The Noble Eightfold Path

by | Nov 26, 2023 | Buddhism for All

Once, the Buddha’s attendant Ānanda asked the Buddha a deceptively simple question: what is the teaching of all buddhas past and present?  That is kind of like asking, “What is the teaching of all geography teachers in the world?”  It takes a deep and thorough understanding of the subject to give a very succinct yet complete answer.  The Buddha’s answer was surprisingly and brilliantly simple.  He said,

Not to do any evil, to cultivate good, to purify one’s mind, this is the teaching of the buddhas.[1]

In teaching the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha was said to have acted like a doctor who delivers his diagnosis in four parts.  First, he explains the nature of your disease.  Next, he tells you the causes of your disease.  After that, he declares that a cure exists, and explains what a non-diseased state looks like.  Finally, he gives you the prescription.

In the case of the Four Noble Truths, the disease is suffering (or more accurately, dukkha), the cause is craving, and the non-diseased state is nirvana.  That leads us to the most important question: how?  How do we cure ourselves of suffering to get to nirvana?  The Fourth Noble Truth is the prescription that comes in eight parts, kind of like a traditional Eastern medicine consisting of eight medicinal herbs.  It can also be thought of as a package of practices divided into eight parts.  For that reason, it is unsurprisingly named the Noble Eightfold Path.  It consists of these (with the original Pali words in parenthesis):

  1. Right view (sammā-diṭṭhi)
  2. Right intention (sammā-saṅkappa)
  3. Right speech (sammā-vācā)
  4. Right action (sammā-kammanta)
  5. Right livelihood (sammā-ājīva)
  6. Right effort (sammā-vāyāma)
  7. Right mindfulness (sammā-sati)
  8. Right samadhi (sammā-samādhi)[2]

That sounds about right, right?

Yes, the word samādhi is essentially left untranslated. Soryu and I tried our very best to use the English translation for every Pali word, but there is really no acceptable English translation for samādhi.  Samādhi literally means “to put together,” or “to collect”.  It is usually translated as “concentration”, sometimes as “serenity” or “stillness”.  Unfortunately, all three translations are grossly inadequate because each one captures only a partial meaning.  Samādhi is all three and more. It is a state of mind that is calm, serene, and relaxed, and one-pointedly concentrated, meaning attention is perfectly stable and still.  In addition, joy permeates the mind, equanimity is well established, and perception is clear.  Most importantly, the mind in that state can cut through delusion like a sharp blade cutting through paper. Thankfully, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary has an entry for samadhi (without the diacritics) which makes it an English word. So there, problem solved.

As previously mentioned, one who gains the first stage of enlightenment is known as a stream-enterer.  For that reason, one who begins the training can be poetically seen as one preparing to enter a stream.  But what is the stream?  The stream is the Noble Eightfold Path, and therefore, a stream-enterer can be referred to as “one who possesses the Noble Eightfold Path”.[3]

The next few articles will give you an overview of each component of the Noble Eightfold Path.[4]  Later on in the series, we also will explore in depth how they lead directly to nirvana.


Activities

References

[1] Dhammapada 183, translated by Nārada Mahāthera.  This is one of the most quoted sayings of the Buddha, and deservedly so.

[2] The Buddha’s exact words were, “Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, … right samadhi.”  (Saṃyutta Nikāya 56.11.)

[3] Saṃyutta Nikāya 55.5.

[4] In his first discourse, the Buddha gave only the headlines without going into detail, but expanded on them in a large number of later discourses, my favorite of which is the Magga-Vibhaṅga Sutta (Saṃyutta Nikāya 45.8), where the Buddha’s expansion of each part is concise enough to be easily understood and remembered, yet detailed enough to be useful and practicable. It heavily informs this series.

Featured image by Colin Goh.

Chade-Meng Tan

Meng is an award-winning engineer, international bestselling author, movie producer and philanthropist. His work has been nominated eight times for the Nobel Peace Prize. (Read Meng's story)