The last of the Noble Truths directly leads to the Eightfold Noble Path. Following the Eightfold Path is, according to the Buddha, the way to reach Nibbana – the end of suffering.
For this series, I will be drawing from the work of Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American Buddhist monk. Bodhi was born in New York, but ordained in Sri Lanka. He then spent over twenty years in Sri Lanka, serving as the president of the Buddhist Publication Society, before returning to the States, living in a rural monastic community. He has also translated and provided commentary on various divisions of the Sutta Pitaka of the Pali Canon.
At the outset, it is important to note that systematizing the Buddha's teaching on each individual part of the Eightfold Path involves drawing from a wide array of texts. There do seem to be some "summary texts," in which each part of the Path is briefly addressed, but other portions of the Canon add to the teaching in different ways. This can lead to a diversity of thought when modern Buddhist teachers explain these concepts. Lineage (i.e. this is the teaching according to ____, who learned from ____, who learned from the Most Venerable teacher _____) thus becomes an important piece to keep in mind when studying any Buddhist teaching.
According to Bodhi, the Eightfold Path can be broken into three divisions:
Wisdom – Right View, Right Intention
Morality – Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood
Concentration/Meditation – Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration
Each group will be addressed in a different post.
In its fullness, Right View includes the entire Dhamma – all the teaching of the Buddha. But for practical purposes, Bodhi presents two primary types – Mundane Right View and Superior Right View.
Mundane Right View simply entails accepting the law of kamma, a fundamental concept in both Hinduism and many forms of Buddhism. Kamma (/Karma) refers to the idea that our actions, whether wholesome or unwholesome, will eventually produce the corresponding fruit in our lives. Wholesome action will lead to our ultimate good; unwholesome action will lead to our ruin. Bodhi explains the concept as follows:
“Beings are the owners of their actions, the heirs of their actions; they spring from their actions, are bound to their actions, and are supported by their actions. Whatever deeds they do, good or bad, of those they shall be heirs."
Kamma is seen as a universal law. Although we may not see the fruit of wholesome action in the short term, ultimately good action will always produce good fruit. This is not always understood in physical terms, but often as a positive transformation in the soul. Physically, positive kammic action is often seen as leading to a better circumstance in future births. Accepting the law of kamma is Mundane Right View.
Superior Right View entails accepting the Four Noble Truths, first intellectually, and finally, after following the entire Path, experientially. At the start of the journey, one can contemplate the Noble Truths and accept them as logically true, but it takes years of following the Path to come to an experiential realization:
"This right view that penetrates the Four Noble Truths comes at the end of the path, not at the beginning. We have to start with the right view conforming to the truths, acquired through learning and fortified through reflection. This view inspires us to take up the practice, to embark on the threefold training in moral discipline, concentration, and wisdom. When the training matures, the eye of wisdom opens by itself, penetrating the truths and freeing the mind from bondage."
Right Intention is defined by Bodhi as "the application of mind needed" to achieve the ultimate goal of the Path – the Cessation of Suffering. Intention is essentially the will of the mind to move toward its goal. Bodhi identifies three "intentions" in the Buddha's teaching: the intention of renunciation, the intention of good will, and the intention of harmlessness.
The Intention of Renunciation is the intention to turn away from the pull of our desires and attachments. If one accepts the Four Noble Truths, the root cause of our suffering is our desire for and attachment to things. Renunciation is simply turning away from our craving for those things. In the Catholic tradition, this is spoken of as "mortifying the passions," and entails abstaining from the things we want, especially sense experience (i.e. sex, material comforts, etc.). It is not that the things themselves are bad, but that our attachment to them, our need for them, traps us and ultimately leads to suffering.
The Intention of Good Will is the intention to act in a way that leads to the ultimate good of all living things. Metta – lovingkindness – must be developed for all sentient creatures. This is sometimes achieved through a form of meditation called Metta meditation, and extends to the animal kingdom, often manifesting in vegetarianism, etc.
The Intention of Harmlessness is the intention to act in a way that leads to freedom from suffering for all living things.
When practicing Right Intention, the mind is willed, over and over again, towards wholesome thoughts and actions which ultimately lead to the cessation of suffering.
"The unwholesome thought is like a rotten peg lodged in the mind; the wholesome thought is like a new peg suitable to replace it. The actual contemplation functions as the hammer used to drive out the old peg with the new one. The work of driving in the new peg is practice—practicing again and again, as often as is necessary to reach success. The Buddha gives us his assurance that the victory can be achieved. He says that whatever one reflects upon frequently becomes the inclination of the mind. If one frequently thinks sensual, hostile, or harmful thoughts, desire, ill will, and harmfulness become the inclination of the mind. If one frequently thinks in the opposite way, renunciation, good will, and harmlessness become the inclination of the mind (MN 19). The direction we take always comes back to ourselves, to the intentions we generate moment by moment in the course of our lives."
Thus the wisdom group of the Eightfold Noble Path includes Right View and Right Intention.