The Noble Eightfold Path is the Buddhist way of life that is intended for all people. This way of life is offered to all mankind without any distinction. If you understand the spirit of Buddhism correctly, you can surely follow and practise it while living the life of an ordinary man. It is certainly more praiseworthy and courageous to practise Buddhism living among fellow beings, helping them and offering service to them.
Right View or Right Understanding requires the disciple to be equipped with correct ideas about the world and the significance of life. No superstitions or delusions should mislead him; he must follow neither any person nor anything unquestioningly, sheep-like baaing in chorus, but he should satisfy himself, as far as he can judge that the doctrines he professes and the deeds he performs are good, wise and therefore, conducive to happiness. He must make full and free enquiry regarding everything that is put before him, but suspend final judgment till he knows the full facts. He should look straight at the facts of existence, unflinchingly, unprejudiced and unafraid and realize the universality of suffering. The Buddhist is not required to accept anything on faith, unless he does so of his own free will.
Right Resolve or Right Thought is the determination to foster noble aspiration and endeavour, to renounce sensual pleasures, to be freed from malice and ill-will, from all desire to inflict pain for whatsoever cause, and to cultivate a temper of kindness and benevolence.
Right Speech is abstention from every kind of falsehood, from backbiting and slander, from rude malicious and abusive language, from foolish talk and unworthy chatter and gossip.
Right Action ensures that the disciple's conduct shall be peaceful, honourable and pure; that he shall, above all, abstain from injury to any living thing, from appropriating to himself that which is not willingly given by its owner and from carnal indulgence.
Right livelihood is the abandonment of wrong occupations and getting one's living only by right methods. Five occupations are specially mentioned as bad: those of trader in weapons of war, butcher, slave-dealer, purveyor of poisons and purveyor of sex.
Right Endeavour or Right Effort demands assiduous self-discipline, the prevention of evil states of mind from arising, and the suppression of evil states that have arisen. Good states of mind not yet arisen must be produced, well-established, developed and brought to perfection. It consists not merely in the suppression of evil but also in making all the good things in one to grow, acquiring new aloofness, fostering and increasing it.
Great stress is laid on Right Mindfulness whereby the disciple is mindful not only of his body in all its actions, such as eating and drinking, sleeping and waking, talking and being silent, but also in watchfulness over his mind. It amounts to complete self-mastery by full awareness of what we do and see, think and feel, and allows nothing to happen needlessly or mechanically, and controls not merely our conscious doings but even those activities of the mind in which we generally regard the mind as being just receptive and passive.
The eighth and the last is Right Concentration which leads to mental equipoise and balance. The disciple's body and mind become permeated with a feeling of purity and peace; he can focus his mind to one point and apply all his mental powers to such great matters as he may select or he may revel in the enjoyment of supernatural powers, such as recalling his past births, or clairvoyance or clairaudience. But, what is really important is that he now realized the full significance of the four truths, of sufferings, its cause, its cessation and the way thereto. He also realizes the origin of the three great evils of love and pleasure, desire for continued existence and ignorance. Thus seeing and knowing, his heart is set free. The knowledge of this freedom fills him with joy. "Just as if in a mountain vastness there were to be a pool of water, clear, transparent and serene and a man standing on the bank with eyes to see should perceive therein the mussels and the shells and the gravels and the pebbles, and the shoals of fish as they move about in the water or live therein, even so the whole world and everything within it and the nature of life appears within the disciple's vision. He sees the truths and is full of serene joy, with intelligence alert and the conscious of freedom won and duty done."
It will be seen that the various divisions of the path are not mutually exclusive; also that it involves discipline of great severity, sustained energy, prolonged endeavour and unwearied patience. Not everyone can undertake to cover the whole Path in a few, short, sharp strides.
The Buddha recognized the frailty of human nature and the differences that exist among men in temperament and capability. He, therefore, indicated in his teachings how each one can, according to his swill and power, follow the Path in graduated stages. Those who cannot lead the perfect life, can at least practise the common virtues, the common duties of the good man, follow conduct that would ensure him happy re-birth, realizing at least in glimpses, the vanity of worldliness and the advantages of abandoning the sensual desire.
The Noble Eightfold Path has certain features that deserve special mention. It is not a divine revelation, but a way, discovered after long search and experiment. The goal is to be reached by earnest and incessant activity: mere belief can achieve nothing, nor prayer or sacrifice.