Understanding the Eightfold Path as a Practice

By December 4, 2017 Mindfulness
(Last Updated On: June 17, 2018)

The Noble Eightfold Path is is one of the most important and foundational Buddhist teachings. Teachings like this may be read, understood, and contemplated, but we have to utilize them as a practice and investigation. The Eightfold Path is not just something we read and understand, but a path of practice.

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What is the Noble Eightfold Path?

The Noble Eightfold Path is the Buddha’s instructions on cultivating liberation, and the fourth of the Four Noble Truths. The Eightfold Path consists of eight factors in three sections:

Noble Eightfold PathPanna (Wisdom)
-Wise View
-Wise Intention

Sila (Ethics)
-Wise Speech
-Wise Action
-Wise Livelihood

Samadhi (Meditation)
-Wise Effort
-Wise Mindfulness
-Wise Concentration

These factors are offered in a list format, but are not necessarily to be cultivated in a linear fashion. Many of the factors relate to each other intimately, and we cannot cultivate one without also cultivating others. With these eight factors, the call to action from the Buddha is to take these teachings and use them in our lives and practice to cultivate liberation. The Buddhist monk and scholar Bhikkhu Bodhi says of the Eightfold Path:

“The choice of a spiritual path is closer to marriage: one wants a partner for life, one whose companionship will prove as trustworthy and durable as the pole star in the night sky.”

Sila – Ethics

Although it isn’t traditionally the first portion of the path, we’re going to start with sila, or ethics. The three factors that fall under ethics include Wise Speech, Wise Mindfulness, and Wise Livelihood. These are practices and teachings on our behavior in the world. At the core of Buddhist ethics is living in a way that doesn’t cause harm to others and cultivates joy and freedom in ourselves and others.

This means acting in a way that helps others, rather than hurting. This is important for many reasons. We don’t want to cause harm or suffering to other beings, as this will not lead to our happiness or the liberation of those around us. Furthermore, unskillful behavior can significantly impact our practice. As Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield says:

“It’s very difficult to sit and meditate after a day of lying and stealing.”

Practicing ethics can start with the practice of the five precepts, or training rules. These are not just rules, but investigations and practices. We use mindfulness to look at our actions and how they may be causing suffering on others.

We can also take a look at our livelihood and how we earn a living. Is what we do for money wholesome, or does it cause suffering? This is the core of ethics practice. The teaching is to investigate how we carry ourselves in word, thought, and deed, bringing awareness to the karma of our actions.

Panna – Wisdom

The second part of the path is panna, or wisdom. This includes the factors of Wise View and Wise Intention (sometimes called Wise Thought). We can cultivate these qualities in meditation practice, looking at our experience and thoughts to see clearly the Three Marks of Existence, the Four Noble Truths, and karma.

Wise View may be understood most simply as seeing things clearly. In practice in daily life, this can mean a number of things. Personally, I’ve found that one of the ways in which “wrong” view arises is in fixed views. I find myself believing something without true investigation. This comes up in thoughts like, “I always do this,” “this person is _______,” or “this experience is always ________.”

When we fall into a fixed view on something, we often are not using information and wisdom in the moment. To practice Wise View in daily life, we can practice being open-minded by questioning our thoughts and experience. You can ask yourself the simple question, “Is this true?” You can also always take one step deeper with any experience, asking yourself what lies beneath.

To investigate Right Intention, we can work on the three main ways of practicing: intention of goodwill, intention of renunciation, and intention of harmlessness. Try asking yourself, “What is my deeper intention in this moment?” Often, our intentions are base don a biological response or some social pressure to be right, strong, or however we perceive we are “supposed” to be. Instead, we can return to our intentions to not cause harm, to care for the wellbeing of others, and to not grasp.

Samadhi – Meditation

The meditation factors are obviously to be cultivated in meditation practice, but we can also work on these factors in daily life. First, we can meditate! Yes, that seems obvious, but it’s worth reflecting on this point. The Buddha taught of these eight factors to relieve suffering, and three of them directly call for meditation practice. So grab a meditation cushion and sit!

The first of these factors is Wise Effort, which is traditionally done in meditation practice. However, we can also cultivate this factor in our daily life by investigating the effort we put forth. We can look at our effort in many regards, but perhaps the most relevant way is tuning into our effort around cultivating wholesome qualities and not causing suffering. Are you putting effort forth to act with wisdom and care for both yourself and others?

We can of course cultivate mindfulness in daily life as well. There are so many things to be mindful of: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, and thoughts to begin with. We can be mindful of the effects of our actions on others, how other people are feeling, and our cravings and aversions. You can also check out our post 8 Ways to Bring Mindfulness to Daily Life for more ways to practice!

Finally, there is concentration. I find myself listening to music while working, watching TV and playing a game on my phone, or cooking dinner and thinking about work. Notice when the mind is bouncing around or when you’re experiencing monkey mind. Try to collect the mind on one experience or task at a time, cultivating this ability to be with something in the same way we may do with the breath in formal meditation practice!

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Author Matthew Sockolov

Matthew Sockolov is a Buddhist meditation teacher and author. He was empowered to teach meditation by Spirit Rock Meditation Center, and is the founding teacher of One Mind Dharma. His new book, Practicing Mindfulness - 75 Essential Meditations is now available on Amazon.

More posts by Matthew Sockolov

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