THE WAY TO THE END OF SUFFERING: The Noble Eightfold Path
by Philip L. Jones
Whether we think that we're practicing to manage our stress, to alleviate our suffering or to become enlightened, the Four Noble Truths provide a context for our practice. As noted previously, the Four Truths are:
There is suffering.
There is a cause of suffering.
There is freedom from suffering.
There is a way to the end of suffering.
The fourth Truth -- the way to an end of suffering -- presents a model for how we move from suffering to awareness of the cause of suffering to freedom from suffering. The model that the Buddha most frequently used to describe this way to freedom is the Noble Eightfold Path. The eight steps in this model of the path are:
1. Right View
2. Right Intention
3. Right Speech
4. Right Action
5. Right Livelihood
6. Right Effort
7. Right Mindfulness
8. Right Concentration.
Although the Eightfold Path is presented linearly, it actually functions in a non-linear way. To some degree the path circles back on itself. The different steps on the path lead to a deepening of Right View, which then leads to a deepening of the other path factors, which then leads to a further deepening of Right View, etc. But in reality even this is not exactly it. All of the factors interact to support and deepen the others until the path brings one to the edge of freedom.
Traditionally, the Eightfold Path is often presented in terms of three groups:
Virtue or Ethical Behavior, often referred to by the Pali word Sila
Cultivation of the Mind, the Concentration grouping, referred to by the Pali word Samadhi
Development of Wisdom, referred to by the Pali word Panna.
This group is composed of the steps:
Right Action, and
The essence of this grouping is the practice of non-harming in our interactions with the world. Another way in which Sila is presented is in terms of The Five Precepts. Right Action and Right Livelihood would encompass the precepts of: 1. not taking life and cultivating lovingkindness or friendliness to all forms of life; 2. not taking what hasn't been given, and cultivating generosity; and 3. not engaging in sexual behaviors that are harmful to others, or oneself, and respecting relationship boundaries. Right Speech, a separate precept, refers to not engaging in speech that is harmful to self or others. It includes recognizing the ways that we use speech to deflect or avoid experiencing the discomfort of our own lives. The Fifth Precept -- not using substances that cloud the mind and cause heedlessness -- underlies the other four. Anytime we break this precept we increase the chances of breaking at least one of the others and causing harm to others as well as ourselves.
Sila is an essential foundation of the practice. It weakens the bonds of greed, hatred and ignorance. This weakening allows the mind to become more settled and prepares the way for the next grouping on the path: cultivating the mind. Yet, sila is also an expression of advanced practice as it is a manifestation of wisdom in the form of compassion for all living beings.
Concentration, or Cultivation of the Mind
This is the grouping of Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. These are the factors of mind that we cultivate when we do formal meditation practice and when we bring mindfulness into our daily lives.
Right Effort involves bringing skillful energy/effort to the practice. Skillful effort being the kind that leads to freedom from suffering for oneself and others. Another way of describing this is that skillful effort involves the effort to recognize when skillful qualities of mind are present and to cultivate them while also recognizing when unskillful qualities of mind are present and to let go of them. Skillful qualities of mind include generosity, lovingkindness, compassion, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom. Unskillful qualities of mind include greed for sensual pleasures, hatred of and aversion towards experiences that come into our lives, and the failure to recognize the true nature of our experiences. The primary way that these forms of skillful effort are maintained is through the application of the next steps on the path, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, Right View and Right Intention.
Right Mindfulness involves the investigation of our human experience so that we can see and deeply experience what is true in our lives in each moment. Mindfulness allows us to see when suffering is present and when it is not. It allows us to see when there is clinging or resistance. The form that is used in this investigation is the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, which have been introduced elsewhere on this site. These practices involve bringing bare attention to different facets of our experience that arise into awareness from moment to moment. Bare attention is attention free from judgment, decision-making and commentary. Mindfulness allows us to see the nature of our experience, but it relies on concentration to focus our bare attention on specific objects of attention.
Right Concentration involves focusing our attention, but using this focused attention in ways that lead to freedom from suffering. We cultivate concentration by bringing the attention back to an object of awareness, such as the sensations of breathing, each time the attention drifts away. This helps to develop a one-pointed or highly-focused quality of attention. When we are able to hold an object through the use of this one-pointed focus, we are then able to investigate it with mindfulness.
Right Concentration is often presented in terms of the deep levels of concentration that can be developed during intensive meditation retreats. These experiences involve the attention being highly focused, or absorbed, in the object of meditation and can lead to alternative states of consciousness. But there is a natural deepening of concentration that also occurs as we bring sila, mindfulness and right effort to our experience. The more we are simply able to be with our experience, the less need there is to distract oneself. When the mind is less distracted, less agitated, the more naturally concentrated it is.
The combination of Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration allows us to see more clearly what is true in our experience. This creates the condition for Wisdom to arise.
Panna, or Wisdom
The Wisdom group includes the steps of Right View and Right Intention. Right View has to do with the perspective or understanding that we bring to our experience, to our lives. Our view provides the context or framework for our actions. Ultimately Right View involves realizing for ourselves the Four Noble Truths. Right Intention is the intention to act in ways that lead to freedom from suffering for oneself and others.
The path begins with Wisdom and ends with Wisdom. We begin with some recognition that our lives are unsatisfactory the way that they are. We also begin with the sense that it will be helpful to look inside and enter into silence while exploring our own experience. We engage in reading and study, which provides us with some of the ability to guide ourselves in this practice. It provides us with questions to investigate through the examination of our minds and actions. Study also involves reflecting on the nature of our experience and on what leads to suffering and what to freedom from suffering. And as we cultivate sila and the mind, insights and Wisdom (non-cognitive understandings) naturally arise.
Insights involve seeing what is true in our lives. At some points this involves recognizing the sensations in our bodies, the emotions that we are experiencing in our bodies and minds and the thoughts going through our minds. At the deepest level, we come to see for ourselves that everything is impermanence, that life is just process. From this understanding of impermanence we experience and see that all "things" are unsatisfactory as a source of refuge because they do not endure. And we come to see that ultimately everything is empty of an independent enduring nature, that there are no enduring things including a self. We come to see that life is simply a conditioned, highly interconnected process that evolves in ways that we can't even begin to imagine. We come to see that we are not separate from this process. We come to embrace and trust the mystery of life as it unfolds from moment to moment. As we trust and rest in this unfoldment -- whether for a moment or for a longer period of time -- we taste freedom, peace and compassion for the world.
In the end it all comes down to one's own practice. One can be told about the path, but until one does the practice and discovers for oneself what is true, it is all just ideas. Would you rather eat a menu, or the meal that the menu describes?
Do the practice. Follow the Eightfold Path. Enjoy the feast!