Unity of the Noble Eightfold Path
In Buddhism, the Noble Eightfold Path is the guide to the
attainment of liberation. If it is to be understood and incorporated into our daily lives,
it must be viewed in terms of unity of mind, speech and action. The Path can be explored
in such great detail that one could get lost in digressions. To avoid that, we take a
practical, accurate and holistic view of the Path. We look at it in terms of wisdom,
ethical conduct and concentration, or - in Pali - pañña, sila and samadhi.
1. Right understanding (samma ditthi)
2. Right thinking (samma sankappa)
Ethical Conduct (Sila)
3. Right speech (samma vaca)
4. Right action (samma kammanta)
5. Right livelihood (samma ajiva)
6. Right effort (samma vayama)
7. Right mindfulness (samma sati)
8. Right collectedness (samma samadhi)
Even these three aspects of the Path, although identified
separately for clarification, are not separate. In actual practice, with proper
understanding, sila, samadhi and pañña are assimilated in each moment, in every thought,
word or deed.
Take, for instance, sila, or ethical conduct. How does one
refrain from wrong speech and action? First of all, what is right speech and wrong speech?
Are they not relative to time, place and person? Is there such a thing as absolute right
and absolute wrong? We can go on and on without coming to a definite conclusion, and by so
doing we veer away from ourselves -- that is, from our minds.
The purpose of sila is to refrain from hurting others by
way of harmful speech and action - but how much restraint we can impose on ourselves at
all times? We react to our environment in such a habitual way that we may already have
hurt others before we realise what has happened in the mind. This is because we are
conditioned to neglect our own minds in our daily life. Our attention is almost always
directed outward. This preoccupation with the outer world is what we have to transcend.
Although we are dealing with verbal and physical acts, all
of these originate from the mind itself. The actions of the mind, speech and body occur in
such rapid succession that there seems to be no interval in between. As soon as a thought
has arisen, we find ourselves speaking or doing something. We find that we cannot control
speech and bodily behaviour fast enough to refrain from harmful speech and action. But
sati (mindfulness) on the mind renders it alert to its own actions of speech and body.
How do we redirect our attention to our own mind? This was
the Buddha's purpose in laying out the path of mindfulness. The objective of cultivation
of the mind is to learn to break the habitual preoccupation with the external world so
that we become more aware of what is happening in us, in our own minds, as we go on in
life. As soon as mindfulness, samma sati, occurs, we find that the mind acts no more; it
stops like a witness to watch the inner state. When this watching becomes a constant
habit, second nature, the cycle of reacting mindlessly to the environment is broken. In
this moment of breakthrough, "seeing" or "awareness" occurs:
crystal-clear perception of things as they are, of people, situations and things properly
in perspective, free of discriminations, likes and dislikes. From this new insight there
follows right thinking, right speech and right action, relative and appropriate to each
specific circumstance and instance. Then the question of what is absolutely right or
absolutely wrong no longer arises.
Thus, in terms of the Noble Eightfold Path, as soon as we
pay attention to our mind, there is already samma vayama (effort) and samma sati
(mindfulness). When samma sati is full and complete, the mind enters instantaneously into
khanika samadhi (momentary concentration), which brings forth pañña (wisdom)
Wisdom sees things in the right perspective, samma ditthi.
Wisdom brings samma sankappa (right thought); and thereby samma vaca (right speech), samma
kammanta (right action) and samma ajiva (right livelihood.)
Hence it is possible in every conscious moment that sila,
samadhi and pañña are all three incorporated in our daily business of living - while we
eat, work, play and struggle. In short, our life itself becomes the Noble Eightfold Path.
MS: You have translated samma samadhi as
"one-pointedness of mind" or "right concentration." Isn't, textually
speaking, samma samadhi an absorption in the four jhanas? One-pointedness of mind can be
right- or wrong-pointedness of mind and, therefore, may not fit the true understanding of
samma samadhi. This distinction becomes important when we talk about meditation and
concentration in daily life.
Thynn: Well, samma samadhi is generally
translated as one-pointedness of mind or right concentration. But when it is expounded in
detail it is described in two categories: jhanic absorption as in samatha meditation, and
khanika samadhi (momentary concentration) as in vipassana meditation of the dry- visioned
(sukkha-vipassaka) path of daily life.* Thus I personally think it should not be
translated as absorption in the four jhanas only. In this I am following the commentarial
rather than the canonical tradition.
You are correct, though, that one-pointedness
of mind can be of the right or wrong kin, because the power of the
concentrated mind is enormous and can be directed toward harmful
activities if not governed by wisdom. This is exactly why the Path
should be understood and practiced in a holistic manner. If you
take meditation out of the context of the Noble Eightfold Path,
without morality or the pursuit of wisdom (pañña), then naturally
it cannot be called samma samadhi. In the case of meditation in
daily life, what is important is the arising of wisdom (pañña) as
a sequel of mindfulness in the moment as a preventive to harmful
thoughts, words, action or livelihood.