Often to help understand the eight steps the Buddha taught, they are grouped into three categories. The first category is panna, [1] or wisdom.

  1. Right understanding
  2. Right thinking

Next comes the second category of sila, or ethics. This is similar to the yamas of the Yoga Sutra’s ashtanga. These three steps are:

  1. Right speech
  2. Right action
  3. Right livelihood

Finally the last three steps are called meditation, concentration, or samadhi.

  1. Right effort
  2. Right mindfulness
  3. Right concentration

You will find slight differences in the names assigned to these eight steps. This is due to the difficulty in precisely translating the Pali words into English. The Buddhist Bible by Dwight Goddard, for example, translates the second step of Right Intention as Right Mindedness and the seventh step of Right Mindfulness as Right Attentiveness.

These steps, like the eight limbs of the Yoga Sutra, are not meant to be done sequentially. One works toward all eight, almost in a spiraling manner. One way to understand the importance the Buddha assigned to these steps is with another story.

A man is holding a knife in his hand. He pushes the knife into a woman. She dies from the wound.

A simple and tragic tale; however, let us look deeper. The action is horrific, but what was the intention behind the action? If the man in the story is a thief, and the intent is to harm the woman, the action is indeed heinous. If the man is a surgeon, and he inserted the knife into the woman with the intent of saving her life, the action was tragically heroic. The intention is more important than the action. This is the flavor of Right Intention or Right Thinking.

Worse than wrong action is wrong speech. Worse than wrong speech is wrong thinking. Even if you refrain from acting out the thoughts in your mind, the harm is done just by the thought’s presence. It is the thought that counts! Put another way, if the thought never arises, there will be no need to watch for wrong speech or wrong action. It always comes back to how and what we think.

The cure for our suffering lies in the way we think. We need to train our minds to no longer cling to pleasure, and run away from pain. This doesn’t mean we avoid pleasure, or seek out pain, but rather that we treat both of these conditions equally. This is not easy, as we know. Just as the yogis have noticed that we must overcome the five kleshas, or afflictions, the Buddha also pointed out we needed to overcome five hindrances that get in our way of non-clinging and non-avoiding.

  1. — Or prajna in Sanskrit.