The Eightfold Path is the Buddha’s guide to enlightenment. Right Action is the fourth element of the Path, and is grouped with Right Speech and Right Livelihood to form the “moral discipline” (read: ethical conduct or harmonious practice) portion of the path.
Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood
These three aspects of the Eightfold Path teach us to exercise mindfulness in our speech, our actions, and our daily lives so as to do no harm to others as well as cultivate wholesomeness in ourselves. Their ultimate purpose is not so much ethical conduct as it is to be efficient in one’s spiritual journey to attain freedom from suffering.
The Buddha highlights three components of taking “right action” – they are:
- abstaining from taking life,
- abstaining from taking what is not given,
- abstaining from sexual misconduct.
Abstaining from taking life
“Herein someone avoids the taking of life and abstains from it. Without stick or sword, conscientious, full of sympathy, he is desirous of the welfare of all sentient beings.” (AN 10:176; Word of the Buddha)
The “taking of life” that is to be avoided is the intentional killing of a being endowed with consciousness. The principle is grounded in the consideration that all beings love life and seek happiness while fearing death and avoiding pain. For practical purposes, at a minimum, this means not killing human beings. The phrase “sentient beings” can be extended to animals and insects, as sentience is the capacity to feel, perceive or experience subjectively.
The question here is: do I need to be a vegan or vegetarian in order to practice Buddhism? While many Buddhists are vegetarian, there are instances (Tibet) where fresh produce is rare and “clean meat” is allowed. For meat to qualify as clean, the individual cannot have seen the animal from which it comes been brought to its death. In this same vein, the eater must be certain that the animal was not sacrificed directly for him- or herself. For North Americans, most supermarkets qualify as “clean meat” sources.
The positive counterpart to abstaining from taking life is the development of kindness and compassion for other beings. This commitment to non-injury and concern for the welfare of others is a practical application of the second path element, Right Intention, in the form of good will and harmlessness.
Abstaining from taking what is not given
“He avoids taking what is not given and abstains from it; what another person possesses of goods and chattel in the village or in the wood, that he does not take away with thievish intent” (AN 10:176; Word of the Buddha)
Pretty straightforward. The more common forms of “taking what is not given”:
- Stealing: housebreaking, pick pocketing, shoplifting
- Robbery: taking openly by force or threats
- Fraud: gaining access to another’s belongings through false claims
- Deceit: cheating
The positive counterpart to abstaining from stealing is honesty, and respect for others. Another related virtue is being content with what one has without being inclined to increase personal wealth by unscrupulous means. The ultimate virtue is generosity – giving away one’s own wealth and possessions to benefit others.
Abstaining from sexual misconduct
The essence of this precept is to prevent sexual relations which are hurtful to others.
For a married couple, from the ethical standpoint, the goal is to protect marital relations from outside disruption and to promote trust and fidelity.
In addition to infidelity, forced or coercive sex is also a transgression.
Ordained monks and nuns in certain branches of Buddhism are obliged to observe celibacy, abstaining not only from sexual misconduct but from all sexual involvements. Aiming for complete purity in thought, word and deed, the journey requires turning away from sexual desire.
Next Up: Right Livelihood
Previous Post: Right Speech
- AN 10:176; Word of the Buddha
- Bhikkhu Bodhi – The Noble Eightfold Path – Chapter IV