Question: "What is the Noble Eightfold Path?"
Answer: The Noble Eightfold Path is the foundation of Buddhist practice. The eight concepts contained in the Noble Eightfold Path are the attitudes and behaviors that Buddhists strive to emulate as a means of living out the Four Noble Truths. These eight concepts fall into three major categories: Wisdom, Conduct, and Concentration. According to the Four Noble Truths, all life is suffering caused by desires for impermanent things, and since all things are impermanent—even the self—the only way to be free of suffering is to shed all desires. This is done, according to Buddhism, by following the Eightfold Path.
Although called a “path,” these eight components are not intended to be followed in any particular order. Instead, they are meant to be followed simultaneously, in order to shed desires and attain Nirvana. The Eightfold Path, and Buddhism itself, is often represented by an eight-spoked wheel, similar to the steering wheel of a sailing ship. The components of the Noble Eightfold Path are right view, right intent, right speech, right behavior, right livelihood, right effort, right awareness, and right meditation.
The components of Right View and Right Intent are sometimes referred to as the Wisdom aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path.
“Right view” essentially means believing in the Four Noble Truths: that life is suffering; suffering is caused by desiring temporary things; everything is temporary; and only by following the eightfold path can one shed all desires. It also includes an awareness of concepts such as rebirth (reincarnation) and the law of karma. Biblically, it’s true that one must submit to a particular truth in order to be saved (John 8:32), but the Bible disagrees that specific knowledge is somehow an active part of one’s salvation (Ephesians 2:8; 1 Corinthians 3:19).
“Right intent” refers to a willingness to change for the better, according to the Noble Truths and Eightfold Path. A person with right intent is committed to the precepts of Buddhism and seeks to compare his thoughts and behaviors to it. Biblically, believers are called on to compare their faith and actions to the standards of Christ (2 Corinthians 13:5; Romans 13:14; John 15:14). However, the Bible also acknowledges that what a person wants, deep down, is not always what he should want (Jeremiah 17:9). Buddhism provides no answer for how a person is supposed to change his deep desires in order to find enlightenment (see 2 Corinthians 10:12).
The components of Right Speech, Right Behavior, and Right Livelihood are sometimes referred to as the Ethical aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path.
“Right speech” refers to using words honestly, politely, and purposefully. This means avoiding gossip, lying, or verbally abusive speech. Right speech is applied to written words as much as those spoken. One interesting side effect of the Buddhist approach to right speech is avoidance of discussion of certain spiritual or metaphysical topics. According to Buddhism, some questions of ultimate reality are irrelevant to one’s pursuit of the Eightfold Path, so discussing them is not “right speech.” Biblically, we are told to maintain control of our words (Proverbs 10:19) and to avoid unnecessary conflict (1 Timothy 6:4).
“Right behavior” includes avoiding acts such as murder, theft, adultery, and so forth. The general principle guiding what is right vs. what is wrong is whether or not the act would bring harm to another person. Of course, the Bible gives a challenging approach to behavioral ethics (Matthew 7:12; 1 Corinthians 9:27), combining behavior with attitude under a single approach to morality and ethics (Matthew 5:21–22, 27–28). And the Bible’s standard for right vs. wrong is ultimately not whether it brings harm to another person but whether it contradicts God’s holy nature.
“Right livelihood” is similar to right behavior, but it is specifically focused on one’s occupation. According to this principle, one ought not cheat, lie, or participate in businesses that harm or abuse people. Because of Buddhist approaches to animal life and violence, this rule precludes any work involving slaughter of animals, selling of meats, or the manufacture or selling of weapons. According to the Bible, a person is to conduct all parts of his life, including business, with equal moral and ethical concern (Psalm 44:21; Romans 2:16; 2 Corinthians 4:2). God also expects us to be good stewards of nature (Leviticus 19:25; 25:2–5, Habakkuk 2:8, 17). However, the Bible does not prohibit the use of animals (Mark 7:19; Genesis 1:28) or legitimate means of self-defense (Luke 22:36).
The components of Right Effort, Right Awareness, and Right Meditation are sometimes known as the Concentration aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path.
“Right effort” requires a sense of persistence and caution in applying the other aspects of the Eightfold Path. It implies a drive to avoid pessimistic thinking and negative emotions such as anger. Once again, this presents a problem in that human nature is inclined to be selfish and lazy. Buddhism presents no particular means to change those aspects in a person who isn’t inclined to change them. The Bible speaks of God’s willingness and ability to change the heart, even when we’re resistant (2 Thessalonians 3:13; 1 Corinthians 6:11).
“Right awareness” is similar to right effort but focused more on internal mental and philosophical aspects. Buddhism encourages a high level of self-awareness, with special attention given to how a person responds to his experiences and environment. This type of mindfulness is centered on the present, with less emphasis on the past or future. Biblically, we are likewise called on to guard our thoughts and to be careful of how our surroundings affect our spiritual lives (1 Corinthians 15:33; 6:12).
“Right meditation” is a core practice of Buddhism, involving breathing, chanting, and other focusing techniques. The goal of this style of meditation is to empty the mind completely of everything but the object of concentration. The ultimate expression of this form of meditation is samadhi, when a person progresses through various reflective levels until he attains a state of complete non-perception and non-feeling. This represents another conflict with biblical teaching. The Bible applauds the concepts of meditation and reflection (Psalm 1:2; 119:15) but not with the goal of “emptying” the mind. Rather, the goal of Christian meditation is to focus on the truth of the Word of God. Biblically, meditation is the filling of the mind with God’s revealed Word.
In summary, there are some points of agreement between biblical Christianity and the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path. However, the many differences are both fundamental and irreconcilable. According to the Eightfold Path, a person who can’t pull himself up by his own bootstraps is simply out of luck. His only option is to hope that his desires, intentions, and efforts change on their own. The Bible explains that a person’s heart can’t be trusted to seek good in and of itself (Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 3:10–12; 7:18–24), but any heart can be changed through a relationship with Christ (Romans 7:25; Galatians 3:13).