Last updated on August 28th, 2023.
Those with a passing interest in Buddhism may have a vague understanding of the Noble Eightfold Path. Of course, Buddhism is rooted in the concept of Nirvana and the ability to attain such a state through proper conduct. However, you may be unsure of how one attains Nirvana and what the Noble Eightfold Path has to do with any of it.
The Noble Eightfold Path is the last of the Four Noble Truths, which comprise the essence of Buddhist teachings. The first three of the Four Noble Truths detail the suffering humanity faces, with the only salvation being Nirvana. The Noble Eightfold Path details the steps to attain Nirvana or the end of suffering.
While this is more of a broad way of looking at the Noble Eightfold Path, there is certainly more depth to this concept than can be described in a mere statement. Keep reading to learn more about the Noble Eightfold Path, its importance within Buddhism, and how to adhere to the principles laid out in the Noble Eightfold Path.
Why is the Eightfold Path Important?
There are certain fundamental concepts present in any religion that possess a heightened level of importance among followers of the said religion. In Buddhist teachings, the two most fundamental concepts are the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.
These concepts convey the essence of Buddhism and outline the practices good Buddhists should adhere to. One may draw comparisons to the relationship Judaism and Christianity have with the Ten Commandments or the Five Pillars of Islam. However, the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path are slightly discrepant.
While the Ten Commandments and Five Pillars detail the steps a good constituent of their faith should take, the Four Noble Truths more broadly describe the state of humanity as a whole. The Eightfold Path is a little more similar to the Ten Commandments and Five Pillars, but it is similarly broad and far more vague.
What are the 8 Steps of the Eightfold Path?
So, you are probably wondering what exactly is the Eightfold Path. Before we get into the Eightfold Path, it is important to familiarize ourselves with what the Four Noble Truths are. As the name would lead you to believe, there are four truths delineated in the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.
The first of these truths is referred to as the Dukkha, and it outlines the truth of suffering, which is that suffering is perpetual and reaches all of humanity, even those who are not ostensibly suffering. The second of these truths, the Samudaya, attributed the origin of suffering to greed, ignorance, and hatred.
The third of these truths, Nirodha, offers a respite from this suffering, Nirvana, a state of enlightenment. The fourth of these truths, Magga, details the path to achieve this state of enlightenment, which is known as the Eightfold Path due to their being eight steps.
Now, let’s take a closer look at each of these eight steps to achieving Nirvana.
1. Right Understanding
There are three separate distinctions within the Eightfold Path that further specify the intentions behind each step. Right Understanding, or Samma Ditthi, falls under the “Wisdom” category. This is one of the more basic steps as it essentially means attaining an understanding of the Four Noble Truths.
Of course, this is not simply to understand the concept of the Four Noble Truths but to come to a deeper understanding that has less to do with surface-level knowledge. Buddhist teachings refer to these two distinct forms of understanding as anubodha, know accordingly, and pativedha, penetration.
Pativedha can only be achieved when one’s mind is completely cleared of all impurities. This is typically done through meditation and requires a coalescence of all eight steps of the Eightfold Path. Thus, these steps should not be thought of chronologically but rather like a perpetual, simultaneous cycle.
2. Right Thought
Right Thought also falls under the “Wisdom” category but has much less to do with knowledge. This step in the Eightfold Path has more to do with selfless renunciation or detachment from desire, hatred, and violence. Additionally, the Right Thought step would also have Buddhists practice thoughts of love and thoughts of non-violence.
The fact that traits such as non-violence and love are grouped under the “Wisdom” category speaks to the essence of Buddhism. A major aspect of Buddhism that typically receives less recognition is its practice of all-inclusive love for all beings. This is a central part of reaching enlightenment, so one would be wise to practice Right Thought.
3. Right Speech
Right Speech falls under a new category, the “Ethical Conduct” category. This category deals largely with the ideas of universal love and compassion for all beings, which are fundamental to the Buddha’s teachings. Right Speech delineates several rules for communicating with those around oneself.
The first rule is to abstain from telling lies. The second rule is to abstain from backbiting or slanderous talk, resulting in hatred or disharmony among individuals or a group. The third rule is to abstain from harsh, rude, or abusive language. The fourth rule is to abstain from idle babble and gossip.
4. Right Action
Right, Action also falls under the “Ethical Conduct” category and details a fairly broad outline for conducting oneself in a peaceful and honorable manner. Some specific measures include abstaining from destroying life, dishonest dealings, and illegitimate sexual intercourse.
In addition to abstaining from dishonorable or violent conduct, Right Action also details how one should conduct themselves. This particularly pertains to the way people should conduct themselves around other people, stressing the importance of helping out others in a peaceful and honorable way.
5. Right Livelihood
Right Livelihood is the third and final step in the “Ethical Conduct” category. This step contends that Buddhists should abstain from any professions that may bring harm to others. These professions are generally associated with war, but killing animals and cheating of any kind are also forbidden among practicing Buddhists.
As RIght Livelihood is the final step in the “Ethical Conduct” category, it alludes to the previous two steps, Right Speech and Right Action, as reference points for what constitutes a Right Livelihood. Essentially, a Right Livelihood is one that promotes a happy and harmonious life for all living beings.
6. Right Effort
Right Effort is the first step in the third and final category, the “Mental Discipline” category. Right Effort essentially refers to a person’s will to achieve an enlightened state of mind. There are four facets to this step.
The first is to prevent evil and unwholesome states of mind from arising. The second is to rid oneself of evil and unwholesome states that were already present. The third step is to produce good, wholesome states of mind. The fourth is to develop and perfect good and wholesome states of mind already present within oneself.
7. Right Mindfulness
Right, Mindfulness is the second step within the “Mental Discipline” category and is perhaps the most detailed of any step. This step is generally associated with the process of meditation and requires Buddhists to be mindful, attentive, and aware of four things.
The first is an activity of the body, the second is sensation or feeling, the third is an activity of the mind, and the fourth is all ideas, conceptions, thoughts, and things. Mindfulness, attentiveness, and awareness of these things are typically associated with Anapanasati, which is the practice of concentration of breathing.
This step in the Eightfold Path is essentially the coalescence of the previous six steps. The Right Mindfulness step essentially puts all of the previous steps to practice, typically through meditation or yoga, which both make use of Anapanasati.
8. Right Concentration
Finally, Right Concentration, the third and final step in the “Mental Discipline” category, refers to the four stages of Dhyana, or trance. This step essentially describes concentrating on the previous seven steps to ultimately achieve Nirvana.
If Right Mindfulness is the coalescence of the first six steps, Right Concentration is the method you should apply to this coalescence. If you are not purely and unadulteratedly concentrated on achieving Nirvana, then all of the steps listed previously will falter. Right concentration holds all of these steps together.
How Does the Eightfold Path End Suffering?
The process of the Eightfold Path itself eliminates suffering by making one brutally aware of the persistence of suffering, allowing one to concentrate on eliminating the factors that lead to suffering in one’s mind and allowing one to concentrate on bringing inner peace and goodness into one’s mind.
A central facet of Buddhism is the concept of reincarnation or rebirth. Buddhists believe that the way in which you conduct yourself will impact how you are reborn in the next life. They believe, although Demi-God and God realms do exist, the best realm to be reincarnated into is the realm of man, for they suffer the least of all living beings.
If one is a good practitioner of Buddhist teachings, they should be reincarnated into the realm of man. However, the ultimate goal of Buddhism, in regard to the process of reincarnation, is to break the cycle, causing an ultimate cessation of suffering.
How Do you Begin Following the Eightfold Path?
To begin following the Eightfold Path, it is important to immerse oneself in Buddhist teachings. Learning about the 4 noble truths of buddhism may help you gain more knowledge of Buddhism and its practices. Practices such as yoga and meditation often interlace the steps that are present in the Eightfold Path, so activities such as these are an excellent place to start as well.
Ultimately, the most fundamental underlying lessons in Buddhist teachings are inclusive love and letting go of selfishness and ill intentions toward others. By simply practicing Mindfulness and considering the welfare of other people more often, you are on the right track to following the steps laid out in the Eightfold Path.
Believed to have lived between 566 BC to 480 BC, Siddhartha Gautama laid out the foundation for a religion that has garnered a following of roughly 535 million people.
Now known by all as The Buddha, or “Enlightened One,” his teachings of collective love, selfless renunciation, and harmonious living seem more poignant than ever as individuals and groups become increasingly fragmented and divisive.
Although Buddhism was not prescient of the division and fragmentation of our modern era, it is worth noting that Siddhartha Gautama saw the same issues in human society nearly 3,000 years ago.
As little has changed regarding this division, it is worth pondering whether or not his teachings should be put to practice by even more than 535 million people.