Key Teachings: The Noble Eightfold Path 👍🏻

This is the second part of an overview of key Buddhist teachings, as described by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, with a little help from Emoji.

Click here for the first part: The Four Noble Truths.

1. Right View (Samyag Drishti)

eyes

The first practice of the Noble Eightfold Path is Right View (samyag drishti). Right View is, first of all, a deep understanding of the Four Noble Truths — our suffering, the making of our suffering, the fact that our suffering can be transformed, and the path of transformation. The Buddha said that Right View is to have confidence that there are people who have been able to transform their suffering. Venerable Shariputra added that Right View is knowing which of the four kinds of nutriments that we have ingested have brought about what has come to be.

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Shariputra described Right View as the ability to distinguish wholesome roots (kushala mula) from unwholesome roots (akushala mula). In each of us, there are wholesome and unwholesome roots — or seeds — in the depths of our consciousness. If you are a loyal person, it is because the seed of loyalty is in you. But don’t think that the seed of betrayal isn’t also in you. If you live in an environment where your seed of loyalty is watered, you will be a loyal person. But if your seed of betrayal is watered, you may betray even those you love. You’ll feel guilty about it, but if the seed of betrayal in you becomes strong, you may do it.

The practice of mindfulness helps us identify all the seeds in our store consciousness 2 and water the ones that are the most wholesome. When one person comes up to us, the very sight of him makes us uncomfortable. But when someone else walks by, we like her right away. Something in each of them touches a seed in us. If we love our mother deeply, but feel tense every time we think of our father, it is natural that when we see a young lady who looks like our mother, we will appreciate her, and when we see a man who evokes the memory of our father, we will feel uncomfortable. In this way, we can “see” the seeds that are in us — seeds of love for our mother and seeds of hurt vis-à-vis our father. When we become aware of the seeds in our storehouse, we will not be surprised by our own behavior or the behavior of others.

The seed of Buddhahood, the capacity to wake up and understand things as they are, is also present in each of us. When we join our palms and bow to another person, we acknowledge the seed of Buddhahood in him or her. When we bow to a child this way, we help him or her grow up beautifully and with self-confidence. If you plant corn, corn will grow. If you plant wheat, wheat will grow. If you act in a wholesome way, you will be happy. If you act in an unwholesome way, you water the seeds of craving, anger, and violence in yourself. Right View is to recognize which seeds are wholesome and to encourage those seeds to be watered. This is called “selective touching.” We need to discuss and share with each other to deepen our understanding of this practice and the practice of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, especially the fifth, about the “foods” we ingest.

At the base of our views are our perceptions (samjña). In Chinese, the upper part of the character for perception is “mark,” “sign,” or “appearance,” and the lower part is “mind” or “spirit.” Perceptions always have a “mark,” and in many cases that mark is illusory. The Buddha advised us not to be fooled by what we perceive. He told Subhuti, “Where there is perception, there is deception.” 4 The Buddha also taught on many occasions that most of our perceptions are erroneous, and that most of our suffering comes from wrong perceptions. 5 We have to ask ourselves again and again, “Am I sure?” Until we see clearly, our wrong perceptions will prevent us from havingRight View.

To perceive always means to perceive something. We believe that the object of our perception is outside of the subject, but that is not correct. When we perceive the moon, the moon is us. When we smile to our friend, our friend is also us, because she is the object of our perception.

When we perceive a mountain, the mountain is the object of our perception. When we perceive the moon, the moon is the object of our perception. When we say, “I can see my consciousness in the flower,” it means we can see the cloud, the sunshine, the earth, and the minerals in it. But how can we see our consciousness in a flower? The flower is our consciousness. It is the object of our perception. It is our perception. To perceive means to perceive something. Perception means the coming into existence of the perceiver and the perceived. The flower that we are looking at is part of our consciousness. The idea that our consciousness is outside of the flower has to be removed. It is impossible to have a subject without an object. It is impossible to remove one and retain the other.

The source of our perception, our way of seeing, lies in our store consciousness. If ten people look at a cloud, there will be ten different perceptions of it. Whether it is perceived as a dog, a hammer, or a coat depends on our mind — our sadness, our memories, our anger. Our perceptions carry with them all the errors of subjectivity. Then we praise, blame, condemn, or complain depending on our perceptions. But our perceptions are made of our afflictions — craving, anger, ignorance, wrong views, and prejudice. Whether we are happy or we suffer depends largely on our perceptions. It is important to look deeply at our perceptions and know their source.

We have an idea of happiness. We believe that only certain conditions will make us happy. But it is often our very idea of happiness that prevents us from being happy. We have to look deeply into our perceptions in order to become free of them. Then, what has been a perception becomes an insight, a realization of the path. This is neither perception nor non-perception. It is a clear vision, seeing things as they are.

Our happiness and the happiness of those around us depend on our degree of Right View. Touching reality deeply — knowing what is going on inside and outside of ourselves — is the way to liberate ourselves from the suffering that is caused by wrong perceptions. Right View is not an ideology, a system, or even a path. It is the insight we have into the reality of life, a living insight that fills us with understanding, peace, and love.

Sometimes we see our children doing things that we know will cause them to suffer in the future, but when we try to tell them, they won’t listen. All we can do is to stimulate the seeds of Right View in them, and then later, in a difficult moment, they may benefit from our guidance. We cannot explain an orange to someone who has never tasted one. No matter how well we describe it, we cannot give someone else the direct experience. He has to taste it for himself. As soon as we say a single word, he is already caught. Right View cannot be described. We can only point in the correct direction. Right View cannot even be transmitted by a teacher. A teacher can help us identify the seed of Right View that is already in our garden, and help us have the confidence to practice, to entrust that seed to the soil of our daily life. But we are the gardener. We have to learn how to water the wholesome seeds that are in us so they will bloom into the flowers of Right View. The instrument for watering wholesome seeds is mindful living — mindful breathing, mindful walking, living each moment of our day in mindfulness.

At a peace rally in Philadelphia in 1966, a reporter asked me, “Are you from North or South Vietnam?” If I had said I was from the north, he would have thought I was pro-communist, and if I had said I was from the south, he would have thought I was pro-American. So I told him, “I am from the Center.” I wanted to help him let go of his notions and encounter the reality that was right in front of him. This is the language of Zen. A Zen monk saw a beautiful goose fly by and he wanted to share this joy with his elder brother who was walking beside him. But at that moment, the other monk had bent down to remove a pebble from his sandal. By the time he looked up, the goose had already flown by. He asked, “What did you want me to see?” but the younger monk could only remain silent. Master Tai Xu said, “As long as the tree is behind you, you can see only its shadow. If you want to touch the reality, you have to turn around.” “Image teaching” uses words and ideas. “Substance teaching” communicates by the way you live.

If you come to Plum Village for one day, you have an idea about Plum Village, but that idea isn’t really Plum Village. You might say, “I’ve been to Plum Village,” but in fact you’ve really only been to your idea of Plum Village. Your idea might be slightly better than that of someone who has never been there, but it’s still only an idea. It is not the true Plum Village. Your concept or perception of reality is not reality. When you are caught in your perceptions and ideas, you lose reality.

To practice is to go beyond ideas, so you can arrive at the suchness of things. “No idea conception. As long as there is an idea, there is no reality, no truth. “No idea” means no wrong idea, no wrong conception. It does not mean no mindfulness. Because of mindfulness, when something is right, we know it’s right, and when something is wrong, we know it’s wrong.

We are practicing sitting meditation, and we see a bowl of tomato soup in our mind’s eye, so we think that is wrong practice, because we are supposed to be mindful of our breathing. But if we practice mindfulness, we will say, “I am breathing in and I am thinking about tomato soup.” That is Right Mindfulness already. Rightness or wrongness is not objective. It is subjective.

Relatively speaking, there are right views and there are wrong views. But if we look more deeply, we see that all views are wrong views. No view can ever be the truth. It is just from one point; that is why it is called a “point of view.” If we go to another point, we will see things differently and realize that our first view was not entirely right. Buddhism is not a collection of views. It is a practice to help us eliminate wrong views. The quality of our views can always be improved. From the viewpoint of ultimate reality, Right View is the absence of all views.

When we begin the practice, our view is a vague idea about the teachings. But conceptual knowledge is never enough. The seeds of Right View, the seed of Buddhahood, are in us, but they are obscured by so many layers of ignorance, sorrow, and disappointment. We have to put our views into practice. In the process of learning, reflecting, and practicing, our view becomes increasingly wise, based on our real experience. When we practice Right Mindfulness, we see the seed of Buddhahood in everyone, including ourselves. This is Right View. Sometimes it is described as the Mother of All Buddhas (prajña paramita), the energy of love and understanding that has the power to free us. When we practice mindful living, our Right View will blossom, and all the other elements of the path in us will flower, also.

The eight practices of the Noble Eightfold Path nourish each other. As our view becomes more “right,” the other elements of the Eightfold Path in us also deepen. Right Speech is based on Right View, and it also nourishes Right View. Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration strengthen and deepen Right View. Right Action has to be based on Right View. Right Livelihood clarifies Right View. Right View is both a cause and an effect of all the other elements of the path.


2. Right Thinking (Samyak Samkalpa)

thinking

When Right View is solid in us, we have Right Thinking (samyak samkalpa). We need Right View at the foundation of our thinking. And if we train ourselves in Right Thinking, our Right View will improve. Thinking is the speech of our mind. Right Thinking makes our speech clear and beneficial. Because thinking often leads to action, Right Thinking is needed to take us down the path of Right Action.

Right Thinking reflects the way things are. Wrong thinking causes us to see in an “upsidedown way” (viparyasa). But to practice Right Thinking is not easy. Our mind is often thinking about one thing while our body is doing another. Mind and body are not unified. Conscious breathing is an important link. When we concentrate on our breathing, we bring body and mind back together and become whole again. When Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am,” he meant that we can prove our existence by the fact that our thinking exists. He concluded that because we are thinking, we are really there, existing. I would conclude the opposite: “I think, therefore I am not.”

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As long as mind and body are not together, we get lost and we cannot really say that we are here. If we practice breathing mindfully and touching the healing and refreshing elements that are already within and around us, we will find peace and solidity. Mindful breathing helps us stop being preoccupied by sorrows of the past and anxieties about the future. It helps us be in touch with life in the present moment. Much of our thinking is unnecessary. Those thoughts are limited and do not carry much understanding in them. Sometimes we feel as though we have a cassette player in our head — always running, day and night — and we cannot turn it off. We worry and become tense and have nightmares. When we practice mindfulness, we begin to hear the cassette tape in our mind, and we can notice whether our thinking is useful or not.

Thinking has two parts: 👆 initial thought (vitarka) and ✌️developing thought (vichara). An initial thought is something like, “This afternoon I have to turn in an essay for literature class.” The development of this thought might be to wonder whether we are doing the assignment correctly, whether we should read it one more time before turning it in, whether our teacher will notice if we hand it in late, and so on. Vitarka is the original thought. Vichara is the development of the original thought.

In the first stage of meditative concentration (dhyana), both kinds of thinking are present. In the second stage, neither is there. We are in deeper contact with reality, free of words and concepts. While walking in the woods with a group of children last year, I noticed one of the little girls thinking for a long time. Finally, she asked me, “Grandfather monk, what color is that tree’s bark?” “It is the color that you see,” I told her. I wanted her to enter the wonderful world that was right in front of her. I did not want to add another concept.

There are four practices related to Right Thinking.


3. Right Mindfulness (Samyak Smriti)

mindful

Right Mindfulness (samyak smriti) is at the heart of the Buddha’s teachings. Traditionally, Right Mindfulness is the seventh on the path of eight right practices, but it is presented here third to emphasize its great importance. When Right Mindfulness is present, the Four Noble Truths and the seven other elements of the Eightfold Path are also present. When we are mindful, our thinking is Right Thinking, our speech is Right Speech, and so on. Right Mindfulness is the energy that brings us back to the present moment. To cultivate mindfulness in ourselves is to cultivate the Buddha within, to cultivate the Holy Spirit.

According to Buddhist psychology (abhidharma, “super Dharma”), the trait “attention” (manaskara) is “universal,” which means we are always giving our attention to something. Our attention may be “appropriate” (yoniso manaskara), as when we dwell fully in the present moment, or inappropriate (ayoniso manaskara), as when we are attentive to something that takes us away from being here and now. A good gardener knows the way to grow flowers from compost. Right Mindfulness accepts everything without judging or reacting. It is inclusive and loving. The practice is to find ways to sustain appropriate attention throughout the day.

4. Right Speech (Samyag Vac)

right_speach

“Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am determined to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain and will not criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I am determined to make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.”

This is the Fourth Mindfulness Training, and it offers a very good description of Right Speech (samyag vac). In our time, communication techniques have become very sophisticated. It takes no time at all to send news to the other side of the planet. But at the same time, communication between individuals has become very difficult. Fathers cannot talk to sons and daughters. Husbands cannot talk to wives, nor partners to partners. Communication is blocked. We are in a very difficult situation, not only between countries but person to person. Practicing the Fourth Mindfulness Training is very important.

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The classical explanation of Right Speech is:

(1) Speaking truthfully. When something is green, we say it is green, and not purple.

(2) Not speaking with a forked tongue. We don’t say one thing to one person and something else to another. Of course, we can describe the truth in different ways to help different listeners understand our meaning, but we must always be loyal to the truth.

(3) Not speaking cruelly. We don’t shout, slander, curse, encourage suffering, or create hatred. Even those who have a good heart and don’t want to hurt others sometimes allow toxic words to escape from their lips. In our mind are seeds of Buddha and also many fetters or internal formations (samyojana). When we say something poisonous, it is usually because of our habit energies. Our words are very powerful. They can give someone a complex, take away their purpose in life, or even drive them to suicide. We must not forget this.

(4) Not exaggerating or embellishing. We don’t dramatize unnecessarily, making things sound better, worse, or more extreme than they actually are. If someone is a little irritated, we don’t say that he is furious. The practice of Right Speech is to try to change our habits so that our speech arises from the seed of Buddha that is in us, and not from our unresolved, unwholesome seeds.

Right Speech is based on Right Thinking. Speech is the way for our thinking to express itself aloud. Our thoughts are no longer our private possessions. We give earphones to others and allow them to hear the audiotape that is playing in our mind. Of course, there are things we think but do not want to say, and one part of our consciousness has to play the role of editor. If there is something we think we will be criticized for saying, the editor will censor it. Sometimes when a friend or a therapist asks us an unexpected question, we are provoked into telling the truth we wanted to hide.

Sometimes, when there are blocks of suffering in us, they may manifest as speech (or actions) without going through the medium of thought. Our suffering has built up and can no longer be repressed, especially when we have not been practicing Right Mindfulness. Expressing our suffering can harm us and other people as well, but when we don’t practice Right Mindfulness, we may not know what is building up inside us. Then we say or write things we did not want to say, and we don’t know where our words came from. We had no intention of saying something that could hurt others, yet we say such words. We have every intention of saying only words that bring about reconciliation and forgiveness, but then we say something very unkind. To water seeds of peace in ourselves, we have to practice Right Mindfulness while walking, sitting, standing, and so on. With Right Mindfulness, we see clearly all of our thoughts and feelings and know whether this or that thought is harming or helping us. When our thoughts leave our mind in the form of speech, if Right Mindfulness continues to accompany them, we know what we are saying and whether it is useful or creating problems.

Deep listening is at the foundation of Right Speech. If we cannot listen mindfully, we cannot practice Right Speech. No matter what we say, it will not be mindful, because we’ll be speaking only our own ideas and not in response to the other person. In the Lotus Sutra, we are advised to look and listen with the eyes of compassion. Compassionate listening brings about healing. When someone listens to us this way, we feel some relief right away. A good therapist always practices deep, compassionate listening. We have to learn to do the same in order to heal the people we love and restore communication with them.

When communication is cut off, we all suffer. When no one listens to us or understands us, we become like a bomb ready to explode. Restoring communication is an urgent task. Sometimes only ten minutes of deep listening can transform us and bring a smile back to our lips. The Bodhisattva Kwan Yin is the one who hears the cries of the world. She has the quality of listening deeply, without judging or reacting. When we listen with our whole being, we can defuse a lot of bombs. If the other person feels that we are critical of what they are saying, their suffering will not be relieved. When psychotherapists practice Right Listening, their patients have the courage to say things they have never been able to tell anyone before. Deep listening nourishes both speaker and listener.

Many of us have lost our capacity for listening and using loving speech in our families. It may be that no one is capable of listening to anyone else. So we feel very lonely even within our own families. That is why we have to go to a therapist, hoping that she is able to listen to us. But many therapists also have deep suffering within. Sometimes they cannot listen as deeply as they would like. So if you really love someone, train yourself to be a listener. Be a therapist. You may be the best therapist for the person you love if you know how to train yourself in the art of deep, compassionate listening. You must also use loving speech. We have lost our capacity to say things calmly. We get irritated too easily. Every time we open our mouths, our speech becomes sour or bitter. We know it’s true. We have lost our capacity for speaking with kindness. This is the Fourth Mindfulness Training. This is so crucial to restoring peaceful and loving relationships. If you fail in this training, you cannot succeed in restoring harmony, love, and happiness. That is why practicing the Fourth Mindfulness Training is a great gift.

In Buddhism, we speak of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, Kwan Yin , a person who has a great capacity of listening with compassion and true presence. “Kwan Yin” means the one who can listen and understand the sound of the world, the cries of suffering. Psychotherapists try to practice the same. They sit very quietly with a lot of compassion and listen to you. Listening like that is not to judge, criticize, condemn, or evaluate, but to listen with the single purpose of helping the other person suffer less. If they are able to listen like that to you for one hour, you feel much better. But psychotherapists have to practice so that they can always maintain compassion, concentration, and deep listening. Otherwise, their quality of listening will be very poor, and you will not feel better after one hour of listening.

You have to practice breathing mindfully in and out so that compassion always stays with you. “I am listening to him not only because I want to know what is inside him or to give him advice. I am listening to him just because I want to relieve his suffering.” That is called compassionate listening. You have to listen in such a way that compassion remains with you the whole time you are listening. That is the art. If halfway through listening irritation or anger comes up, then you cannot continue to listen. You have to practice in such a way that every time the energy of irritation and anger comes up, you can breathe in and out mindfully and continue to hold compassion within you. It is with compassion that you can listen to another. No matter what he says, even if there is a lot of wrong information and injustice in his way of seeing things, even if he condemns or blames you, continue to sit very quietly breathing in and out. Maintain your compassion within you for one hour. That is called compassionate listening. If you can listen like that for one hour, the other person will feel much better.

If you don’t feel that you can continue to listen in this way, ask your friend, “Dear one, can we continue in a few days? I need to renew myself. I need to practice so I can listen to you in the best way I can.” If you are not in good shape, you are not going to listen the best way you can. You need to practice more walking meditation, more mindful breathing, more sitting meditation in order to restore your capacity for compassionate listening. That is the practice of the Fourth Mindfulness Training — training oneself to listen with compassion. That is very important, a great gift.

Sometimes we speak clumsily and create internal knots in others. Then we say, “I was just telling the truth.” It may be the truth, but if our way of speaking causes unnecessary suffering, it is not Right Speech. The truth must be presented in ways that others can accept. Words that damage or destroy are not Right Speech. Before you speak, understand the person you are speaking to. Consider each word carefully before you say anything, so that your speech is “Right” in both form and content. The Fourth Mindfulness Training also has to do with loving speech. You have the right to tell another everything in your heart with the condition that you use only loving speech. If you are not able to speak calmly, then don’t speak that day. “Sorry, my dear, allow me to tell you tomorrow or the next day. I am not at my best today. I’m afraid I’ll say things that are unkind. Allow me to tell you about this another day.” Open your mouth and speak only when you are sure you can use calm and loving speech. You have to train yourself to be able to do so.

In the Lotus Sutra, a bodhisattva named Wondrous Sound was able to speak to each person in his or her own language. For someone who needed the language of music, he used music. For those who understood the language of drugs, he spoke in terms of drugs. Every word the Bodhisattva Wondrous Sound said opened up communication and helped others transform. We can do the same, but it takes determination and skillfulness.

When two people are not getting along, we can go to one and speak in a positive way about the other, and then go to the other and speak constructively about the first. When person “A” knows that person “B” is suffering, A has a much better chance of understanding and appreciating B. The art of Right Speech needs Right View, Right Thought, and also correct practice.

Letter writing is a form of speech. A letter can sometimes be safer than speaking, because there is time for you to read what you have written before sending it. As you read your words, you can visualize the other person receiving your letter and decide if what you have written is skillful and appropriate. Your letter has to water the seeds of transformation in the other person and stir something in his heart if it is to be called Right Speech. If any phrase can be misunderstood or upsetting, rewrite it. Right Mindfulness tells you whether you are expressing the truth in the most skillful way. Once you have mailed your letter, you cannot get it back. So read it over carefully several times before sending it. Such a letter will benefit both of you.

As our meditation practice deepens, we are much less caught in words. Capable of practicing silence, we are free as a bird, in touch with the essence of things. The founder of one of the schools of Vietnamese Zen Buddhism wrote, “Don’t ask me anything else. My essence is wordless.” 4 To practice mindfulness of speech, sometimes we have to practice silence. Then we can look deeply to see what our views are and what internal knots give rise to our thinking. Silence is a time for looking deeply. There are times when silence is truth, and that is called “thundering silence.” Confucius said, “The heavens do not say anything.” That also means, the heavens tell us so much, but we don’t know how to listen to them. If we listen out of the silence of our mind, every bird’s song and every whistling of the pine trees in the wind will speak to us. In the Sukhavati Sutra, it is said that every time the wind blows through the jeweled trees, a miracle is produced. If we listen carefully to that sound, we will hear the Buddha teaching the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. Right Mindfulness helps us slow down and listen to each word from the birds, the trees, and our own mind and speech. Whether we say something kind or respond too hastily, we hear what we are saying.


5. Right Action (Samyak Karmanta)

action

Right Action means Right Action of the body. It is the practice of touching love and preventing harm, the practice of nonviolence toward ourselves and others. The basis of Right Action is to do everything in mindfulness.

There are so many things we can do to practice Right Action. We can protect life, practice generosity, behave responsibly, and consume mindfully. The basis of Right Action is Right Mindfulness.

Right Action is closely linked with four (the first, second, third, and fifth) of the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

6. Right Diligence (Samyak Pradhana)

ction

Right Diligence, or Right Effort, is the kind of energy that helps us realize the Noble Eightfold Path. If we are diligent for possessions, sex, or food, that is wrong diligence. If we work round-the-clock for profit or fame or to run away from our suffering, that is wrong diligence also. From outside, it may appear that we are diligent, but it is not Right Diligence. The same can be true of our meditation practice.

We may appear diligent in our practice, but if it takes us farther from reality or from those we love, it is wrong diligence. When we practice sitting and walking meditation in ways that cause our body and mind to suffer, our effort is not Right Diligence and is not based on Right View. Our practice should be intelligent, based on Right Understanding of the teaching. It is not because we practice hard that we can say that we are practicing Right Diligence.

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There was a monk in Tang Dynasty China who was practicing sitting meditation very hard, day and night. He thought he was practicing harder than anyone else, and he was very proud of this. He sat like a rock day and night, but his suffering was not transformed. One day a teacher 1 asked him, “Why are you sitting so hard?” and the monk replied, “To become a Buddha!” The teacher picked up a tile and began polishing it, and the monk asked, “Teacher, what are you doing?” His master replied, “I am making a mirror.” The monk asked, “How can you make a tile into a mirror?” and his teacher replied, “How can you become a Buddha by sitting?”

The four practices usually associated with Right Diligence are:

(1) preventing unwholesome seeds in our store consciousness that have not yet arisen from arising,

(2) helping the unwholesome seeds that have already arisen to return to our store consciousness,

(3) finding ways to water the wholesome seeds in our store consciousness that have not yet arisen and asking our friends to do the same, and

(4) nourishing the wholesome seeds that have already arisen so that they will stay present in our mind consciousness and grow stronger. This is called the Fourfold Right Diligence.

“Unwholesome” means not conducive to liberation or the Path. In our store consciousness there are many seeds that are not beneficial for our transformation, and if those seeds are watered, they will grow stronger. When greed, hatred, ignorance, and wrong views arise, if we embrace them with Right Mindfulness, sooner or later they will lose their strength and return to our store consciousness.

When wholesome seeds have not yet arisen, we can water them and help them come into our conscious mind. These seeds of happiness, love, loyalty, and reconciliation need watering every day. If we water them, we will feel joyful, and this will encourage them to stay longer. Keeping wholesome mental formations in our mind consciousness is the fourth practice of Right Diligence.

The Fourfold Right Diligence is nourished by joy and interest. If your practice does not bring you joy, you are not practicing correctly. The Buddha asked the monk Sona, “Is it true that before you became a monk you were a musician?” Sona replied that it was so. The Buddha asked, “What happens if the string of your instrument is too loose?”

The Fourfold Right Diligence is nourished by joy and interest. If your practice does not bring you joy, you are not practicing correctly. The Buddha asked the monk Sona, “Is it true that before you became a monk you were a musician?” Sona replied that it was so. The Buddha asked, “What happens if the string of your instrument is too loose?”
“When you pluck it, there will be no sound,” Sona replied.
“What happens when the string is too taut?”
“It will break.”
“The practice of the Way is the same,” the Buddha said. “Maintain your health. Be joyful. Do not force yourself to do things you cannot do.” 2 We need to know our physical and psychological limits. We shouldn’t force ourselves to do ascetic practices or lose ourselves in sensual pleasures. Right Diligence lies in the Middle Way, between the extremes of austerity and sensual indulgence.

Right Diligence does not mean to force ourselves. If we have joy, ease, and interest, our effort will come naturally. When we hear the bell inviting us for walking or sitting meditation, we will have the energy to participate if we find meditation joyful and interesting. If we do not have the energy to practice sitting or walking meditation, it is because these practices do not bring us joy or transform us, or we do not yet see their benefit.

The practice of mindful living should be joyful and pleasant. If you breathe in and out and feel joy and peace, that is Right Diligence. If you suppress yourself, if you suffer during your practice, it probably is not Right Diligence. Examine your practice. See what brings you joy and happiness of a sustained kind. Try to spend time with a Sangha, brothers and sisters who are creating a field of mindful energy that can make your practice easy. Work together with a teacher and with a friend to transform your suffering into compassion, peace, and understanding, and do it with joy and ease. That is Right Diligence.


7. Right Concentration

concentration

The practice of Right Concentration (samyak samadhi) is to cultivate a mind that is one-pointed. The Chinese character for concentration means, literally, “maintaining evenness,” neither too high nor too low, neither too excited nor too dull. Another Chinese term sometimes used for concentration means “the abode of true mind.”

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There are two kinds of concentration, active and selective. In active concentration, the mind dwells on whatever is happening in the present moment, even as it changes. This poem by a Buddhist monk 1 describes active concentration:
The wind whistles in the bamboo
and the bamboo dances.
When the wind stops,
the bamboo grows still.

The wind comes and the bamboo welcomes it. The wind goes, and the bamboo lets it go. The poem continues:
A silver bird
flies over the autumn lake.
When it has passed,
the lake’s surface does not try
to hold on to the image of the bird.

As the bird flies over the lake, its reflection is lucid. After it is gone, the lake reflects the clouds and the sky just as clearly. When we practice active concentration, we welcome whatever comes along. We don’t think about or long for anything else. We just dwell in the present moment with all our being. Whatever comes, comes. When the object of our concentration has passed, our mind remains clear, like a calm lake.

When we practice “selective concentration,” we choose one object and hold onto it. During sitting and walking meditation, whether alone or with others, we practice. We know that the sky and the birds are there, but our attention is focused on our object. If the object of our concentration is a math problem, we don’t watch TV or talk on the phone. We abandon everything else and focus on the object. When we are driving, the lives of the passengers in our car depend on our concentration.

We don’t use concentration to run away from our suffering. We concentrate to make ourselves deeply present. When we walk, stand, or sit in concentration, people can see our stability and stillness. Living each moment deeply, sustained concentration comes naturally, and that, in turn, gives rise to insight.

8. Right Livelihood

right-livelihood

To practice Right Livelihood (samyag ajiva), you have to find a way to earn your living without transgressing your ideals of love and compassion. The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self, or it can be a source of suffering for you and others.

Bringing awareness to every moment, we try to have a vocation that is beneficial to humans, animals, plants, and the earth, or at least minimally harmful. We live in a society in which jobs are sometimes hard to find, but if it happens that our work involves harming life, we should try to find another job.

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Our vocation can nourish our understanding and compassion, or erode them. We should be awake to the consequences, far and near, of the way we earn our living. So many modern industries are harmful to humans and nature, even food production. Chemical pesticides and fertilizers can cause a lot of harm to the environment. Practicing Right Livelihood is difficult for farmers. If they do not use chemicals, it may be difficult for them to compete commercially. This is just one example.

When you practice your profession or trade, observe the Five Mindfulness Trainings. A job that involves killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, or selling drugs or alcohol is not Right Livelihood. If your company pollutes the rivers or the air, working there is not Right Livelihood. Making weapons or profiting from others’ superstitions is also not Right Livelihood. People have superstitions, such as believing that their fate is sealed in the stars or in the palms of their hands. No one can be sure what will occur in the future. By practicing mindfulness, we can change the destiny astrologers have predicted for us.

Composing or performing works of art can also be livelihood. A composer, writer, painter, or performer has an effect on the collective consciousness. Any work of art is, to a large extent, a product of the collective consciousness. Therefore, the individual artist needs to practice mindfulness so that his or her work of art helps those who touch it practice right attention.

A young man wanted to learn how to draw lotus flowers, so he went to a master to apprentice with him. The master took him to a lotus pond and invited him to sit there. The young man saw flowers bloom when the sun was high, and he watched them return into buds when night fell. The next morning, he did the same. When one lotus flower wilted and its petals fell into the water, he just looked at the stalk, the stamen, and the rest of the flower, and then moved on to another lotus. He did that for ten days. On the eleventh day, the master asked him, “Are you ready?” and he replied, “I will try.” The master gave him a brush, and although the young man’s style was childlike, the lotus he drew was beautiful. He had become the lotus, and the painting came forth from him. You could see his naïvetée concerning technique, but deep beauty was there.

Right Livelihood is not just a personal matter. It is our collective karma.

To practice Right Livelihood means to practice Right Mindfulness. Every time the telephone rings, hear it as a bell of mindfulness. Stop what you are doing, breathe in and out consciously, and then proceed to the telephone. The way you answer the phone will embody Right Livelihood. We need to discuss among ourselves how to practice mindfulness in the workplace, how to practice Right Livelihood. Do we breathe when we hear the telephone ringing and before we pick up the phone to make a call? Do we smile while we take care of others? Do we walk mindfully from meeting to meeting? Do we practice Right Speech? Do we practice deep and total relaxation after hours of hard work? Do we live in ways that encourage everyone to be peaceful and happy and to have a job that is in the direction of peace and happiness? These are very practical and important questions. To work in a way that encourages this kind of thinking and acting, in a way that encourages our ideal of compassion, is to practice Right Livelihood.

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As we study and practice the Noble Eightfold Path, we see that each element of the path is contained within all the other seven elements. We also see that each element of the path contains the Noble Truths of suffering, the making of suffering, and the ending of suffering.

Practicing the First Noble Truth, we recognize our suffering and call it by its name — depression, anxiety, fear, or insecurity. Then we look directly into that suffering to discover its basis, and that is practicing the Second Noble Truth. These two practices contain the first two elements of the Noble Eightfold Path, namely, Right View and Right Thinking. All of us have a tendency to run away from suffering, but now with the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path we have the courage to face our suffering directly. We use Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration to look courageously at our suffering. The looking deeply that shows us clearly the basis of our suffering is Right View. Right View will not show one reason for our suffering, but layers upon layers of causes and conditions: seeds we have inherited from our parents, grandparents, and ancestors; seeds in us that have been watered by our friends and the economic and political situations of our country; and so many other causes and conditions.

Now the time has come to do something to lessen our suffering. Once we know what is feeding our suffering, we find a way to cease ingesting that nutriment, whether it is edible food, the food of sense-impression, the food we receive from our intentions, or the food from our consciousness. We do this by practicing Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood, remembering that Right Speech is also listening deeply. To practice these three aspects, we take the Mindfulness Trainings as our guide. Practicing according to the Mindfulness Trainings, we see that when we speak, act, or earn our living, we do it with Right Mindfulness. Right Mindfulness lets us know when we say something that is not Right Speech or do something that is not Right Action. Once Right Mindfulness is practiced along with Right Diligence, Right Concentration will follow easily and give rise to insight or Right View. In fact, it is not possible to practice one element of the Noble Eightfold Path without practicing all seven other elements. This is the nature of interbeing, and it is true for all of the teachings offered by the Buddha.