The Noble Eightfold Path (Pali: ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo, Sanskrit: āryāṣṭāṅgamārga) is one of the principal teachings ofŚrāvakayāna. It is also known as the Middle Path or Middle Way. Its goal is Arhatship. The Noble Eightfold Path is contrasted with the Bodhisattva path of Mahayana which culminates in Buddhahood.
Also called the Eightfold Path of the Nobles, eight concepts constitute the path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right samadhi.
The Noble Eightfold Path is the fourth of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, and asserts the path to the cessation of dukkha (suffering, pain, unsatisfactoriness). The path teaches that through restraining oneself, cultivating discipline, practicing mindfulness and meditation, the enlightened ones stop their craving, clinging and karmic accumulations, and thus end their rebirth and suffering.It is used to develop insight into the true nature of reality, achieve liberation from rebirths in realms of Samsara, and attain nirvana(nibbana).
In Buddhist symbolism, the Noble Eightfold Path is often represented by means of the dharma wheel (dharmachakra), whose eight spokes represent the eight elements of the path.
The Noble Eightfold Path is sometimes divided into three basic divisions, as follows:
The Right View can be further subdivided, states Bhikkhu Bodhi, into Mundane Right View and Superior or Supramundane Right View.
This presentation is called the “Three Higher Trainings” in Mahāyāna Buddhism: higher moral discipline, higher concentration and higher wisdom. “Higher” here refers to the fact that these trainings that lead to liberation and enlightenment are engaged in with the motivation of renunciation and bodhicitta.
Wisdom group: paths 1 and 2
“Wisdom” (prajñā / paññā) group consists of the first two paths: right view and right resolve.
Right view (samyak-dṛṣṭi / sammā-diṭṭhi) is the first of the eightfold path, and it relates to right view about karma and rebirth, and a belief in the importance of the Four Noble Truths and the True Realities. There are two types of right view:
- Mundane right view. Having this type of view will bring merit and will support the favourable rebirth of the sentient being in the realm of samsara.
- Supramundane (world-transcending) right view. Four Noble Truths lead to awakening and liberation from rebirths and associated dukkha in the realms of samsara.
The Majjhima Nikaya, a Pāli Canonical text, in section III.71, presents the Mundane Right View:
Of those [Eightfold Path], right view is the forerunner. And how is right view the forerunner? One discerns wrong view as wrong view, and right view as right view. This is one’s right view. And what is wrong view? ‘There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed. There is no fruit or result of good or bad actions. There is no this world, no next world, no mother, no father, no spontaneously reborn beings; no contemplatives or brahmans who, faring rightly & practicing rightly, proclaim this world & the next after having directly known & realized it for themselves.’ This is wrong view.
And what is the right view with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions? ‘There is what is given, what is offered, what is sacrificed.[note 2] There are fruits, and results of good and bad actions. There is this world and the next world. There is mother and father. There are spontaneously reborn beings; there are contemplatives and brahmans who faring rightly and practicing rightly, proclaim this world and the next after having directly known and realized it for themselves.’ This is the right view with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions.
Elsewhere, the Pali texts assert the Supramundane Right View, which is the understanding of karmic and rebirth implications within the Four Noble Truths, such as in Majjhima Nikaya III.248 and Samyutta Nikaya II.5.
Right view has many facets; its elementary form is suitable for lay followers, while the other form, which requires deeper understanding, is suitable for monastics. Usually, it involves accepting the following doctrines of Buddhism:
- Karma: Every action of body, speech, and mind has karmic results, and influences the kind of future rebirths and realms a being enters into.
- Three marks of existence: everything, whether physical or mental, is impermanent (anicca), a source of suffering (dukkha), and lacks a self (anatta).
- The Four Noble Truths are a means to gaining insights and ending dukkha.
Right view for monastics is also described in the Sammādiṭṭhi Sutta (“Right View Discourse”), in which Sariputta instructs that right view can alternately be attained by the thorough understanding of the unwholesome and the wholesome, the four nutriments, the twelve nidanas or the three taints. “Wrong view” arising from ignorance (avijja), is the precondition for wrong resolve, wrong speech, wrong action, wrong livelihood, wrong effort, wrong mindfulness and wrong concentration. The practitioner should use right effort to abandon the wrong view and to enter into right view. Right mindfulness is used to constantly remain in right view.
The purpose of right view is to clear one’s path from confusion, misunderstanding, and deluded thinking. It is a means to gain right understanding of reality. Right view in some interpretations, state Chryssides and Wilkins, is ultimately non-view, as the enlightened become aware that nothing can be expressed in fixed conceptual terms and rigid, dogmatic clinging to concepts is discarded.
Right resolve (samyak-saṃkalpa / sammā sankappa) can also be known as “right thought”, “right intention”, or “right aspiration”. In this factor, the practitioner resolves to leave home, renounce the worldly life and dedicate himself to a spiritual pursuit. In section III.248, the Majjhima Nikaya states,
And what is right resolve? Being resolved on renunciation, on freedom from ill will, on harmlessness: This is called right resolve.
Like right view, this factor has two levels. At the mundane level, the resolve includes being harmless (ahimsa) and refraining from ill will (avyabadha) to any being, as this accrues karma and leads to rebirth. At the supramundane level, the factor includes a resolve to consider everything and everyone as impermanent, a source of suffering and without a Self.
Moral virtues group: paths 3, 4 and 5
“Moral virtues” (Sanskrit: śīla, Pāli: sīla) group consists of three paths: right speech, right action and right livelihood. The word śīla though translated by English writers as linked to “morals or ethics”, states Bhikkhu Bodhi, is in ancient and medieval Buddhist commentary tradition closer to the concept of discipline and disposition that “leads to harmony at several levels – social, psychological, karmic and contemplative”. Such harmony creates an environment to pursue the meditative steps in the Noble Eightfold Path by reducing social disorder, preventing inner conflict that result from transgressions, favoring future karma-triggered movement through better rebirths, and purifying the mind.
Right speech (samyag-vāc / sammā-vācā) in most Buddhist texts is presented as four abstentions, such as in the Pali Canon thus:
And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter: This is called right speech.
Instead of the usual “abstention and refraining from wrong” terminology, a few texts such as the Samaññaphala Sutta and Kevata Sutta in Digha Nikaya explain this virtue in an active sense, after stating it in the form of an abstention. For example, Samaññaphala Sutta states that a part of a monk’s virtue is that “he abstains from false speech. He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world.” Similarly, the virtue of abstaining from divisive speech is explained as delighting in creating concord. The virtue of abstaining from abusive speech is explained in this Sutta to include affectionate and polite speech that is pleasing to people. The virtue of abstaining from idle chatter is explained as speaking what is connected with the Dhamma goal of his liberation.
In the Abhaya-raja-kumara Sutta, the Buddha explains the virtue of right speech in different scenarios, based on its truth value, utility value and emotive content. TheTathagata, states Abhaya Sutta, never speaks anything that is unfactual or factual, untrue or true, disagreeable or agreeable, if that is unbeneficial and unconnected to his goals. Further, adds Abhaya Sutta, the Tathagata speaks the factual, the true, if in case it is disagreeable and unendearing, only if it is beneficial to his goals, but with a sense of proper time. Additionally, adds Abhaya Sutta, the Tathagata, only speaks with a sense of proper time even when what he speaks is the factual, the true, the agreeable, the endearing and what is beneficial to his goals.
The Buddha thus explains right speech in the Pali Canon, according to Ganeri, as never speaking something that is not beneficial; and, only speaking what is true and beneficial, “when the circumstances are right, whether they are welcome or not”.
Right action (samyak-karmānta / sammā-kammanta) is like right speech, expressed as abstentions but in terms of bodily action. In the Pali Canon, this path factor is stated as:
And what is right action? Abstaining from killing, abstaining from stealing, abstaining from sexual misconduct. This is called right action.
The prohibition on killing precept in Buddhist scriptures applies to all living beings, states Christopher Gowans, not just human beings. Bhikkhu Bodhi agrees, clarifying that the more accurate rendering of the Pali canon is a prohibition on “taking life of any sentient being”, which includes human beings, animals, birds, insects but excludes plants because they are not considered sentient beings. Further, adds Bodhi, this precepts refers to intentional killing, as well as any form of intentional harming or torturing any sentient being. This moral virtue in early Buddhist texts, both in context of harm or killing of animals and human beings, is similar to ahimsa precepts found in the texts particularly of Jainism as well as of Hinduism, and has been a subject of significant debate in various Buddhist traditions.
The prohibition on stealing in the Pali Canon is an abstention from intentionally taking what is not voluntarily offered by the person to whom that property belongs. This includes, states Bhikkhu Bodhi, taking by stealth, by force, by fraud or by deceit. Both the intention and the act matters, as this precept is grounded on the impact on one’s karma.
The prohibition on sexual misconduct in the Noble Eightfold Path, states Tilmann Vetter, refers to “not performing sexual acts”. This virtue is more generically explained in theCunda Kammaraputta Sutta, which teaches that one must abstain from all sensual misconduct, including getting sexually involved with someone unmarried (anyone protected by parents or by guardians or by siblings), and someone married (protected by husband), and someone betrothed to another person, and female convicts or by dhamma.
For monastics, the abstention from sensual misconduct means strict celibacy, states Christopher Gowans, while for lay Buddhists this prohibits adultery as well as other forms of sensual misconduct. Later Buddhist texts, states Bhikkhu Bodhi, state that the prohibition on sexual conduct for lay Buddhists includes any sexual involvement with someone married, a girl or woman protected by her parents or relatives, and someone prohibited by dhamma conventions (such as relatives, nuns and others).
Right livelihood (samyag-ājīva / sammā-ājīva) precept is mentioned in many early Buddhist texts, such as the Mahācattārīsaka Sutta in Majjhima Nikaya as follows:
“And what is right livelihood? Right livelihood, I tell you, is of two sorts: There is right livelihood with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions; there is right livelihood that is noble, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path.
“And what is the right livelihood with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions? There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones abandons wrong livelihood and maintains his life with right livelihood. This is the right livelihood with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions.
“And what is the right livelihood that is noble, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path? The abstaining, desisting, abstinence, avoidance of wrong livelihood in one developing the noble path whose mind is noble, whose mind is without effluents, who is fully possessed of the noble path. (…)
The early canonical texts state right livelihood as avoiding and abstaining from wrong livelihood. This virtue is further explained in Buddhist texts, states Vetter, as “living from begging, but not accepting everything and not possessing more than is strictly necessary”. For lay Buddhists, states Harvey, this precept requires that the livelihood avoid causing suffering to sentient beings by cheating them, or harming or killing them in any way.
The Anguttara Nikaya III.208, states Harvey, asserts that the right livelihood does not trade in weapons, living beings, meat, alcoholic drink or poison. The same text, in section V.177, asserts that this applies to lay Buddhists. This has meant, states Harvey, that raising and trading cattle livestock for slaughter is a breach of “right livelihood” precept in the Buddhist tradition, and Buddhist countries lack the mass slaughter houses found in Western countries.
Meditation group: paths 6, 7 and 8
The meditation group (“samadhi”) of the path progresses from moral restraints to training the mind. The goal in this group of the Noble Eightfold Path is to develop clarity and insight into the nature of reality – dukkha, anicca and anatta, discard negative states and dispel avidya, ultimately attaining nirvana.
Right effort (samyag-vyāyāma / sammā-vāyāma) is presented in the Pali Canon, such as the Sacca-vibhanga Sutta as follows:
And what is right effort?
Here the monk arouses his will, puts forth effort, generates energy, exerts his mind, and strives to prevent the arising of evil and unwholesome mental states that have not yet arisen.
He arouses his will… and strives to eliminate evil and unwholesome mental states that have already arisen. He arouses his will… and strives to generate wholesome mental state that have not yet arisen.
He arouses his will, puts forth effort, generates energy, exerts his mind, and strives to maintain wholesome mental states that have already arisen, to keep them free of delusion, to develop, increase, cultivate, and perfect them.
This is called right effort.
The unwholesome states (akusala) are described in the Buddhist texts, as those relating to thoughts, emotions, intentions, and these include pancanivarana (five hindrances) – sensual thoughts, doubts about the path, restlessness, drowsiness, and ill will of any kind. Of these, the Buddhist traditions consider sensual thoughts and ill will needing more right effort. Sensual desire that must be eliminated by effort includes anything related to sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch. Ill will that must be eliminated by effort includes any form of aversion including hatred, anger, resentment towards anything or anyone.
Right mindfulness (samyak-smṛti / sammā-sati) in the Sacca-vibhanga Sutta is explained as follows:
And what is right mindfulness?
Here the monk remains contemplating the body as body, resolute, aware and mindful, having put aside worldly desire and sadness;
he remains contemplating feelings as feelings;
he remains contemplating mental states as mental states;
he remains contemplating mental objects as mental objects, resolute, aware and mindful, having put aside worldly desire and sadness;
This is called right mindfulness.
This factor in the Noble Eightfold Path teaches the monk to cultivate complete and constant awareness of the nature of reality as impermanent, suffering and without self. The most detailed discussion of the right mindfulness in the Pali Canon is in the Satipatthana Sutta, where the emphasis is to consider the “four contemplations” – body, feelings, mind and phenomena – as just that and nothing more, and not ascribe to them any substantiality, nor self.[note 3]
These “four contemplations” through right mindfulness lead to the insight of the three characteristics of existence – anicca, dukkha and anatta, and cover the five skandhas(aggregates, heaps).
Right concentration (samyak-samādhi / sammā-samādhi) is also referred to as right samadhi. Neither the Four Noble Truths nor the Noble Eightfold Path discourse, states Johannes Bronkhorst, provide details of right concentration (samadhi). The explanation is to be found in the Canonical texts of Buddhism, in several Suttas, such as the following in Saccavibhanga Sutta:
And what is right concentration?
[i] Here, the monk, detached from sense-desires, detached from unwholesome states, enters and remains in the first jhana (level of concentration, Sanskrit: dhyana), in which there is applied and sustained thinking, together with joy and pleasure born of detachment;
[ii] And through the subsiding of applied and sustained thinking, with the gaining of inner stillness and oneness of mind, he enters and remains in the second jhana, which is without applied and sustained thinking, and in which there are joy and pleasure born of concentration;
[iii] And through the fading of joy, he remains equanimous, mindful and aware, and he experiences in his body the pleasure of which the Noble Ones say: “equanimous, mindful and dwelling in pleasure”, and thus he enters and remains in the third jhana;
[iv] And through the giving up of pleasure and pain, and through the previous disappearance of happiness and sadness, he enters and remains in the fourth jhana, which is without pleasure and pain, and in which there is pure equanimity and mindfulness.
This is called right concentration.
According to Bhikkhu Bodhi, the right concentration factor is reaching a one-pointedness of mind and unifying all mental factors, but it is not the same as “a gourmet sitting down to a meal, or a soldier on the battlefield” who also experience one-pointed concentration. The difference is that the latter have a one-pointed object in focus with complete awareness directed to that object – the meal or the target, respectively. In contrast, right concentration meditative factor in Buddhism is a state of awareness without any object or subject, and ultimately unto nothingness and emptiness.
Some scholars, such as Bronkhorst, question the historicity and chronology of these details. Bronkhorst states that this path may be similar to what Buddha taught, but the details and form of right concentration in particular, and possibly other factors, is likely of later scholasticism. Bronkhorst states this is likely because Buddha could not have assumed the third stage of jhana, which includes “Noble Ones say”, since he is considered to be the first to reach the samadhi and enlightened state of nirvana, then turning the wheel of dhamma. It is likely that later Buddhist scholars incorporated this, then attributed the details and the path, particularly the insights at the time of liberation, to have been discovered by the Buddha.