The Noble Eightfold Path

Right Understanding

This aspect of the Eightfold Path can be taken a number of ways, but the two most important are:

  • Right Worldview
  • Right Intention

As it pertains to one’s worldview, it only means that one must have a proper understanding of the world and one’s life in it. Think of that early lesson we have all been taught again and again as children: “Life isn’t fair.” That is a worldview lesson. If we accept this lesson, we see the world as, if not unfair, at least unconcerned with fairness. If we reject the lesson, we might see the world as a just and equitable place (or a place that can or should be).

When the Buddha says that we must practice right understanding, he is saying that we must see the world as it is. We have countless lenses we have accumulated through experience and the efforts of others that color the way we see the world. To progress through the world, however, we must see it properly.

This is one of the less comfortable practices of the Noble Eightfold Path, in my personal opinion. When I look at the world closely in an effort to see it as it is, I don’t always like what I see. This, at least, helps me to see my own desire-and-aversion more clearly, though. After all, I have discovered my aversion to the world as it is and my desire that it be some other way. That’s a pretty fundamental level of craving and attachment.

Chan Buddhism has been described as “radical skepticism” (in the classical sense of the word ‘skepticism’). This is because of our commitment to the practice of this first discipline. We are always questioning our own experience and worldview in an attempt to see the world as it is.

In another sense, this means Right Intention. This is also a very important part of the Eightfold Path. Why are you even pursuing this noble path?

There are countless reasons that individuals pursue the spiritual life, but very few of them are pure. It takes time to purify one’s intentions. Most of us begin on the path because we think it will be a path to happiness. Some of us simply want an easy life and think that religious life will provide it. Some others of us like to receive honors, be shown respect, or have authority.

None of these are right intentions.

Nevertheless, the path itself has a purifying effect. We don’t strive to realize Right Understanding as people who already have it. We are, as one student said to me, “still happening.” It’s a process.

One story tells of an old monk who was wandering through the monastery and stopped outside the Buddha Hall. There was sitting a young monk, deep in meditation. The old monk interrupted him boldly, “Hey there! What are you doing?”

The young monk replied, “I am meditating, older brother.” Then he returned to his meditation.

The old monk didn’t move along, though. “Why!?” he asked.

The young monk probably thought it was self-evident; after all, this was a monastery and they were both monks. “I am trying to become a Buddha, elder brother,” he said as if teaching a child.

The old monk nodded and then sat down right beside him. He started using the corner of his robe to rub the dirty bricks of the floor. Finally, the young monk couldn’t resist. He asked, “What are you doing, elder brother?”

The old monk didn’t stop. He simply answered, “I am polishing this brick so that it will become a mirror.”

The young monk gently said, “It doesn’t matter how long you polish that brick, elder brother. It will never become a mirror.”

The old monk looked him in the eyes and said, “And it doesn’t matter how long you meditate. You will never become a Buddha! Did the Buddha himself meditate for such a reason?!”

Of course, the young monk was shocked, but the message was received. His intention was all wrong, and with such wrong intention, he would never realize buddhahood. By trying to become a Buddha, he had forgotten that the Buddha himself had meditated in order to see the root of suffering and the way to end suffering - both his own and others’.

Wrong intention can poison the entire practice.

Right Thought

Right thought can also be understood in more than one way. It pertains to what we give our attention, and in this way it is connected to Right Concentration. It also pertains to the way in which we think about and understand things, and in this way it is connect to Right Understanding.

In the first sense, Right Thought means working to discipline our minds in such a way that we do not dwell on greed, hatred, and delusion. What we think about is ‘right.’

The Dhammapada opens with the assertion that as we think, so we become, and with our minds we make the world. The Buddha teaches that suffering follows when we occupy our minds with thoughts about how we have been wronged, how others have mistreated us, etc. On the other hand, when we do not occupy our minds with these thoughts, we can have peace and equanimity. In our disciplines of meditation and wisdom, we go even farther and see thoughts for what they are, namely thoughts, and allow them to appear and disappear without clinging to any of them, whether they are thoughts of greed, hatred, and delusion or not.

This is the second sense: how we think is ‘right.’ While these thoughts of greed, etc. may arise in our minds and capture our attention, the discipline of Right Thought, like Right Concentration, is the discipline of not becoming “hooked” by these thoughts. When we are “hooked” by these thoughts, we become fused to them, confuse them for ourselves, or chase them around in ever-deepening habits of thought.

In this second sense, Right Thought means roughly the same thing we mean when we say “thinking clearly.” Being reasonable, using sound argument, seeing thoughts-as-thoughts, and thinking about our thoughts from a place of equanimity are all aspects of Right Thought.

Right Speech

Right Speech addresses the second of the three traditional karmic events: thought, word, and deed.

To have Right Speech is not only to speak truthfully, since falsehood is anathema to a discipline of breaking delusion, but also to speak only what is appropriate to a situation. Superfluous speech is not right, and easily leads into mindlessness. When we fix our attention on our speech, we are deliberate in what we say. We speak only what is useful.

Right Action

Right Action addresses the third of the three traditional karmic events: thought, word, and deed.

Right Action means that we act proportionately, minimally, and naturally.

In the Chinese tradition, this means that we accomplish without effort by acting in accordance with the Tao, or the Universal Way. When Indian missionaries first arrived in China, one of their tasks was to work with the Chinese people to translate Buddhist ideas and concepts into the Chinese language. When it came to the word ‘Nirvana,’ which is usually understood to be ‘liberation from suffering,’ the nearest familiar Chinese concept was expressed with the term ‘wu wei.’ Wu wei does not translate into English, but it was a Taoist term meaning something roughly like: “To accomplish without acting,” or “the doing of non-doing.”

This demonstrates how closely Right Action is related to Nirvana. Nevertheless, the entire project of Chan Buddhism, which acknowledges the wordless and ineffable nature of Truth, is a matter of getting to know that very Tao, or Buddha-Nature, with which to act in harmony is the essence of Right Action and Nirvana itself.

Right Livelihood

Historically, there are only three legitimate vocations that are not allowed for followers of the Buddha: selling alcohol or bartending, being a butcher, and manufacturing poisons. (Some traditions include the profession of beadle, hangman, or executioner.)

On a deeper level, Right Livelihood addresses the deep human need to be productive. It is part of our communal life to contribute to the common life of all human beings. For the monks, this means living a life of compassion and deep practice for the benefit of all creatures. Nevertheless, in China and later in Japan, those monks who lived entirely by receiving gifts from others were discouraged and looked down upon.

Wherever possible, monks were to support themselves with their own labors, create works of art, teach, and write. One great master famously said: “A day without work is a day without food.” For this reason, Chinese monks worked as farmers, raising their own food and living off the land. In China, monastic life was often referred to as “Nong Chan,” which means “fieldwork meditation/Chan.” The tradition is deeply rooted in Chinese agrarian society. Even the jixia, or outer robe of the follower of the Buddha, is stitched with lines that make it resemble a rice field. We refer to the “mind field” that must be cultivated. When putting on the outer robe, practitioners recite a verse that says that the Buddha’s teaching is a “field beyond emptiness and form.”

All of these ideas are expressions of our deep commitment to living our teachings. Daily life is our practice. This very life is the field we cultivate.

Right Effort

Right Effort is closely related to the paramitta (perfect virtue) of virja. Virja Parmitta is the perfect virtue of effort, of energy, of virility. As a Southerner, I casually translate virja as ‘git’er’done.’

The practice of Right Effort has less to do with the content of one’s effort, which is described by the rest of the Eightfold Path, but rather with the way in which one practices. To practice Right Effort is to see what one should do and immediately do it, without hesitation or even deliberation.

Another aspect of Right Effort as it is understood in the Chan Buddhist tradition is Great Resolve. We are taught that three things are required for meaningful practice:

  • Great Faith
  • Great Doubt
  • Great Resolve

In this context, Right Effort is the earnest resolve to make vows and keep them, including the vows to do good, abstain from evil, serve others, liberate all living beings, and attain unparalleled Awakening (anuttara samyak sambodhi) in this very life.

With regard to thoughts, it is the resolve to master one’s own mind. With regard to words, it is the resolve to speak only what is edifying. With regard to actions, it is the resolve to live with integrity and to keep one’s promises.

Right Mindfulness

Right Concentration