The Eightfold Path, part 1
This article is the first in an eight-part series taking a look at the famous Eightfold Path, a teaching found at the core of early Buddhism.
As the name suggests, the path consists of eight factors. Note, however, that it's an 'eightfold' path rather than an 'eight-step' path - the eight factors, or 'folds', are intended to be practised together, rather than one after the other. We can even see this in the language used for each of the eight factors: samma ditthi ('right view'), samma sankappa ('right intention') and so on. The 'sam-' prefix is the same one used in samadhi, which means something like 'bringing together' or unifying. So these eight 'folds' are intended to be brought together and practised as eight aspects of a single path, rather than being a series of stages that you pass through and graduate from.
Indeed, one of the criticisms of the modern mindfulness movement is that it essentially extracts two of the eight folds (samma sati, 'right mindfulness', and samma samadhi, 'right concentration') and attempts to offer them without their wider context - particularly including the ethical aspects of the path, which we'll come to in a few weeks' time. Now, personally, I think that modern secular mindfulness can be offered in a way which does include an ethical component, but equally there's a lot to be said for engaging with the whole Eightfold Path - whether you think of yourself as a Buddhist or not. If nothing else, each of these eight factors can be contemplated in the context of your own life, to see what meaning they might hold for you and how you might be able to work them into your meditation practice and your wider day-to-day activities.
It's also worth noting that the English word 'right' isn't necessarily the best translation of the Pali word 'samma' - for example, 'right' doesn't have anything like that connotation of 'togetherness' that I mentioned above. It can also come across as judgemental, like 'this is the right thing to do and everyone else is wrong'. For this reason, some teachers today suggest 'wise' or 'appropriate' instead of 'right'. Personally, I don't really like any of these! So I tend just to say 'right', because it's the most common one you'll encounter, and thus hopefully the least confusing for people who don't already know enough about the subject that they don't need this paragraph of explanation!
Enough with the preamble - let's jump in to the first of the eight folds, samma ditthi - right view.
What is right view?
In Digha Nikaya 22, the longer discourse on mindfulness practice, the Buddha defines right view simply as 'Knowing about suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the practice that leads to the cessation of suffering.'
Astute readers will recognise these as the Four Noble Truths, another central pillar of early Buddhism. (There's a nice self-referential detail here: the fourth of the Four Noble Truths is the path of practice, which is typically equated with the Eightfold Path - and the first aspect of the Eightfold Path is right view, which is here equated with the Four Noble Truths. I like that kind of stuff.)
Now, I've written before about the Four Noble Truths, so go and check out that article if you're totally new to the idea. In a nutshell, though, the Four Noble Truths is a kind of tweetable version of the whole Buddhist path.
(OK, that's too many characters for a single tweet. I'm not really a Twitter person.)
In a nutshell, then, the Buddhist path is about studying our first-person subjective experience and learning to understand its cause and effect - how our experience comes to be, how our suffering arises, and how that suffering can cease. The good news is that other people have been through the same thing, and mapped out a path for us to follow to get through it ourselves.
A more detailed elaboration of right view
There's actually a whole discourse on right view, Majjhima Nikaya 9, which unpacks right view in more detail, and in particular delves more into the cause-and-effect aspect I mentioned above.
The discourse starts with Sariputta, one of the Buddha's chief disciples, giving a teaching on right view. He starts by saying that 'right view' is a matter of understanding 'the unskilful and its root, and the skilful and its root'. 'Skilful' is one of those Buddhist jargon words that means anything which is helpful in our practice - so having a daily meditation practice would be regarded as skilful, while setting fire to people's houses for fun would fall into the 'unskilful' category. (Why? We'll talk more about that in a few weeks, when we get to the fourth factor of the Eightfold Path, 'right action'!)
Sariputta goes on to say that the 'unskilful' is 'killing living creatures, stealing and sexual misconduct; speech that's false, divisive, harsh or nonsensical; and covetousness, ill will and wrong view.' All of these factors develop out of the 'root' of unskilful behaviour: 'greed, hatred and delusion'. Similarly, 'skilful' behaviour is basically avoiding unskilful behaviour, and traces back to the root of 'contentment, good will and right view'. You'll note that the roots of skilful behaviour are the opposite of the roots of unskilful behaviour - so 'right view' is here being defined as the opposite of 'delusion'.
The monks then ask Sariputta to define right view in another way, and so he offers a few alternatives. One is simply the Four Noble Truths that we've already seen. Another is an examination of 'fuel' - that is, the things that give rise to greed, hatred and delusion; Sariputta says that when these are fully understood, the roots of the unskilful can be abandoned, and one's suffering left behind.
Finally, Sariputta defines right view in terms of a thorough understanding of Dependent Origination. Again, I've written previously about Dependent Origination, so check out that article if you're new to it. The simplest form of Dependent Origination is the observation that every aspect of our experience - every object we encounter, every thought or feeling we have, etc. - arises dependent on other things. Nothing whatsoever within our experience is outside the web of causality - absolutely everything is dependent on other things, and has no existence independent of that.
I recently heard the meditation teacher Michael Taft comment that this dependently originated nature of all things can be compared to the words in a dictionary. When you look up a word, you find that it's defined in terms of other words. If you look up those words, they're also defined in terms of other words - maybe even including the first word you started with. There's no 'ultimate word' that exists independently of all the others and from which all the others derive their essential meaning. And yet despite the contingent, unstable, mutually dependent nature of the words in a language, the words are still really useful! It isn't that they don't exist just because they depend on other words. The point is rather that there's no particular 'special word' that is the source of everything else. And, in just the same way, no matter what aspect of our phenomenal experience we examine - sights, sounds, thoughts, feelings, intentions, impulses, memories and so forth - all we ever find is phenomena that depend on other phenomena.
In particular, it can be very helpful to apply this examination to ourselves. Who are you, really? For most of us, it feels like there's a definable 'me' here, perhaps sitting behind the eyeballs pulling the levers that move the arms and legs around. But can you actually find such a thing in your experience? Can you find anything truly independent, anything that's 'in charge' of everything else?
Right view as emptiness
Perhaps the fullest expression of this approach to right view that's found in the early discourses is in Samyutta Nikaya 12.15, where Kaccanagotta asks the Buddha about right view, and the Buddha says 'This world, Kaccana, for the most part depends upon a duality — upon the notion of existence and the notion of nonexistence. But for one who sees the origin of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of nonexistence in regard to the world. And for one who sees the cessation of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of existence in regard to the world.'
The language is tricky, but the Buddha is making a version of the 'dictionary' point above. We tend to believe that things either exist in a definite way or don't exist at all, but actually what we find is more like a web of things all dependent on each other, neither existing 100% in their own right, nor not existing at all.
As time went on, this idea was developed much further, and became more commonly known as 'emptiness'. Again, I've written previously about emptiness (e.g. here), so I won't do a deep dive now. For today, it's enough to say that a key aspect of right view is to understand this web of interconnected dependency very deeply. Much of our confusion and suffering comes from seeing the world in fixed terms, hanging on to a frozen idea of a person or situation and then being surprised and dismayed when the living, breathing, dynamic reality moves in another direction. A big part of practice is relaxing our fixed views of what's going on, and correspondingly suffering less.
The key point about all of this is that right view, like each of the other aspects of the Eightfold Path, is something to be practised. It isn't enough to think about it and come up with a logical argument in favour of or against the ideas of emptiness, dependent origination and the cause-and-effect relationships of our suffering. Rather, we are to see and experience these things for ourselves, directly - like biting into a piece of mango rather than reading a scholarly essay about the nature of mangoes.
Right view as the first of the eight 'folds'
Earlier I commented that the eight aspects of the path are intended to be practised together rather than sequentially. Nevertheless, we can also look at them in sequence - each one provides support for the one that follows it, and in particular it makes sense to start with right view. If we don't know where we're going, how will we know if we're getting any closer?
Having a sense of the over-arching view of the Buddhist project helps us to orient ourselves within the sometimes confusing multitude of practices, traditions and teachers. Fundamentally, Buddhism is concerned with the alleviation of suffering - enabling us and those around us to live happier, more fulfilled lives. If your practice is making you hostile, judgemental and uptight, something has gone a little off track somewhere along the way. But if you find more gratitude, love and joy in your life, especially in relation to the simplest things, you're moving in the right direction.
May you be happy and free from suffering.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!