Because the roots of ignorance are so intimately entwined with the fabric of the psyche, the unawakened mind is capable of deceiving itself with breathtaking ingenuity. The solution therefore requires more than simply being kind, loving, and mindful in the present moment. The practitioner must equip him- or herself with the expertise to use a range of tools to outwit, outlast, and eventually uproot the mind’s unskillful tendencies. For example, the practice of generosity (dana) erodes the heart’s habitual tendencies towards craving and teaches valuable lessons about the motivations behind, and the results of, skillful action. The practice of virtue (sila) guards one against straying wildly off-course and into harm’s way. The cultivation of goodwill (metta) helps to undermine anger’s seductive grasp. The ten recollections offer ways to alleviate doubt, bear physical pain with composure, maintain a healthy sense of self-respect, overcome laziness and complacency, and restrain oneself from unbridled lust. And there are many more skills to learn.
The good qualities that emerge and mature from these practices not only smooth the way for the journey to Nibbana; over time they have the effect of transforming the practitioner into a more generous, loving, compassionate, peaceful, and clear-headed member of society. The individual’s sincere pursuit of Awakening is thus a priceless and timely gift to a world in desperate need of help.
The Eightfold Path is best understood as a collection of personal qualities to be developed, rather than as a sequence of steps along a linear path. The development of right view and right resolve (the factors classically identified with wisdom and discernment) facilitates the development of right speech, action, and livelihood (the factors identified with virtue). As virtue develops so do the factors identified with concentration (right effort, mindfulness, and concentration). Likewise, as concentration matures, discernment evolves to a still deeper level. And so the process unfolds: development of one factor fosters development of the next, lifting the practitioner in an upward spiral of spiritual maturity that eventually culminates in Awakening.
The long journey to Awakening begins in earnest with the first tentative stirrings of right view — the discernment by which one recognizes the validity of the four Noble Truths and the principle of kamma. One begins to see that one’s future well-being is neither predestined by fate, nor left to the whims of a divine being or random chance. The responsibility for one’s happiness rests squarely on one’s own shoulders. Seeing this, one’s spiritual aims become suddenly clear: to relinquish the habitual unskillful tendencies of the mind in favor of skillful ones. As this right resolve grows stronger, so does the heartfelt desire to live a morally upright life, to choose one’s actions with care.
At this point many followers make the inward commitment to take the Buddha’s teachings to heart, to become “Buddhist” through the act of taking refuge in the Triple Gem: the Buddha (both the historical Buddha and one’s own innate potential for Awakening), the Dhamma (both the Buddha’s teachings and the ultimate Truth towards which they point), and the Sangha (both the unbroken monastic lineage that has preserved the teachings since the Buddha’s day, and all those who have achieved at least some degree of Awakening). With one’s feet thus planted on solid ground, and with the help of an admirable friend or teacher (kalyanamitta) to guide the way, one is now well-equipped to proceed down the Path, following in the footsteps left by the Buddha himself.
Right view and right resolve continue to mature through the development of the path factors associated with sila, or virtue — namely, right speech, right action, and right livelihood. These are condensed into a very practical form in the five precepts, the basic code of ethical conduct to which every practicing Buddhist subscribes: refraining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and using intoxicants. Even the monks’ complex code of 227 rules and the nuns’ 311 ultimately have these five basic precepts at their core.
Having gained a foothold in the purification of one’s outward behavior through the practice of sila, the essential groundwork has been laid for delving into the most subtle and transformative aspect of the path: meditation and the development of samadhi, or concentration. This is spelled out in detail in the final three path factors: right effort, by which one learns how to favor skillful qualities of mind over unskillful ones; right mindfulness, by which one learns to keep one’s attention continually grounded in the present moment of experience; and right concentration, by which one learns to immerse the mind so thoroughly and unwaveringly in its meditation object that it enters jhana, a series of progressively deeper states of mental and physical tranquillity.
Right mindfulness and right concentration are developed in tandem through satipatthana (“frames of reference” or “foundations of mindfulness”), a systematic approach to meditation practice that embraces a wide range of skills and techniques. Of these practices, mindfulness of the body (especially mindfulness of breathing) is particularly effective at bringing into balance the twin qualities of tranquillity (samatha) and insight (vipassana), or clear-seeing. Through persistent practice, the meditator becomes more adept at bringing the combined powers of samatha-vipassana to bear in an exploration of the fundamental nature of mind and body. As the meditator masters the ability to frame his immediate experience in terms of anicca (inconstancy), dukkha, and anatta (not-self), even the subtlest manifestations of these three characteristics of experience are brought into exquisitely sharp focus. At the same time, the root cause of dukkha — craving — is relentlessly exposed to the light of awareness. Eventually craving is left with no place to hide, the entire karmic process that fabricates dukkha unravels, the eightfold path reaches its noble climax, and the meditator gains, at long last, his or her first unmistakable glimpse of the Unconditioned — Nibbana.
This first enlightenment experience, known as stream-entry (sotapatti), is the first of four progressive stages of Awakening, each of which entails the irreversible shedding or weakening of several fetters (samyojana), the manifestations of ignorance that bind a person to the cycle of birth and death. Stream-entry marks an unprecedented and radical turning point both in the practitioner’s current life and in the entirety of his or her long journey in samsara. For it is at this point that any lingering doubts about the truth of the Buddha’s teachings disappear; it is at this point that any belief in the purifying efficacy of rites and rituals evaporates; and it is at this point that the long-cherished notion of an abiding personal “self” falls away. The stream-enterer is said to be assured of no more than seven future rebirths (all of them favorable) before eventually attaining full Awakening.
But full Awakening is still a long way off. As the practitioner presses on with renewed diligence, he or she passes through two more significant landmarks: once-returning (sakadagati), which is accompanied by the weakening of the fetters of sensual desire and ill-will, and non-returning (agati), in which these two fetters are uprooted altogether. The final stage of Awakening — arahatta — occurs when even the most refined and subtle levels of craving and conceit are irrevocably extinguished. At this point the practitioner — now an arahant, or “worthy one” — arrives at the end-point of the Buddha’s teaching. With ignorance, suffering, stress, and rebirth having all come to their end, the arahant at last can utter the victory cry first proclaimed by the Buddha upon his Awakening:
“Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done! There is nothing further for the sake of this world.”
— MN 36
The arahant lives out the remainder of his or her life inwardly enjoying the bliss of Nibbana, secure at last from the possibility of any future rebirth. When the arahant’s aeons-long trail of past kamma eventually unwinds to its end, the arahant dies and he or she enters into parinibbana — total Unbinding. Although language utterly fails at describing this extraordinary event, the Buddha likened it to what happens when a fire finally burns up all its fuel.
Buddhism is sometimes naïvely criticized as a “negative” or “pessimistic” religion and philosophy. Surely life is not all misery and disappointment: it offers many kinds of happiness and sublime joy. Why then this dreary Buddhist obsession with unsatisfactoriness and suffering?
The Buddha based his teachings on a frank assessment of our plight as humans: there is unsatisfactoriness and suffering in the world. No one can argue this fact. Dukkha lurks behind even the highest forms of worldly pleasure and joy, for, sooner or later, as surely as night follows day, that happiness must come to an end. Were the Buddha’s teachings to stop there, we might indeed regard them as pessimistic and life as utterly hopeless. But, like a doctor who prescribes a remedy for an illness, the Buddha offers both a hope (the third Noble Truth) and a cure (the fourth). The Buddha’s teachings thus give cause for unparalleled optimism and joy. The teachings offer as their reward the noblest, truest kind of happiness, and give profound value and meaning to an otherwise grim existence. One modern teacher summed it up well: “Buddhism is the serious pursuit of happiness.”