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The Buddhist Enlightened Path to Happiness and Meaning

Most of us want to attain happiness. Most of us seek out greater meaning in life through our personal relationships, workplace experiences, and life-long decisions, but, how do we achieve a higher level of well-being? What steps can we take to get there?

Ethics remains relevant to everyday life today because the fundamental issues involved in human interactions in society are the same no matter where or when people interact. A good place to start to understand what is meant by ethics is The Golden Rule. The Golden Rule tells us to: “Do unto others as you would wish them to do unto you. The Golden Rule is the underlying tenet of ethical behavior in most religions around the world.

Buddhism and the “Eightfold Path”

The notion that there is one standard of ethics that can be applied to all areas of life gains traction when we examine the Buddhist philosophy of the “Middle Way.” The Middle Way refers to the enlightened view of life and also the actions or attitudes that will create happiness for oneself and others. The search for the Middle Way can be considered a universal pursuit of all Buddhist traditions -- the quest for a way of life that would give the greatest value to human existence and help relieve the world of suffering.

Mahayana Buddhism stresses the ideal of enlightened individuals who are moved by compassion to save all sentient beings from sufferings. The Eightfold Path of Buddhism, also called the Middle Path or Middle Way, is the system of following eight steps to achieve spiritual enlightenment and cease suffering. The Eightfold Path includes:

Right understanding. The Four Noble Truths are noble and true. These truths deal with the truth of suffering, the cause of it, the end of suffering, and the true path that frees us from suffering.

Right thought. Recognizing the equality of life and compassion for all that life, beginning with yourself.

Right speech. By resolving never to speak unkindly, or in anger, a spirit of consideration evolves which moves us closer to everyday compassionate living.

Right action. Take the ethical approach in life, to consider others and the world we live in. Don’t take what is not given to you and respect promises to others.

Right livelihood. Reflects the correct action and the ethical principle of non-exploitation and respect for all life.

Right effort. Cultivating an enthusiasm and a positive attitude in a balanced way to foster wholeness.

Right mindfulness. Developing awareness of things, oneself, feelings, thought, people and reality.

Right concentration. Meditation; Establishing mindfulness and wholeness through modes of consciousness and awareness.

The Enlightened Path

The Eightfold Path is the means by which enlightenment can be realized. The Enlightened Path can be grouped into three categories.

Morality – right speech, right action, right effort.

Meditation – right mindfulness, right meditation.

Wisdom – right thought, right understanding.

An enlightened view of the self leads to compassion. The practice of love and compassion leads to wisdom. Wisdom leads one to surrender ego to be part of the larger self. Compassion is the natural outcome of enlightenment and wisdom.

The Eightfold Path includes what the ancient Greeks thought of as virtues, emphasizing the intellectual virtues as a pathway to compassion for others. Buddhism has a different conception of human nature from Aristotle, but, like him, it believes that it is from our human nature that our virtues and vices arise. The Middle Way is the path between two extremes, close to Aristotle’s idea of the “golden mean” whereby every virtue is a mean between two extremes, each of which is a vice. In Mahayana Buddhism, the search for happiness and meaning is through the middle path where moderation of behavior brings harmony to life.

The bottom line is we should avoid extreme behavior in life -- neither be overly harsh with others or act meekly and not express our point of view. We should seek out morality and wisdom and act thoughtfully towards others -- treat them like they are our brothers, sisters, parents and endearing friends. If all of us did that then perhaps the level of incivility in society would be reversed. The Buddhist “Middle Way” is a great place to start.

Dr. Steven Mintz is a Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

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