What is the Buddhist Eightfold Path?

Category: Buddhist Path

The 8 fold path as taught by the Buddha includes the practices of morality, meditation and wisdom

Summary: The Noble Eightfold Path is a key part of the Four Noble Truths, outlining the way to end suffering. The path emphasizes ethical living, meditation and developing wisdom. Following the path generates good karma, leading to positive consequences and preventing suffering. The eight interconnected elements of the path are Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. The path encourages us to cultivate skillful behaviors, overcome hindrances, and achieve a state of peaceful awareness through meditation.

Why Is The Eightfold Path Important? (Putting an End to Suffering)

The Buddhist eightfold path, known as the Noble Eightfold Path, are the specific instructions the Buddha gave as part four of the Four Noble Truths. The first noble truth taught us that unenlightened life is destined to be disappointing. Truths two and three gave us hope. We are the cause of our own suffering, and we have the power to end it. The fourth noble truth teaches that the cause of the end of suffering is adherence to the eightfold path. These truths are expanded in great detail in the Buddha’s teachings on abhidharma.

This path is described as noble because it’s followed by those who are noble, or wise. In other words, these are the actions of people who are free from their suffering. Follow their example, and you can become enlightened too.

Living ethically, practicing meditation, and developing the wisdom to see things as they truly exist are basics of Buddhism. Why? Because doing these things leads to a calmer, more emotionally stable, peaceful and happier life.

By acting in accordance with the noble eightfold path, we generate the merit and good karma that leads us to a better rebirth in the next life. If we have trouble believing in past and future lives, that’s ok, we can still understand consequences. Acting in a noble way leads to positive consequences, while doing the opposite is certain to lead to negative ones. By following the eightfold path, we stop causing our own suffering.

The Eight Elements Of The Path

While this Buddhist life path is numbered, it’s not meant to be seen as a series of steps. We can practice each of these actions simultaneously, as each supports the other. To remind us of this, the eightfold path is symbolically represented by a dharma wheel with eight spokes. No one spoke comes first, and each helps turn the wheel.

In English, the eightfold path commonly makes use of the word ‘right.’ Translated from the Pali samma, this word could also be defined as skillful, wise, thorough, proper, or perfect. If we feel uncomfortable defining our actions as ‘right,’ it’s perfectly ok to replace this word with another to clarify the intent. The eight elements of the path are as follows…

1. Right View

To practice right view is to remember that our actions have consequences. Because karma exists we benefit from living in a way that minimizes harm. This is the basis of the four noble truths. Our own actions can prevent future unnecessary pain. If we truly believed this and practiced right view, we would be far more mindful of every act of body, speech and mind.

2. Right Intention

Right intention is the commitment to foster this moment-to-moment mindfulness of thought. Speaking and acting in beneficial ways begins with a calm, present and stable state of mind. Right intention is also the practice clarifying our why. We intend to follow the eightfold path not to benefit the illusory separate self, but do so in the service of love and compassion.

3. Right Speech

Right view and noble intention guides us to cease speaking in harmful ways. We refrain from lying and do our best to communicate clearly. We avoid speaking in ways that are divisive. We refrain from harsh or abusive speech, and avoid idle speech, remaining silent unless we have something useful to say.

4. Right Action

Right action is to cease harming others with our body, too. We refrain from killing other living beings, stealing, or harming others with our sexual behavior. Instead, we actively support life, practice giving and respect the relationships and boundaries of others.

5. Right Livelihood

Most of us spend a large portion of our lives in pursuit of livelihood. Right livelihood is the commitment to ethical business practice. Traditionally, this meant not earning a living by selling weapons, other people, meat, alcohol or poison. If our role at work entails cheating, deceiving, being dishonest or behaving in harmful ways, we’re not practicing right livelihood.

6. Right Effort

Right effort addresses the qualities of mind we must cultivate to remain vigilant along the path. It’s not enough to stop behaving in harmful or unhelpful ways. Instead, we should persistently nurture skillful, beneficial behaviors. This includes being mindful of the classic five hindrances and actively working to overcome them. The obstacles to meditation are summarized into two: agitation and dullness – right effort is finding a balance between these two extremes.

7. Right Mindfulness

Up until this point, we’ve lived without considering right view, right intention, right speech and the rest. We’re not in the habit of watching our thoughts, speech and actions. By training in right mindfulness, we avoid slipping into the habitual behaviors that cause harm. We can begin by learning how to mindfully observe our own breath.

8. Right Concentration

Having applied right effort and trained in mindfulness, we enter a state of right concentration. In this state we have successfully withdrawn from the distractions which keep us in an unskillful and unbeneficial state of mind. We rest, single-pointedly, in a state of awareness meditation. In this state, we experience the bliss that arises having freed ourselves from our pain.

Read our companion article on the meaning of the 8 fold path here or dive into our courses on the Buddhist path here.

About the Author: Sara-Mai Conway

Sara-Mai Conway writes articles about Buddhist meditation based on her practice and experience
Sara-Mai Conway is a writer, yoga and meditation instructor living and working in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Her writing and teachings are informed by her personal practice and Buddhist studies. When not at her desk, she can be found teaching donation-based community classes in her tiny, off-grid hometown on the Pacific Coast. Learn more about Sara-Mai Conway here.

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