Eightfold Path for the Householder:
Right Action

By Jack Kornfield

 

The fourth step of the Eightfold Path, Right Action, is traditionally taught as the major aspect of the precepts. Its fundamental quality is ahimsa in Sanskrit, or non-harming. It means acting in such a way that we don't harm other beings. Gandhi said:

To come to the heart of consciousness or of truth one must be able to love the meanest creature as oneself. And those that think that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion really means.

To live in this complicated society in a political, economic and social reality, a major part of our spiritual practice is how we relate to all the other people and all the other beings around us, non-harming. It sounds so simple, and yet we look at the world around us, and there are currently on the planet between 40 and 50 wars, there are approximately 60 countries or more that Amnesty International lists as places where people are tortured and put in prison for their views; religious, political, social views. Even in countries where that doesn't happen so much and there isn't war, there's a lot of harm being inflicted from one person or one being to another.

So we need to begin to inquire, why does this harm happen? Why do we hurt people? Have you ever hurt anyone in your life in some fashion or other? Perhaps there's no one in the room who could not think of some instance. Why do we do it? Have you ever looked? If we want to become conscious and learn the meaning of ahimsa or harmlessness, let's see if we can figure out why we harm. For some people, if you look or you inquire very deeply, you see that the moment you would hurt someone else through your actions, or your words, you're in pain.

If we really look at it, a lot of the source is our own pain, maybe not all, and I don't want to explain it completely, but to just say some things for you to look into: Do we ever hurt people when we're not really in pain ourselves? And the pain that we have generates fear -- we're afraid of some more pain or we're afraid of some pain we've experienced in the past. We're afraid of the pain of hunger, or the pain of loss, or the pain of denial, or the pain of some other kind of thing. So fear gets generated.

Then out of our fear comes aggression. It can be the aggression of hatred, or the aggression of greed, of grasping -- to try to keep us safe, to get what we need so we won't have to experience pain. So we look at our hearts. Anybody who really meditates deeply sees that within us is rage and fear and greed and cruelty. Has anyone meditated for a long time and not seen cruelty in themselves, that capacity to be cruel? And there also is love, joy, tenderness, and compassion, and all of the virtues of Jesus and the great bodhisattvas. It's all in there.

We're talking about non-harming now. One part is that we see that we have aggression, hatred, and greed, and it comes from fear, and that's generated from pain. What's the route of that, what's the route of all that? Maybe the route is a very simple thing, deep but very simple. The sense of "me," of "mine," of separateness. "I have this, I want this, I want to keep this body, this sensation, this feeling, this way of being." And out of that comes fear, or out of that comes identification, pain; then fear.

If we want to learn about Right Action and non-harming, we need to look at this sense of self, of "I", and we need to look at our own pain. We need to see how we separate ourselves. Who in the world do you consider "we" and who do you consider "them?" Are the Russians "them," are the Republicans "them," are the Democrats "them," are women "them," are men "them," are poor people "them," are rich people "them," are angry people "them," or spiritual people "us," or non-spiritual people "us"? Wherever there's that sense of "us" and "them," it's like an extension of "I," "me," "mine.". It's now "we," "us," "ours," and "them" and they're different. And then it becomes possible to harm.

From the Tibetan lama Kalu Rinpoche:

You live in the illusion and appearance of things.
There is a reality, but you do not know this.
You are that reality.
When you understand this,
you will see that you are nothing,
and being nothing,
you are everything.
That is all.

Very simple teaching. Very profound and deep.

The basis for virtue, for Right Action, is both mystical and practical, in that it comes truly from non-harming; it comes out of a sense of our connectedness with one another, and with all of life. It's mystical and practical, and it ties those levels of our experience together.

The Buddha taught the path to happiness through body, through speech, through the heart, through the mind -- altogether. And the tools he gave were those of virtue, of learning how to speak, and acting kindly and wisely, of generosity, of learning how to give and love, so we'll be happier. Virtue makes us happier; acting honestly and truly, and non-harming makes us happier, generosity makes us happy, and then meditation, calming of the mind and opening of the heart. All of these parts are the path and bring a certain joy, a certain strength to our practice.

These are the instructions the Buddha gave the people who understood his teachings:

"Go forth, O monks, for the gain of the many, for the welfare of many and compassion for the world, for the good, the gain, the welfare of all beings. Proclaim, O monks, the glorious Dharma and treat your life of holiness, perfect and pure."

For householders, which is what we are as a group, our main practice is virtue. You could say our main practice is awareness, but the main teachings are working with virtue, which means working with how we act in the world since we are not renunciates; how we speak and act with one another, to learn to be grounded in ahimsa or non-harming. In discovering the uprightness of heart and action, there's a real strength that comes to us.

In the Dhammapada, the very first verses of the Buddha, it's said:

One person on the battlefield conquers
an army of a thousand men,
another conquers themselves
and they are the greater.
Conquer yourself, not others,
discipline yourself and learn
true freedom.

There's not only a sense of joy that comes from living an honest and straightforward life, but there's a power to it. Power is wonderful if it's used properly. There's a strength and a power to living honestly.

The element of Right Action or virtue really holds two parts to it; one is the non-harming which we'll call "restraint"; and the other is the positive side, not that of restraining oneself, but of caring or acting, which we call compassion or love.

In the shortest talk the Buddha ever gave, someone asked, "Give me the gist of your teachings real simply." He said, "Fine. Refrain from that which is unskillful or that which harms; do good, and purify your heart." That's it!

The teaching of the heart and the training of it is to begin to learn how to care for all that we do with our world. My teacher Achaan Chaa loved to talk about virtue. He would give talks to the villagers week after week about it. You would think, God, he'd get bored. He doesn't want to talk about nirvana, or enlightenment, or the Abhidharma (Buddhist psychology), all the different mental states, no. He loved virtue. He loved virtue the way people love trees or air or their loved ones. He just thought it was the most marvelous, wonderful thing. And it is actually, it's fantastic. It's not talked about in our culture; we forget it. It's in the Ten Commandments, and it's in the churches. If we kept the first Commandments, maybe one of the commandments not to kill, maybe not even the Buddhist precept of not killing any life, but just half a precept not to kill people, what an amazingly different world it would be. Can you imagine a world in which people didn't kill each other? It sounds like such a horrible thing. I mean, we're not going to go and murder somebody, right? But yet what a transformed planet it would be for just half a precept. He loved virtue because they're so wonderful. It has the power to transform us.

Let's look at the traditional precepts one at a time. The first one is not to kill. That's the restraint side of it. It means non-hatred, non-acting on our aversion, not to kill people, not to kill animals, not even to kill little things if we can avoid it. Someone says, "Well, what does that mean, 'if we can avoid it?" You have to figure that out. But it means to live lightly on the earth, to take care with all the life around us. At many retreats I use that cartoon from the New Yorker of the two deer on the hillside, the hunter is down below, and the deer are talking to one another and saying, "Why don't they thin their own goddamned herd?" It's not a problem with the deer, as far as I can tell in this world. There are too many somethings but it's not deer. We get all of these excuses and concepts about it.

To non-harm, to not kill, first we have to look at our mind states. Can you kill even little things, even insects, without there being some aversion? There's hatred, "I don't like it, let's get rid of it." That's a little bit of it. But the principle or it is to begin to connect and care for life and see that it's interconnected, that it's not separate. To refrain from killing means you have to look at your mind states. If you're about to kill even a little thing, look and see if there's an alternative, or look and see if there isn't aversion or hatred, just a little bit of it. It's only a small thing, so it doesn't take a lot. Begin to study your heart and your mind, and see what it really means to take care with your action.

That's one side, not to kill. The other side is a cultivation. The negative is to refrain; the positive is the cultivation of care and reverence for all life, of seeing the interconnectedness. We need insects; we need sea creatures; we need krill, those tiny shrimp-like things by the billions in the ocean near Antarctica. They feed the other creatures in the sea. It has a whole effect on keeping the air and the whole environment workable for all the rest of the beings. We need bees. Without bees flowers wouldn't be pollinated, and we couldn't eat a lot of our food -- and plants and trees wouldn't be able to reproduce, and the planet would be denuded. We need earthworms to aerate the soil.

I was at a conference once at the Menninger Foundation, and there were all these psychologists talking about hooking Tibetan lamas up to electrodes and what they could learn from that, and that kind of stuff. One of the people at the conference was an old Indian medicine man named Mad Bear from the Iroquois tribe in New York, the Iroquois Nation. He said, "It's my turn to speak. I don't want to tell you about experiments." He said, "Please come with me, I want to do a prayer. And all of these psychiatrists and psychologists and researchers said, "A prayer, huh?"

We all went out and we held hands in this huge field in Kansas where you look as far as you can and you see nothing but just more fields. It's beautiful. And we held hands in a circle of about 40 people. And he started to chant, and then he started this prayer. The prayer lasted for 45 minutes. He said:

"First, I want to thank the wind, our brothers and sisters in the wind." He talked about how the wind came and it cleansed the air, and it moved the clouds, and it gave us fresh, sweet tasting oxygen and air to breathe, and how beautiful the wind was, how it touched our skin and it made us feel more alive, and it made the leaves and the trees move, how it brought rain into a season, and took it away when it was finished.

Then he thanked the clouds. He spent five minutes thanking the clouds, blessing them. You would look up and you would see these clouds, and you developed this nice relationship with the clouds. Then he thanked the wheat and the growing plants, and he thanked the sun, and he thanked the earth, and he thanked the earthworms. He spent about three minutes on the earthworms. He said, "Feel them under your feet, for all that they did to make our life possible. Our life is somehow connected with the earthworms."

When he was done, what I realized was that his prayer was the most beautiful mindfulness meditation. We stood out in that field, and felt the wind, felt the heat of the sun, and felt our feet on the earth and the soil. You couldn't help but see that you were connected. We kind of forget it on Highway l0l, you know, but we are.

Out of this sense of connectedness naturally comes a compassion, a caring, an ecology, not because you're supposed to be ecological, but because you don't want to hurt a part of this that you're a part of; you don't want to hurt yourself; you don't want to hurt all the things that contribute to this planet. Like the astronauts looking way back from the moon and seeing this tiny little sphere the size of your thumb at arms length -- it's blue, it's really fragile, and it's very small, and it has this thin layer of life on it, 8,000 miles of rock, and maybe six or twelve or fifteen feet of life. It's sort of like this little green layer of algae on the earth, and it's very precious.

The precept of not killing is both not to kill and also to sense, to connect with the life around us, with gaia, the fact that the earth is alive, and we're a part of that movement.

The next one is not to steal. The same thing. It's a restraint. If not killing was a restraint of not harming through hatred, not stealing is non-greed. There was non-hatred, now there's non-greed, not coveting or grasping. Don't take what isn't given to you. Have you ever tried it? We all have. I used to steal a lot when I was young. I stole a lot, not even so young, in high school and college. I thought it was kind of fun to see what I could get away with. I was much worse than that actually. That's nothing. That's true. I wasn't a terrible delinquent, but I was a medium one, I was a middle class delinquent. In some ways they're worse because they have very little excuse for it. We all have done it at some time or another, taken what isn't given, fudging on this or that. I won't even say what "this" or "that" might be.

What does it do to your mind when you do that? It brings complexity, fear, paranoia, and worry. That's one of the beauties of virtue; it eliminates fear, paranoia and complexity. Hoarding and wars, and all of these things happen because we're afraid we don't have enough.

So again, not to steal, on one side as a restraint, means to look at your heart, and see what's there -- in the moment where it really isn't yours -- or where you fudged that thing, and see what it will do to your heart and mind, not because it's bad -- you can do anything you like in this world -- but because these are the laws of happiness, and that's how they work. Examine it yourself. It also has a positive side of cultivation, to cultivate a sensitivity for the resources that we share, not only not to take that which isn't given, but to see that the world is very limited, and there are five billion humans and lots of other animals, and to take care of what we use of the resources; they're limited.

Someone taught me this exercise of lying down on the earth at night, and looking up into the stars on a clear night, and then doing one little reversal of it. You lie back there on the grass or something, and you let yourself imagine that instead of lying on top of the earth, you're on the bottom, and that it's a big magnet that has you stuck against it, and you're looking down into space and the stars. It's a nice reversal because it gives you a sense of the infinity of the depth of space and all these spheres and things, and that somehow by the grace of gravity, you are stuck on here, and you don't fall off; To cultivate then, a responsibility for this planet that we're attached to, and that we're a part of.

Imagine if you walked through town or even walked in your yard, or wherever you are, as a caretaker, as a gardener, and then you extended it, from that place that you love to the Bay Area, or to the state, or to this country, or the planet; that you were a guardian or a caretaker of our beloved, the earth. What a wonderful way to walk on the earth. It means, if you come to something that's in the middle of the road, even if it's not your lane, it's a nice thing to pick it up, move it aside, because you care for the earth; not because you're supposed to, but because it brings joy.

Also, it means to cultivate in non-greed, in not stealing, Dharma, or giving. There are three traditional levels of giving: beggarly giving, where you give some; It's a way to practice and it's good. If you give anything it's nice, because what "giving" means is you're practicing being free, since you don't own it anyway. When you die, you give up much more than you could imagine you could give up before that. You're the accountant in the firm. You get to kind of count it for awhile and then it's taken away. The beggarly giving -- you give reluctantly. "I don't think I'll use this. Maybe I should put it in the attic. No, better I should give it to Goodwill," and you give it and it feels good. And friendly giving is after you've practiced or this comes into you, and you give things that you care about to people as if they're your brothers and sisters. "Here, let's share this," and it feels even better; it's wonderful. And kingly or queenly giving is when you so learn to enjoy the happiness of others when you give of your things, of your money, of your love, of your time, of your energy, because it's wonderful. You give your best, not because you're supposed to, but just because it brings such a sense of freedom and joy.

The villagers where I lived as a monk understood this, sometimes anyway. I used to feel strange because I lived in one little cave-forest monastery where the people were very poor. In the dry season there was rice, and tree leaves, and batmeat curry, and anything they could get to feed themselves in the dry season. And here I'd go as a rich American, because we're all rich by their standards of making $100 a year or something like that. And they'd give me food. At first I thought, "This is really amazing; I can't do this; I can't take their food." And I thought about it, and talked to people about it, and realized for them it really was a privilege. They were saying when you came in the morning with your bowl, "We so treasure and value what you represent as a monk, as a nun, as a meditator, as someone who is trying to cultivate a purity of heart and awareness; that we want to give of the little that we have to you to support that, because we want it in our world, and in our society, and in our life." It really was touching.

I'll read a couple of stories tonight from The Tales of a Magic Monastery by a Trappist monk who is a friend and a wonderful teacher. This is called The Pearl of Great Price:

He asked me what I was looking for,
"Frankly," I said, "I'm looking for the pearl of great price."
He slipped his hand into his pocket and
drew it out and gave it to me.
It was just like that.
I was dumbfounded.
Then I began to protest,
"You don't want to give it to me.
Don't you want to keep it for yourself?
But, but --" When I kept this up,
he said finally, "Look, is it better to have the pearl
of great price or to give it away?"
Well, now I have it.
I don't tell anyone.
For some though it would just be
disbelief and ridicule.
"You have the great pearl of great price?"
Others would be jealous because
someone might steal it.
Yes, I do have it but there's that question
that keeps coming back,
"Is it better to have it or to give it away?"
How long will that question rob me of my joy?

To not kill, to not steal, which is to say is to cultivate reverence for life, a caring, and a generosity with all the things that we get and which go away anyway. Have you ever given anything away and for the most part regretted it much a while later? You forget you even had it. You do!

Restraint from sexual misconduct is a third precept. Again, it's non-greed, non-harming. Don't act sexually in those ways which hurt people. It's very straightforward. Traditionally it means adultery or incest or sexuality with minors. For the most part in our culture we don't know who is married anymore. It means that we have to look at our sexual actions and not do it where it's going to hurt somebody. It's that simple. It goes from harming to non-harming. Why do we harm? Out of our own pain, out of our greed, out of our need. When you look, it's out of pain.

There's a positive side that can be cultivated in this. Not only non-harming because sexuality is such a powerful force. Who in this room has not been an idiot about sexuality at some time in their life? Is there a person who dare speak? And who in this room hasn't experienced some hurt by it or some fear about it? It's powerful. That's why there's a precept about it. We can cultivate a positive side which is sexuality for householders, not for renunciates, or monks, or nuns. It can be associated on one side with compulsion, grasping, greed, and fear. You know that kind? On the other side, as a neutral energy, it can be associated with love, with tenderness, with communion, with intimacy, with a growing consciousness. So we can begin to cultivate an expression of tenderness.

Why is sex so powerful? It's powerful; you know that, right? Why? Well, one reason is that it's so close to birth and death. Birth comes out of it. They call "orgasm" death in French, "petit mal" -- it's the little death. It's powerful because it's close to our biological being, our incarnation. It's also powerful because of the union or the surrender of it. It's one of the few places in life where there's natural samadhi, where the mind becomes unified, and it's so fantastic -- not all the time, you know how sex is, but sometimes. When you stop thinking and you're there, it's like everything comes together, the body, the heart, the mind, and there's a sense of unity, a union, and then there's a transcendence or a going beyond oneself, a surrender, of touching something greater than yourself, of losing this prison of "I, me, mine," and it's fantastic.

So we crave it then and unfortunately we get into attachment and greed. It's powerful, and for a good reason. I'm writing an article on it entitled, "Do gurus have normal sex lives?" and hopefully it will come out this fall. It's really about sexuality of gurus and teachers and disciples in many spiritual fields in the West. I won't talk so much about it tonight . There's a balance between indulgence and repression. On one side, you turn on the TV and it says, "Indulge, indulge, that will make you happy." You've tried it. It doesn't work that way because you get it and it just reinforces your greed. Or on the other side, suppression/repression in combination. So that sexuality can cause pain or it can be associated with consciousness and love, and it's so powerful.

The next precept of the four traditional ones that we'll cover tonight is drugs and intoxicants and alcohol; a different kind of precept. Again, it's the restraint-side. Not killing was non-hatred; not stealing was non-greed; no drugs or intoxicants to excess means non-delusion. Greed, hatred and delusion, the three roots of our suffering; grasping, aversion, and not seeing clearly. It means don't take intoxicants or drugs or alcohol to a point where you become heedless, where you lose your awareness. Awareness is really precious and it's hard to come by. If any of you have done a retreat, you know how hard it is to even get a few moments of it. It's precious to live in the present moment, to be alive. It doesn't mean don't have a glass of wine or whatever, but it means pay attention, don't harm yourself or the things around you by indulgence in a way that leads to carelessness or heedlessness or loss of consciousness.

That's the negative side. The positive side is that instead of that, we can find ways to cultivate the seeds of greater awareness or sensitivity. Look in your life at what it is that makes you more conscious. Rather than being less conscious, rather than running away or deluding yourself, what brings you face-to-face with life and wakes you up -- Cultivate that.

This quality of virtue -- I spoke of it mostly in terms of the precepts because they're the fundamental principles -- means restraint of our greed, hatred and delusion, not harming beings, and not taking that which isn't ours, and taking care with our sexual and our intoxicant life. That's one side. And it means cultivating the opposite of greed, hatred and delusion, which is love, generosity and consciousness. The opposite of greed is generosity; the opposite of hatred is love; the opposite of delusion is awareness.

These are called "training precepts" in Sanskrit. "I undertake the training precepts of not killing. I'll try it; I'll work with it. I undertake the training precept of not harming." And if you learn to do this, if you train with them, they'll teach you a tremendous amount about your own mind and your own heart. If you look at them, they provide a great power in your life. There's almost no power like the power of someone who is virtuous. It's like a rock to stand on in the winds at the end of the Roman Empire. That feels like the society we live in at times. It's a rock, and it's a wonderful one; it's a really beautiful place to rest.

There's the virtue of the training precepts, of restraint and cultivation, and then that leads to inner strength or power, and then the third level that it leads to is called abhisila, or the highest virtue. This is natural virtue. You train with it, you practice with it, you get a sense of its strength, and why you would harm, and how that works, and what it means to live in an upright way where you don't harm. Gradually that understanding seeps into the mind and the heart until it becomes your way of being, and then you don't think, "I'm not going to harm," or "I won't do this," or "I'll take care with that," but you feel connected with life in the world through wisdom, through the clear seeing that we are not separate, we are not an individual. It's a ruse; it's a play of consciousness; it's a fiction. You take care of the planet and the creatures and the animals like it was your garden. What a wonderful way to relate to it.

You know, our hearts are good. Even though there's plenty of greed, hatred and delusion in there, their basic root is goodness, is love. Maybe that's what we're made of is love. But we forget to look, and we forget to ask, so we get caught up in a whirlwind of busy-ness in our lives, and we break the precepts or we get caught up in a whirlwind of habit.

Each week we've been working with a different exercise. The exercise for this week is to look when you might break a precept in the tiniest way, of harming a creature, not taking care with the planet around, or fudging, taking that which really isn't yours, or your sexuality, or intoxicants, or other things like it, and look and see what's there under it. You might see greed, or hatred, or fear. And then look to see if there's pain. Look to see if there's pain in you that you're trying to get away from by doing something else.

This is the true meaning of the greatness of heart which spiritual practice teaches and demands of us, a heart which can even open to that pain, which doesn't say as a TV show in Marin County did, "I want it all now," and acts out of greed, hatred, and delusion, but recognizes, "I am it all now, that it's all a part of me," so instead of grasping, it settles and opens and says, "Pain is a part of me, and pleasure is, and all of life is a part of me. And I can feel pain and I can feel joy and love and compassion and hurt." If you can open to that in your heart, you never need to break a precept.

Study it this week, and look at when it might happen and if there's pain. And if you open your heart in that way, there comes a silent kind of awareness, a real tenderness. It's a bridge to our connectedness with all of life around us

I read you a last story, again from The Tales of a Magic Monastery: It is called A Visit from the Buddha.

Why did I visit the magic monastery?
Well, I'm a monk myself,
and the strangest thing happened in my monastery.
We had a visit from the Buddha.
We prepared for it and gave him a very
warm and solemn welcome.
He stayed overnight, but he slipped away
very early in the morning.

When the monks woke up they found
graffiti all over the cloister walls.
Imagine!
And do you know what he wrote?
One word. "Trivia, trivia, trivia, trivia"
all over our monastery walls.

We went into a rage.
But then when I quieted down,
I looked about and realized, "Yup, it's true."
So much of what I saw was trivia, and most of what I heard.
But what's worse, when I closed my eyes,
all inside was trivia.

For several weeks this was my experience,
and my very efforts to rectify it just made it worse.
I left my monastery and headed for the magic monastery.

The brother showed me around.
First, the hall of laughter.
Everything said the flame of laughter,
big things and small, sacred, solemn, inconsequential, only laughter there.
What a wonderful room.

Next, the room of sorrow, the very essence of bitter tears,
those of the bereaved mother, the lonely,
the depressed, only sorrow here.

Now, the hall of words, words upon words spoken,
and written alone they must have had some sense,
but altogether total confusion.
"Words, words," I cried, "Stop, stop,"
but I was only adding word to words.

Next, the great hall of silence.
Here there is no space and no time.

He took me finally to the Hall of Treasures.
"Take anything you want," he whispered."
I chose the heart of Jesus, and with
that I am heading back to my own monastery.

The heart of Jesus or our own hearts; to awaken, the root, the foundation of our practice, is this non-harming, is learning to see inside and to connect ourselves with life.

That's a lot of words, the fourth step of the Eightfold Path.

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Transcribed and edited from audio tape by Evelyn Sweeney, copyright 1995 Jack Kornfield
DharmaNet Edition 1995
This electronic edition is offered for free distribution via DharmaNet by arrangement with the author.