The Eightfold Path: Right Action (1)

Soup arrives
I remember when I first encountered Buddhism in the flesh, years back, at a Tibetan Buddhist centre. I recall studying the Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life by Shantideva and was impressed by the immense depth that was given to describing the precise rules and laws that governed the life and behaviour of a bodhisattva; a Sanskrit term for a person dedicated to leading all beings to the awakened state of freedom. How difficult it must be to achieve such an exalted and super-human condition I thought, and what a memory and what discipline an individual would need in order to put so many rules and so many steps into practice. Although many of the themes that ran through the text were impressive and in part inspirational, I was turned off by the excessive rigidity of it all.
In truth the text was my introduction to the world of super-human Buddhism, which I have written about on several occasions. It was a window onto the world of wishful thinking and non-human aspirations. It was a perspective from religious Buddhism.
I consider myself to be fortunate to have been born into the west, in a modern world, where superstition and religious mores do not dominate our interior mental spaces and collective discourse. In the west applying such a mandate of rigid morality is only really appropriate in its complete form in a monastic setting, and in my experience and observations, produces various psychological responses that tend to manifest in the form of either insecurity and a sense of inferiority, or an obsessive and mindless dedication to a religious identity and code. Each to his or her own however, and if such an approach works for some, great, for the vast majority though, it does not.
The Bodhisattva as an ideal seems to have been an attempt to bridge the often self-absorbed and isolationist practice of an ascetic or renunciate monastic to engagement with the everyday world of regular folk. I am currently reading about the development of Mahayana Buddhism, which is where the ideal of the Bodhisattva first emerges, and so far what I have gathered is that this movement within Buddhism occurred as a response to the separation between the monastics and lay practitioners and as a response to the need to make Buddhism more relevant and accessible to lay practitioners. The Mahayana was also a calling to a higher purpose beyond self-liberation, where individuals who awakened were traditionally given the name of Arahat and defined by their ability to escape the wheel of suffering and incarnation on the earthly plane. That is to say, you’re free, off you go now and don’t come back. In theory at least these guys didn’t have to concern themselves with the unawakened world, which was left behind.
The bodhisattva as a modality implies the willingness to stretch our imagination and subsequent actions (including practice) to include the world at large. There is recognition that within the truth of interdependence, we are all intimately connected to each other, and to the world we inhabit, and therefore it is not enough for us to seek freedom from suffering for ourselves, but it is instead for us to bridge our experience to include all life. This is quite clearly an extremely noble aspiration. But, how does it look realistically and without the hyperbolic religious formulation that we can find in many traditional Mahayana texts, which evolve into ever more extreme and mythological images and ideals?
In a way, Right Action represents a simple modal for extending our personal pursuit of freedom, awakening, and the end of dukkha, to others. I would dare to say that developing bodhisattva aspirations is a natural stage in travelling the path; sooner or later we mature enough to grasp that we must include others in our circle of care. Right Action has been sold as a system for avoiding the accumulation of negative karma, but that seems to point towards a rather selfish, and nowadays, extremely abstract motivation for changing one’s behaviour.
To observe the threefold model of Right Action as disciplines beyond a simple moderation of our behaviour is to develop a deeper understanding of the interdependent relationship between all forms of life. Additionally, it is a call to consider others as having equal importance to ourselves. It is a maturation of empathy to compassion. We evolve the ability to connect to another, to the ability to know that ‘other’ is not separate from ‘me’ and that such boundaries are part of the artificial edifice that surrounds the notion of a separate self. 
First course
Right Action is not a call to a forced morality then, but a teaching of the fact that murder, theft and sexual misconduct cause suffering to ourselves, others and society. We can talk about karma, but it doesn’t seem necessary because the consequences of such actions are so clear and are condemned openly in all societies.
When Right Action is integrated into our way of being it leads us towards an understanding that rules and laws, morality and do and don’ts are not the stuff of realisation. They are in part about institutionalised and social control. On a practice level a moral code functions as a pointer towards an area of life that requires attention and examination, where we need to initially employ restraint. That is not to say that organisational regulation and the implementation of codes of conduct is a bad thing. Rather I am interested in the individual and not organisations in these blog posts and on an individual level rigid external rules tend to produce conformist or rebellious reaction, which miss the point of why we should choose to moderate or modify our behaviour in the first place.
The motivational force for determining an adjustment in the three arenas of action comes naturally when it emerges from mindful, felt connection to the deepest levels of our own individual human experience; as well as to the richness and immense fragility and interconnection that defines the world around us.
Finally, Right Action is strongly linked to the themes I raised in the post on Right Speech. Thus, our actions should be marked by transparency, honesty and attention. The application of mindful attention, care, and presence to our actions is a core aspect of Right Action. For more on this, see Right Speech, P.2.
The Main course
Criminal acts are all covered by law. They are all included as part of unethical action and therefore will not be discussed here, and because we know what is illegal, there’s no reasons to state why murder is wrong, etc. Making this explicit will allow me to explore below other dimensions of these three areas. So, grab your knives and forks, the main course beckons.
Examining our relationship with killing can potentially be either fascinating or depressing. Life means all sentient beings, so therefore humans, animals and insects. The issue of intent is an important one and here it is intentional killing that is the primary cause of unethical behaviour. For most reasonably well-adjusted individuals the idea of murder will at worst enter our minds only as an occasional fantasy regarding colleagues, a boss, politicians, or that bastard who cut us up on the A4. Yes, people do murder one another, but thankfully it is rather rare. After humans then we are left with animals and insects.
If we eat meat, do we kill? Unless we are active hunters, it is not very likely, but do we support murder though by eating animal flesh? Well, yes, we do. We can argue about whether we intentionally do so, but that would be rather dull. I tend to take the stance that if we are aware, then we are actively involved. It’s then a question of how we choose to respond.
The fundamental basis for not killing is that all beings wish to be happy, and that by taking life we create misery. The amount of suffering for animals in the meat trade is immense. In the pursuit of lower price meat and more ‘efficient’ methods of meat production, incredible amounts of suffering is created for cows, chickens, pigs and lamb, etc. We can all make more careful choices in the meat we choose to buy and not support battery farmed animals and yet an animal still has to die to fill our plate.
Chewing on gristle
For many Buddhist becoming a vegetarian is a natural and ethical step to take in response to this wider call for ethical behaviour. This ensures they are not involved in the meat trade and the job is done, so to speak. As vegetarians start to happily eat fruit-and-veg, they may believe that they have escaped from taking life. Yet, unfortunately, they are wrong. This is not a criticism, just a reflection on the difficulty of avoiding taking any life at all.
Farming kills millions and millions, if not billions, of insects. Even organic farming kills countless little critters. Digging the land, protecting crops, with or without pesticides, takes life. Farming also destroys the habitats of animals. The bottom line is that for us to eat, something has to die.
What about moving around? When driving, insects die on our windscreens and under our tyres at an impressive rate and hedgehogs, foxes, cats and many others species all over the world are run over and squashed daily. Animals are also killed in laboratories to produce drugs that heal us and provide cosmetics. The production of cotton, and obviously leather, means death too as harvesting gets underway.
These facts can make people miserable. A highly charged emotive response may produce depression or feelings of hopelessness, yet, there is something quite profound to be gained from realising how our existence is based on unavoidable death.
Becoming spiritual can often result in a form of romanticisation. Utopian fantasies can emerge. A perfect world where we imagine it is possible for no one to ever be hurt may linger in our dreams or projections. Or, there may be the illusion that we should be able to ultimately control life. Get rid of killing. End pain for everyone. Yet, the interplay between life and death is profoundly sobering, and when looked at deeply, brings us into touch with the preciousness of life and its finite nature. By touching deeply the awareness of what is involved in the movements and processes that bring meat or vegetables to our plate, we can get in touch with an authentic appreciation for what made the meal possible and be grateful. This is really sobering and gratitude is an enormously underrated human expression.
I believe we do life a disservice by avoiding looking at death. This is another reflection of the dysfunctional nature of modern society from which we absorb so many shared myths; Death is bad, don’t look at it. Greed is good, always seek more. If you can’t see it, it’s probably not there, and if it is, it’s not important. Don’t look out the window and see how much pain made your lifestyle possible. This may seem a little hardcore, but if we are to grow up eventually, and stop messing up the planet and supporting an unsustainable economic system, we have to look squarely in the face of the wider implications of our actions, choices and lifestyles. We have to be willing to see how death is part of life and how much of it excessive and avoidable.
More uncomfortable bites
It’s not only though an issue of eating meat or killing insects. In considering the place of awareness in determining whether we contribute to killing we may consider the following. Do I support a foreign policy that involves the deaths of innocents? Do I buy products from a company that pollutes rivers killing aquatic life and destroying eco-systems, rendering them unable to support life and robbing future generations of their gifts? (Considering the lack of company regulation in China where most of what we now buy comes from, it is pretty much guaranteed that we are supporting this process to some degree. Oh, and that’s not to mention the number of suicides at the factories that build Apple products due to awful working conditions and slave labour hours: yes I’m preaching, and so what!). Do I drive a car, or travel in an air-plane that run on fuel obtained through wars of aggression, or the support of dictators? Am I travelling into an airport that was built on marsh land where rare species were killed for our convenience and that’s polluting the residents living nearby?
Guilt is sometimes a natural response to looking at how selfish we are as a species. But, it is a form of suffering too and self-indulgence that tends to produce little in the way of worthwhile action.
You see, however good we are, and however motivated to do good we may be, death is happening directly and indirectly to support the lifestyles we in the west are still used to. We may think that by buying off our conscious by choosing minor lifestyle changes we have settled the issue. This seems to be about that guilt though and perhaps a strategy for avoiding looking at how unethical modern life is. We shouldn’t be afraid to look directly into the cycles of death and life that permeate existence on this Earth. In fact we must if we are to ever be motivated enough to change and support change.
Some digestive enzymes
Minimising our contribution is a worthy step to take though, and necessary, and is certainly part of a modern day code of Right Action. Eating organic food and growing your own food stuff where possible is of course an excellent idea. Supporting campaigns to end animal testing and doing whatever you can to support more sustainable living and ethical animal produce is both necessary and important. Speaking out on injustice and not supporting companies that make a fast buck at the expense of lives is also a must and requires that more and more of us do so and consistently in order to stimulate a response. It’s easy to lose hope if we look deeply at the bigger picture, but in part, what is needed is a new culture of responsible engagement that has to start with the individual being more aware. By doing our part and standing on the side of an alternative to mindless consumerism, we make an important contribution. We engage in 21st century Right Action.
Interdependence as a central theme in Buddhism reminds us of our responsibility to others and to life. We need to eventually contribute and the question remains, once you’re aware, can you really do nothing? As communication has made quantum leaps, the interdependent nature of all forms of life has become ever clearer on all levels of society. It is not longer a spiritual belief, or an exclusively ecological notion, but a living fact that is staring us in the face and asking us why we are committing collective suicide. The intelligent Buddhist academic, author and Zen activist David Loy has much to say on this theme for those who are interested.