being mindful. What am I cultivating as I engage in practice? What is my intentionality? The four foundations of mindfulness are not just paying attention for the sake of it, they involve how and why I am directing my mind. What is my approach to this? Paying attention to my approach brings direction to my practice.
The eighth fold of the path is right concentration. This one is vital for the development of our practice, even if we tend to brush it aside. Concentration is what creates stability of mind.
Traditionally, the Buddha would teach his monastics concentration before teaching vipassana or insight meditation. One way to develop the qualities that support concentration is by cultivating a loving heart. I have found that when I am focused on kindness and compassion, concentration naturally emerges. It’s much easier to be present and attentive to a single point of concentration when I have a heart of kindness and compassion.
Often, if I’m struggling with concentration, I will focus on the action of developing kindness not just on the cushion, but in my life in general as an action of the eightfold path. How does this work? When I’m really angry or upset, or fighting hard to develop concentration, or obsessing about something that I feel I need to have in my life, the mind is very turbulent and tense. But when mind rests in the spaciousness of the divine qualities of the heart, it’s much easier to develop settling. As a householder who isn’t in constant retreat, I need something that’s going to aid my concentration. And that’s how I’m going to find space for concentration in the midst of the busyness of my life: by cultivating a loving heart of kindness.
Read our companion article on the elements of the 8 fold path here.