For my own spiritual practice, I’m writing about each “spoke” on the wheel of the Noble Eightfold Path for a while. Reviewing what I know and think about each step of the path helps me clarify my understanding, expose any misunderstandings, and allows me to take a snapshot of where I am in my Buddhist practice. Sometime later, I can come back to this series of posts to see how my understanding of these aspects has changed over time.
Right now, we’re in the second of three groups within the path: Sila, or moral virtues. Right Speech is the abstaining from divisive, abusive, untruthful and idle speech, striving for honest, open, compassionate, helpful and relevant speech instead. What we say is a subtle but powerful way to create our karma; it can either foster hatred and fear, or happiness and connection.
Now, we look at Right Action. For the most part, Right Action covers the abstaining of killing, stealing and committing sexual misconduct. It can also be extended to mean any action we take and whether or not it contributes to connecting us with the world around us, clarifying our senses, or spreading compassion towards our fellow beings.
Right Action is one of those subjects that can be very controversial, especially when we parse what it means to “kill”, to “steal”, or engage in “sexual misconduct”. I’m not an authority on this by any means, but I’ll share what I think it means here and how my understanding of it affects my engagement with it.
Killing, for me, is the intentional act of ending the life of someone else at its most basic definition. However, it’s really difficult to refrain from that entirely. We slap at mosquitoes and other insects on our own almost instinctively, and we don’t necessarily alter our paths when we see beetles or flies crawling on the sidewalks. When insects or rodents invade our homes, we often lay down traps or poison for them to discourage them. Is this a wrong action? It depends on who you ask, and what your intentions are.
Again, stopping to think about our intentions can help us to review our instinctive impulses and learn that we don’t have to act on them. Those impulses fade, and are often replaced by better ones. Do we really need to kill insects that are on or near us? Why is it necessary? Thinking about this before you’re placed in a situation where it’s us or them can help us to check that initial behavior and make a more informed decision on what gets us closer to behaving consistently with our beliefs. If we decide that insects are fair game, that’s all well and good; but we must be aware of our views and intentions to see whether or not our actions are consistent with them.
However, killing doesn’t just mean ending someone’s life. It could also mean making their lives more difficult through harmful or ignorant action; destroying a significant emotional, social or spiritual aspect of our fellow beings; revising their history to something that untrue through lies, deception or hiding. Physical death isn’t the only one we should consider.
Stealing is the taking of something (or someone) without it being offered, either by force, stealth, fraud or deceit. Taking someone’s TV out of their house obviously applies here, but so does misrepresenting ourselves in order to gain someone’s trust for nefarious purposes. If we loosen our view of what constitutes a possession, then we see all the ways we could (and might) steal without even realizing it. If our intentions are to follow the path, then we must understand as well as possible how this aspect of it might be applied — or how it doesn’t apply.
Sexual misconduct, of course, means different things depending on your intentions. For monks, this part of the path is where they lay down their vow of celibacy. For laypersons like us, it means doing our best to understand and respect the boundaries of any sexual situation in which we find ourselves. Consent is the most basic aspect of this — is our partner willing to engage in sex with us at this time? Are they in a position to make a conscious and informed decision? Are there other factors beyond their consent that may lead to harm or divisiveness?
These questions can only be answered as each situation arises, and it’s very important that we know the answers clearly before engaging. If there is any doubt, refrain until that doubt is removed. Even if we’re in the throes of our lust, there is no “point of no return”. If doubt arises at any point, then the expectation (at least in my view) is to abstain until that doubt is removed. Learning to be mindful — even in highly emotional or sensual situations — is one of the best ways we can avoid ever being in a situation where we’re “unable to stop”. And if we can’t trust ourselves to be mindful and respectful in a certain situation, we shouldn’t be in that situation at all if we can help it.
In a lot of cases, our actions will fall into a grey area. One example I really like is dealing with a pet who, for some reason or another, is facing an illness or injury that may lead to death. Is taking them to the vet to be euthanized a violation of the “no killing” part of the Eightfold Path? What about taking office supplies home, or pirating music or movies — does that count at stealing? If we’re in a sexual encounter and we’re not sure if going ahead with it is actual misconduct, what do we do?
It all comes down to our intentions and being honest about what those are. We must have an objective, self-aware knowledge of what’s in our heart at the time and be forthright enough to make our decisions based on that. If we want to end the suffering of our pet, euthanizing them is OK. If we don’t want to pay the vet’s bills or deal with the hassle of caring for them, maybe it’s not. If taking office supplies home helps us to do our job more effectively or makes it easier to help our coworkers, then it should be fine to ask. If we just want free staples and pens, then it’s not. If we’re sure that our sexual encounter will increase happiness, connection and compassion AND we’re sure that informed and conscious consent has been given, it’s OK. If our own pleasure is our primary motivation for moving ahead, we want to reconsider.
For me, the right action is the one that is not entirely selfish; hurting or degrading someone else in order to put myself ahead or make my life easier is not OK. I believe that human beings are innately social creatures, and we’re at our best when we’re working together. Fostering a spirit of community and companionship is my guide for action. Easing the suffering of other people is an impetus to act. Making my environment worse through action or inaction is the thing I need to watch and abstain from.
What do all of you think? Do you agree or disagree? Are there nuances on this that I’ve missed? How do you determine whether an action is right or wrong?