The Fourth Noble Truth said clearly and plainly that there is a way out of suffering, a path to genuine and lasting liberation. The Buddha outlined it in several sutras in detail.
This path is divided into three sections, each reflecting a key aspect of Buddhist practice (the italicized words are Pali):
- Moral conduct (sila)
- Mental discipline and (samadhi)
- Wisdom. (panna)
The Eightfold Path is an artifact of the Buddha’s practicality and specificity. He taught often and broadly on each aspect of the path during the four decades after his enlightenment. As in many of the ‘structural components’ of Buddhist training, the Eightfold Path is explained throughout the sutras from many perspectives, each appropriate for the listeners present at the time. The components of the Eightfold Path are
- Right understanding (Samma ditthi)
- Right thought (Samma sankappa)
- Right speech (Samma vaca)
- Right action (Samma kammanta)
- Right livelihood (Samma ajiva)
- Right effort (Samma vayama)
- Right mindfulness (Samma sati)
- Right concentration (Samma samadhi)
To be clear—each of the areas above are not steps in progression, they are areas of emphasis. Like all dharma, whatever one accomplishes in one area enriches the rest of one’s practice and development, as well. Rather than thinking of them as separate efforts, one might better think of them as a web of activity.
The guidelines for ethical conduct in Buddhism spring from the fundamental of equanimity and compassion for all beings. Ethical conduct is not a way to better align oneself with society in this case, it is a path to wisdom and compassion. Conventional success aside, these are guidelines for dissolving the misunderstanding and habits that keep us from a naturally arising goodness and wisdom.
What is compassion? Love, goodness, kindness, forbearance with others—all arising from a lived sense of equality of all beings, from the wish that the need for other’s well-being is exactly on par with our own—and is in fact, not seperate. Wisdom is the accurate understanding of how things are. All things...the nature of the entire content of our human experience, and of the nature of mind itself.
The well-progressed practitioner is balanced in wisdom and compassion. The analogy is made to two wings of a bird. Without wisdom, compassion can evolve into maudlin sentimentality. Without compassion, the clear seeing of wisdom can be cold and aloof.
Ethical conduct is divided into three parts:
- Right speech
- Right action and
- Right livelihood.
Right speech does not mean speech that accords with the time and culture, necessarily. It means intentional, mindful speech that does no harm. The Buddha gave specific categories of effort of right speech, including
- to not lie
- to refrain from slander and gossip and speech that creates discord
- to not speak abusively, impolitely or with force
- to avoid idle chatter, wasting both time and precious opportunity, and strengthening the habit of gossip and useless conversation.
Implied in those four is that one speaks the truth as one understands it. One’s speech should be intentional, harmonizing and useful to others. What one says should be appropriate to the listener, the context and the occasion. And if one cannot speak in this way, one should maintain silence. My own teacher’s advice was, “Say what is necessary, useful and true.”
Again, right action is the action which leads towards liberation, not away from it. Moral conduct, and peaceful engagement are the gist of it. Specifically, practitioners are advised to refrain from killing, stealing, dishonestly in interactions, harmful sexual relationships, and influencing others in such a way that they are confused about right action in their own life. So if one doesn’t steal, but causes others to do so, it’s not right action.
Right livelihood is the idea that one should refrain from working in such a way that it harms others, directly or indirectly. As a worker, one should avoid inflicting suffering on beings—including, for example, animals, and should avoid killing or creating tools of destruction, and avoid situations that draw one into participating destruction or harm.
Vandana Shiva, a well-known female Indian intellectual and activist, illuminated the depth of this thinking with advice for our times:
Conservation of diversity is, above all, the commitment to let alternatives flourish in society and nature, in economic systems and in knowledge systems. Cultivating and conserving diversity is no luxury in our times. It is a survival imperative, and the precondition for the freedom of all, the big and the small.”Vandana Shiva (1993, India)
These three—right speech, right action, and right livelihood—create harmony in the mind and heart of the individual, the community and the world. The effort to live inside this framework of ethics is the necessary foundation of spiritual progress.
In the second of the three sections is Mental Discipline, which itself is divided into three parts:
- Right Effort
- Right Mindfulness and
- Right Concentration.
Right effort is the effort to prevent unwholesome states of mind from arising, and to diminish or remove altogether the unwholesome mind states already present. And further, to develop and nurture wholesome mind states.
Right mindfulness is to be mindful of
- the activities of the body (kaya)
- sensations or feelings (vedana) and
- the activities of the mind (citta) and
- one’s ideas, thoughts, concepts, and things (dhamma).
Through meditation and mindfulness practice, one develops the ability to be aware of feelings, sensations, whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral and how they appear, abide and disappear, and so on.
One also develops awareness of states of mind–deluded, concentrated, and so forth—and one witnesses how those states arise, abide and disappear. And the same goes for thoughts, concepts and things.
These lists are enumerated and explained in detail in the Buddha’s teaching, the Satipatthana Sutra.
Right concentration refers to meditative concentration and the stages of progression (dhyana) are four:
- In the first stage of dhyana, passionate desires and unwholesome thoughts are discarded, and feelings of joy and happiness are nurtured.
- Then, in the second stage, the naturally wandering ‘thinking’ is traded for “one-pointedness” of mind, and joy is further cultivated.
- In the third stage, the feeling of active joy disappears, replaced by happiness, to which is added mindful equanimity.
- Finally, in the fourth stage of dhyana, only pure equanimity and awareness remain, through the meditative discipline of right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration,
Wisdom has two aspects, right thought and right understanding.
Right thought is the thought which cultivates selflessness and renunciation. Right thought is an expression of love for all beings, devoid of violence and maliciousness to any sentient creature. To the degree that wisdom is present, thought is naturally ‘right thought.’
Right understanding is the understanding of things as they actually are, which in a way, pedagogically speaking, brings us back around to the truths expressed in the Four Noble Truths. Right Understanding is the experience of Ultimate Reality.
Buddhism divides reality, or the truth of reality into two: Relative and Ultimate.
Relative truth is accumulated ordinary knowledge and understanding. “The truth as we know it”—the culturally conditioned, shape-shifting way that we understand things. This truth is by nature contextual and incomplete—and yet we hold it in high esteem, perhaps at the expense of the absorption of actual wisdom.
Ultimate Truth is the name given to that understanding that comes from direct experience, in its true nature, before label or narrative. This truth is understood not through learning, but through letting go of learning and resting in the bare experience of truth arising, as we do in meditation.