by Geri Loizzo

The Noble Eightfold Path
1) Right View, 2) Right Intention, 3) Right Speech, 4) Right Action, 5) Right Livelihood, 6) Right Effort, 7) Right Mindfulness, 8) Right Concentration

As I sit down to write this reflection on the Noble Eightfold Path, my wandering mind searches for a point of connection to the here and now. The Buddha’s ancient guidelines seem to map the path as a clear straight line to be traversed step by step by anyone and everyone committed to following in his footsteps. But it’s not so clear how those of us struggling to live more mindfully in today’s stressful world can best apply that map in our own everyday lives.

According to Shakyamuni, following in his footsteps means to develop wisdom, ethics, and meditation, in other words, perspective, warm-heartedness, and grounding. So the path is one of both learning and unlearning, the place where we take the dharmic knowledge we’ve encountered and walk with it, carry it with us, watch it at work in our everyday lives. This is the place where the rubber, or our foot, meets the road.

But while we often think of the Noble Eightfold Path as linear, with the steps one through eight running in succession along a straight line, don’t we all learn differently? Maybe that’s why different Buddhist traditions prioritize the 3 disciplines differently?

Theravadan Buddhists start with ethics, the idea being that without a measure of non-harming and peace in our lives, we can’t sit still and focus, nor come to an understanding of wisdom. Even if we practice non-harming (ahimsa is also in one of the eight limbs of yoga), what if still, we participate in a system that harms some and privileges others? Can we allow our awareness to rise to that macro level of understanding in our development of the discipline of ethics?

Zen Buddhists focus on the discipline of meditation, placing the taming of our minds as the most important first step to understanding our true nature. In fact Zen practitioners are often skeptical of approaches that emphasize verbal or book learning, or put the focus on building compassion as an ethical value when that may distract us from the practical grounding of meditation.

Tibetan Buddhists on the other hand begin with wisdom, emphasizing that without the understanding of cause and effect (karma), we can stay stuck in a circular pattern of pain or get stuck in meditation that does not promote positive change. When we speak about wisdom in the foundational teachings of the Noble Eightfold Path, we’re not so much speaking about the wisdom of emptiness or selflessness, but rather attaining knowledge of causality and using that knowledge to stop creating the conditions for suffering and start nurturing real happiness.

The 7th century Nalanda master, Chandrakirti, described the three disciplines of the path as a bird, with meditation (effort, mindfulness, concentration) as its body; and wisdom (view, intention) and ethics (speech, actions, livelihood) as the two wings that enable it to take flight. So, meditation is just one of the three necessary ingredients of progress on the path. In the words of my beloved Gelugpa teacher Kyabje Gelek Rimpoche, “If you don’t conduct your life well, meditation won’t help.”

Perhaps we’re developing these three disciplines all at the same time, each one of us entering the path at any one of these guideposts. Our footsteps though, must ultimately traverse all three roads to the places they intersect, and beyond.

So how do we understand where we need to put our feet on the path here and now? Can we truly conduct our lives well if our meditative skills don’t challenge our misperceptions of ourselves and others or our ethical footprint in the world? If they create a bubble that appears to bring peace while enclosing us in the confines of a community that only mirrors our self-image and supports our worldly aspirations?

When we see the causes and conditions that arise in the span of our own lives, will we be able like Shakyamuni to see the same causes and conditions at work in the lives of others and in the systems we find ourselves a part of?  Will our footsteps take us beyond the pitfall of meditative self-enclosure to the recognition of ourselves as participants embedded in systems that cause harm to others and our world?

As I write this, it’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day and a post from Rep. Rashida Tlaib on my Instagram feed reads: “Dr. King taught us not to be silent, to stand up for justice, and to be courageous on the path toward dignity and freedom. Today, let us commit to speaking truth to power and fighting injustice at every corner.” As I read Tlaib’s message, it occurred to me that one of the steps in the Noble Eightfold Path that is really crucial today is Right Speech. When is it ‘right speech’ to be silent, when is it ‘right speech’ to speak up? Is “fighting injustice at every corner” on the Buddhist path or not? What does it mean for me to be on a path toward dignity and freedom that also supports dignity and freedom for my neighbors and the world we share?

These are the kinds of reflection I believe the Buddha, a vocal critic of the inequity of the caste system, meant to encourage in his followers. Of course, every one of us has to decide whether and how to speak out on our path today. But I for one believe that if Shakyamuni were here today, he would speak out as Buddhist leaders HH the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn have, in words that echo this quote from MLK:

“Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.” District of Columbia 1959

Editor’s Note: Geri Loizzo will be leading a related meditation/discussion course, “Unpacking the Path,” from February 5th through April 1st. View the announcement page for details.