Handout on The Noble Eightfold Path

This summary, prepared for use by the Quiet Mind Sangha of Albuquerque, contains portions of a Dharma talk by Thay on The Eightfold Path given at Plum Village in the Summer of 1994 and incorporates some added explanations.

The Noble Eightfold Path is made up of Right View, Right Thought, Right Concentration, Right Mindfulness, Right Speech, Right Livelihood, Right Action and Right Effort. 

We will start with Right View. Right View can also be called Right Vision or Right Understanding. It is the insight that we have within us of the reality of life. It means having a vision of the nature of reality and the path of transformation of suffering. It includes a deep understanding of how things are, and recognition of our state of interbeing, the interconnection of all things. 

Our insight, understanding, wisdom, knowledge, happiness, and the happiness of those around us depend very much on the degree of Right View that we have. That is why Buddhist practice always aims at helping us develop a deeper understanding of what is going on within us and around us

Right View can be termed prajna and can also be described as enlightenment, understanding, or wisdom. There are people who practice hard, but instead of developing Right View, they become more narrow-minded. By looking at their insight, their capacity of understanding, their ways of loving others, we can know whether their practice is correct or not. It is not a problem of the mind or the heart. It is a problem of right practice. Right practice is always pleasant and joyful in this very moment and always leads to dissolving notions and developing Right View.

Can Right View be transmitted to another person? This is an important question. Sometimes parents have a deep understanding of life, but they are unable to transmit their insight to their children. There are many reasons for this. One is communication. If the line of communication is broken, no matter how much insight you have, you cannot transmit it. Another is that you do not speak the same language. A third is that your insight might be too personalized. It works for you, but it must be practiced and presented in another way to others.

Right View is not an ideology, a system, or even a path. Right View is living insight that fills a person with understanding, love, and peace. It is quite different from Dharma talks, sutras, or books. We must use words and notions and the understanding behind them. If someone has never eaten a kiwifruit, hearing the word “kiwi,” may create many concepts or notions in the mind. If you try to explain a kiwi, you might describe it as a fruit of such and such size, a certain color, feel, and taste. But no matter how well you do the job, you cannot give the other person the direct experience of the kiwi. It must be tasted. That is the only way. No matter how intelligent the other person is, kiwi cannot be understood until actually tasted. The same difficulty confronts anyone trying to convey insight or enlightenment. You must have direct experience. We practice mindfulness, concentration, and looking, touching, and understanding deeply, so that insight might be possible.

The practice of Right View helps us develop a deep understanding of the Four Noble Truths. If you have deep insight into the truth of the suffering of beings, the truth of origination, the truth of cessation, and the truth of the path, you have Right View. In fact, if you have a deep insight into any of these Four Noble Truths, you have deep insight into all four. Each truth contains all the others. This is the teaching of the Buddha about Right View from the historical dimension.

Next we will consider Right Mindfulness. Right Mindfulness can also be called Right Awareness. It means whole-body-and-mind awareness of the present moment. To be mindful is to be fully present, not lost in daydreams, anticipation, indulgences, worry, or judgment. The two-word definition of mindfulness is nonjudgmental awareness. 

Mindfulness reminds us of what we are supposed to be doing. If we are sitting in meditation, it brings us back to the focus of meditation. If we are washing dishes, it reminds us to pay full attention to washing the dishes.  In mindfulness, we see things as they really are. The Venerable Gunaratana writes that our thoughts have a way of pasting over reality, and concepts and ideas distort what we experience. Mindfulness sees the true nature of phenomena. In particular, through mindfulness we directly see the three characteristics or marks of existence — imperfection, impermanence, and egolessness.

Going on to Right Concentration, this can also be referred to as Right Meditation or Right Enlightenment. It is a wholesome one-pointedness, focusing on raising the mind to a higher, more purified level of awareness. Concentration filters out everything but the object of concentration, such as the breath, a mantra, a special word or phrase, or an image. So, the mind is not distracted. A concentrated mind is described as single pointed, focused totally on one thing and one thing only. The Buddha taught that when one pointedness is attained it produces a state of great tranquility and peace. 

When you practice Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration is easy. The energy of mindfulness already contains the energy of concentration, and with mindfulness and concentration, you practice looking, listening, and touching deeply, and out of that deep looking, listening, and touching, Right View is the fruit. Understanding and insight grow. As Right View continues to grow, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort will become stronger. When you sit correctly, your thinking is clear, and you act accordingly and practice Right Livelihood. Everything depends on Right View, and Right View depends on Right Mindfulness.

Right View, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration are the basis of the practice. The practice of Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort are easy and natural with the practice of Right View, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.

Right Thought or Right Thinking can also be called Right Intention or Right Aspiration. It means the willingness to let go of what is not helpful, and act from love and compassion. It includes the threefold intention to renounce what is harmful, to have good will toward all, and to practice harmlessness.  

Right Thinking is a practice, and its essence lies in mindfulness. If you are not mindful, your thinking cannot be right. If you are not mindful, how can you practice Right Speech? You can make a lot of people unhappy and create a war within your community or family. That is why mindfulness in speaking is the heart of right speech. Right Action – not to kill, not to steal, not to commit adultery, etc. – cannot be practiced properly unless mindfulness is the foundation of your being. The same applies to Right Livelihood; if you are mindful of the ecosystem and the suffering of other species, your attempt to practice Right Livelihood has a chance to succeed. If you are not mindful about what is happening to the earth, the water, the air, the suffering of humans and animals, how can you practice Right Livelihood? Mindfulness must be the basis of your practice. If your efforts are not mindful, those efforts will not bring about the good result you hope for. Without mindfulness, the more effort you make, the more you can create suffering and disorder. That is why Right Effort, too, should be based on mindfulness.

The practice of mindfulness, concentration, and Right View are the essence of Buddhist practice. They are called the Threefold Training – sila (precepts), samadhi (concentration), and prajna (insight). Mindfulness is the foundation of all precepts, which are (in short form) no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual misconduct, and no intoxication. When you practice the Five Precepts, you see that they are not imposed on you by someone else. They are the insight that comes out of mindfulness. 

If we look into any one of the eight branches of the path, we see that the other seven are present in it. If we look at Right Speech, insight is present because correct speech is born from insight. We can see that we have concentration. If we are speaking mindfully about something, we know what we are saying. Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort are also found in Right Speech. We can see the nature of interbeing in all elements of the path.

Mindfulness practice must be applied to our daily life in order to be true practice. At Plum Village, we practice not only in the meditation hall, but in the kitchen, the garden, and the bathroom as well. It is helpful to slow down. We enjoy walking, reading, bending down, and all that we do in mindfulness. When you drive, hold your baby, wash your dishes, or work at the office, you can practice mindfulness. But for that to be possible, you need the support of a Sangha. You must create a Sangha where you live, because you need the support of brothers and sisters in the practice. The Buddha was quite clear that the Noble Eightfold Path is the practice of our daily lives, not of intensive retreats alone. The Noble Eightfold Path is the practice of an engaged Buddhist.

Right Action means following the Five Precepts – not to kill but to protect all life, not to steal but to be generous in giving time and energy for the people who suffer, not to break up families and couples, not to harm children but to protect them – not to lie or engage in harmful speech, and not to fall into intoxication.

Right Livelihood means making a living doing that which is helpful, productive, and reduces suffering. It is in agreement with the Five Precepts, and is in general legal, peaceful, honest, and not harming others. Many livelihoods fall into this category; farmers, craftspeople, teachers, doctors, most businesses. Examples of probably not right livelihood would include for example producing or selling intoxicants, slaughtering animals, stealing, or manufacturing or selling weapons. Those who find themselves in a wrong livelihood are encouraged to change to a more beneficial one. 

Right Speech means abstaining from speech that is false, slanderous, harsh, or idle. Before we speak we should ask ourselves: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind? Right speech means to speak truthfully – not creating harm or speaking cruelly, not exaggerating or embellishing, and speaking in a way that relieves suffering and brings people back to themselves.

Right Effort can also be called Right Diligence. It means exerting oneself to develop wholesome qualities and release unwholesome qualities. It means cultivating skillful, or wholesome, qualities — especially generosity, loving kindness, and wisdom, preventing unwholesome qualities such as greed, anger, and ignorance from arising, and try to extinguish unwholesome qualities if they have arisen

It should be kept in mind that the Noble Eightfold Path is primarily guidance in how to conduct our lives in the relative, historical, physical dimension. It is designed to put us on the path to spiritual awakening. It does connect with the Absolute or spiritual dimension in the areas of Right View, Right Mindfulness, and Right concentration. You could consider it instructions on how to build a raft to the shore of enlightenment. 

In his first Dharma talk to the five ascetics at Deer park, the Buddha offered the Noble Eightfold Path, and in his last Dharma talk, the Buddha also offered the Noble Eightfold Path. He said that where there is the Noble Path, there is insight. We must use our intelligence to apply the elements of the Noble Eightfold Path to our daily lives.

All branches of Buddhism teach the Noble Eightfold Path. In Zen we practice this path as a tool to help us ultimately reach the shore of enlightenment and let go of all words and concepts, just being in connection with the present moment and our own original true nature. 

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