The Noble Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path

A lecture delivered by Annie Besant
at the Ananda College, Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1907

Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, Chennai [Madras] India

Twenty-three hundred years have passed since the great Buddhist Emperor, Ashoka, sent to the Island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) his son and his daughter, to plant in this island not only the material slip from the sacred tree of Buddha Gaya, but also to plant here a slip of that Tree of Wisdom which, since that day, has spread abroad over the island, as it has spread far over the nations, over the world – that Tree of Wisdom which you call the faith of the Buddha.

We are to take this afternoon one of His great teachings for our study. You remember how, when He had left His father’s house, when He had left His wife and His infant son, when He had sought, by the help of instructors in the jungle, to win His way to life, when He had sought by asceticism to find the path which others had failed to teach Him, that He finally, sitting under that famous tree, having conquered every temptation, having thrown back all the illusions of Mara, when at last illumination reached Him, when He had entered into perfect knowledge – then He saw, for the first time in this life – the Four Noble Truths: sorrow, its roots, the cessation of sorrow, the path out of it – the Noble Eightfold Path. And it is that Noble Eightfold Path to which I ask your attention this afternoon.

Characterized as are all the teachings of the Blessed One by brevity, they are instinct with wisdom: for just as on each one of the Four Noble Truths, volumes of exposition may be written, so in the phrases of this Noble Eightfold Path, the whole law of life, the whole rule of conduct, is definitely expressed; and if a man should follow that Eightfold path, if a man should carry out the eight directions that are given, then that man would bridge the threshold of Arhatship, and he would prepare himself for liberation.

Now, what is this Noble Eightfold Path? It consists of eight precepts, or as we may call them, eight great truths, each one of which applies to human life, each one of which is intended to shape human destiny; and taken one by one, and understood and practised, human evolution would be rapid and secure. The first of these great truths is Right Knowledge; the second, Right Thought; then the third and fourth, that grow out of Right Thought – Right Speech and Right Activity; then, with regard to the outer world, Right Means of Livelihood; then, Right Exertion; then Right Memory; and, lastly, that highest achievement, Right Concentration.

Those are the eight steps, as we may call them, of the Path – these eight great truths for the guidance of human life.

Let us take these eight truths one by one, and see how a true Buddhist may shape his life thereby. The first, then, is Right Knowledge, as sometimes we find it translated; for often, in translating from Sanskrit or from Pali into English, the original word is fuller and larger than the English word, and so two words are given to explain one. So sometimes this word is also translated as Right Belief. But, truly, all belief should be based on knowledge. That which a man rightly knows, that only can he rightly believe: all else is credulity and folly. Now, in the modem world, right belief has not been thought to be so very important that it should be placed at the outset of this Noble Eightfold Path. But right belief or right knowledge – this is really the most vital and essential thing of all. It is the foundation upon which all thought and speech and action are built. And if your foundation be rotten, how, on that rotten foundation, shall a safe house be built for the living of man?

Now what is Right Knowledge? It is knowledge based on, and in accordance with, the facts of life, the facts of the universe, the Law which surrounds us, and which no effort of ours may change or alter; it is knowledge of the laws on which the universe is built, laws which do not change, laws which do not vary, which cannot be broken, but which may be disregarded. But if those laws are disregarded, even if we have no right knowledge concerning them, even if, instead of knowledge, we are left in avidya, the absence of knowledge, then it is impossible, when we are without that knowledge, to guide our life to any useful end.

Now, it would be impossible for me to go into the whole realm of right knowledge; but there are two great laws stated, which a man must know if he is to guide his life aright, and if he knows these two rightly, and walks by them then his life will be ennobling for himself, will be beneficial to all among whom he lives.  One of those laws is the Law of Cause and Effect, that which we call the Law of Action, of Karma; the other is the Law of Opposites, the law which expresses itself in the fact that if you meet a vibration of one kind with a vibration of the same kind, then the vibration grows stronger, larger, wider; but if you meet that vibration with a vibration of the opposite kind, then the one extinguishes the other, looked at from the ethical standpoint. That is, the great principle of returning good for evil.

Let us see how the Blessed One taught this Law of Karma, for it is noticeable that He taught it in a way that all men could understand, by admirably choosing a symbol, by pointing the attention of the hearer to familiar things and out of them expressing profound truth. This Law of Cause and Effect, this Law of Karma – how did He teach it? Thus: if a man acts from an evil thought, then pain follows that action as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the cart. There is not a peasant walking in the street, there is not a cultivator delving in the soil, who could not follow that graphic image; as the wheel must follow the foot of the ox, so must pain follow the evil thought or evil action; inevitable is the action of the law; you cannot break it. Again, if a man acts from a pure thought, happiness attends him inseparably as his shadow. Not a child who has walked in the sunshine, but knows that his shadow cannot be separated from himself; as inevitable as is the union between shadow and body, so is the union between righteousness and happiness.

Now, supposing you have realized this piece of Right Knowledge: supposing, whenever temptation comes to you, you cast it back by the thought of the attendant pain; supposing you have realized that no one can save you from the result of your own actions, but that you must inevitably bear the result yourself; then there is something else you would want to know in order to guide your conduct aright, and that is what I have called the Law of Opposites. . .

It was summed up by the Lord Buddha in four phrases. You may expand them to every emotion which you can feel, to all your acts towards your fellow creatures: “Let a man overcome anger by love; let him overcome hatred by kindness; let him overcome the greedy by liberality; the liar by truth.” See how, in each, the one is put over against its opposite; against the vice, the virtue that is exactly opposite to it. A man is angry with you; answer him back with anger, and anger will carry you both away; but answer with love, and the anger vanishes, and peace rules over the two who would otherwise have been foes. If a man does you a wrong, repay him not with the wrong he has done you, in the short-sighted fashion of the world, which strikes back and so perpetuates the evil. If a man is greedy, do not be greedy towards him; be liberal. If he is miserly, pour out upon him of what you have; teach him by the opposite virtue, and not by showing him the mirror of his own vice repeated. If a man lies to you, do not you lie back to him. There are so many who say: “He spoke untruths to me, and I only paid him back in his own coin.” This is the wisdom of the Buddha; if a man speaks falsehood to you, answer him with truth, and the liar shall become truthful, and so shall truth reign supreme. Now, carry out these noble truths, this noble wisdom, this teaching, carry it out in your lives, carry it out in your business, in your own homes, wherever you meet your fellowmen. If one does you wrong, answer him by the opposite virtue, and then, you will have the right to call yourself a follower of the Blessed One.

Having thus laid the foundation of Right Knowledge, knowledge at least of the two chief facts, of the two fundamental laws, the next thing that is necessary is Right Thought. That is, that your thought should be as good, as perfect, as you can make it. Out of thought grows speech. Out of thought grows action. A man who thinks wrongly, speaks wrongly, acts wrongly. The man who thinks rightly, his speech is right, his action is also right. Thought, that is so often disregarded, is far more important than either speech or action. Take care that your thoughts are right, and the others inevitably will be right; be careless in your thought and inevitably you will fall into evil ways.

Therefore, on the great foundation of Right Knowledge, Right Thinking is to be builded, and you are to endeavour that your thought shall be serious, accurate, as perfect as you are able to make it. “Earnestness,” said the Buddha, “is life; thoughtlessness is death”; for the thoughtless and the careless man slips inevitably into many evils. The earnest man, who is careful, who is thoughtful, that man will guide aright his speech and his action. So that the next thing that you have to consider in treading this Noble Eightfold Path, is Right Thinking. Your thought builds your future:  your thought makes your character. As you think today, so tomorrow, inevitably, you will act. The thoughtforms that you leave behind you when death touches you, the tendencies that have grown out of your life, those will be re-embodied in your next incarnation, and thus out of your tendencies of this life will be created the lives of the future. Therefore, Right Thinking is the second of your steps.

The next step is Right Speech. Now, what is Right Speech? First, it is speech which is true. All the everyday falsehoods of ordinary life are condemned by Right Speech. All the empty falsehoods which people so lightly utter – these are all condemned and shut out from Right Speech. Right Speech is true to the uttermost. Right Speech is also kind and courteous. Harsh language, cruel words, bitter attacks – none of these is possible to the true Buddhist who is endeavouring to walk upon the Noble Eightfold Path, who is striving to follow out the rule of Right Speech; and concerning that virtue the Buddha again gives us a splendid example. A certain man was railing at him, using wrong speech and not right; the Blessed One listened patiently until the man finished all the abuse that he had to pour upon Him, and then He answered gently and said:

“Son! when a man gives a present without regard to the rules of politeness, the fashion is to say, ‘ Keep your present.’ Son! I cannot take your railing. Keep it and take it back to yourself. The wicked man who attacks a virtuous one, is like a man who looks up to high heaven and spits at it. The heaven is not soiled thereby, but the spittle falls upon his own person and defiles him. The man who scatters mud does not soil others; on the contrary the mud, flies back and soils his own clothes. The virtuous man cannot be injured by the evil a wicked man does against him: the evil goes back to the wrong-doer.” That is the great teaching with regard to right and wrong speech. Evil words spoken to you do you no harm, unless you answer them with evil speech. If a man abuse you, he does you no harm, unless you take up his abuse and answer him with abuse; then his abuse comes to you and remains with you, and he is free from it. But if you answer not with abuse, his evil speech goes back to him and remains with him, and you are unharmed by it. So the law works out. If a man abuse you, you are not injured thereby, unless you answer him in the same way; if you answer his abuse by love, by compassion, by silence or by gentle words, then his evil words go back to him, he is not able to throw them upon you, and only he suffers harm from the evil he has wrought; his evil returns to him. Carry that out in daily life. This law is a law for life and not only for talk. The next time a man reviles you, answer him by silence or by love, and his abuse will remain with him and you will go on your way uninjured.

And after these three, we come to the fourth: Right Action. Right Action is almost sure to follow where Right Knowledge, Right Thought and Right Speech have paved the way. The tongue is the hardest thing to control. Have control over your mind and thoughts, have control over your mind and tongue; then, Right Action will inevitably follow – the actions of the body will inevitably follow the right road. Some other aids in this you have been given in the Five Precepts, marking out for you the wrong actions which you should avoid. You may not evade the law, like the Buddhist who says day after day, “I will not take life,” yet sometimes sustains his own life upon the meat which is only to be obtained by the slaughter of one life by another. The man who sustains his own life, who feeds his own life on the slaughtered life of the beasts, that man contributes to the taking of life as much as if he took life himself. If those who desire to practice Right Action would all abstain from sustaining their own lives upon the life which is slaughtered by another, the slaughter would cease. Then, you must abstain from all sex-evil: from all illegal, unlawful, sensual indulgence – you must strive after purity of the body. You must also abstain from intoxicating liquor. This vice is, I am glad to know, abating in Ceylon at the present time, for happily, with the revival of Buddhism, there has come a reaction against the taking of intoxicating liquors, which was unfortunately copied from others who have come amongst you. And as your own ancient religion asserts itself again, with its supreme authority, drunkenness will become a thing of the past – for a drunken Buddhist is impossible to think of, it is utterly against the law whereby he lives. Right Action, then, is the fourth of the steps upon this Noble Eightfold Path.

Then we come to Right Means of Livelihood – a very practical thing, and a thing that perhaps, in these modern days, needs stress to be laid upon in a very special way. What are Right Means of Livelihood?

They are the gaining of a living by means that do not injure your fellow-men, that serve your family and your community – your neighbours as well as yourself. So that in mingling in this modem life, in which so much of struggle is now unhappily to be found, the law for the Buddhist is, that in all business, in the gaining of his own livelihood, he shall neither injure nor wrong those amongst whom he lives; that is forgotten unhappily, in most modern minds. A man earns his livelihood, but he does not stay to ask himself, “Do I earn it in a right way?” We see and hear of men making great fortunes; if we go behind that fortune, what do we find? Ruined homes, desperate men, broken-hearted women, starving children. The fortune of one man has been built upon the sufferings of others. That is a wrong fortune, a wrong wealth, a wrong enriching of one man, at the cost and the misery of many. Such means of livelihood are unworthy of the man who realizes the unity of mankind and the common Brotherhood of all. Beware, then, how you work and win your livelihood. As the modern methods spread amongst you, as you take part in the race of the world, if you would not lose more than you gain, if you would not forfeit more than you achieve, if you take to modern methods, if you are careless as to the means by which you gather wealth for yourself, if you trample on the weak, if you cheat the stupid, respecting no law but that which can be enforced by the policeman or administered by the judge, and setting at naught the law which is imposed upon your heart, forsaking the path disclosed to you by the Blessed One – then you will grow wealthier in gold, indeed, but you will grow poorer in honour and virtue; and virtue is more precious than gold, pure character is greater wealth than the gains of this world. Take this rule to heart then. See that you choose Right Means to Livelihood, and remember ever that such means alone is permissible for the follower of the Buddha.

And after that comes Right Exertion. Now, many, not unnaturally, often ask, “Why should right exertion or right effort come so late in this outline of human conduct?

Surely, right effort is the very first thing that we want? And until a man makes a right effort, how can he expect that he will make progress of a valuable kind?” Well, the answer is, that effort cannot be rightly directed, unless it is guided by Right Knowledge and Right Thought. Effort which has ignorance behind it, however well-intentioned it be, does more harm than good. The well-intentioned stupid man is really more dangerous to the community and to himself than the man who does not live by right will or right  thought. If you do a thing which is against the law, against that which Right Knowledge teaches, your intentions will not make it come out right. Stern as is the lesson, it is a lesson that you must needs learn and practice. For supposing a man plunges into  burning house to save the life of a child who is in danger of perishing amidst the flames, does his good intention prevent the fire from burning him, unless to his courage he adds wisdom also? The man who knows the danger, takes precautions against it; he binds a cloth about his mouth and so is able to save the child and himself from suffocating. So the man who deliberately does right, using Right Knowledge, and guiding his exertion by Right Thought, that man does twice as well as the headlong man who desires to do right but does not think rightly. So your effort must have Right Knowledge and Right Thought behind it. You must be wise as well as good and prudent, as well as anxious to do right. You must realize that half the harm and misery in the world grows out of ignorant good intentions, unguided by knowledge; that good intentions without Right Knowledge and Right Thought are a fruitful source of mischief. Right effort and right endeavour are endeavour and effort guided by Right Knowledge; that alone should be the kind of effort, that alone should be the endeavour, of all who are of the Buddhist faith.

Then we come to the seventh step upon the Path, Right Memory. There are two meanings that may be given in explanation of that phrase, Right Memory. In the fullest meaning, it is memory of all the past births of a man, such as you find in the Lord Buddha Himself. You remember how, over and over again, when He met men for the first time – for the first time in that life – and when, perhaps, the man treated Him in an evil way, the Blessed One explained it to the disciples around Him, by saying how in some one or other of His previous lives He had met that man, and how then a wrong had been done which bore fruit in the way that they saw. You remember how, over and over again, He illustrates incidents of the present by stories drawn from His perfect memory of the past.

But, in that sense, it is not of very much value to the ordinary man or woman who has no memory of the stories of the past, of his or her previous lives. But there is a sense in which, for all, Right Memory is truly a valuable thing: when a wrong that is done is forgotten as soon as it is committed, when a kindness that is done to you is treasured and remembered for the rest of your life in gratitude, then you have the Right Memory which is of highest use to the ordinary man and woman. It was written of the great Hindu King that a thousand wrongs were done to Him and He forgot them all before He lay down to rest; one kindness was done to Him and He remembered it for the rest of His life. That is Right Memory. Keep a useful forgetfulness for all unkindnesses that touch you; but keep a perfect memory for every kindness that is done you. Forget everything that may have caused you pain – shut your eyes to it; shut it out of your mind, for your memory must not be burdened with the memory of injuries. Let them go. None can injure you, save you had made injury inevitable by your own past – and what folly to remember the injury when to remember it is really to keep it alive? Put away from you all that pains you, forget all that hurts you, all that gives you sorrow, all that seems to wrong you – but keep as your most precious memory all that good you have received. Right Memory is that which treasures up all the joy, goodness and help in grateful remembrance; that memory which cherishes kind thoughts of all who have helped you, however trifling that help may have been. So shall peace and joy be yours for ever, and so shall memory have lost its power to torment.

Right Concentration – this is the last of the steps on the Noble Eightfold Path. Here again, a double meaning is given. For one who has trodden that Path in many lives, to him there is possibility of the highest form of concentration – the concentration by which you may know anything which you will to know, by simply fixing upon it a well-trained and well-pointed mind – that is Right Concentration. Every mind may be so trained to obedience, may be so steady, so one-pointed, that you can fix on any object of knowledge and know that object without and within. But that is a high attainment, led up to by lives of mediation. But for the man of the world, the road to Right Concentration is training your mind in ordinary life. Practice it day by day, hour by hour, fixing your whole attention on the thing you are doing, and do that thing as perfectly as it is possible for you to do it. Do not let your mind wander, do not let it drift. Keep it under your own control, rule it well and firmly. You will not be able at first to close your mind to the distractions, and the disturbances around you, until you have practiced the concentration for many years, Then your mind will become obedient to your will. If you do that, you may begin to meditate with some success. Then the mind which has been trained to concentrate upon outer objects, will become obedient when you begin to fix it upon lofty principles of life. Therefore, see that you practice Right Concentration.

Practice it in everything that you do, and you will gain a mind that is cultivated for the gaining of every kind of knowledge in life, and in that fashion you will prepare yourself gradually for the concentration, for the meditation, that opens the gates of true knowledge and lifts you above the passing troubles of the world.

Thus we have traced the steps of the Noble Eightfold Path. If in our lives and in our hearts we try to realize the truths of that Path, then shall the future hold for us all knowledge, all wisdom, and all peace.

Let me say to you in closing this brief description of the right principles that you have had in this Island for the last twenty-three centuries – so that you have had time to test each of them whether it be truly wise or not – that, if you would restore the palmy days of Sri Lanka, if you would make the Sinhalese people great once more, you must build the future upon this foundation. You must put the feet of your nation on this ancient path once more, and teach the nation to tread it once again. On Buddhism you must build your nationality. On the teachings of the Blessed One you must train up your people, and you must so teach your children. Your boys as they grow up to manhood must sit at the feet of the Buddha and listen to the teaching which in His dying words He left to all mankind, when He said: “I will be with you in the teaching I have given you. I will live with you in the Law which I have declared to you.” In that way you may have the Lord Buddha with you – in the Law that He proclaimed, in the teaching that He gave. Then there will be life still for you, and in the guidance of that teaching you may live again and may build your future; otherwise, there is no future for you in the history of the world. If you will do that, you will be true to the faith and to the great heritage left you by those who have gone before you. If you do that, you will help not only yourselves, you will use the teaching not only for yourselves, but you will keep alive that which is part of the heritage of the world, and thus serve your fellow-men, while you follow the teaching of the Blessed One, the Lord of Compassion and of Mercy. And you will realize the truth of the words of one of your own wise Ones: “Bow down with folded hands: for hard, hard is a Buddha to be met with in a thousand generations.