Noble Eightfold Path
Right action means refraining from unwholesome
deeds that occur with the body as their natural means of expression. The
pivotal element in this path factor is the mental factor of abstinence,
but because this abstinence applies to actions performed through the
body, it is called “right action.” The Buddha mentions three components
of right action: abstaining from taking life, abstaining from taking
what is not given, and abstaining from sexual misconduct. These we will
briefly discuss in order.
(1) Abstaining from the taking of life (panatipata veramani)
“Abstaining from taking life” has a wider
application than simply refraining from killing other human beings. The
precept enjoins abstaining from killing any sentient being. A “sentient
being” (pani, satta) is a living being endowed with mind or
consciousness; for practical purposes, this means human beings, animals,
and insects. Plants are not considered to be sentient beings; though
they exhibit some degree of sensitivity, they lack full-fledged
consciousness, the defining attribute of a sentient being.
The “taking of life” that is to be avoided is intentional
killing, the deliberate destruction of life of a being endowed with
consciousness. The principle is grounded in the consideration that all
beings love life and fear death, that all seek happiness and are averse
to pain. The essential determinant of transgression is the volition to
kill, issuing in an action that deprives a being of life. Suicide is
also generally regarded as a violation, but not accidental killing as
the intention to destroy life is absent. The abstinence may be taken to
apply to two kinds of action, the primary and the secondary. The primary
is the actual destruction of life; the secondary is deliberately
harming or torturing another being without killing it.
While the Buddha’s statement on non-injury is
quite simple and straightforward, later commentaries give a detailed
analysis of the principle. A treatise from Thailand, written by an
erudite Thai patriarch, collates a mass of earlier material into an
especially thorough treatment, which we shall briefly summarize here.29
The treatise points out that the taking of life may have varying
degrees of moral weight entailing different consequences. The three
primary variables governing moral weight are the object, the motive, and
the effort. With regard to the object there is a difference in
seriousness between killing a human being and killing an animal, the
former being kammically heavier since man has a more highly developed
moral sense and greater spiritual potential than animals. Among human
beings, the degree of kammic weight depends on the qualities of the
person killed and his relation to the killer; thus killing a person of
superior spiritual qualities or a personal benefactor, such as a parent
or a teacher, is an especially grave act.
The motive for killing also influences moral
weight. Acts of killing can be driven by greed, hatred, or delusion. Of
the three, killing motivated by hatred is the most serious, and the
weight increases to the degree that the killing is premeditated. The
force of effort involved also contributes, the unwholesome kamma being
proportional to the force and the strength of the defilements.
The positive counterpart to abstaining from
taking life, as the Buddha indicates, is the development of kindness and
compassion for other beings. The disciple not only avoids destroying
life; he dwells with a heart full of sympathy, desiring the welfare of
all beings. The commitment to non-injury and concern for the welfare of
others represent the practical application of the second path factor,
right intention, in the form of good will and harmlessness.
(2) Abstaining from taking what is not given (adinnadana veramani)
He 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.30
“Taking what is not given” means appropriating
the rightful belongings of others with thievish intent. If one takes
something that has no owner, such as unclaimed stones, wood, or even
gems extracted from the earth, the act does not count as a violation
even though these objects have not been given. But also implied as a
transgression, though not expressly stated, is withholding from others
what should rightfully be given to them.
Commentaries mention a number of ways in which
“taking what is not given” can be committed. Some of the most common may
(1) stealing: taking the belongings of others secretly, as in housebreaking, pickpocketing, etc.;
(2) robbery: taking what belongs to others openly by force or threats;
(3) snatching: suddenly pulling away another’s possession before he has time to resist;
(4) fraudulence: gaining possession of another’s belongings by falsely claiming them as one’s own;
(5) deceitfulness: using false weights and measures to cheat customers.31
The degree of moral weight that attaches to the
action is determined by three factors: the value of the object taken;
the qualities of the victim of the theft; and the subjective state of
the thief. Regarding the first, moral weight is directly proportional to
the value of the object. Regarding the second, the weight varies
according to the moral qualities of the deprived individual. Regarding
the third, acts of theft may be motivated either by greed or hatred.
While greed is the most common cause, hatred may also be responsible as
when one person deprives another of his belongings not so much because
he wants them for himself as because he wants to harm the latter.
Between the two, acts motivated by hatred are kammically heavier than
acts motivated by sheer greed.
The positive counterpart to abstaining from
stealing is honesty, which implies respect for the belongings of others
and for their right to use their belongings as they wish. Another
related virtue is contentment, being satisfied with what one has without
being inclined to increase one’s wealth by unscrupulous means. The most
eminent opposite virtue is generosity, giving away one’s own wealth and
possessions in order to benefit others.
(3) Abstaining from sexual misconduct (kamesu miccha-cara veramani)
He 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.32
The guiding purposes of this precept, from the
ethical standpoint, are to protect marital relations from outside
disruption and to promote trust and fidelity within the marital union.
From the spiritual standpoint it helps curb the expansive tendency of
sexual desire and thus is a step in the direction of renunciation, which
reaches its consummation in the observance of celibacy (brahmacariya)
binding on monks and nuns. But for laypeople the precept enjoins
abstaining from sexual relations with an illicit partner. The primary
transgression is entering into full sexual union, but all other sexual
involvements of a less complete kind may be considered secondary
The main question raised by the precept
concerns who is to count as an illicit partner. The Buddha’s statement
defines the illicit partner from the perspective of the man, but later
treatises elaborate the matter for both sexes.33
For a man, three kinds of women are considered illicit partners:
(1) A woman who is married to another man. This
includes, besides a woman already married to a man, a woman who is not
his legal wife but is generally recognized as his consort, who lives
with him or is kept by him or is in some way acknowledged as his
partner. All these women are illicit partners for men other than their
own husbands. This class would also include a woman engaged to another
man. But a widow or divorced woman is not out of bounds, provided she is
not excluded for other reasons.
(2) A woman still under protection. This is a girl or
woman who is under the protection of her mother, father, relatives, or
others rightfully entitled to be her guardians. This provision rules out
elopements or secret marriages contrary to the wishes of the protecting
(3) A woman prohibited by convention. This includes
close female relatives forbidden as partners by social tradition, nuns
and other women under a vow of celibacy, and those prohibited as
partners by the law of the land.
From the standpoint of a woman, two kinds of men are considered illicit partners:
(1) For a married woman any man other than her husband
is out of bounds. Thus a married woman violates the precept if she
breaks her vow of fidelity to her husband. But a widow or divorcee is
free to remarry.
(2) For any woman any man forbidden by convention,
such as close relatives and those under a vow of celibacy, is an illicit
Besides these, any case of forced, violent, or
coercive sexual union constitutes a transgression. But in such a case
the violation falls only on the offender, not on the one compelled to
The positive virtue corresponding to the
abstinence is, for laypeople, marital fidelity. Husband and wife should
each be faithful and devoted to the other, content with the
relationship, and should not risk a breakup to the union by seeking
outside partners. The principle does not, however, confine sexual
relations to the marital union. It is flexible enough to allow for
variations depending on social convention. The essential purpose, as was
said, is to prevent sexual relations which are hurtful to others. When
mature independent people, though unmarried, enter into a sexual
relationship through free consent, so long as no other person is
intentionally harmed, no breach of the training factor is involved.
Ordained monks and nuns, including men and
women who have undertaken the eight or ten precepts, are obliged to
observe celibacy. They must abstain not only from sexual misconduct, but
from all sexual involvements, at least during the period of their vows.
The holy life at its highest aims at complete purity in thought, word,
and deed, and this requires turning back the tide of sexual desire.
Heartiest congratulations to Shri S Somanath.
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