The Noble Eightfold Path
The 'Middle Way', avoiding the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification, is the path which the Buddha taught in the Fourth Noble Truths that leads to the complete cessation of suffering (dukkha) and release from the cycle of existence (samsara). This is the realisation of Nibbana, the ultimate goal of a Buddhist.
The path comprises eight categories or factors which aim at developing and perfecting the three essentials of Buddhist training and discipline: Virtue (Sila), Concentration (samadhi) and Wisdom (panna),
Virtue or Ethical conduct comprises Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort.
Concentration is the development of Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration through meditation.
Wisdom comprises Right Understanding and Right Thought.
What the Buddha meant by 'Right' is that which produces a beneficial result.
Right Understanding (Samma ditthi) or Vision is essentially the true understanding of the Four Noble Truths, which can be regarded as the forerunner of the entire path.
When we understand that life is subject to dukkha and accept that there is a way out, we can set about treading the path that the Buddha prescribed. Right understanding is not a mere intellectual or theoretical understanding of Buddha's teachings. It is an intuitive realisation of the true nature of things. That is, with the development of insight, he or she realises the Three Characteristics of Existence, that:
a) All existence is subject to dukkha
b) All things are impermanent (not permanent, being in a state perpetual change) - anicca
c) There is no permanent soul of self in a being - anatta.
Right Thought (Samma sankappa) or Intention, means clear vision leading to clear thinking. Right thought leads to the elimination of harmful thoughts and developing such positive states of mind such as metta (loving-kindness), which is opposed to hatred, ill-will or aversion and developing thoughts of harmlessness or compassion which are opposed to cruelty and callousness.
Right Speech (Samma vaca) is refraining from false speech or lying, slandering and harsh speech such as hurling abuse, insulting and being sarcastic. Such a person will see the good in others instead of deceiving or denouncing them. Along with Right Action and Right Livelihood, Right Speech promotes ethical conduct, which is the foundation for the purification of the mind. A clear mind, without defilements such as anger, lust, etc. is an absolute necessity for the development of insight wisdom which enables one to realise the true nature of things.
Right Action (Samma kammanta) is to abstain from harming others, taking what is not given (which includes stealing, fraud, deception) and sexual misconduct. Craving (desire) and anger are the primary cause of these deeds.
Being satisfied with what we have and not craving for new things is the right approach.
Right Livelihood (Samma ajiva) aims at earning a living in an ethical manner without harming others. One should avoid certain trades such as:
- Trading in armaments
- Human beings
- Flesh (such as breeding of animals for slaughter)
- Intoxicating drinks and harmful drugs
As a practising Buddhist, making a large amount of money should not be the most important thing in life. Aquiring wealth in a skilful and ethical manner is not considered harmful provided greed is not the motivating factor. The Buddha advised that a person should spend reasonably in propotion to his earnings. Wealth should be used to provide the needs such as food, clothing, shelter of a person and his family and for charitable purposes, saving a quarter of the earnings for illness and other emergencies.
Right Effort (Samma vayama) is the effort to prevent evil and unwholesome states of mind such as anger, jealousy, craving from arising, and to get rid of such unwholesome states of mind that have already arisen. The development of mindfulness is a step in the right direction. Buddha stressed the importance of diligence and perseverance in right effort. In keeping with the Buddhist middle way, the effort should not be too hard or too little.
Right Mindfulness (Samma sati) is to be aware or attentive to all our activities, feelings, thoughts and emotions. A little reflection will make us realise that in most things we do, they are done without being fully aware of the actions being carried out. For example, we may be drinking a cup or tea, while in our mind we may be trying to solve an office problem. The practice of concentrating the mind on breathing (anapanasati) is a highly recommended meditation exercise for developing awareness. Being mindful should be practised in everyday tasks, and not limited to the period of meditation. The Buddha laid down four foundations of mindfulness: mindfulness of body, of feelings, of mental objects and of the mind.
Right Concentration (Samma samadhi) develops 'one-pointedness' of the mind. This is achieved by keeping the mind focused on a single object during meditation. Along with Right effort and Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration completes the mental discipline required to progress along the path. This with the development of mindfulness, will enable one the true understanding of one or more of the three characteristics of existence and thereby attain Enlightenment.