Tag Archives: Right Action

Right Action: What You Do


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.


Connecting or separating


This post at the Progressive Buddhism blog really gave me a lot to think about: Saving the world by sitting on our butts.

Sometimes when a person most needs the support of friends and family, some of those folks desert the person. There are all kinds of reasons why you or I might cut off contact with a friend or family member. Some of the reasons might be correct (from a Buddhist or compassionate point of view). Sometimes we know our action is not correct — but we do it anyway.

Sometimes when we try to support or engage with a person, even with good intentions, we do more harm than good (see The lesson of the cicada for a resonant example).

Some practitioners of Buddhism think it’s best to sit on the cushion, that going out into the world and engaging with other beings is not the ideal practice. (Others such as the Peacemakers think almost the opposite.)

If you were in the middle of a Buddhist retreat and you got word that someone you care about was in the hospital, would you promptly leave the retreat and go to that person?

Sit with that for a bit.

Then look and see whether you had these thoughts:

  • It would depend on who it was.
  • It would depend on why he or she was in the hospital.
  • It would depend on the travel arrangements.

That’s a lot of dependencies, isn’t it?


When self dissolves in action


An acquaintance of mine remarked that he had noticed something about himself: He used to have a lot of conversations in which he was trying to “fix” the other person. They were talking, he was listening, but all the time his mind was working, working, working on how to fix their problems, give them advice, tell them what to do. That was his idea of a conversation.

Now, he said, he just listens. He tries hard to really understand what they are trying to communicate. Maybe he asks them to explain or clarify. Maybe he repeats back what he thought he heard, and then asks if that is what they meant. But he’s trying not to do anything else except listen.

The difference is quite remarkable.

Later I recalled some things I have been taught, such as there are no thoughts, there is no thinker — there is only thinking. That makes no sense at all to me. I can’t fathom it. It makes me feel like a tiny grasshopper with a very long way to travel still.

But when I considered that act of listening as if there were nothing but the listening — the hearing alone is all — I had a little short moment of aaahhh He isn’t there. Only the action, the act, the listening.