On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

May 06, 2013

Eight Means to Enlightenment

Dogen (1200-1253)

All the various past Buddhas were enlightened beings. Their great enlightenment is attributed to their having mastered the eight means to nirvana as human beings. These eight means were clarified by the Buddha Shakyamuni himself in his final teaching before he entered parinirvana.

The first of these “means” is freedom from greed. This results in freedom from the five desires. The Buddha said, “Monks! People with unlimited desires, seeking only the rewards of fame and fortune, will suffer greatly. On the other hand, those with few wants are relieved of suffering and accumulate much merit and virtue. We should know this.

“Unaffected by greed, those in the latter category are neither slaves to the wishes of others nor of their own five sense organs. They gain clarity and quiescence of mind and will unquestionably attain nirvana.”

The second “means” is satisfaction. That is to say to be fully quenched by whatever one is given. The Buddha said, “Monks! Maintain awareness of satisfaction for this results in relief from suffering, a pacified mind and good fortune. Truly satisfied people are content even when they just sleep on the ground. The unsatisfied, on the other hand, show discontent even in a luxurious home.

Generally, the latter kind of person is thought rich and the former poor. In reality, however, the reverse is true. Satisfied people pity the unsatisfied, for the latter are slaves to the five desires. This is the meaning of satisfaction.”

The third “means” is to enjoy serenity. This means to live in solitude, away from the world of suffering. The Buddha said, “Monks! Those who live in solitude gain the virtues of eternal peace. A quiet person is respected by both Indra, and all celestial beings. He breaks free from attachment to himself, and in this way he severs the root of suffering.

Those who live with others will be hindered by them, just as a tree withers when any birds perch on it. A person attached to worldly desires is similar to an old elephant entrenched in mud—both are unable to free themselves, and both will finally be destroyed. This is the meaning of a solitary life.”

The fourth “means” is diligence. That is to say constant striving to do good. The Buddha said, “Monks! Be diligent in your practice, for this will hasten realization of truth. For this reason you should be diligent.

A trickle of water, if consistent, wears away rock; practice of the Way, if consistent, wears away the obstacles to enlightenment. Intermittent rubbing together of wood will not produce fire; likewise interrupted practice will not produce enlightenment. This is the meaning of diligence.”

The fifth “means” is preserved awareness of the Dharma. This means to have correct recollection of the Dharma. The Buddha said, “Monks! Those who seek a good master, a guide to the truth, should preserve right awareness of the Dharma, for this gains freedom from delusion. Heed these words. If you fail to do so you will forfeit its various associated merits.

On the other hand, if you preserve awareness of the Dharma you will gain protection from the five desires, and you will be just like a soldier dressed in impenetrable armor. This is the meaning of preserved awareness of the Dharma.”

The sixth “means” is practice of samadhi.. This is to say close adherence to the Dharma. The Buddha said, “Monks! Learn to control your mind, for this will enable you to practice samadhi and thereby realize the true state of life and death; furthermore, be diligent in your practice of the various forms of samadhi, for this centers the mind and prevents distraction. A dam prevents leakage of water; likewise practice of samadhi prevents leakage of wisdom. This is the meaning of samadhi.”

The seventh “means” is practice of wisdom. Wisdom is the result of having practiced according to the Dharma that one has heard and considered. The Buddha said, “Monks! A person of wisdom is free from attachment to greed. Engage in self observation, for this prevents loss of wisdom and leads to enlightenment. If you fail to do this you are neither a Buddhist trainee nor a lay person. 

A truly wise person is like a sturdy ship crossing the seas of old age, sickness, and death; like a brilliant light illuminating the darkness of ignorance; like good medicine to the sick; and like a sharp ax cutting through the wood of delusion. Wisdom which arises as a result of having heard, considered, and practiced the Dharma produces innumerable benefits to advance oneself in the Way. The truth, once illuminated by the light of wisdom, is evident even to the naked eye. This is the meaning of wisdom.”

The eight “means” is to refrain from frivolous speech. This means to transcend discriminative thought and to earnestly seek understanding of the true nature of things. The Buddha said, “Monks! Frivolous speech clouds the mind and will prevent even you, monks, from realizing enlightenment; therefore quickly cease from engaging in mind confusing frivolous speech. Only those who do this gain the pleasantries of nirvana. This is the meaning of refraining from frivolous speech.”

The preceding are the eight great means to enlightenment. Each of these “means” having a further eight factors totals sixty-four in all. In a broader sense, however, the number of factors is limitless. These sixty-four means were Shakyamuni’s final teaching and form the core of the Mahayana doctrine. Shakyamuni proclaimed them at midnight on February 15; they were his final words. Thereafter he remained silent until he entered parinirvana.

The Buddha concluded with the following words, “Monks! Endeavor to seek the Way, for nothing in this world is permanent. Stay silent for a while, for time is passing, and I am about to enter parinirvana. These are my final words.”

We trainees must study the Tathagata’s final teaching. If we do not do so we are truly not a disciple of the Buddha. Still, though, many in the latter day are ignorant of this teaching.

In the past during times of both true and degenerate Buddhism, all trainees studied these means and practiced accordingly. Now, in contrast, the number who are even aware they exist would be no more than one or two in a thousand. How regrettable that Buddhism has declined in this way. Yet still the essence of the Law, intact and uneroded by time, exists and can be found throughout the world. Quickly, therefore, we should begin to practice according to these eight means.

To contact the Buddha Dharma is no mean feat, and to be born a human is equally difficult. To have done both, as well as being born in the Jambudvipa continent, the best of the three continents, as we have done, is extremely fortunate. In the Jambudvipa continent we can see the Buddha, study the Dharma, and enter the monkhood.

Those who died before Tathagata entered parinirvana were unable to contact these eight means to enlightenment. We, however, through having done good in previous lives, have been able to see hear, and study them. If in successive lives we continue to study them, our merit will increase, and finally we will realize supreme enlightenment; furthermore, if we proclaim them to others, we ourselves are no different from the Buddha Shakyamuni.

Dogen (1253)

Excerpted from Shobogenzo – The Eye and Treasure of the True Law Volume 4 translated by Kosen Nishiyama 1983 out of print


My master Dogen had undertaken to write the entire Shobogenzo into kana, this chapter being the twelfth to be completed. Due to his deteriorating health, however, which finally led to his death, this chapter proved to be his last. I feel a deep regret that the remaining chapters could not be completed. The teachings presented in this chapter were also the final teachings of the Buddha Shakyamuni.

Nowhere else have I seen this particular piece on the Buddha's last sermon. Many of us have read the admonition to “be a lamp unto yourself” as his last words, but whether the piece above was spoken before he died doesn't impact the fact that it really was Dogen's last piece written before his own death. And after all the many years of Dogen's own teaching, this adds a down to earth touch to his otherwise sometimes difficult to understand teachings.

While Buddha is addressing the monks, these points are very broad and easy to comprehend for householders as well. They also remind me of perhaps an alternative version of the paramitas from the Perfection of Wisdom sutra. If we consider another way to think of dana or giving, the first paramita, practicing dana frees us from greed; likewise, to live with satisfaction and serenity mirrors the paramita of patience. Diligence reminds us of virya or joyous effort, the fourth paramita. The admonition to avoid frivolous speech reflects back to the second paramita having to do with ethical behavior and self discipline.

Preserved awareness mirrors the paramita of concentration and, lastly, the perfection of wisdom paramita is included in the practice of wisdom and samadhi. Perhaps, indeed, the early Prajnaparamita sutra is related to this last teaching of the Buddha; it does seem to mirror much in those principles.

For many of us the most challenging is the third teaching on serenity and its association with solitude, something very few can attain in these times. And yet one can be fully immersed in daily life and maintain a sense of detachment that is akin to solitude. If one cannot live on the mountain literally, we can reside in the mountain of practice that is ever present. In studying this final teaching we are faced with truly understanding the heart of this message.

May our minds be clear,


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