The Eightfold Path is one of the core elements of Buddha-dharma. The Eightfold Path consists of guidelines which, if adhered to, will result in an alleviation of suffering.(1) This is one of the universal teachings in all of Buddhism, something which theMahayana, Theravada and Vajrayana, as with all the esoteric traditions, share in common at their core. In the book The Zen Path through Depression, Philip Martin writes, “The Eightfold Path does not lead to a goal. Instead, it is itself the embodiment of the goal. In setting foot on the path, we have already moved into the fullness of life.”(12) According to Zenkai Taiun Michael Elliston, in his piece “We Are All Addicted“, “Cultivation is Buddhism’s prescription for practicing the Eightfold Path.” The Eightfold Path is the result of the Buddha’s insight into the nature of existence, presented in Buddhist teachings as The Four Noble Truths.
The following has been pulled together from a variety of sources. The main eight elements of the path are taken from the book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Zen Living. The explanatory texts are taken from a variety of sources, which you will find in the references section.
Right understanding (samma ditthi)– seeing this world clearly free of spiritual ignorance–is essential to the spiritual life. There is a famous quote from the late Shunryu Suzuki roshi found in part three (Right Understanding) of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind in which the roshi says, “Our understanding of Buddhism is not just an intellectual understanding. True understanding is actual practice itself.”(2) For a more technical definition of right understanding, Peter Harvey has defined it as relating “mainly to such matters as karma and rebirth, making individuals take full responsibility for their actions. It also covers intellectual, and partial experiential, understanding of The Four Ennobling Truths.”(3) The Four Ennobling Truths being more often called The Four Noble Truths, of course.
Right thought (samma samkappa) is, according to the The Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Buddhism by Samir Nath, “…free from lust, ill will, cruelty, and untruthfulness.”(4) The late Korean master Seung Sahn says this about right thought in his book The Compass of Zen:
“All of us have opinions, and we are often very attached to them. We have strong likes and dislikes. We are also attached to our condition and situation. “I am a woman.” “I am a man.” “I am a Zen Buddhist.” “I believe in Jesus.” “I am American.” “I am Japanese.” When we hold on to these conditions, we cannot completely connect with this world and all beings. We only see the small “I, my, me” world we have made, and we cannot help others. Right Thought means not becoming attached to any views, not holding our opinion and condition and situation, and only keeping a before-thinking mind that spontaneously wants to help all beings.”(5)
Gill Farrer-Halls, author of The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Buddhist Wisdom, seems to agree with the late Korean master Seung Sahn, writing, “Right Thought is about changing this habitual and self-centered way of thinking. Then we start to consider others and think more altruistically. We want to practice Buddhism in order to be of benefit to other beings in our environment, not just to make ourselves happy or powerful. At the start we will of course naturally tend to think somewhat selfishly but we can practice changing our motivation.”(6)
Right Thought has three aspects of practice to it for students to engage:
Right speech (samma vaca) means, according to Helen Baroni, “…abstaining from four kinds of destructive speech: lying, slander, abuse, and idle talk.”(7)
Angel Kyodo Williams, in her book Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace, writes, “Right speech is about being thoughtful and aware of what comes out of your mouth. It’s not just what you say, but how you say it. It is about being awake to what repercussions your words can have once they have been said.”(8) Storyteller Rafe Martin, in his book Endless Path: Awakening within the Buddhist Imagination: Jataka Tales, Zen Practice, and Daily Life, writes, “With right thought comes right speech – effective, to the point, considerate, compassionate. At the least there may be a gatekeeper holding back more damaging words and converting them to something more skillful before they emerge. This is the practice of alertness. Words can damage. They can kill hope, love, dignity, trust. With right speech, our words give life, show possibility, open ways of healing, harmony, and lovingkindness rather than opening gates of hatred and despair. Right speech also means not lying for selfish purpose.”(9)
On Right action (samma kammanta), Soto Zen priest Marc Lesser, in his book ZBA: Zen of Business Administration, writes that, “Right action is intimately connected to right view, right thinking, and right speech. Our views, thinking, and speech cannot be separated from how we act. I once heard a teacher explain that the essence of Zen is just to ‘not make things worse,’ highlighting just how difficult it is to be a human being. Zen defines doing good as expressing compassion, cultivating kindness, working toward ending social injustice, and being generous with your time and energy.”(10)
Also known as samma ajiva, in The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Zen Buddhism by Helen J. Baroni, the author writes, “Right livelihood involves avoiding certain occupations that inevitably cause harm to other sentient beings, such as military service, butchering, or fishing.”(7) As Christopher Ives has put it, “Right livelihood indicates occupations consistent with Buddhist values, and hence traditionally has excluded the work of butchers, executioners and manufacturers of (and dealers in) intoxicants and weapons. These ethical facets of the Path support meditation and religious insight.”(11)
In his book Endless Path: Awakening within the Buddhist Imagination: Jataka Tales, Zen Practice, and Daily Life,Rafe Martin offers the following response to such assertions, writing, “Butcher and fishermen would seem to be precluded from right livelihood, yet great Zen practitioners in ancient China had been hunters and fishermen – though most seem to have given it up as their practice matured.”(9)
Also known as samma vayama, on page 44 of Shunryu Suzuki’s classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki roshi says, “If your practice is good, you may become proud of it. What you do is good, but something more is added to it. Pride is extra. Right effort is to get rid of something extra.”(2) The The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Zen Buddhismby Helen Baroni says that, “Right effort means to avoid unwholesome actions that create bad karma and to encourage good actions that create good karma.”(7)
The late Korean master Seung Sahn had this to say:
“Right effort means always trying hard in your meditation practice. Sick or healthy, busy or free, tired or rested – it does not matter. Only try, try, try, for ten thousand years, nonstop. Only do it. That is all!”
Merv Fowler writes on Right mindfulness (samma sati) in his book Zen Buddhism: Beliefs and Practices:
“Right mindfulness is a mindful awareness of four main areas of consideration, bodily activities (kaya); feelings or sensations (vedana); activities of the mind (citta); and the arising and control of thoughts and ideas.
In connection with the body, special measures are required to rid ourselves of ignorance and enhance our mental development; concentration on breathing (anapanasati) being one of them. Concentration (yoga) leads eventually to enlightenment; there being stage by stage progressions which developed this. In connection with activities of the mind, we should be aware that our minds have a propensity to lean towards one or more of the three defilements – greed, hatred and delusion – and one should act accordingly to overcome this inclination. It has been well said that the only common factor all Buddhists have is the will to control the three defilements.”(13)
Right concentration (samma samadhi), according to author an Zen scholar Merv Fowler, “…refers specifically to the use of meditation as a vehicle to control and discipline the mind, to lose the sense of ego. The unfocused, indisciplined mind in its normal delustory state is quite unsuited to perceive Ultimate Truth, but meditation enables the Buddhist to do just this.”(13)
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Zen Living by Gary McClan and Eve Adamson
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki (p. 44)
Buddhism (World Religions: Themes And Issues) by Peter Harvey (p. 89)
The Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Buddhism by Samir Nath
The Compass of Zen by Seung Sahn (p. 100)
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Buddhist Wisdom by Gill Farrer-Halls
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Zen Buddhism by Helen Baroni (p. 77)
Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace by Angel Kyodo Williams (p. 110)
Endless Path: Awakening within the Buddhist Imagination: Jataka Tales, Zen Practice, and Daily Life by Rafe Martin (p. 242; 244)
ZBA: Zen of Business Administration by Marc Lesser (p. 90)
Zen Awakening and Society by Christopher Ives (pp. 4 – 5)
The Zen Path Through Depression by Philip Martin (p. 78)
Zen Buddhism: Beliefs and Practices by Merv Fowler (p. 60)