The Eightfold Path: The Fourth Noble Truth in Buddhism

Realizing Enlightenment

Golden Dharma Wheel
The Buddhist symbols of the Dharma Wheel or Dharmachakra -- for the noble eightfold path -- and two gazelles, symbolizing the deer park in Varanasi where the first sermon was held by the Buddha, overlook the Palpung Sherabling monastery. © Deepak Bhatia / Getty Images

The Eightfold Path of Buddhism is the means by which enlightenment may be realized. The historical Buddha first explained the Eightfold Path in his first sermon after his enlightenment.

Most of the Buddha's teachings deal with some part of the Path. You might think of it as an outline that pulls all the Buddha's teachings together.

The Eightfold Path

The Eightfold Path is comprised of eight primary teachings which Buddhists follow and use in their everyday lives. 

  1. Right View or Right Understanding, insight into the true nature of reality.
  2. Right Intention, the unselfish desire to realize enlightenment.
  3. Right Speech, using speech compassionately.
  4. Right Action, using ethical conduct to manifest compassion.
  5. Right Livelihood, making a living through ethical and non-harmful means.
  6. Right Effort, cultivating wholesome qualities and releasing unwholesome qualities.
  7. Right Mindfulness, whole body-and-mind awareness.
  8. Right Concentration, meditation or some other dedicated, concentrated practice.

The word translated as "right" is samyanc (Sanskrit) or samma (Pali), which means "wise," "wholesome," "skillful," and "ideal." It also describes something that is complete and coherent. The word "right" should not be taken as a commandment, as in "do this, or you are wrong."

Another way to think of "right" in this case is in the sense of equilibrium, like a boat riding the waves and remaining "right."

Practicing the Path

The Eightfold Path is the fourth Truth of the Four Noble Truths. Very basically, the truths explain the nature of our dissatisfaction with life.

The Buddha taught that we must thoroughly understand the causes of our unhappiness in order to resolve it. There is no quick fix; there is nothing we can obtain or hang on to that will give us true happiness and inner peace. What is required is a radical shift in how we understand and relate to ourselves and the world. Practice of the Path is the way to achieve that.

Practice of the Path reaches into all aspects of life and every moment. It's not just something you work on when you have time. It's also important to understand that these eight areas of practice are not separate steps to master one at a time; the practice of each part of the Path supports the other parts.

The Path is divided into three main sections: wisdom, ethical conduct, and mental discipline.

The Wisdom Path

Right View and Right Intention comprise the wisdom path. Right View is not about believing in doctrine, but in perceiving the true nature of ourselves and the world around us. Right Intention refers to the energy and commitment one needs to be fully engaged in Buddhist practice.

The Ethical Conduct Path

Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood are the ethical conduct path. This calls us to take care in our speech, our actions, and our daily lives to do no harm to others and to cultivate wholesomeness in ourselves. This part of the path ties into the Precepts.

The Mental Discipline Path

Through Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration we develop the mental discipline to cut through delusion. Many schools of Buddhism encourage seekers to meditate to achieve clarity and focus of mind.