Also referred to as “Wise Action,” “Ethical Conduct,” or “Right Conduct,” Right Action is one the factors of the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path. Like the Bible’s Ten Commandments, Right Action consist of moral or ethical rules that, when followed, are meant to support one’s inner spiritual development and direct one’s ultimate outer actions. It also guides us to act skillfully in our significant relationships and interactions.
The Buddha taught that if someone wants to move forward on his or her spiritual path, he or she needs to practice Right Action, which includes abstaining from taking life (of humans, animals, or insects), taking what is not given (stealing), and sexual misconduct.
During our group’s sangha discussion of Right Action, it became apparent that most of us who are on some sort of a moral/spiritual path are not intentionally killing other beings. But some of us do question the practice of eating the meat of other animals, as well as our inclination to kill insects when they’re infesting our homes or attacking our bodies. There were as many different views on this topic as there were people in the room.
Some people can eat a vegetarian diet and be very healthy, while others shrink and get ill on a well-rounded vegetarian regimen. Since different people have different biochemical make-ups, it’s unrealistic to expect that the very same diet will be healthy for everyone. Many meat-eaters did admit to eating smaller portions of only free-range, ethically raised and humanely slaughtered animal protein to reduce overall animal consumption.
Both vegetarians and meat-eaters seemed quite positional about their eating preferences. As both an ex-vegetarian and a meat-eater, I think it is very important not to judge others for the choices they make. Instead, we need to make the decisions that promote our own personal health, as well as the welfare of our planet and its inhabitants. Our group came to the conclusion that each individual is responsible for living his or her life in such a way that causes other beings the least amount of possible harm.
But what about harming others either verbally or energetically? Although you’re not inflicting physical harm, you may be participating in actions that cause another person stress and/or lowered self-esteem. Our responsibilities towards others can take on very subtle, multi-layered dimensions. Are we responsible for someone who is hurt by our words or actions because he or she has an insecurity or sensitivity that we were not aware of? Once again, if we do not have the “intention to harm,” we can learn from the situation without taking on another person’s issues.
When the subject of “not stealing” or “taking what is not freely given” came up, several people communicated the amount of shame they felt after taking random office supplies or other items home from their workplaces. The excuse “Everyone else is doing it” seemed to be the justification most people used for their breech in integrity.
It’s apparent that greed is usually the core motivation for stealing. Greed is the driving force of an internal craving to have more money or possessions. Some folks discerned that fear of not having enough to survive was a primary motivation for overlooking little slips in integrity around money and possessions. One honest soul admitted to a little thrill she felt every time she was able to get something for nothing.
The topic of “human consumption” is so vast that we spent an entire evening exploring our intentions behind and mindfulness of—or lack thereof—our personal habits of consumption. Are we taking or consuming more than we need? If so, are addictions or compulsions driving these behaviors?.
I wasn’t surprised to hear all of the ways people over-consume as a means of satisfying unquenchable inner cravings and/or avoiding unpleasant feelings and thoughts. A few of the examples of excessive consumption involved television, food, sex, reading, news, drama, drinking, drugs, computers, smart phones, Facebook, and more.
We concluded that it’s important for each person to explore this topic from within—and not from a place of self-judgment. Instead, the self-exploration is healthiest if taken from a compassionate stance of simply assessing which behaviors may need to be altered to produce a more wholesome relationship with consumption. It is so vital for each of us to understand how our inner cravings can never be permanently satisfied by consuming. Once we understand this, we are on the path to letting go of habits of over-consumption.
Sexual misconduct was a scary subject for many folks. Our group spent over an hour talking about the distinction between healthy sexual behavior and sexual misconduct in our modern world. After all, we have these human bodies which are hard-wired to be sexually aroused, and we have sensual and sexual desires that can become overwhelming at times. Additionally, as lay persons, we have the freedom of sexual expression.
So how do we determine what constitutes sexual misconduct? One insightful young man in our group said that if he is ever too ashamed to admit being in a sexual union with someone, he sees this as a sign that he may be engaging in some form of unhealthy sexual behavior. In this case, he said he stops himself and investigates his motives and actions to make sure that they are wholesome before continuing.
Obviously, cheating and using or abusing others sexually is blatant sexual misconduct. On a more subtle level, sexual behavior that leads to future craving and attachment can be detrimental to one’s inner world. Buddhist principles state that using sex to seek pleasure or avoid pain is a sign of one’s suffering, and this will in turn lead to greater suffering in the long run.
The topic of sexual misconduct can feel very confusing, and it requires continual self-appraisal and self-honesty. Basically, if we’re not feeling proud of how we’re expressing ourselves sexually, then the guilt or shame will wreak havoc on our spiritual life. There are, however, many beautiful ways to express oneself sensually and sexually within a wholesome union. What is wholesome or unwholesome is up to each individual to discover for himself or herself.
It’s been said that “if you aren’t part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem.” Is this really true? And how does Right Action around social activism or social engagement fit into the equation? Do we ever find ourselves taking up social action from a place of anger, frustration, or fear?
It often seems that many political platforms are erected on unwholesome foundations based in fear and/or anger. Can such stances really help the human race or our planet? Our group’s discussions took many different twists and turns around this topic, but one thing became clear: if a person is motivated to take social action out of anger, frustration, or fear, then this person is better off using his or her time and energy doing some form of spiritual practice, such as loving-kindness or compassion meditations, to help transform and heal his or her own internal pain first. Once you’re able to act from a place of love, caring, and compassion, then your acts of social engagement will be more in alignment with promoting a healthier and happier world.
The topic of Right Action is many-faceted and deserves continual exploration.