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Right Action

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by Sangharakshita

... conceived very much in terms of law. A moral obligation, a moral rule, an ethic, is something which is laid upon man by God. And this is very well illustrated, as I'm sure most of you know, by the story of the origin of the ten commandments. I'm sure you've all read this episode - of course Bible reading isn't so common as it used to be - but at least I think you might have seen the film! Moses goes up to Mount Sinai. I've seen Mount Sinai. It's not much more than a hill but anyway he went up Mount Sinai and there in the midst of storm and terror, thunder and lightning and flickering flames, he receives from God the ten commandments, and coming down from Mount Sinai with, according to art anyway, these two stone tablets tucked under his arm like a couple of tombstones, he gives them in turn to the children of Israel.

Now this suggests, this in fact illustrates if not demonstrates this idea, this conception of ethics as something imposed on man, almost against his will if you like, by a power, by an authority external to himself. God, after all, according to the Old Testament has made man, formed him out of clay, formed him out of the dust of the earth and breathed life into his nostrils. So man is God's creature, almost God's slave you might say. And man's duty is to obey, man's duty is to do as he is told. And not to obey, to disobey, is a sin. And this attitude is of course illustrated again by the story of the Fall. Adam and Eve, as we all know, were punished for disobeying an apparently arbitrary order. God said the fruit of such and such tree thou shalt not eat, - didn't give them any explanation, didn't tell them it was bad for them, in fact it was very good for them, but they were forbidden to eat it. Now we know these are all stories, these are all mythologies, no one believes them quite literally any longer or at least very few people. But the attitudes which they represent still persist, as we shall see a little later on. And the word also incidentally, the word `commandment' itself, when we speak of the commandments this also is very significant, that a moral law, a moral rule is a commandment, it's something which you are commanded to do, as it were obliged to do, almost coerced into doing, by some power, some authority external to yourself. Now this is of course all from the Old Testament, and Christianity certainly goes beyond this conception. But it doesn't go very much beyond, and even then it goes beyond in a rather imperfect fashion.

The source of specifically Christian ethics is of course Christ's teaching in the Gospels. But traditionally, theologically, Christ is regarded as God. So obviously when God tells you to do something, when God says you should do this or you should do that, that comes with a terrific weight of authority as it were. One is not asked to do something because it is good to do that so much as because one is asked, almost commanded to do it, by one in whom reposes all power and all authority in heaven and on earth. So one gets the same idea, generally speaking, even within the context of Christian ethics - how ethics is something obligatory, something imposed upon one from without, something to which one must conform. This is the traditional idea, this is our traditional heritage, this is the mode of thought by which consciously or unconsciously we are all influenced when we think in terms of ethics.

Something laid upon us from without. Nowadays of course we know the majority of people are not Christian in any meaningful sense. But they still do tend nevertheless to think of morality, to think of ethics in this way, as an obligation laid upon them from without, a command, something which they are obliged to obey. We can in fact perhaps summarise the position of traditional ethics today by saying that it consists in not doing what we want to do and doing what we don't want to do because for reasons which we don't understand we've been told so by someone in whose existence we no longer believe! This is really the situation with regard today to traditional ethics.

So no wonder we are confused. No wonder we have, as it were, no ethical signpost. We just sort of, in the traditional British way muddle through somehow or other trying to make some sort of sense of our lives, trying to discover some sort of pattern in events. But where ethics is concerned the picture most of the time is a sort of chaos.

Now I don't want to make the contrast as between black and white too abrupt or too vivid or too dramatic. That might be an exaggeration. But I am constrained to say that the Buddhist tradition is quite different. In fact we may say that the whole Eastern - especially Far Eastern - ethical tradition is quite different from all this.

According to Buddhism, according to the Buddha's teaching, according to the traditions of whatsoever school or sect of Buddhism, actions are right or wrong, perfect or imperfect, according to the state of mind with which performed. In other words the criterion for ethics is not theological, the criterion is psychological. Now it's true that even in the West we are not unacquainted with this idea even within the context of Christianity. But so far as Buddhist ethics are concerned, so far as Far Eastern ethics are concerned, whether Buddhist or Taoist or Confucian, whatsoever it may be, this criterion is the only one, this criterion is universally applied, this criterion is rigorously carried through to the very end. That the criterion of ethics is not theologica,l it is psychological.

And according to this same Buddhist tradition there are two kinds of action - what we call, just to use the technical language for a moment, what we call kusala and akusala. Kusala means skilful, skilful action. Akusala means unskilful, unskilful action. And this is significant because the terms skilful and unskilful - not good or bad but skilful and unskilful - suggest that morality is very much a matter of intelligence. You can't be skilful unless you've got some sort of practical intelligence, unless you understand, unless you can see, explore possibilities. So morality is as much a matter of intelligence and insight, according to Buddhism, as one of good intentions and good feelings.

After all we've been told that the path to hell is paved with good intentions but you could hardly say that the path to hell was paved with skilfulness. It doesn't seem quite to fit.

Now akusala actions, unskilful actions, are described or defined as those which are rooted in craving, in selfish thirst, in hatred or antagonism or aggressiveness, and in mental confusion, bewilderment, a state of spiritual obscuration or ignorance. And kusala actions, skilful actions, are those which are free from craving, free from hatred, free from mental confusion, and which are, positively speaking, motivated instead by generosity, by the impulse to share, to give, by love, by kindness and compassion, and by understanding. These are kusala actions, skilful actions, those which are so motivated.

And this very simple distinction at once places the whole question of morality in an entirely different light. The ethical life, the moral life, we may say, is a matter or becomes a matter of acting from what is best in us, what is best in us within. Acting from our deepest, our profoundest insight and understanding and our widest and most all- embracing love and compassion.

Well we are now in a position perhaps to see or begin to see what is meant by Perfect Action. Perfect Action is not just action which accords with some external standard or criterion. Perfect Action is that action or any action which expresses Perfect Vision in the sense which I gave this term in the first talk and Perfect Emotion as described in the second talk in this series. And Perfect Action, we may say, represents the descent to the level of action of Perfect Vision and Perfect Emotion, just as Perfect Speech, the third stage of the path, represented their descent to the level of communication. In other words one has attained Perfect Vision, one has developed Perfect Emotion, and when one comes to act, well, automatically, spontaneously, one expresses in terms of one's action that vision and that emotional experience.

Now at this point a question may occur to some of you, especially perhaps those who have been students of Buddhism for some considerable time. Now you may be thinking, or you may be wondering even, well we've heard a lot about ethics, a lot about the criterion of morality but what about the read about Buddhist ethical teaching, Buddhist morality, we're always being told about the silas, the precepts, so where do they come in? Where do they fit in here? The five silas, the ten silas and so on, are these not surely lists of moral rules laid down by the Buddha to which we must conform? Haven't they been handed down to us as it were by the Buddha himself? So where do they come in, where do they fit in to the total picture? So one may say, in reply to the question have they not been laid down by the Buddha?, these silas, these sets of precepts - well the answer is yes and no, they've certainly been taught, certainly been recommended by the Buddha, but not laid down authoritatively as the ten commandments were by God. What the Buddha says in effect is this: he says a person who is Enlightened, one who has gained Buddhahood, one who has reached and realised the plenitude of Wisdom and the fullness of Compassion, he will behave inevitably in such and such a way because it's his nature, it's the nature of an Enlightened being to behave in that way. And to the extent that you are Enlightened, to that extent you too will behave in that way. And if you're not Enlightened or to the extent that you're ...

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