The Eightfold Path

The Eightfold Path

A dharma talk by Danielle MacCartney


Pragmatic Buddhism is an empirically informed action plan to cultivate skillful living and increase human flourishing for all living beings.


Combined with meditation, the Eightfold Path is the heart of pragmatic dharma practice. It is the how for the why. The Eightfold Path gives us opportunities to practice and cultivate specific dharma skills to increase human flourishing. Each of these can be tried out and tested in daily life. The Eightfold Path gives us the tools to become free of our cravings and delusions and allows us to realize the truth about the way the world actually works. Through practice we become increasingly more proficient at developing equanimity to increase our flourishing and the flourishing of others.


The components of the Eightfold Path are grouped into elements that help us cultivate wisdom, ethics, and mental culture.


The two elements of wisdom (prajna) in the Eightfold Path are Skillful, Appropriate, or Right View and Intention.


Skillful or Appropriate View is cognitive – through practice, we attain and sustain a capacity of mind that allows us to see things as they really are – that there is suffering in the world; that suffering is caused by craving and aversion; that suffering can end by practicing the Eightfold Path. This component asks us to practice recognizing and acknowledging the Three Characteristics of Existence (impermanence, no self, and suffering).


Skillful Intention is the process that demonstrates our commitment to engaging in dharma practice – our mindset of commitment to practicing the Eightfold Path and cultivating wisdom and the mental and ethical capacities to increase flourishing. We commit to three main intentions – the intention to resist acting on cravings and selfish desires (the intention of renunciation); the intention of good will (to resist anger and aversion); and the intention of harmlessness and compassion (to resist cruelty, violence, and aggression).


The next three components of the Eightfold Path give us opportunities to practice ethical conduct (sila): skillful speech, action, and livelihood.


Practicing skillful speech means avoiding deceitful, slanderous, malicious, harmful, and idle speech. It means speaking in ways that are kind, helpful, and necessary.


Skillful action asks us to embody the ideas of our practice. When we engage in unskillful actions, we create conditions that inhibit our flourishing and the flourishing of others and create conditions that provide opportunities for suffering. This is where our orientation to karma comes into play – our actions create conditions for flourishing or suffering. Skillful action invites us to avoid committing intentional harm, to refrain from taking things that do not belong to us, and to avoid harmful sexual practices. When we practice skillful action, we act in compassionate ways. We are honest in our actions. We respect others’ property and state of mind and we approach sexual relationships with love and commitment.


Skillful livelihood allows us to practice activities that earn us our bread and butter in ways that encourage our flourishing and the flourishing of others. This component of the Eightfold Path asks us to engage in earning behaviors that adhere to appropriate speech and action. With our livelihood, we should reflect on the ways that our employment contributes to the flourishing or suffering for ourselves and others and take appropriate steps to enable flourishing and reduce suffering.


The final elements of the path give us opportunities to develop healthy mental culture (Samadhi) to cultivate equanimity and flourishing. These include skillful effort, mindfulness, and concentration.


Skillful effort is the extent to which you apply your will. Becoming more skillful in our effort can better enable cultivation of all other components of the path. If our effort is not sufficient, it is difficult to achieve proficiency in any of the other areas. When we appropriately increase our effort – our mental energy – in ways that increase human flourishing, we become more skilled in actually increasing human flourishing. When we cultivate effort in self-discipline and compassion, we become better in all parts of our dharma practice. The Buddha asks us to apply appropriate effort in avoiding unhealthy states of mind and, when we recognize that those unhealthy states of mind already exist, to work to abandon them. He asks us also to actively cultivate healthy states of mind and to practice maintaining healthy states of mind that are already present.


Appropriate or skillful mindfulness also reflects our cognitive capacities. Mindfulness is a broad, open way of seeing. It represents our ability to clearly see things as they are, in all their complex contradictoriness. When we practice increasing our awareness of how our biases, preconceptions, and attachments influence our perceptions, we become better at seeing things as they are, instead of how we want them to be or how we fear they are. To help cultivate mindfulness, the Buddha asks us to contemplate our body and our physical manifestation in the present moment; to contemplate our feelings (positive, negative, or neutral) in the current moment; to contemplate our state of mind and the thoughts racing through our head in this moment; and to contemplate the phenomenon itself and the ways that our misperceptions influences our understanding of the thing we’re contemplating.


Finally, skillful or appropriate concentration is about the narrowness of your focus. It gives us the opportunity to cultivate healthy habits of mind and replace our unhealthy habitmind – that is, to help us change our default consciousness to help us develop equanimity and clear thinking instead of what most of us have cultivated – distraction and delusion. When we apply intentional, focused concentration to our ways of thinking, acting, and being, we become better able to react in ways that are helpful, compassionate, and accurate.