Excerpts from an article by Ajahn Sucitto – I decided to publish this today because I just realised it contains everything that is meaningful to me in the Buddha’s Teachings
The first and most important point about the factors of the eightfold path is that they are a way of living. They are not philosophical concepts, beliefs, or descriptions of an Ultimate Truth, or Divinity. They lead to an awakening to Truth, but do not define it. The eight factors of this Eightfold Path are: 1) right view, 2) right intent (or right attitude), 3) right speech, 4) right action, 5) right livelihood, 6) right effort, 7) right mindfulness, and 8) right concentration. I’ll give details on these factors later.
The Buddha’s realisation was that the experience of Truth was consonant with the ending of dukkha. And dukkha – whether this be depression, anxiety, frustration, or a more general sense of pointlessness – concerns us all in the here and now of our lives. It’s not a matter of belief. Nor, in Buddhism, do you have to believe that there is such a thing as liberation or Truth; just put an end to suffering and stress, and you’ll know Truth for yourself.
So, the Buddhist approach is through direct experience, of which the first thing to consider is where both our innermost pain and our most reliable sense of wellbeing are to be found. Circumstances such as illness or good fortune come and go; but what lingers with us are internal conditions- a sense of being trusted and at peace, or of having regret or hatred gnawing away at our hearts. If we have peace of mind, we can weather through the rough patches; but guilt, hatred or depression can cloud the brightest day. A millionaire or a king can be beset with worry and mistrust. And a penniless monk like the Buddha can dwell in ease and fulfilment. Suffering and its cessation lie in our minds and hearts.
Mind and heart: we have an awareness that is affected by and responds to experience. This awareness is what the Buddha would encourage a listener to attend to when putting the teachings to the test. In dialogue he would encourage the inquiry: how does it feel if someone abuses you, kills your friends and relatives? Is that suffering or not? And how is it when people treat you with generosity and kindness? And if you act in either of these ways, which brings about the results that will give you most wellbeing? So, using your own wisdom, how should you best act? Applying reasoned inquiry in this way, the Buddha would sketch in the outline of his Dhamma.
In a nutshell, the eightfold Path can be seen as covering ethics, meditation and understanding. Be with what’s happening, and guide your responses with an understanding of how to let go of the stress. Easy enough in theory, but I could see that I needed some training. Meditation takes us to where we’re really being affected in the present moment, but that’s where we tend to react blindly. To respond clearly to experience, we need to establish guidelines. The foundation for such guidelines is right view.
1) Right view is the recognition that what we do counts. We’re not in a pre-determined cosmos, we can be effective. We can be a source of benefit or harm for ourselves and others; and such a responsibility is not so much a moral obligation as a mandate: if we develop clarity and kindness, we can live with that kind of mind. If, however, we sustain prejudices or indifference, we become narrow and insensitive. We can act clearly and be at peace with ourselves, or we can act out of compulsion, and get stuck in the impotence that compulsion brings – addictive behaviour and loss of personal authority. And in all cases, the chances are that we’ll end up being associated with people who mirror our attitudes. So right view is the recognition that our own integrity has to be the centre of our lives. And that feels empowering.
2) Right intent, sometimes called right attitude or even right thought, proceeds from that understanding of cause and effect; it means setting up the intention to bring around skilful results through body, speech and mind, and to relinquish the unskilful ones. This is the foundation of the teachings on action, or kamma, as it is called in Buddhism, of which mental intention is the agent. Since actions of body and speech proceed from mind-states and emotions, if we can get the mind and heart clear, we can both act from a place of balance, and be able to discern the results of our actions. This is what 3) right speech, for example, is about. We give up deception, abuse, and gossip, and cultivate honesty and words that are worth treasuring. 4) Right action refers to avoiding unskilful bodily action, such as killing. 5) Right livelihood means avoiding trade in arms, prostitution, animal slaughter; and it also broadens out into how one shares one’s life with others.
Right view (1), 6) right effort and 7) right mindfulness: these underlie every other factor. For example, with right speech (3), one starts with the right view by recognising that how one talks affects others. We can bring something of value into someone’s mind with a well-attuned remark, or we could ruin their day. We could be left with regret and mistrust, or with openness and peace of mind. So, right effort means doing the work of steering one’s actions, and right mindfulness (7) – being fully present with what we do or say and seeing what effect it has. The result is we avoid distress and participate in something of immediate benefit. This is the process of the entire Eightfold Path.
Mindfulness and the last Path factor, 8) right concentration, take us into the domain of meditation, the cultivation of awareness. These factors are often what people are usually struck by in Buddhism, because they offer a powerful deepening of the inner life, possibilities of great serenity and joy and the unconditioned peace that is called ‘nibbāna’. And this deepening begins and is maintained with mindfulness – which entails being simply and purely present to what is going on.
If I think back to my first meditation class in Thailand: the monk gave us some advice on how to sit upright in a state of relaxed alertness, and start paying attention to the sensations that accompanied the process of breathing. I couldn’t have followed more than a breath or two before my mind was wandering. In fact, it was careening on a wave of speculations, memories, and analyses. Every now and then I would steer my attention back to the breath sensations, and be able to maintain that for a few seconds before a fresh tide of thoughts came washing in. This is pretty much the standard beginner’s meditation. Nevertheless, what struck me deeply was that here I was witnessing my mind. And that was strangely peaceful, even reassuring: somehow, I didn’t have to make anything out of my thoughts, or even out of my mind. It was just something happening. Moreover, if I was witnessing my mind, who was I, and whose mind was this?
The Buddha reckoned these to be unanswerable questions. Whatever you think or say you are is just one more event passing through your mind. No, the point is that there is always this present awareness, and what passes through it is changing and not what you really are. But the more you centre on that present awareness, maybe using a focal point like the sensations of breathing to help you do that, the steadier and clearer you feel. You can let go of the impulses and sensations that come up, or, as I learnt later, you can focus on them and allow the steadiness of awareness to bring them into harmony. Which is what happens. That is, with practice you can stop struggling with your body and your moods, and that very quality of non-struggle starts to infuse and settle them. So: bringing attention into the present is mindfulness, and the result, a steadiness that pervades the body and mind is concentration or ‘samādhi’. Samādhi is not a concentration that you do, it’s a centred and pleasurable unity that occurs as a result of right view, right effort and right mindfulness.
Although the practice of mindfulness and concentration is immensely remedial in terms of clearing out stress, worry, and obsessive moods, it has a further development; which is the understanding that liberates the practitioner from the very source of suffering and stress. This understanding, called ‘insight’, both attunes you to the ephemeral nature of what is happening, and puts you in touch with the steady ever-presence of awareness itself. Sensing this time and time again, an involuntary shift takes place: your centre moves to that pure awareness. In daily life, you can act from that awareness with compassion and clarity; and in meditation, you can let all the events subside, and dwell in a bright, unhindered presence. This leads to nibbāna, the fulfilment of the Eightfold Path. As you get to sense this, even in glimpses, you don’t get caught up in hankering or dejection; there’s no frustration, no need to defend, and nothing you have to prove. Just this is an end to suffering and stress.
To read the whole article click on the link below:
Such a helpful and timely summary T. Thank you 🙏
Glad you found it useful, it means a lot to me.