We are now on my fourth post regarding how components of the Noble Eightfold Path can lead to the cessation of suffering. In previous posts I wrote about The End of Suffering #1 – Right Understanding, then The End of Suffering #2 – Right Thought, and my last post was The End of Suffering #3 – Right Speech. I would suggest you read these previous posts in addition to what is being presented here.
So what is “right action”? According to the Buddha’s words taken from the Pali Canon right action is as follows:
“And what, monks, is right action? Abstinence from the destruction of life, abstinence from taking what is not given, abstinence from sexual misconduct; this is called right action.”
Pali Canon (SN 45:8, V 8-10)
Right action is where the rubber meets the road, unlike “right understanding” or “right thought”, the Buddha is telling us our actions must align with the right thoughts and right understanding. Here the Buddha lays out three things you must abstain from to practice “right action”:
- The destruction of life
- Taking what is not given
- Sexual misconduct
These three things that you are to abstain from are largely driven by morality. To embrace Buddhism means you must conduct yourself in a moral manner abstaining from killing, stealing, and any form of sexual misconduct. Buddhism requires you to change the way you act not just aspire to a more moral way of living. If you have been brought up in the Christian Religion say Catholicism you are familiar with the Ten Commandments. Where #5 is “Thou shall not kill”, #7 “Thou shall not steal”, #6 “Thou shalt not commit adultery”, and #9 “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife”. These four commandments align pretty well with what the Buddha had in mind.
So how does the destruction of life, taking what is not given, and sexual misconduct create suffering?
The destruction of life
In Buddhism, the scope of abstaining from the destruction of life goes beyond human life and instead means all sentient beings. I’m going to use the definition below for a sentient being, but I think from the Buddha’s perspective it meant any human, animal, fish, or insect that could experience pain and thus suffer.
“Sentient” is an adjective that describes a capacity for feeling. The word sentient derives from the Latin verb sentire, which means “to feel.” The first letters, “sen,” match the beginnings of common English words including sentiment, sensory, and sensation—all of which give hints as to the meaning of the term. In dictionary definitions, sentience is defined as “able to experience feelings,” “responsive to or conscious of sense impressions,” and “capable of feeling things through physical senses.” Sentient beings experience wanted emotions like happiness, joy, and gratitude, and unwanted emotions in the form of pain, suffering, and grief.
Sentience: What It Means and Why It’s Important, By Jane KotzmannApril 8, 2020
If sentient beings feel pain then it reasons that the killing of a sentient being will cause suffering. There is also the premise that causing pain to others harms us, making us more callous, ruthless, and less compassionate, morally bankrupt if you will. That is probably an understatement, but take even what we often consider to be innocuous destruction of life like killing a mosquito or some other insect that has invaded our personal space. I would suspect that many who are on the path would consider even that transgression as a violation of the abstinence of the destruction of life.
From a Buddhist perspective, the destruction of life means all life that can feel pain, which is people, most animals, reptiles, fish, types of marine life, and yes even insects. Make it simple on yourself and try not to kill anything that moves. Makes you think, doesn’t it? Let’s say a rodent or lizard invades your domicile, while your first inclination is to figure out some way to terminate their life as this is most of the time the most expedient and permanent solution, but as a Buddhist, you start thinking how can I capture them and release them outside.
Taking what is not given
From the Buddhist perspective-taking what is not given is more accurately thought of as stealing from someone. Well, that’s the way I interpret it. It is obvious that this will cause suffering for whoever you stole from. Through the ages, this has been a doctrine of all civilizations, one that is punishable by laws prohibiting it. Not only do you harm the person you stole from, but you are likely to end up in prison where you experience all kinds of suffering. The immorality of theft is rarely questioned in most societies, and the consequences are often dire. As one who follows the path, you also suffer ethically, undermining whatever integrity you had to begin with, as your conscience will plague you, not only suffering the direct consequences, but also the guilt that follows.
There are numerous forms of sexual misconduct in this world, but a few come to mind that violate the norms of most societies. Cheating on your spouse or partner, also known as adultery comes to mind. Many marriages and relationships have been destroyed not to mention the harm it does to the family. For many, this breach of trust is devasting and causes immense suffering for the person that was cheated on. Then there are the lowly pedophiles that prey on children, scarring them for life. Other deviants will commit rape on their innocent victims, again causing horrific suffering to the person that was raped. Let’s keep this simple, a Buddhist does not perform any form of sexual misconduct. If you are having any issues understanding why or what constitutes sexual misconduct you need help.
Much of the pain and suffering in this world comes from killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. The Buddha knew this and made sure that his followers abstained from these behaviors if nothing else on purely moral and ethical grounds. The converse of these destructive actions is promoting moral, honorable, and peaceful conduct, that is “right action”.
I wish you peace and happiness; may your life be filled with compassion, kindness, love, and forgiveness towards others.
Let your practice help you end suffering for yourself and all other sentient beings.
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