Insight Meditation Online

Living Meditation, Living Insight by Dr Thynn Thynn

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.

Wisdom (Pañña)

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)

Concentration (Samadhi)

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.