The Ninth Step of the Eightfold Path

It has often been noted that Vipassana is not found in the Noble Eightfold Path. For someone practicing Vipassana this is very curious. After all, we have been led to believe that Right Insight is the key ingredient to Buddhism, the unique contribution that the Buddha made. So why isn’t it there?

Various attempts over the years have been made to bodge it in there. It is sometimes explained that it is the FIRST step of the path: Right View. The arguement goes that everyday right view is just understanding the teaching on an intellectual level. Transcendent Right View is understanding those same teachings with the depth of insight. That sounds good. The only problem is that there is no support for this in the canon.

Sometimes Vipassana is explained as being Right Mindfulness. The idea here is that we carefully explore each of the foundations of mindfulness (Contemplation of the Body, Contemplation of Feelings, etc.), and this give rise to insight. Again, this sounds good, but it’s obviously trying to retrofit a modern understanding of how practice SHOULD work into an ancient list.

I find that when most people try to practice Vipassana right out of the gate, they might find some insight, but mostly what they reap is anxiety and more stress. As usual, I think that the better path is to look to the ancient teachings and take them as they come, not as we WISH they were. You have to understand two things for the Eightfold Path to make sense: 1.) it comes in order and 2.) there are actually 10 steps to the Eightfold Path.

 

IT COMES IN ORDER

Each step of the Eightfold Path builds on the previous step. It begins with Right Understanding. You have to learn a bit. That’s the beginning of practice. Read a book. Listen to an inspiring talk. Learn a sutta. You don’t have to learn everything right away, just enough to get started. Then comes Right Commitment. Now here’s where order becomes important. If your Commitment flags, go back to Step 1. Listen to an inspiring Podcast. Learn about a great figure from Buddhism. This will give you renewed energy to recommit to practice.

Next are the 3 steps of ethics: Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood. I admit, the order of these doesn’t seem to be important. They come as a group. But when you find yourself unable to control your lies, look back to the previous step. Practice to deepen your commitment.

Right Mental Qualities is the step that pivots toward meditation. It is useful all the time, but it is the key that leads to successful meditation. It is usually translated as Right Effort, but since it is the effort to achieve and maintain right mental qualities, I find this a more useful definition. This is the step that too many people skip when they are practicing meditation. Too many people want to go right to Right Mindfulness, but mindfulness is very difficult without the right mental qualities. How do you know that it’s the right time to pivot from Right Mental Qualities to Right Mindfulness? It’s when mindfulness is easy. When you can almost effortlessly rest your mind on your breath (or whatever your subject of meditation) without stress or anxiety.

Right Mindfulness is not carefully analyzing the aspects of your mind. Rather it is the process of becoming so completely absorbed in your subject of meditation that you slide quite peacefully (free from distractions, free of unwholesome mental qualities) into jhana. And the four jhanas themselves are Right Samadhi.

 

TEN STEPS

So where does “Vipassana” come into the picture. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, vipassana is not a practice (at least for the Buddha) but rather a state of mind that is perfected in jhana. Jhana strengthens peace (samatha) and clear seeing (vipassana). But then what?

It’s not well known, that the Noble Eightfold Path actually has 10 steps! It seems strange, but there you have it. In the Mahacattarisaka Sutta, for example, the Buddha lays out the traditional Eightfold Path, then gives the result of those eight steps as the final two. The  ninth step of the path is Right Insight and the Final step is Right Liberation. The final step is of course not a step but an arrival: Nibbana itself. But what to make of Right Insight? Right insight is clear seeing into the true nature of things. Like the other steps, it is a practice. Namely, you have to look. But now you are looking with the eyes of jhana. The Buddha calls fourth jhana the “perfection of mindfulness through equanimity.” The result of this kind of peace and clarity is insight.

Now, you may be saying, what does this have to do with practice? Just this: as with the other steps of the path, if you want to strengthen your insight, go to the previous step of the path: Right Samadhi. In order to achieve liberating insight, strengthen your jhana. But then, you already knew that, right?

If you want to read more about Vipassana, check out my series here: What Does Vipassanā Actually Mean? Part 1: Do we have it wrong?

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13 thoughts on “The Ninth Step of the Eightfold Path

  1. So , justin, am I understanding correctly : vipassana is not really a “form of meditation ” but rather a result of a stable mind that results in clear seeing? And this stable mind is the result of understanding, (view) commitment, effort to establish right mental qualities , ethics (speech action livilhood) and then one “pivots” the mind towards mindfulness … If I am practicing shamatha but my mind continues to be distracted during sitting (say 50%) of time what should I do, Would you explain the difference between Shamatha and right mindfulness or establishing right mental qualities. Thank you so much I know this is a lengthy question/response, moira

    1. Moira, Thanks so much for the comment! I to talk with others who are deeply interested in practice. Yes, vipassana is the clear seeing that is result of meditation practice. Likewise, samatha (shamatha) is the calm, stable, peaceful mind that is the result of that same practice. Samatha/vipassana are the result of practice, not practice itself and both must be developed for insight to arise. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you have to be perfected in either of these aspects to benefit! Even a little bit of calm or little bit of clear seeing can be transformative.

      As to your question about what to do if you are distracted 50% of the time: first, congratulations! 50% of meditation spent in peace is a tremendous achievement that should be an inspiration to you. 10 minutes of peace is more than most people experience in a day. And you are spot on about the path to strengthen your meditation: study, commitment, and ethics are the fundamental practices. Then it’s a matter of Right Effort. Right Effort is an array of practices meant to address whatever it is that is the source of distraction. What is keeping you from sitting in peace? Is it sleepiness? Anxiety? Hunger? Your answer to that question will tell you what you need to do. For me, the answer for some years was anxiety, and the best antidote was practicing contentment. Both in meditation and the rest of the day. Take time in your next meditation to explore what it is that is the biggest source of distraction. And let us know how it’s going!

      comes from a stable, calm, peaceful mind.

    2. watch your thoughts but do not engage with it. as you watch your thoughts you will see them for what they are and your mind will become still. There will come a time as you keep watching your thoughts when there will be no more thoughts.. be patient

    1. Good question! I actually don’t teach or practice Vipassana per se. Vipassana is a modernist form of Buddhism that includes meditation without jhana (deep states of calm). One does mindfulness of breathing (or whatever) and then notices the arising and passing away of phenomenon. If you want to try it or find it beneficial, great! But I find that for myself and most people, it’s important to balance this active, anxiety-producing practice with a deep ballast of meditative joy, contentment, and peace. Then this mind of peace will naturally (or at least more easily) see through the veils of ignorance.

  2. i just sat down and managed to get into a deep state of peacefullness. This state is there even when I am not meditating 24/7. In this state, understanding came to me its actually quite simple there was no method, steps or formula. we tend to over complicate things and the truth is lost in the over thinking

    1. Lovely! Like with music, some people are intuitive and love to feel their way around the instrument playing and making sounds without a lot of thought. Other prefer a more step-by-step approach. My two kids play the piano, and one does each. The important thing is to find the approach that works for you. I’m so glad your meditation is going well.

      1. If i am not mistaken the Buddha just sat down and got it so it could happen to him it can happen to everyone infact i think he got it as a child but he did not fully understand it at the time

      2. Yes, as a child he had an experience of first jhana. But he didn’t understand it. As an adult, he was taught jhana by his two teachers. With them he achieved “8th jhana”.

        Edit: The problem with his teachers is that they misunderstood the nature of jhana. Their wrong view got in the way of final liberation. But I think it’s worth noting that even the Buddha had teachers. Even the Buddha learned at the foot of a master. It is very rare (but possible!) that someone is truly self-enlightened. This is true in almost every field. There are master musicians that never learned from someone else, but it is vanishingly rare.

      3. These states that i get into cannot be described its like a tunnel with many exits each is different after going to it i know how to go back there its a very nice state and nothing in this external world can compare however in my view understanding who you r is more important and once you find the answer then you will understand a lot of things

      4. The metaphor of tunnels is a very good one. Another classical metaphor is a house with many rooms.

        In my experience these kinds of mind maps are less like riding a bicycle and more like playing a musical instrument. If you maintain your practice, you will retain the sense of the map. Some days will be stronger, and some will not. But if you stop practicing for a while, it can be very hard to get back to internally remember the maps. It’s good to have a steady practice!

        I hesitate with the statement about understanding who you are. As long as you understand it as a metaphor it could be valuable as well, but please don’t hold onto it too tightly. Instead perhaps look at what you are NOT.

      5. By the way yes the are 8 states but in each states are many other states its endless it is sad many people do not go far enough in their meditation

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