The Buddha advised His followers to follow this Path so as to avoid the extremes of sensual pleasures and self-mortification. The Middle Path is a righteous way of life which does not advocate the acceptance of decrees given by someone outside oneself. A person practises the Middle Path, not out of fear of any supernatural agency, but out of the intrinsic value in following such an action. He chooses this self-imposed discipline for a definite end in view: self-purification.
The Middle Path is a planned course of development and progress. A person who lives in accordance with the Teachings, or Dhamma will be guided and protected by that very Law. When a person lives according to Dhamma, he will lives in harmony with universal laws. He will be free from miseries and calamities both in this life-time and hereafter. By restraining from evil and observing morality, he will also be able to develop his mind
The Eightfold Path can be compared to a road map. Just as a traveler will need a map to lead him to his destination, we use the Eightfold Path which shows us how to attain Nirvana, the final goal of human life. To walk this path, there are three aspects of the Eightfold path to be developed. He has to develop Morality, Mental Development and Wisdom. While the three must be developed simultaneously, the intensity with which any one area is to be practised varies according to a person’s own spiritual development. A person develops Morality by faithfully adhering to the precepts of abstaining from killing, stealing, being uncontrolled in lust, false speech, and becoming intoxicated . As he develops his morality, his mind will become more easily controlled, enabling him to develop his powers of concentration. Finally, with the development of concentration, wisdom will arise.
As the Buddha knew that not all humans have the same ability to reach spiritual maturity at the same pace, he expounded the Noble Eightfold Path for the gradual development of the spiritual way of life in a practical way. He knew that not all people can become perfect in one lifetime. He said that Morality, Mental Development and wisdom must and can be developed over many lifetimes with diligent effort. Despite the time taken by the individual, this path will lead him to the attainment of ultimate peace.
The Eightfold path consists of the following eight factors:
Right Understanding; Right Thoughts
Right Speech; Right Action; Right Livelihood
Right Effort; Right Mindfulness; Right Concentration
“Few among men are those who cross to the further shore. The rest, the bulk of men, only run up and down the hither bank. But those who act according to the Dhamma, will cross the realm of Death, so difficult to cross. ~ Dhammapada 85, 86”
What is Right Understanding? It is explained as having the knowledge of the Four Noble Truths. In other words, it is the understanding of things as they really are. Right Understanding includes the understanding of karma and how they may be performed with the body, speech and mind. By understanding karma, a person will learn to avoid evil and do good, thereby creating favorable outcomes in his life. When a person has Right Understanding, he also understands the Three Characteristics of Life (that all compounded things are transient, subject to suffering, and without a Self) and understands the Law of Dependent Origination. A person with complete Right Understanding is one who is free from ignorance, and by the nature of that enlightenment removes the roots of evil from his mind and becomes liberated.
When a person has Right Understanding, he or she develops Right Thought as well. It refers to the mental state which eliminates wrong ideas or notions and promotes the other factors that directs one to Nirvana. This factor serves a double purpose of eliminating evil thoughts and developing pure thoughts. Right Thought is important because it is one’s thoughts which either purify or defile a person.
There are three aspects to Right Thought. First, a person should maintaining an attitude of detachment from worldly pleasures rather than being selfishly attached to them. He should be selfless in his thoughts and think of the welfare of others. Second, he should maintain loving-kindness, goodwill and benevolence in his mind, which is opposed to hatred, ill-will or aversion. Third, he should act with thoughts of harmlessness or compassion to all beings, which is opposed to cruelty and lack of consideration for others. As a person progresses along the spiritual path, his thoughts will become increasingly benevolent, harmless, selfless, and filled with love and compassion.
Right Understanding and Right Thought, are Wisdom factors, leads to good, moral conduct.
“Any sensual bliss in the world, any heavenly bliss, isn’t worth one sixteenth-sixteenth of the bliss of the ending of craving. ~ Raja Sutta, Udana”
There are three factors under Morality: Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. Right Speech involves respect for truth and respect for the welfare for others. It means to avoid lying, to avoid backbiting or slander, to avoid harsh speech, and to avoid idle talk. We have often underestimated the power of speech and tend to use little control over our speech faculty. But we have all been hurt by someone’s words at some time of our life, and similarly we have been encouraged by the words of another. It is said that a harsh word can wound more deeply than weapons, where as a gentle word can change the heart and mind of the most hardened criminal. We speak words which are truthful, brings harmony, kind and meaningful. The Buddha once said “pleasant speech is sweet as honey, truthful speech is beautiful like a flower, and wrong speech is unwholesome like filth”.
The next factor under Morality is Right Action. Right Action entails respect for life, respect for property, and respect for personal relationships. It corresponds to the first three of the Five Precepts to be practised by every Buddhist. Hence, we should abstain from taking a life which we ourselves cannot give and we should not harm other sentient beings. Respect for property means that we should not take what is not given, by stealing, cheating, or force. Respect for personal relationship means that we should not commit adultery and avoid sexual misconduct, which is important for maintaining the love and trust of those we love as well as making our society a better place to live in.
Right Livelihood is a factor under moral conduct which refers to how we earn our living in society. It is an extension of the two other factors of Right Speech and Right Action which refer to the respect for truth, life, property and personal relationships.
Right Livelihood means that we should earn a living without violating these principles of a moral conduct. Buddhists are discouraged from being engaged in the following five kinds of livelihood: trading in human beings, trading in weapons, trading in flesh, trading in intoxicating drinks and drugs, and trading in poison. Some people may say that they have to do such a business for their living and, therefore, it is not wrong for them to do so. But this argument is entirely baseless. If it were valid, then thieves, murderers, gangsters, thugs, smugglers and swindlers can also just as easily say that they are also doing such unrighteous acts only for their living and, therefore, there is nothing wrong with their way of life.
Some people believe that fishing and hunting animals for pleasure and slaughtering animals for food are not against the Buddhist precepts. This is another misconception that arises owing to a lack of knowledge in Dhamma. All these are not decent actions and bring suffering to other beings. But in all these actions, the one who is harmed most of all is the one who performs these unwholesome actions. Maintaining a life through wrong means is not in accordance with the Buddha’s teaching.
“Though one should live a hundred years immorally and unrestrained, yet it would indeed be better to live one day virtuously and meditatively. ~ Dhammapada 103”
The remaining three factors of the Noble Eightfold Path are factors for the development of wisdom through the purification of the mind. They are Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. These factors, when practised, enable a person to strengthen and gain control over the mind, thereby ensuring that his actions will continue to be good and that his mind is being prepared to realize the Truth, which will open the door to Freedom, to Enlightenment.
Right Effort means that we cultivate a positive attitude and have enthusiasm in the things we do. There are four aspects of Right Effort, two of which refer to evil and the other two to good. First, is the effort to reject evil that has already arisen; and second, the effort to prevent the arising of evil. Third, is the effort to develop un-arisen good, and fourth, the effort to maintain the good which has arisen. By applying Right Effort in our lives, we can reduce and eventually eliminate the number of unwholesome mental states and increase and firmly establish wholesome thoughts as a natural part of our mind.
Right Effort is closely associated with Right Mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness is important in Buddhism. The Buddha said that mindfulness is the one way to achieve the end of suffering. Mindfulness can be developed by being constantly aware of four particular aspects. These are the application of mindfulness with regard to the body (body postures, breathing and so forth), feelings (whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutrally); mind (whether the mind is greedy or not, angry, dispersed or deluded or not); and mind objects (whether there are mental hindrances to concentration, the Four Noble Truths, and so on). Mindfulness is essential even in our daily life in which we act in full awareness of our actions, feelings and thoughts as well as that of our environment. The mind should always be clear and attentive rather than distracted and clouded.
Whereas Right Mindfulness is directing our attention to our body, feelings, mind, or mental object or being sensitive to others, in other words, putting our attention to where we choose to, Right Concentration or Meditation is the sustained application of that attention on the object without the mind being distracted. Concentration is the practice of developing one-pointedness of the mind on one single object, either physical or mental. The mind is totally absorbed in the object without distractions, wavering, anxiety or drowsiness. Through practice under an experienced teacher, Right Concentration brings two benefits. Firstly, it leads to mental and physical well-being, comfort, joy, calm, tranquility. Secondly, it turns the mind into an instrument capable of seeing things as they truly are, and prepares the mind to attain wisdom.
The Noble Eightfold Path is the fourth important truth taught by the Buddha. As a competent spiritual physician, the Buddha has identified a disease that afflicts all forms of life, and this is Dukkha or unsatisfactoriness. He then diagnosed the cause of the unsatisfactoriness to be selfish greed and craving. He discovered that there is a cure for the disease, Nirvana, the state where all unsatisfactoriness ceases. And the prescription is the Noble Eightfold Path. When a competent doctor treats a patient for a serious illness, his prescription is not only for physical treatment, but it is also psychological. The Noble Eightfold path, the path leading to the end of suffering, is an integrated therapy designed to cure the disease of Samsara through the cultivation of moral speech and action, the development of the mind, and the complete transformation of one’s level of understanding and quality of thought. It shows the way to gain spiritual maturity and be released completely from suffering.