Thursday - Noble Path: Speech, Action, Livelihood
1. Noble Path: Speech, Action, Livelihood
Speech as we have seen is the outcome of the Fourth Precept where we
commit to a rule of training undertaking to refrain from false speech:
musāvādā veramani sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi
kinds of wrong speech are highlighted in the texts and we should
consciously try to adopt the principle of: abstaining from falsehood,
abstaining from slander, abstaining from harsh speech, and abstaining
from idle chatter.
The Buddha also expressed this in a positive form:
up slander… one lives reconciling those at variance, and
strengthening those who are friendly, delighting and rejoicing in
concord one speaks words conducive to reconciliation. Giving up harsh
speech, one says what is gentle, pleasing to the ear, affectionate …
Giving up idle chatter, one speaks at the right time in accordance with
facts, to the purpose, in agreement with the Dhamma and discipline,
words worthy of treasuring (in the heart), seasonable, appropriate,
discriminating and to the point.”
“A fool is known by his actions and so is a sage.
By conduct is knowledge made bright.”
- The Buddha (Anguttara Nikāya)
Right Action is determined by adherence to three of the Precepts:
Abstaining from intentionally killing sentient beings
someone avoids the taking of life and abstains from it. Without stick
or sword, conscientious, full of sympathy, he is desirous of the welfare
of all sentient beings.”
Abstaining from intentionally taking the not given
avoids taking what is not given and abstains from it; what another
person possesses of goods and chattel in the village or in the wood,
that he does not take away with thievish intent.”
Abstaining from sexual misconduct
avoids sexual misconduct and abstains from it. He has no intercourse
with such persons as are still under the protection of father, mother,
brother, sister, or relatives, nor with married women, nor with female
convicts, nor lastly, with betrothed girls.”
(- Anguttara Nikāya, 10:176)
the noble disciple, avoiding a wrong way of living, gets his livelihood
by a right way of living, this is called Right Livelihood.” - Digha
Livelihood is about choosing to support our practice by behaving
ethically in our work. It is also about enabling others to overcome
suffering where possible. The Buddha named five specific occupations
which always constituted Wrong Livelihood - work which is damaging and
should be avoided:
dealing in arms and lethal weapons, in animals for
slaughter, in human beings, dealing in intoxicating drinks, or in
poison. In the Majjhima Nikāya it is also indicated that occupations
that involve one in practising deceit, treachery, soothsaying, trickery,
and usury are also Wrong Livelihood.
is in the interest of all beings that we try to behave in a
consistently skilful manner. Practising meditation as an isolated
activity will have very limited impact if we are unable to underpin this
by behaving ethically in the other spheres of our lives.
and concentrated can we really become if we choose to work in situations
where we are required to behave harmfully and unethically to others?
What value is there in trying to radiate mettā to an individual we
habitually treat unfairly in the course of our work? If we are seeking
the end of suffering for others and ourselves why do we choose to
indulge in activities that harm?
Buddha made few direct stipulations about the kinds of professions that
are unsuitable for a lay follower. He spoke of the need to earn a
living to support oneself and family; to be respectable in the eyes of
and of the duty to be charitable rather than hoarding
excess money. The main guidance for all the actions of a layperson,
whether related to work or not, comes from the Precepts.
We have already
seen that they can be implemented at different levels dependent on our
deepening commitment to practice. The Five Precepts are generally
regarded as being the ethical norm for a layperson who wishes to follow
the Buddha’s path to awakening.
Any employment that directly contradicts
these teachings is deemed to be unskilful and should be avoided where
possible. Thus any job that, for example, involved lying and cheating
would be unacceptable.
addition to the precepts the Buddha named five professions which always
constituted wrong livelihood and as such were incompatible with the
These were dealing in weapons, dealing in living beings
(human or animal), dealing in meat, dealing in intoxicants, dealing in
The idea behind these stipulations is that even were someone to
be trying to follow the Five Precepts in his or her daily life the
outcome of the occupation would have unwholesome consequences for other
reality we do not always have a wide selection of jobs to choose from
and this can make things difficult. We can ease the restrictions of such
a situation by setting goals and gaining new skills that will allow us,
over time, to move from one profession to another.
There may be
occasions when one feels that a particular job is so damaging that it
must be given up immediately - but remember that the Buddha also
stressed the duties of lay people to their associates.
It would be
unethical for the laity to become a burden on others, by choice, if they
are currently capable of being self-supporting. It is far better, in
most situations, to train in new skills or ease oneself gradually into
new areas that present fewer difficulties.
of us lives in ideal circumstances and the Truth of the inherent Dukkha
in all situations soon becomes apparent as we walk this way. The Buddha
is not saying that people who engage in the listed occupations are
beyond the pale -
simply that those occupations will be spiritually
unhelpful to them. The occupation we take up is but one aspect of our
lives and it certainly does not preclude us from spiritual development
if, in the other areas, we are working to do good and refrain from harm.
Even within the listed occupations there is an opportunity to minimise
our own unskilful actions. Decisions can be taken in almost every
situation that are based on ethical thinking.
In time it may be
important to find alternative employment; but this will be your own
decision not something arrived at because a particular book or a teacher
tells you so.
Westerners attracted to Buddhism there is sometimes a missionary zeal
that, whilst well intentioned, is often based on partial understanding
and seeing what they themselves would like to see within Buddhism
(rather than what is there).
There is often an automatic assumption that
Buddhism champions all kinds of environmental, social and political
causes and that deviation from these is tantamount to “not being a good
A closer reading of the texts, and experience of interacting
with seasoned and sincere Dhamma practitioners, conveys a more complex
picture than many nouveau Buddhists are aware of or are prepared to
is not a simple answer to any moral dilemma. Part of the work we have
to do is to understand the complexity of the circumstances we have
created and to strive diligently from this moment forth to try to harm
less and help more.
There is sometimes a fine balancing act between the
apparent consequences of an act (as viewed by a third party) and the
full consequences as understood by the participants in that act. Skilful
action dismisses neither of these.
have related before how important motivation is in each large or small
action we decide to perform. Even in the midst of terrible conditions we
can choose to act kindly or compassionately.
On a simple level we can,
for example, treat our colleagues and associates properly. We can
minimise suffering. If the intention is to behave as well as possible
then that is of itself a valuable contribution to spiritual progress.
converse is also true. At times I have worked in the charitable sector;
where one would expect that ethical behaviour and common standards of
kindness and compassion would prevail.
Regrettably this is not always
the case, and sometimes in the headlong rush for the organisation’s
noble goal (or even sometimes for personal advancement) the
interpersonal relationships end up in a very bad way.
of “What Is Right!” blinds us to the fallout of our own actions. We may
forget in our struggle to prove how righteous we are, and our passion
for a cause, that we can inflict suffering on others simply by our lack
of consideration for their needs.