The Eight Fold Path: Step Three, Right Action

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Continuing our examination of the Eight Fold Path.  Step three; Right Speech

With the third step of the Eight Fold Path, Right Action, we move from the wisdom portion of the path to the ethical conduct section.  Of all the steps on the path, Right Action seems to be the one that’s easiest for people to understand.  The Dalai Lama broke down Right Action to it’d bare essentials when he said “If you can, help people, if you cannot do that, then at least do not harm them”.

I usually tell people that if what they’re doing makes their hearts feel happy, and isn’t hurting anyone, they are probably taking the Right Action.

However, if we want to get a little more formal and traditional, Buddhism breaks down Right Action into five things to generally avoid, referred to as the Five Cardinal Precepts. These precepts advise us to abstain from:



Wrong speech

Sexual misconduct

Unhealthy food and intoxicants


There’s a flavor in the Buddhist approach to ethics, that                some people seem to really enjoy, yet can drive others crazy.  Buddhism is intentionally vague about what is exactly meant by ‘abstaining from’.  There are no ‘Thal shall not’s’ in Buddhism, which means it’s up to us to determine what each of these things means to us individually and how we approach our practice with them.  Take for example the first precept on abstaining from, killing, some people believe this means that we should lead a vegetarian lifestyle, to avoid the killing of animals, while others go so far as to wear a dust mask, to prevent accidentally inhaling microbes.  Others feel this rule is only applicable to human beings and doesn’t apply in times of war or in the defense of others.  Buddha nature trusts the individual to make the right choice and allows for the possibility of us screwing it up every now and then (while hoping that these mistakes will happen more with the precepts concerning unhealthy food or wrong speech as opposed to killing and stealing).  We’re going to make mistakes from time to time.  I, myself, have broken all five of these precepts, yet they still let me be a Buddhist.  The important thing is to refocus and learn from our mistakes so we can do better next time.

It’s important to understand though that your Right Action might not be everyone’s Right Action.  Humans build karma in different ways and at their own rates.  People’s views surrounding sexual misconduct are a great example of this.  Everyone seems to have radically different views about pornography, cheating, fetishes, homosexuality, and every other thing that involves our bodies.  The only thing we seem to have in common is that we all have strong opinions on these subjects.

Another lesson to be learned about Right Action is that while we have the free will to act however we see fit, we are not entitled to the fruits of our actions.  Just because we’re nice to someone, doesn’t mean they have to be nice to us in return, and if they’re not, we need to be accepting of that, and be comfortable that we did the right thing on our end.  What we do and how we behave should not be dependent upon the actions or reactions of others. We do the right thing, because it’s the right thing, and then we move on.

If you haven’t already done so, take a few moments to examine your feelings on these five precepts.  Where do you draw your line in the sand on each of these?  While some positions might seem crystal clear, there is usually at least one that gets a little cloudy, and it might be different things for different people.  What is easy for you, might be very difficult for others.  For example, I have no desire to take intoxicants, and this one had never been an issue for me in my life, however, I often get hung up and struggle with wrong speech.  Why are the easy ones easy for you, and why might they be difficult for someone else?

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