Right Action and the Eightfold Path

Planting a Seedling
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The Eightfold Path is the path to enlightenment as taught by the Buddha. It is illustrated by the eight-spoke dharma wheel because the path is composed of eight parts or areas of activity that work together to teach us and help us manifest the dharma.

Right Action is the fourth aspect of the Path. Called samyak-karmanta in Sanskrit or samma kammanta in Pali, Right Action is part of the "ethical conduct" portion of the path, along with Right Livelihood and Right Speech.

 These three "spokes" of the dharma wheel teach us to take care in our speech, our actions, and our daily lives to do no harm to others and to cultivate wholesomeness in ourselves. 

So "Right Action" is about "right" morality. The word translated as "right" is samyak or samma. It means something like being accurate or skillful, and it carries a connotation of "wise," "wholesome," and "ideal." It is "right" in the sense of being "upright," the way a ship rights itself when battered by a wave. It also describes something that is complete and coherent. The word "right" should not be taken as a commandment, as in "do this, or you are wrong." The aspects of the path really are more like a physicians' prescription than absolute rules.

This means that when we act "rightly," we act without selfish attachment to our own agendas. We act mindfully, without causing discord with our speech. Our "right" actions spring from compassion and from understanding of the dharma.

 

The word for "action" is karma or kamma. You've heard that one, I suspect. It means "volitional action"; things we choose to do, whether those choices are made consciously or subconsciously. 

Another word related to morality in Buddhism is sila, sometimes spelled shila. Sila is translated into English as "morality," "virtue," and "ethical conduct." Sila is about harmony, which points to the concept of morality as living harmoniously with others.

Sila also has a connotation of coolness and maintaining composure. 

Right Action and the Precepts

More than anything else, Right Action refers to keeping the Precepts. The many schools of Buddhism have various lists of precepts, but the precepts common to most schools are these:

  1. Not killing
  2. Not stealing
  3. Not misusing sex
  4. Not lying
  5. Not abusing intoxicants

The precepts are not a list of commandments. Instead, they describe how an enlightened being naturally lives and responds to life's challenges. As we work with the precepts, we learn to live harmoniously and compassionately.

Right Action and Mindfulness Training

The Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh said, "The basis of Right Action is to do everything in mindfulness." He teaches Five Mindfulness Trainings that correlate to the five precepts listed above.

The first training involves respecting life. In awareness of the suffering caused by destruction of life, we work to protect all living things and this planet that sustains life.

The second training involves generosity. We give freely of our time and resources where they are needed, without hoarding things we don't need. We do not exploit other people or resources for our own gain. We act to promote social justice and well-being for everyone.

The third training involves sexuality and avoiding sexual misconduct. In awareness of the pain caused by sexual misconduct, we honor commitments and also act when we can to protect others from sexual exploitation.

The fourth training involves loving speech and deep listening. This means avoiding language that causes enmity and discord. Through deep listening to others, we tear down the barriers that separate us.

The fifth training involves what we consume. This includes nourishing ourselves and others with healthful food and avoiding intoxicants. It also involves what books we read or what television programs we watch. Entertainments that are addictive or cause agitation might best be avoided.

Right Action and Compassion

The importance of compassion in Buddhism cannot be overstated. The Sanskrit word that is translated as "compassion" is karuna, which means "active sympathy" or the willingness to bear the pain of others.

Closely related to karuna is metta, "loving kindness."

It's important to remember also that genuine compassion is rooted in prajna, or "wisdom." Very basically, prajna is the realization that the separate self is an illusion. This takes us back to not attaching our egos to what we do, expecting to be thanked or rewarded.

In The Essence of the Heart Sutra, His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote,

"According to Buddhism, compassion is an aspiration, a state of mind, wanting others to be free from suffering. It's not passive -- it's not empathy alone -- but rather an empathetic altruism that actively strives to free others from suffering. Genuine compassion must have both wisdom and lovingkindness. That is to say, one must understand the nature of the suffering from which we wish to free others (this is wisdom), and one must experience deep intimacy and empathy with other sentient beings (this is lovingkindness)."