Eightfold Path


Noble Eightfold Path – traditional translation

Wisdom (panna): Right Understanding (samma ditthi); Right Aspiration (samma sankappa)

Morality (sila): Right Speech (samma vaca); Right Action (samma kammanta); Right Livelihood (samma ajiva)

Concentration (samadhi): Right Effort (samma vayama); Right Mindfulness (samma sati); Right Concentration (samma Samadhi)

The word ‘right’ may give the wrong impression, suggesting as it does a moral absolute or imperative, whereas the Buddha may have meant ‘an effective way or view’ (upaya). Each individual has to determine how he or she realises these eight skills or ways of being in the world – the Buddha imposes no universal rule or command!

EIGHTFOLD PATH or EIGHT SKILLS – a revised version (JD)

MINDFUL UNDERSTANDING – understanding how the world actually is (dharma) – conditioned by the Three Marks of Existence (impermanence; interdependence and emptiness; and, suffering -caused by not living in harmony with the other two marks), along with an understanding of the Four Noble Tasks. When you develop a realisation of the conditions of existence, then you see the world and yourself without delusion, hatred, greed, etc. Skilful understanding also touches on our own views of the world, how we may cling to them, how we may consider them permanent, when they are really impermanent, and how we can get caught up in a “thicket of views” that cloud our vision and prevent us from seeing things clearly.

MINDFUL ASPIRATION OR INTENTION – in order not to create more suffering, we need to pay attention (being mindful) to what our intentions and aspirations are and how they arise. If our intentions stem from anger, resentment, or greed, then we are more likely to do harm than if our intentions are to understand and to help. We need to be mindful of our intentions when we sit for meditation, as much as when we think, speak or act.

MINDFUL ACTION – being mindful of how we act or behave in the world, ensuring that our actions are grounded in understanding and compassion – helping, and not harming, other beings. Learning to make sure our actions don’t cause or increase suffering (remember ‘suffering’ includes dissatisfaction, discord and division arising from misunderstanding how the world is).

MINDFUL COMMUNICATION – includes compassionate speaking and listening, and all other forms of communication (eg, writing, emailing, messaging, tweeting, gesturing, body language, drawing…) – being mindful of what we say and don’t say, and how we say it – communicating with others in ways that don’t cause or add to suffering and discord. Trying to be honest, open and clear in what we say; communicating with care, respect and reflection; listening carefully and thoughtfully to what others are trying to communicate (all beings). Being mindful of the intention behind what we are saying, and deciding if it’s going to do more harm than good (to us and to others).

MINDFUL LIVELIHOOD – how we make a living, how we work and where we work. We should determine for ourselves if what we do for a living is causing suffering, or whether what we do is neutral, or helpful. Compassion for colleagues and customers is important. Are we being considerate, caring and helpful? Again, we need to be mindful not just of what we do but of what our intentions are.

MINDFUL EFFORT – without effort we can accomplish nothing. However, we need to ensure this effort arises from a motivation or intention to lessen and alleviate suffering. Therefore, our efforts need to be grounded in compassion, respect for others and understanding, rather than in adding to discord and suffering (eg. increasing greed, fear, anxiety, hatred, self-loathing, division…).

MINDFUL AWARENESS (vipassanā) – paying attention without commentary, judgment or clinging. That is, to be present to what is actually happening moment-by-moment – whether chatting to someone, watching the sun go down, buying something, dealing with someone’s anger or distress, trying to sell something, watching the TV, sitting at a desk dealing with a problem at work or sitting in meditation. It is easy to do all of these things, including meditation, without being mindful. Instead of being present we’re elsewhere, thinking of the past or the future, silently chatting to ourselves or imagining endless alternatives to what is actually happening – oblivious to where we are, what we are doing and who we are with. We’re on auto-pilot, our monkey-minds running off in every direction or turning endlessly like washing machines bound by habit and mindless reaction.

With proper intention, effort, and non-reactive awareness or mindfulness, we can learn how to be present, and deal with whatever arises in an effective, creative and fulfilling way. Mindful meditation is a method for developing and exercising this skill in our daily life.

MINDFUL CONCENTRATION (samatha) the skill of focusing and disciplining the mind. While mindful meditation develops open non-reactive awareness, concentration is focusing awareness on a particular object, or aspect, of consciousness. Mindful awareness is like looking at the world with wide-eyed curiosity, while concentration is looking at a part of the world through a microscope. Both compassionate concentration and mindfulness are tools to sharpen the mind, to understand and dissolve habits of attachment, thought and action, and to wake up to each passing, living, moment. In some schools of Buddhism (Zen, for instance) mindful awareness (vipassanā) and concentration (samatha) aren’t viewed as separate activities.

NB. The Pali word, Samma, often translated as ‘right’, means ‘thorough’, ‘whole’, ‘complete.’ In my paraphrase above, ‘mindful’, can be seen as suggesting that we try to have as thorough, whole or complete an awareness as we are able.

It is important to keep in mind that these eight skills arise from, or are grounded in, mindful awareness of the three conditions of existence (anicca, anatta and dukkha), and the realisation that dukkha can be alleviated by understanding and compassion.