The Noble Eightfold Path (N8P) is the means whereby we can achieve meaningful happiness according to the Buddha It consists of eight aspects of spiritual practice that are intended to free the individual from the rounds of ordinary mundane existence (and thus mundane conceptions of happiness) and help the individual progress towards enlightenment, and thus true happiness.
My interpretation of the eight aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path is as follows:
1. Right Understanding – striving for a direct insight into the true nature of reality and self. This will ultimately involve the realisation and acceptance of the impermanence of all things; of the fact that there is no-I, and acceptance of the unsatisfactory nature of contingent human existence.
2. Right Intention – encouraging positive emotions and eradicating negative emotions towards others. More specifically this involves making the effort to act with pure motives, namely love and compassion, which can be seen as an expression of the truth of No-I, and to eradicate actions that are motivated by fear, anger and hatred.
3. Right Speech –speaking truthfully and usefully, promoting harmony, and making the effort to be honest and help others in their efforts in walking the Buddhist path. This also incorporates non-verbal communication and can also be usefully read as expressing the truth. Finally this means knowing when to be silent, which is necessary to the later meditative aspects of the path.
4. Right Action – acting out of love and compassion for others and practising the five precepts - avoiding harming or exploiting others, lying, stealing, obsession with sense desires, and taking intoxicating substances.
5. Right Livelihood – engaging in socially useful and non harmful social and economic roles that are consistent with other aspects of the path.
6. Right Effort – making a constant and persistent effort to eradicate the five hindrances which are craving, ill-will, restlessness, tiredness and anxiety and encouraging positive states which are conducive to transcendence of the self, namely happiness, investigation, energy, rapture, concentration, equanimity and tranquillity.
7. Right Mindfulness – being constantly aware in the moment – of one’s environment, of one’s self and of other beings.
8. Right Concentration - committing to engage in some form of formal meditation, typically involving at least an hour a day of focused concentrated awareness. There are various different forms of meditation, all of which are best learnt through experience in a meditation class with reputable practitioner.
A few general points about the path as a whole:
As I understand it the purpose of the N8P is to realise deep happiness through focusing one’s efforts on thinking and acting selflessly and earnestly trying to embody at a very deep level selfless love and compassion for other beings, which is in accordance with the true nature of reality which consists of the inherent insubstantiality of self and interconnectedness of all things. In doing this we are literally giving up the self, or the small I, that fussy creature which is what most of us run around after trying to keep happy, but which in Buddhist philosophy is actually the root cause of all our suffering.
Giving up the self requires constant effort in all aspects of the path, and this kind of diligence is nothing like our typical notions of happiness which involve achieving temporary, euphoric states when I am temporarily united with a situation that I like. It is one of the ironies of the path that if I am to attain true happiness, then I need to give up my traditional common sense efforts to achieve temporary shallow happiness through selfish attachment.
The holistic nature of the N8P is most important. It is likely that the first aspect of the path, right understanding, will be the starting point for many which will then be followed by effort to put the other seven aspects into practice. However, the image of a path is potentially misleading, as the eight aspects form a set of mutually reinforcing aspects to be engaged in simultaneously. This is in fact one of the reasons why the terms ‘aspects’ or ‘limbs’ are sometimes preferred to the term ‘stages’. Referring to aspects or limbs also helps us to remember that we should be focussed in this present moment rather than constantly worrying about the future. Whichever terms one prefers and however one perceives the path, it is best not to get caught up in intellectual meanderings as this is a way of practice above all else.
Finally, while there are eight aspects of the path it is worth mentioning here that the path is also conceived of as being divided into three broader categories:
1. Developing wisdom, which incorporates Right Understanding and Right Intention
2. Moral Conduct, which incorporates Right speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood, which essentially means rejecting most of the ordinary pleasures of mundane life and striving to develop the genuine intention of compassion towards all living beings in all of our actions.
3. Right Concentration, which incorporates and Right effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.
Sources I have found especially useful in understanding Buddhism include:
Firstly, Bhikkhu Bodhi’s (2006) book – The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of Suffering, and secondly a 1968 series of lectures on the N8P given by Sangharakshita, founder of a certain Buddhist organisation formerly known as Friends of the Western Buddhist Order.