Ariya-aṭṭhaṅgika-magga | The noble eightfold path 

"The sage who makes an effort in truth doesn’t fall back." 

The Buddha—Ādhipateyya sutta

Ariya-aṭṭhaṅgika magga:. ariya means noble; aṭṭha, eight; aṅgika, group or fold; magga, path.

Ariya-aṭṭhaṅgika-magga: the noble eightfold path.

 

It has eight factors: 

  1.    Right Understanding (sammā-diṭṭhi)

  2.    Right Thought (sammā-saṅkappa)

  3.    Right Speech (sammā-vācā)

  4.    Right Action (sammā-kammanta)

  5.    Right Livelihood (sammā-ājīva)

  6.    Right Effort (sammā-vāyāma)

  7.    Right Mindfulness (sammā-sati)

  8.    Right Concentration (sammā-samādhi)

People who really walk the noble eightfold path have no faults and see cause and effect in all of their actions. 

Sometimes, we develop only one or two factors of the eightfold path. We may, for example, have a well-developed understanding of the teachings, but our concentration is poor. Or our effort and self-discipline may be high, such as when we are offering alms, but our other factors may be low. I am not saying offering alms is wrong; that is the normal practice. I am laying it is important to work at balancing all eight factors when engaged in any activity. We may not even balance all eight while living in a meditation centre. To balance all eight factors and progress, we have to meditate. 

“When a noble disciple understand the unwholesome and the root of the unwholesome, the wholesome and the root of the wholesome, he or she is of right understanding." Venerable Sāriputta—Sammādiṭṭhi sutta15 

1. Sammā diṭṭhi | Right Understanding 

The first factor of the noble eightfold path is right under- standing, sammā-diṭṭhi.

The word sammā is important. Meaning noble and only applying to a Buddha, sammā is the highest possible position a human can attain. Noble ones understand the way, clearly see the path, and destroy all defilements. They understand the ariyan truths. They live peaceful and harmonious lives, never intend to harm, never find any joy in harming. 

Right understanding is understanding the four noble truths: 

1. Understanding suffering, dukkha-ñāṇa 

2. Understanding the origin of suffering, dukkha-samudaya- ñāṇa which means understanding craving, taṇhā 

3. Understanding the extinction of suffering, dukkha-nirodha- ñāṇa 

4. Understanding the path leading to the extinction of suffering, magga-ñāṇa, which means understanding the eightfold path, aṭṭhanṅgika-magga 

Be aware that right understanding and the four noble truths share the same four factors: suffering, origin, extinction, and path. When examining right understanding, we have to remember what we learned about the four noble truths. We have to remember the fourth truth of the four noble truths is the eightfold path, and we have to remember the first factor of the eightfold path is an understanding of the four noble truths. The eightfold path and the four not truths are interconnected. When right understanding arises, there is no room in the heart for craving. 

"An instructed disciple of the noble ones reflects in this way: I am now being chewed up by feeling. But in the past I was also chewed up by feeling in the same way I am now being chewed up by present feeling. And if I the same way I am now being chewed up by present feeling."

 The Buddha—Khajjaniya Sutta 

2. Sammā saṅkappa | Right Thought 

The second factor of the eightfold path is right thought sammā-saṅkappa. Saṅkappa is also translated as intention.

 

There are three kinds of right thoughts: 

  1. Thoughts of renunciation and generosity, nekkhamma-sankappa 

  2. Thoughts of good will and loving-kindness, avyāpāda- saṅkappa 

  3. Thought of harmlessness and compassion, avihiṃsā- saṅkappa 

Thoughts of renunciation are free from greed and craving for sensual pleasures; thoughts of good will and loving-kindness are for the welfare of all beings; thoughts of harmlessness and compassion are for the non-injury of all beings. 

Kindness, compassion, generosity, wisdom - these factors are the basis for proper renunciation. We sometimes practise renunciation when we are angry. We dislike something, even hate it, and want to escape. This is not proper renunciation. No. Proper renunciation only ever arises out of wisdom. When we have wisdom, we also have kindness and compassion. As a result, we turn away from craving for sensual pleasures and turn towards renunciation. Thinking it was unreasonable for Prince Siddhārtha to leave his wife and new-born son, many people criticise Siddhārtha's renunciation of the worldly life at Kapilavatthu. But his renunciation of the worldly life was based on wisdom. It was a kind and compassionate action. 

I agree with being kind and compassionate. But why would I want to renounce family and friends, like Siddhartha did? 

The practice is not about renouncing people. If you read the Bodhi Jātakas, you fin descriptions of Prince Siddhartha's life with Princess Yasodhara. Siddhārtha and Yasodhara lived together as husband and wife for thirteen years at Kapilavatthu. "As a couple," said the Buddha, "we exchanged ideas and knew each other's" minds." 

Yasodhara knew that her husband was a very unusual man, knew what he had seen for his life, and was prepared for his renunciation. She helped him with his renunciation. The bodhisatta Siddhārtha did not simply reject his family and run off. No. His renunciation of the worldly life was a decision made in consultation with Yasodhara; it was a joint decision made over their years together as a couple. There are accounts in the Jātakas of how she gave him the fullest support. She was a devoted and faithful wife. You must have read the story of the Buddha returning to Kapilavatthu for the first time after his enlightenment. Yasodhara spots the Buddha walking along a road with of bhikkhus. "Look," said Yasodhara to their seven-year-old son Rāhula, "here comes your father. He is a handsome and great man. He is a lion among men." 

Yasodhara's comments reveal her affection for her former husband; there is no trace of anger towards the Buddha. If Prince Siddhārtha had simply rejected her and run off, those feelings of affection towards the Buddha would not have been displayed. She respected and understood Siddhartha's decision to renounce the worldly life. It was a decision based on wisdom. 

I am holding a teacup. You know what this teacup looks like because you are looking at it with your own eyes. You can clearly see this teacup. In the same way, we come to understand the four noble truths when we look at the four noble truths. We start by looking to see if the existence of suffering is a truth in our own experience. When we manage to look clearly, we do see that we are suffering; thus, the wise course of action is to do what we can to ease our suffering. It is only after we gain some understanding of the reality of suffering that we in fact begin to develop any real intention to gain freedom from suffering. Clearly seeing the four noble truths, right thoughts and intentions arise. This is wisdom. If we are to gain liberation, wisdom is essential.  

Right thoughts are of renunciation, kindness, and compassion. We must first have some kindness and compassion for ourselves before we can spread kindness and compassion to others. If we cannot be kind to ourselves, how can we possibly be kind to others? If we cannot even ease our own suffering, how can we ease the suffering of others? Kindness and compassion for others are only possible when we genuinely feel kindness and compassion for ourselves. Our intention to find happiness and gain freedom from suffering - for ourselves is of primary importance. We must first cross over the river before we can help others to cross over.  

Mahouts keep their elephants captive with iron chains. To gain freedom, strong elephants break their chains with their trunks and then return to the jungle. We are held captive in suffering by wrong thoughts, which arise out of our greed, aversion, and delusion. To gain freedom from our suffering, we use right thoughts to replace wrong thoughts. Right thoughts are those that arise out of loving-kindness, compassion, and renunciation. Thoughts of kindness and compassion replace thoughts of cruelty and coldness, hatred and harm; thoughts of renunciation and generosity replace thoughts of greed and craving for sensual pleasures; and thoughts to perform wholesome actions replace thoughts to perform unwholesome actions. When we are free from unwholesome thoughts, we gain freedom from suffering, from saṃsāra.  

You frequently help a meditator at this centre who injured her arm in a motorcycle accident. Observers think you have a lot of kindness and compassion for this meditator and are simply helping her. You too even think you are just trying to free this person from her suffering. This is delusion. Helping this woman is a good action that arises out of kindness and compassion; therefore, it is an action performed with right thought. But your kindness and compassion are actually directed towards yourself and not towards this injured woman. When you see this woman suffering, you are also suffering. 

Yes. I get sharp pains in my belly. 

You can clearly see those pains. They are internal phenomena, not something external. When she feels pressure, you feel pressure; when she suffers, you suffer. By trying to ease her feelings of pain, you are trying to ease your pain. You are trying to escape your own suffering by helping her. That is what you are doing. 

Generally, people won't grasp or even want to accept this idea - some outright reject it. Many state that it is improper to relate to people in this way and only accept relationships with other people on a fifty-fifty basis. Fifty- fifty is good enough for most people. If you exceed the fifty-fifty ratio, go beyond an equal give and take relationship, they say you are on the wrong path. 

Money, praise, fame, pleasure - something is normally expected from the performance of an action. If people do not expect to make some money or elevate their status, some other form of benefit is expected. When, however, an action is performed completely out of generosity, kindness, and compassion, there is no expectation for any form of benefit, none whatsoever. Performing actions without expectations is true renunciation. 

How can our society function without expectations? Don't criminals have to be punished for their crimes? 

The human world is sometimes very bad and sometimes very good. Some people are like devils while others are kind and compassionate. Good and bad forms of behaviour exist. Compassionate teachers explain to us that it is better to do this and better to not do that. The teacher clearly explains the nature of the world. But even when compassionate teachers speak, only a few people listen and actually follow their teachings. Most do not. This is the nature of the world. Teachers can only explain things. They cannot force people to behave in a certain way. 

Not even the Buddha could control the actions of his own Saṅgha, let alone the whole world. At one time in his Saṅgha, there was a major disagreement over which rules of discipline must be compulsory. Bhikkhus argued over the proposed changes and split into two divisions. The Buddha returned to the forest. Some people fight. Some people choose to live in harmony. 

The beautiful Bhikkhunī Uppalavaṇṇā , a contemporary of the Buddha, lived on her own in the forest. Infatuated by the bhikkhunī's beauty, a young shepherd of the area sneaked into her kuti while she was on alms round. When Uppalavaṇṇā returned, he attacked and raped her. She screamed, protested, and begged him to stop. She did everything she could to get him to stop his attack, but he continued. Even in the face of such cruelty, Uppalavaṇṇā maintained her compassion for the shepherd. Understanding the nature of cause and effect, she was wise. But the shepherd was foolish. As a result of his cruel actions, he was dragged into a hell. 

Right thought is an important topic that needs a great deal of discussion. By clearly seeing the four noble truths, we clearly see right thought.

“That being so, Ānanda, remember this too as a wonderful and marvellous qua- lity of the Tathāgatha: here, Ānanda, for the Tathāgatha feelings are known as they arise, as they are present, as they disappear; perceptions are known as they arise, as they are present, as they disappear; thoughts are known as they arise, as they are present, as they disappear. Remember this too, Ānanda, as a wonderful and marvellous quality of the Tathāgatha.”

The Buddha—Acchariya-abbhuta sutta

3. Sammā vācā | Right Speech
The third factor of the eightfold path is right speech, sammā- vācā.
With a degree of wisdom, which means first establishing right understand- ing and right thought, we use our power of speech, our voices, wholesomely and appropriately. In terms of cause and effect, dependent upon the right understand- ing of the four truths as the cause, right thought arises. And then dependent upon right thought, our kindness and compassion, right speech arises. If we are to speak appropriately, wisdom is crucial. We need to use words that always bring people together. We speak: 
  • The truth (sacca)

  • Words of friendship and harmony (sahitāna vācā)

  • Words of kindness, sympathy, and comfort (saṇhena vācā)

  • Words of encouragement (atthasaṃhitena vācā)

  • Words that benefit (mettacittā vācā) 

And we must abstain from using words in ways that disturb the freedom of people. We abstain from: 

  • False speech, musā-vāda 

  • Slanderous speech, pisunā-vācā

  • Harsh and abusive speech, pharusā-vācā

  • Gossip and idle chatter, samphappalāpa

All are forms of inappropriate speech. 

False speech is to speak untruths that deceive other people. You find this form of speech in politics, in theatre, and also sometimes in preaching. Fortunetellers, who earn their living forecasting the future, use magical and surprising words that deceive people. These fortunetellers know nothing about their customers’ lives, but they slyly obtain that information saying that this and that will happen. It is false speech. 

Slanderous speech means pointing out another person’s faults with the intention of alienating that person from another person. It is malicious and means- spirited. Slanderous speech arises out of anger and ill will. It is always connected to anger. This form of speech breaks the harmony and friendship of the community. 

Harsh speech means using abusive, insulting, or sarcastic words that are spoken in anger. They are intended to cause the listener pain. Whenever anyone hears such harsh words, anger automatically arises. 

Gossip and idle chatter are pointless forms of speech. There is no meaning to these words. They yield no benefit to the listener here and now in this world, or in the future after death. This form of speech fails to develop the mental qualities of the listener. Gossip gives nothing of value whatsoever in the future. It is empty. It is just talking for the sake of talking. 

Conversation is an area where we need to be careful. Concerning ourselves with reducing our hindrances to liberation, we speak words of truth. We speak words that bring people together, words of friendship and harmony, words that are kind and sympathetic, and words that benefit. And disregarding useless talk, we do not speak lies nor do we speak words that are slanderous, harsh, or abusive. We definitely don’t gossip about others. In the Mahāsuññata Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya you will find the topics of conversation to engage in and the topics to avoid. The commentaries have a slightly different and expanded list of topics to avoid. 

“When I clearly saw as it actually is with proper wisdom how sensual pleasures provide little gratification, much suffering, and much despair, and how great is the danger in them, and I attained to the rapture and pleasure that are apart from sensual pleasures, apart from unwholesome states, or to something more peaceful than that, I recognised that I was no longer attracted to sensual pleasures.” 

The Buddha—Cūḷadukkhakkhandha sutta 

4. Sammā kammanta | Right Action 

The fourth factor of the eightfold path is right action, sammā-kammanta.

With right understanding and right thought, right action means using our bodies, our physical bodies, wholesomely and appropriately: 

  • Respecting the rights of others to live freely 

  • Preserving life 

  • Practising generosity 

  • Protecting beings from harm 

From cleaning our clothes and teeth to cutting our nails—there are many basic rules of appropriate conduct. For example, we know there are rules on how to properly conduct ourselves when using the toilet. If I use the toilet improperly and forget to clean it afterwards, the next person to use the toilet cannot comfortably do so. There is then a conflict between the two of us, quite possibly an argument ensues, and the harmony of our community is broken. Or say you spill a drink on the counter and make a mess. Appropriate conduct dictates that you clean up the mess. Otherwise, if you just leave the spilled drink on the counter, another person is inconvenienced because they have to take on the responsibility of cleaning up the mess. Again, a conflict arises and harmonious relations are disrupted. 

Almost every day you wash the floor in our meditation hall. Conducting yourself appropriately, you are performing a good action. When meditators come to our meditation centre and see the hall is clean, they are comfortable. They like the hall and gain concentration, very easily. If the hall has not been cleaned properly, is dirty and dusty, meditators are uncomfortable. They dislike the hall and it is difficult for them to gain concentration. Keeping our meditation environment clean is important. 

Right action also means abstaining from using our bodies unwholesomely and inappropriately. Everyone has the right to live freely; everyone has the right to live peacefully. To avoid disturbing another person’s freedom and peace, we abstain from three types of harmful bodily actions: 

  1. Killing, pānātipāta 

  2. Stealing, adinnādāna 

  3. Sensual misconduct, kāmesu micchā-cāra 

  4. Uttering lies, musāvāda

  5. Refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs, surāmeraya majja

Abstaining from killing applies to any and all living beings. The life span of beings is often only a few seconds, but if we intentionally destroy those beings, that action is considered killing. We have no right to kill any being—any living being. All beings have the right to live in this world; we have no right to kill them. Even a small ant has the right to live. We have no right to take its life. Sometimes mosquitoes land on our arms and draw some blood. That is their way of living and we have no right to kill them just for doing that. We have to get away from killing. But we continue to kill. 

Is abortion killing? 

Destroying, said the Buddha, what is present in the woman’s body—from the time that conception has definitely taken place—is breaking the first precept. Conception means the rebirth consciousness, paṭisandhi-viññāna, arises along with the mass in the womb, linking the past kamma to the new kamma. This is conception. After the woman and the man have sex, it might be as long as two weeks before the rebirth consciousness arises. 

Did they have abortion at the time of the Buddha? 

Abortion is mentioned in the texts. When Queen Kosala Devī was carrying King Bimbisāra’s child, it was predicted the child would grow into an adult and kill its father. Upon hearing the prediction, Queen Kosala Devī immediately tried to abort the child. But the King discouraged his Queen from doing so. As a sotāpanna, he neither supported nor encouraged anyone in the killing of any living being. It did not matter to King Bimbisāra that his own child was to be his deadly enemy. Queen Kosala Devī consented to her King’s wishes and abstained from aborting the child. Abortion has existed throughout history. Only the methods of performing them have changed. 

The second type of action we must abstain from is stealing. Everyone has the wish and the right to protect their possessions. We have no right to steal their possessions. Suppose someone steals your car. Because you need your car, you are trying to find it, may even have to buy another one. Losing possessions, looking for them, and then replacing them—such events obstruct a person’s free way of living.

 

As human beings, we are entitled to live anywhere in this world. In the early days of civilisation, people just freely traveled from one country to another country. In those days, there were no visas and no one to issue them. People simply traveled to a country and settled down. I too can go to any country and say that I am entitled to live in that country, but they will definitely chase me out. They will say: “You have the right to live in Sri Lanka. Not here.” Basically speaking, though impractical these days, as human beings we have the right to live in any country, anywhere in this world. We have the right to a freeway of living. We are entitled to live peacefully. 

There is nothing wrong in settling down and living in some country. What is wrong though is that after settling down, we declare: “This is my country. This is my place.” What is wrong is the taking on of possession. Thus, Canadians possess their own country, Germans possess their own country, Americans possess their own country, and the English possess their own country. Everyone possesses his or her own country. We are also doing the same thing here in Sri Lanka and fighting. Possessing is unnecessary; possessing is the hindrance. Possessing leads to all the troubles. Everything arises out of possession. 

The third type of action we need to abstain from is sensual misconduct. The Pāḷi expression for abstaining from sensual misconduct is: kāmesu micchācāra. Kāmesu means craving for objects of pleasure. This word, kāmesu, is not in the singular form, but the plural form, which means abstinence from sensual misconduct is not only abstinence from one form of sensual misconduct. Abstaining from sensual misconduct does not only mean abstaining from physical sexual misconduct. No. Abstaining from sensual misconduct also means abstaining from abusing any of the sense doors. For example, if you use your tape recorder to listen to something inappropriate, that is also an abuse of a sense door, your ear, and falls within sensual misconduct. Or perhaps you decide to get drunk, which is an abuse of your tongue, another sense door. Using any sense door inappropriately is sensual misconduct. But today, most people only refer to sexual misconduct. 

Do you mean our understanding of sense abuse in the present day? 

Correct. Abuse of the senses does not only mean sexual abuse. Rape is clearly an abuse of the senses. By force you indulge in inappropriate sexual contact with another human being. You are disturbing another person’s free way of living. And not only is rape an abuse. Any unsolicited sexual contact, such as molesting, is also an abuse of the senses, as it disrupts another person’s freedom. 

The third type of abstinence, abstaining from sensual misconduct, includes the fifth precept: abstaining from the use of intoxicants. The English wording of this precept is derived from the Pāḷi expression: surāmeraya-majja- pamādaṭṭhānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi, which means I undertake the training to refrain from intoxicants and drugs such as wine, liquor, etc. because they lead to carelessness. There are two words in this Pali expression that need to be discussed: majja and pamāda. 

Majja means intoxicants, such as alcohol. Majjapa is a person who is a drunkard and has pride about his caste, education, or wealth. Activated by alcohol, his pride drives him to conduct himself inappropriately, doing many wrong things. This is majja

Pamāda means negligence. The person who is negligent doesn’t make the required effort to abstain from inappropriate actions or to engage inappropriate actions. They’re simply lazy. Thus, they don’t bother to practise compassion and loving-kindness for others or even for themselves, which disturbs everyone’s free living. 

Majja and pamāda destroy wisdom. For example, by listening to these talks and studying the dhamma, you are acting wisely. You are making the necessary effort to perform a wholesome action; you are doing a good deed. But when you try to fulfill some craving through your tongue by consuming alcohol, you are using your tongue foolishly. You are abusing that sense door. As a consequence of consuming alcohol, your good judgment and effort disappear, and you act inappropriately in some way. You are no longer studying the dhamma. Even a small measure of alcohol dulls the mind. In extreme circumstances, drunkards are led astray to murder, steal, and rape. Because a drunken person’s right effort vanishes, he or she can be persuaded to engage in a variety of inappropriate actions. When right effort is absent, right mindfulness vanishes; when right mindfulness is absent, right concentration also vanishes; and without the presence of right concentration, there is no wisdom. 

“Kassapa, when a bhikkhu develops non-enmity, non-ill-will, and a heart full of loving-kindness and, abandoning the corruptions, realises and dwells in the uncorrupted deliverance of mind, the deliverance through wisdom, having realised it in this very life by his own insight, then, Kassapa, that bhikkhu is called an ascetic and a Brahmin.” 

The Buddha—Mahāsīhanāda sutta

 

5. Sammā ājīvā | Right Livelihood

The fifth factor of the eightfold path is right livelihood, sammā-ājīva.

 

Right livelihood means: 

  • We earn our living by participating in wholesome and appropriate forms of livelihood, sammā-ājīva

  • We give up any wrong forms of livelihood, micchā-ājīva 

When we are practising right speech and practising right action, we are practising right livelihood. Keep in mind, right speech means we abstain from:

  • false speech,

  • slanderous speech,

  • harsh speech, and

  • gossip;

and that right action means we abstain from:

  • killing,

  • stealing, and

  • sensual misconduct. 

Countless in variety, right livelihoods are honest, peaceful, and good for the welfare of the community. In the Aṅguttara Nikāya, the Buddha names five forms of wrong livelihood, dealing in:

  • weapons,

  • living beings,

  • meat production and butchery,

  • poisons, and

  • intoxicants. 

Stealing is a wrong form of livelihood. Many bosses pay their employees unfairly, and there are also many employees who work improperly. These bosses are stealing from their employees and the employees are stealing from their bosses. The actions of both parties are wrong. 

 

Deceit and trickery are also wrong forms of livelihood. Telling fortunes, using our earlier example, is not only a wrong form of speech, but it is also a wrong form of livelihood, as fortunetellers deceive people to earn their living. Likewise, if you are a merchant who is selling dried chilies by the kilo and you add some water, you are tricking your customer. Plainly wrong. 

The overcharging of people, profiteering, is another wrong form of livelihood. Suppose you buy a new tape recorder and the merchant sells it to you for 2500 rupees. It is really only worth 2000 rupees, yet he sells it to you for 2500 rupees and takes an excessive profit. That is wrong. Some people want more and more and more profit. Wanting more than a legitimate and reasonable profit, they overcharge. If you are reasonable in your business dealings with people, you are entitled to a reasonable return. 

There is a good story from the time of the Buddha. A hunter killed two deer, a doe and her fawn. The hunter put the doe up for sale at, let’s say, two dollars and put the fawn up for one dollar. A con man came along and bought the fawn for one dollar. 

“Now,” said the con man, “I gave you one dollar and you said the fawn is also worth one dollar, which adds up to two dollars. Here, I return the fawn and I’ll take the doe.” 

The hunter accepted the fawn, gave the con man the doe, and was cheated of one dollar. Because the hunter’s livelihood involved the killing of deer, it is clear that his livelihood was inappropriate. But the con man’s livelihood was also inappropriate. Using deception, he cheated the hunter. 

When we walk the eightfold path and truly practise sīla, these types of situations never arise because we are always speaking, acting, and living appropriately. At all times in our lives, we are absolutely certain of our responsibilities and committed to the wholesome. And because we are working out of compassion and loving-kindness, few conflicts arise. Life is simple and peaceful. 

“Surely, Venerable Sir, we are living in concord, with mutual appreciation, without disputing, blending like milk and water, viewing each other with kindly eyes.” 

Venerable Anuruddha—Cūḷagosiṅga sutta 

6. Sammā vāyāma Right effort

The sixth factor of the eightfold path is right effort, sammā- vāyāma.

It means striving for liberation from suffering. A wide-ranging topic, what the Buddha taught on right effort depended upon the listener’s level of understanding, commitment, and goals. Some people were aiming at reducing suffering in their worldly lives and attaining a fortunate birth in the human or heavenly world. Hence, the Buddha taught these people how to make the appropriate effort to produce this moderate level of liberation. Others were aiming at completely overcoming all their suffering and attaining nibbāna. To these people, the Buddha taught ways of making the greatest of efforts and accomplishing this difficult goal—arahatship.

 

Right effort covers this whole wide range. It begins with restraint in our everyday worldly lives, through stream-entry when the canker of views is destroyed, through non-returning when the canker of craving for sensual pleasures is destroyed, and finally through to arahatship when the canker of craving eternal existence and the canker of ignorance are destroyed. 

Mental and Physical Effort 

As with so many things, mind and body interconnect in the right effort. Thus, to produce wholesome actions and reduce our suffering, we must fine-tune both our mental and physical effort. When we make the right mental and physical effort, our defilements are suppressed and eventually destroyed, and we progress on the spiritual path. 

Mental effort, viriya, means having the intention to do something. You want to practise meditation. Your reflecting over your method of meditation, whether it is samatha or vipassanā, and your intention to actually go ahead and meditate takes mental effort. In vipassanā meditation, your intention is to note various feelings, various sounds, and various other objects, while in samatha meditation your intention is to keep the mind one-pointed. 

Right mental effort means our intention is to restrain and abandon unwholesome actions, as well as to develop and maintain wholesome actions. We must first make the mental effort, have this mental energy within us, for wholesome verbal and bodily actions to arise. To conduct ourselves wholesomely, we must first have the intention to conduct ourselves wholesomely. Wholesome thoughts lead to wholesome actions. 

When we use the term vāyāma, we are primarily referring to making a physical, bodily effort. Clearly, your physical practice of meditation takes physical effort. Whether you are sitting or walking, you are making a physical effort when you sit and walk for these forms of meditation. 

Ārabhati means exerting oneself. Undertaking both mental and physical effort, we make an attempt at the right effort. You, for example, are putting forth mental and also physical effort when you wash floors, rake leaves, and help with meals here at our centre. When you perform these actions without an expectation to gain something, without wanting fame or praise and simply perform these needed actions, you are performing them with the right effort, with ārabbha. People living in the community are exerting the right effort when they use restraint, keep the dwellings clean, help the sick, and perform common duties. 

Ātāpī and sampajañña are two important Pāḷi terms. Often united with each other, ātāpī means being mentally and physically enthusiastic and active, while sampajañña means knowing oneself, having clear comprehension, and having wisdom. Uniting the two terms, ātāpī-sampajañña means we make an enthusiastic effort to be aware of all of our activities. In the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta, the Buddha uses the term ātāpī-sampajañña to describe the quality of effort that is required to clearly comprehend the true nature of phenomena. Ātāpī-sampajañña is wise effort. Grounded in the right understanding and right thought, it is an effort that leads to the right mindfulness arising. To gain samādhi, we must have ātāpī-sampajañña

Normally, when we put effort towards performing a daily activity, we do not say we are performing that activity with ātāpī-sampajañña. If, however, we put our entire mental and physical effort in a completely wholesome way towards breaking free from saüsāra, we are performing that activity with ātāpī-sampajañña. We are suffering birth, sickness, decay, death, and again birth, sickness, decay, and death. Endlessly we are suffering the unsatisfactoriness of this existence. Ātā-sampajañña means all our energy and efforts are directed towards getting away from this saṃsāric realm. We are striving hard. 

Striving begins with our intention to constantly make four mental and physical efforts: 

  • Restrain the unwholesome, saṃvarappadhāna

  • Abandon the unwholesome, pahānappadhāna

  • Develop the wholesome, bhāvanāppadhāna

  • Maintain the wholesome, anurakkhanappadhāna

To understand these four efforts, we must first understand what is meant by the terms unwholesome, akusala, and wholesome, kusala. Based on greed, aversion, and delusion, unwholesome actions by body, speech, and mind are the causes for unfavourable kammic results in the present and in the future. Unwholesome states include defilements, kilesa, and fetters, saṃyojana. Defilements are mind-polluting qualities, while fetters bind us to the wheel of existence.

There are ten defilements and there are ten fetters, although all defilements and fetters are included in three broad categories—greed, aversion, and delusion. Unwholesome actions are the sources for all of our suffering, chain us to suffering, and perpetuate our endless wandering in saṃsāra

Wholesome actions, on the other hand, include a good consciousness, good deeds, and following the eightfold path. Based on generosity, kindness, and wisdom, they are the causes for favourable kammic results. Wholesome actions enable us to abandon unwholesome actions. Breaking our chain to suffering, they put an end to our wandering. Ātā-sampajañña is an effort of the highest order. Its development involves a number of skills, attitudes, and kinds of overcoming, all of which interconnect and overlap in various ways. 

A skill, a kosalla, is the proficiency in accomplishing a goal. When we think and act expertly to make progress towards accomplishing any goal, we are employing skills... read more >

“This is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of pain and grief, for the attainment of the true way, for the realisation of nibbāna namely, the four foundations of mindfulness.” 

The Buddha—Satipaṭṭhāna sutta

7. Sammā sati Right mindfulness

The seventh factor of the eightfold path is right mindfulness, sammā-sati.

Sati is the Pāḷi term for a wholesome, kusala, state of mind. It is the mind-state that is inseparably linked with wholesomeness, not mixed up with or touched by anything harmful. When we perform wholesome actions, sati is present. It is present when we are generous and present when we are kind. It is present when we maintain a meditation centre when we observe the five or eight precepts, and we follow the eightfold path. 

“All wholesome states of mind,” said the Buddha in the Aṅguttara Nikāya, “are sati.” All. 

Acts of generosity performed without expectations are acts being performed with sati. When we help people without expectation, we are helping them with sati. When you clean the floor in the meditation hall without any expectations, you are cleaning with sati. And when you perform any virtuous deed without expectation, you are performing it with sati. Sati is observing the five and eight precepts without expectation and it is following the eightfold path, without expectation. 

Actions performed with expectations are not being performed with sati. Acts of generosity in which there is an expectation of future becoming in a good plane, of praise, of fame, or of obtaining anything at all are not completely wholesome acts of generosity and thus are not being performed with sati. Generally, any act of generosity is a wholesome act, but at the point where expectations are present, there is no sati. In the same way, if we are observing precepts with the expectation to get to an eternal plane or to gain favourable future results, our state of mind has not reached the level of sati; our minds are mixed up with ignorance at that point. Even though making the effort to observe the precepts is a beneficial state of mind, there is no sati at the point where expectations are present. 

The concept of a wholesome state of mind existed before Siddhāttha became the enlightened Buddha: people kept precepts and they practised generosity, kindness, and compassion. There already existed a tradition of developing a wholesome state of mind and this mind-state was called sati. People practised sati in an effort to attain favourable results, such as a birth in a permanent place where they would live in peace for all eternity. They did not practise sati to achieve anything beyond these types of results. 

Siddhāttha realised that practising sati in this way only led to decay and death, only perpetuated endless suffering in saüsāra, and set out on a quest to find a more satisfactory form of liberation. Eventually, Siddhāttha discovered that overcoming decay and death required turning the body, activities performed with the body, experiences of the body and the mind, and all the thoughts of the mind completely towards the wholesome and skillful. Training his body and mind in this way, Siddhāttha attained enlightenment and became the Buddha, subsequently teaching liberating truths to all who wanted to listen. As a result of these teachings, the goal of practising sati changed from attaining conditioned results that are subject to decay and death, to one of going beyond decay and death and attaining the unconditioned—nibbāna. The Buddha called this way of practice the noble, ariyan sati, sammā-sati. 

Through the practice of sati, we break free of saṃsāra. Sati means we have no expectations whatsoever. There is only the thought that our existence in saṃsāra is dukkha and that there is decay and death here. Just to get beyond that, to overcome that, is the only thought in our minds. That is sati. Just that one thought in mind, that all we are looking for is to go beyond saṃsāra, to go beyond decay and death. 

Attention 

Paying attention, manasikāra, is similar to sati: a mindful awareness is present. Attention, however, is only the faculty of our minds to observe phenomena. It is nothing more than this faculty of observance. Through paying attention, we turn our minds towards objects of experience. 

By using our faculty of attention, we turn our minds towards objects of experience. Paying attention is nothing more than turning our minds towards a variety of different objects. It is a neutral faculty that supports the performance of wholesome actions, neutral actions, and unwholesome actions. This is the nature of beings. An eel has a head like a snake and a tail like a fish. When an eel sees a snake, it turns its head towards the snake; when an eel sees a fish, it turns its tail towards the fish. Manasikāra is an eel. Sometimes it turns towards wholesomeness and sometimes it turns towards unwholesomeness. 

When people who are new to meditation forget something, we also say: “Hey. You have no sati.” We say this in order to develop their mindfulness, but after a while we have to explain to them what is sati and what is just paying attention, manasikāra. But to help meditators who are just starting to develop a practice, we say: “You have no sati.” 

Even while practising sati correctly, a very good meditator sometimes forgets things—he can have a bath at the well and forget his bar of soap or he can brush his teeth and forget his toothbrush. The meditator forgets the bar of soap or the toothbrush because he is not turning his attention, his manasikāra, towards the bar of soap or towards the toothbrush. Instead, at that particular moment in time the meditator is turning his attention towards some other object of experience, such as his mind. The meditator is simply not turning his faculty of attention towards the bar of soap or the toothbrush, and as a result forgets them. 

Paying attention, manasikāra, is merely the faculty of being aware of an object of experience, any material or immaterial object of experience. It is nothing more than this. Through our faculty of attention, we shift our minds from one object of experience to another object of experience; our attention continually changes from one object to another, and then to another. It is just the faculty of being attentive to what is happening. If we direct our attention towards remembering everything that happens, we shall remember everything that happens. Paying attention, manasikāra, is purely the turning of the mind towards an object of experience. We connect our minds with whatever object of experience we direct our attention towards. These objects of experience can be wholesome, unwholesome, or neutral. Manasikāra is not necessarily connected to a wholesome state of mind. This is not sati. 

Sati is a wholesome state of mind, a wholesome conscious state of being, which is only ever associated with beneficial experience and is never associated with harmful experience. Entirely mindful of behaviour, people who maintain sati never let their minds fall away from a wholesome state. They are always directing their attention towards wholesome objects of experience. 

Manasikāra helps us perform all of our actions, whether they are beneficial, neutral, or harmful. When manasikāra helps us to perform harmful actions, it is connecting with ignorance. Sati, on the other hand, never connects with ignorance and only supports the performance of wholesome actions. Sati only ever connects with wisdom, paññā. 

Development requires turning our attention away from unwholesome objects and towards wholesome ones. When we do this, our attention is called yoniso-manasikāra. And because sati is always part of the state of mind associated with wholesomeness, yoniso-manasikāra supports the development of sati. Paying attention comes easily and automatically, but paying attention in a completely wholesome way, with yoniso-manasikāra, does not come automatically; it takes effort and development. 

The Buddha once taught five hundred thieves. Having already developed their faculties of attention to very high levels, the thieves just needed the wisdom to turn their harmful attention into beneficial attention. Upon hearing the word of the Buddha, the thieves let go of their expectations and cravings, and they attained. 

Clear Comprehension

When the Buddha described sati, he generally included the term sampajañña. Sampajañña means clearly seeing the characteristics of existence. With sam- pajañña, we are conscious of an experience as it arises and we are conscious of it as it passes away. Sampajañña is clear comprehension. There is a clarity of consciousness. 

Connecting sati with sampajañña, sati-sampajañña means our wholesome state of mind and our clarity of consciousness are well developed; we never make a mind-state arise that is divorced from wholesomeness. We are fully aware of our actions and consider our actions, right in the midst of performing them, with wisdom. At this well-developed level of clarity, all of our physical actions, feelings, and mental states are wholesome. Every act and experience that takes place in our mental processes is made into something wholesome and beneficial. When we work with sati-sampajañña, we work with the right understanding and right thought. We differentiate mentality from materiality, and we work with wisdom. 

Each morning, the sun chases away the darkness of the night. We see objects that we didn’t see during the night and there is no doubt in our minds as to the identity of these objects. There is no confusion. When the rays of the morning sun strike a pure dewdrop, the pure dewdrop gives a wonderful reflection of the morning sun. The light of the sun shines in the pure dewdrop. 

The sun is nibbāna, darkness is ignorance, the pure dewdrop is a mind in sati, and seeing clearly is sampajañña. Purity combined with seeing clearly is sati-sampajañña. The pure, clear mind of sati-sampajañña is in the light of nibbāna. It is a bright state of mind. And, even though this state of mind is only a reflection of nibbāna and has not yet truly attained nibbāna, it shines just like nibbāna as it is not mixed up with any ignorance. A state full of wisdom, there is no confusion regarding experiences. Any object, anything, that comes into our field of experience is known without confusion. When we are in the light of nibbāna, in sati-sampajañña, we know the true nature of existence. The darkness of our ignorance is chased away and we see objects with clarity and understanding. 

Another dewdrop is muddy. Not reflecting the morning sun, it is a mind mixed up with ignorance. With no sati-sampajañña, no wholesome state of mind and no clarity of consciousness, the muddy dewdrop never shines like nibbāna. Never. 

When we train in sati-sampajañña, we act skilfully at all times in our lives, and easily make our way. We consider our meditation practice and our routine daily lives as one and the same, united. With our meditation practice woven into every part of our lives, we can be involved in any activity without conflict because we are always seeing clearly and are always free from expectations. When we have sati-sampajañña, we are the pure dewdrop and nibbāna shines. 

Two kinds of people have sati-sampajañña: arahats and meditators who mindfully perform all of their actions without expectations. There is no clinging or aversion, only seeing clearly. To be free of suffering, we must develop our sati-sampajañña.

Four Foundations of Mindfulness 

In the satipaṭṭhāna-vipassanā teachings of the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta, the Buddha explains how we develop sati-sampajañña. He explains how we turn our bodies, our feelings, our states of mind, and the objects of our minds towards the wholesome and beneficial. The Buddha explains how we turn towards sammā-sati in order to overcome decay and death. The meditation practice taught by the Buddha in the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta is a large comprehensive subject that is compared to an elephant’s footprint: all other animals’ footprints fit within an elephant’s footprint. The satipaṭṭhāna practice is also compared to a large bowl into which all the other practices fit. We will not attempt an extensive discussion of the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta; our discussion is limited to the practice of sati within the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta...read more >

“Regarding attainment of the earth kasiṇa as the supreme goal, some contemplatives generate this attainment. Others take one of the other kasiõas as supreme—the water kasiṇa, the fire kasiṇa, etc.—and reach the corresponding meditative state. But for each kasiṇa, the Buddha has directly understood to what extent it is supreme, and having understood this, he saw its origin, he saw the danger, he saw the escape, and he saw the knowledge and vision of the true path and the wrong path. Having seen all this, he understood the attainment of the goal and the peace of the heart.” 

Venerable Mahā Kaccāna—Kāḷi sutta

8. Sammā samādhi Right Concentration

The eighth factor of the noble eightfold path is right concentration, sammā-samādhi. It is more than just concentration. 

Sammā-samādhi requires understanding and wisdom. It requires gradual training in observing rules of discipline, restraining our sense faculties, and abandoning our hindrances. For sammā-samādhi to arise, we need to be mindful and fully aware. We practise the four foundations of mindfulness: we live contemplating the body, feelings, states of mind, and mind-objects. When we practise in this way and attain the jhānas, samādhi is called sammā-samādhi. 

Our minds are like round cooking pots: if unsupported, they are unstable and easily upset. To support and balance a pot, we place three stones under it. There is no use in placing only two stones under a round pot. No. To give a pot the proper support, we need to place three stones under it. When a round pot is properly supported, a fire can be made and a meal cooked. 

Similarly, to support and balance our minds, we establish the first seven factors of the eightfold path—right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, and right mindfulness. Each of the seven factors is important. When our minds are properly supported, they remain stable and right concentration arises. We are awake and see objects as they really are. 

“Sammā-samādhi,” said the Buddha, “is the collection of the first seven factors of the eightfold path.”

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