The essence of many of the Buddha’s discourses and teachings can be found in the Eightfold Path, often referred to as the Path of Liberation. It is not a path we walk only once or in a particular order. It’s meant to be a guide for specific areas of life in which we can experience and discover the nature of reality.
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Welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 83, I am your host Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about the Eightfold Path.
As always, before I jump into the topic, keep in mind the Dalai Lama’s advice, “Do not use what you learned from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are.” So with that, I want to recap. In the last podcast episode, I talked about the Four Noble Truths, or the four truths for those who would be noble, or the four tasks, however you want to think of that framing, with the acronym ELSA, which E is embrace the instance of suffering, the first truth. L, let go of the reactive pattern … And remember, what we’re letting go of is the pattern, not reactivity itself. I think this is a misconception that I want to be clear about.
It’s not that we let go of reactivity, and that we won’t react in any negative way when something arises. That’s not what this is about. This is the reactive pattern, it’s that one thing leads to another, that leads to another, that leads to another. And somewhere in that chain of reactivity, you can pause, you can see the stopping the reactivity, which is the third one, the S in ELSA. And when you see the stopping of the reactivity, it’s the pattern, you let go of the reactive pattern. That’s not the same thing as letting go of reactivity. I just want to be clear about that.
And with this process of seeing the stopping of reactivity, it’s like asking yourself, “Is the observer of the emotion also experiencing the emotion?” That’s kind of what it’s like to see the stopping of the reactivity, which leads us to the fourth one. The A in ELSA is act skillfully. Keep in mind, this word skillfully is used deliberately, because it’s not about acting the right way versus the wrong way. It’s about understanding ourselves, our intent, and trying to make the most skillful choice with whatever it is that we’re about to do, whatever the situation at hand is.
So the podcast episode for today, the Eightfold Path, is essentially this: act skillfully. How do we act skillfully, and what areas of life? So that’s what I want to talk about in this podcast episode. So the word that’s used in the original writings, when referring to the four noble truths, the fourth truth is a word that’s called … The word is magga, and it’s a polyword, and it means path. So the idea here is that what we’re talking about is a path, and the Buddha taught … In all of his teachings, he dealt with this concept of the path in one way or another.
And it may have been explained differently to different people according to where they were on their own individual paths. The Buddha was known for that, kind of speaking to people and explaining things from where they were, not explaining something that would go over their heads. But the essence of the Buddha’s many discourses and teachings can essentially be found in this idea of the Eightfold Path, often referred to as the path of liberation, or the path to the cessation of suffering.
So I want to talk about this a little bit. The eight parts of the path are typically grouped into three categories. And these categories are wisdom, ethical conduct, and mental discipline. So we’ll go through this, and the Eightfold Path … Keep in mind, this isn’t meant to be followed in sequential order. All eight areas are typically developed simultaneously in an ongoing way. So they’re all linked in the sense that each one helps with the cultivation of the other parts of the path.
So the eight parts of the path grouped in their three categories. The first category is wisdom. The parts of the path that pertain to wisdom are skillful understanding and skillful intent. So understanding and intent are the first two. The next three fall into this category of ethical conduct, and these are skillful speech, skillful action and skillful livelihood. And then the final three fall under the category of mental discipline, and these are skillful effort, skillful mindfulness and skillful concentration.
So again, the Eightfold Path is not a path that we walk once or in a particular order, like you master this, then you move on and you master that one. It doesn’t really work that way. You’ll notice how various segments of the path seem to overlap and rely on each other. And some of them flow into or relate back to each other as well. It’s also not a moral code that’s intended to be follow in the sense of the Ten Commandments or something in Christianity, it’s not really like that.
The components have the word right, typically. Like, if you pick up a book on Buddhism, you’ll probably find that the Eightfold Path is explained with the word right. Right understanding, right intent, right speech, right action. And I think that can be a little bit misleading, because in our Western way of thinking, in our dualistic way of thinking, right has an opposite, it has a wrong. So if I’m doing this right speech, then what is wrong speech? And so that doesn’t really arise in a lot of Eastern thinking, because a lot of Eastern thinking is non-dualistic, so there’s no problem with saying right something, because they’re not opposing that with wrong something. But we do in the West, so I find it more beneficial to use the language of skillful when we’re talking about these things.
So don’t think of these in terms of right versus wrong. Instead, think of them as whys or skillful ways of living. And the Eightfold Path is meant to be a guide for specific areas of life in which we can experience and discover the nature of reality. So this concept of walking the path, it’s an ongoing practice that can bring a new sense of awareness and perspective in our lives, because we’re always on the path.
So let’s talk about the first section related to wisdom. What does it mean to skillful understanding? Well, right or wise understanding starts by simply recognizing that what we’re seeing might not actually be what we think it is, or what it appears to be. So I’ve used this analogy before, but imagine walking into a barn and you see a coiled hose, and you mistake it for a snake. You wouldn’t be experiencing reality, but rather the picture of reality in your head. And you might immediately react as though there really were a snake, giving a gasp or being startled, or turning and running away. Yet, in reality, there is no snake. Wisdom is like turning on the light in the barn and revealing that the snake was actually a hose.
So we’re continually seeking wisdom to help us learn and see the world the way that it really is. And the four noble truths and the Three Marks of Existence, which I didn’t talk about in the last episode, but essentially suffering, impermanence and the concept of no self, or non-self, helps us to have a wise understanding of the nature of reality. So the wisdom of understanding is not about acquiring more knowledge. In fact, I would say it’s the opposite, it’s about trying to unlearn the concepts and ideas that prevent us from seeing reality as it is. So that’s the idea of right or skillful understanding.
So let’s talk about the next one, skillful intent. What does it mean to have skillful intent? If we want to reduce suffering, we need to be aware of the intentions we have regarding the things that we say and do. So when our intentions stem from anger or hatred, they’re more likely to cause harm than if they stem from happiness or gratitude. When we behave reactively, it’s very difficult to be mindful of the intent behind our words and actions, because typically we’re reacting. It takes practice to become aware of our intentions, and you can start this practice by asking yourself, “Why? Why am I reacting this way to the things that are unfolding in life? Why am I feeling anger?”
I like to ask myself, “Why am I experiencing this emotion?” When I notice I’m experiencing and emotion, I like to pause and ask myself that. And you can do that not just when you’re experiencing what we would say are unpleasant emotions, but even the pleasant ones. You can say … If you’re always kind to someone, ask yourself why. “Why am I always kind to this person? Is it because I genuinely care about this person, or am I trying to gain something? Favor with them?” Again, this is just about understanding our intent, and it requires asking a lot of questions.
When you become aware of your intentions, you can decide if you need to create new intentions and perhaps let go of old ones. So this will cause you, ultimately, to speak and act more skillfully. So the whole idea with skillful intent is spend time with yourself and ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” I’ve found in my own life that understanding the intent behind some of the things I say and think and do … It’s really revealed a lot to me about me, the nature of my tendencies and habitual processes and stuff. So again, all of this is meant to be a very personal journey. This is you getting to know you. There’s not an answer that applies to everyone, so only you can unlock and understand your own intent.
So those are the first two. Now let’s move on to the third one, which falls into the category of ethical conduct, so this is the ethical conduct section. We’ll start with skillful speech. What does that mean? Well, the way we communicate, whether it be with ourselves or with others, is an essential part of creating a peaceful and harmonious life. We are social creatures, and communication is the most important part of human relations. So right speech means communicating with others in a way that doesn’t cause unnecessary harm, and that includes all forms of communication. When we say skillful speech, we’re not just talking about talking. It’s writing and texting and emailing and facebooking, all forms of communication.
So lying, gossiping or insulting others, those are examples of unskillful speech. That is not skillful speech. But also unskillful speech would be complimenting people when you don’t mean it, giving promises that you don’t intend to keep. Sucking up to someone with the intent of just trying to impress them, that’s also going to fall under this area of unskillful speech. So it’s not just about being nice. With skillful speech, what you’re trying to do is consider why you say something as much as what you’re saying. So the why and the what are equally important.
So consider the different between constructive criticism and destructive criticism. Constructive criticism may be hard to hear, but the goal of it is to help you become better at what you’re doing. The latter is intended just to cause pain. So skillful speech doesn’t always have to be pleasant or nice. It doesn’t need to withhold ideas out of fear that someone might disagree with you. But what we’re trying to accomplish is sincere and genuine communication with the intent of not causing unnecessary harm.
So again, skillful speech is one of those … You have to spend time with this and understand your intent. “Why do I say the things that I say? Why do I say them the way that I say them?” Tone and language and intent, all of that falls in there. So you can evaluate your own speech and determine if you practice skillful communication or skillful speech.
Okay, so let’s move on to the next one, skillful action. What does mean? Is it a set of rules to follow? It essentially means that we’re doing what is proper and necessary for any given situation. So while this sometimes includes — and it certainly doesn’t discourage — a sense of doing the right thing, morally, it more closely resembles a guideline for behaving appropriately in any situation. The problem with having a set moral code is that moral codes change. They evolve over time, and they’re different in different cultures. So adhering to the moral code of another place and another time may not be the wisest form of action for our specific place and time.
And there’s a quote that’s often attributed to H.L. Mencken, that says, “Morality is doing what’s right regardless of what you’re told. Obedience is doing what you’re told regardless of what’s right.” So skillful action is not a set of rules to be followed to the letter in every situation. It’s not about obedience, so … I mean, how could it be when life is continually changing and evolving? Ideally, skillful understanding and skillful thinking and skillful speech will give rise naturally to skillful action, your wisdom leading you to behave fittingly in any scenario, because you are practicing these other aspects of the path.
So if I’m trying to skillful in my communication and understanding my intent, and I have an understanding of the nature of constant chance, it’s going to be more natural for my actions to also be skillful, naturally, not because I’m trying to follow some set of rules. So hopefully that makes sense in terms of this concept of skillful action.
So the next one is skillful livelihood. What does that mean? People will ask, “Does Buddhism consider certain jobs to be better than others?” Well, livelihood in general, it’s how we make a living. It’s how we interact with others while making a living, so it involves what we do and how we are without our co-workers. And again, it’s a personal one. We each need to determine for ourselves if what we do for a living is doing more harm or good for ourselves and others.
And you may be thinking, “Okay, this is obvious. Drug dealers do harm, doctors do good.” But this teaching goes beyond just the type of job, or the type of career that we have. It includes how we interact with our co-workers, with our customers, with the planet. It wouldn’t be skillful livelihood if a doctor were causing harm by taking bribes from a pharmaceutical company and prescribing a certain medicine over another. “Even though it may be a good medicine, there’s one that would be better, but I’m going to prescribe this one, because I benefit from it.” That would be an example of unskillful livelihood, even though in other areas you might be saying, “But it’s a doctor, and they’re helping.”
So ultimately, it’s up to us to make the judgment call regarding the way that we make a living. I think it’s a good idea to incorporate skillful intent in the determination process. Try asking yourself questions like, “Why am I doing what I’m doing?” And remember, right livelihood or skillful livelihood, it’s not necessarily about picking a job with the Red Cross or some other humanitarian cause. It’s about doing what you do with the best intent to not cause harm, regardless of what your job is.
I used to work for a company that sold health supplements, and I’ve mentioned this in the podcast for a while. After working there for some time, I kind of became uncomfortable with the sales method that we used, because we would entice people to try the supplement by signing up for a free trial, and then they would be automatically enrolled in a monthly subscription for the supplement, and they were often unaware of that, because that was in the fine print.
And while I believe in the product itself, I was very uncomfortable with the harm and the frustration we were causing on so many people who were not reading the fine print when signing up for their free trial. And for me, this job became an example of feeling like it was not a form of skillful livelihood. I did end up leaving that job and finding another where I didn’t have a conflicting feeling about the livelihood and the way that I was gaining that.
So again, it’s a personal thing. It’s not about a list, “And here are the jobs that are good, and here are the jobs that are bad.” It doesn’t work that way. This is another form of introspection, and it’s you spending time analyzing what you do, and asking yourself if it’s a skillful form of livelihood.
Okay, so now let’s look at the mental disciplines. We’re going to talk about skillful effort. What does it mean? Is it just about trying harder, trying to be better? What does it mean? So skillful effort is what it takes to put into practice all the other parts of the path. It takes effort on our part if we want to experience any kind of positive change in our lives. In order to learn a new skill, whether it be music, sports, business or anything like that, we have to apply effort, and without it we usually make little to no progress.
So in the same way, skillful effort affects everything we do in the world. I’ve talked about this, I’ve been trying to play guitar for about 10 years, and I’ve never actually mastered it, because I’ve had a hard time putting in the effort required to practice. I’ve started and ended lessons over and over and over. But there are other things that I’ve put time into. I’ve put time into having a podcast. Most recently, I’ve dedicated a lot of time and effort to my hobby of paramotoring and paragliding, and I went and became a flight instructor, because that’s something that I want to do. And I know that it takes effort to be the most skillful pilot that I can be, and I wouldn’t be a skillful pilot if I didn’t have the correct amount of effort going into that. So that’s one way of seeing this.
Skillful effort is about dedicating the time and the work required to become more mindful, and to become aware of the nature of reality. Without the effort, there simply cannot be any form of awakening, or realization, or self-awareness, or any of that stuff. And I think this is a common thing to run into. I hear this all the time, people who will say, “Hey, I really want to live more mindfully, and to have more peace and contentment in life.” And that’s it. There’s not enough effort to say, “So I’m willing to meditate.” Or, “I’m willing to read books to understand the nature of human psychology.” Or … There’s no effort to do anything other than, “I just want it, and I want it without having to do anything.” And that’s where we run into trouble, because without effort, how do you have these things?
So again, this is a form of introspection where we evaluate ourselves and say, “How much effort am I putting into the thing that I’m trying to accomplish?” Whether that be … really anything, right? But I think in the Buddhist practice, and in the sense of the Eightfold Path, it’s the effort required to be more awake, to be more mindful, to live with more contentment and joy. And ultimately, again in the Buddhist sense, it’s to achieve enlightenment, to aspire to put in the necessary effort to wake up in the way that the Buddha woke up, that’s what we’re after here.
So the next one. What does it mean to have skillful mindfulness? This is about meditating. Well, skillful mindfulness is about paying attention. Whether we’re meditating or just going about our daily tasks, being mindful helps us to stay anchored in the present moment, and staying anchored in the present moment keeps us in touch with reality as it is. And Thích Nhất Hạnh describes it in this way, which I really like. He says, “When you have a toothache, the feeling is very unpleasant. And when you do not have a toothache, you usually have a neutral feeling. However, if you can be mindful of the non-toothache, the non-toothache will become a feeling of peace and joy. Mindfulness gives rise to, and nourishes, happiness.” I really like that.
In this sense, mindfulness helps us become aware that at any given moment we are capable of experiencing contentment and joy, it’s just a matter of increasing our sphere of awareness. It’s about noticing all of the non-toothaches that we’re currently experiencing. That’s who I like to think of this concept of skillful mindfulness.
Okay, the final of the Eightfold Path is skillful concentration. The question here is, what does that mean? Is it about sitting an focusing on something? Is this the ultimate goal of meditation? Well, skillful concentration is the practice of focusing the mind solely on one thing, whatever it is we’re doing at the moment. And meditation is a great tool to practice concentration. When we think of meditation, we typically think of sitting cross-legged on the floor with our eyes closed, on a cushion or something like that. And yeah, that’s definitely one way to practice, but meditation can be so much more than just sitting. We can practice meditation while we’re washing the dishes, while we’re walking, when we’re listening to our partner or spouse, to our kids, or doing virtually any other activity.
So I find it helpful to think of the opposite of skillful concentration as distraction. Whether it’s the chime on our smartphone indicating that a new text has arrived, or one of the thousands of advertisements that compete for our attention, distraction is … it’s everywhere. Distraction prevents us from seeing life as it really is, and from seeing the truth about the nature of ourselves and others.
And I talked about this story before, if one time when I decided to ride my bike to work instead of driving, and while rounding the bend in the road, I noticed a red barn behind a cluster of trees out in the field. And I had driven past this exact spot almost daily for years, focusing on driving, distracted either by the radio or just thoughts about work, and I’d never really noticed this building. But on this specific day, going slowly and paying attention, I discovered something new that had been there all along. And that’s kind of the idea of skillful concentration.
Imagine how many things are waiting to be discovered or seen about others, about ourselves, when we simply slow down and pay attention and stay aware. That is the essence of skillful concentration, it’s slowing down, trying to notice things that we hadn’t notice before. And not just physical things like the red barn. This is introspective stuff, it’s like saying, “I’ve never sat with my emotions long enough to try to understand them.” And a huge example of this that I’ve given before, is the understanding of sitting with an emotion like anger long enough to understand that the anger was actually not anger, it was anchored in something deeper, a sense of shame, for example, or embarrassment.
So when you sit with an emotion, and you try to understand it more, you learn something about it that that’s what it was all along, but you didn’t know that, because you’re often distracted with other thoughts, and memories, and other emotions. And we try to push some emotions away, some thoughts away, and we don’t sit with them long enough to concentrate. “What does this really feel like? What does it feel like to be experiencing this emotion? Where could this be coming from?” When you sit like that, in that form of concentration, insight arises and you understand, “Oh that’s … Okay, that’s why I’m feeling this way. Oh, that’s why that means so much to me.” That’s the goal of concentration, again, to gain new insight.
So those are the eight sections of the Eightfold Path, and what I hope to do in the next podcast episode, is give some examples of ways that we can actually practice being mindful, because with the Four Noble Truths as tasks, and then the Eightfold Path with descriptions of it all, that’s all great, but in our day-to-day lives what things can we do to actually start practicing this? Do we just sit on a cushion for 15 minutes? What is that going to do? I want to get into that deeper, and give you some actual examples of practices that I do, practices that I apply, and practices that I’ve recently put in my newest book, The 5-Minute Mindfulness Journal. Because the goal of all of this is to have something tangible that you can actually put into practice and start applying, and see change, see something beneficial come from all of this, from this practice.
So I’m going to share that in the next podcast episode. But for now, again, thank you for taking the time to listen to the podcast. If you want to learn more about these concepts, you can always check out the book, No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners. You can check out my newest book, which is actually available starting today on Amazon as a pre-order, and that’s The 5-Minute Mindfulness Journey … or journal. The 5-Minute Mindfulness Journal. And that will be available … I think it ships on December 25th, but it is available for pre-order now. And again, the whole purpose of that books is to have actual exercises that you can do in five minutes or less, to start applying mindfulness into your day-to-day life, and gaining more insight and understanding about the nature of your self and the nature of reality.
You can learn about both of those books if you visit my website, noahrasheta.com, I have links in there. I also have a link to the new book on secularbuddhism.com. And as always, if you’ve enjoyed this podcast episode, feel free to share it with others, write a review, give it a rating on iTunes. And if you’d like to join the online community, visit secularbuddhism.com/community. And if you’d like to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, you can visit secularbuddhism.com and click on the Donate button. And that’s all I have for now. I look forward to recording the third section of this overall discussion in the next podcast episode. So until then, thank you, and until next time.