What is the Eightfold Path?
The Eightfold Path is common to most Buddhist traditions, and secular Buddhists consider the Eightfold Path to be the heart of practice. The Eightfold Path, or path as it’s called, is a guide for areas to explore and practice. There is great wisdom in this path, all of which can be tried out and tested in everyday life. In following and practicing the path, you learn to see life realistically, without delusions crowding out your mind and creating a lot of mental noise and anguish, and you’ll benefit in many other ways.
The path is not linear. In fact, many of the areas of the path can’t really be explored without practicing other areas. For instance, Right Mindfulness and Right Intention go into all parts of the path. I would say all areas of the path are of equal importance. Over time you’ll settle into exploring them naturally.
You’ll notice each of these areas of the path begins with the word Right. There is much discussion about this, and many would agree that the word right actually means something more like wholesome or skillful, with non-harm in mind. The meanings of these areas are mostly the same across traditions, but Right View differs a bit for secular Buddhists.
Seeing the world as it is is Right View, with an understanding of the Three Marks of Existence, and the Four Noble Truths. When you fully understand the marks and truths, then you see the world and yourself without delusion, hatred, greed, etc.
Some of the traditions also include kamra (kamma) here, but most secular Buddhist view kamma as intention or action, so we place it under Right Action. Additionally, with secular Buddhists, kamma is not believed to be a system of justice that goes from one life to the next, but instead is about developing wholesome intention behind our actions so we behave ethically in this life, with Right Action.
Right View also touches on our own views of the world, how we may cling to them, how we may consider them permanent, when they are really impermanent, and how we can get caught up in a “thicket of views”. Exploring the Three Marks of Existence helps you see through getting caught in your own views.
In order not to create more suffering, we need to rely on paying attention (mindfulness) to what our intentions are with others and with our actions. If our intentions stem from anger, resentment, or greed, then we are more likely to do harm than if our intentions are driven to help, to understand, to better our actions in the world. We also need to use intention when we sit for meditation, when we want to speak or act effectively, etc. and to practice the path. Learning how to be mindful to intentions before you act, speak, or write takes some time to learn. But it’s fascinating once you start digging deeply into this area. Once you are aware of your intentions, you sometimes need to consciously set new intentions and let go of the old ones. This is a big part of practice. And it takes practice!
With wholesome intentions, our actions are more likely to be skillful as well. This part of the path asks us to pay attention (mindfulness) to how we act or behave in the world, that our actions go towards helping and not harming, that what we do is skillful and don’t do what leads to more suffering. Keep in mind, we are not giving you specifics of what you should do or shouldn’t do. Instead, you learn to develop an ethics meter so to speak, good judgement, based on whether or not your action will bring harm or suffering to yourself or others. You learn to make sure your actions don’t cause suffering.
From the above, you probably figured out already that Right Speech is talking, and includes emailing/messaging, in such a way that you don’t hurt feelings, you don’t lie, don’t use deceptive or intentionally confusing language, that you don’t gossip, or intentionally make people angry with your speech. Why? Because doing so causes suffering to the people you speak or write harshly too. That doesn’t mean you have to withhold your opinion. It does mean, learning to pay attention (mindfulness) to the intention behind what you are saying, and deciding if it’s going to do more harm than good.
Intention plays a big role here. Examine your intentions for wanting to share your opinion, for wanting to correct or criticize, etc. Right Speech, can also be thought of as Right Writing as well, because what we are really talking about here is communication. We want our communications to be of benefit, not harm. This can be tricky in a world where we come across a multitude of opinions and ideas daily. Sometimes we know people’s views are skewed, wrong, delusion, or divisive. Set an example for healthy, helpful communications.
Right Livelihood addresses how we earn a living and more. I’ve seen a lot of debates online where people argue about whether it’s ok or not to work at certain places. Again, this is another part of the path that asks us to determine for ourselves if what we do for a living is causing suffering, or whether what we do is neutral or helping. It’s not a matter of this place is bad and that place is good. Mindfulness and intention come into play in how we interact with our coworkers (action), what our jobs ask of us, how we approach our work ethics. You could be working at a place that does service to others, but if you are treating coworkers unfairly, or you are cheating your employers out of hours or money, then you might want to examine your intentions. This is an area that is worth deep and detailed exploration. The Eightfold Path helps us learn to make our own judgement calls on where we work, how we can make the most of it, and how we interact with others while doing our jobs.
Without effort, our practice is toast. Of course, we all know that to accomplish anything we need to put effort in. For our practice, however, this effort has the motivation/intention of lessening suffering. So, the effort we put into our practice is the impetus for dropping whatever gets in the way of our developing ethics, compassion, and it motivates us to let go of greed, fear, angst, hatred, self loathing, etc. By practice, I mean all your interactions in the world. Being mindful of where we put our effort in our actions and speech each day is really important. And, of course, we need to apply effort toward other areas of our practice, such as developing mindfulness in meditation so that we can put it to good use throughout our days.
Mindfulness in a nutshell is paying attention, but it stretches beyond that. The norm for many of us is to go through our days, living mostly in our heads, with thoughts of the past or future, in conversation with people who aren’t present, ruminating over and over problems. Now, that’s not to say thinking and problem solving aren’t necessary. They surely are, but there is a time and place for thinking and musing, and it’s not all day long. Mindfulness helps keep us anchored in the present, so we can interact in the world appropriately, so we can apply just the right effort to various tasks, and to help prevent from creating and worsening problems. Living entirely in our heads is a habit that is hard to break. Living in our heads can cause us to do poorly in our jobs, distract us from driving on the road well, and in general can just cause a lot of angst.
But with proper intention, effort, and mindfulness, you can train yourself to be present, and deal with whatever arises appropriately. You’ll find over time, mindfulness becomes the new mode of being, a new healthy habit, and you’ll find yourself lost in thoughts much less frequently. Meditation is the tool to develop mindfulness. As you develop mindfulness in the quiet, still environment of meditation, you then extend mindfulness to include all your daily life.
Right Concentration, sometimes called Right Meditation, and is the practice of focusing the mind solely on one object. Where mindfulness is open to whatever arises, concentration is focusing on one thing to the exclusion of everything else. Both concentration and mindfulness are tools to sharpen the mind, and bring it out of the shadows of discursive thinking and root us in the present. In some traditions, concentration is developed through the practice of the jhanas. This is not a common practice in western Buddhism, but as neuroscience finds benefits to meditation, there seems to be renewed interest in using jhana techniques to develop very specialized forms of concentration.
Concentration also improves naturally through mindfulness meditation. Concentration requires use of Right Effort, Right Intention, and Right Mindfulness. Some argue that you can’t have really good concentration until you’ve developed the ability to let go of anger, hatred, discursive thinking, negativity, etc. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try developing concentration until you have a free mind. Indeed, working on concentration is what helps you to learn to drop unskillful thinking. Once mindfulness and concentration are established, then you can develop greater insight overall because your mind is cluttered with thoughts that inhibit wisdom.
It’s important to review the Eightfold Path from time to time, and to focus on areas as needed. Over time, you’ll notice the overlaps, how each part of the path works with other parts. Working the path is an ongoing lifetime effort that brings many rewards and improve the quality of life.
This article is part of the New to Secular Buddhism section of SBA.