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The Eightfold Noble Path

When the Buddha expounded the Four Noble Truths to five ascetic monks at Deer Park, he explained the fourth noble truth as the path away from suffering. By this he meant the eightfold noble path, which are the eight practices that can lead one to cessation. These are right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right perseverance, right mindfulness and right concentration.

This eightfold path is the middle way between extremes of indulgence and asceticism. Following the path of pleasure will not free one from suffering because happiness and pleasure are not lasting, and inevitably everyone encounters misfortune, illness, and death. On the other hand asceticism with its harshness and self-torment cannot, by itself, lead to wisdom and freedom from attachment. Free from these two extremes one should follow the stable and middle way of the eightfold path.

Because we have not yet realized the truth of cessation we find ourselves still in the four sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death. To help us end the cycle the Buddha taught us to practice the eight paths, eight ways of being through which we can begin the process of cessation. First I want to make sure we understand the difference between the process of cessation and the realization of cessation. The noble eightfold path is a gradual process of ceasing our vexations and suffering, including the root vexation of ignorance. To the extent of one's attainment in the eightfold path, one will diminish one's vexations and suffering. The path is gradual, but the ultimate result is complete realization of cessation.

While on the eightfold path we should also practice the five higher preparations of faith, generosity, precepts, concentration, and insight. They are called preparations because as we advance on the path, we reach higher levels of fulfillment of these requisites. But we should not understand the five preparations and the eightfold path as separate. The more we engage in the five preparations the deeper we get on the eightfold path. As we discuss the eightfold path in detail, we will also relate them to the five higher preparations.

Because of time limitations I will not discuss in great detail the eight paths, as they deserve at least one whole lecture by themselves, but I will try to briefly explain each and relate it to the cessation and liberation.

Right View

The first noble path, right view, is the correct understanding of the true Dharma, especially the Four Noble Truths, the three Dharma seals (three marks of existence), and the twelve links of conditioned arising. We have discussed these concepts in previous talks. The first higher preparation, faith, is very much connected with right view. As Buddhists we must not rely on blind faith but on faith based on a correct understanding of the Dharma. As such, right view may be the most important of the eightfold path in accomplishing cessation.

Right Aspiration

The second noble path is right aspiration, which also means' correct thought' and 'correct reflection.' As Buddhists we should hold correct views but we should also integrate them into our thinking and into our very being. To accomplish this we must reflect on what we have heard and learned. In relation to the Four Noble Truths we must understand the origins of suffering in our own actions, and we must see all circumstances as potential suffering. Understanding the origin of suffering, we will develop right aspiration and affirm that suffering can be ended. With that conviction we integrate the Four Noble Truths into our thinking and our own being, and we engage the path. This is what is meant by right aspiration.

Right Speech

Right speech is the cultivation of the four precepts governing speech. The first is to speak the truth and to abstain from uttering falsehoods, of which the most serious are claiming to be a buddha when one is not, and claiming to be enlightened when one is not. The second is to refrain from slander or divisive speech that can create discord. The third is to speak pleasantly and courteously, and to refrain from harsh language that can cause suffering to others. The fourth is to refrain from frivolous chatter, and idle or malicious gossip. When practiced as virtues these rules of speech help to purify our minds and actions.

Right Action

Right action refers to abstention from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and taking of intoxicants. They are basically the five precepts one accepts when taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. To observe these five precepts is right action. Right action relates to suffering insofar as action is karma, and as long as we create karma that leads to suffering, cessation not possible.

Right Livelihood

Right livelihood means earning one's living in accordance with Buddhadharma, and not causing harm to oneself or others while doing so. There are therefore many kinds of right livelihood, and many kinds of wrong livelihood. The Buddha proscribed earning one's living through breaking any of the precepts of right speech and right action. Wrong kinds of livelihood also include making one's living through deception, through self-aggrandizement through occult practices, through false claims about oneself, and through exaggeration. There are subtle distinctions among these but they all involve deception and exploiting others. In connection with right livelihood, the Buddha said in the nikayas, “...this holy life is not for cheating people, scheming, nor for profit, favor, and honor...this holy life is lived for the sake of restraint, for abandoning [delusion], for dispassion, for cessation.3"

Right Effort

The sixth noble path is right effort, or perseverance, and refers to the four proper lines of exertion, or endeavor: (1) to cut off unwholesome acts that have already arisen, (2) to prevent from arising unwholesome acts that have not yet arisen, (3) to develop wholesome acts that have not yet arisen, and (4) to increase wholesome acts that have already arisen. By 'acts' is meant physical acts as well as words and, thoughts. Right effort is endeavoring to attain whatever in the Dharma is attainable through faith, diligent application, and perseverance.

Right Mindfulness

Ordinarily our minds are full of a whole army of distractions and discursive thoughts. Right mindfulness is being free from these mental afflictions so that there's just one, thing remaining in the mind, and that is the path of practice. One approach to mindfulness practice is to contemplate the six objects of mindfulness: the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha, the Precepts, the merits of renouncing worldliness, and the merits of good deeds. The six mindful practices are really the prerequisites to engaging in the four foundations of mindfulness of body, of sensation, of mind, and of dharmas (external and mental objects).

It is not necessary to practice all six mindful practices before practicing the four foundations. You can choose any one of the six as a preparatory practice. Once we engage in the four foundations of mindfulness, we can enter the eighth noble path of right concentration.

Right Concentration

Right concentration consists of a whole repertory of samadhi4 practices. It would not be possible here to detail all of them, but they include the seven expedient stages: (1-5) the five methods of stilling the mind, (6) the four foundations of mindfulness, and (7) the path of seeing, which is the first level of the arhat path. For right concentration there are also the practices of the sixteen aspects of the Four Noble Truths, which was briefly discussed in the first lecture.

Source : "Setting in Motion the Dharma Wheel"