The Noble Eightfold Path

Morning by the Sea-2The noble eightfold path is the most standard description of the Buddhist way of practice. The Buddha taught it to his first disciples and to his last [§240], as well as to the majority of those in between. It is called noble because when all of its factors come together in a fully developed form, they stand on the threshold to stream-entry, the first of the noble or transcendent attainments.

The image of “path” used for the factors of this set has two major implications, which we have already encountered in II/D. First, the image implies that these factors are means to an end, not an end in themselves; second, they lead to, rather than cause, the goal. In the context of this set, this image has two levels of meaning: On the beginning level, the path is a series of qualities that one must consciously develop, step by step, in order to bring oneself nearer to the goal. On the ultimate or “noble” level, it is a convergence of those qualities, fully developed, within the mind at the point of non-fashioning, leading inexorably to the Deathless. On the beginning level, one must work at following the path, but on the noble level the path becomes a vehicle that delivers one to the goal.

The eight factors of the noble eightfold path fall under the three “aggregates” of discernment, virtue, and concentration (pañña-khandha, sila-khandha, samadhi-khandha): right view and right resolve fall under the discernment aggregate; right speech, right action, and right livelihood under the virtue aggregate; and right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration under the concentration aggregate. Passage §105 states that although the factors of the noble path fall under these three aggregates, the three aggregates do not fall under the factors of the noble path. What this means is that not every instance of discernment, virtue, or concentration within the mind would count as a factor of the noble path. To begin with, there are such things as wrong virtue, wrong concentration, and wrong discernment [see, for example, §152]. Secondly, even right virtue, concentration, and discernment count as noble only when brought to a level of advanced development. This point is reflected in §106, which distinguishes mundane and noble levels for each factor of the path. Even though the mundane factors counteract blatant cases of wrong view, wrong resolve, etc., they still are conjoined with subtle levels of mental effluents and can lead to further becoming. Nevertheless, one must first nurture the mundane levels of the eight factors before they can develop into their noble counterparts.

On the mundane level, the first five factors of the path correspond to the faculty of conviction. Right view on this level means believing in the principle of kamma and trusting that those who have practiced properly truly understand the workings of kamma in this life and the next. In the Buddha’s words, this level of right view holds that “There is what is given, what is offered, what is sacrificed. There are fruits and results of good and bad actions. There is this world and the next world. There is mother and father. There are spontaneously reborn beings; there are contemplatives and brahmans who, faring rightly and practicing rightly, proclaim this world and the next after having directly known and realized it for themselves.” What this passage means is that there is merit in generosity; the moral qualities of good and bad are inherent parts of the cosmos, and not simply social conventions; there is life after death; one has a true moral debt to one’s parents; and there are people who have lived the renunciate’s life properly in such a way that they have gained true and direct knowledge of these matters. These beliefs are the minimum prerequisites for following the path to skillfulness, as they necessarily underlie any solid conviction in the principle of kamma.

Mundane levels of right resolve then build on right view, as one resolves to act in ways that will not create bad kamma; mundane right speech, right action, and right livelihood result naturally as one follows through with one’s resolve. Right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration on this level correspond to the faculties of persistence, mindfulness, and concentration. Right concentration, in turn, provides a basis for insight into the four noble truths, which counts both as the faculty of discernment and the noble level of right view.

Once right view reaches the noble level, it brings the remaining factors of the path up to the noble level as well. One of the striking features of this level of the path is that it consists primarily of discernment and concentration [see the “qualities that are to be developed” in §111], with the boundaries between the two increasingly blurred. The noble level of right resolve, part of the discernment aggregate, consists of directed thought, evaluation, and mental singleness, all of which are factors of jhāna. The noble level of right speech, right action, and right livelihood differ from the mundane levels of those factors in that the emphasis here is on the state of mind of the person abstaining from wrong speech, action, and livelihood.

Although §106 does not define the noble levels of right effort, mindfulness, and concentration, it seems safe to assume that they are equivalent to the fifth factor of noble right concentration [§150], to be discussed under III/E and III/F, in which all three of these factors converge with right view and right resolve in a state of full development. In fact, their mutual reinforcement is what makes these factors all “right.”

This point is confirmed by §111, which states that when the noble eightfold path goes to the culmination of its development, tranquility and insight act in concert. This point also explains the statement at the beginning of §106 to the effect that the path consists primarily of right concentration, with the remaining factors as its supports and requisite conditions: These supports and conditions not only lead to right concentration, but when they all become noble, all eight factors coalesce in the mind in a state of solid oneness. Whereas on the mundane level the path factors, though interconnected, were separate, on the noble level they form a single, unified path.

When the noble eightfold path is attained, the mind reaches the level of stream-entry, the first of the four levels of Awakening [§107]. Thus the noble eightfold path represents the culmination of all seven sets in the Wings to Awakening [§111]. To attain each of the next two levels of Awakening — once-returning and non-returning — the eight noble path factors must converge again in the mind. However, to attain the highest level — Arahantship — the eight noble factors must converge together with two more: right knowledge and right release. Right knowledge is nowhere defined per se in the Canon, but §195 would seem to indicate the following relationship between it and right view: Right view is realization of the four noble truths and the duties appropriate to each, while right knowledge is the realization that the duties have been brought to fulfillment. The conjunction of right knowledge and right release reflects, on a higher level, the conjunction of discernment and concentration on the noble level of the eightfold path. Passage §76 suggests that release here can be considered as analogous to concentration, albeit totally unshakable. Right knowledge would include awareness of the unshakability of the release [§195], while the release would remain unshaken even in the face of that knowledge.

At this point, even the path can be abandoned, for one has reached the goal [§113]. Abandoning, here, does not mean that one reverts to wrongs views, wrong action, etc.; rather, one no longer needs to use right view, etc., as a means to a further attainment.

As MN 107 and SN 22.122 state, the Awakened one continues practicing meditation and exercising right view as pleasant dwellings for the mind, conducive to mindfulness and alertness, and leads a moral life both for its inherent pleasure and for the sake of the example it offers to those still on the path.

The noble eightfold path, like the seven factors for Awakening, is explicitly explained both as a causal loop and as a holographic formula. We have already described the causal loop above, in showing how the development of the mundane and noble path factors follows the pattern of the five faculties [see also §101]. Passage §106 presents a holographic pattern, in which the development of each factor needs three main supporting factors: right view, which acts as the leader so as to know what the right and wrong versions of the factors are; right effort, which makes the effort to abandon the wrong version and develop the right; and right mindfulness, which keeps the task of right effort in mind. Thus three factors that we have identified as essential to the development of skillfulness — discernment, mindfulness, and effort [I/A] — are involved at each step along the path. As a result of that involvement, they grow stronger to the point where they can help turn mundane right concentration — the fourth factor essential to the development of skillfulness — into noble right concentration. In this sense, they play a role analogous to that of heedfulness in the five faculties and appropriate attention in the seven factors for Awakening. In fact, they seem to be a complete working out of the elements implicit in those two qualities.

A quick review of the seven sets will show that all of them develop both in a linear and in a holographic way. Even the “holographic” sets — the frames of reference, right exertions, and bases of power — contain implicit versions of causal loops, in that all three must follow the three stages of frames-of-reference meditation. Even the linear causal-loop sets — the five faculties and strengths, the seven factors for Awakening, and the noble eightfold path — contain implicit holographic formulae, in that the dynamic of their development is inherent in specific qualities or clusters of qualities: heedfulness in the case of the faculties and strengths, appropriate attention in the case of the factors for Awakening, and the cluster of right view, right mindfulness, and right effort in the case of the noble eightfold path.

This combination of linear and holographic patterns grows more complex as we remember that each of the first two stages of frames-of-reference meditation can form linear causal loops within themselves [II/B], while two of the factors in the three-part cluster that develops the eightfold path — right mindfulness and right effort — are equivalent to the holographic sets of the frames of reference and the right exertions.

This formal convergence of two causal patterns in the development of the path reflects not only the dual principle of this/that conditionality, but also a very practical point in the task of developing the skills of the mind. The holographic pattern reflects the fact that all the skillful qualities needed for the path are already there in the mind and continually interact along the path. All that is needed is for them to be ferreted out and nourished, their coordination fine-tuned, and they can deliver the mind to the goal. The causal loop pattern reflects the fact that the process must take place over time, as specific qualities are stressed at specific junctures and strengthened by being put to use, and as different skillful qualities need to alternate in helping one another, step by step, along the way. An analogy can be made with learning how to walk: A child who can’t yet walk already has all the muscles needed to walk, but she must locate them and exercise them in a coordinated way so that the right and left leg can help and receive help from each other, in order to move from the first tentative step to the point where walking becomes natural and can be done with grace.

Source: “Wings to Awakening: Part II”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff). Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, .

©1996 Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

The text of this page (“Wings to Awakening: Part II”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. To view a copy of the license, visit Documents linked from this page may be subject to other restrictions. Sixth revised edition, 2011. Transcribed from a file provided by the author. Last revised for Access to Insight on 30 November 2013.

[Notes have been excerpted from the above source by Alexander Peck.]