An interpretation of The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path: Aspect Four, Right Action (part 5/10)

This is the fifth in a ten part series on my interpretation of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path…. or ‘eight things you should do to realise enlightenment’.

Parts 1-4 available here:

Aspect four – Right Action

At its most basic level right action means leading an ethical life according to the five precepts outlined by The Buddha. These precepts were not meant as commandments that one should follow, but rather as an outline of how a fully enlightened man would naturally act. It follows that in Buddhism, right or moral action is not simply about obeying rules imposed from above, it is about developing a state of mind whereby one’s actions flow naturally from genuine compassion for all living beings. Right action should thus follow on naturally from right understanding and right thought.

Snelling (1987) points out that novice monks and nuns observe five more precepts in addition to the basic five – refraining from eating more than one meal and that before noon, from attending worldly shows and entertainments, from using perfumes and adornments, from sleeping on a high or luxurious bed, and from possessing money. Fully-fledged monks observe 227 precepts. In this section, I will just focus on the five core precepts which are as follows:

  1. To refrain from taking life
  2. To refrain from taking that which is not given
  3. To refrain from misuse of the senses
  4. To refrain from telling lies
  5. To refrain from intoxication with drink or drugs.

The five precepts are all actions to be avoided, but as with the previous two aspects of the path, each also has a positive counterpart which should be actively cultivated.

 Precept One – abstention from harming living beings

This includes abstention from all forms of violence, oppression and injury against others. This means not only refraining from direct forms of violence against others, but also avoiding engaging in any action that one knows has stemmed from or will result in any creature being harmed.

Overt violence is wrong because it is usually arises out of unskilful mental states such as feelings of anger, hatred or aggressiveness which ‘take us over’, and if we indulge these through action these negative emotions will only become stronger. Being violent towards others may well also result in them harbouring ill-feeling towards us, and this is detrimental to our own efforts to find peace of mind.

The cultivation of Love or friendliness is the antithesis to thoughts and acts of hatred and anger. Love and friendship should be expressed in actual deeds and our love should be made obvious to our friends by making the effort to express this in day to day life in order to keep this friendliness alive.

Precept Two – abstention from taking the not given

This involves an abstention not only from overt stealing in the legal sense of the word but also abstention from any sort of gaining through exploitation. Refraining from taking that which is not freely given refers not only to the obvious avoidance of theft but also from partaking in those things which one knows or suspects may have been acquired through the immoral and harmful actions of others.

The root cause of stealing and exploitation is basically craving and the positive counterpart is the generous act of giving, and, as mentioned in the previous section on right thought, this can either mean the giving of gifts, substance or time.

Precept Three – to refrain from misuse of the senses

Our senses are the grossest means whereby we connect to the outside world and, based on a combination of our biology, personality and social conditioning we will find certain sights, sounds, tastes and sensations more or less pleasurable.  Refraining from the misuse of the senses essentially means avoiding becoming too attached to the pleasures we might gain from seeing, hearing, tasting and touching those particular things that we regard as desirable.[i] It should be obvious that overindulging in ‘pleasures of the senses’ is a critical link in perpetuating the illusion of ‘I’, of craving and ultimately suffering, and that avoiding this is crucial to developing the skill of non- attachment.

Taken to extremes, obsession with achieving happiness through sensual pleasure only encourages other negative traits that are not conducive to developing peace of mind. To give some very common examples:

– Overeating can lead to tiredness which reduces concentration levels

– Excessive music, especially while engaged in other tasks, is a distraction from what it is we are actually doing, and thus not conducive to right concentration

– Obsessing over beauty – either where other people or objects are concerned can easily enhance craving

– Obsessing over sensual pleasure, sex in short, at best can fire an idealised passion for and enhanced attachment to a particular person, and at worst it might fuel the desire for ever new and more extreme forms of abuse for the purposes of sexual thrills.

Practically, it follows that practising this precept means engaging in a lot fewer leisure activities than would typically be normal in the west, given that most leisure activities involve the mutual pursuit of sensual gratification. In short, practising this precept requires that we avoid overindulging in excessive eating, drinking, audio-visual entertainment, shopping, beautifying, sexual activity, or intellectualizing.

The positive counterpart to ‘refraining from the misuse of the senses’ is ‘not doing’ and making the effort to develop contentment in whatever situation one finds oneself. This will probably mean learning to be satisfied with a lifestyle that is much lower key and much less stimulating than the norm.

Precept 4 – abstention from false speech

This was dealt with at length in the previous aspect of the path: Right speech. Abstention from false speech entails abstention from lying, abstention from idle gossip and abstention from speech that promotes disunity. The positive counterparts are to engage in speech that is honest, useful and promotes harmony, and the most useful speech of all is to be silent.

Precept 5 – abstention from drink and drugs

The idea of refraining from drink and drugs is that these dull the senses and they are used to escape from oneself and from the world. Buddhist training is about developing a sense of clarity and awareness of the world as it really is and of the true nature of self. It is about facing the world as it is and developing the strength to face up to things as they really are, which one is much less able to do if one is mired in narcotics.

The positive counterpart to this precept is mindfulness or awareness, which we will come to later in aspects seven and eight of the path.

Reflection

 Practising right action is the most immediately accessible means whereby we can develop happiness. Precept one focus on developing selfless action, and seeking happiness in this is much more stable than selfish action because it is impossible for me to always get what I want, while it is relatively easy to find opportunities to help others; it is logical to seek happiness in renunciation because its opposite, happiness through attachment, is contingent and thus fleeting; and it is necessary to develop awareness, which precepts three and five focus on because we need this in order to get know our true nature and how fickle our cravings are, which in turn is crucial to being able to maintain effort along this difficult path and ultimately develop a more selfless, stable and deep rooted and peaceful happiness.

Notes

For the full bibliography please see part two.

[i]           Technically I could include smell as one of the five senses, but I think for most this is less of an ‘attachment issue’ than the other four senses.

[ii]           On this later point, excessive intellectual activity, as Buddhism regards the mind as a sort of sixth sense, rather than a discrete entity.

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