From the Dalai Lama’s new book Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions.
Four Attributes of the True Path
The noble eightfold path is the true path—a mind directly realizing nibbāna—that brings about all cessations of dukkha and its causes. Insight wisdom is generated by meditating on the subtle impermanence of the aggregates and thereby knowing that the aggregates are unreliable and unsatisfactory. Because the aggregates arise and pass away each moment, they cannot be an independent self. This insight wisdom seeing (passati, paśyati) the three characteristics—impermanence, dukkha, and not-self—understands (pajānāti, prajānāti) one or another of the five aggregates (or six sources, eighteen elements, and so forth) as characterized by one of the three characteristics. Thus the direct object of insight is an aggregate, sense source (sense base), or so forth, and it is apprehended in terms of one or another of the three characteristics. As this insight wisdom deepens, a breakthrough to the supramundane occurs, and path wisdom, which takes nibbāna as its object, arises.
Each of the eight path factors—right view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration—has a mundane (lokiya) and supramundane (lokuttara) aspect. The mundane aspect is together with the pollutants and is practiced by those who are not yet ariyas. It is meritorious and leads to a fortunate rebirth. Possessed by ariyas, supramundane path factors eradicate different levels of fetters and lead to liberation. The path is gradual, and the mundane path factors are cultivated first. When they mature and when serenity and insight are strong, the eight supramundane path factors manifest together during a state of samādhi focused on the unconditioned, nibbāna.
The Buddha explains each path factor as well as its opposite in the Mahācattārīsaka Sutta (MN 117).
Wrong views include believing that our actions have no ethical value or do not bring results, that there is no continuity of being and everything ends at the time of death, that other realms of life do not exist, that liberation is impossible, and that defilements inhere in the mind.
Mundane right view is the opposite of these wrong views. It includes knowing that our actions have an ethical dimension and bring results, that there is a continuity of being after death, that other realms exist, that there are holy beings who have actualized the path, and so on.
Supramundane right view is the faculty of wisdom, the power of wisdom, the discrimination-of-phenomena awakening factor, and the path factor of right view in the mindstream of an ariya. Supramundane right view is the direct penetration of the four truths as well as direct knowledge of nibbāna.
Wrong intentions are sensual desire, malice, and cruelty. Mundane right intentions are renunciation, benevolence, and compassion. Here, renunciation is a balanced mind free from attachment to sense objects. Benevolence encompasses fortitude, forgiveness, and love. Compassion is nonviolence. Right intention spurs us to generate right speech, action, and livelihood and to share our knowledge and understanding with others. For those following the bodhisatta’s vehicle, right intention includes bodhicitta.
Supramundane right intention includes coarse and refined engagement, thought, intention, and mental absorption in the mindstream of an ariya. Right view and right intention are included in the higher training in wisdom.
Wrong speech is the four nonvirtues of speech: lying, disharmonious speech, harsh speech, and idle talk. Mundane right speech is meritorious speech that abstains from those four. Cultivating right speech requires conscious effort and a strong resolution to speak truthfully, gently, kindly, and at the appropriate time.
Wrong actions are killing sentient beings, stealing, and unwise or unkind sexual behavior. Mundane right action involves abandoning these three and using our physical energy to preserve life and protect others’ possessions. For lay practitioners, it entails using sexuality wisely and kindly; for monastics it involves celibacy. While taking intoxicants is not included in wrong action, to develop the noble eightfold path abandoning intoxicants is essential. Mindfulness is difficult to cultivate even when the mind is clear, how much more so when the mind is intoxicated.
Wrong livelihood for monastics includes procuring requisites by means of flattery, hinting, coercing, giving a small gift to get a big one, and hypocrisy. It includes inappropriate use of offerings given by people with faith, for example using them for idle pleasure or entertainment. For lay practitioners examples of wrong livelihood are manufacturing or selling weapons; killing livestock; making, selling, or serving intoxicants; publishing or distributing pornography; operating a casino; exterminating insects; overcharging customers and clients; embezzlement; and exploitation of others.
Mundane right livelihood is abandoning the five wrong livelihoods—hinting, flattery, bribery, coercion, and hypocrisy—and procuring requisites truthfully, honestly, and in a nonharmful way. Lay practitioners should engage in work that contributes to the healthy functioning of society and the welfare of others. Right livelihood is also a lifestyle free from the extremes of asceticism and luxury.
Right speech, action, and livelihood pertain to the higher training in ethical conduct. Mundane right speech and right action are the seven virtuous actions of body and speech that are the opposite of the seven nonvirtuous ones. Supramundane right speech, action, livelihood are ariyas’ refraining from and abandoning wrong speech, action, and livelihood and their engaging in right speech, action, and livelihood.
Mundane right effort is the four supreme strivings: effort to prevent the arising of nonvirtues, abandon nonvirtues that have arisen, cultivate new virtues, and maintain and enhance virtues that are already present. With right effort we direct our energy away from harmful thoughts into the development of beneficial qualities and try to live in a nonviolent and compassionate way. Right effort enables us to abandon the five hindrances and gain concentration and wisdom. Through right effort, mindfulness and concentration, which constitute the higher training in concentration, are accomplished.
Mundane right mindfulness is the four establishments of mindfulness. In daily life mindfulness enables us to remember our precepts. In meditation it attends to the meditation object, enabling us to discern its distinct characteristics, relationships, and qualities. In a highly concentrated mind, mindfulness leads to insight and wisdom.
Supramundane right effort and mindfulness are these two factors present with other path factors at the time of realizing nibbāna.
Right concentration includes the four jhānas. Concentration directed toward liberation investigates the nature of phenomena with mindfulness. Right concentration for beginners involves gradually developing meditative abilities in daily meditation practice.
Supramundane right concentration is the four jhānas conjoined with wisdom and the other path factors at the time of perceiving nibbāna. The supramundane path is a right concentration. In it, all eight path factors are present simultaneously, each performing its own function. Right concentration leads to right views, knowledge, and liberation. The commentary describes right knowledge as a reviewing knowledge that knows the mind is fully liberated from defilements.
As the first factor, right view focuses on karmic causality and the Buddhist worldview, which are essential for people beginning to practice. Without accepting these at some level, someone may still benefit from practicing the remaining seven factors, but that benefit would not be nearly as great as for a person who has right view.
Each subsequent path factor is connected to the ones before it. Right view and intention provide the proper foundation for practice. Right speech, action, and livelihood, which guide our everyday actions, are practiced first. On that basis, meditation with right effort, mindfulness, and concentration is cultivated. This leads to understanding the right view regarding the nature of reality, which is a deeper level of right view because it focuses on the ultimate nature and nibbāna. The practice of the noble eightfold path is common to followers of all three vehicles.
1. The noble eightfold path leads to release and deliverance (niyyāna).
The noble eightfold path directly counteracts all fetters and defilements, releasing us from these.
2. The noble eightfold path is the cause (hetu) for attaining all true cessations, especially that of an arahant.
Due to having practiced the noble eightfold path, from the moment one becomes an ariya, one enters the stream flowing to liberation. The thirty-seven aids to awakening continue to develop in this person, without declining from one existence to the next, until final nibbāna is attained.
3. The noble eightfold path realizes (dassana) the four truths.
By realizing the four truths as they are in their entirety, ariyas see what ordinary beings are unable to see. They are no longer befuddled, confused, or indecisive about what to practice and abandon.
4. The noble eightfold path overcomes all varieties of craving and gives mastery (ādhipateyya).
Ariyas never fear losing their attainments; they know insight wisdom and path wisdom remain firmly in their mindstreams. By practicing the three higher trainings, ariyas have become masters of themselves. Through having seen nibbāna, if only for some moments, they have full confidence in the Dhamma and the attainments of the Buddha and Saṅgha.
When someone fully sees with correct wisdom (sammāpaññāya) the three characteristics or the four attributes of true dukkha, he or she automatically understands the other twelve attributes of the four truths.