This summary outline of Thich Nhat Hanh's book "The Heart of Buddha's Teaching", adds textual notes to the guidelines listed in my Buddhism in a Nutshell. It also reflects insights from two related books, "One Dharma", by Joeseph Goldstein, and "Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness" by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana.
Note first that there are no specific rules or commandments in Buddhism, and no central authorities. One author, Stephen Batchelor, in "Buddhism without Beliefs", describes Buddhism as what one does reflecting one's understanding of Buddhism. But even that is questionable, since the practices are open to interpretation, teachings differ widely, and there is no central Buddhist authority or organization, although there are Buddhist authorities and organizations within most countries.
TNH's "The Heart of Buddha's Teaching" has two subtitles, "Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation", and "The Four Noble Truths, The Noble Eightfold Path, & Other Basic Buddhist Teachings"
The Four Noble Truths can be paraphrased as (1) life is suffering (2) caused by craving;
(3) to stop craving, and suffering (4) take the eight-fold path. Another paraphrase is
Suffering is caused by our cravings and clinging ,
and will diminish as we become skilled in our views, thinking, and so forth.
Buddha's Eight-Fold Path includes right, (or skillful) views, thinking, mindfulness, diligence/effort, concentration, speech, action, and livelihood. In these, right or skillful is in concern with what is real and wholesome.
TNH says Right (skillful means) generally is accompanied by joy, ease, and wonder. Conversely, suffering may be occasioned by greed, hatred, suspicion, fear, ignorance, pride, anguish, anger, craving, violence, despair, harming, and the like. Suffering, in relation to our desires, is sometimes characterized by our disatisfaction with what is, not getting what we want, or getting what we don't want.
The Eightfold Path
The following paragraphs address each of the eight aspects of the path. Each "Right..." is not righteous, instead each Right directs one toward being open and attentive to the present moment and the current situation. TNH says each Right implies and requires the seven others; in his term they "inter-are".
1. Right View, or Skillful Understanding, is not an ideology, path, or system, instead it might be the ability to distinguish what is good from what is bad for you, and others. Right view leads ultimately to holding no particular views, and instead being open and flexible. Grossly wrong views might be associated with bigots, or zealots. Most of us suffer from more subtle wrong views, e.g., in our politics, social groups, relationships, and in terms of our expectations and ideals. Dissatisfaction arises from birth, old age, sickness, and death; not getting what we want and love, getting what we don't want or hate. Clinging is the root of our dissatisfaction, so if we take responsibility for our desires and whatever they motivate or result in, in concert with the following aspects of the path, our understanding and behavoir will become more skillful.
2. Right Thinking: Right view is the foundation for right thinking. One might approach right thinking through conscious breathing, thinking non-thinking, or not thinking, instead being open and attentive to the present moment and situation. TNH advocates four approaches to right thinking:
Ask yourself, are you really sure about this?
Maintain awareness, e.g., ask yourself: What am I doing (NOW)?
Recognize and take care of habit energy, e.g., greet your habit energy when you become aware that your thoughts are being driven by your habits, recognizing the type of thought and its sources. TNH advocates stopping/calming with stages of recognition, acceptance, embracing, looking deeply, and insight, as an approach to taking care of our deeply ingrained habit energies.
Establish and maintain your mind of love (see below) in your relations with others.
3. Right Mindfulness accepts everything without judgment or reacting, and comes back to the present moment. In relationships, four immeasurable minds (see below) characterize right mindfulness. Seven aspects are touching (the present), sharing, nourishing, relieving suffering, looking deeply, understanding, and transforming. Mindfulness of the body and its components, feelings, and mind are important, generally with stages of recognizing, welcoming, and taking care, as needed. Some things that need to be taken care of are greed, hatred, ignorance, pride, doubt, malice, hypocrisy, malevolence, jealousy, selfishness, deception, guile, unwholesome excitement, and so forth. Various realms can be noted, such as happiness, joy, and letting go, in contrast to suffering, anxiety, and ignorance. Basic craving, anger, and harming, can be opposed to freedom from craving, abstinence (from anger), and non-harming. These relate to levels of desire (gross), form (subtle), and formless (more subtle) aspects. TNH recognizes both our conditional or comparative nature (analogous to waves) and our unconditional nature (analogous to water), and notes that object and subject are always interdependent. He recommends keeping several books by one's bedside, for frequent review; particularly "Breathe! You are Alive, Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing", Thich Nhat Hahn, 1996, "Our Appointment with Life, The Buddha's Teachings on Living in the Present", Thich Nhat Hahn, 1990, and "Transformation & Healing, Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness", Thich Nhat Hahn, 1990, Parallax Press, Berkeley.
4. Right Speech should be the truth, should not harm, and should inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. Non-harming includes being constant, kind (not cruel), and not exaggerating or embellishing. Deep listening should follow, leading after complete expression to silence, and peace.
5. Right Action is loving, compassionate and non-harming. Non-harming is spelled out primarily in the (prohibitory) precepts, i.e., no killing, stealing, lying, etc.
6. Right Diligence/Effort: If you want to help, it is probably right. Ultimately TNH says right diligence is that which comes with ease and joy. As long as you want something in exchange for your effort, such as attainment, recognition, fame, success, or money, it is not likely to be entirely right.
7. Right Concentration is to make ourselves deeply present, open, and clear. With right concentration we no longer distinguish between ourselves and others; instead we reside in peace and happiness. In selective concentration one chooses an object and holds it, at the top level by thinking about it, and at more intense levels by increasingly subtle means. TNH lists 9 levels; the first four of which are in the realm of forms. Level 5 is limitless space, level 6 is limitless consciousness, level 7 is nothingness, and level 8 is neither perception nor non-perception. In these 8 levels ignorance and internal formations are intact in our deeper levels of "store" consciousness (i.e., our unconscious). The 9th level, Cessation, is cessation of our ignorance in our feelings and perceptions. In it, we are transformed and our store consciousness is purified. Manas are our internal wars of consciousness, ranging from afflictions by greed/hatred, confusion, doubt, pride, and so forth.
8. Right Livelihood does no harm, and is intended to help. Jobs dealing in killing, stealing, sex, and the like are clearly harmful. TNH says one should not deal in arms or slave trades, or in selling meat, alcohol, drugs, poisons, etc. Prophecies and fortune telling are also within the general context of one of Buddhism's (prohibitory) precepts, namely "no selling the wines of delusion". Many aspects of our communicating, teaching, reporting, and consulting, are tainted by "wines of delusion"; proactively seeking individual advantages from one's livelihood. See also my review of Krishnamurthi's "Right Livelihood"
Other Basic Buddhist Teachings
Three Seals of Buddha's teachings: Nirvana, Impermanence, and No-Self. No-Self simply means there is no person or essential identity for anyone, instead we are ongoing collections (of body, mind, feelings, emotions, impulses, perceptions, etc.) that are deeply interdependent with others, indeed with everything in our world and universe. Of course, in relations and even in our thinking we exist, but what exists is not unchanging or independent from its environment. Impermanence means simply that everything changes, including us. Nirvana is the unboundedness, emptiness or openness that mirrors or underlies everything, and everyone. (Some authorities cite Suffering in place of Nirvana as a seal, but suffering is viewed as being negative, while the emptiness of Nirvana may also be great joy.)
Four Immeasurable Minds: Buddhism advocates love (sometimes called loving kindness or loving friendliness), compassion, joy (sometimes called joy-sharing), and equanimity. These are called the four immeasurable minds, and may constitute right mindfulness in relationships.
Four Nutriments: Buddhism also distinguishes four kinds of nutrients, with the caution that we need to carefully monitor and control what we ingest. The four kinds are food, sense impressions, volition or will, and consciousness. Food is clearly important, and we clearly need to be careful not to ingest food containing toxins or poisons (albeit many foods now contains at least traces of toxins and chemicals); drugs are particularly dangerous. Sense impressions are a little more subtle; for example in viewing media we should avoid watching pornography, brutality, and the like. More generally we should avoid sense impressions that inflame our cravings, lust, hatreds, etc. Volition is still more subtle, but it is clear that we influence our will, and what we want, and that we can do better, for example by learning about Buddhism, and by not wanting to harm, even for justice or revenge, and not encouraging inappropriate sexual desires or fantasies. Finally, consciousness is most subtle, and is influenced by all our past experiences and beliefs, many of which are derived from childhood, and from prior generations. Most of these are below the level of ongoing consciousness, for example early traumas and fears, but still exist and influence us on throughout our lives unless we are able to reach and correct them, for example using therapy or meditation.
The key point is that we need to be aware and responsible of whatever nutriments we take in, avoiding poisons in the most obvious cases, and in the more subtle cases avoiding whatever makes us likely to do harm. We live in the seas of our consciousness, yet even our subconscious can be influenced and taken care of through the eightfold path.