The Eightfold Path: Right Action (1)

I want to remind readers that I am not an authority on Buddhist matters. I simply write about my own understanding and the conclusions I have reached after many years of practising a variety of Buddhist traditions and hanging out with all manner of Buddhist organisations, schools and other. Right Action brings us into the field of behavioural adjustments, and is often equated with morality, a touchy topic, which I will freely explore with my own ideas.
When first approaching Right Action as the next blog post, I was not at all motivated as I wanted to avoid repeating the themes covered in Right Speech. Well, the social dimension opened up the topic for me and I found myself having something to say. As far as I am concerned meditation practice must be an eventual avenue to engaging socially, which is essentially the point I make below. That said, let’s eat. 
A little antipasto
Applying awareness and presence changes the dynamic we have with experience, and our interaction with it: is this not obvious? Moments are not enough however; we need to build capacity as Ken McLeod reminds us.
Avoidance of rigid systems of behavioural and therefore social control is highly appropriate for the day and age we live in. But how do we decide whether our actions are appropriate, or inappropriate, integrous or otherwise? Here’s a clue: look at the bigger picture and apply copious amounts of awareness and engagement.
Avoiding excessive moral lecturing on how we should or should not inhabit our bodies and actions, is not only a right, but a must if we are to exhibit any degree of autonomy and make the path our own. But where should we lead our wagons?
Right Action is divided into three areas. It concerns the avoidance, or elimination, of killing, theft and sexual misconduct. That sounds easy enough, right? However, both killing and theft have less explicit aspects that make their total avoidance, well, unavoidable. Sexual misconduct is less ambiguous and easier to respect as a moral code one may choose to adopt, although I would be cautious in laying out non-negotiable moral edicts here and strongly believe religion has no place in our bedrooms.
But what is the motivation for moderating our actions if we do not succumb to holy authority, or guilt? Surely, in this day and age, we should be able to do as we please, as long as it doesn’t harm anybody, right? This is valid, but we need to pay attention to the bigger picture, and for most of us, that is simply not happening enough.
As with Right Speech, Right Action emerges out of Right View and Right Intent. Therefore the underlying motivation for taking care with our actions is to reduce suffering. This is in keeping with the Four Truths.This applies at a local level with regards to our immediate circle of influence and extends to the social impact our choices and actions have on the wider world. With their often unseen consequences, the impact of our daily choices are of real importance. In fact the nature of not seeing is one of the key failings that permits us to avoid assuming responsibility, and therefore authority, for our actions.Yet, once you are aware, what comes next?


  1. This is a wonderful post, and I feel reflects some feelings and thoughts I’ve been having recently while doing the simplest of things, such as using water, buying food, considering whether to buy a car. I feel fully the two levels, small lifestyle changes which have unknown impacts, but also an urge to do something bigger and the friction that this last one creates with the image I have of who I am. Stepping the tightrope between egotistical and complacent approaches when thinking of how to make a bigger, positive impact while trying to focus on real action, here and now, is not easy. A question comes to mind; is it ok to work towards something which may have a big positive impact in the future while creating no current improvements in the world, and all the time not being fully sure that it will produce the results I envisage, a worthy course of action? Or should I simply go help out at a homeless person’s shelter or something similar?


    • Who is to say Paul? I have long struggled with similar questions and I think ultimately there is no single, right answer. It’s helpful to remind ourselves how important it is to examine the actual, real conditions of the small world we are currently inhabiting and, in particular, the commitments we’ve made; family, work, friends, and so on. It’s important that we do right by those we have committed to whilst exploring how we might work with the conditions that are currently important. For most of us, that is challenge enough.
      I think it ultimately comes down to a question of time and balance. How much time do we need to expend on ensuring we maintain a healthy degree of of internal balance, so that when we give, we do not drain ourselves? Then, how much time (and energy) do we need to expend in order to ensure we take care of those who depend on us? What’s left over afterwards? Is it realistic to invest that time and energy in other projects? If so, which inspire, or motivate you most? Can you commit to such projects for a meaningful amount of time so as to actually help those in need, rather than just drift in and out of people’s lives?
      The more personal commitments you have, the harder it will be to give to others whilst maintaining some degree of balance. You can probably understand why being young and single lends itself more to grand ambition and saving the world than family life does.
      As for what is ok, you decide.


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