The Noble Eightfold Path is sometimes represented symbolically as the eight spokes of the Dharma Wheel. And just like each spoke of a wheel does not work on its own, completely independently and in isolation from the rest, but rather they all act together as a support for the entire wheel, so too, each step on the Noble Eightfold Path acts in conjunction with the rest as a support in ones life for the Dharma. Remove one spoke and the wheel is not as strong. Remove several spokes and the wheel may even collapse. They are all equally important. To follow the Noble Eightfold Path means to be mindful of each of these ‘spokes’ or steps, to put them into practice, day in and day out. Gradually, over time, if we persist, each area of our lives will become more in line with the Dharma until ultimately we are free of suffering and liberated from the unsatisfactory nature of samsara.
The Noble Eightfold Path has been further grouped into three sections, sometimes called the Three Higher Trainings. These are Wisdom, Ethical Conduct and Meditation. Right View and Right Intention are part of Wisdom. Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood are part of Ethical Conduct. Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration are part of Meditation.
— Wisdom —
1) Right View
Right View, also sometimes translated as Right Understanding, means to clear away delusional thinking and to see things as they really are, to see reality as such, free from elaborations, distortions and obscurations. In the Maha Satipatthana Sutta (part of the Digha Nikaya – the Long Discourses – from the Pali Canon), it is written:
“And what is right view? Knowledge with regard to suffering, knowledge with regard to the origination of suffering, knowledge with regard to the cessation of suffering, knowledge with regard to the way of practice leading to the cessation of suffering: This is called right view.”
From these statements we can ascertain that Right View entails a correct understanding of the Four Noble Truths, which are themselves, as mentioned previously, the realizations Buddha attained while in deep meditation at the Bodhi Tree.
2) Right Intention
While Right View indicates an appropriate understanding of Dharma and the nature of reality, Right Intention signifies appropriate motivation, the orientation or guiding force behind ones actions (of body, speech and mind). Right Intention can be summarized as the intention or motivation towards 1) renunciation (meaning the determination to be free from suffering), 2) overcoming anger and aversion and 3) cultivating compassion and non-harm towards oneself and all others.
— Ethical Conduct —
3) Right Speech
What we say can really affect other people. Harsh words, lying, gossip and so forth are all unskillful types of speech. From the Samyutta Nikaya (in the Pali Canon), it is written regarding Right Speech:
“And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter: This is called right speech.”
Right Speech means being mindful of how our speech affects other beings. It is also connected to our own ethical and moral training. Being aware of our speech helps to cultivate more skillful mind states, affecting our own internal thought patterns and mental chatter as well.
4) Right Action
Right Action is being mindful of how we use our bodies, how we act in the world, how we act towards other beings. Just like what we say can really affect people (positively or negatively), what we do also affects other beings. Our actions can be skillful or unskillful, they can help others or harm others, they can be creative or destructive. Killing, stealing and sexual misconduct are examples of unskillful actions. These are all listed in the Five Precepts as actions which, as Buddhists, we make effort to avoid while cultivating wholesome acts instead.
5) Right Livelihood
This step of the Eightfold Path is in reference to what one does to earn a living. We all have to pay bills, have food and shelter and other necessities of life, yet Right Livelihood asks us to thoughtfully consider how we do this. In modern terminology, it refers to your job, work and/or vocation in life. The Buddha specifically identified five different means of livelihood that lay Buddhists should avoid, being 1) business in weapons, 2) business in human beings, 3) business in meat, 4) business in intoxicants, and 5) business in poison. These are all still relevant today, yet we also should be mindful of what type of job we engage in in our complex society that might not be listed above. We have to make a decision whether what we do is ultimately harmful. What is the background of the organization you work for? How does the organization affect the environment? Other people? Are they honest or deceptive? The concept of Right Livelihood poses these and other questions regarding ones chosen career.
— Meditation —
6) Right Effort
Some type of effort is typically required to attain a given goal. Right Effort indicates the force of will, the self-discipline, required to avoid unwholesome states that have not yet risen, to abandon unwholesome states that have already arisen, to cultivate wholesome states that have not yet arisen and to sustain and increase wholesome states that have already arisen. This is grouped under the category of Meditation as there are several types of mind training that are used within Dharma practice to attain these goals. Right Effort means applying energy towards these ends rather than wasting it on unwholesome or unskillful pursuits.
7) Right Mindfulness
‘Mindfulness’ here can also be translated as awareness. It implies a specific type of awareness that is free from conceptual elaboration. It is a penetrating and clear discernment of whatever object or phenomena we are applying the principle of mindfulness to. In regards to Right Mindfulness, the Buddha spoke about four foundations or bases where it is useful to apply this practice – mindfulness of the body, of feelings, of the mind itself and of the mental qualities which arise in the mind.
8) Right Concentration
This step of the Eightfold Path is about meditation. The Sanskrit term being translated here as ‘concentration’ is Samadhi. This indicates a very deep state of one-pointed concentration, where all the forces of the mind can be tamed and directed towards a specific object of meditation and held there indefinitely. Our thoughts typically float around from point to point with no particular rhyme or reason. Our minds are flooded with thoughts, sense impressions, memories, wants, desires, fears, anxieties, hopes, etc. This becomes quite obvious if we attempt to sit in quiet meditation and focus our attention on one particular object (for example, our breath) to the exclusion of all else. Yet though this seems neigh impossible for many of us at first, it is a skill that can be cultivated and developed over time, with the right effort applied, and it can lead, ultimately, to liberation and enlightenment.