The Buddhist Eightfold Path for Modern Times
Buddhism is a non-theistic religion based upon the teachings of Buddha, a sage who lived in India sometime between the fourth and sixth century BCE.
The Eightfold Path is the fourth of the Four Noble Truths. No matter what your religion (or even if you do not follow any religion), you will find the teachings of Buddha relevant to your life today.
The Eightfold Path
What are the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path?
Buddha’s teachings are based upon the teachings of others who preceded him. He aimed to teach his disciples how to live an enlightened life and how to minimize human suffering.
The Four Noble Truths are:
- The truth of suffering
- The truth of the cause of suffering
- The truth of the end of suffering
- The truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering
The Eightfold Path is part of the fourth noble truth which is the path that leads to the end of suffering. Buddha taught that the way to achieve enlightenment and to minimize human suffering was to live an ethical life.
Buddha placed all human behavior into one of eight categories or paths. Each path as designated by the term “right” meaning ethical or moral. He then described the types of behavior that were right for each of these categories.
The eightfold path has three main groups: two paths of wisdom (how we understand), three paths of conduct (how we act) and three paths of concentration (how we think).
The Two Paths of Wisdom
What are the two paths of wisdom in Buddhism?
The two paths of wisdom are “Right View” and “Right Intention.”
“Right view” is sometimes called “right understanding.” It means to see things are they really are which means seeing them objectively and completely and understanding them fully. This requires accurate observation followed by study. In other words we must think about what we have observed. Only then can we have “right understanding.”
“Right Intention” is sometimes called ”right thought.” It means that we must not see things through the lens of negative emotions. We must free our selves of desire, greed, hatred, anger, and other negative emotions that can cloud our judgment. Only then can we have “right thought.”
The Three Paths of Conduct
What are the three paths of conduct in Buddhism?
“Right speech” means that we must have respect for the truth. We must not lie; we must not slander;we must not gossip; we must not speak ill of other people. We must avoid harsh or cruel words which will lead to hurt feelings or quarrels. In essence, it means to treat others with respect when we speak and to consider the consequences of our words.
“Right Action” means beings respectful of all life and maintaining good relationships with others. We should not intentionally kill any living thing; not even a mosquito. We should not steal. (Stealing means we should not take anything that is not freely given; it includes not defrauding or tricking someone.) We should not “use” other people for our own benefit. We should not engage in sexual misconduct or adultery.
Right action means living in harmony with all the other aspects of the Buddha’s teachings.
“Right Livelihood” is an extension of “‘right action,” but the focus is on how we earn our living. We should not do work that involves killing (including the slaughtering animals) or dealing in slaves, weapons, poisons, or intoxicants (drug or alcohol).
This one may require some modification for modern times. If you do not wish to be a vegetarian, you should try to only eat meat from animals that have been humanely raised and slaughtered. Actual slavery has been abolished in most of the world, so we should take this rule to mean that we should not have “wage slaves.” Employees should be treated fairly and paid a living wage. We should be honest and ethical in how we treat our employees, our customers, our employers, and our competitors.
The prohibition of poisons and intoxicants I will adapt to mean that we must not be involved in the production of products that are harmful to human life and health or engage in practices that are harmful to the health of our planet. Further, we must not support people or companies that violate these precepts. Violations of this principle are so widespread, I fear that it is almost impossible to be 100% moral in this area. Perhaps the best we can do is to be aware of these violations, to help make others aware of them, and be careful not to vote for people who support immoral practices and businesses.
The Three Paths of Concentration
What are the three paths of concentration in Buddhism?
“Right Effort” means keeping a positive attitude and approaching tasks with enthusiasm and cheerful determination. We must avoid becoming too intense in our work; but also avoid slacking off.
It also means avoiding unwholesome thoughts. It is “right action” for the mind.
“Right Mindfulness” means we should have awareness and focus as we go through our day. We should avoid having a distracted or confused state of mind. It means being able to focus on the task at hand with a calm mind without our mind wandering off or worries intruding.
It is not meditation, but like meditation it asks us to be aware of what we are doing physically and mentally. It means being aware of what we are doing, what we are feeling, and what are we thinking.
Have you ever been driving and you suddenly realize that you are at your exit and you don’t know how you got there? The monotony of highway driving can cause us to lose mindfulness. I have been making a conscious effort to keep my mind on the road.
Another example is eating in front of the TV. Have you ever done this and suddenly noticed that your plate is empty, but you don’t remember eating? Mindful eating is important to good health.
“Right Meditation” means practicing meditation. This produces an inner tranquility and sharpens awareness at the same time. It is hard to do right and it requires faithful practice. It requires “emptying the mind” to achieve a total stillness of mind and body.
I attended a Buddhist meditation class, and I had great luck the first session. I was able to quiet my mind. When I left and drove home, I felt like I was “fully awake” in a way I had never been before. I was hyper aware of everything I was seeing and hearing and feeling, and I felt like I was actually driving the car. Usually, driving is so automatic, if feels like the car is driving me. (This may sound crazy unless you have experienced the difference yourself.)
A depiction of Buddha
What is the Eightfold Path of Buddhism in a nutshell?
The most important thing to remember if you wish to follow the eightfold path is to be ethical in word, deed, and thought. Be a good, kind, positive, and moral person. Banish negativity and bring focus to all your activities.
You will be happier and more productive for having done so. The eightfold path may not be the path most travelled, but it is the one that is most likely to get you to where you want to go.
Learn more about Buddhism at About Buddhism
Which of the paths do you feel you need to work on the MOST?
Enlightenment in Under Three Minutes
Questions & Answers
If the original Buddhist teachings instructed us to do no harm, would it not be unacceptable for us to killing animals because we like the taste of meat when plant-based food is more accessible than it has ever been in the majority of the world?
Can one follow the Buddhist 8 fold path and still hold to the values of contemporary American society?
It depends on what you mean by "follow" and what you mean by "contemporary American values." I find what works for me is to just keep Buddha's values in mind, so they guide me to make better choices.
Remember Buddha was prescribing for another place and time when life was much simpler. That said, it is not hard to try to live mindfully and to treat others and yourself with respect. If you wish, you can become a vegetarian to avoid killing any living thing. You can refuse to participate in war and be an advocate for peace. You can learn to subdue your negative emotions.
Walking the 8-fold path does not mean you have to walk around with a beggar's bowl and meditate for four hours a day. It might mean giving up the "lust" for the bigger house, bigger car, the newest and best electronics.
In short, try to keep your life simple and your behavior good.
© 2015 Catherine Giordano