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The Eightfold Path – A Complete Practice
A Complete Practice was originally presented as a three-part series of dhamma articles and talks. I have combined these talks into one coherent post. The Buddha taught an Eightfold Path that is often diminished in effectiveness through adaptations and accommodations made to allow for individually and culturally influenced views of what “Buddhism” should be.
“The non-doing of any evil, the performance of what’s skillful, the cleansing of one’s own mind: this is the teaching of the Awakened.” The Dhammapada V 183
The purpose of buddhist practice is to awaken to the true nature of reality, the true nature of mind. Within the complexity and distractions of modern life, a pure jewel of liberation and freedom from stress and suffering exists as unencumbered and free of embellishment as when it was first presented over 2,500 years ago.
When the Buddha began teaching The Four Noble Truths a few weeks after his awakening, he offered this gift of complete liberation and freedom from stress and suffering with a singular requirement: Ehipassiko – come and see for yourself. In order to awaken each practitioner of the Buddha’s teaching would incorporate the simple but complete Dhamma and engage in the teachings wholeheartedly.
The Dhamma is not a set of beliefs to be imposed on an individual. There is no goal other than nibbana, extinguishing of all conditioned thinking born of ignorance. The Dhamma is a framework for experiencing directly a calm and peaceful mind free of clinging. The Dhamma is not meant to be applied fractionally. The teachings are most effective when mindfully integrated completely into one’s life.
The Four Noble Truths as presented by the Buddha are a way of putting aside all acquired beliefs and all effects of conditioned thinking in order to realize true liberation and freedom from stress, disappointment and delusional thinking. Nothing needs to be taken on faith. No aspect of conditioned thinking is to be avoided. Practicing the Dhamma is a practice of purifying the mind with the support of virtuous thoughts, words and deeds mindfully informed by wisdom. This is the Eightfold Path.
The Eightfold Path is characterized as a path of Virtue, Concentration and Wisdom. All three factors of are equally important in practicing the Dhamma. As the purpose of practice is to awaken, delusion is recognized as delusion and put aside. Stress is recognized as stress and put aside. Emotional upsets are recognized as emotional upsets, no matter their individual severity or persistence, and put aside.Clinging to impermanent objects, events, ideas and views is recognized and put aside. All discursive and delusional thinking is recognized and put aside.
Mind states or conditioned reactions to previous events are recognized and put aside. This is not to avoid “issues” but to bring into awareness the underlying cause of conditioned mind. There is no value in analyzing mental constructs within conditioned mind for the purpose of understanding our actions or reactions, or our motivating intentions. Recognition and renunciation is enough and most effective in achieving awakening.
The Dhamma will develop a tranquil mind with the suppleness and spaciousness for skillful insight to arise. Skillful insight is insight which does not create more confusion and discursive thinking. Skillful insight brings to mind a clear awareness of how all aspects of desire caused the mental conditions experienced as agitated mind states. By continuing with shamatha-vipassana meditation, within the framework of the Eightfold Path, the foundation is established to awaken as the Buddha did to a mind free of conflict, worry, doubt and delusion.
By gaining insight through application of the Eightfold Path to conditioned thinking, we are practicing the Dhamma as intended and taught by the Buddha. In this manner, our practice becomes our lives. Jhana meditation is only one factor of the Eightfold Path. When used as an integral part of a complete practice, shamatha-vipassana meditation will develop a quiet, tranquil mind, a mind with the suppleness and spaciousness for true insight to arise.
Any meditation technique can bring a measure of stress reduction or an analytical deconstruction of long-held beliefs. Meditation alone, and meditation used for purposes other than for developing a tranquil mind capable of true insight, will not lead to the realization of liberation and freedom that will develop when integrating fully and mindfully the Four Noble Truths.
The Dhamma brings an understanding of the causes of all stressful and delusional mind-states and the impermanence in all conditioned thinking. Insight develops gradually for most and can be sidetracked by applying only parts of the Dhamma to only troublesome mind states excluding the whole of the Eightfold Path and the spaciousness of mind. This is a limited application of the Dhamma with limited or no effectiveness. There is a significant difference between applying buddhist practice into isolated events of our lives, or isolated mental upsets, and being mindful of developing understanding of the Four Noble Truths.
By over-emphasizing one aspect of practice, for instance mindfulness or meditation, often too much emphasis is placed on only one aspect of conditioned thinking. The result of not mindfully engaging in the whole of practice will often lead to more confusion and simply deepen conditioned thinking.
The Buddha taught an Eightfold Path and not simply meditation and mindfulness. Attempting to make meditation alone into a psycho-spiritual exercise in healing phenomenal conditioned thinking is a misunderstanding of mindfulness. Overemphasizing only mindfulness, and putting aside the rest of practice will never prove effective and will often lead to more confusion.
The Eightfold Path is the fourth factor of the Four Noble Truths and is the skillful means for the realization of the cessation of the causes of stress and suffering. It has never been presented by the Buddha that only one or a few factors of the way were effective and skillful in realizing nibbana, the extinguishing of all causes of clinging, aversion and delusion. To say this in a different way, it is unskillful and unproductive to apply only part of the teachings to the problem of delusional and discursive conditioned thinking and expect to gain much insight into the thought constructs causing distress and confusion.
It is by integrating and being mindful of all eight factors of the Eightfold Path in all areas of our lives, that we gain liberation and freedom from stress and suffering from the isolated or most troubling aspects of conditioned mind.
With integration of all factors of the Eightfold Path of Liberation and Freedom through mindfulness of the Four Noble Truths, the practice of shamatha-vipassana meditation will be a much more effective method of quieting the mind allowing insight to arise. The other seven factors of the Eightfold path support and inform shamatha-vipassana meditation. By integrating the Eightfold Path as a complete practice in one’s life, shamatha-vipassana meditation is not diluted from its purpose of quieting the mind developing profound concentration supporting refined mindfulness and skillful insight.
By shining the light of all eight factors of the Eightfold Path on to troubling and agitating states of mind, a complete understanding of the causes and conditions of these mind states will be realized, providing for a cessation of confusion and suffering brought on by these delusional states of mind.
Without integration of all factors of the Eightfold Path, a conditioned clinging mind will simply recreate mental states continuing confusion, unsatisfactoriness, and suffering. This is what is meant by delusional thinking. With a less than completely integrated Dhamma practice, conditioned thinking will adapt and arise persistently as agitation. This adaptation is often experienced as hindrances to practice. (see below for a link to an article on the Five Hindrances to Practice)
Another way that conditioned thinking will resist cessation is by shifting reaction from one mind state to another. As one “issue” seems to have been addressed by whatever means, even meditation, another troublesome mind state arises. This will continue endlessly unless all factors of the Eightfold Path are integrated into one’s life.
Jhana meditation practiced within the framework of the Eightfold Path is a technique used to quiet the mind and develop “samadhi,” a non-distracted quality of mind. The entire Eightfold Path is a practice of gaining Right View of all mind states, and a moral and ethical practice of recognizing delusional, confused and discursive conditioned thinking.
The first factor of the Eightfold Path is Right View. It can accurately be stated that Right View encompasses all other factors of the Eightfold Path. Right View implies wrong view. Wrong view is a view of life that is ignorant of The Four Noble Truths. Right View is an understanding and acceptance that the Four Noble Truths are in fact Noble Truths. A Noble Truth is a truth that is constant and applicable, true, in all situations in the phenomenal world.
The First Noble Truth is that life in the phenomenal world is experienced as dukkha. Dukkha is a Pali word translated to stressful, unsatisfactory, disappointing, disillusioning, worrisome, painful, confusing. Due to the impermanent nature of all phenomenal things, even those aspects of life that bring pleasure will ultimately bring disappointment and a sense of loss or separation. Even as pleasurable mind states are experienced there is an underlying desire for more of the pleasurable stimulus, and a concern that the pleasurable mind state will not last.
This is not to say that life in the phenomenal world is purposeless. The purpose of life is to awaken in this lifetime, free of the confusion and distraction of dukkha. Awakening is characterized as a mind of equanimity, a mind free of reaction to the stress and disappointment pervasive in the phenomenal world.
How is a mind of equanimity realized while continuing to experience dukkha? How is a non-reactive mind realized? Beginning with Right View and The First Noble Truth that life is experienced as Dukkha – disappointing and at times painful, understanding is developed that by grasping for pleasure or grasping to avoid unpleasant mental states, by clinging to that which brings pleasure or maintaining a near constant mind of aversion, causes ongoing stress for ourselves by attempting to manipulate what cannot be manipulated: Dukkha.
The stress, disappointment and suffering of the phenomenal world is the nature of the phenomenal world. Right View is holding in mind the view that all phenomenal things are stressful and ultimately unsatisfactory. Due to impermanence, stress, disappointment and confusion arise by insisting that things be different than they are as life occurs, including long-held beliefs or mental states. All things that are attached to in any way will bring stress and disappointment.
Aversion is a strong desire that the people and events of the phenomenal world, including our present state of mind, be different than it is. What we resist, persists. What we put our focus on, what we are mindful of, including agitated mind states, will continue and often intensify. What we are most mindful of, we will become.
This is why remaining mindful of all eight factors of the Eightfold Path is one of the only two applications of mindfulness taught by the Buddha. The other application of mindfulness is to be mindful of The Four Foundations of Mindfulness.
If we are mindful of only experiencing that which is deemed pleasant and mindful of avoiding that which is deemed unpleasant, we create a constant state of distraction and stressful craving and aversion. The Dhamma is the way of recognizing this discursive and delusional state in all its manifestations, gaining insight into mind, leading to acceptance and equanimity.
Seemingly external events impacting consciousness are only perceived by, and experienced by, a reaction in mind. Persistent and troublesome thought constructs (conditioned thinking) arise and persist by the same mechanism and are experienced in the same manner. All agitating and distracting mind states arise from reaction to contact with the six senses and persist due to craving, clinging and/or aversion, and are all a part of the phenomenal world. (see below for a link to an article on Five Clinging-Aggregates)
Complete acceptance that whatever we desire, whatever we are craving for, clinging to, or hoping to avoid, is by nature impermanent and the cause of our own stress and disappointment, will allow insight into the nature impermanence, not-self, and stress to arise.
Acceptance is not approval. Acceptance is simply a mental state of non-reaction, seeing things as they are with dispassion. We begin to understand that by letting go of the desire that any feeling, any thought, any person or event be different than what we are experiencing in this present moment we will cease recreating the same mental states that cause ongoing distress. Acceptance developed by Right View brings the spaciousness of mind necessary to interrupt the pattern of compulsive reaction and ongoing distraction.
Right view is discernment. Right View implies wrong view. Wrong view is a view that is ignorant of The Four Noble Truths. Developing wisdom through the Eightfold Path is knowing what to be mindful of and what should be abandoned. One can often over-emphasize mundane activities to create an appearance of specialness to them so that they hold interest or provide a distraction. Dhamma practice is not immune to being manipulated into another distracting and confusing activity.
By holding in mind, being mindful of the complete practice of the Eightfold Path we gain wisdom and understanding. True insight arises into all aspects of our life in the phenomenal world. By holding in mind our complete practice the promise of liberation and freedom from Dukkha is realized.
Here is a link to Hindrances to Practice: Hindrances to Practice
Here is a link to Five Clinging Aggregates: Five Clinging-Aggregates
Jiddu Krishnamurti often said “Look at the lives you are living.” He was stressing the importance of being mindfully present to what is occurring in thought, word and deed in our interaction with others and with ourselves.
As a way of integrating the Four Noble Truths into our daily lives, and as a simple and effective way of being mindful of how we relate to the phenomenal world, the Buddha gave us precepts. Precepts are simply principles for conduct. By following these precepts in thought, word and deed we are living within the framework of the Eightfold Path.
The Buddha taught five basic lay precepts and then three additional principles for those considering monastic life. The Buddha also taught, depending on the source and the subsequent Buddhist sect or school, 200 or more precepts for monastics. Most of the additional monastic precepts are for conduct within a spiritual community or monastery.
The five Buddhist Precepts for lay people are:
1. Refrain from killing or taking life. To act with loving-kindness
2. Refrain from stealing or taking what is not freely given. To be generous.
3. Refrain from false, unnecessary, misleading, harmful or impatient speech. To always speak with kindness, truth and mindfulness.
4. Refrain from sexual misconduct or for using sex in a selfish or harmful manner. To be giving and content.
5. Refrain from the use of intoxicants so to be able to be mindful and thoughtful. To be continually mindful.
The Eightfold Path is a path of virtue, concentration and wisdom, and by being mindful of our behavior in relation to these simple precepts, we will develop more virtuous lives. This will deepen our meditation practice, developing deeper concentration. As we become more mindful of virtue and concentration, wisdom deepens.
Wisdom is further developed and expressed by living life with the gentleness that comes from following these precepts.
On the surface these precepts are fairly easy to abide by. As we look deeper at our intentions and intentional actions we may become aware of subtle aspects of clinging, craving, desire and aversion keeping us stuck in conditioned thinking. Do we hold a persistent view of ourselves or others that is not in keeping with these precepts?
Do we engage in character assassination including what we are saying to ourselves? Are our thoughts free from aggressive and hurtful thoughts towards others and ourselves? Do we try to “kill” another’s spirit through hurtful comments, or negative views of self? Do we gossip or tell small lies? Do we treat sex as a mindful expression of generosity or simply a means of satiating our own desires? Do we take (even emotionally) what is not freely given? Do we obsessively use drugs, alcohol, TV, food, yoga, golf, work or anything else to escape the reality of our lives?
Obsessive behavior of any kind is an expression of discursive conditioned thinking caused by the manifestations of desire.
From an entirely liberated view the precepts lead to being mindful of how we can enhance the life experience of others and free ourselves from discursive conditioned behavior. We learn how to use our speech in a loving and compassionate way to bring healing and liberation to others. Our sexual relations are characterized by gentleness and giving. We develop great generosity of spirit. We keep our bodies pure and our minds clear resulting in well-concentrated virtuous acts arising from wisdom.
Meditation practice develops concentration and insight of conditioned thinking. Holding in mind, being mindful of the Eightfold Path and the Precepts we are able to remain mindful of conditioned thinking and how conditioned thinking arises in our daily lives. As less-than-skillful thoughts, words and deeds arise while maintaining mindfulness of the precepts in this present moment, we are able to clearly see the results of clinging, craving and desire. With this insight, we are now able to put these distracting and discursive mind states aside with complete mindfulness of their cause and resulting condition.
Our very lives, moment by moment, become our practice. We stay present with whatever mind state arises, without aversion, gaining deeper and deeper insight into mind. Ultimately, through a complete practice of integrating the Eightfold Path into our lives through practicing these precepts, we are able to recognize all conditioned thinking.
An effective way of incorporating these precepts into our lives is to spend a few minutes during our sitting practice to review mindfully how we have practiced these principles in our daily life. When we start our day we can develop the strong intention to keep the precepts and to be mindful of them.
For those practicing what the Buddha taught as a path of liberation, being mindful of these basic precepts in one’s life will greatly increase our awareness of less than skillful thoughts and actions. Being mindful of our present moment thoughts, words and deeds is key to deepening insight into mind and putting aside conditioned thinking.
Unpleasant or agitated mind states that arise, whether fleeting or persistent, are all born of desire. Desire is a reaction due to ignorance of our true and essential nature. Out of a perceived need to be different than we are in this present moment, a choice is made that more of what brings pleasure should be pursued and what brings unpleasantness should be avoided.
Avoidance or aversion is also pursuit through worry, self-doubt, harsh judgements and fear. Aversion is the desire that a past or present experience be different than experienced, or a desire that a future event be different than expected.
Holding in mind negative mind states is mindfulness arising from conditioned thinking. This unskillful mindful pursuit leads to more craving and aversion and more delusional thinking. Often being mindful of negative mind states is viewed as a way of understanding how these mind states were caused. A singular phenomenal cause is impossible to determine. Attempting to isolate a specific singular cause will only lead to more discursive thinking. All stress arises from manifestations of desire, and once acknowledged within the context of the Eightfold Path and the Precepts, insight arises and the reaction of conditioned mind is interrupted.
By following these five precepts, we will live completely moral and ethical lives, liberated and free from harmful actions and reactions, and we are able to develop deeper levels of skillful mindfulness with our complete practice.
Through mindfulness of the Four Noble Truths including the Eightfold Path, and by holding in mind the Precepts, we are placing mindful awareness on the path of liberation and freedom and ceasing mindfulness of stress-causing desire.
A complete Dhamma practice of mindfully integrating the Four Noble Truths will lead to liberation and freedom from stress, confusion and suffering. Holding in mind the precepts in thought, word and deed develops a gentle and compassionate integrity to practice.
Enjoy your practice. Peace.
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My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Acharya Buddharakkhita, Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland, Maurice Walsh, Hellmuth Hecker, and Sister Khema, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.
Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.
I have made edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain contextual relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.
Becoming-Buddha.com and Dhamma articles and recordings by John Haspel are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.