Noble Eightfold Path
The Eightfold Path consists of eight practices: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi (‘meditative absorption or union’). In early Buddhism, these practices started with understanding that the body-mind works in a corrupted way (right view), followed by entering the Buddhist path of self-observance, self-restraint, and cultivating kindness and compassion; and culminating in dhyana or samadhi, which re-inforces these practices for the development of the body-mind. In later Buddhism, insight (Prajñā) became the central soteriological instrument, leading to a different concept and structure of the path, in which the “goal” of the Buddhist path came to be specified as ending ignorance and rebirth.
The Noble Eightfold Path is one of the principal teachings of Theravada Buddhism, taught to lead to Arhatship. In the Theravada tradition, this path is also summarized as sila (morality), samadhi (meditation) and prajna (insight). In Mahayana Buddhism, this path is contrasted with the Bodhisattva path, which is believed to go beyond Arahatship to full Buddhahood.
In Buddhist symbolism, the Noble Eightfold Path is often represented by means of the dharma wheel (dharmachakra), in which its eight spokes represent the eight elements of the path.
Etymology and nomenclature
The Pali term ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo (arya astanga marga) is typically translated in English as “Noble Eightfold Path“. This translation is a convention started by the early translators of Buddhist texts into English, just like ariya sacca is translated as Four Noble Truths. However, the phrase does not mean the path is noble, rather that the path is of the noble people (arya meaning ‘enlightened, noble, precious people’). The term maggo (marga) means “path”, while aṭṭhaṅgiko means “eightfold”. Thus, an alternate rendering of ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo is “eightfold path of the noble ones”, or “eightfold Aryan Path”.
All eight elements of the Path begin with the word samyañc (in Sanskrit) or sammā (in Pāli) which means “right, proper, as it ought to be, best”. The Buddhist texts contrast samma with its opposite miccha.
The Eightfold Path
See also: Buddhist paths to awakening
According to Indologist Tilmann Vetter, the description of the Buddhist path may initially have been as simple as the term the middle way. In time, this short description was elaborated, resulting in the description of the eightfold path. Tilmann Vetter and historian Rod Bucknell both note that longer descriptions of “the path” can be found in the early texts, which can be condensed into the eightfold path.
The Eight Divisions
The eight Buddhist practices in the Noble Eightfold Path are:
- Right View: our actions have consequences, death is not the end, and our actions and beliefs have consequences after death. The Buddha followed and taught a successful path out of this world and the other world (heaven and underworld/hell). Later on, right view came to explicitly include karma and rebirth, and the importance of the Four Noble Truths, when “insight” became central to Buddhist soteriology.
- Right Resolve or Intention: the giving up home and adopting the life of a religious mendicant in order to follow the path; this concept aims at peaceful renunciation, into an environment of non-sensuality, non-ill-will (to loving kindness), away from cruelty (to compassion). Such an environment aids contemplation of impermanence, suffering, and non-Self.
- Right Speech: no lying, no rude speech, no telling one person what another says about him.
- Right Conduct or Action: no killing or injuring, no taking what is not given, no sexual acts, no material desires.
- Right Livelihood: beg to feed, only possessing what is essential to sustain life;
- Right Effort: preventing the arising of unwholesome states, and generating wholesome states, the bojjhagā (seven factors of awakening). This includes indriya-samvara, “guarding the sense-doors,” restraint of the sense faculties.
- Right Mindfulness (sati; Satipatthana; Sampajañña): “retention,” being mindful of the dhammas (“teachings,” “elements”) that are beneficial to the Buddhist path. In the vipassana movement, sati is interpreted as “bare attention”: never be absent minded, being conscious of what one is doing; this encourages the awareness of the impermanence of body, feeling and mind, as well as to experience the five aggregates (skandhas), the five hindrances, the four True Realities and seven factors of awakening.
- Right samadhi (Passaddhi; Ekaggata; sampasadana): practicing four stages of dhyāna (“meditation”), which includes samadhi proper in the second stage, and reinforces the development of the bojjhagā, culminating into upekkha (equanimity) and mindfulness. In the Theravada tradition and the Vipassana movement, this is interpreted as ekaggata, concentration or one-pointedness of the mind, and supplemented with Vipassana-meditation, which aims at insight.
Following the Noble Eightfold Path leads to liberation in the form of nirvana:
(…) Just this noble eightfold path: right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. That is the ancient path, the ancient road, traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times. I followed that path. Following it, I came to direct knowledge of aging & death, direct knowledge of the origination of aging & death, direct knowledge of the cessation of aging & death, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of aging & death. I followed that path. Following it, I came to direct knowledge of birth… becoming… clinging… craving… feeling… contact… the six sense media… name-&-form… consciousness, direct knowledge of the origination of consciousness, direct knowledge of the cessation of consciousness, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of consciousness. I followed that path.— The Buddha, Nagara Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya ii.124, Translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
The Noble Eightfold Path is sometimes divided into three basic divisions, as follows:
|Division||Eightfold Path factors|
|Moral virtue (śīla, Pāli: sīla)||3. Right speech|
|4. Right action|
|5. Right livelihood|
|Meditation (Sanskrit and Pāli: samādhi)||6. Right effort|
|7. Right mindfulness|
|8. Right concentration|
|Insight, wisdom (prajñā, Pāli: paññā)||1. Right view|
|2. Right resolve|
This order is a later development, when discriminating insight (prajna) became central to Buddhist soteriology, and came to be regarded as the culmination of the Buddhist path. Yet, Majjhima Nikaya 117, Mahācattārīsaka Sutta, describes the first seven practices as requisites for right samadhi. According to Vetter, this may have been the original soteriological practice in early Buddhism.
“Moral virtues” (śīla, Pāli: sīla) group consists of three paths: right speech, right action and right livelihood. The word śīla though translated by English writers as linked to “morals or ethics”, states Bhikkhu Bodhi, is in ancient and medieval Buddhist commentary tradition closer to the concept of discipline and disposition that “leads to harmony at several levels – social, psychological, karmic and contemplative”. Such harmony creates an environment to pursue the meditative steps in the Noble Eightfold Path by reducing social disorder, preventing inner conflict that result from transgressions, favoring future karma-triggered movement through better rebirths, and purifying the mind.
The meditation group (“samadhi”) of the path progresses from moral restraints to training the mind. Right effort and mindfulness calm the mind-body complex, releasing unwholesome states and habitual patterns and encouraging the development of wholesome states and non-automatic responses, the bojjhagā (seven factors of awakening). The practice of dhyana reinforces these developments, leading to upekkha (equanimity) and mindfulness. According to the Theravada commentarial tradition and the contemporary Vipassana movement, the goal in this group of the Noble Eightfold Path is to develop clarity and insight into the nature of reality – dukkha, anicca and anatta, discard negative states and dispel avidya (ignorance), ultimately attaining nirvana.
In the threefold division, prajna (insight, wisdom) is presented as the culmination of the path, whereas in the eightfold division the path starts with correct knowledge or insight, which is needed to understand why this path should be followed.
In the Mahācattārīsaka Sutta which appears in the Chinese and Pali canons, the Buddha explains that cultivation of the noble eightfold path of a learner leads to the development of two further paths of the Arahants, which are right knowledge, or insight (sammā-ñāṇa), and right liberation, or release (sammā-vimutti). These two factors fall under the category of wisdom (paññā).
The Noble Eightfold Path, in the Buddhist traditions, is the direct means to nirvana and brings a release from the cycle of life and death in the realms of samsara.
See also: View (Buddhism)
“Right view” (samyak-dṛṣṭi / sammā-diṭṭhi) or “right understanding” explicates that our actions have consequences, that death is not the end, that our actions and beliefs also have consequences after death, and that the Buddha followed and taught a successful path out of this world and the other world (heaven and underworld or hell). Majjhima Nikaya 117, Mahācattārīsaka Sutta, a text from the Pāli Canon, describes the first seven practices as requisites of right samadhi, starting with right view:
Of those, right view is the forerunner […] And what is the right view with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions? ‘There is what is given, what is offered, what is sacrificed. There are fruits, and results of good and bad actions. There is this world and the next world. There is mother and father. There are spontaneously reborn beings; there are contemplatives and brahmans who faring rightly and practicing rightly, proclaim this world and the next after having directly known and realized it for themselves.’ This is the right view with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions.
Later on, right view came to explicitly include karma and rebirth, and the importance of the Four Noble Truths, when “insight” became central to Buddhist soteriology. This presentation of right view still plays an essential role in Theravada Buddhism.
The purpose of right view is to clear one’s path from confusion, misunderstanding, and deluded thinking. It is a means to gain right understanding of reality. In the interpretation of some Buddhist movements, state Religion Studies scholar George Chryssides and author Margaret Wilkins, right view is non-view: as the enlightened become aware that nothing can be expressed in fixed conceptual terms and rigid, dogmatic clinging to concepts is discarded.
Right View can be further subdivided, states translator Bhikkhu Bodhi, into mundane right view and superior or supramundane right view:
- Mundane right view, knowledge of the fruits of good behavior. Having this type of view will bring merit and will support the favourable rebirth of the sentient being in the realm of samsara.
- Supramundane (world-transcending) right view, the understanding of karma and rebirth, as implicated in the Four Noble Truths, leading to awakening and liberation from rebirths and associated dukkha in the realms of samsara.
According to Theravada Buddhism, mundane right view is a teaching that is suitable for lay followers, while supramundane right view, which requires a deeper understanding, is suitable for monastics. Mundane and supramundane right view involve accepting the following doctrines of Buddhism:
- Karma: Every action of body, speech, and mind has karmic results, and influences the kind of future rebirths and realms a being enters into.
- Three marks of existence: everything, whether physical or mental, is impermanent (anicca), a source of suffering (dukkha), and lacks a self (anatta).
- The Four Noble Truths are a means to gaining insights and ending dukkha.
Right resolve (samyak-saṃkalpa / sammā saṅkappa) can also be known as “right thought”, “right intention”, or “right aspiration”. In this factor, the practitioner resolves to leave home, renounce the worldly life and dedicate himself to an ascetic pursuit. In section III.248, the Majjhima Nikaya states,
And what is right resolve? Being resolved on renunciation, on freedom from ill will, on harmlessness: This is called right resolve.
Like right view, this factor has two levels. At the mundane level, the resolve includes being harmless (ahimsa) and refraining from ill will (avyabadha) to any being, as this accrues karma and leads to rebirth. At the supramundane level, the factor includes a resolve to consider everything and everyone as impermanent, a source of suffering and without a Self.
Right speech (samyag-vāc / sammā-vācā) in most Buddhist texts is presented as four abstentions, such as in the Pali Canon thus:
And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter: This is called right speech.
Instead of the usual “abstention and refraining from wrong” terminology, a few texts such as the Samaññaphala Sutta and Kevata Sutta in Digha Nikaya explain this virtue in an active sense, after stating it in the form of an abstention. For example, Samaññaphala Sutta states that a part of a monk’s virtue is that “he abstains from false speech. He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world.” Similarly, the virtue of abstaining from divisive speech is explained as delighting in creating concord. The virtue of abstaining from abusive speech is explained in this Sutta to include affectionate and polite speech that is pleasing to people. The virtue of abstaining from idle chatter is explained as speaking what is connected with the Dhamma goal of his liberation.
In the Abhaya-raja-kumara Sutta, the Buddha explains the virtue of right speech in different scenarios, based on its truth value, utility value and emotive content. The Tathagata, states Abhaya Sutta, never speaks anything that is unfactual or factual, untrue or true, disagreeable or agreeable, if that is unbeneficial and unconnected to his goals. Further, adds Abhaya Sutta, the Tathagata speaks the factual, the true, if in case it is disagreeable and unendearing, only if it is beneficial to his goals, but with a sense of proper time. Additionally, adds Abhaya Sutta, the Tathagata, only speaks with a sense of proper time even when what he speaks is the factual, the true, the agreeable, the endearing and what is beneficial to his goals.
The Buddha thus explains right speech in the Pali Canon, according to Ganeri, as never speaking something that is not beneficial; and, only speaking what is true and beneficial, “when the circumstances are right, whether they are welcome or not”.
Right action (samyak-karmānta / sammā-kammanta) is like right speech, expressed as abstentions but in terms of bodily action. In the Pali Canon, this path factor is stated as:
And what is right action? Abstaining from killing, abstaining from stealing, abstaining from sexual misconduct. This is called right action.
The prohibition on killing precept in Buddhist scriptures applies to all living beings, states Christopher Gowans, not just human beings. Bhikkhu Bodhi agrees, clarifying that the more accurate rendering of the Pali canon is a prohibition on “taking life of any sentient being”, which includes human beings, animals, birds, insects but excludes plants because they are not considered sentient beings. Further, adds Bodhi, this precept refers to intentional killing, as well as any form of intentional harming or torturing any sentient being.This moral virtue in early Buddhist texts, both in context of harm or killing of animals and human beings, is similar to ahimsa precepts found in the texts particularly of Jainism as well as of Hinduism, and has been a subject of significant debate in various Buddhist traditions.
The prohibition on stealing in the Pali Canon is an abstention from intentionally taking what is not voluntarily offered by the person to whom that property belongs. This includes, states Bhikkhu Bodhi, taking by stealth, by force, by fraud or by deceit. Both the intention and the act matters, as this precept is grounded on the impact on one’s karma.
The prohibition on sexual misconduct in the Noble Eightfold Path, states Tilmann Vetter, refers to “not performing sexual acts”. This virtue is more generically explained in the Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta, which teaches that one must abstain from all sensual misconduct, including getting sexually involved with someone unmarried (anyone protected by parents or by guardians or by siblings), and someone married (protected by husband), and someone betrothed to another person, and female convicts or by dhamma.
For monastics, the abstention from sensual misconduct means strict celibacy, states Christopher Gowans, while for lay Buddhists this prohibits adultery as well as other forms of sensual misconduct. Later Buddhist texts, states Bhikkhu Bodhi, state that the prohibition on sexual conduct for lay Buddhists includes any sexual involvement with someone married, a girl or woman protected by her parents or relatives, and someone prohibited by dhamma conventions (such as relatives, nuns and others).
Right livelihood (samyag-ājīva / sammā-ājīva) precept is mentioned in many early Buddhist texts, such as the Mahācattārīsaka Sutta in Majjhima Nikaya as follows:
“And what is right livelihood? Right livelihood, I tell you, is of two sorts: There is right livelihood with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions; there is right livelihood that is noble, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path.
“And what is the right livelihood with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions? There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones abandons wrong livelihood and maintains his life with right livelihood. This is the right livelihood with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions.
“And what is the right livelihood that is noble, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path? The abstaining, desisting, abstinence, avoidance of wrong livelihood in one developing the noble path whose mind is noble, whose mind is without effluents, who is fully possessed of the noble path. (…)
The early canonical texts state right livelihood as avoiding and abstaining from wrong livelihood. This virtue is further explained in Buddhist texts, states Vetter, as “living from begging, but not accepting everything and not possessing more than is strictly necessary”. For lay Buddhists, states Harvey, this precept requires that the livelihood avoid causing suffering to sentient beings by cheating them, or harming or killing them in any way.
The Anguttara Nikaya III.208, states Harvey, asserts that the right livelihood does not trade in weapons, living beings, meat, alcoholic drink or poison. The same text, in section V.177, asserts that this applies to lay Buddhists. This has meant, states Harvey, that raising and trading cattle livestock for slaughter is a breach of “right livelihood” precept in the Buddhist tradition, and Buddhist countries lack the mass slaughter houses found in Western countries.
Right effort (samyag-vyāyāma / sammā-vāyāma) is preventing the arising of unwholesome states, and the generation of wholesome states. This includes indriya-samvara, “guarding the sense-doors,” restraint of the sense faculties. Right effort presented in the Pali Canon, such as the Sacca-vibhanga Sutta as follows:
And what is right effort?
Here the monk arouses his will, puts forth effort, generates energy, exerts his mind, and strives to prevent the arising of evil and unwholesome mental states that have not yet arisen.
He arouses his will… and strives to eliminate evil and unwholesome mental states that have already arisen. He arouses his will… and strives to generate wholesome mental states that have not yet arisen.
He arouses his will, puts forth effort, generates energy, exerts his mind, and strives to maintain wholesome mental states that have already arisen, to keep them free of delusion, to develop, increase, cultivate, and perfect them.
This is called right effort.
The unwholesome states (akusala) are described in the Buddhist texts, as those relating to thoughts, emotions, intentions, and these include pancanivarana (five hindrances) – sensual thoughts, doubts about the path, restlessness, drowsiness, and ill will of any kind. Of these, the Buddhist traditions consider sensual thoughts and ill will needing more right effort. Sensual desire that must be eliminated by effort includes anything related to sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch. This is to be done by restraint of the sense faculties (indriya-samvara). Ill will that must be eliminated by effort includes any form of aversion including hatred, anger, resentment towards anything or anyone.
In the vipassana movement, mindfulness (samyak-smṛti / sammā-sati) is interpreted as “bare attention”: never be absent minded, being conscious of what one is doing. Yet, originally it has the meaning of “retention,” being mindfull of the dhammas (“teachings,” “elements”) that are beneficial to the Buddhist path. According to Frauwallner, mindfulness was a means to prevent the arising of craving, which resulted simply from contact between the senses and their objects. According to Frauwallner this may have been the Buddha’s original idea. According to Trainor, mindfulness aids one not to crave and cling to any transitory state or thing, by complete and constant awareness of phenomena as impermanent, suffering and without self.
The Satipatthana Sutta describes the contemplation of four domains, namely body, feelings, mind and phenomena. The Satipatthana Sutta is regarded by the Vipassana movement as the quintessential text on Buddhist meditation, taking cues from it on “bare attention” and the contemplation on the observed phenomena as dukkha, anatta and anicca. According to Grzegorz Polak, the four upassanā have been misunderstood by the developing Buddhist tradition, including Theravada, to refer to four different foundations. According to Polak, the four upassanā do not refer to four different foundations of which one should be aware, but are an alternate description of the jhanas, describing how the samskharas are tranquilized:
- the six sense-bases which one needs to be aware of (kāyānupassanā);
- contemplation on vedanās, which arise with the contact between the senses and their objects (vedanānupassanā);
- the altered states of mind to which this practice leads (cittānupassanā);
- the development from the five hindrances to the seven factors of enlightenment (dhammānupassanā).
Rupert Gethin notes that the contemporary Vipassana movement interprets the Satipatthana Sutta as “describing a pure form of insight (vipassanā) meditation” for which samatha (calm) and jhāna are not necessary. Yet, in pre-sectarian Buddhism, the establishment of mindfulness was placed before the practice of the jhanas, and associated with the abandonment of the five hindrances and the entry into the first jhana.
The dhyāna-scheme describes mindfulness also as appearing in the third and fourth dhyana, after initial concentration of the mind. Gombrich and Wynne note that, while the second jhana denotes a state of absorption, in the third and fourth jhana one comes out of this absorption, being mindfully awareness of objects while being indifferent to them. According to Gombrich, “the later tradition has falsified the jhana by classifying them as the quintessence of the concentrated, calming kind of meditation, ignoring the other – and indeed higher – element.
Main article: Dhyāna in Buddhism
Samadhi (samyak-samādhi / sammā-samādhi) is a common practice in Indian religions. The term samadhi derives from the root sam-a-dha, which means ‘to collect’ or ‘bring together’, and thus it is often translated as ‘concentration’ or ‘unification of mind’. In the early Buddhist texts, samadhi is also associated with the term “samatha” (calm abiding). In the suttas, samadhi is defined as one-pointedness of mind (Cittass’ekaggatā). Buddhagosa defines samadhi as “the centering of consciousness and consciousness concomitants evenly and rightly on a single object…the state in virtue of which consciousness and its concomitants remain evenly and rightly on a single object, undistracted and unscattered.”
According to Bhikkhu Bodhi, the right concentration factor is reaching a one-pointedness of mind and unifying all mental factors, but it is not the same as “a gourmet sitting down to a meal, or a soldier on the battlefield” who also experience one-pointed concentration.The difference is that the latter have a one-pointed object in focus with complete awareness directed to that object – the meal or the target, respectively. In contrast, right concentration meditative factor in Buddhism is a state of awareness without any object or subject, and ultimately unto nothingness and emptiness.
Bronkhorst notes that neither the Four Noble Truths nor the Noble Eightfold Path discourse provide details of right samadhi. The explanation is to be found in the Canonical texts of Buddhism, in several Suttas, such as the following in Saccavibhanga Sutta:
And what is right concentration?
[i] Here, the monk, detached from sense-desires, detached from unwholesome states, enters and remains in the first jhana (level of concentration, dhyāna), in which there is applied and sustained thinking, together with joy and pleasure born of detachment;
[ii] And through the subsiding of applied and sustained thinking, with the gaining of inner stillness and oneness of mind, he enters and remains in the second jhana, which is without applied and sustained thinking, and in which there are joy and pleasure born of concentration;
[iii] And through the fading of joy, he remains equanimous, mindful and aware, and he experiences in his body the pleasure of which the Noble Ones say: “equanimous, mindful and dwelling in pleasure”, and thus he enters and remains in the third jhana;
[iv] And through the giving up of pleasure and pain, and through the previous disappearance of happiness and sadness, he enters and remains in the fourth jhana, which is without pleasure and pain, and in which there is pure equanimity and mindfulness.
This is called right concentration.
Bronkhorst has questioned the historicity and chronology of the description of the four jhanas. Bronkhorst states that this path may be similar to what the Buddha taught, but the details and the form of the description of the jhanas in particular, and possibly other factors, is likely the work of later scholasticism. Bronkhorst notes that description of the third jhana cannot have been formulated by the Buddha, since it includes the phrase “Noble Ones say”, quoting earlier Buddhists, indicating it was formulated by later Buddists. It is likely that later Buddhist scholars incorporated this, then attributed the details and the path, particularly the insights at the time of liberation, to have been discovered by the Buddha.
Although often translated as “concentration,” as in the limiting of the attention of the mind on one object, in the fourth dhyana “equanimity and mindfulness remain,” and the practice of concentration-meditation may well have been incorporated from non-Buddhist traditions. Vetter notes that samadhi consists of the four stages of dhyana meditation, but
…to put it more accurately, the first dhyana seems to provide, after some time, a state of strong concentration, from which the other stages come forth; the second stage is called samadhija.
Gombrich and Wynne note that, while the second jhana denotes a state of absorption, in the third and fourth jhana one comes out of this absorption, being mindfully awareness of objects while being indifferent to it. According to Gombrich, “the later tradition has falsified the jhana by classifying them as the quintessence of the concentrated, calming kind of meditation, ignoring the other – and indeed higher – element.
Order of practice
Vetter notes that originally the path culminated in the practice of dhyana/samadhi as the core soteriological practice. According to the Pali and Chinese canon, the samadhi state (right concentration) is dependent on the development of preceding path factors:
The Blessed One said: “Now what, monks, is noble right concentration with its supports and requisite conditions? Any singleness of mind equipped with these seven factors — right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, and right mindfulness — is called noble right concentration with its supports and requisite conditions.— Maha-cattarisaka Sutta
According to the discourses, right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, and right mindfulness are used as the support and requisite conditions for the practice of right concentration. Understanding of the right view is the preliminary role, and is also the forerunner of the entire Noble Eightfold Path.
According to the modern Theravada bhikkhu (monk) and scholar Walpola Rahula, the divisions of the noble eightfold path “are to be developed more or less simultaneously, as far as possible according to the capacity of each individual. They are all linked together and each helps the cultivation of the others.” Bhikkhu Bodhi explains that these factors are not sequential, but components, and “with a certain degree of progress all eight factors can be present simultaneously, each supporting the others. However, until that point is reached, some sequence in the unfolding of the path is inevitable.”
The stage in the Path where there is no more learning in Yogachara Abhidharma, state Buswell and Gimello, is identical to Nirvana or Buddhahood, the ultimate goal in Buddhism.
According to Bernard Faure, the ancient and medieval Buddhist texts and traditions, like other religions, were almost always unfavorable or discriminatory against women, in terms of their ability to pursue Noble Eightfold Path, attain Buddhahood and nirvana. This issue of presumptions about the “female religious experience” is found in Indian texts, in translations into non-Indian languages, and in regional non-Indian commentaries written in East Asian kingdoms such as those in China, Japan and southeast Asia. Yet, like other Indian religions, exceptions and veneration of females is found in Indian Buddhist texts, and female Buddhist deities are likewise described in positive terms and with reverence. Nevertheless, females are seen as polluted with menstruation, sexual intercourse, death and childbirth. Rebirth as a woman is seen in the Buddhist texts as a result of part of past karma, and inferior than that of a man.
In some Chinese and Japanese Buddhist texts, the status of female deities are not presented positively, unlike the Indian tradition, states Faure. In the Huangshinu dui Jingang (Woman Huang explicates the Diamond Sutra), a woman admonishes her husband about he slaughtering animals, who attacks her gender and her past karma, implying that “women go to hell” not because of her intentions nor actions (kamma), but simply because of the biology of her gender and the bodily functions over which she has no choice. Similar discriminatory presumptions are found in other Buddhist texts such as the Blood Bowl Sutra and the Longer Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra. In the Five Obstacles theory of Buddhism, a woman is required to attain rebirth as a man before she can adequately pursue the Eightfold Path and reach perfect Buddhahood. The Lotus Sutra similarly presents the story of the Dragon King’s daughter, who desires to achieve perfect enlightenment. The Sutra states that, “Her female organs vanished, the male organs became visible, then she appeared as a bodhisattva”.
Gender discrimination worsened during the medieval era in various sub-traditions of Buddhism that independently developed regionally, such as in Japan.
Some scholars, such as Kenneth Doo Young Lee, interpret the Lotus Sutra to imply that “women were capable of gaining salvation”, either after they first turned into a man, or being reborn in Pure Land realm after following the Path. Peter Harvey lists many Sutrasthat suggest “having faded out the mind-set of a woman and developed the mind-set of a man, he was born in his present male form”, and who then proceeds to follow the Path and became an Arahant. Among Mahayana texts, there is a sutra dedicated to the concept of how a person might be born as a woman. The traditional assertion is that women are more prone to harboring feelings of greed, hatred and delusion than a man. The Buddha responds to this assumption by teaching the method of moral development through which a woman can achieve rebirth as a man.
According to Wei-Yi Cheng, the Pali Canon is silent about women’s inferior karma, but have statements and stories that mention the Eightfold Path while advocating female subordination. For example, a goddess reborn in the heavenly realm asserts:
When I was born a human being among men I was a daughter-in-law in a wealthy family. I was without anger, obedient to my husband, diligent on the Observance (days). When I was born a human being, young and innocent, with a mind of faith, I delighted my lord. By day and by night I acted to please. Of old (…). On the fourteenth, fifteenth and eighth (days) of the bright fortnight and on a special day of the fortnight well connected with the eightfold (precepts) I observed the Observance day with a mind of faith, was one who was faring according to Dhamma with zeal in my heart…— Vimanavatthu III.3.31, Wei-Yi Cheng
Such examples, states Wei-Yi Cheng, include conflating statements about spiritual practice (Eightfold Path, Dhamma) and “obedience to my husband” and “by day and by night I acted to please”, thus implying unquestioned obedience of male authority and female subjugation. Such statements are not isolated, but common, such as in section II.13 of the Petavatthu which teaches that a woman had to “put away the thoughts of a woman” as she pursued the Path and this merit obtained her a better rebirth; the Jataka stories of the Pali Canon have numerous such stories, as do the Chinese Sutta that assert “undesirability of womanhood”. Modern Buddhist nuns have applied Buddhist doctrines such as Pratītyasamutpāda to explain their disagreement with women’s inferior karma in past lives as implied in Samyutta Nikaya 13, states Wei-Yi Cheng, while asserting that the Path can be practiced by either gender and “both men and women can become arhant”.
The noble eightfold path has been compared to cognitive psychology, wherein states Gil Fronsdal, the right view factor can be interpreted to mean how one’s mind views the world, and how that leads to patterns of thought, intention and actions. In contrast, Peter Randall states that it is the seventh factor or right mindfulness that may be thought in terms of cognitive psychology, wherein the change in thought and behavior are linked.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia