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The Noble Eightfold Path 4 & 5

This is the fourth of seven blogs that use notes from our 2017 ‘The Buddhist Background To Mindfulness’ course. Each session covers one (or here two) aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path:

4 &5 Right Action and Livelihood

Continuing with ethics, we have already seen how the Buddhist five precepts are beginning to show themselves within the Noble Eightfold Path through Right Speech that includes not lying – now we are going to look at Right Action and Livelihood and how these encompass killing and harming, stealing, harming others sexually and ourselves through intoxication.

Right Action – Skt. samyak-karmānta / Pali sammā-kammanta

“And what monks is right action? Refraining from taking life, refraining from taking what is not given, refraining from sexual misconduct. This is called right conduct.”

Joseph Goldstein – quoting another teacher – says that although this all seems obvious, if our enquiry into where we stand in all this does not make us uncomfortable then we may not be enquiring deeply enough!


On the surface this seems easy enough – we try not to kill or harm other beings. It seems even easier still if we further remember that this does not include harm caused unintentionally, by accident or unknowingly. Here to harm means also the intention to do that harm. However this clarity begins to quickly ebb away once we begin to remember the interconnected nature of our world and how for our lives to flourish in the way that they do means that countless sentient beings loose their lives in the process. Of course we can at least initially plead ignorance – who would have guessed that Palm oil is so destructive? – but once we know we know and this does not even begin to grapple with the issues of eating other animals, killing parasites that harm our bodies and pests that destroy our crops and buildings. It seems on deeper reflection that to simply live is to inevitably kill.

I have no easy answer here, I am as deeply implicated as everyone else and on the issues of killing parasites and pests, as well as pet euthanasia, I am unapologetically a mass and serial killer. However I also know that unnecessarily killing anything – even a spider or fly – leaves me somehow lesser than before that action was committed. This insight has been arrived at not through thought but rather through observation of my felt sense. It has also been accompanied by the realisation that the thing I might consider killing is a minor miracle of life, so complex and unique that there is no way I could even begin to create something equal to replace it. So maybe this is where mindfulness comes in – mindful of my unthinking movement to kill or harm another I pause to let the reaction become conscious and then once made conscious I decide taking full responsibility for what I do next.

Not taking what has not been given

This is the precept not to steal but – as with the above precept – closer inspection reveals the almost impossibility of it. Anyone who is in anyway plugged into money in our society – receiving payment, having investments, owning a pension – is without doubt in someway implicated in something that leaves others disadvantaged and at the worse plain exploited. Even ethical investments – good though they are – cannot have 100% clean hands. Seemingly, as we cannot live without killing, so we cannot live without taking what has not been given.

My own answer to this is to bear consciously the discomfort of my actions while trying to follow the precept wherever I can – again this is directed by the felt sense rather than a set of rules. As our sensitivity grows so what may have previously seemed no big deal becomes one. Reaching over a garden wall to pluck a small flower is truly insignificant to probably everyone other than the person who plucks it once they have arrived at a place where deep down they are not actually comfortable with this action. As compassion is the antidote to harming others so contentment is the antidote to stealing.

Sexual Misconduct

This is a juicy one! In Buddhism, for monks and nuns, it’s simple. No sexual activity. However for us it is not so simple and so the emphasis goes onto sexually harming another. We have already seen how slippery the measure of harm can be and it is true that ways of behaving sexually within our society are under constant review and actions once tolerated are now seen as abusive. Given that this constant process of revision is unlikely to stop it is ‘interesting’ to wonder how we will be viewed by those in the future?

I’m not going to go through all the ways we can hurt each other sexually here – I think it’s more or less pretty obvious – but I do what to focus in on just one person; ourselves. Sexual energy can be almost overwhelming and when caught up in it frequently leads into places that in a calmer mind we would not get into. However, as the very challenging Tibetan Lama, Chogyam Trungpa, realised, it’s “juicyness” is a great opportunity for mindfulness because being so big and powerful it is easy to be mindful of it. So where do I feel that in my body?!! And if I can choose to really observe it will I actually find that it too bears the three marks of existence? Rising up and then fading away is it not transitory? Closely observed is it really personal? And despite the undoubted intense pleasure is it not more long term a cause of suffering? And then again later Tantric Buddhism talks of awakening as an unceasing orgasm: “The Great Bliss” – Maha Sukha. Sex is interesting.

Not becoming intoxicated

Read more narrowly this simply means abstention in the same way sex is abstained from by nuns and monks in the Buddhist Sangha. No booze, no recreational drugs. However I have chosen to say it in this way to bring out the subtleties – I can drink before I become intoxicated and I am often intoxicated without having drunk – for instance, intoxicated by my emotions and obsessions.

Understood in this way intoxication is anything that begins to cloud awareness, that obscures mindfulness and deeper still, the brilliantly shining mind of our Buddha Nature. Intoxication is ultimately ignorance of how things really are.

Right Livelihood – Skt. samyag-ājīva / Pali sammā-ājīva

This is just simply putting into effect right speech and right action – which as we have seen is no mean feat due to all the complexities. However there are plenty of occupations that are plainly not right – arms selling, sex trafficking, slavery, politically picking on the weak and those who will never vote for you anyway – the list goes on. And the opposite – having a pair of clean (ish) hands feels great and the pleasure of this spreads to others. Most of us though are a bit grubby and this is where the opportunity is – how can I bring the qualities of kindness, compassion and wisdom into this place also despite all the limitations?


Lastly, as always Buddhism is about pragmatic observation followed by wise choices. Remember these precepts are not rules but invitations to bring mindfulness and clear understanding into areas of our lives that have bad consequences if not handled skilfully. For this reason there is no tally sheet – if you do this this will happen (although Buddhism does often lapse at a folk level into just such stuff). However this is not what the Buddha taught – he is much more along the lines of wake up, watch what you do, observe the consequences and then make a choice. And it is very personal. No one knows all the causes and conditions that go into any one action – the same seemingly bad thing can be brought about by a myriad of ways, none of which share the same motivation. Killing my dog to save her unnecessary suffering at the very end of her life is not the same as shooting her out of some sadistic pleasure even though the outcome is the same.

From ’Effortless Mindfulness’, Lisa Dale Miller pp. 208-11

Lisa Dale Mille, a mindfulness based psychotherapist, takes right action and seeks to embody it through three principles:

1. Aim to be a light in a world of darkness.

“Without stick or sword, conscientious, full of compassion, one is desirous of the welfare of all sentient beings”

Although every moment of life is an opportunity to illuminate human goodness, it is most potent to do so in the midst of hatred, greed and delusion. Striving to act wisely helps us find clarity and compassion, especially when we feel challenged or in distress. If we aim to meet suffering with a peaceful, wise and compassionate mind, our own inner contentment becomes a source of healing for others in distress. Aspiring to be a source of ‘up-lift-ment’ gives meaning to activities – even mundane, unfulfilling or stressful undertakings – and allows us to tolerate life’s difficulties with patience and grace.

2. Be mindful and temperate.

Temperance cannot be underestimated as a source of mind-body health and healing. Dysregulation of emotion and impulses and the hedonistic harming they cause occur in the absence of temperance. Temperance is associated with the deliberate cultivation of heedfulness (Pali: appamada Skt: apramada Tib: bag yod pa), a calculated awareness of sensations, feelings and thoughts. It is a moment-to-moment determining of what is and is not beneficial and the deliberate choosing of benefit over harm. The Buddha taught heedfulness as a means to, “Break through to your benefit”. This expression exemplifies the motivation one must have to abandon afflictive tendencies. Although many people blame over-emotionality, impulsiveness and addictions on uncontrollability, afflictive habits reign supreme only as long as they have perceived benefit. Once equanimity, moderation or abstinence is embraced as the true benefit, deliberately choosing temperance becomes a no-brainer.

3. Be thrifty and generous.

So much of what we are told to want is irrelevant or detrimental to happiness. Inquiry into unheedful longings exposes our confusion about what actually produces contentment. Selfishness and greed make us crazy; they agitate the body and mind with incessant wanting and distract us from purposeful accumulation and contribution. Frugality is a form of self-compassion that unhooks us from materialistic values and the wiles of advertising. Generosity is compassion and selflessness in action. Studies show that compassion increases generosity even for those with no religious affiliation, and it predicts increased generosity across a variety of economic tasks. Taking only what is offered is another way to practice generosity toward others and proliferate trust in a world that continues to glorify stealing and fraudulence.

Generosity also breeds connectedness. Actively contributing to the healing of our collective woes shifts our attention away from obsessive self-concern. I try my best to encourage patients to give away what they do not need and give back by volunteering for causes that matter to them. Ultimately renouncing selfishness and extravagance to ensure the sustainability of the environment is our highest collective responsibility.

For home consideration

Throughout these notes I have emphasised mindfulness of our felt sense as a moral compass rather than simply using a set of rules or commandments that we will inevitably fall short of and then exclude from awareness so we might avoid the discomfort of our failure. Mindfulness takes us out of this hard win or loose and places us instead in an arena of kind and exploratory process. None of us are perfect, we are unlikely to ever be so, but we can bring awareness into our actions, progressively diminishing ignorance, greed and hatred and increasing kindness, compassion and wisdom. This is the way of the Buddha.

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