The Noble Eightfold Path in Buddhism

Dharma Wheel represent the 8-fold pathWhen Siddhartha Buddha emerged from his moment of enlightenment he realised there were four noble truths of suffering, of which, the final truth incorporates the Noble Eightfold Path.

Also known has the Eight Bringers of Good Fortune – which are a more appealing title – The Noble Eightfold Path is learning; right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

Buddha said that his teachings are not to understand reality itself, but to learn how to experience reality. This involve seeing things for how they truly are, rather than the illusion we perceive.

One way of understanding the truth is to learn about karma whereby you can more effectively contemplate your experiences and identifying your current situation by being recognising what you did to cause the experience. You are accountable for your circumstances.

The natural laws of the Universe dictate that for every action there is a reaction. Scientist call it cause and effect. Your experiences are caused by your actions. This is why ancient philosophy and so-called “new-agers” (using ancient philosophies) say individuals are responsible for creating their own reality.

What the Buddha came to realise under the Peepal tree, is that there is a right way to work with the laws of nature and a wrong way. Choosing the right path and practicing the Noble Eightfold Path will bring “Good Fortune.” And vice versa.

Each of the eight aspects of the Noble path can be integrated into everyday life. You are already doing them naturally, both good and bad, without actually being consciously aware of the effect your actions will cause later.

But what the eightfold path teaches us, is to live a balanced, simple life, and seek desires moderately rather than excessively. Sometimes we need to make personal sacrifices in order to gain rewards in the future.

Getting life “right” the Buddha way

The understanding of the “right way” can sometimes be difficult depending on the situation you find yourself in. The way in which you react to a situation should be the right thing to do to reap the rewards.

Most times you will know what to do, other decisions are instinctive. But then there are other times where you need to be

aware of your intuition. You always get a feeling that confirms whether the decisive action you take is right or wrong. If it feels wrong, then you have to enforce discipline – make the sacrifice.

Buddha’s eightfold path is a guideline for the aspects of your personal nature that you should be conscious of doing right. There are also some symbols and philosophical stories to help you understand and remember what the right ways are. The image below is not one of them, but our politicians think it is.

The puppets of policitians killing innocent people
War does not bring peace

Right view/understanding

 The first signpost on the path is the ability to take the right view. This essentially means our understanding of the world and accepting things simply as they are.

Taking the wrong view is when we have expectations of how we perceive an outcome should happen. This can be when we have a desire that does not manifest, how you hope things will be or you are afraid of how things will turn out.

By abandoning hopes, fears and expectations, you can take a simple approach to life and better prepare yourself for eventualities when they happen as described in the four noble truths.

In Buddhist symbolism, mustard seeds are used to reflect right understanding. When a young woman went to see Buddha distraught having lost her child, the sage told her to collect a mustard seed from every household that had suffered a bereavement. She returned empty-handed.

The lesson here is that the woman is not alone in her sorrow and it is only her expectation of how life should be that caused her suffering. Although other families have suffered bereavements they have come to understand that  death is as much a part of life as life itself. Mustard seeds are also a symbol of overcoming adversity.

Right thought/intention

Right thought proceeds right view. Once you have abandoned expectations, hopes and fears, you have no perception of what the outcome should be therefore do not try and manipulate an outcome you most desire.

For example, if you want somebody to do something and they don’t you might get angry or moody with them which causes friction and an unpleasant environment.

By keeping your thoughts and intentions pure, you do not harbour preconceived ideas of how things should be, you just accept things and people for how they are, thereby improving your relationships and your environment.

The symbolism for right thought is the mirror as it represents truth and purity – what you see in a mirror is an exact replica of reality without being obscured with perceptions that create illusion.

Right speech

 Right speech comes naturally once you master right intention. When your thoughts are pure, you no longer feel embarrassed explaining your thoughts and feeling to others.

If people judge you for having opinions and preferences different to theirs, that is their problem not yours. Perhaps their thoughts are not pure.

Furthermore, as your intentions are honest and forthright, you do not feel the need to manipulate anybody into thinking the way you do, nor will you try and control anyone so they do what you want.

Conch shells moulded into an altar in Spain
Conch shells moulded into an altar in Spain

Because you do not need feel the need to be careful or hesitant about what you say, you speak with more confidence and purpose. You simply say what needs to be said, and because you sound genuine, other “right” people generally believe you anyway, or at least respect your opinion and preferences.

There are also times when heat of the moment, we make cutting remarks and say things we don’t really mean. Being aware of and improving your powers of right speech will eliminate criticism of others. Instead, you will be able to communicate effectively and thoughtfully so that the truth is brought out in any wrongdoing.

Right speech is symbolised by the conch shell, thought to have been used as a horn to carry the voice in some cultures.

Right action

 Right action is also another discipline that will improve once you have mastered the first two folds of the Noble Path. It teaches individuals to take an ethical approach in life and not cause harm or loss to another person or animal.

It also relates directly to speech in that the Buddha says you should honour promises and agreements. Do not make promises or agree to do something you will not carry through. If at the time you make a promise you intend to go through with it, make sure you intention is right and fulfil the promise.

But right action is more than having good morals and actions towards others. You have to deliver the right actions that are in the best interests to yourself. This is when you have to be self-disciplined enough to make sacrifices.

This is especially so for addictive tendencies and promises that you make to yourself. If you are dieting and know you shouldn’t eat cake, don’t buy cake. If you are an alcoholic stay away from bars and the booze aisle.

How many times do we find ourselves in a situation when we know we shouldn’t do something, but do it anyway? For most people, it happens almost every day.

The symbol for right action is the Bilva fruit which is associated with Lord Shiva in Hindu. Shiva of course is known as the Destroyer, and sometimes you need to call on his power of strength to distinguish the burning needs of your desire.

Right livelihood

The path of right livelihood does not necessarily mean having the right job for you, although if you are able to pursue the line of work you most desire, it will reap its own benefits.

wallWhat Buddha mostly meant in terms of right livelihood however, was that your work does no harm to others or show disrespect for any form of life. If your role in society cheats others or purposely creates obstacle (i.e. politics), it creates a barrier towards your spiritual growth.

It is right that we earn a living to contribute to our local community through the service we offer, and the taxes we pay. Even though not everybody enjoys the role they have, it is only right that we are grateful for having a chance to contribute to society.

Right livelihood is represented by curd in Buddhist symbolism. Making curd is a long, slow process that requires defilement to be dissolved, and is therefore likened to a person’s career.

Our work can often taint our mind and make us bitter, so we have to learn to appreciate whatever job we have is for the benefit of end results. If you let your job bring you down, you needlessly suffer.

Right effort

 Right effort helps to bring your life into balance. Sometimes we can strive too hard to achieve things we are not good at, or struggle to overcome a negative aspect of our character.

Self-discipline can be a difficult path to tread, but you also need right balance in your life. Whereas right action calls for us to make sacrifices, right effort teaches us to cultivate the process of transformation with balanced and productive measures.

When you struggle, you develop negative tendencies which makes the effort of changing a losing battle. With discipline and a focused structure to engage in right effort, we more readily adopt a positive attitude which subsequently has positive results.

Right effort is representing by Durva Grass in Buddhist symbolism as it is a resilient and slow growing. Buddha taught that it take time to attain enlightenment and the practitioner should have patience. The same can be said for any kind of transformation we want to make in our lives.

Right mindfulness

Right mindfulness teaches us to be clear of our intentions and live life in the moment. When performing a task, no matter how simple, it is necessary to have clarity and precision in everything we do, whether washing, eating or performing a difficult chore.

Of all the practices in the eight-fold path, right mindfulness is the most difficult to master as it takes greater powers of concentration to pay attention to the tiniest details, posture, attitude, expression, reaction, and speech, but once mastered we can improve our performance in everything we do.

This step challenges us to change the way in which we naturally use our brains. We are so used to operating on auto-pilot it is natural for our mind to wonder. Whilst nostalgia and contemplation is not necessarily a bad thing, there is a time and a place for meditation.

mindfulnessBut really, being mindful of whatever you are doing is meditation in itself. Meditation does not strictly involve sitting in the lotus position and intentionally performing Dhyana. Right mindfulness forms the basis of meditation.

Whereas some meditation techniques are purposefully designed to detach from the world, right mindfulness is the opposite – it teaches us to embrace the world around us and be fully aware of the experience.

Right mindfulness then is more closely related to vipassana meditation which teaches us to see things for how they really are and to be aware of our thoughts, actions and emotions.

It is only by becoming aware of the experience that we learn about our true selves. We have an obligation to ourselves and others to be better people. By recognising and acknowledging bad habits that control us, we can make strides to better ourselves and subsequently improve our relationships and environments.

The medicine ghi-wang, abstracted from the gallstone of cows and elephants, is used to represent right mindfulness, because of its magical essence that soothes and strengthens. Gautama Buddha recognised that right mindfulness was the antidote to ignorance that ultimately causes suffering.

Right concentration

Right now I am struggling to concentrate, which is ironic just as we come on to right concentration. In my defence, I have been sat here for three hours and the time is 01.42!

The final step of the Noble eightfold path is an extension of right mindfulness, and it teaches us to refrain from absentmindedness and our innate tendency to be easily distracted whereby our minds wonder and we become preoccupied by desire.

But the modern world in which we live in is deliberately designed to prevent us from becoming absorbed in the moment. The captivation of entertainment and speculation has pre-programmed our mind to seek external distraction which ultimately make us restless.

Whereas right mindfulness disciplines us to become absorbed in the now, to prevent our minds from wondering, right concentration teaches us that concentration helps us to achieve our desires.

Oftentimes it requires strength, courage and patience to endure daily processes, but directing the mind to the experience of “now”, you will be calm and at peace with the world, which ultimately makes your desired time all the more special. Essentially you feel more joy.

The symbol used to express right concentration is the red powder, Cinnabar. In Buddhism, red represents control and mastery of the mind and emotions which can be put to better use in the effort to achieve nirvana.

The eightfold path takes time, patience and dedication, but by engaging in all eight steps every day, little by little, we become stronger and more adept at our daily activities. Just remember, Gautama Buddha almost killed himself learning this.

2 thoughts on “The Noble Eightfold Path in Buddhism”

  1. I don’t understand the teaching about the young woman and the mustard seed. Surely you meant to write collect a seed from houses that had not suffered a bereavement? Or am I mistaken.

    1. Hi Glyn, thanks for your message and apologies for my delayed response. I was in Vietnam and they have a firewall which prevented me from accessing my WP dashboard. I think the story of the girl is saying that she does not have the right understanding of life. In the 4 noble truths, Buddha said that all suffering is caused because of desire and self gratification which leads to self-destruction. The girl is grieving because she has lost a child, but because Buddhists believe live is a continuous cycle, the girl is only causing herself to suffer because of her emotional need for the child to be physically present. When she asks for mustard seeds, nobody has them because they have all overcome their suffering and have learned to live with their loss, thus have the right understanding of life and death. Mustard seeds are also a symbol of overcoming adversity. Hope that explains the story better.

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