Uposatha Day Teaching

Noble Eightfold Path: Right Action

In the last episode we considered Right Speech, the first of the Ethical Conduct Group of the Noble Eightfold Path. Today we take up Right Action. The most common of the alternative formulations of Buddhist ethical conduct is the Five Precepts:

  1. Not to kill living beings.
  2. Not to take what is not given.
  3. Not to involve oneself in sexual misconduct.
  4. Not to speak falsely.
  5. Not to intoxicate oneself.

Here (1) – (3) most directly relate to Right Action and (4) to Right Speech. (5) relates indirectly to Right Speech and Right Action, since in the intentional haze of intoxication Speech and Action occur that are typically later regretted., but more directly to Right Effort, which we have not discussed yet, basically purification of the mind. Notice that all of these are abstentions. These do have implicit positive counterparts, such as to promote or cultivate or care for life, to be generous, to keep others properly informed, and so on. In fact, Precepts are generally a bottom line, much like the oath “Do No Harm” in medicine; but in fact we can do so much of benefit above that bottom line. However the positive forms would be more difficult to formulate, since they are open-ended; We understand out obligation to not killing, for instance, but unclear is the extent or direction of our obligation to promote life. Still the positive forms of the Precepts are already implicit in Right Resolve, in Renunciation, Goodwill and Harmlessness or compassion.

Through Right Action and Right Speech we not only make the world, we also make ourselves. Virtue gives rise to virtue. Every action has two kinds of consequences, first, out there in the world, and second, in shaping our own character, or own future. Simply put, the more you steal the more you become a thief, the more you kill the more you become a killer, the more you gossip the more you become a gossip. Actions become habits and habits become character. So action is very important in the process of perfecting character. The potter’s skills grow in exactly the same way. The more fine pots the potter throws the finer potter he becomes. The more he throws pots with thin elegantly tapered sides, the more skillful the becomes at that. This is the heart of karma, and the way we learn a skill.

Let’s look a little more closely at how this works. The Sanskrit word for action is Karma. Properly the Buddha analyzed Karma into two components, Intention and Action, why you do something, and what it is you actually do. The intention is critical: If no intention is present, for instance in the case of killing a bug accidentally, there is no Right Action and no Wrong Action. It matters to the world, but not generally to the character. But if intention is present, then that particular intention is reinforced in the action. There is a great assortment of intentions, but we must give special attention to avoid the unskillful roots: Greed, Hatred and Delusion, because actions that have these as intentional components (1) are likely to hurt others, (2) tend to make us greedy, hateful and deluded and (3) bring us personal suffering. The relation between (2) and (3) might not seem obvious, until you consider the state of happiness or well-being of greedy, hateful and deluded people. It turns out the Virtue Is its Own Reward; this is the Law of Karma. The explanation for this has to do with the origin of suffering, in clinging.

Fortunately, we can take care in our actions with regard to our intentions. First, the intention precedes the physical action that it gives rise to. This provides an opportunity to abort an unskillful intention by not acting on it. For instance, when anger arises I do not yell, I do not throw things, I don’t do anything, until the anger subsides, which it will. Second, we improve the quality of the intentions that do arise by controlling their conditions. For instance, if I avoid stressful activities, anger is less likely to arise. If I avoid the company of people who are drinking alcohol, I am less likely to have the impulse to do so. Through the cultivation of mind, the topic of the last three folds of the Noble Eightfold Path, our capacity for caring for our intentions becomes quite refined. Through such care, skillful habit patterns develop, and the character is moved in a more skillful direction. This is a simple transparent theory of human skill acquisition, with karma, intentional action, as its basis.

Often the word karma is assumed to refer to something more interesting, something like fate. Let’s take a minute to look at how a sense like this has arisen, and also how it is a bit, but not really, accurate. Often the word karma is used by extension (metonymously) to refer to cumulative consequences of intentional action, much as the words “wear” or “worn” can refer to the result of wearing shoes, say, over and over. So it is used to refer to the character itself, or other factors that are often assumed to impinge on the life of the acting agent for good and bad, as cumulative results of karmic acts. This meaning takes on particular significance in the light of rebirth. Rebirth greatly extends the lifespan of cumulative karma. The science is still out on the issue of rebirth, but rebirth as even a working assumption puts the project of perfecting character in a useful context. Perfection is rarely achieved in one lifetime, rebirth makes sense of heading in that direction inexorably and without frustration. Looking the other way rebirth allows a karmic basis in the distant past for much of our current character. Still, the principle of karma as a basis for acquiring skill remains the same; we work with karma moment by moment only in the present, seeking what it skillful, and shaping our character into something ever more virtuous.

Karma is the key to the entire path and should be understood and practiced , as the Buddha says, “seeing danger in the slightest fault.” We might extend this to seeing benefit in the slightest virtue. Often the development of character through Right Action are clearer than the immediate affects of Right Action in the world. For instance, the First Precept above is one that we easily become fuzzy around; we are not really convinced that the Buddha meant cockroaches and scorpions, snakes and slugs, when he referred to “living beings.” Yet if we uphold the Precept rigorously (catch pests and place them carefully outside) we observe a remarkable change in ourselves: We become kinder, more tender in our feelings not only for all the little creatures but for people as well. Try it! Your Virtue will grow, and that in turn will improve the tendencies of our future actions in the world. You will also find yourself more and more joyful in disposition.

Throughout this Uposatha Day of the First Quarter Moon, think about your actions. Am I violating one of the Five Precepts? What are my intentions, is there a hint, or maybe a lot, of greed or hatred behind my actions?

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