In his very first sermon, delivered over 2,500 years ago, Shakyamuni Buddha taught the Noble Eightfold Path. In this episode I describe this teaching and each of the eight aspects of the path. I also explain why Buddhism resists being summed up even by the simple and elegant formula of the Eightfold Path, because this teaching just one “lens” among many with which to view Buddhist practice.
Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
The Eightfold Path in the Buddha’s First Sermon
A Note on the Kaleidoscopic Nature of Buddhist Teachings
The Eightfold Path as a Whole
Right View, or Right Understanding
Right Resolve, or Right Intention
The Ethical Conduct Aspects of the Eightfold Path
Right Speech, or Right Verbal Action
Right (Bodily) Action
Right Concentration, or Right Meditation
The Eightfold Path in the Buddha’s First Sermon
Shortly after his enlightenment, Shakyamuni Buddha delivered the sermon that came to be known as the “Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion Sutta.” In this pithy talk, he taught three pivotal things: The Middle Way, the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path. I’ve talked about the Middle Way elsewhere (Episode 12 – Life of Shakyamuni Buddha Part 2), and covered the Four Noble Truths in detail in Episode 27 – Buddha’s Teachings Part 2. Now we turn to the Noble Eightfold Path.
In his first sermon, the Buddha starts out by advocating the practice of the Middle Way, which is the fruitful path that avoids both the “unprofitable” extreme of devotion to sensual pleasure, as well as the unprofitable extreme of asceticism, or “self-affliction.”[i] This Middle Way, he said, leads to calm, and to direct knowledge, self-awakening, and “Unbinding,” or Nirvana. To further describe this path of practice he had discovered, the Buddha explained it was:
The Buddha then listed and described the Four Noble Truths: the noble truth of dukkha, or stress; the noble truth of the origination of stress; the noble truth of the cessation of stress, and the noble truth of the “way of practice leading to the cessation of stress.” Now, the “way of practice leading to the cessation of stress,” the fourth Noble Truth, is the Eightfold Path. As we’ll discuss later, the foundational aspect of the Eightfold Path, right view, is also sometimes summarized as a correct understanding of the Four Noble Truths – so each teaching refers to the other.
A Note on the Kaleidoscopic Nature of Buddhist Teachings
As I discuss each of the separate aspects of the Eightfold Path, it will be nearly impossible not to mention other aspects of the path and other Buddhist teachings, so before I do so, let me make a short digression to discuss how to approach Buddhist teachings.
It’s easy to get confused or frustrated by the huge number of Buddhist teachings, by the way one teaching flows into another, and how one list of things always seems to correspond to another list, which is a subcategory of a third list, and so on. I remember, when I first got interested in Buddhism, looking around for a book that would tell me all I needed to know. The closest thing I could find was Dwight Goddard’s book A Buddhist Bible, which turns out to have been compiled by a westerner who, like me, tried to force the vast and complex textual tradition of Buddhism into one authoritative tome like those of other traditions. Alas, Goddard’s compilation hasn’t stood the test of time, and most of us modern Buddhists just learn to appreciate the fact that we’ll never even know, let alone understand, every last Buddhist teaching.
Instead of hoping to grasp the essence Buddhism through a neat and relatively concise set of fundamental teachings, you might find it more helpful to think of Buddhist teachings as being like various views through a kaleidoscope. The colored pieces inside the kaleidoscope are foundational ideas such as karma, mindfulness, and insight gained through meditation, and these basic ideas can be rearranged in an almost infinite number of patterns. There is no fixed way Buddhism must be expressed or taught; the important thing is the effect a teaching has on its audience. You may benefit from a particular view through the kaleidoscope, or a particular formulation or description of Buddhist teachings. The person next to you may appreciate a different view, as you might tomorrow.
One advantage of the way expressions of Buddhism keep shifting is that it encourages us to stay focused on our actual practice – the effect of the teachings on our minds, bodies, and conduct – rather than on memorizing dogma.
That said, back to our discussion of the Eightfold Path:
The Eightfold Path as a Whole
First, it’s important to recognize that the Eightfold Path is not a path with eight steps, it’s path of practice with eight essential aspects. Ideally, you cultivate all aspects at once, and they are connected to and supportive of one another. At the same time, the path can be viewed as something of a causal loop that results in continual refinement of all eight aspects. In the Avijja Sutta, the Buddha explains how clear understanding of reality allows right view to arise, and “in one of right view, right resolve arises.” Subsequently, “in one of right resolve, right speech,” and so on through all the aspects of the path up to right concentration, which in turn allows you to settle the mind and see things clearly, thereby looping around to the beginning to strengthen and clarify your right view.[iii]
The second thing to keep in mind is that the word “right” when applied to view, resolve, action, and so on, is not meant to be a comment on moral superiority or purity (that is, “right” being good, holy, or acceptable to those in authority, as opposed to “wrong” being bad, defiled, or worthy of punishment). The Buddhist use of the term “right” is more objective than judgmental, and could instead be translated as appropriate or correct. Think of saying, “That’s the right key for unlocking the door.” A key that didn’t result in the desired outcome of getting the door open would be the “wrong” key, but you wouldn’t describe it as a “bad” key. In the case of the Eightfold Path, the desired outcome is the cessation of stress and, ultimately, awakening and Nirvana; some things are going to get you there, and some aren’t.
Third, the eight aspects of the path fall into three categories. Right view and resolve are said to come under the “aggregate” of discernment,[iv] or wisdom (pañña). Right speech, action, and livelihood come under the aggregate of virtue, or ethical conduct (sila), while right effort, mindfulness, and concentration fall under the aggregate of concentration, or mental discipline (samadhi).[v]
Right View, or Right Understanding
Let’s begin with right view, then. While the Buddha didn’t go into detail about each aspect of the Eightfold Path in his first sermon, he did so many times later in his teaching career. In the Magga-vibhanga Sutta: An Analysis of the Path,[vi] the Buddha says that right view is simply “knowledge with regard to stress,” the “origination of stress,” the “stopping of stress,” and the “way of practice leading to the stopping of stress” – or, in other words, knowledge of the Four Noble Truths.
In another sutta, however, called the Sammaditthi Sutta: The Discourse on Right View,[vii] Shakyamuni describes other aspects of right view. A disciple can be said to be one of right view, the Buddha explains, when he recognizes what is unwholesome – namely, unethical conduct such as killing, stealing, lying, and sexual misconduct – and what is wholesome, namely, ethical conduct. Note that ethical conduct is another part of the Eightfold Path, but right view is what makes ethical conduct possible (that is, being able to tell the difference between actions with negative consequences and those with positive consequences).
The Buddha goes on: one of right view also has correct insight into what tends to fuel greed, hate, and delusion; into the Four Noble Truths, and into the causal processes that keep beings trapped in the world of suffering (namely, each step on the Twelvefold Chain of Dependent Arising, which I talked about in Episode 33). Here’s an example of the kaleidoscopic nature of Buddhist teachings: In essence, the Buddha is saying that, ultimately, right view means to have deep, penetrating, and transformative insight into all of the Buddhist teachings, which deal primarily with what leads to suffering, and how to let go of what leads to suffering.
Elsewhere in the Pali Canon, the Buddha is recorded as saying right view “is the forerunner” of all the other aspects of the Eightfold Path. In the Maha-cattarisaka Sutta,[viii] Shakyamuni explains how it is only with right view that you can discern right resolve from wrong resolve, right speech from wrong speech, up through right livelihood. In other words, you can’t practice the other aspects of the Eightfold Path if you don’t have the ability to discern when your actions exacerbate greed, hatred, delusion, and self-concern, versus when they lead to letting go, wisdom, and a decrease in harmful behavior.
It is extremely significant that, in the Discourse on Right View, the Buddha describes how right view itself results in a disciple abandoning greed, lust, and all the things the lead to delusion, stress, and suffering. This reflects a general Buddhist view that our understanding and state of mind is absolutely pivotal in spiritual practice. As I described in Episode 9, the Buddha differed from many spiritual thinkers of his time in approaching karma – the law of moral causation – as being primarily a mental process. It is because of ignorance and delusion that beings engage in grasping and aversion, and thereby set the whole chain of negative causation in motion. On the other hand, when we clearly see how grasping and aversion lead to suffering, we are naturally inspired to seek a different way.
Right Resolve, or Right Intention
The second discernment, or wisdom, aspect of the Eightfold Path is right, or appropriate, resolve. This is a subtle but obviously essential aspect of the Eightfold Path. Basically, right resolve is our intention, or willingness, to move toward wisdom and liberation instead of continuing to operate with self-centered grasping and aversion. In the Maha-cattarisaka Sutta,[ix] the Buddha says wrong resolve is “being resolved on sensuality, on ill will, on harmfulness. Right resolve – that is, the resolve that will lead to calm and liberation – is resolve for renunciation, freedom from ill will, and harmlessness. Renunciation means giving up that which causes suffering, even if it brings us sensual pleasure or some other kind of personal or temporary satisfaction.
This makes sense, doesn’t it? We’ve all had the experience of “knowing” something is bad for us, but for one reason or another we’re too attached to doing it to let it go. According to Buddhism, one of our most serious attachments is to our sense of self; we identify things as “I,” “me,” or “mine,” and consequently lose much of our objectivity as we navigate the world while looking out for ourselves. There are many teachings and practices aimed at dismantling our sense of self, but unless we cultivate right resolve we won’t be inclined to do them. Instead, we stick to what we know – even when it causes suffering for self and other. I mentioned earlier that if our right view is clear and strong, we’ll be naturally inspired to let go of what causes suffering, but before that point – when we still need to strengthen and clarify our right view – we need right resolve to keep us on the path.
In the Maha-cattarisaka Sutta, the Buddha also points out that a number of aspects of the Eightfold Path are particularly interdependent. He explains how some degree of right view allows us to even discern right resolve. Then we need right effort as we attempt to abandon wrong resolve and enter right resolve. Right mindfulness, in turn, keeps us on task in our effort. Therefore, the Buddha says, “right view, right effort, and right mindfulness – run and circle around right resolve.”
The Ethical Conduct Aspects of the Eightfold Path
Now we come to the aspects of the Eightfold Path that fall in the category of virtue or ethical conduct. It’s worth pausing here for a moment to ask why the Buddha so strongly emphasized virtuous behavior. Unlike in other religions, Buddhists aren’t trying to please a deity or be reborn in heaven. In some later forms of Buddhism, particularly Mahayana forms, there was increasing emphasis put on compassion for its own sake, but in original Buddhism, frankly, the emphasis on ethical behavior was less sentimental and more practical. In the Kimattha Sutta, the Buddha explains that the reward of virtuous conduct is freedom from remorse.[x] Basically, if you observe human society, you can easily see that selfish, unethical behavior causes problems; people get hurt or upset. When we ourselves engage in selfish or unethical actions, we end up feeling sadness – or at least guilt or regret – when our behavior has caused problems.
It’s much better to be free from remorse, because that’s a prerequisite for liberation, or Nirvana. Original Buddhism is all about the ultimate goal of liberation. In the Kimattha Sutta, the Buddha explains how the purpose of freedom from remorse is joy. The purpose and reward of joy is rapture, the purpose of rapture is serenity, and so on through spiritual pleasure, concentration, knowledge and vision of things as they actually are, disenchantment, dispassion, and finally “knowledge and vision of release,”[xi] or the possibility of liberation.
Now, it might seem like original Buddhism emphasizes Nirvana over the inherent value of ethical conduct, but it’s really just a matter of which comes first, the chicken, or the egg? According to Buddhism, an enlightened person by definition has renounced attachment to what motivates selfish or unethical behavior, such as self-interest, sensuality, anger, greed, and delusion. As you approach enlightenment, you become more ethical. Those of us who are only partly enlightened need to at least go through the motions of ethical behavior, in order to have freedom from remorse and the other subsequent rewards. However, Buddhism holds that polishing your ethical behavior in and of itself does not lead to the ultimate reward of liberation. Even if our bodily and verbal actions are impeccable, there is more to be done (such as restraint of the senses, practicing mindfulness, abandoning the hindrances, deepening our meditation, and attaining insights that lead to liberation, as described in the Maha-Assapura Sutta[xii]).
Right Speech, or Right Verbal Action
The first of ethical conduct aspects of Eightfold Path is right speech – or you might say right “verbal action.” In the Magga-vibhanga Sutta on the Eightfold Path, the Buddha explains right speech is abstaining from lying, “divisive speech,” “abusive speech,” and “idle chatter.”
There are many discourses in the Pali Canon, spoken by the Buddha, that deal with right speech. One of my favorites, the Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta: To Cunda the Silversmith,[xiii] elaborates on right, or skillful, verbal action. In it, the Buddha explains how someone abandoning false speech, when called as a witness, doesn’t say he knows what he doesn’t actually know, and admits what he knows. He doesn’t tell a lie for his own sake, or anyone else’s sake, or for the “sake of any reward.” He “speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, [and] no deceiver of the world.” This makes abstaining from lying sound a little challenging, doesn’t it?
The Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta goes on to describe what it means to abandon divisive speech, and gets specific enough that you can tell people 2,500 years ago weren’t that different from people today. The Buddha explains that when someone abandons divisive speech, “What he has heard here he does not tell there” in order to create division between people. Instead, he seeks to “reconcile those who have broken apart” or “cement those who are united,” and loves and delights in concord, or harmony. In abandoning abusive speech, he “speaks words that are soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing and pleasing to people at large.” And in abandoning idle chatter, someone speaks when it is appropriate and helpful, and speaks words “worth treasuring, reasonable, circumscribed,” and “connected with the goal” of enlightenment.
Right (Bodily) Action
The next aspect of the Eightfold Path is right action – specifically, right “bodily” action. This is defined as “abstaining from taking life, abstaining from stealing, and abstaining from unchastity.” For a monastic, chastity entails complete celibacy, while for a lay person it means maintaining appropriate sexual relationships.
Once again, the Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta gives us a more detailed description of right bodily action. In abstaining from taking life, a virtuous person dwells with her “knife laid down, scrupulous, merciful, [and] compassionate for the welfare of all beings.”[xiv] When refraining from stealing, someone carefully abstains from “taking what is not [explicitly] given.” And in abstaining from “sensual misconduct,” someone doesn’t get sexually involved with anyone who is “protected by their mothers… fathers… brothers… sisters… relatives, or their Dhamma” (those protected by the Dhamma would be monks and nuns). In addition, one abstains from sex with those who have spouses, those who are the object of romantic attention from someone else, and anyone with whom sexual relations would “entail punishment” of some kind.
Clearly, right action is more subtle and positive than simple abstention from overt killing, stealing, or engaging in illicit sex. Keep in mind that the purpose of ethical conduct is freedom from remorse, and that even as you work to literally refrain from bodily and verbal misconduct, you’re also supposed to be working on purifying and liberating your mind. For example, in the Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta, after the Buddha describes how “one is made pure” through skillful bodily and verbal action, he describes how one is also made pure by skillful mental action, meaning one isn’t covetous, bears no ill will, and faces the truth instead of clinging to delusion.
Right livelihood is the last of the ethical conduct aspects of the Eightfold Path, and its inclusion in a foundational and fundamental description of the Buddhist spiritual path is deeply significant. First, it’s a sign that, despite the way early Buddhism sometimes appears to emphasize monastic life, lay practitioners have always been an important part of the tradition. Second, the inclusion of right livelihood makes it clear that there is no way to separate the mundane aspects of your life – such as how you make your living – from your Buddhist practice. In other words, no matter how otherwise holy and insightful you may be, if your livelihood entails unethical or harmful conduct, it will impact your progress on the Eightfold Path.
So, what is right livelihood, anyway? Once again, it involves abstaining from wrong livelihood. For a monastic, wrong livelihood is manipulating lay people in order to gain something for themselves, and the monastic code (see Episode 22 – How Buddhists Should Behave Part 1) contains rules against the various ways this might be done. In addition, it’s wrong livelihood for monastics to engage in soothsaying or magic (you can imagine monastics taking advantage of the devotion and respect of lay people by claiming to possess supernatural powers, which they’ll be happy to display for a little extra donation).
For lay people, or “householders,” the traditional and very specific list of five wrong livelihoods is business in weapons, human beings, meat, intoxicants, or poison.[xv] This list may seem somewhat unfair, with the exception of trafficking in human beings or poison; after all, it’s difficult to imagine a world with no warfare or need for weapons, or where no one eats meat or drinks alcohol. Someone will need to make their living doing business in these areas, right? It’s important to keep in mind that, while from the beginning Buddhism was open to anyone who wanted to practice it, it was not formulated as an “equal opportunity” venture. Buddhist practice required dedication and renunciation, and it was not implied that everyone was obligated to do it, or do it in a “no-holds-barred” kind of way. A lay Buddhist could make a choice between a sticking with a questionable form of livelihood, or making whatever sacrifices were necessary to engage in right livelihood in order make better progress on their spiritual path.
The Maha-cattarisaka Sutta,[xvi] gives a subtler description of right livelihood that may be more useful for modern practitioners, defining it as any livelihood that abstains from “scheming, persuading, hinting, belittling, and pursuing gain with gain.” To me, this suggests that any livelihood is potentially problematic if it involves lying to or manipulating people in order to get more donations (as a monastic) or make more profit (as a lay person).
As for “pursuing gain with gain” as wrong livelihood, far as I can tell this could be also described as “wheeling and dealing” – that is, trying to multiply your material assets through cleverness, or strategic management, investment, or currying favor through gift giving. In this modern era of rampant capitalism, this seems to describe the basic premise of many livelihoods, but it may be the obsession with profit itself that is the primary concern of Buddhism when it comes to wrong livelihood. According to a passage from the Abhidhamma section of the Pali Canon, “seeking gain with gain” is when, “One who depends on gain, honour and fame, who has bad wishes, who is troubled by wishes, takes there material things received here; [and] brings here material things received there” (presumably, making a profit based on offering things where they are in short supply). In addition, the passage says, “seeking gain with gain” involves the “act of wishing, act of seeking, act of continuous seeking for material things.”[xvii]
We now come to the three aspects of the Eightfold Path that come under the category “mental discipline.” The first of these is right effort, which is arousing and applying your energy, determination, and willpower in your Buddhist practice. As mentioned earlier, right effort has to be informed by right view and right resolve, or intention – but without right effort, your practice would go nowhere. No matter what insights or intentions you have, if you don’t actually act on them or seek to deepen or strengthen them, it won’t do you or anyone else much good.
Specifically, the Buddha explained that right effort involves generating desire for liberation, endeavoring in your practice, activating your persistence, and upholding and exerting your “intent,” or resolve. You aim this effort at four outcomes: 1) preventing the arising of “evil, unskillful qualities” that haven’t yet arisen in you; 2) abandoning the “evil, unskillful qualities” that have already arisen in you; 3) encouraging the arising of skillful qualities that haven’t yet arisen in you, and 4) maintaining, increasing, developing, and culminating the skillful qualities that have already arisen in you.[xviii] Wherever you fall short in your practice of the other aspects of the Eightfold Path, then, you apply right effort to improve. And wherever you’re already somewhat successful in your practice, you apply right effort in order to strengthen and deepen your understanding and manifestation.
This brings us to right mindfulness. Mindfulness is a term that’s become rather widespread in the west recently, referring to a secular practice that includes some meditation, cultivating non-judgmental awareness, and yoga. In a Buddhist context, mindfulness is more specific, although it can be a little hard to define. “Mindfulness” is a translation of the Pali word sati, and it’s one of many mental faculties we’re asked to cultivate and use in our Buddhist practice. Mindfulness is our ability to direct our minds – to pay attention to what’s going on, to keep an object or intention “in mind,” to keep track of causal connections. Right mindfulness is when we direct our minds toward what relieves suffering, increases wisdom, and leads to liberation. It’s certainly possible to practice wrong mindfulness instead – such directing our minds toward the things we desire, scheming against others, or dwelling obsessively on our worries and neuroses.
Mindfulness is closely connected to the faculty of concentration, which we’ll get to next, but it’s subtly different. Concentration is the ability hold your mind on a particular object, subject, or task, focusing all of your attention and energy in one place. Mindfulness comes first, when we regain our presence of mind after a period of distraction, recall our right resolve, and then direct our mind in beneficial way. Our choice of where to direct our mind is based in right view and right resolve, and we’ll probably also need some right effort to make the redirection actually happen.
The Buddha gave detailed instructions about beneficial ways to direct your mind if you want to practice the Eightfold Path. In the Magga-vibhanga Sutta,[xix] he describes four kinds of right mindfulness. First, you remain focused on the body “in and of itself,” while ardent, aware, and mindful. While practicing in this way, you direct your mind toward your direct bodily experience, rather than thinking about the body, or “observing” the body as if it was something separate from you. This is what is meant by focusing on the body “in and of itself.” I don’t have time to explain why here, but this basic kind of mindfulness is grounding and transformative. It’s described first because it’s the simplest, and is the best place to start in your cultivation of mindfulness.
The second kind of right mindfulness is directing the mind toward feelings “in and of themselves.” In Buddhism, feelings aren’t complex emotions, but very basic experiences of attraction, aversion, or indifference. So, when we’re mindful of our feelings, we direct our mind toward our positive, negative, and neutral reactions to things. Again, the focus is feelings “in and of themselves;” we pay attention to our reactions without adding anything to them, or getting caught in a further cycle of reactivity as we typically would (that is, when we grasp after things we like, or try to avoid things we dislike).
After getting familiar with feelings, we practice the third kind of mindfulness, which involves directing our mind toward the mind “in and of itself.” This is very challenging. We’re usually very identified with the mind, or what we think, feel, believe, desire, etc. When we cultivate mindfulness of the mind, we learn to reflect on and observe our mind states in a more objective way. For example, when our mind is scattered, we notice our mind is scattered. When it’s concentrated, we notice that. When we’re full of desire, we notice that. In essence, this is practicing the kind of self-awareness that’s required for progress on the Eightfold Path.
Finally, the Buddha said to practice mindfulness of what’s often translated as “mental qualities” or “mental objects.” According to the Satipatthana Sutta: Foundations of Mindfulness,[xx] these objects recommended for mindfulness include the five hindrances (sense-desire, anger, sloth, agitation, and doubt); the five aspects of experience we tend to cling to, or five aggregates (form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness); the seven factors of enlightenment (such as energy, joy, tranquility, and concentration), and the Four Noble Truths. I’m honestly not sure why the objects of mindfulness in this last category are called “mental qualities” or “objects;” I’d describe them as “experiential phenomena, the contemplation of which leads to insight and liberation.”
Right Concentration, or Right Meditation
The final aspect of the Eightfold Path, right concentration, may be the aspect Buddhism is most identified with in the popular imagination. Maybe that’s because it’s the one aspect of the Eightfold Path that doesn’t have a straightforward corollary in other major world religion. Regardless of your religious or spiritual background, you probably relate to the importance of correct understanding, appropriate intention, ethical conduct, and diligent effort. Maybe the Buddhist emphasis on mindfulness doesn’t have much of a corollary in other religions, either, but at least the secular mindfulness movement is introducing the term and some of the ideas to non-Buddhists.
On the other hand, concentration, which in the context of the Eightfold Path really refers to meditation, is something foreign to most people. The Buddha describes four levels of meditation in the Magga-vibhanga Sutta. The first level is being practiced when someone sits, “withdrawn from sensuality” and “unskillful (mental) qualities,” and then “enters and remains in the first jhana,” or level of meditation, which is characterized by “rapture and pleasure born from withdrawal.”[xxi] This state, the Buddha says, is “accompanied by directed thought and evaluation.” In the second level of meditation, directed thoughts and evaluation drop away, and someone experiences rapture and pleasure arising from concentration and gains “internal assurance.” In the third, rapture falls away and the meditator abides pleasantly in equanimity. In the fourth, the meditator abandons both pleasure and pain and attains the “purity of equanimity and mindfulness.”
I don’t have time to summarize, here, the whole practice and purpose of Buddhist meditation, but suffice to say that meditation is critical to cultivating right view, which is the first aspect of the Eightfold Path and essential to practicing the rest of the path. The experience and insight gained from deep meditation is entirely unlike our ordinary understanding of things, which is intellectual. The reality to which Buddhas awaken – that which liberates and enlightens them, and is called right view – can only be experienced directly, non-intellectually. Through years of diligent practice, it’s possible settle the mind and let go of the many concepts that usually form a filter over our direct experience of life. Then we perceive, experientially, the truths the Buddha pointed us toward, such as the reality of dukkha – stress or dissatisfactoriness – and the possibility of freedom from dukkha.
Most forms of Buddhism acknowledge the value of developing a practice of meditation and exploring its possibilities for ourselves. That isn’t to say that the rewards of Buddhist practice are inaccessible to us unless we manage to enter into the kinds of profound meditative absorption the Buddha described in the Magga-vibhanga Sutta. Fortunately, even if we’re not the greatest meditators, we still experience some degree of insight and transformation if we stick with the practice.
Each aspect of the Eightfold Path supports all the others, and also opens up into a broader subject associated with its own teachings and practices. Earlier, I suggested approaching Buddhist teachings as if they were views through a kaleidoscope – composed of fundamental pieces, but arranged in a host of different patterns. Another way to look at Buddhism is to think of it as being three dimensional, while any particular teaching is a two-dimensional representation of a particular view, from a particular position. Once you get really absorbed in the reality behind the teaching, you may find yourself taken in any direction! This is why, despite the fact that the Buddha offered the relatively neat and concise teaching of the Noble Eightfold Path from the beginning, it has never served as an independent and authoritative dogma that makes the rest of Buddhist teaching irrelevant.
[i] “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion” (SN 56.11), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.than.html.
[iii] “Avijja Sutta: Ignorance” (SN 45.1), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn45/sn45.001.than.html.
[iv] “Culavedalla Sutta: The Shorter Set of Questions-and-Answers” (MN 44), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.044.than.html.
[v] Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught. New York, NY: Grove Press, 1974.
[vi] “Magga-vibhanga Sutta: An Analysis of the Path” (SN 45.8), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn45/sn45.008.than.html.
[vii] “Sammaditthi Sutta: The Discourse on Right View” (MN 9), translated from the Pali by Ñanamoli Thera & Bhikkhu Bodhi. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.009.ntbb.html.
[viii] “Maha-cattarisaka Sutta: The Great Forty” (MN 117), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.117.than.html.
[x] “Kimattha Sutta: What is the Purpose?” (AN 11.1), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an11/an11.001.than.html.
[xii] “Maha-Assapura Sutta: The Greater Discourse at Assapura” (MN 39), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.039.than.html.
[xiii] “Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta: To Cunda the Silversmith” (AN 10.176), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an10/an10.176.than.html.
[xv] “Vanijja Sutta: Business (Wrong Livelihood)” (AN 5.177), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 3 July 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an05/an05.177.than.html.
[xvi] “Maha-cattarisaka Sutta: The Great Forty” (MN 117), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.117.than.html.
[xvii] The Book of Analysis, 17.10.1 (Singlefold Exposition), https://suttacentral.net/en/vb17
[xviii] “Magga-vibhanga Sutta: An Analysis of the Path” (SN 45.8), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn45/sn45.008.than.html.
[xx] “The Foundations of Mindfulness: Satipatthana Sutta”, translated by Nyanasatta Thera. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nyanasatta/wheel019.html.
[xxi] “Magga-vibhanga Sutta: An Analysis of the Path” (SN 45.8), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn45/sn45.008.than.html.