Three factors of eight apply to moral discipline, or sila. These are Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood.
In his fine text about the Noble Eightfold Path, Bhikkhu Bodhi notes that sila is a bit challenging to translate into English. It’s a multipurpose word, and one of its meanings is virtue. It is also a word used for the Five Precepts (Panca Sila) that lay Buddhists take in making a formal commitment to practice. Four of those precepts are closely related to Right Action, and the fifth is closely related to Right Speech.
The precepts are worded a bit differently wherever you find them, but they boil down to the same five ideas: no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual misconduct, and no intoxication. If we remember the ideas behind Right Intention, the five make good sense.
Sometimes Buddhist teachers explain that we should perform no harmful actions with our body, speech, or mind. That takes the idea of action beyond the purely physical and helps us contemplate how thoughts can become actions in a split second.
In the context of the Noble Eightfold path, Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:
The Buddha mentions three components of right action: abstaining from taking life, abstaining from taking what is not given, and abstaining from sexual misconduct.
He notes the important distinction that these proscribed actions assume intention. If you had no intention to step on that little ant, you have not broken the precept. If you stomp the ant deliberately, then you have broken the precept. He also points out that plants are not included among the beings we must not kill — only sentient beings are so protected.
Bhikkhu Bodhi does not mention indirect killing, such as the killing of animals and fish that we eat, even though someone else did the actual killing. For many Buddhists, this is a motivation for keeping a strict vegetarian diet; other Buddhists disagree. (There’s a good article about Buddhists and vegetarianism here.)
“Taking what is not given” can be broadened beyond theft and robbery to include deceitful actions, such as cheating someone in business. Greed or hatred will often be at the root of the desire to take something that belongs to someone else.
As telling the truth is the positive version of not telling lies, so honest interactions are the positive version of not stealing.
Another related virtue is contentment, being satisfied with what one has without being inclined to increase one’s wealth by unscrupulous means. The most eminent opposite virtue is generosity, giving away one’s own wealth and possessions in order to benefit others. [My italics.]
“Sexual misconduct” is always open to debate — but once again, Bhikkhu Bodhi emphasizes the positive fruits of following this precept: to promote trust and fidelity. If we think of all the ways we might harm others or ourselves (especially emotionally) by acting irresponsibly in sexual matters, this aspect of Right Action fits perfectly into the “big picture” of Buddhism. We must learn how to avoid creating more suffering for ourselves and others. Bhikkhu Bodhi runs down a list of “illicit partners,” but really that’s just common sense.
The principle does not, however, confine sexual relations to the marital union. It is flexible enough to allow for variations depending on social convention. The essential purpose, as was said, is to prevent sexual relations which are hurtful to others. When mature independent people, though unmarried, enter into a sexual relationship through free consent, so long as no other person is intentionally harmed, no breach of the training factor is involved.
Of course there is the expectation of celibacy for Buddhist monks and nuns who have been ordained. For lay people, there is no “bad sex” in Buddhism — there are only incorrect liaisons, which are those that are likely to cause suffering for at least one person.
In his discussion of Right Action, Bhikkhu Bodhi does not mention intoxicants — but they do turn up under the next section, about Right Livelihood.
In Thich Nhat Hanh’s Zen Buddhist order, lay practitioners take the Five Mindfulness Trainings instead of the traditional Five Precepts. Each training is an expanded version of one of the precepts, which adds rather a lot more weight and responsibility. They can be compared with the traditional Five Precepts.
The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Published by Access to Insight, 16 June 2011.