In our review of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, we have investigated Right View and Right Thought, which fall into the category of wisdom. We are now focusing on the category of morality. Following our discussion a few weeks ago about Right Speech, tonight we take up the topics of Right Action and Right Livelihood.
In Buddhism, ethical conduct (Sila) is based on the principles of non-harming and love and compassion for all beings. So that we can live in harmony with others and have peace of mind, without the burden of regret or remorse, Right Action aims to promote honorable and peaceful behavior. My teacher Jack Kornfield jokes, “Can you imagine sitting down for a peaceful meditation session after a full day of killing and stealing?”
The Buddha cautioned his disciples to refrain from the unwholesome actions of killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. These three injunctions are included in five precepts that the Buddha recommended as behavioral guidelines for laypeople. (Traditionally, when Theravada monks are ordained, they vow to follow 227 precepts, a truly daunting prospect. So we’re getting off easy!)
The other two basic precepts are to abstain from taking intoxicants that cloud the mind and to avoid lying intentionally. (We discussed lying in our talk about Right Speech). For now, we will focus on the four precepts that deal with Right Action.
Rather than considering precepts to be guilt inducing moral commandments, we can embrace them voluntarily as a way of training ourselves in mindfulness. The precepts can serve as kindly reminders to be more aware and to make wise choices before acting. The Buddha referred to the precepts as [quote] “pristine, traditional, ancient gifts” [unquote]. He taught that living according to these guidelines is a way to practice generosity (dana), because those who follow these moral trainings give themselves and all beings around them the gift of “freedom from fear, hostility and oppression.”
Each precept entails an explicit precaution and is associated with an implicit aspiration. Undertaking the training precept to refrain from killing or harming living beings implies vowing to cultivate compassion for all beings.
This vow helps us view all life as interconnected, as inseparable from ourselves.
I remember Bill Moyers broadcasting an interview outdoors with the Dalai Lama, who seemed fully engaged in their dialogue, while he was gently blowing away mosquitoes that were landing on his arms. What impressed me more than the content of the interview was the way His Holiness was treating even the smallest form of life respectfully. On meditation retreats, when I practice walking with mindful attention to each footstep, I not only avoid stepping on insects, but I also have a chance to observe the fascinating activities of ants and beetles. This practice makes me attentive to other forms of life when I go on daily walks in Houston. A vow to have compassion for all beings can be an opportunity to reflect upon consumer habits. My choice of laundry detergents affects life in our waters, and the amount of paper I use affects how many trees are logged.
Of course, sometimes we have no choice about taking life. Even those who decide to be vegetarians consume plants in order to survive. When he was asked if Buddhist practitioners should eat meat, Jack Kornfield replied that it matters more what comes out of the mouth than what goes into it. Consciously giving thanks for whatever food we eat connects us to the web of life that sustains us.
Ajahn Amaro is a forest monk and meditation teacher who lives in northern California. Years ago, his small community of monks had to decide how to deal with the destruction of their simple huts by a colony of termites. After many debates, the monks held a ritual to honor the termites and to wish them better karma in their next life. Then they exterminated the termites in the quickest and least painful way possible.
The training precept to refrain from stealing or taking what is not freely given implies a vow to practice generosity. This precept bestows the gift of safety. On residential meditation retreats, all of us leave our bedroom doors unlocked, trusting that our belongings are secure. Anyone who finds a lost item brings it to a table in the meditation hall lobby to be reclaimed. During a retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts, someone found a hundred-dollar bill and pinned it on the community bulletin board. After a few days, the owner reclaimed the money and left a thank-you note in its place.
Following the precept of not stealing can lead to greater consciousness about our desires. We can investigate if what we need is different from what we want. When we shop, we might choose to buy second-hand clothes instead of new clothes that were made by underpaid workers in a foreign sweatshop.
The training precept to refrain from causing harm through sexual misconduct implies a vow to take responsibility for sexual energy. During retreats, all meditators are celibate, and sexual energy is acknowledged, contained, and channeled into intensive meditative practice.
Outside of retreats, this precept discourages us from using power or manipulation to have sexual contact against someone’s wishes. We can reflect upon whether our sensual desire affirms intimacy with a partner, or whether it alienates us from ourselves and others. Sexual energy occurs in the context of a relationship, and healthy relationships involve a commitment to be kind, honest and respectful. Sexuality in such relationships can be a source of deep and loving connection.
The training precept to refrain from taking intoxicants that cloud the mind implies a vow to ingest only what preserves peace and wellbeing. If we drink too much alcohol or take mind-altering drugs in uncontrolled circumstances, our judgment can become impaired so that we lose the ability to refrain from harm. Many car accidents and incidents of domestic violence are associated with intoxication. This precept does not say that we can never have a glass of wine at dinner, or that we can never use mind-altering substances, but it asks us to be aware of what happens to the mind when we consume too much or do it in a potentially harmful way.
If we break a precept, we can take responsibility for harmful actions, but there is no need to add judgment, guilt, or shame to our resolution to be more mindful in similar circumstances that occur in the future. The point is to learn lessons from these moral guidelines, while continuing to love ourselves in the process.
On the Noble Eightfold Path, the component of Right Livelihood refers to having certain standards for how we support ourselves and gain wealth.
Our source of livelihood best serves us if it is legal, peaceful, and honest, and if it causes no suffering or harm. The Buddha cautioned people not to pursue some specific occupations: trading in arms and lethal weapons, exploiting living beings (butchery and raising animals for slaughter, slave trade, and prostitution), dealing in poisons, trafficking in intoxicants, and engaging in a profession that requires cheating.
Again, we are not referring to absolutes. Rather, we are discussing how to raise our awareness about the interconnectedness of life. Temple Grandin is a woman with Asperger’s syndrome who has written books about her struggles with autism. Temple loves cattle, and she identifies with them. She was horrified to witness how cruelly cows were being slaughtered in the meat industry. Her work aims at alleviating the cattle’s suffering. She earns her living by designing and constructing large oval-shaped runways for cattle: Each cow runs around a curve on the track, unaware of what is happening to the cattle ahead of it; then an electric shock strikes its head, killing the animal painlessly and instantaneously. Slaughterhouse bosses appreciate Temple’s invention because cattle killed compassionately yield beef that is more tender than the meat of cows who suffer a fearful and painful death.
Right Livelihood includes many aspects of our work life. We can reflect upon how we talk to people who want our services, how we relate to the tasks we are performing, and how we interact with employers or employees.
We can aspire to follow the five precepts in both work and leisure hours, to cause as little harm as possible with our actions, and to grow in compassion in all aspects of our lives.
Are there any comments or questions about Right Action and Right Livelihood?