Dharma Talk: The Eightfold Path

By Thich Nhat Hanh

The Noble Eightfold Path is made up of Right View, Right Speech, Right Livelihood, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, Right Thought, Right Action and Right Effort. Right View is the insight that we have within us of the reality of life. Our insight, understanding, wisdom, knowledge, happiness, and the happiness of those around us depend very much on the degree of Right View that we have. That is why Buddhist practice always aims at helping us develop a deeper understanding of what is going on within us and around us.

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Right View can be termed prajna. It can also be described as enlightenment, understanding, or wisdom. There are people who practice hard, but instead of developing Right View, they become more narrow-minded. By looking at their insight, their capacity of understanding, their ways of loving others, we can know whether their practice is correct or not. It is not a problem of the mind or the heart. It is a problem of right practice. Right practice is always pleasant and joyful in this very moment and always leads to dissolving notions and developing Right View.

Can Right View be transmitted to another person? This is an important question. Sometimes parents have a deep understanding of life, but they are unable to transmit their insight to their children. There are many reasons for this. One is communication. If the line of communication is broken, no matter how much insight you have, you cannot transmit it. Another is that you do not speak the same language. A third is that your insight might be too personalized. It works for you, but it must be practiced and presented in another way to others.

Wisdom insight is the kind of energy that makes us happy, alive, and loving. Sometimes we try to express it in words, as in the sutras or the Abhidharma, the treatise on the Dharma. When the Buddha was fully enlightened under the Bodhi tree, he had that kind of energy in him, prajna. It made him very happy and loving. He wanted to share that insight with others; that is why he thought of the five ascetics who had practiced with him in the past. But before he set off for the Deer Park in Sarnath, the Buddha remained near the Bodhi tree to enjoy his enlightenment. Enlightenment is enjoyable. The Buddha practiced sitting, walking, smiling to the trees, and playing with children from the village of Uruvela.

One day he went to a nearby lotus pond and sat for a long time, contemplating the lotus flowers and leaves. It was at that moment he discovered a way to communicate his insight to others. Insight is not made of concepts, but if you want to share your insight, you must use concepts, words, and notions. As the Buddha was looking at the lotus pond, he realized that people are of many different psychologies. Like the lotuses, some have roots deep in the mud, some have leaves still curled and underwater, some have buds partially exposed to the air, and some have leaves entirely above the water. That is why we need different means to share the Dharma with various kinds of people. The intention to create different Dharma doors was born at that time. One Dharma door is not enough.

During his 49 days of enjoying himself – sitting and walking around the Bodhi tree – the Buddha continued to translate his insight into notions and words. Then, during his first Dharma to the five ascetics, he spoke about the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, which are the eight right practices. A sutra, or a Dharma talk, is a translation of the insight that has been achieved. Dharma talks are not insight in and of themselves. Sutras are just means of presenting insight in terms of concepts and notions. Even if it is a good description of the insight in terms of notions and words, there may be some difficulty. When you buy a map of New York City, you know that the map is not the city. You just use it to enjoy the city. It is important not to mistake the map for the city itself. Many people get caught by notions and words and miss the real insight. The Buddha said, “My teaching is like a finger pointing to the moon. Do not mistake the finger for the moon.” Do not get caught by the words and the notions, or you will never touch the real insight.

The Buddha also said, “My teaching is like a raft that can help you get to the other shore. Don’t grasp at the raft and think that the raft is the shore.” Another day he said, “It is dangerous to misunderstand my teaching. If you don’t learn and practice with intelligence, you will spread more harm than good. It is like a person who does not know the better way to catch a snake. He may get bitten by it. A clever person will use a forked stick to catch the snake by the back of the neck, so he can pick it up safely. If you catch a snake by the tail, you may be bitten. Learning and practicing the Dharma is the same. You need intelligence, you need a teacher, you need sisters and brothers in the Dharma to help you learn and practice.”

Right View is not an ideology, a system, or even a path. Right View is living insight that fills a person with understanding, love, and peace. It is quite different from Dharma talks, sutras, or books. We must use words and notions and the understanding behind them. Imagine someone who has never eaten a kiwifruit. When he hears the word “kiwi,” many concepts or notions are created in his mind. If you try to explain a kiwi to him, you might describe it as a fruit of such and such size, a certain color, feel, and taste. But no matter how well you do the job, you cannot give the other person the direct experience of the kiwi. It must be tasted. That is the only way. No matter how intelligent the other person is, kiwi cannot be understood until he places a slice of kiwi into his mouth. The same difficulty confronts anyone trying to convey insight or enlightenment. You must have direct experience. We practice mindfulness, concentration, and looking, touching, and understanding deeply, so that insight might be possible.

Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, and Right View are the basis of the practice. The practice of Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort are easy and natural when the practice of Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, and Right View have become solid. The Venerable Nyanaponika, a German-born bhikkhu, has described mindfulness as the heart of Buddhist meditation. I fully agree. Right Thinking is a practice, and its essence lies in mindfulness. If you are not mindful, your thinking cannot be right. If you are not mindful, how can you practice Right Speech? You can make a lot of people unhappy and create a war within your community or family. That is why mindfulness in speaking is the heart of right speech. Right Action – not to kill, not to steal, not to commit adultery, etc. – cannot be practiced properly unless mindfulness is the foundation of your being. The same applies to Right Livelihood; if you are mindful of the ecosystem and the suffering of other species, your attempt to practice Right Livelihood has a chance to succeed. If you are not mindful about what is happening to the earth, the water, the air, the suffering of humans and animals, how can you practice Right Livelihood? Mindfulness must be the basis of your practice. If your efforts are not mindful, those efforts will not bring about the good result you hope for. Without mindfulness, the more effort you make, the more you can create suffering and disorder. That is why Right Effort, too, should be based on mindfulness.

When you practice Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration is easy. The energy of mindfulness already contains the energy of concentration, and with mindfulness and concentration, you practice looking, listening, and touching deeply, and out of that deep looking, listening, and touching, Right View is the fruit. Understanding and insight grow. As Right View continues to grow, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort will become stronger. When you sit correctly, your thinking is clear, and you act accordingly and practice Right Livelihood. Everything depends on Right View, and Right View depends on Right Mindfulness.

The practice of mindfulness, concentration, and Right View are the essence of Buddhist practice. They are called the Threefold Training – sila (precepts), samadhi (concentration), and prajna (insight). Mindfulness is the foundation of all precepts. When you practice the Five Precepts, you see that they are not imposed on you by someone else. They are the insight that comes out of mindfulness: “Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to protect all life. I vow not to kill.” That First Precept is born from mindfulness of the suffering caused by the destruction of life. Precepts are a concrete expression of mindfulness. I you don’t practice the precepts, you cannot say that you are practicing mindfulness. To practice mindfulness means to practice the precepts in your daily life.

“Aware of the destruction of families and couples, aware of the suffering of the children who are sexually molested by others, I promise to practice protecting the integrity of the individual and the family. I vow to protect children from abuse. I vow to refrain from any act that creates a disintegration of families or couples. I vow to do my best to protect children.” This Third Precept is born from our mindfulness of what happens when we practice sexual misbehavior. All precepts, whether they number 5, 10, 14, 250, or 380, are born from the practice of mindfulness. Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort are all practices of the precepts. When you live your daily life this way, your mindfulness will grow. The energy of mindfulness brings about concentration. You are concentrated in your daily life. You are concentrated in your sitting and walking meditation, and you look deeply and touch deeply, which brings about more and more insight. More insight helps you practice mindfulness in your daily life more easily.

If we look into any one of the eight branches of the path, we see that the other seven are present in it. If we look at Right Speech, insight is present because correct speech is born from insight. We can see that we have concentration. If we are speaking mindfully about something, we know what we are saying. Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort are also found in Right Speech. We can see the nature of interbeing in all elements of the path.

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Mindfulness practice must be applied to our daily life in order to be true practice. At Plum Village, we practice not only in the meditation hall, but in the kitchen, the garden, and the bathroom as well. It is helpful to slow down. We enjoy walking, reading, bending down, and all that we do in mindfulness. When you drive, hold your baby, wash your dishes, or work at the office, you can practice mindfulness. But for that to be possible, you need the support of a Sangha. You must create a Sangha where you live, because you need the support of brothers and sisters in the practice. The Buddha was quite clear that the Noble Eightfold Path is the practice of our daily lives, not of intensive retreats alone. The Noble Eightfold Path is the practice of an engaged Buddhist. Right Action – not to kill but to protect all life, not to steal but to be generous in giving time and energy for the people who suffer, not to break up families and couples, not to harm children but to protect them – all these things are meant to be practiced in real life.

To say “engaged Buddhism” is redundant. How can it be Buddhism if it is not “engaged?” To communicate, we must use words, and hopefully our words will be heard and understood. In his first Dharma talk to the five ascetics at Deer park, the Buddha offered the Noble Eightfold Path, and in his last Dharma talk, spoken to the monk Sudhana, the Buddha also offered the Noble Eightfold Path. He said that where there is the Noble Path, there is insight. We must use our intelligence to apply the elements of the Noble Eightfold Path to our daily lives.

The practice of Right View helps us develop a deep understanding of the Four Noble Truths. If you have deep insight into the truth of the suffering of beings, the truth of origination, the truth of cessation, and the truth of the path, you have Right View. In fact, if you have a deep insight into any of these Four Noble Truths, you have deep insight into all four. Each truth contains all the others. This is the teaching of the Buddha about Right View from the historical dimension.

From the ultimate dimension, nothing can be said about Right View. There is a Zen story about two monks walking together. One sees a beautiful bird fly by. It is so beautiful that he wants to share the sight with the other monk. But the other monk has a pebble in his shoe and he is bending down to remove it. When the other monk looks up, there is no bird at all. So he asks, “What is it you want me to see?” But the bird is no longer there. All the first monk can say is, “A beautiful bird has just passed by.” It is not the same as showing him the bird. It is impossible for him to share his wonderful feeling. Sometimes we must just be quiet, when it is impossible to convey the insight.

A philosopher came to the Buddha and asked, “Is there a self? Is there a world?” Bombarded with questions like these, the Buddha said nothing. The philosopher became frustrated and left. Finally Ananda asked the Buddha, “You always say there is no self. Why didn’t you tell him?” The Buddha replied, “Anything I would have said would have done him more harm than good. I said nothing at all, to protect him from wrong views.”

Another time, an ascetic asked the Buddha to explain ultimate reality without using the terms being and nonbeing. The Buddha maintained silence for a long time, and the ascetic bowed three times and left. Ananda marveled and stated, “Lord, you did not say anything, yet he seemed to understand you.” The Buddha replied, “For a good horse, you don’t need a whip.”

Sometimes in Zen circles, they use language that is difficult to understand. This language is not made of concepts. It is a language to help us drop our concepts. From time to time, I try to use that kind of language myself. In 1968, when I was in Philadelphia for a peace demonstration, a reporter asked me, “Are you from the north or the south?” He wanted to put me in a box. If I said I am from the north, he would think I was anti-American. If I said I am from the south, he would think I was either with the National Liberation Front or pro-American. So I smiled and said, “I am from the center.” I hoped that would help him find a way to transcend the conflict. To understand the speech used in Zen circles, you must become familiar with this kind of language.

One Zen student said to his teacher, “I have been at the monastery for three years, and you have never told me about the true way of ultimate reality.” The teacher pointed his finger and said, “Monk, do you see the cypress in the front yard?” It is very important to notice the trees in the front yard. That monk had been living in the monastery for several years and he passed that cypress tree thousands of times, yet he never became aware of its presence. If he had been mindful, he could have touched the ultimate reality directly. How could he expect to touch ultimate reality if he had not even touched the tree in the front yard?

The story of that cypress tree became very well known throughout China. Another monk who heard the story of the cypress tree traveled very far to visit that teacher to ask him about it. But by the time the monk arrived, the teacher had already passed away. He was distraught as he now had no chance to ask his question. Another monk pointed him in the direction of the former teacher’s head disciple and suggested he direct his questions to him. The visiting monk went through many formalities to obtain an audience with this disciple, who was now senior monk. After listening to the visitor’s inquiry about the famous cypress tree, the senior monk answered, “Cypress tree? There is no cypress tree here.” The visitor could not believe it; the entire country had heard about that cypress tree. It had become an important topic of debate. Yet the head of the very temple where it originated did not seem to know anything about it? He tried to explain to the head monk that it was a very deep subject of meditation. He asked him if he was really the disciple of the master. The senior monk replied, “I am.”

When I first heard this story, I understood the senior monk’s intention to “kill” the cypress. Too many people were caught by it. If the visiting monk is intelligent enough, he can be enlightened by this “new” cypress. The cypress is a Dharma door. When you understand this type of exchange, you change your way of looking and understanding, and that can help lead you to enlightenment.

Another teacher when asked a philosophical question, replied, “Have you eaten breakfast?” When the disciple said, “Yes,” the teacher said, “Then please go and wash your dishes.” Washing the dishes mindfully is the door to the ultimate reality, the key to Right View and the whole Noble Eightfold Path. In the ultimate dimension, nothing can be said. In the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra it is said, “no ill-being, no cause of ill-being, no end of ill-being, and no path; no understanding, no attainment” – no Right View, no Right Thinking. These are all notions, and you must free yourself from notions and words. The Buddha said, “My teaching is just a raft to help you get to the other shore. Don’t be caught by the raft.” We do our best practice this way.

This lecture was given in Plum Village during the 1994 Summer Opening. A book on Basic Buddhism by Thich Nhat Hanh will be published later this year.

Photos:
First photo by Gaetano Kazuo Maida.
Second photo by Tran Van Minh

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