August 29th Reading: The Eightfold Path

The Eightfold Path

The fourth Noble Truth describes the set of steps we can take to let go of clinging: the Noble Eightfold Path, namely,

1. Right Understanding
2. Right Intention
3. Right Speech
4. Right Action
5. Right Livelihood
6. Right Effort
7. Right Mindfulness
8. Right Concentration

These eight aspects to the path are often organized into three categories: wisdom, ethics and meditation (pañña, sila, and samadhi).

Wisdom encompasses Right Understanding and Right Intention. It begins with knowing ourselves well enough so that our motivation to practice arises from understanding how the Four Noble Truths relate to our personal situations.

Ethics encompasses Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood. Theravada Buddhism teaches that we cannot culti- vate an open, trusting and non-clinging heart if our behavior is motivated by greed, hatred or delusion. A powerful way to devel- op and strengthen an awakened heart is to sincerely align our actions with the values of generosity, kindness, compassion, and honesty.

And finally, awareness training encompasses Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. With an effort that is neither tense nor complacent, we cultivate clarity and sta- bility of awareness so that we can see deeply into life. This, in

turn, helps facilitate the cessation of clinging.

A Gradual Training

The suttas frequently show the Buddha describing a gradual training to cultivate spiritual development (e.g., Samaññaphala Sutta in the Digha Nikaya, and Ganakamoggallana Sutta in the Majjhima Nikaya.) This training moves progressively from the cultivation of generosity, to ethics, to mindfulness practices, to concentration, to insight, and finally to liberation. The gradual training is an expansion of the three categories of the eight-fold path, with generosity and ethics included in sila, meditation practices in samadhi, and insight and liberation in pañña. While this gradual training is often presented in a linear fashion, it can also be seen in a non-linear manner as a helpful description of important elements of the spiritual path that different people develop at different times. Westerners who undertake Theravada practice often skip some of the early stages in the progression. Instead they initially focus on awareness practices, particularly mindfulness. Although there may be good reasons for this in the West, by starting with mindfulness we may be bypassing the cultivation of healthy psychological qualities of mind and heart that support its foundation. In addition, by starting with mindfulness practice, we may overlook the fact that both the awakening and awakened heart can find its expression in service to others.


Traditional Theravada training begins with sila and the cultivation of generosity (dana). In its highest form, the practice of dana is neither motivated from moralistic ideas of right and wrong, nor from possible future rewards. Instead, the intention of this practice is to strengthen our ability to be sensitive and appropriately generous in all situations.

As generosity develops, it becomes a strength of inner open- ness that supports the more challenging practices of mindfulness. As the practice of generosity reveals our clinging and attach- ments, it helps us to appreciate how the Four Noble Truths apply to our own lives. Through generosity we connect with others, weakening any tendency toward self-centeredness or self-obses- sion in our spiritual lives.


From here, the gradual training expands sila to include ethics, sometimes described as the cultivation of contentment, since eth- ical transgressions often arise out of discontentment. For a layperson, ethical training means learning to live by the five pre- cepts:

  1. To refrain from killing any living being
  2. To refrain from stealing or taking what is not given
  3. To refrain from sexual misconduct
  4. To refrain from speaking what is not true
  5. To refrain from using alcohol or drugs that cause us to be careless or heedless

The precepts are not meant as moralistic commandments, but rather as guidelines for cultivation. They are taught because they strengthen qualities of restraint, contentment, honesty, clar- ity and respect for life. They also create a healthy relatedness to other people and to other forms of life. We can more easily progress along the path of non-clinging when our relationships are in order.

The Theravada tradition advocates the cultivation of four warm-hearted attitudes known as the divine abidings (brahma- viharas): loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Loving-kindness is a selfless friendliness or love that desires the good and happiness for oneself and others.

Compassion and sympathetic joy—complementary expressions of loving-kindness—involve sharing in, but in no way clinging to, the suffering and joys of others. Equanimity is an even, firm, balanced attitude toward whatever occurs, especially in situations where we cannot help others or ourselves. Theravada Buddhists commonly use these attitudes as guides for how to best live in relation to others.

Excerpt from : “The Issue at Hand” by Gil Fronsdal – Full text can be found here.