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Buddhist Publication Society
Kandy • Sri Lanka
Copyright © Kandy, Buddhist Publication Society (1969)
BPS Online Edition © (2009)
Digital Transcription Source: Buddhist Publication Society
For free distribution. This work may be republished, reformatted, reprinted and redistributed in any medium. However, any such republication and redistribution is to be made available to the public on a free and unrestricted basis and translations and other derivative works are to be clearly marked as such.
“Even so, Monks, have I seen an ancient road, an ancient track, followed by the Rightly Awakened Ones (Buddhas) of former times. And what is that ancient road? It is the Noble Eightfold Path. Along it have I gone; and going along it, I have fully come to know decay and death, its uprising, its ceasing, and the way leading to the ceasing of decay and death.”
So has the Buddha said, and that is just what he, in his infinite compassion for all mankind, wanted every one of us too to see and to know and to tread. This is the Path of deliverance from saṃsāra to Nibbāna, and it is made up of eight factors to be developed, eight steps of training to be taken simultaneously, or as many as is possible, and not steps to be taken in numerical sequence. This is the middle way between the opposites of sensual indulgence and extreme asceticism.
The first step is Right Understanding (sammā diṭṭhi). It means a knowledge of the Four Noble Truths, the Three Signs of Being (ti lakkhaṇa), and the universal Law of Causality. The Master was unequivocal in his utterance on Right Understanding. His long ministry of forty five years was devoted to making people understand Truth, and not urging them to have faith or to believe blindly. In his discourse to the Kālāmas of Kesaputta,  he pointed out clearly that no belief, no tradition, no dogma, no authority, should stand in the way of investigation. Yet he made it clear that the Right Understanding with which the Noble Eightfold Path begins has a definite meaning. It does not mean that one may hold views in conflict with the Four Noble Truths.
Then with Right Understanding, the pilgrim starts on his chosen journey that he might have a glance into the realm beyond phenomenal existence (samsāra) and assure himself that the stupendous struggle to gain it is worth all the ceaseless labours involved.
The second step is Right Thought (sammā saṅkappa), that is thoughts of renunciation (or selflessness), good will and non-harming (or compassion). The Dhammapada lays strong emphasis on the limitless power of thought, as proclaimed in its opening verse:
“All that we are is the result
Of what we have thought.
It is founded on our thoughts;
It made up of our thoughts.”
Many outstanding scientists and philosophers of today have come to recognise what the ancient seers had known. Sir James Jeans in The Mysterious Universe says, “The universe can best be pictured as consisting of pure thought.”
The Dhamma teaches that Right Understanding and Right Thought lead to wisdom (paññā); wisdom gives us sound reasons why we should be selfless, renunciatory, loving and compassionate. “True wisdom is endowed with these noble qualities: all thoughts of selfish desire, ill will, hatred and violence are the results of a lack of wisdom in all spheres of life, individual, social or political,”  and all loving kindness (mettā), compassion (karunā), sympathetic joy (muditā) and equanimity (upekkhā) are the results of great wisdom, Right Thought, Right Effort and Right Mindfulness. The unlimited power of thought is indefinable, and it may truly be said that thought, not faith, can move mountains. “More hath been, and still more can be wrought by thought than this world of ordinary mortals can ever dream of.”
Let us then pour out loving thoughts at dawn and dusk daily to our kith and kin, friends and acquaintances, near or far, enemies, known or unknown, and all other living beings that are, and those yet to be, in the four quarters, above, below and all around, and influence them, in however small a way, to be free from suffering and sorrow and to be happy.
This is the Hymn of Universal Love (mettā) which anyone anywhere may sing silently and joyously, and see what wonders it is capable of achieving. “If mind (the source of thought) is comprehended, all else is comprehended,” says a Mahāyana text (Ratnamegha Sutta). 
The third step is Right Speech (sammā vācā).
“Though one’s speech be a thousand words,
Vain words all strung together;
Better a single phrase
Which calms the one that hears.” 
The Chinese proverb—“He who knows does not speak and he who speaks does not know”—is pregnant with profound meaning. The fool is garrulous; the wise man is silent. Words are for the many but thoughts are for the few. So the pilgrim avoids gossip, scandal, tale-bearing, and other harmful talk. He is truthful in the spoken as well as in the written word. Gentle and pleasant speech is a reflection of his refined character, and “truth is the speech of inward purity.” Distortion of facts and false propaganda are eschewed. In the intense struggle for the realisation of truth, how can you be false to yourself or others?
The Dhammapada admonishes thus on the wrong use of speech:
“Use not harsh speech when harshly spoken to.
Men may retort; painful are quarrelings,
And punishment may follow your harsh words.
If you can keep your tongue from wagging oft,
Silent as some cracked gong, you have thereby
Nibbāna won; no brawling is in you.”
The Buddha himself was reviled and falsely accused. But how did he take all that? One day he visited a Brahmin’s house by invitation for alms-food; on his arrival, to the utter dismay of all those present, the host abused him thoroughly. Narrow-minded Brahmins hated him and his teaching.
But the Compassionate One said to the man, “Friend, if you invite people to your house for a feast and on arrival they do not partake of the feast, what will you do?” The foolish man arrogantly replied, “Then we and the others of this household will enjoy the feast.” “I decline to enjoy your feast (of abuse),” was the Buddha’s gentle rebuke. Later the man became one of his followers.
The fourth step is Right Action (sammā kammanta). The negative side of it is abstention from killing, stealing, adultery, alcoholic drinks, stupefying drugs, cut-throat competition, baneful exploitation and similar unwholesome activities; these cater to immoral self-gratification. Positively, its role enjoins compassion, honesty, justice, equity, fair-play, purity and sobriety. In terms of the Law of Causality, every volitional action has its reaction, good or bad. The deed affects the doer in compliance with the same law.
Right Action is behaviour that is right for oneself as for others. To return evil for evil is immoral, for hatred is not appeased by hatred but by love. Right Action also means diligence in looking after one’s teachers, parents, wife and children and the exercise of hospitality and charity. “True giving (dāna) covers far more precious gifts than pats from hand to hand. Money and gold are the least of charity.”
There is yet another field for Right Action, the field of public service, which comprises the building of schools and hospitals, running of community centres, homes for the aged, treatment of animals in distress and the like. Life is expressed in terms of causes and effects; let us create good causes, and their effects will look after themselves.
At the behest of the Emperor Asoka whose name is respected throughout the civilised world, education, social service, and even the treatment of sick animals in veterinary hospitals was instituted. This was in keeping with the highest ideal of kingship as laid down by the Buddha. Asoka’s rule of over forty years of peace and contentment is unique in the annals of history. Rulers in other countries followed his noble example. To cite only one instance, Empress Komyo of Japan (7th century A.C.) opened a hospital for lepers and personally washed and bathed leper women in that asylum and brought comfort to the stricken in many other ways.
The Buddha himself set an example in service to the needy, which pious people have emulated throughout the Buddhist world. A monk named Tissa was suffering from a dire disease: his case had advanced so far that nobody would even so much as approach him. When the All-Compassionate One heard of it, he went to the monk’s cell and had warm water prepared; he himself bathed and cleaned the ulcers which covered Tissa’s body, and washed and dried his soiled clothes. All this done, the exalted Attendant administered spiritual medicine to the dying monk. At the end of the talk, Tissa brightened up, acknowledged his gratitude to his master, then attained sainthood and passed away.
Right Livelihood (sammā ājīva) is the fifth step. This is meant to bring out the basic meaning of “live and let live” in actual practice—i.e. in harmony and cooperation with companions. “But in this modern world Right Livelihood can be one of the most difficult rules to follow. So many kinds of work are harmful to society and are unworthy of a true Buddhist. There are the arms trade and the nuclear warfare industries, the alcohol trade, drug peddling, occupations involving the slaughter or vivisection of animals, yellow journalism, dishonest advertising and publicity, and business methods that involve deception, excessive profit and usury. Buddhism is not a narrow-minded religion: it regards human frailties with understanding and sympathy. Yet the sincere Buddhist cannot profess one code of morality and earn his livelihood in an occupation with another, debased code.” Right Livelihood precludes trading in arms, poison, liquor, slaves and animals for slaughter. Also repugnant to the spirit of Right Livelihood are hunting and fishing.
Right conduct (dhammacariya) in the means of livelihood is obligatory for all. There is a higher code for monks and nuns but for the lay-people, right conduct is laid down in the Sigālovāda Sutta.  It has been written of this code: “The Buddha’s doctrine of love and goodwill between man and man is here set forth as a domestic and social ethics with more comprehensive detail than elsewhere, and truly we may say even now of this vinaya or code of discipline, so fundamental are the human interests involved, so sane and wide is the wisdom that envisages them that the utterances are as fresh and practically as binding today as they were then at Rājagaha.” To this has been added: “Happy would have been the village or the clan on the banks of the Ganges, where the people were full of the kindly spirit of fellow-feeling, the noble spirit of justice which breathes in these simple sayings.”  Happy should be the people on the banks of the Volga or the Seine, or the Thames or the Mississippi or anywhere else, rural or urban, if only they could imbibe the spirit of this magnificent code of ethics that is the Sigālovāda Sutta.
Right Effort (sammā-vāyāma) is the sixth step. This is basic to all others, for without effort no progress is possible. The Buddha went through six years of intense suffering with heroic effort to gain freedom for all. He did not give up hope even when he was almost dying of starvation. His determination was matchless.
Effort in the context of the Eightfold Path is four-fold. The first is the avoiding of anything unwholesome or evil in the mind; the second is the overcoming of evil which has already arisen. When an evil propensity rooted in greed, hate or delusion has arisen in one’s mind, then one should switch one’s thoughts in the opposite direction—towards the virtues of altruism, love or wisdom. Then the impure thoughts are replaced by pure thoughts. The third is directed towards the developing of good and wholesome tendencies, leading towards enlightenment. The fourth is to maintain the wholesome states already gained, with diligence, until the mind reaches its goal of perfect concentration, leading to mental equilibrium.
We live in an age of tension and flurry. We are being consumed with the three flames of hate, greed and delusion. Commonsense tells us that the real effort on our part should be to develop mental energy for the purification of the mind, so that these three flames might be extinguished. Should we not put out the fire when our house is in flames?
The seventh step is Right Mindfulness (sammā sati). What is mind? Who knows it in its entirety except a Fully-Enlightened One, a Buddha? Still we can form some idea of it and its working. Nyanaponika Mahā Thera says: “Particularly does the culmination of human wisdom, the teaching of the Buddha, deal not with something foreign, far, or antiquated but with that which is common to all humanity, which is ever young, and nearer to us than our hands and feet—the human mind.
“In the Buddhist Doctrine, the mind is the starting point, the focal point and also, as the liberated and purified mind of the saint, the culminating point. Mind is the very nearest to us, because through mind alone are we aware of the so-called external world including our own body.” 
The first two verses of the Dhammapada are far-reaching in their tremendous significance:
Mind goes before all states, mind is the chief;
Mind-made are they, and whosoever acts
With an impure mind, him misery pursues
As a waggon-wheel follows the oxen’s hoof.
Mind goes before all states, mind is the chief;
Mind-made are they, and whosoever acts
With a pure mind, him happiness pursues
As his own shadow ever follows him.
The implications of these two profound verses are shatteringly penetrative. Act well your part with a pure heart, and there lies all happiness.
Nyanaponika Mahā Thera again says, “The Buddha’s message, as a doctrine of the mind teaches three things:
In order to achieve these three things there is only one way—the development of the Fourfold Mindfulness (satipaṭṭhāna) or the Foundations of Mindfulness. The Buddha said, “The only way that leads to the attainment of purity, to the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, to the ending of pain and grief, to the entering upon the right path and the realisation of Nibbāna is the four foundations of mindfulness.“ These are (1) contemplation, without attachment to anything mundane, of the body, one’s own or another’s, as to how it arises and how it passes away, with the realisation in fact of the composition of the body in all its details; (2) contemplation of feelings, agreeable, disagreeable or neutral, their arising and passing away, with the realisation in fact of the absence of any entity or ego which experiences such feelings; (3) contemplation of the mind in its arising and passing away; (4) contemplation of mind-objects, namely, of lust, anger, sloth, worry and doubt, and of the ten fetters (saṃyojana), of the aggregates or the five groups of existence (pañca khandha), of the seven factors of enlightenment (bojjhaṅga), of the six sense-bases (saḷāyatana), their arising and passing away, and of the Four Noble Truths (ariya sacca).
When the state of Right Mindfulness is attained, the pilgrim is master of delight, discontent, fear, anxiety, hunger, thirst, pain and peril, which are submissive to his will. He gains the four absorptions (jhāna) which purify the mind and bring happiness here in this world, which one may enjoy at will without difficulty, without effort. There are such pilgrims.
The crowning success in the perfection of Right Mindfulness is the attainment of sainthood or Arahantship, and that may be reached within the space of a few years or even a few months or weeks; it depends on the mental capacity and the alertness and assiduity of the meditator. “Verily, Monks, whosoever practises these four foundations of mindfulness in this manner (of meditation as prescribed) for seven years, then one of these two fruits may be expected by him: highest knowledge here and now, or if some remainder of clinging is yet present, the state of Non-returning (the state of purity just before the attainment of Arahantship).”
Then, reducing the period of time taken by the earnest meditator, with the merit of his acquisition of this faculty and the power thus gained, in this life and also in previous lives, the Master comes down from years to months and weeks and says, “O Monks, let alone half a month, should any person practise these four foundations of mindfulness in this manner (of meditation as prescribed) for a week, then one of these two fruits may be expected: highest knowledge here and now, or if some remainder of clinging is yet present, the stage of Non-returning.”
The foundations of mindfulness are so vital that the All Knowing One has laid the greatest emphasis on them in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, a discourse that commands immense devotion and popularity in the Theravāda countries. The bhāvanā or meditation it prescribes, namely in-breathing and out-breathing (ānāpāna-sati), for gaining insight is a healing balm to all those who are trying to get rid of the self-acquired restlessness of the present day world. “Rare in this world are those who can claim freedom from mental illness even for one moment; rare are those in whom the taint of impurity has been wiped out (arahats).” 
Right Mindfulness is the springboard, as it were, from which the Buddhist meditator takes his flight, beyond the bounds of the intellect, into the realm of realisation (bodhi) which is equivalent to Nibbāna.
The Buddha has fully explained Right Mindfulness in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta.  Bhikkhu Piyadassi Mahā Thera says of it: “There is no other single discourse in the entire Buddhist Canon that is regarded with so much deference and high esteem by those who follow the original teaching of the Buddha.”  For many, it is Right Mindfulness that has overcome cold and heat, hunger and thirst, subdued greed and hate, and vanquished death itself.
Right Concentration (sammā samādhi) is the eighth and the last step. We are quite familiar with normal concentration. Dr. Edward Conze defines it as the “narrowing of the field of attention in a manner and for a time, determined by the will. The mind is made one-pointed, does not waver, does not scatter itself and it becomes steady like the flame of a lamp in the absence of wind.”  This is concentration in a general sense; it could be on a purely material and non-spiritual plane.
Here we are concerned with Right Concentration (samādhi) which leads to penetrative insight and wisdom (nāna-dassana). Modern extrovert civilisation hinders man at every turn in doing the one thing he must do, namely, develop his higher understanding and spiritual well-being. He is preoccupied with the pursuit of fleeting pleasures and is, therefore, never really happy. But the few, the happy few, who yearn to transcend samsāric conditions are ever in love with meditation, the one “instrument” which is capable of conducting them to Nibbāna.
A world of people mentally ill at every moment of their lives needs an effective remedy; and the Master Physician, after successful self-treatment, has given a unique prescription which anyone with Right Understanding, Right Effort and Right Mindfulness can apply to himself successfully. What he and many others have done many more can do. That is the systematic practice of vipassanā bhāvanā. The nearest equivalent term, as used in the West, is meditation.
“Meditation” writes Conze, “is a European term, which means three different things always clearly distinguished by Buddhists themselves, i.e., mindfulness, concentration and wisdom. The Pali word ’bhāvanā’ means ’becoming more’ in self-development, and meditation practices constitute the very essence of the Buddhist approach to life. An intensely practical religion, Buddhism by contrast is inclined to treat doctrinal definitions and historical facts with some degree of unconcern. As prayer is in Christianity, so meditation is the very heart-beat of this religion.  ” But meditation recognises no God as prayer does; it recognises facts, not dogmas.
In meditation, one fixes one’s attention steadfastly on one definite object at a time (citta ekaggatā), in a wholesome or pure state of consciousness, oblivious of what is going on around, from the sound of a bicycle bell to the roar of an aeroplane. Buddhaghosa in his unique work, Visuddhi Magga (Path of Purification) has described forty subjects for meditation (kammaṭṭhāna). Nibbāna is not one of them, for Nibbāna cannot be even imagined, much less known, before meditation lifts you to the plane of transcendental insight where you actually experience it.
Buddhist texts tell us how the Blessed One practised meditation and how he instructed his followers to practise it themselves. Many, indeed, were those who gained insight and liberation by means of it.
One might put the question, “Does meditation really do what is so confidently claimed for it?” The answer is plain: “Try it yourself instead of wasting time in verbal quibbling, and worrying yourself with doubt and scepticism.” No better proof can be had than personal experience. So why not try it? Apply the same standard of test to prayer and see where it will lead you, if you like. The God of theism is “quite useless to all who strive for self-liberation and self-enlightenment,”  says Christmas Humphreys.
Ānāpāna-sati (concentration on in-breathing and out-breathing) is important as a practical exercise in vipassanā bhāvanā (insight meditation); it is popular in the Theravāda countries and is becoming known also in the West where the Teaching of the Buddha has been welcome. It can be practised at any time, but preferably at dawn for obvious reasons. A quiet, solitary situation is conducive to good results. The usual posture is the lotus posture, a favourite form with almost all yogins. Seated cross-legged, the left foot placed on the right thigh and the right foot on the left thigh, with straight back, looking neither up nor down, eyes closed or partially closed (some have their eyes open), one starts breathing in and out. Tension and rigidity are harmful; purity of mind, calm and physical comfort are helpful. Those unable to seat themselves in the lotus posture may use a chair or even stretch themselves on a lounge or a sofa. Some practise meditation while walking about in a garden early in the morning, at noon or in the cool of the evening.
In ānāpāna-sati, you breathe in and out, and you breathe long or short; in other words, naturally and unforcedly. As you breathe in and out, you count mentally from one up to 10; counting beyond 10 is likely to cause thought to be confused or to go astray; less than 5 is not enough to get you into the “stride.” Calm or stillness of mind is very important. Having got as far as 10, you go back to 1, and repeat the exercise about ten times at the early stage and increase gradually up to about thirty. Normally it will take from five to fifteen minutes or even a little longer. Each numeral may be repeated twice, i.e. 1–1, 2–2, 3–3, 4–4, 5–5, 6–6, 7–7, 8–8, 9–9, and 10–10. As you inhale, when the air touches your nose, count 1; and as you exhale, when the air again touches the nose, count 1. There should be no suspension of breath between inhaling and exhaling.
In the early stages, use the counting to prevent attention wandering. As you progress, you will be able to concentrate on in-breathing and out-breathing alone. Counting may go on “until without counting, mindfulness is established.”  It is only a preliminary requirement, a “dotted line” to guide the novice. Once one has mastered mindfulness and cut off rambling thoughts which are only too eager to clasp external objects, one will know when the counting has to be given up, as sooner or later it must be done.
An instructor in print is not the ideal teacher, yet those who cannot conveniently avail themselves of the help of a competent teacher in the flesh might usefully be guided by the written word. Even here one cannot be too cautious in selecting really good books. But authoritative books are available. Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhi Magga is pre-eminent. Dr. Conze’s opinion of it is: “He (Buddhaghosa, 4th century A.C., sage and scholar) has composed one of the greatest spiritual classics of mankind. If I had to choose just one book to take with me on a desert island, this would be my choice.” If he had to choose two, the other would most likely be Sir Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia. There is an excellent English translation of the former, by the late Ñāṇamoli Mahā Thera, titled The Path of Purification. Other helpful books are: the late Nyanatiloka Mahā Thera’s The Word of the Buddha, (Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy), and a book by his pupil, Nyanaponika Mahā Thera, The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, (Rider & Co. London). There is also Soma Mahā Thera’s The Way of Mindfulness and several other booklets published by the Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Ceylon.
Theravada Buddhist scripture has forty subjects for meditation. So the meditator has a choice of what he wishes to meditate upon, and in this sense too the Dhamma is intensely practical (not concerned with incredible dogmas), opening as it does the eyes of its followers to “see things as they really are.” Karel Werner, the well-known Czechoslovakian psychologist, says “The Dhamma is the only one of the spiritual messages of the past which can undergo a scientific analysis,” and emerge triumphant.
It would be appropriate here to explain the object of meditation once again. In the first place, it is mental health. When one is physically ill, what can one do efficaciously? In the mental realm, the position is worse. Since mind is the source of both good and evil, its sound health is of the highest importance; the good must be raised to better and best, and the evil reduced to naught. That is the development of morality and spirituality for realising Nibbāna. 
Starting from the solid ground of mental well-being, the task of meditation becomes easier—the task of breaking through intellectual limitations and conceptual barriers in order that one may come face to face, as it were, with reality. “To confront absolute truth,” says Mr Francis Story, “to comprehend the real order of things in its entirety, one has to transcend the intellect. The intellect selects, narrows the range of cognition and arranges things in its own way, and in so doing imposes the limitations of its nature. We have to break through those conceptual barriers and grasp reality on a different level. That is the great objective of Buddhist meditational practices—they are to develop the higher consciousness that reaches beyond the intellect. That higher consciousness alone is capable of seeing reality face to face.” 
Some may say, “All these precepts, beautiful and grand, cannot be put into practice in the modern world, in this imperfect world of ours.” They want something simpler or nothing at all. They are content with feeding their sense-desires for momentary self-gratification, and sometimes pray to a god or gods for salvation from their self-inflicted suffering. Certain Buddhists pray even to the Buddha for salvation and lesser favours! And what have they ever got in answer? Conscious personal experience, on a strictly empirical basis, will yield proof that such prayers are of no avail. And this man-made world of turmoil: who has made it imperfect but man; and who can make it perfect but man?
Thousands and thousands of men and women have trodden the Way, and some of them have expressed the supreme joy of their lofty experiences in beautiful poetry—namely, the Thera Gāthā (Songs of the Brethren) and Theri Gāthā (Songs of the Sisters). Silently and steadily, monks and nuns, lay-men and lay-women tread the same Way today; they will never turn back, for they know it is the only Way (eka magga), but they do not talk about what they do.
The eight parts of the Path are comprised in the three words: morality (sīla), concentration (samādhi), and wisdom (paññā). The first two parts comprise wisdom, the next three, morality, and the last three, concentration. Since inward purity is a sine qua-non for samādhi, morality has got to be developed first. Once morality and concentration are developed, only then will wisdom gain perfection. “Two features that distinguished Buddhist ethics were the practical and workable systems devolved for lay people, and the skill with which practices in current belief or ritual were spiritualised and given a moral significance.” 
Finally, on his deathbed in the Sāla Grove of the Mallas of Kusināgara, the Buddha told the wandering monk Subhadda, “In whatever doctrine or discipline the Noble Eightfold Path is not found, neither in it is to be found a man of true saintliness, whether of the first, or of the second or of the third or of the fourth degree. But in whatever doctrine or discipline the Noble Eightfold Path is found, in it and in it alone is to be found the man of true saintliness of the first, of the second, of the third and of the fourth degree. Void are the systems of teachers in which the Noble Eightfold Path is not found. May the Brethren follow that Path and gain the perfect life, that the world may not be bereft of Arahants” (Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta). 
This declaration of the Enlightened One effectively disposes of the fallacious view popularly held that in this dark age (kali yuga) there can be no Arahants—the Holy Ones. It is also a reminder of the fact, noted on p. 1, that Nibbāna cannot be attained by one who persists in holding wrong views (micchā-diṭṭhi).
Appamādena sampādetha —Work out your salvation with diligence.