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:
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
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.
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
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:
wisdom right views
moral discipline right speech
concentration right effort
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.