The eight branches of an arya pathway mind (‘phags-lam yan-lag brgyad, eightfold noble path) refer to eight aspects or features of an accustoming pathway mind (sgom-lam, path of meditation).
An accustoming pathway mind is the fourth of the five pathway minds (lam-lnga, five paths) that shravakas, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas progressively develop in the process of attaining liberation or enlightenment. With the third of these pathway minds, a seeing pathway mind (mthong-lam, path of seeing), such practitioners attain nonconceptual cognition of the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths and of either the lack of an impossible “soul” of persons (gang-zag-gi bdag-med, selflessness of persons) cognizing the sixteen or also of the lack of an impossible “soul” of all phenomena (chos-kyi bdag-med, selflessness of phenomena) encompassed by the sixteen. This attainment rids these practitioners of the doctrinally based disturbing emotions and attitudes (nyon-mongs kun-brtags) forever and they become aryas (‘phags-pa, noble ones), highly realized beings.
With an accustoming pathway mind, these aryas accustom themselves to this nonconceptual cognition and, in so doing, gradually rid themselves of all automatically arising disturbing emotions and attitudes (nyon-mongs lhan-skyes). If these aryas are bodhisattvas, they rid themselves of not only these emotional obscurations (nyon-sgrib), but the cognitive obscurations (shes-sgrib).
The eight branches of an arya pathway mind constitute one section of the thirty-seven factors leading to a purified state (byang-chub yan-lag so-bdun). There are three purified states (byang-chub, Skt. bodhi) – those of a shravaka arhat, a pratyekabuddha arhat, and a bodhisattva arhat or Buddha. Thus, the eight branches are practiced by both Hinayana and Mahayana aryas.
[For a list of the thirty-seven, see: The Four Close Placements of Mindfulness in Mahayana]
Here, we shall follow the Gelug Svatantrika presentation of the eight branches of an arya pathway mind as explained by Tsongkhapa in Golden Rosary of Excellent Explanations (Legs-bshad gser-phreng), his commentary on Maitreya’s Filigree of Realizations (mNgon-rtogs rgyan, Skt. Abhisamayalamkara).
The Eight Branches of an Accustoming Pathway Mind
The eight branches of an accustoming pathway mind are:
- Right view (yan-dag-pa’i lta-ba)
- Right thought (yan-dag-pa’i rtog-pa)
- Right speech (yan-dag-pa’i ngag)
- Right boundary of actions (yan-dag-pa’i las-kyi mtha’)
- Right livelihood (yan-dag-pa’i ‘tsho-ba)
- Right effort (yan-dag-pa’i rtsol-ba)
- Right mindfulness (yan-dag-pa’i dran-pa)
- Right absorbed concentration (yan-dag-pa’i ting-nge-‘dzin).
In Differentiating the Middle from Extremes (dBus-mtha’ rnam-‘byed, Skt. Madhyantavibhanga), Maitreya classifies these eight into four groups of branches:
- The branch that thoroughly cuts off (yong-su gcod-pa’i yan-lag)
- The branch that brings understanding (go-bar byed-pa’i yan-lag)
- The branches that generate confidence in others (gzhan yid-ches-par byed-pa’i yan-lag)
- The branches that serve as antidotes (gnyen-po’i yan-lag).
Let us present the eight branches in terms of these four groupings.
The Branch That Thoroughly Cuts Off
Right view is the branch that thoroughly cuts off. It refers to a correct realization of the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths and their lack of the two types of impossible “souls” that an arya maintains during subsequent attainment (rjes-thob, post-meditation) periods. The correct realization is like a footprint left by that arya’s previous nonconceptual cognition of these points with the total absorption (mnyam-bzhag, meditative equipoise) of a seeing pathway mind (mthong-lam, path of seeing).
- Subsequent attainment periods refer to times when such aryas are engaged in other meditations or in between meditation sessions.
Right view is known as the “branch that thoroughly cuts off” because, with it, an arya cuts off all indecisive wavering (the-tshoms, doubt) concerning the four noble truths and their lack of the two kinds of impossible “souls.” Indecisive wavering has only a doctrinally based (kun-brtags) form and thus is only a disturbing state of mind that a seeing pathway mind gets rids of (mthong-spang), it is not something that an accustoming pathway mind gets rid of (sgom-spang). Although a right view is a realization maintained during subsequent attainment periods of a seeing pathway mind, it is considered a feature of an accustoming pathway mind since, with it, an arya gains the ability to develop an accustoming pathway mind.
The Branch That Brings Understanding
Right thought is the branch that brings understanding. It refers to the motivating thought of an arya that wishes to explain Buddha’s texts to others in accord with the right view he or she has gained. The texts refer to Buddha’s scriptural teachings that present the four noble truths and their lack of the two types of impossible “souls.” Right thought also occurs only during periods of subsequent attainment.
Right thought is known as the “branch that brings understanding” because, with it, an arya brings to others an understanding of the right view that he or she has realized.
The Three Branches That Generate Confidence in Others
Right speech, right boundary of actions, and right livelihood are the three branches that generate confidence in others. They also occur only during subsequent attainment periods.
- Right speech refers to the speech of an arya that correctly explains the right view or, alternatively, to the speech of an arya that purifies away karmic impulses for destructive verbal acts such as lying.
- Right boundary of actions refers to the actions of an arya to refrain from destructive physical acts or, alternatively, to the actions of an arya that purify away karmic impulses for destructive physical acts such as killing.
- Right livelihood refers to the ways in which an arya procures the necessities of life, such as food and clothing, and which are free from a wrong means of livelihood. Such wrong livelihoods (log-‘tsho) are through dishonest or devious means, primarily of five major types. For example, in a monk or nun’s seeking alms or donations: using (1) contrived manners (tshul-'chos), (2) flattery (kha-gsag), (3) hints (gzhogs-slong), hinting that he or she needs something or that the potential patrons gave before in order to get them to give again, (4) blackmail (thob-kyi ‘jal-ba), extortion, (5) bribery (rnyes-pas rnyes-pa ‘tshol-ba), giving something small to gain something larger in return. Alternatively, right livelihood refers to ways of gaining a livelihood that purify away karmic impulses for such physical and verbal actions as using contrived manners to gain alms or donations.
According to the Svatantrika explanation, these three branches refer to states of realized awareness (mkhyen-pa) – that is, to mental states of an arya that have the strong intention to keep pure ethical discipline in terms of speech, physical actions, and livelihood. They do not refer to the actual physical or verbal actions or means of procuring a livelihood themselves. This is so because, according to this Indian tenet system, the arya pathway minds are all states of realized awareness. However, when these three are explained as practices done by ordinary beings, they refer to actual physical and verbal actions and means of livelihood.
Right speech, right boundary of actions, and right livelihood are known as the “branches that generate confidence in others” because, when others witness these three branches in aryas, it generates in them confidence in the purity of the arya’s right view, ethical discipline, and honesty and lack of greed in procuring the necessities of life.
The Three Branches That Serve as Antidotes
Right effort, right mindfulness, and right absorbed concentration are the three branches that serve as antidotes. They occur during periods of total absorption.
- Right effort refers to meditation on the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths and on their lack of the two kinds of impossible “souls,” over long periods of time, as an antidote to rid the mind of what an accustoming pathway mind gets rid of (sgom-spang, abandonments of the path of meditation). Right effort works to rid the mind of the unfavorable conditions of having automatically arising disturbing emotions and attitudes or of also having the cognitive obscurations.
- Right mindfulness refers to meditation on the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths and on their lack of the two kinds of impossible “souls” as an antidote to the obscurations that prevent a joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana (zhi-lhag zung-‘brel) – a stilled, settled, and exceptionally perceptive state of mind – from being manifest continuously, because of automatically arising flightiness of mind (rgod-pa) or mental dullness (bying-ba). Such mindfulness is attained through not forgetting the reasons for having shamatha, acceptance (rab-tu ‘dzin-pa) of one’s open admission of meditation faults, and emotional equilibrium (btang-snyoms).
- Right absorbed concentration (yan-dag-pa’i ting-nge-‘dzin) refers to meditation on the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths and on their lack of the two kinds of impossible “souls” as an antidote to the obscurations that prevent the attainment of special good qualities, such as the six types of advanced awareness (mngon-shes, extrasensory perception).
Right effort, right mindfulness, and right absorbed concentration are known as the “branches that serve as antidotes” because
- Right effort serves as an antidote to rid the mind forever of the root disturbing emotions and attitudes (rtsa-nyon) that an accustoming pathway mind gets rid of, namely the automatically arising ones.
- Right mindfulness serves as an antidote to rid the mind forever of the auxiliary disturbing emotions and attitudes (nye-nyon), such as flightiness of mind and mental dullness, that an accustoming pathway mind gets rid of, namely the automatically arising ones.
- Right absorbed concentration serves as an antidote to rid the mind forever of the obscurations regarding total absorption (mnyam-bzhag-gi sgrib-pa). Although this type of obscuration is not included as either an emotional or a cognitive obscuration, it would be implicitly included as a cognitive obscuration because it interferes with the attainment of omniscience.
The Eight Branches in Terms of the Practice of Ordinary Beings
The eight branches of an arya pathway mind can also be explained in terms of practices for ordinary beings that are similar in nature to these eight features of an accustoming pathway mind. They are classified in terms of the three higher trainings (lhag-pa’i bslab-pa gsum):
- Training in higher discriminating awareness (lhag-pa shes-rab-gyi bslab-pa)
- Training in higher ethical discipline (lhag-pa tshul-khrims-kyi bslab-pa)
- Training in higher absorbed concentration (lhag-pa ting-nge-‘dzin-gyi bslab-pa).
Training in Higher Discriminating Awareness
Included as part of the training in higher discriminating awareness are right view and right thought:
- Right view – an understanding similar to that of the four noble truths, namely an understanding of problems and suffering, their causes, the states of mind and modes of behavior that will eliminate them, and the potential to attain liberation from them
- Right thought – cultivating good intentions, marked by benevolence (phan-sems), not being cruel (rnam-par mi-‘tshe-ba, nonviolence), and emotional equilibrium (btang-snyoms).
Training in Higher Ethical Discipline
Included as part of the training in higher ethical discipline are right speech, right boundaries of action, and right livelihood:
- Right speech – speaking while refraining from the four destructive verbal actions: lying, speaking divisively, using harsh language, and speaking idle words. Such constructive speech entails speaking honestly, in a manner that fosters harmony, gently and kindly, and at the proper time, in the proper measure, and meaningfully.
- Right boundaries of action – physical actions of refraining from the three destructive physical actions: taking life, taking what has not been given, and inappropriate sexual behavior. Such constructive physical behavior includes preserving life, safeguarding others’ possessions, and engaging only in appropriate sexual behavior.
- Right livelihood – earning a living with an occupation that does not entail harming others. Harmful livelihoods include manufacturing or dealing in weapons, slaughtering animals, fishing, hunting, making or selling alcohol or intoxicating substances, operating a gambling casino, and so forth. By contrast, right livelihoods entail occupations that are honest and benefit society, such as medicine, social work, and fair commerce.
Training in Higher Absorbed Concentration
Included as part of the training in higher absorbed concentration are right effort, right mindfulness, and right absorbed concentration…
- Right effort – effort to direct the energies away from harmful, destructive thoughts and toward the development of beneficial qualities instead
- Right mindfulness – the four close placement of mindfulness (dran-pa nyer-bzhag) on the body, feelings of levels of happiness, the mind, and phenomena
- Right absorbed concentration – gradually developing meditative abilities through daily meditation practice.