The way to the end of dukkha

Dukkha, its origin, its cessation, and the way to its cessation — these are the Four Noble Truths, the  "elephant's footprint" that contains within itself all the essential teachings  of the Buddha. It might be risky to say that any one truth is more important than the others, as they all hang together in a very close integral unit. But if we were to single out one truth as the key to the whole Dhamma, it would be the fourth noble truth, the truth of the way, the way to the end of dukkha. That is the Noble Eightfold Path:

  • right views
  • right intention
  • right speech
  • right action
  • right livelihood
  • right effort
  • right mindfulness
  • right concentration
Without the path, liberation from suffering would be a mere dream.

We say that the path is the most important element in the Buddha's teaching because the path is what makes the Dhamma available to us as a living experience.  Without the path, the Dhamma would just be a shell, a collection of doctrines without inner life, without the immediacy of lived experience.

The Buddha’s discovery — the path

The Noble Eightfold Path is not a creation of the Buddha; rather the path was discovered by the Buddha. Whether a Buddha arises or not, the path remains as the indispensable means to enlightenment.

The discovery of the Noble Eightfold Path might be called the primary significance of the Buddha's enlightenment.

When living in the palace as a prince, he had already recognized the unsatisfactory nature of existence. He had recognized the hard facts of old age, sickness and death, and he had lost his worldly complacency, his desire for power, fame and sense pleasures. Thus even from the start he had an intuition, a confidence, that there was a way out of suffering, a state of liberation beyond the round of birth and death. Because of his confidence, he was able to leave the palace to go in search of deliverance.

But what he did not know – what he had to find - was the path to deliverance, and with the discovery of the path he was able to escape the trap of ignorance, to reach enlightenment, to attain his own liberation and to guide others to liberation.

A way to awakening

The path is essentially a way to awakening, a means to generate in our own minds the same experience of enlightenment that the Buddha himself went through while sitting beneath the Bodhi tree.

In the causal chain that originates Dukkha, the Buddha points out that all the suffering and unsatisfactoriness we meet in the round of becoming arises because of our craving and clinging. This craving and clinging in turn is nurtured by ignorance, by blindness to the real nature of things that shrouds our minds. To get free from suffering, it is necessary to eliminate the fundamental root of all bondage, ignorance. To eliminate ignorance what is needed is the exact opposite — knowledge, the superior wisdom that shines brightly and eclipses the darkness of ignorance.

But this wisdom does not arise out of nothing. It arises out of conditions. The set of conditions that lead to enlightenment constitutes the Noble Eightfold Path.

In describing the path the Buddha says that it produces knowledge and vision.

The Middle Way

The Buddha calls the Noble Eightfold Path the middle way, because this path avoids all extremes in conduct and in views. There are two extremes, the Buddha points out, which a seeker of enlightenment must steer clear of:

Indulgence in desire
While some hold the view that sensual indulgence, the grasping of luxury and comfort, is the greatest happiness, the Buddha, from his own experience, calls this way a low, inferior, ignoble course which does not lead to the realization of the highest goal.

Those who follow the extreme of self-mortification hold that the way to liberation is through strict and austere asceticism. The Buddha himself followed this path of asceticism before his enlightenment, but he found that it does not lead to the goal. Therefore he called the path of self-affliction, painful, ignoble and not conducive to the goal.

In place of these extremes the Buddha holds up the Noble Eightfold Path as the middle way. It is not called the middle way because it lies in between the two extremes as a compromise between too much and too little, but, because it rises above them. The middle way is free from their errors, from their imperfections, from the blind alleys to which they lead.

Two types of path

It is important to understand that there are two kinds of Noble Eightfold Path: the mundane and supramundane.

The mundane path
The mundane path is developed when we try to purify our discipline, to develop concentration and to arouse insight either in day-to-day practice or in intensive periods of practice on retreats.

"Mundane" here does not mean a worldly path in the ordinary sense, that is a path leading to wealth, fame or worldly success. This mundane path leads to enlightenment, and in fact we have to practice the mundane path to reach the supramundane path. It is called mundane path because even at this highest level of insight contemplation, it still involves the contemplation of condition objects, that is, things included in the five aggregates.

The supramundane path
The supramundane path is the direct seeing of Nibbana, the unconditioned element.

People often mistake the Noble Eightfold Path for a mere path of ethical conduct. They think that as long as they are living within basic framework of morality, they are in accordance with the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Noble Eightfold Path is the way leading to the cessation of Dukkha. When we practice the mundane path, our understanding gets deeper and deeper, sharper and sharper and when insight reaches its climax, at some unexpected moment a sudden radical change can take place. When wisdom stands at its highest point, if all the faculties of the mind are fully mature and the wish for enlightenment is strong and steady, then the mind turns away from all conditioned phenomena and focuses on the unconditioned element. When the mind breaks through to the realization of Nibbana, the eight factors constitute the supramundane path or transcendental path.

Components of the path

The eight factors of the Noble Eightfold Path are not steps to be followed in sequence, one after another. They can be more aptly described as components rather than as steps, comparable to the intertwining strands of a single cable that requires the contributions of all the strands for maximum strength. With a certain degree of progress all eight factors can be present simultaneously, each supporting the others. However, until that point is reached, some sequence in the unfolding of the path is inevitable. Considered from the standpoint of practical training, the eight path factors divide into three themes or stages of training:

right views
right intention

moral discipline
right speech
right action
right livelihood

right effort
right mindfulness
right concentration

As with the Four Noble Truths, this course offers an introduction to the Noble Eightfold Path, which acts as a foundation for a future Ashoka course which will guide you in applying the path in your life.

While following the Noble Eightfold Path is a matter of practice rather than intellectual knowledge, to apply the path correctly it has to be properly understood. In fact, right understanding of the path is itself a part of the practice. It is a facet of right view, the first path factor, the forerunner and guide for the rest of the path. Understanding the path is, then, essential to ultimate success in the practice.


The Noble Eightfold Path

1 of 4

Qualities of the Dharma
The Four Noble Truths
The Noble Eightfold Path
The True Nature of Existence
  The Five Aggregates of Clinging
  Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta
  Dependent Arising
  Kamma, Nibbana and Rebirth


The Sangha
The Buddhist Sangha