Buddhists believe that enlightenment is available to all beings and can be achieved using what they refer to as the The Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path is a set of simple, straight forward, and logical guidelines for living life in an ethical, open-minded, openhearted, and always evolving fashion. I discovered this path about ten years ago while studying Zen Buddhism. Although I do not claim to be an expert in the official tenants of Buddhism, I hope to share with you my personal understanding of The Eightfold Path.
Life is replete with suffering for all beings. This is an integral lesson found within the Four Noble Truths of Buddhist teachings. Once realized we can choose to continue suffering or determine to overcome our suffering. This is the reason d'etre of The Eightfold Path.
Those steps that lead one towards overcoming suffering are listed as follows:
- Right Understanding
- Right Thought
- Right Speech
- Right Action
- Right Livelihood
- Right Effort
- Right Mindfulness
- Right Meditation
A Zen Koan (a type of riddle that is intended to bring about wisdom) states, "One cannot hammer a nail into empty space." The word "Right" is used in this sense. In other words, Right means to do something in a way that effectively leads one towards a conciously determined goal.
Once we acknowledge that we are suffering, we must determine why we are by understanding our suffering. If we wish to resolve a problem we must first understand it, define it, turn it over and over examining it until we understand the problem inside and out.
- Suppose I'm overcome with anxiety. Why am I anxious? I'm anxious because I owe money on my credit cards. Do I want these debts? No. Why not? Debts eat away my earnings and make it difficult, if not impossible, to save or spend money on other more important things. The debts divert much needed resources into a blackhole causing anxiety over my financial future. So what next?
Right Thought is when we make the conscious and resolved choice to resolve our suffering. Through pure determination we make the mental choice to solve the problem through focus and steadfastness. What are those thoughts that will lead me to solve the problem? Stick to that mental path.
- What's the real problem, my anxiety or my debts? Certainly I can ignore the debts, but they lower the quality of my life and the anxiety can certainly resurface from time to time due to this. So I am determined to pay off my debts. How important is this? Very important. I will put this high on my priority list and not let my desire for instant gratification or a present higher standard of living deter my determination to pay off all of my debts.
Through our speech we can extend and reinforce our mental determination to overcome our suffering. By speaking about it and making it tangible we can weed out any misunderstandings or falshoods we hold concerning the problem. Others will also give us usefull feedback which we should be open to, regardless of the source; the best advice is often given by those who don't share our views.
Buddhists also believe that right speech refrains from lying, stealing, slander, harshness, and pointless speech. I agree as these behaviors typically lead one in destructive circles that can masochistically turn on oneself.
- I'm resolved to pay off my debts so when I go out with friends and they're shopping I tell them where my priorities are. They're not so concerned that I'm not spending money but support me. Often, instead of going out for dinner we plan a night at home and make a wonderful dinner, saving money but also maintaining the high quality of friendship.
Right Action, as it implies, is performing those acts that leads towards resolution of one's suffering while refraining from those that hinder one's progress. This is perhaps the most obvious and easily understood of The Eightfold Path. If you want to get from A to B, just do it!
Buddhists also include the acts of killing, stealing, and being unchaste as being anethema to Right Action as it is intended to build character that is controlled and mindful of others.
- I'd really like to goto the movies tonight but I realize the money could be used to pay off debts while I could enjoy myself just as easily by going on a hike or watching a movie at home. Through Right Thought I discover right action, a solution to a sub-problem. Whenever I want to spend money on a non-necessity I ask myself, "Do I really need that? What else could I do that doesn't require money but will fulfill similare or the same needs?" Once I do this I act appropriately.
By this it is meant that we cannot overcome suffering if we are in an environment that hinders our progress towards our goal.
Buddhists also believe Right Livelihood precludes the trade of deadly weapons, the trade of animals for slaighter, the trade of human beings in slavery, the trade of intoxicants, etc. In other words, an ethical livelihood cannot consist of things that may be harmful to other beings.
- Unemployment can pay the bills but it sure doesn't get me out of debt. Sure, the market is hard right now and I know I've worked hard at the companies I've been at over the years and they simply hit hard times, either vanished from the earth or had to lay off masses of employees to survive. But I know that I'll be better off to resolve those debts if I have a good paying job. Also, if I have a job where I feel happy and useful I'm less likely to spend money and thus the benefits of having a well paying job in terms of resolving debt are myriad.
You can't hammer a nail into empty space! If you don't put something in, you don't get something out. Suffering doesn't simply go away without a little sweat. We must know and accept that Right Effort is necessary. We must throw away all efforts that fail to resolve the problem and hand and prevent them from resurfacing. We must put energy towards those actions which will lead us to overcoming the problem. Without effort, we're stuck with simply an intellectual understanding of the problem and its resolution.
Right mindfulness is a state of being aware. To best resolve problems Buddhists believe we should be aware of our body, mind, actions, and words. The suffering is usually never as simple as it seems. The way it effects our lives, our perceptions of it, the interactions of our physical state, thoughts, actions, etc., have the potential to make the path an often foggy one. Only by being more aware of all the relevant factors in real time can we hope to overcome suffering.
- Oh I'm depressed and a new computer game would sure make me happy right now. Oh wow, here I am about to spend money on something I don't really need. Why am I so unhappy and why will a computer game solve that problem? Why do I think that's the solution? Can I root out the feelings of depression or find something to overcome that won't interfere with my desire to pay off my debts? How about a jog or going out to take photographs?
The final step in The Eightfold Path is the need to be able to focus completely on a problem. Without the ability to concentrate our minds we can spend a lot of our time absent-mindedly straying from our ultimate goals. Buddhists, of course, encourage one to practice meditation to help strengthen ones focus and although I don't necessarily believe one must sit in lotus, I do agree that mental focus is necessary to overcome any problem.
How is The Eightfold Path Similar to the Scientific Method?