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Right Action

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by Sangharakshita

The Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path

Lecture 50: The Principles of Ethics - Right Action Venerable Sir and friends, We are currently pursuing, at least in imagination, at least in understanding, the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path.

And each week we are studying, we're considering, we're trying to understand one stage or one aspect as we may also say, of that Noble Eightfold Path. And today under the general heading of `the principles of ethics' we are dealing with Right Action. Right Action is the fourth step or fourth stage or fourth aspect of this Noble Eightfold Path, and coming to it, considering it, we complete half of our long journey of treading the Noble Eightfold Path.

So having come so far, having come half way, it might not be a bad thing, especially in view of the fact that there may be some people here who haven't heard previous talks, it might be a good thing to take, as it were, a backward glance and to try to see how far we have come.

We've seen - and this has I think been sufficiently emphasised in the past - we've seen that the whole path, the whole of the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path, is divisible into two great sections of very unequal length. It's divisible into what is known as the Path of Vision and what is known as the Path of Transformation. The Path of Vision corresponds to the first stage or first aspect only of the Eightfold Path, that is to say Perfect Vision. This stage or this section of the path represents what we may describe as our initial insight into the true nature of existence, our first glimpse, however momentary, however confused, however obscured, our first glimpse, our first sight of reality. And this glimpse, this sight is, we may say, more of the nature of a spiritual experience than of the nature of intellectual understanding. So this is the Path of Vision. This is Right Vision also, Perfect Vision also, this initial insight into the true nature of existence, this initial glimpse of Reality itself.

Then the Path of Transformation. The Path of Transformation corresponds to Perfect Emotion, Perfect Speech, and all the rest of the other seven stages of the Path. You see the Path of Vision corresponds only to the first stage, the Path of Transformation to all the other seven stages. And the Path of Transformation represents, we may say, the gradual transformation, if you like the gradual transmutation of one's whole nature, one's whole being, in all its aspects, all its levels, its heights as well as its depths, in accordance with that Perfect Vision which one has attained in the first step or the first stage.

Now each stage of the path, each aspect of the path after the first, after Perfect Vision, represents a transformation or transmutation of one particular aspect of our being. Perfect Emotion, as we saw in the second talk, Perfect Emotion, the second stage or aspect of the path, represents the transformation of our whole emotional nature as a result of that initial insight or experience of Reality. Perfect Emotion involves or includes first of all elimination of all negative emotions such as craving, such as hatred, such as cruelty. It involves the cultivation of all the positive emotions and especially, according to Buddhist teaching and tradition, emotions such as generosity, love, compassion, joy, peace, and faith, and devotion. We went into all this in the course of the second talk.

Perfect Speech, which is the third stage of the path, with which we dealt last week, represents what we may describe as the transformation of our principle of communication. Perfect Speech is speech which is truthful, which is affectionate, which is useful, and which promotes moreover concord, harmony and unity, even, we saw, self- transcendence. And these four - that is to say truthfulness, affectionateness, usefulness and promoting concord - these are not just four qualities or attributes of Perfect Speech, but more than that, four levels of communication between human beings, each progressively deeper than the one preceding and ultimately leading, as we saw in some detail, to mutual self-transcendence.

Now today we go a stage further, Today we come from Perfect Speech to Perfect Action, known in Sanskrit as samyak-karmanta, and this is the fourth stage or the fourth aspect of the path. Now karmanta is quite literally just action. Nothing esoteric here, nothing difficult to understand, nothing requiring a long philological and etymological explanation, just action. And samyak is not just right as usually it is translated, samyak means, as I've insisted before, that which is whole, that which is integral, that which is complete, that which is perfect. So we shall follow our usual practice and speak not just of Right Action but rather of Perfect Action. So the question arises inevitably what is Perfect Action? And this is a very important question. It's a question which brings us immediately right into the midst of ethics. It's a question which compels us to examine, we may say, fundamentally, the principles of ethics. What is it, we may inquire, that makes some acts right? What is it that makes others wrong, or some acts perfect or others imperfect? Is there, we may even go so far as to inquire, is there any such universally valid criterion in the light of which we can say this is right, that is wrong, this act is perfect, that act is imperfect.

Is there any such criterion? If so where is it to be found, what is its nature? These are certainly, we may say, very pressing and very urgent questions. They are questions which concern all of us. Whether we like it or whether we do not like it, we all have to act every day, every hour, almost every minute we are called upon to act. So the question of how to act, in the best way, what is the criterion of our action, what should be the guiding principle, the motive, this inevitably arises.

Now we all know that nowadays churchmen and others are very fond of lamenting what they call the decline of morals. Now everybody is supposed to have got, I gather, in the last ten or twenty years progressively more and more immoral, and I gather that we're now in a pretty bad state. And this decline of morals is usually linked very firmly with decline in religion, especially orthodox religion. We've all gone away from religion, we've all turned our backs on the churches and we've plunged at once into the pit, into the mire of course, of immorality. And we may in fact agree quite frankly that traditional ethics to a very great extent have in fact collapsed. And lots of people nowadays, maybe some of you here, are no longer convinced that there are any fixed standards of right and wrong so that one can say quite definitely this is right or equally definitely, if not a little more definitely, that is wrong. Most people nowadays don't really believe that there are any such fixed standards. In the 17th century one of the great Cambridge Platonists, that is to say Cudworth, wrote a book which he called `Eternal and Immutable Morality'. Now if anyone were to write a book, even if the Archbishop of Canterbury were to write a book, even if the Pope were to write a book with this title nowadays, Eternal and Immutable Morality, it would seem quite ridiculous. And not so very long ago, even in the 19th century, the Victorian humanists and freethinkers, freely as they might think, widely as they might range and question intellectually, when it came to ethics, when it came to their home life as the Victorians called it, continued to conform to Christian ethics. People like Darwin, people like Huxley, even people like Marx. Apart from one or two occasional slips they were models, we may say, of morality in the full sense. But that is all changed now. Now the situation is quite different in most quarters. And many people would say, as someone in fact said to me the other day, a young lady, if you do something and if it makes you feel good, well, that thing's right, at least for you. And this is a very widely current, a very widely held view, not always held as explicitly and as openly and as frankly as that, but that is in fact what very many people do think. And I personally feel that this is not necessarily, this development is not necessarily a bad thing. It might in fact, in the long run, be even a good thing, at least as a sort of transitional stage. I think it's not a bad thing - even as I say a good thing - that morals should be thrown, temporarily we hope, into the melting pot, good that we should have to rethink, revise, even re-feel, re-imagine if you like, our morality. It's good that ultimately, as we hope, a new ethic should emerge from the collapse, from the ruins, from the disintegration of the old.

But unfortunately it seems to me as we look back over the centuries, if we look back to the beginnings of Western ethics, it seems to me that Western ethics started off rather on the wrong foot. To begin with our ethical tradition is a very composite thing, not to say mixed. There are all sorts of elements in it. There are elements derived from classical thought, classical tradition, that is to say Greek and Roman tradition, than there's the Judeo-Christian element and also, especially in the case of some of the Northern European countries, there are elements of Norse, Germanic, Teutonic paganism. But though our ethical tradition in the West is composite, though it is made up of many interwoven strands, I think we may say fairly confidently that the Judeo-Christian element in our ethical heritage is very much the predominant one. This is as it were the official ethic to which, at least in the past, everybody officially subscribed whatever their private practice or preference might have been. And in this Judeo- Christian ethic traditionally we find that morality is usually ...

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