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LEADER RESOURCE 3: The Eightfold Path

Before Beginning the Eightfold Path: Right Association

Since we are influenced by our companions, it is very important to have people around us who are supportive of our spiritual goals and on spiritual paths themselves. They do not need to be doing exactly what we are doing, but they have to support our spiritual work, and not deflect us by encouraging us to do things against our conscience. They should also be trying to live with some degree of awareness themselves.

1. Right Knowledge

The first step is to become aware of the path. In Buddhist terms, this means recognizing the Four Noble Truths:

  • Life is suffering.
  • The cause of suffering is selfish desire.
  • Selfish desire can be overcome.
  • Selfish desire can be overcome, and suffering eased, by following the Eightfold Path.

2. Right Aspiration

This consists of wanting things that will help us be healthy and strong and achieve mental and spiritual growth. First, we recognize what we need to do, then we decide that is what we want.

3. Right Speech

This element and the next two are about learning new habits. Right Speech begins with noticing our speech: how honest we are, the tone of our communications, and our intent. Once we are aware, the next step is to make positive changes: to speak more truthfully, more gently, and more generously.

4. Right Behavior

The details that the Buddha provided about Right Behavior almost exactly reproduce the last five dictates of the Ten Commandments. The Five Precepts, as they are called, are:

  • Do not kill.
  • Do not steal.
  • Do not lie.
  • Do not engage in sexual misconduct.
  • Do not take drugs or drink alcohol.

(Note: In Judaism and Christianity, Commandments six through ten are:

  • Thou shalt not kill.
  • Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  • Thou shalt not steal.
  • Thou shalt not bear false witness [lie].
  • Thou shalt not covet [want] . . . anything that is thy neighbor's.

5. Right Livelihood

This element pertains to how a person makes their living. The Buddha believed that what a person did to support themselves had echoes throughout their lives, and that personal growth could be supported by some occupations but rendered impossible by others. For example, some livelihoods regarded by the Buddha as very harmful were butcher, prostitute, and weapons vendor.

6. Right Effort

Sustained effort is seen as exceedingly important in Buddhism. The Buddha likened the work it takes to make spiritual progress to an ox straining to pull a cart through the mud. Although weary, the ox never looks aside or stops trudging until it is past the muddy section of the road. This steady exertion demonstrates the consistent effort required to tame the mind and attain enlightenment.

7. Right Mindfulness

The Dhammapada, a collection of the Buddha's teachings, begins with the words, "All we are is the result of what we have thought" (as translated by Viggo Fausboll). Because of this, Buddhism urges constant examination of our own thoughts. We must have perfect awareness of our own thoughts to see all things as they really are. Urges or aversions must also be examined until they no longer control us and what remains is loving kindness toward all things.

In one ancient story, a Buddhist student reports to his teacher that his studies are done: He has attained enlightenment. His teacher asks, "What foot did you use to step over the threshold?" The student thinks for a moment, then turns and leaves without a word, aware that since he does not know which foot stepped over the threshold, his awareness is not yet complete.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a renowned Zen Buddhist master, considers mindfulness the single most important element of greater peace and understanding. He has written many books on the subject of mindfulness, including Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (New York: Random House, 1995). Henry David Thoreau, of our own faith lineage, placed a high value on mindfulness as well.

8. Right Absorption

Ralph Waldo Emerson, a giant of 19th-century Unitarianism, wrote:

A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.

The Buddha shared this conviction with Emerson: that the things we fill our thoughts with determine who we become. The Buddha also believed in self-determination: With proper preparation and perseverance, immersing our thoughts in what will further our spiritual journey, we can all move toward enlightenment, lessen the bonds of selfish yearnings, and become happier and more fulfilled as the Wheel of Dharma turns.

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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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