The Eightfold Path, part 4
This article is the fourth in an eight-part series on the Eightfold Path, a core teaching from early Buddhism. I introduced the Eightfold Path in the first article in the series, so go back and check that out if you haven't heard of it before. (You can find links to all the articles in this series on the index page in the 'Buddhist theory' section.)
This week we're going to take a look at the fourth aspect of the path: right action. Like the third aspect of the path, right speech, right action is part of the section on sila, or ethics - essentially, practices relating to how to live in the world in a way which minimises the harm we do to ourselves and others. I've already talked about the value of Buddhism's ethical teachings in the article on right speech, so I won't repeat that here - check that article out if you're curious.
So what is right action?
I've taken the quotation at the top of this article, which defines right action in terms of three factors (refraining from killing, stealing and sexual misconduct), from Samyutta Nikaya 45.8 for consistency with the other articles in this series. However, it's more common to find right action equated with the Buddhist precepts, of which there are five for householders and many more for monks and nuns - this includes the three listed above, plus precepts concerning lying and (ab)using intoxicants.
The version of the precepts that I use when teaching retreats runs as follows:
These are pretty simple, pithy and easy to remember. That said, I'm also a fan of the version of the precepts given in the Brahmajala Sutra from the Mahayana tradition, precisely because what's given there is not short, pithy and straightforward - it's actually pretty complex.
I like more complex takes on the precepts because the key word in the definitions I gave above is training. The precepts are not 'Buddhist commandments' phrased as 'thou shalt not' - like every other aspect of the Eightfold Path, they're intended as practices, something that we actually explore for ourselves rather than simply memorise and then repeat on command. Indeed, one of the signs of the first stage of awakening in the traditional model is that we are no longer bound by the fetter of 'rites, rituals and righteousness' - which means that it's clear that merely behaving a certain way because someone else told us to is not the way to awakening. Rather, our relationship with the precepts becomes a living exploration, more of a dance than a rigid, legalistic submission to an arbitrary set of rules.
With that in mind, I'm not going to write a huge article telling you what I think about each of the precepts. Rather, I'm going to present a contemplation practice which invites you to explore each precept for yourself.
Contemplation versus meditation
Contemplation is similar to meditation, but with a slightly different orientation. Contemplation can feel a bit weird the first time you try it because it seems to be 'breaking the rules' of meditation.
Typically speaking, in a meditation practice we're not really that interested in the content of our thoughts - we might be focused on the physical sensations of our breath, or the visual appearance of a candle flame; if we're doing something like Zen koan practice or the Brahmaviharas, we may be using words as part of the practice, but the idea is that the words support a focus on something else (a feeling of questioning in koan practice, an emotion in Brahmavihara practice).
By comparison, in contemplation, anything goes. In a contemplation practice we'll have some kind of theme that we're investigating - but how we investigate it is completely up to us. You're welcome to think about the theme as much as you like - but you're equally welcome to work with it like a koan (bringing up the theme from time to time to see what it stirs up), or simply to set the intention to explore the theme and then just sit and see what happens.
I typically suggest taking some time to settle your mind through meditation, perhaps by paying attention to your breath or doing a bit of loving kindness practice. Then, when the usual whirl of everyday thoughts has settled down a little, shift over to the contemplation.
I'll now suggest a contemplation on the precepts. For each of the five, I'll give the headline statement, then suggest a few 'probes' - particular lines of inquiry that you can introduce to explore different aspects of the precepts. You're entirely welcome to use these just as much or as little as you'd like. These are some 'ways in' that I've found helpful for myself, but each of us must ultimately find our own relationship to the precepts.
Trigger warning, and how to approach this practice
This is not lightweight stuff - exploring the precepts seriously can take you to some dark places. Please be kind to yourself. Please note also that some of the 'probes' below are deliberately provocative. I am not advocating any kind of unethical action, even as an 'experiment'.
Furthermore, please don't use this as an exercise in self-judgement or criticism. The point here is not to beat yourself up for what you perceive as your ethical failings. The point is to explore the precepts to get a feel for what they mean to us on a visceral level, to encourage us to engage with the material rather than simply treating it as yet another set of 'laws' handed down through the generations.
OK, without further ado, let's get into it.
A contemplation on the precepts
Take at least a few minutes just to sit quietly, perhaps focusing on the breath or doing metta, in order to settle your mind before proceeding. Then, when you're ready, start moving through the contemplations below.
Take some time to explore this precept in the broadest sense. Taking life could potentially include everything from killing another human, to stepping on an insect, to taking antibiotics, to cutting down a tree. What does 'taking life' mean to you?
How do you feel when you see or hear about life being taken?
Does it make a difference what kind of life is being taken, by whom, or for what reason?
When is the taking of life justified?
What might it mean for you to undertake the training to refrain from taking life?
Take some time to explore this precept in the broadest sense. Taking what is not given could potentially include everything from armed robbery, to insider trading, to shoplifting, to taking more than your fair share, to watching copyrighted videos on YouTube, to taking up too much of someone else's time and energy. What does 'taking what is not given' mean to you?
How do you feel when you see or hear about someone taking what is not given?
Does it make a difference what is being taken, by whom, or for what reason?
When is taking what is not given justified?
What might it mean for you to undertake the training to refrain from taking what is not given?
Take some time to explore this precept in the broadest sense. Sexual misconduct could potentially include everything from rape, to inappropriate physical contact, to adultery, to using sexuality to get what you want. What does 'sexual misconduct' mean to you?
How do you feel when you see or hear about someone committing sexual misconduct?
Does it make a difference what kind of sexual misconduct is being committed, by whom, or for what reason?
When is sexual misconduct justified?
What might it mean for you to undertake the training to refrain from sexual misconduct?
Take some time to explore this precept in the broadest sense. False speech could potentially include everything from lying under oath, to committing fraud, to spreading lies about someone to damage their reputation, to misleading someone in order to manipulate them, to exaggerating your achievements to make yourself sound more impressive, to telling a little white lie for social convenience. What does 'false speech' mean to you?
How do you feel when you see or hear about someone speaking falsely?
Does it make a difference what kind of false speech it is, by whom, or for what reason?
When is false speech justified?
What might it mean for you to undertake the training to refrain from false speech?
Take some time to explore this precept in the broadest sense. Intoxicants could potentially include everything from alcohol, to recreational drugs, to risk-taking behaviour, to anything else we can get addicted to - gambling, the Internet, even our work. Heedlessness could potentially include anything from total loss of control, to a significant impairment of judgement, to a subtle lowering of inhibitions. What does 'intoxicants causing heedlessness' mean to you?
How do you feel when you see or hear about someone using intoxicants leading to heedlessness?
Does it make a difference what kind of intoxicant it is, or what degree of heedlessness? Does it make a difference by whom, or for what reason?
When is the use of intoxicants leading to heedlessness justified?
What might it mean for you to undertake the training to refrain from intoxicants causing heedlessness?
It's likely that the contemplations above have brought up quite a bit of material. I suggest closing the practice by taking a few minutes for meditation to let things settle down again - perhaps returning to the breath, or metta, or just sitting.
May you be well.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!