Unfolding the Eightfold Path: A Contemporary Zen Perspective

Unfolding the Eightfold Path: A Contemporary Zen Perspective documents the author’s study of the Fourth Noble Truth, from his first encounter as a young man, throughout his life as a Zen practitioner, and into his elderhood.

This work presents a unique interpretation of the dynamic nature of the “right” elements of right view, thought, effort, concentration, mindfulness, speech, action, and livelihood. Nine distinctive explanations for each of the categories explore an evolutionary view of their dynamic change from conceptual knowledge to liberating insight.



....Somewhere in the past, an unknown species of Homo became Homo sapiens through the discovery of the path to self-awareness. With self-awareness, the heretofore naïve sense of oneness was replaced with a greatly enhanced discernment of time and relationships. They also gained a capability to realize their true nature through the embodiment of wisdom. However, because human beings possess only the capability of embodying wisdom, not the certainty, we stand in a transitional state, exiled from the naïve, but not yet fully entrenched in the world of the aware. Resolving this transient situation demands unusual effort and commitment. [Negotiating the Eightfold Path], we move to the edge of the cliff of unknowing, accompanied by inconceivability and our ancestors’ undaunted spirit of exploration.


....“[In Buddhism] liberation is not of the self, but from the self.”

Francesca Fremantle in her book, Luminous Emptiness quoted in the passage above, succinctly defines the difference between Buddhist and other teachings. “Liberation of the self” presupposes that if one tries hard enough on the road of self-improvement, one would find freedom from suffering. Instead, Buddha taught that it is our understanding of the self that is the problem, and no amount of self-improvement leads to liberation.


The question of what constitutes authenticity of right livelihood in Zen has been around since its inception. Many attempts have been made over the centuries to clarify the question with uncertain results. In seventeenth-century Japan two contending views arose, each sponsored by notable teachers. Manzan Dohaku espoused that “transmission from master to disciple” as described in Dogen’s Face-to-face Transmission was authentic Dharma. Tenkei Denson advocated that the understanding of enlightenment – a profound grasp of the nature of reality – can arise under innumerable circumstances, and should take precedence over the master-disciple relationship.

In the world of administrative institutions, the debate is unsolvable. Yet each Zen practitioner individually confronts this two-sided issue. Is authenticity gained and verified by a teacher, or by self-validation in the encounter of the self with the living reality of awakening?

Perhaps the realization of the truth of this question resides in action. Master Hsing Yun says, “Sharing the dharma is the highest form of generosity.” In his view, authentic personhood is expressed in selfless service no matter how one comes to it.


Preface to Unfolding the Eightfold Path

When I was in my twenties, I came across my first book on Buddhism. It laid out the Four Noble Truths[i] in the conventional manner, ending with the Fourth Noble Truth of the Eightfold Path. I was left with an appreciation of the Buddha’s logical expression of his teaching, especially his systematic approach to the problem of suffering. However, in spite of the Buddha’s methodical strategy, the full implication of the Four Noble Truth’s importance escaped me at the time. I missed the way to apply the teaching, resulting in no practical outcome. Later, by other means, I became acquainted with the practice of Zen meditation and initiated a lifetime study with a series of teachers. An introspective analysis of the Four Noble Truths was left on the rear burner to simmer while I focused my effort on learning how to meditate. Thus, I, like many others, acquired the fundamentals of Buddhism through a hit-and-miss manner of attending Dharma talks, self-study, and absorbing insights from fellow practitioners.

Many years later I was invited to give a series of Dharma talks to a Buddhist group that was getting organized. Information on Zen flowed out with alacrity, but I soon recognized something more was required for many beginners. Where do you begin with newcomers? Of course it’s the Four Noble Truths, and especially the practicality of the Eightfold Path. My attempt to create a detailed guidebook showed me I lacked the ability to articulate what exactly the Four Noble Truths meant to me. This deficiency prompted several years of reflection and writing to establish a firm understanding of what my experience over the years actually included. This book is the result of that period of internal exploration.

A common accounting of the Eightfold Path consists of listing the eight elements – right view, right thought, right effort, right concentration, right mindfulness, right speech, right action, and right livelihood – and describing how they function. Many excellent renditions are available that provide an in-depth analysis of each element. Some of them acknowledge that maturity in practice earns a diligent practitioner a developed sense of the right elements. As a practitioner grows within the Dharma, the elements manifest in varying ways according to one’s level of experience. For example, the right view of the beginner is not the same as that of a practitioner of twenty years. This is true for all other elements as well.

The reflective examination of my years of practice revealed a number of stages or sections of the Eightfold Path that I had experienced. At the outset of my practice, I dealt with integrating the basic information and insights. The right elements defined themselves appropriately for that assortment of circumstances. As time went on, further efforts established observation and inquiry as central to my practice, resulting in a whole new set of “right” definitions. This pattern of change went on for forty years and produced a number of sets of right elements, each of which expressed a unique perspective particular to a unique stage of my spiritual development. As my practice matured and my understanding of the teaching deepened, I found that the first set of right elements was not replaced by the generation of the second set. Rather, the first set was incorporated into the second set and so on, producing, when viewed as a sum, a holographic image of how the right elements manifest, interact, and evolve in the course of a lifetime of practice.

The Fourth Noble Truth of the Eightfold Path exemplifies the practical means to directly experience the truth of the first three. The First, Second, and Third Noble Truths are vivid torches of Buddhist teaching. They are like a white light focused through a prism producing the colors of the rainbow from red to violet. However, the first three Noble Truths do not generate colors; they produce the array of the eight right elements.

Continuing with this metaphor, colors that emanate from a prism are not discrete; they blend from red to orange to yellow and so on without distinctive lines of demarcation. The right elements are similar. They are not separate functions, existing apart from each other. The boundary between the elements cannot be found. The prismatic colors are a wondrous continuous expression of light’s makeup; the right elements are equally descriptive in portraying the unique uninterrupted relationship from one element to the next. Practice over the years fleshed out for me the right elements from a set of concepts to an inclusive, complementary collection that includes foundational teachings, mature insights, and the linking stages in between.

During Zen practice, many of the perspectives encountered in Zen seem at cross-purposes or unrelated when viewed as independent occurrences. Yet, when reviewing their place in retrospect, entirely different meanings and associations become apparent. Reflecting on events from afar reminded me what space shuttle astronauts realized while orbiting above the vast expanse of the Eurasian continent. They observed lightening bolts produced by storms that were separated by vast distances. These bolts occurred with an unexpected synchronized timing, a viewpoint not perceivable by observers within the individual storms. The observers on the ground could not witness the immediate relationships of the widespread weather patterns. They assumed the individual storms they were observing acted independently. Without distance, the interconnections between the storms remained unknown. And so it is with many life events: they seem to stand on their own, but in truth many unseen interconnections exist. In the study of Zen, practice over a long period of time provides the means to unveil heretofore hidden aspects of seemingly disconnected life-long internal and external relationships.

The Eightfold Path, as presented here, offers a frame of reference similar to the astronauts viewing the relational synchronicity of apparently isolated lightening storms. The inherent interconnections of the various aspects of our lives come to be seen as intricately and positively related. Viewing these previously unnoticed or barely acknowledged relationships replaces old habits of thought with new understandings of intimate communications with the world of nature, other people, and, ultimately, the internal dialogue of Zen practice.