A secular reinterpretation of the Eightfold Path

For both traditional and secular Buddhists, the Eightfold Path is an essential framework and guide for how to live in accord with the values and perspectives of the dharma.

There is an important difference, however, in how traditional and secular Buddhists understand the endpoint of the path.  In traditional Buddhism, the ultimate goal of the Eightfold Path is to attain individual enlightenment and complete freedom from dukkha. For secular Buddhists, following the Eightfold Path involves the cultivation of insights, emotions, and attitudes which promote human flourishing in this life, not the attainment of nirvana. Human flourishing is the basis for ‘true’ or ‘real’ happiness,  the kind of happiness one has when one lives life in an ethical and meaningful way. Because our current society promotes the opposite way of life – one rooted in greed, ill will, and misunderstanding – the process of human flourishing entails a radical transformation at both the individual and societal levels.

If our goal is human flourishing in this life rather than attaining nirvana, how might the eight path factors in the Eightfold Path be reconceived? In what follows I offer a secular reinterpretation of the path factors.[1] To make the contrast clear, I provide a table which has both the traditional path factors and the corresponding secularalized path factors.

[Please note: Stephen Batchelor has developed an even more radical perspective on this issue. Stephen presents the path factors in a different order than the traditional account and offers a new interpretation of each path factor’s role in the path. Click here to read about Stephen Batchelor on a ‘Secular Perspective on the Eightfold Path’.]

Traditional[2] and secular versions of the eightfold path

The Traditional Noble Eightfold Path A Secular Eightfold Path
1.  Right understanding (sammā diṭṭhi)

 

Right understanding is the understanding of things as they are, and it is the four noble truths that explain things as they really are. Right understanding therefore is ultimately reduced to an understanding of the Four Noble Truths.

1.  Appropriate understanding

 

The constantly revisited perspectives and working assumptions which promote the flourishing of human beings as individuals and at a societal level. This includes the recognition of the individual and social causes of suffering, our capacities for transforming ourselves and the world, and the interconnectedness of natural processes and deliberate action. Appropriate understanding also entails a sense of openness toward and appreciation of varied views and perspectives, and a willingness to look anew at our experiences, including our habits of mind.

2.  Right thought (sammā saṅkappa)

 

Right thought denotes the thoughts of selfless renunciation or detachment, thoughts of love and thoughts of non-violence, which are extended to all beings. For the Buddha, true wisdom is endowed with these noble qualities and molds our intentions.

2.  Appropriate intention

 

To promote human flourishing, we need to cultivate the intention to become less reactive in relation to our experiences while fostering loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.  As we develop these qualities, we move away from a rigid, egoic self-concept toward an understanding of the self as socially and naturally embedded, as well as changeable due to causes and conditions.

3.  Right speech (sammā vācā

 

Right speech means abstention from (1) telling lies, (2) backbiting and slander and talk that may bring about hatred, enmity, disunity, and disharmony among individuals or groups of people, (3) harsh, rude, impolite, malicious and abusive language, and from (4) idle, useless, and foolish babble and gossip.

3.  Appropriate speech

 

Appropriate speech not only involves abstaining from speech which is false and harms others in various ways, but entails an obligation to use speech to promote cooperation, problem-solving, civility, friendliness, and love between and among human beings.

4.  Right action (sammākammanta)

 

Right action aims at promoting moral, honorable, and peaceful conduct. It admonishes us that we should abstain from harming others, from stealing and dishonest dealings, from harmful sexual behavior, from misleading communication, and from intoxicants and soporifics.

4.  Appropriate action

 

Appropriate action is guided by the values of non-harming, compassion, and care for ourselves and other sentient beings. Rather than being determined by a fixed set of moral rules, appropriate action requires us to respond creatively, ethically, and wisely to each situation that we encounter based on these core values.

5.  Right livelihood (sammāājīva

 

Right livelihood means that one should abstain from making one’s living through a means that brings harm to others; one should earn one’s living by means which are honorable, blameless, and innocent of harm to others.

5.  Appropriate livelihood

 

Our livelihood and the way we ply it should reflect the values of non-harming, compassion, and care and thus contribute to human flourishing. In discerning whether our livelihood is appropriate in this sense, we need to recognize that a particular occupation or profession is harmful not just when it leads directly to suffering (e.g. selling drugs), but when it substantially contributes to exploitative and oppressive social structures.

6.  Right effort (sammāvāyāma)

 

Right effort is the energetic will to (1) prevent evil and unwholesome states of mind from arising, (2) abandon evil and unwholesome states that have already arisen, (3) cultivate wholesome states of mind not yet arisen, and (4) further develop wholesome states of mind already present.

6.  Appropriate effort

 

While we, as human beings, will always experience states of mind which are reactive and delusory, and thus not conducive to human flourishing, we can work energetically to prevent the frequency and intensity of such states and to release them when we encounter them. At the same time, we can work to promote and develop states of mind which are less reactive and wiser.

7.  Right mindfulness (sammāsati)

 

Right mindfulness is to be diligently aware, mindful, and attentive with regard to (1) the activities of the body (kāyā), (2) feeling-tone (vedanā), (3) moods and emotions (citta) and (4) ideas, thoughts and conceptions (dhamma).

7.  Appropriate mindfulness

 

Unless we are aware, present, and relate kindly to our experiences of the body, feeling tones, moods, emotions, and thoughts, as well as recognize their impermanent, conditioned nature, we will not be able to develop an appropriate understanding and live ethically so as to promote human flourishing. Instead, we will be caught in reactivity and inappropriate views.

8.  Right concentration (sammāsamādhi)

 

The third and last factor of mental discipline is right concentration. This is the wholesome and intensified concentration that results from the deliberate attempt to raise the mind to a higher, more purified level of awareness.

8.  Appropriate collectedness

 

Just as mindfulness is a necessary condition of the other path factors, the ability to cultivate greater stability, collectedness, and stillness in the mind allows us to focus our attention on objects and events, and is thus an essential skill for developing an appropriate perspective and ethical life.


[1]  Winton Higgins and Ramsey Margolis provided helpful feedback on a first draft of a secular version of the path factors.

[2] Adapted from The Noble Eightfold Path: The Buddha’s practical instructions to reach the end of suffering, by Walpola Sri Rahula.  https://tricycle.org/magazine/noble-eightfold-path/


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