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Not by Birth, but by Action:
the Importance of Actions and Deeds

Sakyamuni Buddha emphasized the importance of action. He specified three different modes of action called the Three Karmic Acts:

  1. the action of the body
  2. the action of the mouth
  3. the action of the mind.

The actions of the body are what we typically consider as action: behavior with a physical component. We can point at the result of these actions and claim, "I did that." The actions of the mouth involve activities we would identify as vocalized speech. The motives found behind that speech are also considered in this mode of action. Motives include but are not limited to efforts to clarify, console, excite, mislead, confuse or dominate those we address in our speech. The actions of the mind include all thoughts and intentions.

Because of the emphasis on actions, practice took a primary role in the understanding of the Buddhist path. It was through practice that one was able to remove the fetters that kept one bound to the world of birth-and-death, the world of samsara, the world of suffering. Buddhism was described as the three pillars of Teaching, Practice and Enlightenment. One first studied the teachings and performed different practices based on those studies. Through perfecting the practices associated with one’s learning, one achieved Enlightenment and became a Buddha. Even now, in distinguishing between the different schools of Buddhism, one is often asked, "What is your practice?"

Prefacing Practice with Teaching emphasized that actions were founded on the wisdom of a Buddha.

Prefacing Practice with Teaching emphasized that actions were founded on the wisdom of a Buddha. For example, we are constantly performing actions and are therefore practicing certain behaviors. Unfortunately, the behaviors we tend to practice do not lend themselves towards achieving Enlightenment. Instead of being based on a Buddha’s wisdom our actions tend to be motivated by the Three Poisons: greed, anger and ignorance.

A Buddhist monk of the early fifth century named Vasubandhu helped to develop the Yogacara school of Buddhism. Yogacara strives to help us to understand the importance of our actions (Karma). An oversimplification description of what the school teaches follows.

The ... teachings encourage us to act the way a Buddha does, speak as a Buddha speaks, and think like a Buddha.

Our karmic acts—our actions—help to define who we are in the following way: the more we do something, the better we get at doing it and the easier it gets to do. In our everyday lives we discover that we tend to practice how to be greedy, how to be angry, and how to be stupid. We tend to hoard, we lash out and abuse people and we hurt ourselves and others. We tell people how wonderful it would be to posses something, we shout at people in our complaints, and we say how everything is okay even when we might be feeling that things are getting out of control. We tell ourselves that all we have to do is possess one more object and we will be happy, we make a mental note of how unfair a person is and vow never to deal with them again, and we tell ourselves that if we are unhappy, it is the other person’s fault. None of these actions have the wisdom of a Buddha. The Yogacara teachings encourage us to act the way a Buddha does, speak as a Buddha speaks, and think like a Buddha. Unfortunately, it is very difficult for us to give up the world we have created for a world that none of us have really seen. Shinran Shonin, the founder of Jodo Shinshu, is quoted in the Tannisho as saying:

"It is hard for us to abandon this old home of pain, where we have been transmigrating for innumerable kalpas down to the present, and we feel no longing for the Pure Land of peace, where we have yet to be born. Truly, how powerful our blind passions are!"

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