Saturday, December 11, 2010

Finding the Right Action

It’s been a while since I’ve addressed the Queer Eightfold Path, or the Noble Eightfold Path as Dorothy might have presented it to Oz .

Or would that be how Rahula would have presented it at Harvey Milk Memorial Plaza in the Castro? You know, Rahula was quite the hottie when he was 18, and the Buddha knew it; that’s when the Buddha instructed his son on the meditation technique of mindfulness of the body, except that the Buddha’s mindfulness of the body meditation isn’t all about, “Oh Jeezus I’m so Hot!” But I digress.

The nice thing about the Eightfold path is that it helps us understand better the nature of our actions as well as shows us how our actions are connected to immediate and future consequences. Another thing to keep in mind with each of the factors of the Eightfold Path is that they are dependent on each other. In other words, you cannot develop Right Intention without first having established Right View. And developing Right Speech can’t happen until you’ve developed Right Intention. Once we’ve established a sense of Right Speech, we’re ready to work on Right Action, because after all, speech is a form of action.

So what is Right Action? Let’s first get out of the way what it is not.

“No, no, don’t do it that way, do it like this, yes, like that, oh yes! That’s the right action! Woo-hoo!”

Erm, that’s not what we mean.

“Well, yeah, he’s cute. But he’s got all that hair crawling up out of his shirt and up his neck. I don’t need that kind of action.”

Uh, no, that’s not it either.

Let’s start first with what the Buddha said about Right Action in the Maha-cattarisaka Sutta (MN 117).

"Of those, right view is the forerunner. And how is right view the forerunner? One discerns wrong action as wrong action, and right action as right action. And what is wrong action? Killing, taking what is not given, illicit sex. This is wrong action.

"And what is right action? Right action, I tell you, is of two sorts: There is right action with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in the acquisitions [of becoming]; and there is noble right action, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path.

"And what is the right action that has effluents, sides with merit, & results in acquisitions? Abstaining from killing, from taking what is not given, & from illicit sex. This is the right action that has effluents, sides with merit, & results in acquisitions.

"And what is the right action that is without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path? The abstaining, desisting, abstinence, avoidance of the three forms of bodily misconduct of one developing the noble path whose mind is noble, whose mind is without effluents, who is fully possessed of the noble path. This is the right action that is without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path.

"One tries to abandon wrong action & to enter into right action: This is one's right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong action & to enter & remain in right action: This is one's right mindfulness. Thus these three qualities — right view, right effort, & right mindfulness — run & circle around right action.”

Yeah I know. That was some pretty esoteric stuff. Let’s simplify it.

The Buddha is telling us that there are two categories of Right Action. The first one he identifies as being “with effluents.” This is just what could be called mundane Right Action because it’s tied to everyday activities in normal lay life (Um, and that doesn't mean the life of getting laid). It’s connected to the effluents because all this type of Right Action assures us is that we are good people who can expect a reasonably happy and productive life, as well as a peaceful and easy death. In our next life, we can expect to be reborn into a pleasant existence.

The Right Action that is “without effluents” includes those actions associated with someone who is actively seeking liberation, actively seeking release: in other words, someone who wishes to attain Nibbana and end the cycle of rebirth. This more than likely would include monks and nuns.

For most of us, the mundane Right Action applies, which is fine. Mundane Right Action is not lame or unimportant. It’s very important. It’s just that most of us do not live a monastic life nor have any desire to do so.

The Buddha then identifies three key factors that describe what mundane right action includes, and what he identifies is three of the Five Precepts. Don’t kill, don’t steal, and don’t be a whore dog. Just in case you’re not clear what “illicit sex” or the Third Precept means for we moes, read this and this too.

The Buddha then talks about developing the proper frame of mind necessary to abandon wrong action and replace it with Right Action. Part of this includes Right Effort and Right Mindfulness, which, ironically come later in the Noble Eightfold Path. This might appear to contradict what I said earlier about how each step on the path is dependent on the preceding steps. But it doesn’t really, because the development of Right Action is accurately described as being a prerequisite to Right Effort and Right Mindfulness. If you don’t know what constitutes Right Action, how will you know what the Right Efforts are needed to develop it? And if you haven’t developed Right Action, how will your mind be at ease so you can develop Right Concentration?

Look at it this way. If your meditation is a struggle because you’re worried about who you slept with the previous night and what might happen with that trick, then you haven’t developed Right Action. And if you’re withholding your HIV status from your sexual partners, then you haven’t developed Right Action either. And all of these examples can be traced back to a failure to establish Right Intention and Right View.

Once we develop a clear idea of what is Right Action, we start to practice it and evaluate our outcomes. We develop skillfulness by paying attention to what happened before, during and after a particular action. What was our intention as a situation developed? Did our action in that situation result with pleasant consequences for ourselves and for the others involved? Will how the relevant situation was resolved lead to more pleasant consequences in the future, or might it lead to an unpleasant situation?

That’s a lot of thinking. But it’s precisely a lack of this type of thinking that we can always trace our mistakes to. If something went wrong with a situation, or the results we expected didn’t happen, it’s because we didn’t think about these factors or we lacked the proper frame of mind – we lacked Right View and Right Intention. So when you want to get the right action, you need to employ Right Action.


  1. "So when you want to get the right action, you need to employ Right Action." THis will look great on a T-shirt.

  2. Gee, I never thought of it that way, but I guess it would!