If you want to understand the ideas that underpin any belief system, it’s best to start at the beginning. With Buddhism that means going back to the Four Noble Truths which was the Buddha’s very first teaching. The Four Noble Truths of the Middle Way include the teachings on the Eightfold Path, which is a way to free yourself from suffering so you can live a full and happy life.
The Buddha’s life provided everything he needed to realise how reality works and devise his method for waking up. As Siddhartha Gautama, he lived the first part of his life as a prince, his every whim catered for, no expense spared. Over time he grew tired of this and became determined to discover what went on beyond his privileged bubble. After venturing outside the palace walls, he saw for the first time what human suffering really meant when he was overwhelmed by a vision of illness, old age and death.
Vowing to discover a way to be liberated from life’s vicissitudes and suffering, Gautama left the palace, abandoning his wife and baby son. He became an ascetic, which was more or less the only spiritual path open to him at that time. According to Karen Armstrong in Buddha, it seems he wasn’t aware of the Upanishads or the idea of Brahman. The Upanishads was “an underground, esoteric faith centred in the western plains”, but Gautama joined a group of ascetic monks who lived in the forest and rejected the old Vedic religion. He starved himself and practised the most extreme austerities, all but dying in the process:
“During this time, Gautama went either naked or clad in the roughest hemp. He slept out in the open during the freezing winter nights, lay on a mattress of spikes and even fed on his own urine and faeces. He held his breath for so long that his head seemed to split and there was a fearful roaring in his ears. He stopped eating and his bones stuck out… When he touched his stomach, he could almost feel his spine.”
Karen Armstrong, Buddha
None of this madness brought him to enlightenment, but he was determined to find another way. He began to eat again, scandalising his fellow ascetics who wandered off and left him to it. As his health returned, he developed the practice of mindfulness and began to watch the movement of his consciousness. Until one day, under the Bodhi tree, he attained enlightenment and became the Buddha – which means one who is awake. He realised the mistake he had made in going to such extremes in his quest, and began to teach the Middle Way to liberation.
The Middle Way
Buddha saw that the cause of our suffering (dukkha) was desire and that the only way to be free was to transcend it. Desire arises because the self feels incomplete, as if it has lost part of itself. This might be felt as an inner ache or hollow feeling, a sense of loneliness, loss, and fear of abandonment. These feelings of loneliness aren’t healed in the presence of others because they’re not caused by a lack of companionship. They come from the fact that the self is contracting against reality and believes itself to be separate from life in a fundamental way.
This feeling of incompleteness or dissatisfaction with life is what the Buddha meant by the term dukkha, which is usually translated as suffering. It’s not a comfortable way to live. You’re always trying to get away from yourself at the same time as trying to make yourself feel better. But you can’t get away from your own experience.
Indulging yourself doesn’t work because you just want more. Whatever you have is never enough and it doesn’t last due to the impermanent nature of life. If you swing to the other extreme and deny your desires, that doesn’t work either. You end up miserable, starving and half crazy.
So the Middle Way walks a path between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-denial. It recognises the importance of taking care of yourself, treating yourself and others with compassion, and living with wisdom in a balanced and harmonious way. Ultimately, both extremes of denial and idealisation reinforce the ego, so the only way to free yourself from dukkha is to turn inwards and find out who or what this ‘self’ is or isn’t.
In the end, the self can be transcended by recognising its true nature as illusory. There’s no sense in clinging to the self, trying to bolster and strengthen it, indulging in its whims and desires. And there’s no sense in denigrating the self, trying to destroy it in a nihilistic frenzy. The Middle Way offers the realisation that there is no self to transcend.
That doesn’t mean the self doesn’t exist. The illusory nature of the self refers to the fact that it isn’t separate from life – the self doesn’t inherently exist. In other words, the self only exists in relationship to everything else. It is described as being empty of itself.
For more on this, see my post on Nagarjuna here.
The Four Noble Truths
This realisation can be attained by following the Eightfold Path and developing Right View. Buddha saw that you could live in a way which was free from suffering, but first certain facts must be accepted. You’ll never be truly happy or free if you’re constantly running away or denying reality. So the first step is to confront the truth. This is the development of Right View – seeing into the nature of the mind, understanding how it works and how you cause your own suffering.
These truths are set out in the Four Noble Truths as follows:
The first Noble Truth is the fact of suffering – you experience suffering due to the impermanence of life. There’s nothing you can do about that. You just have to accept it.
The second Noble Truth is the fact of the cause of suffering – you desire life to not be impermanent. You want things the way you want them, but life has other ideas. Again, nothing you can do about that.
The third Noble Truth is the fact of the cessation of suffering – you can free yourself from that desire. It is possible to break out of the cycle of madness. Buddha knows because he did it.
The fourth Noble Truth is the fact of the cause of cessation – you can follow the Eightfold Path, the method of liberation.
In other words, you suffer because life keeps changing when you want it to stay the same. You want to be happy but the people and things you love change or die. You can’t control life and trying to control it makes you suffer. But the good news is you don’t have to suffer. There is a way to free yourself from the desire to control life and fix impermanence.
And that brings us to the focus of this series: the Eightfold Path.
The Eightfold Path
This is the path to freedom from suffering as taught by the Buddha throughout his life. It’s divided into three parts covering Wisdom, Ethical Conduct, and Mental Discipline. Each of the eight steps on the path are practised simultaneously, which is why they’re often depicted in a circle using the Dharma Wheel, like this:
All the teachings and disciplines interconnect and feed into each other, providing a comprehensive guide to enlightened living in the world. The entire path is built upon and grows out of compassion and universal love for all sentient beings, and is a perfect manifestation of the realisation of the true Self or Buddha nature, which is who you really are.
“Wherever the Noble Eightfold Path is practiced, joy, peace, and insight are there.” – Mahaparinibhana Sutra
Here’s a breakdown of each step of the Eightfold Path:
- Right Understanding – seeing yourself and the world as it really is
- Right Thought – thinking and intention arising from Right Understanding
- Right Speech – communicating with compassion
- Right Action – acting appropriately in each situation
- Right Livelihood – earning a living in a way that promotes respect and equality
- Right Effort – cultivating a positive attitude and cheerful determination
- Right Mindfulness – being aware of the moment with a clear focus
- Right Concentration – disciplining the mind to see reality as it is
A quick note on the word Right: the Sanskrit word for right is samyak, which means ‘in the right way’, ‘straight’ or ‘upright.’ The way Buddha used this word isn’t meant to imply a judgement – it’s not ‘right’ as opposed to ‘wrong’. Right means ‘what is’ and is more about accepting reality as it is and letting things be as there are. In the Myth of Freedom, Chögyam Trungpa says samyak means ‘complete’, as in self-sufficient:
“Completeness needs no relative help, no support through comparison; it is self-sufficient. Samyak means seeing life as it is without crutches, straightforwardly. In a bar one says, ‘I would like a straight drink.’ Not diluted with club soda or water; you just have it straight. That is samyak. No dilutions, no concoctions – just a straight drink. Buddha realised that life could be potent and delicious, positive and creative, and he realised that you do not need any concoctions with which to mix it. Life is a straight drink – hot pleasure, hot pain, straightforward, one hundred percent.”
In this series, we’ll look at each step on the Eightfold Path and work our way around the circle. And the first step is: Right Understanding