The Noble Eightfold Path: Right Action

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Few parts of the Buddhist path are as visible as “right action.” Every day we’re outside in our cars, jobs, shopping centers, interacting with people and the world around us (depending these days on Covid restrictions). Thousands of little moments, each bearing the potential to cause harm or create value, commensurate with the intentions driving our actions. We make countless decisions to give, take, help, hinder, take action — or do nothing.

As we saw in last week’s post on right speech, right action represents one of the most direct opportunities to practice the moral discipline of this path. By committing to right action in daily life, we can embody the values of compassion and kindness. We can reduce suffering in our own lives and in the lives of those we encounter in our activities. We can improve our wellbeing and that of our families, communities, and ultimately our societies. 

Getting there sure isn’t easy, but at least we have some clear signposts to follow. 

The practice of right action

We saw with the practice of right speech the spectrum of effects our words can produce. Likewise, we can assess the kinds of actions we engage in for the degree of harm or helpfulness they generate.

On the harmful end of the spectrum, we see actions that might seem relatively innocuous, such as having a glass of whiskey; and we see clearly heinous acts, such as murder or other forms of violence. Judging the relative position on this harmfulness scale requires some discernment. For example, it might be true that a drop of whiskey in itself isn’t the worst thing. However, we also might acknowledge that one glass often leads to another. At that point, our better judgment drains away — and some not-so-great behaviors might follow. 

We can easily justify our behaviors, however large or small. Mindfulness practice can shine some light on the fallibility of these justifications, though. Mindfulness helps us to create a bit of space in our minds between impulse and action. 

Then we can ask, “Is this action likely to create more or less suffering?” 

As an easy guide, some of the classic examples of “wrong action” include lying, stealing, abusing intoxicants, sexual misconduct, and killing. As such, many Buddhists keep precepts of “not lying,” “not stealing,” and so forth.

On the helpful end of the spectrum, we see the flip side of these behaviors. (We’ll see the Buddha often spoke in “flip sides,” with one statement followed by the reverse of that statement.) As we see that intoxication can lead to suffering, it follows that having restraint over one’s impulses supports wellbeing. As we see that violence creates tremendous harm, we recognize that caring for life in all its forms produces mutual benefit.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a world-renowned Vietnamese monk in the Zen Buddhist tradition, offers a practice embodying right action called the Five Mindfulness Trainings:

  • Reverence for life: while we probably (hopefully) find it easy not to kill other humans, we can also extend this respect to all other forms of life on our planet. This mindfulness training also calls us to go beyond just avoiding the causing of harm to other beings — but to protecting life where we can.
  • True happiness: knowing that stealing, cheating, exploiting, or otherwise taking advantage of others produces suffering, we can find a better path to happiness through generosity. This training involves practicing material generosity, being supportive, and helping others to find happiness.
  • True love: sexual misconduct and exploitation can cause irreparable harm to people. Sexual desire can be a powerful force for harm and shouldn’t be confused with love. Through this practice, we seek to cultivate healthy bonds through authentic, loving relationships and to ensure a safe environment for others, especially children.
  • Loving speech and deep listening: we see a clear overlap here with the practice of right speech, recognizing the connection between our words and their effects. Harmful speech often leads to violence between individuals, families, belief systems, or nations. Practicing deep listening and loving speech plays a critical role in promoting peace.
  • Nourishment and healing: the foods, drinks, and even the information we consume can be toxic to our health. Rather than consume for pleasure, taking things into our bodies that produce a short-lived rush but leave us depleted, we should aim to consume nourishing things. This training includes seeking out healthy food and drinks, as well as eliminating toxic “entertainment” ever-present on our many digital screens.

Reflecting on right action and the SDGs

It doesn’t take too much mental contortion to see connections between right action and sustainable development. One of the SDGs connects directly to the fifth of the Five Mindfulness Trainings above: SDG 12, Responsible Consumption and Production. Practicing right action means being aware of the impacts of the things we buy, the foods we eat, the clothes we wear, and the electronics we use. It means being aware of where all these things come from, who makes them, and where they go when we’re done with them. 

Right action also relates closely to SDG 8, Decent Work and Economic Growth, which covers the rights of workers producing our goods. And it connects to SDG 14, Life Below Water and SDG 15, Life on Land for the environmental impacts of our purchases.

Purchasing certified products where possible is a good step; there are many kinds of certifications for many different products, from foods to clothing to furniture and more. While consumerism, in many ways, is antithetical to Buddhist philosophy, we have to do the best we can in the environment we’re in. Being a conscious consumer is at least a good start on addressing some of the harms of our ever-hungry society.

There’s no doubt that it’s a lot of work and immensely challenging at that to monitor our every purchase. But the more we practice and contemplate these teachings, the more we see that the behaviors so profoundly embedded in our consumption culture do not produce happiness. On the contrary, they often lead us on a hedonic treadmill, always chasing after more, leaving us never satisfied.

We can see another direct relationship between right action and SDG 10, Reduced Inequalities. This goal concerns the harms caused by discrimination based on race, gender, religious belief, or economic status. Practicing right action means not turning a blind eye to this injustice but instead seeking to help improve conditions for everyone, wherever we can. Reverence for life, true happiness, true love, and loving speech and deep listening are valuable practices in achieving this goal. 

We cannot hope to have peaceful societies that are sustainable over the long-term if certain groups suffer systematic exclusion from economic or other opportunities. Lifting up all members of our communities will be a critical part of sustainable development.

There are countless connections to the SDGs because there are innumerable connections with our everyday behaviors in our deeply interconnected world.

In the next post, we’ll take this a step further still. We will look at the practice of “right livelihood”: the impact of our professions.