The Buddha was aware of the problem of suffering before his enlightenment, and he left his palace to become a wandering monk because he believed that the solution was possible. And the discovery that made him distinctly the Buddha was the Noble Eightfold Path. This path is called the middle way because it avoids two extremes: indulgence in sensual pleasures and extreme asceticism.
It is widely believed that all Buddhist practice the Noble Eightfold Path as a standard way of adhering to the Buddha’s teaching. But this is hardly the case because it’s, in fact, the pinnacle of the Buddhist practice that leads to supreme liberation and enlightenment. For the general population, the Buddha prescribed various other practices that served as the entry point to the path.
We also might get the impression that the Noble Eightfold Path is a sequential path going from factor one to factor eight, but that is an imperfect understanding of the path. All factors arise in a certain sequence, and each factor absorbs and builds upon the previous factors. And thus, the ideal model of the practice has all eight factors working together in unison.
Here’s a beautiful talk given by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi on the Noble Eightfold Path:
1. The wisdom group. The first two factors of the path, right view and right intention, are placed in the wisdom group or subdivision of the path.
The right view (or right understanding) can be understood as the forerunner of the Noble Eightfold Path, so we can compare it to the eye of the path and other factors to the legs of the path. The scope of the right view includes all other principles of the Buddha’s teaching. On one level, it means understanding the law of Kamma and its results, how our intentional actions create Kamma that has the potential to ripen and bring results as we go through the round of rebirths. This aspect is also called the mundane right view. The second aspect is the liberative right view which leads to liberation. It includes understanding such principles as the three characteristics of existence (impermanence, suffering, non-self), the law of conditioned arising, and especially the Four Noble Truths.
Right intention (or right purpose) is the second factor of the path. It signifies the purposes and motivations that govern our behavior and conduct. The first type of right intention is the intention of renunciation or detachment. What this means is that as the understanding of the Four Noble Truths develops in mind, it leads to a recognition that it’s our craving and greed that generate our suffering. As a result, we have a growing detachment from the compelling voice of craving that tells us that we need this or that to be happy. The next type of right intention is called intention of goodwill; it develops out of your understanding of suffering in other people and could be called loving-kindness, the wish for others to be well and happy. The third type of right intention is called intention of harmlessness which blossoms in the spirit of compassion, wishing to remove the suffering of others.
2. The moral discipline group. The next three factors, right speech, right action, right livelihood, constitute the ethical sub-group of the Noble Eightfold Path.
Right speech includes abstaining from false speech and instead speaking the truth, abstaining from slanderous speech and instead speaking in ways that promote unity and harmony, abstaining from harsh speech and instead speaking gently, abstaining from gossip and instead speaking in ways that are beneficial to others.
Right action includes three factors that constitute right bodily action: abstaining from taking life, stealing, and sexual misconduct.
Right livelihood is about avoiding five types of wrong livelihood. The first type of wrong livelihood is dealing in living beings, including the slave trade and trading in animals or raising animals for slaughter. Other four types of the wrong livelihood include: dealing in weapons, dealing in poisons, dealing in intoxicating substances (alcohol, drugs), and earning one’s living by selling meat.
3. The concentration group. The last three factors of the path — right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration — are included in the concentration group of the Noble Eightfold Path.
Right effort is the effort to train the mind to eliminate the unwholesome states and cultivate the wholesome states. The first type of right effort is to restrain the mind when one sees the unwholesome tendencies starting to arise. That is one of the things that we learn during meditation because until we start practicing meditation, unwholesome tendencies can rise up in very subtle ways, and we don’t even recognize them. The second type is to abandon the unwholesome states or defilements by using the appropriate method for overcoming them. The third type of effort is to cultivate the wholesome states of mind: faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. Once one develops the wholesome states of mind, the fourth type of effort is to stabilize, maintain, and then develop them further until they come to fulfillment.
Right mindfulness leads us to the core of the Buddhist meditation practice. The purpose of mindfulness here is to deepen one’s awareness of the various aspects of one’s own being, one’s own bodily and mental existence to pave the way for the arising of insight and wisdom. The Buddha divided the objects of mindfulness into four foundations: mindful contemplation of the body, feelings, states of mind, and dhammas (phenomena).
Right concentration. When the right effort and right mindfulness work together, they can lead to what we call the right concentration. These are four stages of very deep, one-pointed unification of the mind, states of concentration (samadhi) in which the mind becomes completely absorbed in its object without any arising of discursive thought. What important to know about the right concentration is that it’s not an end in itself. When it occurs and has all the other seven factors unified with it, it uses the concentrated mind to examine and investigate the nature of the body and mind in terms of the impermanence of all phenomena, which brings the arising of insight that leads to liberation.