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The Noble Eightfold Path — The Middle Way

This is the Path for leading a pure religious life without going to extremes

AN outstanding aspect of the Buddha’s Teaching is the Eightfold Path, which is to be adopted as a noble way of life. Another name for the Eightfold Path is the Middle Path. The Buddha advised His followers to follow this Path so as to avoid the extremes of sensual pleasures and self-mortification. The Middle Path is a righteous way of life that does not advocate the acceptance of decrees given by someone outside oneself. A person practises the Middle Path, the guide for moral conduct, not out of fear of any supernatural agency, but out of recognising the intrinsic value in following such an action. He or she chooses this self-imposed discipline with a definite end in view: self-purification.

The Middle Path is a planned course of inward culture and progress. A person can make real progress in righteousness and insight by following this Path even without engaging in external worship and prayers. According to the Buddha, anyone who lives in accordance with the Dharma will be guided and protected by that very universal Law. When a person lives according to Dharma, he or she will also be living in harmony with the universal law.

Every Buddhist is encouraged to mould his or her life according to the Noble Eightfold Path as taught by the Buddha. One who adjusts one’s life according to this noble way of living will be free from miseries and calamities both in this life-time and hereafter. One will also be able to develop the mind by restraining from evil and observing morality.

The Eightfold Path can be compared to a road map. Just as a traveller will need a map to reach a destination, we all need the Eightfold Path which shows us how to attain Nirvana, the final goal of human life. To attain the final goal, there are three aspects of the Eightfold Path to be developed by the devotee. One has to develop Sila (Morality), Samadhi (Mental Culture) and Panna (Wisdom). While the three must be developed simultaneously, the intensity with which any one area is to be practised varies according to a person’s own spiritual development. A devotee must first develop morality, that is, his or her actions should bring good to other living beings. One does this by faithfully adhering to the precepts of abstaining from killing, slandering, stealing, becoming intoxicated or being lustful. As one develops one’s morality, the mind will become more easily controlled, enabling one to develop one’s powers of concentration. Finally, with the development of concentration, wisdom will arise.

Gradual Development

With His infinite wisdom, the Buddha knew that not all humans have the same ability to reach spiritual maturity at once. So He expounded the Noble Eightfold Path for the gradual development of the spiritual way of life in a practical way. He knew that not all people can become perfect in one lifetime. He said that Sila, Samadhi, and Panna, must and can be developed over many lifetimes with diligent effort. This Path finally leads to the attainment of ultimate peace where there is no more unsatisfactoriness.

Righteous Life

The Eightfold Path consists of the following eight factors:

Right Speech Morality (sila)
Right Action
Right Livelihood
Right Effort Mental culture (samadhi)
Right Mindfulness
Right Concentration
Right Understanding Wisdom (panna)
Right Thoughts

What is Right Understanding? It is explained as having the knowledge of the Four Noble Truths. In other words, it is the understanding of things as they really are. Right Understanding also means that one understands the nature of what are wholesome karma (merits) and unwholesome karma (demerits)1 , and how they may be performed with the body, speech and mind. By understanding karma, a person will learn to avoid evil and do good, thereby creating favourable outcomes in life. When a person has Right Understanding, he or she also understands the Three Characteristics of Life (that all compounded things are transient, subject to suffering, and without a Self) and understands the Law of Dependent Origination. A person with complete Right Understanding is one who is free from ignorance, and by the nature of that enlightenment removes the roots of evil from the mind and becomes liberated. The lofty aim of a practising Buddhist is to develop the mind to gain Right Understanding about the self, life and all phenomena.

When a person has Right Understanding, he or she develops Right Thought as well. This factor is sometimes known as ‘Right Resolution’, ‘Right Aspirations’ and ‘Right Ideas’. It refers to the mental state which eliminates wrong ideas or notions and promotes the other moral factors to be directed to Nirvana. This factor serves a double purpose of eliminating evil thoughts and developing pure thoughts. Right Thought is important because it is one’s thoughts which either purify or defile the mind.

There are three aspects to Right Thought. First, a person should maintain an attitude of detachment from worldly pleasures rather than being selfishly attached to them. One should be selfless and think of the welfare of others. Second, the person should maintain loving-kindness, goodwill and benevolence in the mind, which is opposed to hatred, ill-will or aversion. Third, one should act with thoughts of harmlessness or compassion to all beings, which is opposed to cruelty and lack of consideration for others. As a person progresses along the spiritual path, one’s thoughts will become increasingly benevolent, harmless, selfless, and filled with love and compassion.

Right Understanding and Right Thought, which are Wisdom factors, will lead to good, moral conduct. There are three factors under moral conduct: Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. Right Speech involves respect for truth and respect for the welfare for others. It means to avoid lying, to avoid back biting or slander, to avoid harsh speech, and to avoid idle talk. We have often underestimated the power of speech and tend to use little control over our speech faculty. But we have all been hurt by someone’s words at some time of our lives, and similarly we have been encouraged by the words of another. It is said that a harsh word can wound more deeply than weapons, whereas a gentle word can change the heart and mind of the most hardened criminal. So to develop a harmonious society, we should control, cultivate and use our speech positively. We speak words which are truthful, bring harmony, and are kind and meaningful. The Buddha once said ‘pleasant speech is sweet as honey, truthful speech is beautiful like a flower, and wrong speech is unwholesome like filth’.

The next factor under good, moral conduct is Right Action. Right Action entails respect for life, respect for property, and respect for personal relationships. It corresponds to the first three of the Five Precepts to be practised by every Buddhist, that is, abstinence from killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. Life is dear to all, and all tremble at punishment, all fear death and value life. Hence, we should abstain from taking a life which we ourselves cannot give and we should not harm other sentient beings. Respect for property means that we should not take what is not given, by stealing, cheating, or force. Respect for personal relationships means that we should not commit adultery and should avoid sexual misconduct, which is important for maintaining self respect and the trust of those we love as well as making our society a better place to live in.

Right Livelihood is a factor under moral conduct which refers to how we earn our living in society. It is an extension of the two other factors of Right Speech and Right Action. Right Livelihood means that we should earn a living without violating these principles of moral conduct. Buddhists are discouraged from being engaged in the following five kinds of livelihood: trading in other living beings for slaughtering, trading in weapons, trading in flesh by causing the slaughter of animals, trading in intoxicating drinks and drugs, and trading in poison. Some people may say that they have to follow such an occupation for their living and, therefore, it is not wrong for them to do so. But this argument is entirely baseless. If it were valid, then thieves, murderers, gangsters, thugs, smugglers and swindlers can also just as easily say that they are also doing such unrighteous acts only for their living and, therefore, there is nothing wrong with their way of life.

Some people believe that fishing and hunting animals for pleasure and slaughtering animals for food are not against the Buddhist precepts. This is another misconception that arises owing to a lack of knowledge in Dharma. All these are not decent actions and bring suffering to other beings. But in all these actions, the one who is harmed most of all is the one who commits these unwholesome actions. Maintaining a life through wrong means is not in accordance with the Buddha’s teaching. The Buddha once said, ‘Though one should live a hundred years immorally and unrestrained, yet it would indeed be better to live one day virtuously and meditatively’ (DHAMMAPADA 103). It is better to die as a cultured and respected person than to live as a wicked person.

The remaining three factors of the Noble Eightfold Path are factors for the development of wisdom through the purification of the mind. They are Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. These factors, when practised, enable a person to strengthen and gain control over the mind, thereby ensuring that his or her actions will continue to be good and that the mind is being prepared to realise the Truth, which will open the door to Freedom, to Enlightenment.

Right Effort means that we cultivate a positive attitude and have enthusiasm in the things we do, whether in our career, in our study, or in our practice of the Dharma. With such a sustained enthusiasm and cheerful determination, we can succeed in the things we do. There are four aspects of Right Effort, two of which refer to evil and the other two to good. First, is the effort to reject evil that has already arisen; and second, the effort to prevent the arising of evil. Third, is the effort to develop good which has not arisen, and fourth, the effort to maintain the good which has arisen. By applying Right Effort in our lives, we can reduce and eventually eliminate the number of unwholesome mental states and increase and firmly establish wholesome thoughts as a natural part of our mind.

Right Effort is closely associated with Right Mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness is important in Buddhism. The Buddha said that mindfulness is the one way to achieve the end of suffering. Mindfulness can be developed by being constantly aware of four particular aspects. These are the application of mindfulness with regard to the body (body postures, breathing and so forth), feelings (whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral); mind (whether the mind is greedy or not, angry, dispersed or deluded or not); and mind objects (whether there are mental hindrances to concentration, the Four Noble Truths, and so on). Mindfulness is essential even in our daily life during which we act in full awareness of our actions, feelings and thoughts, as well as of our environment. The mind should always be clear and attentive rather than distracted and clouded.

Whereas Right Mindfulness is directing our attention to our body, feelings, mind, or mental object or being sensitive to others, in other words, putting our attention to where we choose Right Concentration is the sustained application of that attention on the object without being distracted. Concentration is the practice of developing onepointedness of the mind on one single object, either physical or mental. The mind is totally absorbed in the object without distractions, wavering, anxiety or drowsiness. Through practice under an experienced teacher, Right Concentration brings two benefits. Firstly, it leads to mental and physical well-being, comfort, joy, calm, tranquility. Secondly, it turns the mind into an instrument capable of seeing things as they truly are, and prepares the mind to attain wisdom.

The Noble Eightfold Path is the most important truth taught by the Buddha. As a competent spiritual physician, the Buddha has identified the disease that afflicts all forms of life, and this is Dukkha or unsatisfactoriness. He then diagnosed the cause of the unsatisfactoriness which is selfish greed and craving. He discovered that there is a cure for the disease, Nirvana, the state where all unsatisfactoriness ceases. And the prescription is the Noble Eightfold Path. When a competent doctor treats a patient for a serious illness, the prescription is not only for physical treatment, but it is also psychological. The Noble Eightfold Path, the path leading to the end of suffering, is an integrated therapy designed to cure the disease of Samsara through the cultivation of moral speech and action, the development of the mind, and the complete transformation of one’s level of understanding and quality of thought. It shows the way to gain spiritual maturity and be released completely from suffering.

‘For the good to do what is good is easy,
For the bad to do what is bad is easy,
For the bad to do what is good is difficult,
For the Noble to do what is bad is difficult.’


Merits and demerits are elaborated upon in Chapter 8.

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Редакция перевода от 03.07.2015 13:52