Virtue, Samadhi, Wisdom

by | Feb 20, 2024 | Buddhism for All

In a discourse called the Discourse of the Great Forty[1], the Buddha taught that you can think the first seven parts of the Noble Eightfold Path as being the “support and requisites” for the last one, right samadhi.  He also suggested that there is some semblance of a linear causal relationship between them, namely that right view leads to right intention, which in turn leads to the next one, and so on.  However, it’s not a strict linear relationship, the eight parts also support each other.  For example, in that same discourse, the Buddha said that right view, right mindfulness and right effort “run and circle around” all of the other parts, meaning for example that you really cannot practice right action if you do not also practice at least right view, right mindfulness and right effort. 

You can think of right view, right effort and right mindfulness as the cavalry in an ancient army, and the others as the infantry.  The cavalry protects the army’s vulnerable flanks.  They also periodically scout ahead to protect the army from an ambush, and periodically survey the rear to protect the army from a sneak attack.  In that sense, the cavalry “runs and circles around” the whole army.  In the same way, right view, right effort and right mindfulness run and circle around the Noble Eightfold Path: they provide the vigilance, protection and situational awareness that enable the entire Noble Eightfold Path to do its job.

The main lesson is that the eight parts are mutually reinforcing and that all eight parts need to be practiced.  None of them are optional for the path towards nirvana.

If eight items are too many for you to remember, and you wish there were only three items to memorize, you are in luck, I have just the solution for you.  There is a very popular way of presenting the Buddhist path, which is to structure it in three stages: virtue, samadhi, and wisdom[2], known as the threefold training.[3]  It is very popular, perhaps because it is easy to remember three items, and also because it lends itself mightily well to a very understandable system of practice.  First, you practice living an ethical life by practicing virtue.  Next, you develop your mind with meditation by practicing samadhi.  Finally, you cultivate wisdom. 

This makes sense because, at minimum, one living a genuinely virtuous life is less likely to be haunted by afflictive mental states such as hatred, guilt and shame.  But beyond that, one can also begin to feel happy about having the courage to make wise choices and live in increasingly beautiful ways.  This type of joy eventually transforms into confidence, most importantly, the confidence to walk the path to liberation. Furthermore, one’s mind becomes more conducive to inner peace and joy.  That creates a strong foundation for the practice of samadhi.  When samadhi becomes sufficiently strong, one begins to develop penetrating insight into phenomena.  And using that penetrating insight, one can cultivate wisdom.

The Buddha puts it quite simply: “When samadhi is imbued with virtue, it is very fruitful and beneficial. When wisdom is imbued with samadhi, it’s very fruitful and beneficial.”[4]  While everything we said in this series so far is to explain the Buddha’s first discourse, this quote is the summary of his last discourse, delivered shortly before he passed.

There is a really nice way to map the Noble Eightfold Path onto the threefold training, which was suggested by the Buddha’s disciple Dhammadinā.  Dhammadinā was the wife of Visākha, a wealthy merchant.  They both became disciples of the Buddha and eventually, Visākha became a non-returner and Dhammadinnā became a Buddhist nun who attained arahantship, which means the wife was fully enlightened while the husband was still one step behind.  In other words, the wife was spiritually more advanced than the husband, which is probably true of most married couples in all of history.  In a conversation between them, Dhammadinnā suggested that the Noble Eightfold Path can be mapped onto the threefold training in this way:

  1. Virtue: right speech, right action, right livelihood.
  2. Samadhi: right effort, right mindfulness, right samadhi.
  3. Wisdom: right intention and right view.[5]

Dhammadinnā’s discourse was soon reported to the Buddha and he approved of it with his highest seal of approval, saying, “I would have explained it the same way.”  It remains a very popular way to frame the Noble Eightfold Path.  First, practice right speech, right action and right livelihood to cultivate virtue, then practice right effort, right mindfulness and right samadhi to cultivate samadhi, and finally, you cultivate right intention and right view.

You might go, “But wait!  Something is wrong.”  In an earlier post, I quoted the Buddha saying that you start with right view and all the other seven parts are guided by it, but now, I’m saying that the right view comes at the end, a result of the other parts.  Which is right?  They are both right, because as we said in the beginning of this post, all eight parts mutually support each other in various ways.  Right view guides the other seven parts, and the other seven parts also strengthen right view.  If, say, you get better at your practice of right mindfulness, you begin to clearly see the interplay between pleasure and suffering in your daily experience, that informs your understanding of the Four Noble Truths, which informs right view.  For that reason, right view can be said to be the forerunner of the other seven, or the end result, or both. 

In addition to the main lesson (that all eight parts of the Noble Eightfold Path are mutually reinforcing and that none of them are optional), there is an important secondary lesson here as well: that in learning Dharma and Buddhism, it is important not to hold any teaching too tightly.  Think of it as applying the spirit of the Middle Way to the teachings themselves, even the ones that came directly from the Buddha.  If teachings appear to conflict, it is important to first understand why they appear to conflict.  In very many cases, you may find that they are simply different ways of slicing and dicing the same things, so what appears to be conflict at first is just a different way of framing the same facts. 


  • Reflect on this post with Angela:
    • When we start learning Buddhism, we may potentially become confused. This is because we will encounter teachings that seemingly contradict each other. But as we deepen our right view and deepen our cultivation on all aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path, we will realize that all parts of Buddha’s teachings are beautifully integrated together. The threefold training of virtue, samadhi and wisdom is a reinforcing cycle — each strengthens the others. 
    • What insights, learning, or reflection came up for you from this article?


[1] Mahā Cattārīsaka Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 117).

[2] In Pali: sīla, samādhi and paññā, respectively.

[3] In Pali: tisikkhā.

[4] Mahāparinibbāna Sutta (Dīgha Nikāya 16).

[5] Majjhima Nikāya 44.

Featured image by Natalie Tsang.

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)

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