EIGHTFOLD PATH . The noble eightfold path (Pali, ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo) is among the earliest formulations of the Buddhist path of practice. The Dhammacakkhappavattana Sutta (Setting the wheel of dhamma in motion), traditionally regarded as the Buddha's first discourse, introduces the eightfold path as a middle way between two extremes: indulgence in sensual pleasure and self-mortification. Sensual indulgence is condemned as "gross, domestic, common, ignoble, and not conducive to the goal." Self-mortification is condemned as "painful, ignoble, and not conducive to the goal." The eightfold path, however, is praised as productive of vision, productive of knowledge, and conducive to calm, direct knowing, self-awakening, and nirvāṇa. These statements are best evaluated in light of the story of the Buddha's quest for awakening, which provides the path with both narrative and theoretical context.
Having enjoyed lavish sensual pleasures in his youth, the young bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be) realized that these pleasures—subject to aging, illness, and death—could provide no lasting happiness. So he left home and took up the life of a wilderness mendicant to see if a deathless happiness could be attained through human effort. After six years of exploring various dead-end paths, including extreme self-mortification, he happened upon a path whose central factor consisted of a focused mental absorption called jhāna (Skt., dhyāna ). Developing this absorption to a level of pure mindfulness and equanimity, he applied his mind to developing three knowledges: knowledge of previous lifetimes, knowledge of the passing away and re-arising of living beings, and knowledge of the ending of āsavas ("effluents" or "fermentations" that defile the mind). Through this third knowledge, the bodhisattva gained release from the āsavas of sensuality, ignorance, and "becoming"—the process whereby craving and clinging lead to rebirth. With this release, he realized the deathless and was now a Buddha: an awakened one.
The Pali discourses state that the first two of the three knowledges contained elements in common with other religious teachings of the time, but that the second knowledge also contained an element distinctive to the Buddha: his insight that the level of an individual's rebirth was due to the quality of his or her intentional actions, or kamma (Skt., karman ). Actions performed under the influence of right views led to a happy rebirth on the higher levels of becoming; those performed under the influence of wrong views, led to a painful rebirth on the lower levels. Thus, action leading to rebirth was of three types: skillful, unskillful, and mixed. However, the impermanence characterizing all levels of becoming meant that they caused suffering for anyone searching for lasting happiness. Seeing this, the bodhisattva then applied his insight to the role of views in shaping action to see what kind of views would condition a fourth type of action, leading to the end of action and thus to the end of becoming.
This question was answered in the third knowledge: A path of action based on viewing experience in terms of four categories—suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the path of action leading to its cessation—led to a realization of the deathless. Because this path could be perfected, he realized that it was a matter of skill, rather than of grace, fate, or coincidence. Thus, to teach that skill to others, he formulated the four view-categories underlying it as the four noble truths; and the fourth truth—the path of action leading to the deathless—he formulated as the eightfold path.
The Pali discourses repeatedly cite the Buddha's insights into the nature and scope of action as the primary teachings distinguishing Buddhism from other contemporary religions. The eightfold path, as the expression of these insights, is thus the quintessential Buddhist teaching. According to the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, the Buddha on the night of his passing away taught the eightfold path to his last convert in response to the question of whether teachers of other religions were also awakened. Only in a teaching that promoted the eightfold path, he maintained, could awakened people be found.
The first discourse lists the path factors without explanation: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Other Pali discourses classify these eight factors under three headings: the first two under discernment, the next three under virtue, and the last three under concentration. Still others define the factors in detail. Because the path to the deathless overlaps somewhat with the actions leading to happy results in present and future lifetimes, the path can be taken as a guide, not only to transcendent happiness, but also to mundane happiness. Thus each factor of the path has a mundane and a transcendent level.
Right view on the mundane level encapsulates the bodhisattva's second knowledge: that there is value in the act of giving; that skillful and unskillful actions bear, respectively, pleasant and unpleasant fruit; that there are other levels of being; and that there are people who, practicing rightly, have directly known these principles for themselves. Transcendent right view encapsulates the third knowledge: knowing in terms of the four noble truths.
Mundane right resolve aims at renouncing sensual passion, at freedom from ill will, and at freedom from harmfulness. Transcendent right resolve entails directed thought and evaluation as factors of right concentration.
Right speech abstains from lies, harsh speech, divisive speech, and idle chatter. This and the remaining factors are mundane or transcendent depending on whether they are informed by mundane or transcendent right view and right resolve.
Right action abstains from killing, from stealing, and from sexual misconduct (or from sexual intercourse, according to one of the discourses).
Right livelihood, for lay people, means not selling meat, poison, weapons, slaves, or intoxicants. For monastics it means not trying to attract material support by means of scheming, persuading, hinting, belittling, or offering material incentives.
Right effort tries to prevent unskillful mental states from arising, to abandon unskillful mental states that have already arisen, to give rise to skillful mental states, and to bring already-existing skillful mental states to the culmination of their development.
Right mindfulness entails four activities. The first is keeping track of the body in and of itself—ardent, alert, and mindful—putting aside grief and distress with regard to the world. The remaining three activities follow the same formula, replacing "body" with feelings, mind states, and mental qualities.
Right concentration consists of four levels of jhāna. The first is composed of directed thought and evaluation focused on a single object—a classic object being the breath—accompanied by pleasure and rapture born of seclusion. The second jhāna consists of mental unification, devoid of directed thought and evaluation, accompanied by pleasure and rapture born of concentration. The third jhāna is a pleasant equanimous state, devoid of rapture. The fourth jhāna consists of purity of mindfulness and equanimity, free from pleasure or pain. One discourse, in defining noble right concentration, adds a fifth factor to these four jhānas : the ability to step back from any level of jhāna to observe it. Another discourse states that one may use jhāna as a basis for awakening by observing its factors in terms of the four noble truths, so as to develop dispassion for those factors, and then inclining the mind to the deathless.
According to the Bhūmija Sutta, the rightness of these factors is an objective quality, determined by their ability to issue in the deathless when put into practice, regardless of whether one expresses a wish for that aim. This principle is illustrated with similes: trying to attain the deathless by means of wrong view, wrong resolve, and so on, is like trying to squeeze sesame oil from gravel. Following the path of right view, and so on, is like obtaining sesame oil by squeezing sesame seeds.
The Pali discourses depict the relationships among these eight factors in a variety of ways, in keeping with the complexity of early Buddhist teachings on causality. Individuals at different points in the causal patterns leading to suffering will need differing explanations of how to dismantle those patterns to meet their specific needs. Some discourses depict a linear relationship among the factors, but in two different patterns: one, following the order in which the eight factors are listed; and another beginning with the virtue factors, followed by the concentration and then the discernment factors. Other discourses suggest that specific factors—such as right effort or right mindfulness—when pursued in all their ramifications, incorporate all the other path factors as well.
The most complex treatment of the relationships among the factors is found in the Mahācattārīsaka Sutta (The great forty), which places right concentration at the heart of the path, with the other seven factors its "requisites." This discourse adds, however, that right view, right effort, and right mindfulness underlie the development of all eight factors. This same discourse also maintains that the eightfold path leads only to a preliminary level of awakening. Full awakening requires two further factors—right knowledge and right release—although these factors are nowhere defined in the Pali discourses.
The eightfold path was central to the teachings of all the early schools of Buddhism, but succeeding generations developed it in new directions. Before the early canons were closed, the question arose as to how a Buddha's path of practice might differ from that of his arahant (Skt., arhat ) disciples. The various schools mined their jātaka stories (accounts of the Buddha's previous lives) to produce lists of perfections (Pali, pāramī ; Skt., pāramitā ) that constituted the Buddha's path. The Sarvāstivādins, whose list later formed the framework for the Mahāyāna bodhisattva path, found six perfections embodied in their jātakas : giving, virtue, energy, endurance, dhyāna, and discernment. Five of these perfections correspond directly to factors of the eightfold path: virtue to right speech, action, and livelihood; energy and endurance to right effort; dhyāna to right concentration; and discernment to right view and resolve. As for giving, it derives from mundane right view.
Over time, however, Mahāyāna discourses redefined the individual perfections. The bodhisattva's perfection of discernment, for instance, consisted of insight into the lack of essential nature in all phenomena. His perfection of virtue allowed him to kill, for example, if his larger motivation was compassionate. In this way, the bodhisattva path, while retaining some of the structure of the eightfold path, filled that structure with new elements. The Theravādin school, in its commentaries, made its own de facto changes in the eightfold path, redefining the practice of jhāna and treating it as an optional factor.
In modern times, two developments—the rise of Pali studies in Japan and the rise of lay meditation movements, based on Theravāda techniques, in Asia and the West—have prompted interest in using the structure of the eightfold path to provide a guide for lay daily life.
In these ways, succeeding generations of Buddhists, lay and monastic, have continued to mine the eightfold path for guidance in their quest for happiness.
A modern Western introduction to the eightfold path is Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Noble Eightfold Path (Seattle, 1994). A modern Asian treatment is Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo, The Path to Peace and Freedom for the Mind, available at: www.accesstoinsight.org. The Dhammacakkappavatana Sutta is translated in Bhikkhu Bodhi, trans., The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Saṁyutta Nikāya (Boston, 2000), pp. 1843–1847. A translation of the Maggavibhaṅga Sutta, which analyzes the individual factors of the path, is included in the same work, pp. 1528–1529. A translation of the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta is included in Maurice Walsh, trans., The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya (Boston, 1995), pp. 231–277. Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, trans., The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya (Boston, 1995), contains translations of the Mahācattārīsaka Sutta (pp. 934–940) and the Bhūmija Sutta (pp. 997–1001). Alternative translations for all of these discourses are available from Access to Insight at: www.accesstoinsight.org.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2005)