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Dharma wheel

The Dharma wheel, often used to represent the Noble Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path (Pāli अरियो अट्ठङ्गीको मग्गो Ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo, Sanskrit आर्याष्टाङ्गो मार्गो Ārya 'ṣṭāṅga mārgaḥ, Chinese 八正道 Bāzhèngdào) is, in the Buddhist tradition as taught by the Buddha Śākyamuni, considered to be the way that leads to the end of suffering. It forms the fourth part of the Four Noble Truths, which are the most fundamental Buddhist teachings.

The Noble Eightfold Path (also known as the Middle Way) is essentially a practical guide of mental rehabilitation and mind deconditioning, by Buddhists, which is believed to result in an end to dukkha, or suffering, which is a goal that informs and drives the entire Buddhist tradition since its inception 2500 years ago. As the name indicates, there are eight elements in the Noble Eightfold Path, and these are further subdivided into three basic categories as follows:

  • Wisdom (Sanskrit: prajñā, Pāli: paññā)
1. Right view
2. Right intention
  • Ethical conduct (Sanskrit: śīla, Pāli: sīla)
3. Right speech
4. Right action
5. Right livelihood
  • Mental discipline (Sanskrit and Pāli: samādhi)
6. Right effort
7. Right mindfulness
8. Right concentration


In all of the elements of the Noble Eightfold Path, the word "right" is a translation of the word samyañc (Sanskrit) or sammā (Pāli), which denotes completion, togetherness, and coherence, and which can also carry the sense of "perfect" or "ideal".

Though the path is numbered one through eight, it is generally not considered to be a series of linear steps through which one must progress; rather, as the Buddhist monk and scholar Walpola Rahula points out, the eight elements of the Noble Eightfold Path "are to be developed more or less simultaneously, as far as possible according to the capacity of each individual. They are all linked together and each helps the cultivation of the others"[1].

In Buddhist symbology, the Noble Eightfold Path is often represented by means of the Dharma wheel (Sanskrit: dharmacakra, Pāli: dhammacakka), whose eight spokes represent the eight elements of the path.

Wisdom (Prajñā · Paññā)Edit

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Dharma wheel 1

The "wisdom" subdivision of the Noble Eightfold Path is constituted by those elements that refer primarily to the mental or cognitive aspect of a Buddhist practitioner's practice.

Right understandingEdit

Right understanding (samyag-dṛṣṭi · sammā-diṭṭhi) can also be translated as "right view" or "right perspective". This element of the Noble Eightfold Path refers explicitly to the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, stating that these must be fully understood by the Buddhist practitioner. In the Magga-vibhanga Sutta, one of the Buddha Śākyamuni's discourses, right understanding—here translated as "right view"—is explained directly in terms of the Four Noble Truths:

And what, monks, is right view? Knowledge with regard to stress, knowledge with regard to the origination of stress, knowledge with regard to the stopping of stress, knowledge with regard to the way of practice leading to the stopping of stress: This, monks, is called right view[2].

Additionally, right understanding is sometimes considered to encompass an understanding of the Buddhist idea of the non-permanence, or even non-existence, of the self, an idea known as anātman in Sanskrit and anatta in Pāli[3].

Right thoughtEdit

Right thought (samyak-saṃkalpa · sammā-saṅkappa) can also be translated as "right intention", "right resolve", or "right aspiration". This element of the Noble Eightfold Path deals, fundamentally, with the Buddhist practitioner's reasons for practising Buddhism, and with his or her outlook towards the world. It enjoins renunciation of worldly things and an accordant greater commitment to spiritual matters; good will; and a commitment to non-violence, or ahiṁsā, towards other living beings. In the Magga-vibhanga Sutta, it is simply explained as follows:

And what is right thought? Being resolved on renunciation, on freedom from ill will, on harmlessness: This is called right thought[4].

Ethical conduct (Śīla · Sīla)Edit

The "ethical conduct" subdivision of the Noble Eightfold Path is constituted by those elements that are driven by and ultimately conducive to the Buddhist idea of karuṇā, which is generally translated as compassion and somewhat akin to the Christian notion of agapē, or "unconditional love". This aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path is the most outward-oriented aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path insofar as it deals directly with a Buddhist practitioner's relationship with other members of his or her society.

Right speechEdit

Right speech (samyag-vāc · sammā-vācā), as the name implies, deals with the way in which a Buddhist practitioner would best make use of his or her words. In the Magga-vibhanga Sutta, this aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path is explained as follows:

And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, abstaining from divisive speech, abstaining from abusive speech, abstaining from idle chatter: This, monks, is called right speech[5].

Walpola Rahula glosses this by stating that not engaging in such "forms of wrong and harmful speech" ultimately means that "one naturally has to speak the truth, has to use words that are friendly and benevolent, pleasant and gentle, meaningful and useful"[6].

Right actionEdit

Right action (samyak-karmānta · sammā-kammanta) can also be translated as "right conduct" and, as the name implies, deals with the proper way in which a Buddhist practitioner would act in his or her daily life. In the Magga-vibhanga Sutta, this aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path is explained as follows:

And what, monks, is right action? Abstaining from taking life, abstaining from stealing, abstaining from unchastity: This, monks, is called right action[7].

Together with the idea of ahiṁsā and right speech, right action constitutes the Five Precepts (Sanskrit: pañcaśīla, Pāli: pañcasīla), which form the fundamental ethical code undertaken by lay followers of Buddhism, and which are as follows:

1. To refrain from destroying living beings.
2. To refrain from stealing.
3. To refrain from sexual misconduct (adultery, rape, etc.).
4. To refrain from false speech (lying).
5. To refrain from intoxicants which lead to heedlessness.

Right livelihoodEdit

Right livelihood (samyag-ājīva · sammā-ājīva) is based around the concept of ahiṁsā, or harmlessness, and essentially states that Buddhist practitioners ought not to engage in trades or occupations which, either directly or indirectly, result in harm to other living beings. Such occupations include "trading in arms and lethal weapons, intoxicating drinks, poisons, killing animals, [and] cheating", among others[8]. Also, trading in living beings (slave trade and prostitution) [9]. He further names several dishonest means of gaining wealth which fall under wrong livelihood: practicing deceit, treachery, soothsaying, trickery, and usury [10].

Mental development (Samādhi)Edit

The "mental development" subdivision of the Noble Eightfold Path is constituted by those elements that deal with how a Buddhist practitioner can best go about shaping his or her outlook towards the world.

Right effortEdit

Right effort (samyag-vyāyāma · sammā-vāyāma) can also be translated as "right endeavor", and involves the Buddhist practitioner's continuous effort to, essentially, keep his or her mind free of thoughts that might impair his or her ability to realize or put into practice the other elements of the Noble Eightfold Path; for example, wishing ill towards another living being would contradict the injunction—contained in the "Right thought" element—to have good will towards others, and the "Right effort" element refers to the process of attempting to root out such an ill wish and replace it with a good wish. The Buddhist monk Ajahn Chah, of the Thai forest tradition of Theravada Buddhism, described right effort as follows:

Proper effort is not the effort to make something particular happen. It is the effort to be aware and awake in each moment, the effort to overcome laziness and defilement, the effort to make each activity of our day meditation[11].

By making right effort, a Buddhist practitioner is considered to be engaging in an effort that is wholesome in terms of karma; that is, in terms of that effort's ultimate consequences to the practitioner[12].

Right mindfulnessEdit

Right mindfulness (samyak-smṛti · sammā-sati), also translated as "right memory", together with right concentration, is concerned broadly with the practice of Buddhist meditation. Roughly speaking, "mindfulness" refers to the practice of keeping the mind alert to phenomena as they are affecting the body and mind. In the Magga-vibhanga Sutta, this aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path is explained as follows:

And what, monks, is right mindfulness?

(i) There is the case where a monk remains focused on (his/her) body in and of itself ... ardent, aware, and mindful ... having already put aside worldly desire and aversion.
(ii) (He/she) remains focused on feelings in and of themselves ... ardent, aware, and mindful ... having already put aside worldly desire and aversion.
(iii) (He/she) remains focused on the mind[13] in and of itself ... ardent, aware, and mindful ... having already put aside worldly desire and aversion.
(iv) (He/she) remains focused on mental qualities[13] in and of themselves ... ardent, aware, and mindful ... having already put aside worldly desire and aversion.
This, monks, is called right mindfulness[14].

Bhikkhu Bodhi, a monk of the Theravadin tradition, further glosses the concept of mindfulness as follows:

The mind is deliberately kept at the level of bare attention, a detached observation of what is happening within us and around us in the present moment. In the practice of right mindfulness the mind is trained to remain in the present, open, quiet, and alert, contemplating the present event. All judgments and interpretations have to be suspended, or if they occur, just registered and dropped[15].

Right concentrationEdit

Right concentration (samyak-samādhi · sammā-samādhi), together with right mindfulness, is concerned broadly with the practice of Buddhist meditation.

And what, monks, is right concentration?

(i) Quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unwholesome states, a monk enters in the first jhāna: rapture and pleasure born from detachment, accompanied by movement of the mind onto the object and retention of the mind on the object.
(ii) With the stilling of directed thought and evaluation, he enters and remains in the second jhāna: rapture and pleasure born of concentration; fixed single-pointed awareness free from movement of the mind onto the object and retention of the mind on the object; assurance.
(iii) With the fading of rapture, he remains in equanimity, mindful and fully aware, and physically sensitive of pleasure. He enters and remains in the third jhāna which the Noble Ones declare to be "Equanimous and mindful, (he/she) has a pleasurable abiding."
(iv) With the abandoning of pleasure and pain...as with the earlier disappearance of elation and distress...he enters and remains in the fourth jhāna: purity of equanimity and mindfulness, neither in pleasure nor in pain.
This, monks, is called right concentration[16].

The ninth and tenth elementsEdit

In the Great Forty Sutra (Mahācattārīsaka Sutta)[1], which appears in the Pāli Canon, the Buddha explains that cultivation of the Eightfold Path leads to the development of two further stages once enlightenment has been reached. These also fall under the category of paññā and are Right Knowledge (sammāñāṇa) and Right Liberation (or Right Release; sammāvimutti). Some consider Right Association as an implicit ninth aspect of the Path.

The Noble Eightfold Path and cognitive psychologyEdit

From the standpoint of modern cognitive psychology, the Noble Eightfold Path can be seen as rooted in what is called cognitive dissonance, which is the perception of incompatibility between two cognitions. In the essay "Buddhism Meets Western Science", Gay Watson explains this dissonance as it relates to Buddhist teaching:

Buddhism has always been concerned with feelings, emotions, sensations, and cognition. The Buddha points both to cognitive and emotional causes of suffering. The emotional cause is desire and its negative opposite, aversion. The cognitive cause is ignorance of the way things truly occur, or of three marks of existence: that all things are unsatisfactory, impermanent, and without essential self.[17]</blockquote>

The Noble Eightfold Path is, from this psychological viewpoint, an attempt to resolve this dissonance by changing patterns of thought and behavior. It is for this reason that the first element of the path is right understanding (sammā-diṭṭhi), which is how one's mind views the world. Under the wisdom (paññā) subdivision of the Noble Eightfold Path, this worldview is intimately connected with the second element, right thought (sammā-saṅkappa), which concerns the patterns of thought and intention that controls one's actions. These elements can be seen at work, for example, in the opening verses of the Dhammapada:

Preceded by perception are mental states,
For them is perception supreme,
From perception have they sprung.
If, with perception polluted, one speaks or acts,
Thence suffering follows
As a wheel the draught ox's foot.
Preceded by perception are mental states,
For them is perception supreme,
From perception have they sprung.
If, with tranquil perception, one speaks or acts,
Thence ease follows
As a shadow that never departs.[18]

Thus, by willfully altering one's distorted worldview—as well as the behaviors stemming from that worldview—and bringing out "tranquil perception" in the place of "perception polluted", one is enabled to potentially escape from suffering and develop one's mind. Watson points this out from a psychological standpoint:

Research has shown that repeated action, learning, and memory can actually change the nervous system physically, altering both synaptic strength and connections. Such changes may be brought about by cultivated change in emotion and action; they will, in turn, change subsequent experience.[19]</blockquote>

As such, Buddhism can essentially be seen as mind cultivation and rehabilitation.

NotesEdit

  1. Rahula 42
  2. Thanissaro 1996
  3. Kohn 63
  4. Thanissaro 1996
  5. Ibid.
  6. Rahula 47
  7. Thanissaro 1996
  8. Rahula 47
  9. (Anguttara Nikaya 5:177)
  10. (Majhima Nikaya 117)
  11. Quoted in Snelling, 50
  12. Kohn 63
  13. 13.0 13.1 By the term "mind" is meant the "non-physical phenomenon which perceives, thinks, recognises, experiences and reacts to the environment", as per A View on Buddhism, while "mental qualities" refers to such things as intention, concentration, regret, ignorance, etc. Thus, roughly speaking, the mind is the perceiving/conceiving entity, while mental qualities are the perceptions/conceptions.
  14. Thanissaro 1996
  15. Bodhi 1998
  16. Ibid.
  17. Watson 2001
  18. Carter & Palihawadana 13
  19. Watson 2001

ReferencesEdit

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