Right Action is the fourth aspect of the Buddhist Eightfold Path. But what is "right action," exactly?
For me, the words "right action" evoke social and environmental activism, and such work can be examples of right action. But "Right Action" in the Buddhist sense also means acting in harmony with the other aspects of the path. These aspects are:
- Right View
- Right Intention
- Right Speech
- Right Action
- Right Livelihood
- Right Effort
- Right Mindfulness
- Right Concentration
This means that when we act "rightly," we act without selfish attachment to our work. We act mindfully, without causing discord with our speech. Our "right" actions spring from compassion and from understanding of the dharma. Each aspects of the path supports all the other aspects.
Right Action and the Precepts
Right Action, Right Speech and Right Livelihood make up the ethical conduct part of the path. Most basically, Right Action refers to keeping the precepts. The many schools of Buddhism have various lists of precepts, but the precepts common to most schools are these:
The precepts are not a list of commandments. Instead, they describe how an enlightened being naturally lives and responds to life's challenges. As we work with the precepts, we learn to live harmoniously and compassionately.
Right Action and Mindfulness Training
The Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh said, "The basis of Right Action is to do everything in mindfulness." He teaches Five Mindfulness Trainings that correlate to the five precepts listed above.
The first training involves respecting life. In awareness of the suffering caused by destruction of life, we work to protect all living things and this planet that sustains life.
The second training involves generosity. We give freely of our time and resources where they are needed, without hoarding things we don't need. We do not exploit other people or resources for our own gain. We act to promote social justice and well-being for everyone.
The third training involves sexuality and avoiding sexual misconduct. In awareness of the pain caused by sexual misconduct, we honor commitments and also act when we can to protect others from sexual exploitation.
The fourth training involves loving speech and deep listening. This means avoiding language that causes enmity and discord. Through deep listening to others, we tear down the barriers that separate us.
The fifth training involves what we consume. This includes nourishing ourselves and others with healthful food and avoiding intoxicants. It also involves what books we read or what television programs we watch. Entertainments that are addictive or cause agitation might best be avoided.
Right Action and Compassion
The importance of compassion in Buddhism cannot be overstated. The Sanskrit word that is translated as "compassion" is karuna, which means "active sympathy" or the willingness to bear the pain of others. Closely related to karuna is metta, "loving kindness."
It's important to remember also that genuine compassion is rooted in prajna, or "wisdom." Very basically, prajna is the realization that the separate self is an illusion. This takes us back to not attaching our egos to what we do, expecting to be thanked or rewarded.
In The Essence of the Heart Sutra, His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote,
"According to Buddhism, compassion is an aspiration, a state of mind, wanting others to be free from suffering. It's not passive -- it's not empathy alone -- but rather an empathetic altruism that actively strives to free others from suffering. Genuine compassion must have both wisdom and lovingkindness. That is to say, one must understand the nature of the suffering from which we wish to free others (this is wisdom), and one must experience deep intimacy and empathy with other sentient beings (this is lovingkindness)."
Read More: Buddhism and Compassion