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Right Action

Ethical conduct

  • Not stealing

  • No killing

  • Not misusing sex

  • Not lying

  • Not abusing intoxicants

Ethical conduct (sila) is built on the vast conception of universal love and compassion for all living beings, on which the Buddha’s teaching is based. The Buddha gave his teaching “for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world.”

According to Buddhism, for a man to be perfect there are two qualities that he should develop equally: compassion (karuna) on one side, and wisdom (panna) on the other. Here compassion represents love, charity, kindness, tolerance, and such noble qualities on the emotional side, or qualities of the heart, while wisdom would stand for the intellectual side or the qualities of the mind.

If one develops only the emotional, neglecting the intellectual, one may become a good-hearted fool; while to develop only the intellectual side [and] neglecting the emotional may turn one into a hard-hearted intellect without feeling for others. Therefore, to be perfect one has to develop both equally. That is the aim of the Buddhist way of life: in it wisdom and compassion are inseparably linked together, as we shall see later.

Now, in ethical conduct (sila), based on love and compassion, are included three factors of the noble eightfold path: namely, right speech, right action, and right livelihood.

Right Action is the fourth aspect of the Path 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.

Not killing literally means “not to take life under any circumstances throughout the universe, with no exceptions.” No form of intentional killing is permitted, directly or indirectly.”

There may be times when the practice seems to come with effortless ease, for example, when you feel no impulse to kill.

On the other hand, when you are hurt, you may lose all patience and actually think of killing another human being. At that time you violate the precept in terms of mental action: the karma of thought.

What about more subtle cases, where we implicitly or indirectly support others to kill, such as in allowing our government’s military activities or capital punishment? Is this in accord with the conventional meaning of this bodhisattva precept? No, it is not. One who lives for the welfare of all beings may in no way willingly support or be a condition for any killing.

Killing is the most extreme expression of ignorance. It is a radical turning away from the true meaning of life and death. Killing shows disrespect for the miracle of all life.

If we accept in our hearts this strict interpretation of the precept, we may come to share a feeling of responsibility for the killing that is happening worldwide. Despite our grief about and opposition to such killing, we may still see that in fact we are a part of it.

Right Action" is about "right" morality—translated as samyak or samma—It means 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.


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