13.2 The noble eightfold path
The discourses offer several templates for articulating the basic practice they commend. One of the most canonical is the ‘noble eightfold path’ (ariya aṭṭhaṅgika magga), which will be the focus of the present discussion. In Lecture Twelve, we encountered the scheme of the eightfold path in the ‘Discourse on Setting in Motion the Wheel of Reality’ (SN 56.11), as both the middle path between the opposite extremes of sensuality and self-mortification, and as the fourth noble truth. Note that the eightfold path is articulated into eight factors, the first of which is right view, which is usually spelled out as (some degree of) knowledge and understanding of the four noble truths. Hence, the two formulas (noble eightfold path, and four noble truths) are in fact contained in one another. The specific task associated with the fourth noble truth (and hence with the path) is to develop it. This involves practicing, deepening, and exploring whatever it potentially entails. In the discourses, the idea of development (Pāli bhāvanā) indicates what today would be translated as ‘meditation,’ although it will become immediately clear that the understanding of ‘meditation’ in the discourses encompasses all dimensions of lived experience and action.
One way the process of development is spelled out in greater details is in the presentation of the ‘gradual training’ (e.g. DN 9, MN 27, 39 and 51), which is a scheme that illustrates how a disciple progresses from an initial act of conversion and resolve (usually expressed as a decision of abandoning the household life and becoming a mendicant) to final liberation. However, it is important to appreciate that the noble eightfold path is a formula that expresses the essential ingredients of the Buddha’s recipe for freedom. The eightfold path is akin to a blueprint (or to use a more anachronistic metaphor, to the DNA) of Buddhist practice. How this is carried out, enacted, and instantiated is subject to several variations and adaptations. Yet, the formula of the eightfold path has a normative value, insofar as it allows one to assess any possible ways of practicing with respect to whether, and to what extent, they can genuinely be taken as moving in the direction of true freedom pointed out by the Buddha in the discourses.
In principle, any practice that allows one to develop the whole eightfold path, even if it is not explicitly discussed in the discourses, would still qualify as a way of practicing the Buddha’s path. The scheme of the gradual training, for instance, illustrates one way in which this development can be spelled out in greater detail. By contrast, any specific practice or technique that might have some form of (textual, traditional, or cultural) support in the Buddhist canon, and yet falls short of developing the whole path on its own, will have to be regarded as incomplete at best and misleading at worst. In focusing the present discussion on the eightfold path, we shall thus concentrate primarily on the essential core of early Buddhist practice, more than on its actual implementation.
It is very common in the discourses to express their teaching by playing with the heuristic potential of similes. This is glaring in the case of the noble eightfold path. The description of a path is a metaphor that has two main dimensions. On the one hand, it indicates a journey between two different locations or points, from the ordinary condition of the uninstructed worldling (this shore) to the ultimate liberation of a fully awakened being (the other shore). On the other hand, this linear progression is made into a recursive cultivation of the eight factors of the path. The eight factors are not eight milestones, which one encounters by travelling from one to the next and by leaving the previous behind as one reaches farther. On the contrary, it is only by cultivating all of the eight factors simultaneously (to some extent at least) that one can travel the path from the near to the far shore. The eight factors are like the different positions that one’s feet and legs need to take up as one takes subsequent steps and walks from the beginning to the end of the path. If one or more of these positions are skipped or unstable walking will become difficult or even impossible.
The metaphor of walking on a path has yet another soteriological overtone. The goal of the Buddha’s teaching is to identify a dimension of ‘unagitated’ or ‘unshakable’ (Pāli akuppa) freedom (MN 30). This might be understood as the complete absence of any sense of duty. Instead of being concerned with having to take care of this or that, worrying about circumstances, or seeking to obtain or avoid specific contents or conditions, one is left with no duty and no work to do. For someone used to being constantly busy with tasks and concerns, this ideal of freedom might look identical to sheer inactivity. Here, once again, the scheme of the four noble truths helps dispel this worry. Assume that the third noble truth, the cessation of thirst, defines the goal that one should realize. How do you get there? By developing the eightfold path (fourth noble truth). Prima facie, the path is thus just a means of achieving a certain goal. But why does the eightfold path lead one to realizing the cessation of thirst? Because by walking the path (by practicing its eight factors), present thirst is countered, and future thirst is prevented from arising again. Walking the path actively leads to the cessation of thirst, and walking the path is an experience of how this cession feels. The goal of cessation, therefore, is not outside of the path, somewhere else, so that it can be achieved only by stepping outside of the path. The goal of cessation is realized within the path itself, by walking on it. This might be one reason why the Buddha, in the ‘Discourse on Setting in Motion the Wheel of Reality’ (SN 56.11) presents the path itself as his most important discovery, because it is there that true liberation takes place.
The simile of the path thus suggests that Buddhist practice is not carried out for the sake of achieving some definite state, in which one will be able to rest eternally. Instead, it aims at delineating a way of life, a way of traversing this world in complete freedom, being entirely unconcerned, unpreoccupied, unagitated, and therefore at peace. As it is put in the discourses, the wise person is ‘one who walks the world in the right way / not longing for anything there’ (sammā so loke iriyāno, na pihetīdha kassaci, Sn 4.15). The metaphor of the eightfold path explains how one can walk in this way. The path is also the goal of itself, insofar as it illustrates how a life free from duty and concern could unfold.
An analytical presentation of the eightfold path and its factors is the following:
Mendicants, and what is right view ? Mendicants, it is knowing that this is suffering, knowing the origin of suffering, knowing the cessation of suffering, knowing the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. Mendicants, this is called right view.
Mendicants, and what is right thought ? Mendicants, it is the thought of non-sensuality, the thought of non-ill-will, the thought of non-violence. Mendicants, this is called right thought.
Mendicants, and what is right speech ? Mendicants, it is refraining from false speech, refraining from malicious speech, refraining from frivolous speech. Mendicants, this is called right speech.
Mendicants, and what is right action ? Mendicants, it is refraining from killing, refraining from steeling, refraining from non-celibacy. Mendicants, this is called right action.
Mendicants, and what is right livelihood ? Here, Mendicants, a noble disciple having abandoned wrong livelihood, resolves to live a right livelihood. Mendicants, this is called right livelihood.
Mendicants, and what is right effort ? Here, Mendicants, a mendicant strives, supports the understanding, arouses energy, endeavours, generates desire for the non-arising of unarisen non-virtuous, bad realities, … for the abandoning of arisen non virtuous, bad realities, … for the arising of unarisen virtuous realities, … for the staying, non-confusion, growth, fructification, development, fulfilment of arisen virtuous realities.
Mendicants, and what is right recollection ? Here, Mendicants, a mendicant dwells observing the body as just a body; ardent, metacognitively aware, endowed with recollection, having abandoned desire and discontent for the world; he dwells observing feelings as just feelings … understanding as just understanding … realities as just realities, ardent, meta-cognitively aware, endowed with recollection, having abandoned desire and discontent for the world. Mendicants, this is called right recollection.
Mendicants, and what is right composure ? Here, Mendicants, a mendicant, secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from non-virtuous realities, having entered upon it, dwells in the first contemplation, which is accompanied by ascertainment and investigation, and by an enthusiastic pleasantness born from seclusion.
With the pacification of ascertainment and investigation, having entered upon it, he dwells in the second contemplation, with an enthusiastic pleasantness born from composure, without ascertainment and without investigation, with internal confidence and unification of the understanding.
With dispassion towards enthusiasm, having entered upon it, he dwells in the third contemplation, he dwells equanimous, recollecting and metacognitively aware, and he feels pleasure with the body, as the noble ones describe: ‘one who is equanimous and recollects dwells in pleasure.’
With the abandoning of both pleasure and pain, with the previous disappearance of joy and sadness, having entered upon it, he dwells in the fourth contemplation, without pain and pleasure, with recollection purified by equanimity. Mendicants, this is called right composure. (SN 45.8)
This text is a good example of how the discourses can move across different levels of complexity. One topic (the eightfold path) is articulated in eight factors (in the quote above, numbered from 1 to 8 in brackets), each of these factors is in turn articulated into other factors, which might be further analysed (often again in sets of four:  four truths,  four efforts,  four recollections,  four contemplations). For the sake of the current presentation, this structure will be unpacked in three stages, which correspond to another macro-formula that the tradition has superimposed on the eightfold path, namely, the threefold division of wisdom or right view (factor 1), moral virtue (factors 2-5), and composure (factors 6-8).
- Often, development is associated with the development of citta. The Pāli words citta and cetanā derive from the same verb, cinteti, which means ‘to think, to understand.’ While cetanā can be rendered with ‘intention’ or ‘volition,’ citta is usually translated with ‘mind’ or even ‘heart,’ although it might be best interpreted as ‘understanding.’ There is an important connection between intentionality and understanding since one’s intentions are strictly linked with the way in which one understands and interprets experience. Vice versa, one’s current understanding shape one’s intentionality. For instance, on one occasion, the Buddha states: ‘Mendicants, this understanding (cittaṃ) is bright (pabhassaram). And it is freed from adventitious intoxicants (upakkilesehi). A well-instructed noble disciple knows that according to nature. Hence, I say ‘for a well-instructed noble disciple there is development of the understanding (cittabhāvanā).’ (AN 1.51) ‘Development of the understanding’ is the way in which the discourses refer to the sort of practice taught by the Buddha. In Lecture One, we saw that that Buddhist practice does not consist in gaining some access to an inward theatre, and does not take for granted that introspective observation is reliable. In fact, the departing assumption in the discourses is that an ordinary person does not have an unbiased understanding of their own condition. The understanding is defiled by a number of factors that stain and hinder its ability to function and distort its vision. Training is thus conceived as a progressive uncovering and removal of these defilements. These are both cognitive and pragmatic factors, since they entail both a certain way of conceiving and regarding experience (a certain way of interpreting it), and specific ways of acting or intending. Cognitive and pragmatic dimensions are not just two separate sides of the same issue, but form an integrated and inextricable feedback loop. This becomes apparent in the unfolding and development of the eightfold path, in which epistemic and pragmatic dimensions are interwoven. ↵
- For a survey of how the scheme of the gradual training is presented in the discourses and in later commentarial tradition, see Rupert Gethin, ‘On the Practice of Buddhist Meditation According to the Pāli Nikāyas and Exegetical Sources’ (2004). For an overview of the most common methods and approaches developed by various strands of the Theravāda tradition, see Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism. Teachings, History and Practices (2013), chapter 11 (especially pp. 318-344). ↵