PRACTICING THE EIGHTFOLD PATH:
A Zen Approach
Gary L. Ray
Institute of Buddhist Studies
March 19, 1992
The Eightfold Path is the core doctrine of Buddhism. Like a
doctor, the Buddha prescribed the Eightfold Path for the cure of
all suffering and impermanence (Dukkha). Shakyamuni Buddha
proclaimed: "What is the way which leads to the cessation of
suffering? The way is the Eightfold Noble Path itself..."
The last of the Four Noble Truths states that there is a way
that leads to the ending of Dukkha. This way is known as the
Ariyan Eightfold Path, or the middle path because it lies between
the two extremes of strict asceticism and sensual pleasures. The
Buddha declared: "There is a Middle Way discovered by the Tathagata
-- a path which leads to peace, to insight, to the higher wisdom,
The Eightfold Path consists of eight categories:
(a) 1. Right Understanding
2. Right Thought
(b) 3. Right Speech
4. Right Action
5. Right Livelihood
(c) 6. Right Effort
7. Right Mindfulness
8. Right ConcentrationThese categories can be grouped into three aims of Buddhist
training: a) Wisdom, b) Ethical Conduct, and c) Mental Discipline.
Wisdom is composed of Right Understanding and Right Thought.
Ethical Conduct consists of Right Speech, Right Action and Right
Livelihood. Mental Discipline, the last category, consists of
Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.
Although often called steps, each category is a link within a
chain. "...they (each category) are to be developed more or less
simultaneously, as far as possible according to the capacity of
each individual." The Buddha is sometimes referred to as "the
great doctor", with the Four Noble Truths being the symptoms,
diagnosis, prognosis and prescription for Duhkha. The fourth
truth, the Eightfold Path, is the prescription. Taking only part
of the medicine, that is, practicing only some of the parts, will
not cure the body: "Zen practice is like the human body. If you
have one part of the body diseased, then the whole is diseased as
well." Despite the existence of the Eightfold Path, the contemporary
Zen student often feels a lack of direction. This path is often
ignored by students, leading to little advancement in their
spiritual practice. Zen Master Stephen Echard describes this: "So
many students seem to be stumbling along, not making much progress
in their practice, and wondering why. They invariably cling to
meditation as a spiritual panacea, mistaking the practice of
meditation for the dharma practice itself."
The Buddha taught that through the Eightfold Path, a balance
was to be achieved between wisdom and compassion. In Buddhism,
"...compassion represents love, charity, kindness,...and such noble
qualities on the emotional side, or qualities of the heart, while
wisdom would stand for the intellectual side or the qualities of
the mind." A Zen analogy sometimes compares wisdom and
compassion with the two wings of a bird. If one wing is weak or
broken, the bird cannot fly, the same is true with spiritual
practice. Without balance, a student cannot make progress. An
imbalance results in the individual becoming a combination of two
extremes, either a compassionate fool or cold intellectual. The
Buddhist goal in life is the perfect blending of both compassion
and wisdom within the individual. In simpler terms, some Zen
masters express the goal of Buddhism as character perfection.
To discuss how the Eightfold Path is followed, we need to
survey each step individually within the three categories:
The first category, Wisdom, includes Right Understanding and
Right Understanding is being able to realize the Four Noble
Truths, namely that life is duhkha and the cause of duhkha is
desire. Duhkha is often translated as suffering, but a better
definition would be dis-ease with reality, or as Zen Master Robert
Aitken prefers, anguish. This anguish is a profound suffering over
our own mortality. By accepting the Four Noble Truths, it also
follows that the "prescription", the Eightfold Path, will be
regarded as true.
By accepting reality as it is, in the very moment it is
occurring, one is better able to enjoy life. "Right view is to
have achieved a sense of equanimity, of confidence that what is is
right and that what one believes is true because he enjoys it
without question." By living life to its fullest in the present
moment, not dwelling on the past or dreaming about the future, the
individual is able to utilize 100% effort and concentration in any
activity. An example of how this works is an example used by Zen Master
Echard. You can take two people, one a Zen student and one who has
no spiritual practice, and expose them to identical situations.
Both go skiing and break their legs in an accident, but each has an
entirely different understanding of the event:
One injured skier, may accept this accident gracefully,
mature enough to realize that when he or she chooses to
take up skiing that potential injury was part of the
package.... The other less mature individual could well
be sent into a frenzy of anger at the "injustice" of
their accident. This person will suffer a psychological
hell of their own making.
The acceptance of reality of the first skier makes it likely that
the negative effects of the accident will be minimized, allowing
the skier to make the best of the situation, possibly spending the
rest of their time drinking hot chocolate and having people sign
their cast. For the second skier, outraged at reality itself, not
only is their suffering broadened from the initial event, but it
leads to additional situations (karma) that compound the problem:
The worst part of this scenario for the angry skier is
that they are likely to suffer more in the future because
of their inability to deal with their situation. They
bring this on their selves by arousing contempt and anger
of their companions because of their childish behavior,
full of self hatred, and more likely to repeat their
mistakes in the future.
Right Thought is to be able to put into practice what is
rightly understood. Realizing that the world is how it is, one
must understand that the reality is already perfect. Right Thought
is "resolving to let come what may, including desires, and desires
to change things."
...it means willingness to accept the world as it is, for
to desire to change it is to want to do violence to it.
And such violence ranges all the way from a whimsical
wish that it were just a little bit better to an
insistence upon changing it completely, as in killing,
Zen Master Robert Aitken uses the example of "killing time" as a an
example of committing a violent act against reality. Acceptance
that the world is how it should be the goal of Right Thought. To
use the skier example again, to even wish that things were
different, that one's leg was not broken, is an act of violence
against the world. These examples may sound trivial, but
psychological harm is being done, harm and suffering that makes the
pain of the broken leg seem insignificant. Also, reality is
interdependent, so as in the example, internal suffering spreads
outward to the rest of the world, causing others to suffer, and
creating negative karma, likely to bring about additional grief in
Ethical Conduct is the second category. This classification,
based on compassion and love, includes Right Speech, Right Action,
and Right Livelihood.
Right Speech, as it is commonly interpreted, includes the
obvious abstention against lies, slander, rude or harsh language,
careless speech, useless speech, and gossip. A more subtle
aspect of Right Speech, an action resulting from incorrect thought,
is the lie that refuses to accept reality as it is, was, or will
be. Buddhist scholar Archie Bahm writes: "...any, assertion, or
willingness to assert, that things are, or should be, other than
they are, or are going to be other than they are, is a lie.
Unwillingness to accept things as they are is the basis of lying,
and any expression of that unwillingness is wrong speech...."
The direct result from Right Speech is meaningful
communication that is naturally friendly and amiable towards
others. "If one cannot say something useful, one should keep
`noble silence'." An example of "noble silence" is a story about
a roshi (zen master) and his student enjoying a beautiful morning.
The student says: "What a beautiful morning." The Roshi responds:
"Yes, but what a pity to say so."
Right Action appears to be the most basic of all Ethical
Conduct, yet, as will be discussed later, the scholarly
interpretation of its meaning is mixed. The common meaning of
Right Action is best summed up by the Five Precepts. According
to Robert Aitken's modern interpretation of the precepts, they
1) Not killing
2) Not stealing
3) Not misusing sex
4) Not lying (or using incorrect speech)
5) Not giving or taking drugs
For lay students, these five precepts are the appropriate
starting point. In fact, when a person decides to take "Tokudo",
a Buddhist initiation ceremony, they vow to uphold these five
precepts. Later as the student advances or if they were to enter
a period of monastic practice, additional precepts, or a different
interpretation of the precepts would be included. For example, the
lay student follows the precept of "not misusing sex", but if that
student were to enter a monastery for a period of time, that same
precept would change to "not having sex". There are no moral
implications in being celibate, it would only be a logical way to
Zen Master Philip Kapleau uses the analogy of a road travelled
to describe following the precepts:
To live by the precepts is to travel the Way of unity and
harmony in which the road is smooth, the obstructions
few, and the scenery strikingly beautiful. To transgress
the precepts is to take a side road that appears
interesting but which soon turns bumpy, becomes
monotonous, and ends in the dead end of regret and
Breaking the precepts not only results in hindrances on the
path, but also deals with karma; future events that result in past
actions. As Alan Watts points out, "Failure to observe the
precepts produces "bad karma," not because karma is a law or moral
retribution, but because all motivated and purposeful
actions,...are karma Obviously, for everyone there will be times
when the precepts are broken, and when they are, the student acts
firmly but compassionately to correct the problem. Stephen Echard
Roshi includes a vow for new students at the end of the Tokudo
ceremony that discusses how to self-correct problems while
maintaining a compassionate bearing:
I understand that being a beginning Bodhisattva the force
of Karma is strong and I will occasionally fail to keep
my vows. Thus I vow I will periodically examine myself
and make amends where necessary. That I will treat
myself with the same kind of loving kindness and stern
discipline I would if I were my own child and carry this
attitude forward toward all sentient beings.
The last precept of Ethical Conduct is Right Livelihood.
Right livelihood refers to having an occupation that is life
supporting rather than life destroying. Professions of wrong
livelihood include: robber, arms dealer, salesman, usurer, and
gambler. Although such careers as law enforcement or the
military are sometimes on this list, certain schools and teachers
disagree. Some Zen teachers feel that such professions are
necessary, but those professions may not be appropriate for the Zen
practitioner. A general rule is: If one's profession distracts
one from the Way, then it is wrong livelihood.
The third classification, Mental Discipline, includes: Right
Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.
Right Effort is a serious attempt to perfect the mind. This
involves preventing negative states of mind, ridding oneself of
existing negative states of mind, creating positive states of mind,
and fostering and developing positive states of mind. Cleaning
an attic is a good metaphor for this activity. If something
positive and useful is found, keep it. All the junk that gets in
the way and keeps one from utilizing the positive stuff should be
As with the other aspects of the Eightfold Path, Right Effort
is involved as an end, not a means: "Right effort is effort to
keep the end in view, not some distant future end, but the present
end. It consists not in seeking rebirth and greater future reward
but in exercising constant appreciation in this very life of the
end-aspect of what is." Zen Master Do-gen describes how this
works: "To gain a certain objective you must first become a certain
kind of man; but once you have become such a man, attaining that
objective will no longer be a concern to you."
At this point the connections between each of these "links" is
obvious. A wrong thought leads to wrong actions which then leads
to more wrong thoughts, perpetually re-creating the cycle of
suffering. However, when energy is put into Zen practice, this
cycle becomes a positive rather than a negative cycle.
The seventh practice of the Eightfold Path is Right
Mindfulness. Right Mindfulness is being attentive to one's inner
condition. This includes the activities of the body, the mind, the
emotions, and conceptual ideas and thoughts. Practicing Right
Mindfulness means to be aware of each of these things to better
understand oneself by analyzing cause and origin. Buddhist
scholar Archie Bahm describes the student practicing Right
Mindfulness: "No matter how many things, such as body, feelings,
heart, ideas, arouse one's interest, he willingly accepts each for
what it is, keeping in mind his sense of equanimity relative to
At a practical level, this means being aware of every moment.
When eating, walking, studying, driving, or even using the
bathroom. Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that
motivation is the key to Right Mindfulness. If we rush through an
action so as to get to an activity we enjoy more, then we lose that
moment. Actions should be performed for the sake of the action
alone. He uses the example of doing dishes:
There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to
wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the
second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the
dishes.... If while washing the dishes, we think only of
the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the
dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we
are not "washing the dishes to wash the dishes." ...If we
can't wash dishes, the chances are we won't be able to
drink our tea either.
By not being mindful and living in the present moment, we cease to
live; becoming a constant victim of the future and the past.
The eighth of the eightfold path, the last component of Mental
Discipline, is Right Concentration. The Zen practice of Right
Concentration is Zen meditation, called Zazen.
Zazen appears to be deceptively simple when explained. The
student sits with the back straight in a cross-legged position.
The left hand is placed on the right with the thumbs lightly
touching, forming an oval. The hands are the placed in the lap,
next to the abdomen. 13th century Zen Master, Do-gen Zenji,
explains some of the finer points in his work, Fukan Zazen-gi (A
General Recommendation for Zazen):
Now regulate your posture so you are sitting properly,
leaning neither to the left nor to the right, forward or
backward. [Looked at from the side] your ears and
shoulders should be in a straight line , and from the
front, your nose will be in a direct line with your
navel. Place your tongue against the roof of your mouth,
and keep your teeth and lips closed. Your eyes should be
[slightly] open, and your breathing should be soft.
The mind is the next focus of Zazen. Do-gen Zenji advocates
the practice of Shinkantaza, or "just sitting". In this practice,
the mind is concentrated on not thinking. Do-gen writes: "Think
about the unthinkable. How do you do this? Do not think."
A useful practice for the beginner, and even the expert at times,
is meditating on the breath. As the student inhales and exhales,
the breath is counted, from one to ten, and then starting back at
one again. If (when) the mind wanders, concentration is brought
back to counting, starting over at one.
Zen Buddhism considers Zazen the core of spiritual practice.
With the rest of the Eightfold Path properly followed, through
Right Concentration, the mind can be focused to see reality as it
is. Right Concentration should feed back to Right Understanding,
completing the chain and unifying the entire system of practice.
However, like the other steps along the path, the practice of
meditation is not a means to an end. Right concentration is the
end itself. Do-gen's writes: "That which we call Zazen is not a way
of developing concentration. It is simply the comfortable way. It
is practice which measures your satori (enlightenment) to the
fullest, and is in fact satori itself."
With the entire practice in order, it is only a matter of time
until the goal, a goal that was not striven for, is realized.
There is only the path to be followed, yet there is nowhere to go.
Like doing the dishes, the path should be walked just to walk the
path. In 1228, the monk Wu-men Hui-k'ai wrote: "The farther you
advance, the more confused the path; the more you retreat, the less
clearly is the path perceived. If you do not advance and do not
retreat, you are a dead person. Now tell me, how do you live the
APPENDIX: Karma and Good & Evil
Cautions concerning generating bad karma appears to show that the
Zen student should strive for good karma, yet this can also be a
trap. If an individual worries about the future, constantly trying
to generate good karmas by righting wrongs, and fighting against
evil, they will only become frustrated and unhappy. Worse yet,
they will have spent their life outside the present moment,
attempting to make the actual into the ideal. "One should abstain
from stealing from the end of life and giving to the
means...Demanding of the present more justice or more love of or by
others than one gets is stealing -- stealing from the irreplaceable
enjoyment of the present."
This does not mean that one should sit back and accept things
in a passive "do nothing" fashion. Buddhist acceptance is a
Acceptance is a conscious awareness of the reality of
ones situation and does not imply a lack of energy.
Acceptance is a ground for action because it deals
realistically with the actual. Attachment to desire is
a type of frenetic non action in that it ignores
actuality in favor of a denatured possibility."
With all this talk about good karma and bad karma, the reader
may wonder where the concepts of good and evil fit in. To take up
the issue of good and evil it is necessary to briefly discuss the
concepts of Nirvana (emptiness) and Samsara (form). The concepts
of good and evil belong to the world of Samsara, the everyday
world. People appear to live, grow old, and die. This is the
world that we all live in, where concepts seem to have meaning and
reality can be pleasant or unpleasant.
Nirvana is the enlightened world, a way of being where
concepts like good and evil are empty, without substance, where
there is no birth and death, and where everything is totally
interdependent and without abiding form. This is also the world
we live in. This world of Nirvana is realized in the world of
Samsara. Both these worlds are the same. Samsara is Nirvana and
Nirvana is Samsara. Or better yet, form is emptiness and emptiness
is form. This can cause problems however, as the mind performs
mental gymnastics that can result in an attachment to the ideas of
form and emptiness. Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki wrote:
...if you are not careful the sutra (Prajna Paramita
Sutra) will give you a gaining idea. It says, `form is
emptiness and emptiness is form.' But if you attach to
that statement, you are liable to be involved in
dualistic ideas: here is you, form, and here is
emptiness, which you are trying to realize through your
In the perspective of Nirvana, there is no good and evil. The
concepts of good and evil, as well as everything else in the world,
have no substance that gives them an independent reality of their
own. In the universe, an action is only an action. It is neutral.
Actually, it is beyond neutrality. To place a label of good or
evil on an action is illusory and serves no purpose.
However, thinking back again in the Samsaric world, those
concepts of good and evil (better words are positive and negative)
have some value in describing reality as we see it. In our
everyday world, words are necessary to describe the positive
actions of someone like Mother Theresa or the negative actions of
someone like Adolph Hitler. However, to label something good or
evil, even Hitler or Mother Theresa, implies that those individuals
are only capable of doing good or doing evil. If you look at the
situation like this, then Mother Theresa could never do evil and
Adolph Hitler could never do good. You do not have to look very
far to find instances of both actions with these two individuals.
To give a more concrete example, a bus has no true substance;
it is empty of abiding form. It is only an expression of time and
space and does not exist independently from the rest of the world.
That is the Nirvana aspect of the bus. Nevertheless, stepping off
the curb in front of this "example of insubstantiality" would be
disastrous. That is the Samsara aspect of the bus. The bus has
dual conceptual natures. Nirvana and Samsara are the same worlds
with a different level of realization. Just as form is emptiness
and emptiness is form, form is form and emptiness is emptiness.
To get back to our examples of good and evil again, there is
a saying in Zen that's an offshoot of this concept of emptiness and
form: "There is no good or evil, but what's good is good and what's
evil is evil." Anyone who has realized enlightenment lives fully
in both worlds.
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