The Superior Eightfold Path is, in some sense, more central to the Buddha’s teaching than the Four Dominating Facts of Life. When the Buddha presents his “Middle Way”, the way between ambition for material success, which is a dead end, and mortification of the material body, which is also a dead end, he presents it as “exactly this Superior Eightfold Path”. The Four Dominating Facts of Life, after setting Dukkha up as our existential condition, unquenchable desire as the cause of craving, the abandonment of such desire as the cessation of Dukkha, then presents, as the final fact of life, the way (pun intended, by the Buddha) to abandon desire as, again, “exactly this Superior Eightfold Path”.
In other discourses, he identifies the Dhamma with the Path (and reminds us that one who knows the Dhamma knows the Buddha); in the famous story of the one who discovers the path to the Ancient City, whose restoration will lead to a new stage of civilization, the City is identified as the Four Dominating Facts of Life, and the path to the City is, of course, the Superior Eightfold Path. It is certainly, in its radically pragmatic nature, its sophisticated structure, and its virtually universal relevance, the most revolutionary and distinctive of the Buddha’s teachings.
There are several ways of looking at the Path—as a progressive Path, starting with Correct View and coming around to Correct Concentration; as a wheel, whose eight spokes are equally important in keeping the wheel true; as a set of closely linked pairs—Correct View and Correct Livelihood, Correct Intention and Correct Effort, Correct Speech and Correct Mindfulness, Correct Action and Correct Concentration; as a spiral, that we go around again and again, widening and deepening our understanding with every turn; and as three groups—a Virtue (sila) group, a Concentration (samadhi) group, and a Wisdom (pañña) group, where the cultivation of the Path factors in each group establishes the foundation for experiencing the benefits of the next.
The following is a slightly non-traditional exposition of those groups.
The Wisdom Group
- Correct Understanding. The Path begins and ends with Correct Understanding, or Correct View: a clear-eyed and fearless acknowledgment that all experience is corrupted by dukkha—pain, frustration, dissatisfaction, disillusionment; that the sufficient cause of dukkha is obsessive thirst (Pali/Sanskrit tanha)—thirsting for things to be other than they can ever be, thirsting for the good stuff to go on forever, thirsting for the bad stuff to end right now; that with the cessation of that obsessive thirst, dukkha will cease; and that the way to the cessation of obsessive thirst is just this Superior Eightfold Path: Correct Understanding, Correct Intention, Correct Speech, Correct Action, Correct Livelihood, Correct Effort, Correct Mindfulness, and Correct Concentration.
- Correct Intention. This factor, often translated as Correct Resolve, establishes the practitioner in a condition of not constructing a sense of self that depends on having new stuff, building new relationships, holding particular ideas; with Correct Resolve, we will not be driven by anger or hostile thoughts, or lured from the Path by delusional promises or wishful thinking.
The Virtue Group
- Correct Speech. It is not enough that we are resolved not to lie. Correct Speech is not only honest but also kind and generous, bringing people together and not driving them apart from one another. Recognizing the distracting nature of frivolous speech, gossip and idle chatter, Correct Speech maintains its purpose, attempts to illuminate the Dhamma, helps both the speaker and the audience to see the path clearly and live accordingly.
- Correct Action. It is necessary that our actions not create harm for ourselves or others, that we take only what clearly belongs to us, that everything we do is done openly and forthrightly, that we act with a clear head and accept responsibility for what we do.
- Correct Livelihood. This is perhaps the most difficult Path factor for us to cultivate in the world we’ve inherited. In a world dominated by corporations, which have their own delusory, legalistic selfness, those whose livelihood involves selling their skills and their talents to those corporate entities too easily lose control over the purposes to which those skills and talents are turned. We must examine the difficulties of Correct Livelihood in a corporate society; it’s also important to look at what Correct Livelihood might mean to those of us who are retired from the kind of activity normally understood as livelihood.
The Concentration Group
- Correct Effort. Buddhism is too often understood as a quietist kind of practice, the caution against craving being taken to mean a rejection of all desiring and all action to attain a goal. In fact, the Buddha emphasized, time and again, that diligent effort, “striving”, was necessary to the effective cultivation of the Path. Under the rubric of Correct Effort, the Buddha emphasized the steady effort required to nurture and maintain wholesome qualities—generosity and kindness, honesty, energetic persistence—and to abandon and avoid harmful and unwholesome qualities.
- Correct Mindfulness. This is perhaps the most distinctively Buddhist factor in the Path. We are advised to cultivate constant awareness of what’s going on around us and in our heads: our perceptions of the world via the senses, our emotional responses to what we perceive, the concepts we develop to bring order to the perceived world, the impulses and intentions and reactive feelings that emerge—in short, the entire complex of experience. We’ll look at what’s involved in maintaining mindfulness, the techniques the Buddha recommended for developing mindfulness, and the benefits that accrue from living mindfully.
- Correct Concentration. Established in mindfulness, the Buddha teaches, one is then able to focus his or her concentration on a series of absorbtive states, through which it’s possible to abandon all of the distractions that prevent our experiencing the Dhamma directly. The series of absorptive states are described vividly and consistently in the teachings; they culminate in the direct experience of unadorned reality—untranslated, unglossed, undistorted. And that reality, not surprisingly, consists of the direct experience of the Four Dominating Facts of Life with which the whole process started, and the Correct Understanding of the Superior Eightfold Path.