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“Do not ignore the effect of Right Action”: Ethics, kamma, and the Eightfold Path

The Right Action limb of the path covers the first 3 precepts, starting with non-harming. We’ll look at this excerpt from a sutta called “Intentional” (AN 10.217) to start off, which describes how (and which) actions always have consequences.

“Mendicants, I don’t say that intentional deeds that have been performed and accumulated are eliminated without being experienced. And that may be in the present life, or in the next life, or in some subsequent period. And I don’t say that suffering is ended without experiencing intentional deeds that have been performed and accumulated.

Now, there are three kinds of corruption and failure of bodily action that have unskillful intention, with suffering as their outcome and result. There are four kinds of corruption and failure of verbal action that have unskillful intention, with suffering as their outcome and result. There are three kinds of corruption and failure of mental action that have unskillful intention, with suffering as their outcome and result.

And what are the three kinds of corruption and failure of bodily action? It’s when a certain person kills living creatures. They’re violent, bloody-handed, a hardened killer, merciless to living beings.

They steal. With the intention to commit theft, they take the wealth or belongings of others from village or wilderness.

They commit sexual misconduct. They have sex with women who have their mother, father, both mother and father, brother, sister, relatives, or clan as guardian. They have sex with a woman who is protected on principle, or who has a husband, or whose violation is punishable by law, or even one who has been garlanded as a token of betrothal.

These are the three kinds of corruption and failure of bodily action.”

“Intentional” (AN 10.217), tr. Sujato

Don’t be a hard-hearted killer. At least.

We open discussion of the limb of Right Action with an overview of the 3 aspects it covers (the first 3 precepts), and a bit about the relationship between intention, action, and results (or impact).

Meditation: stillness, settling, intention, doing, non-doing (11.19.19)

Talk: Opening into the limb of Right Action. I start with an exploration of the prefix “Right” (samma), and how right and wrong can be fruitfully understood in Buddhism, including a bit about religious tolerance. Then look at the basic role of ethics in the Noble Eightfold Path, and the relationship between intention, action, and results. (11.19.19)


Rabbits are eco meat! But…

Non-harming, part 2: some thoughts on the complex ancient Buddhist debate around eating meat. (In honor of Thanksgiving, partly tongue-in-cheek, partly not, but the talk was on the Tuesday before TG.)

Meditation: Embodied liberation (11.26.19)

Talk: The precept of non-harming (avihiṃsa), in relation to eating, especially eating meat. We look at cultural aspects of the Buddhist debate about vegetarianism, ancient and modern, and discuss different ways to work with the precept. (11.26.19)


Right Action, part 3: action becomes rebirth

Meditation: Breath, concentration, posture, and presence. (Not sure of date—but I didn’t get the meditation on this night, and have this one from January I can’t place, so it’ll do here.)

Talk: Somehow we made it from ethics to rebirth in this one. Not somehow, but kamma, of course. (12.03.19)


Any conversation about Right Action must touch into the idea of kamma/karma, which is the basis for Buddhist ethics (sīla). The opening sutta here speaks about the lawful necessity of experiencing the results of intentional actions. Here’s another way the Buddha says it, in the Dhammapada:

121. Do not ignore the effects of evil,
saying, “This will come to nothing.” Just as by the gradual fall of raindrops
the water jar is filled,
so in time fools are corrupted
by evil-doing.

122. Do not ignore the effect of right action,
saying, “This will come to nothing.” Just as by the gradual fall of raindrops
the water jar is filled,
so in time the wise
become replete with good.

Dhammapada, 121-22, in A Dhammapada for Contemplation, tr. Munindo

Not taking that which isn’t offered, part 1

Meditation: on sounds, in the rain (12.10.19)

Talk: We start here on the second aspect of Right Action, the second precept, against stealing, or “not taking that which isn’t offered.” We begin a discussion of consent, which continues the following week. (12.10.19)


Not taking that which isn’t offered, part 2

Meditation: non-distraction as “not taking that which isn’t offered” (12.17.19)

Talk: Continuing a conversation about the second precept, as the second aspect of the limb of the Noble Eightfold Path called right action. Deepening in the conversation about consent, and social action as contemplative training, moving toward the bridge between ethics and meditative cultivation. (12.17.19)


New Years 2020: establishing wise intentions in your practice

Meditation: Intention and resolution (01.07.20)

Talk: Making wise New Years resolutions, which means discipline and clarity around the nature of contemplative training. I use a quote from Osho as a straw figure to discuss the relationship between nondual and gradual training approaches to practice. (01.07.20)


Don’t Commit Sexual Misconduct: the 3rd precept beyond #metoo

Meditation: Love, body, heart. (01.14.20)

My battery failed and I lost the recording of the talk this evening. We looked at the basic outlines of the precept on not committing sexual misconduct, which are patriarchal, but focus broadly on social convention. “Don’t have sex with the wrong person,” as defined by your culture’s norms. I think this basically for us comes down to consent and mutuality, which should be obvious but somehow still aren’t.


Sexual energy in spiritual practice

Meditation: Stillness. (01.21.20)

Talk: Sexual energy as inseparable from the energies that move in meditation, whether called prāṇa, śaktī, or kuṇḍalinī as in the Hindu tantric and haṭha systems, or pīti (rapture) in the early Buddhist. We barely touch on the parallels, but enough to establish the basis for including the movement of energy we might call eros through the full body as part of the cultivation of samādhi that is at the heart of practice. (01.21.20)


“Abstain from intoxicants that cloud the mind”: the complex 5th precept

We’ve come to the end of the formal limb of Right Action, which contains the three ethical precepts associated with physical relational action: not killing, not taking that which isn’t offered, and not misusing sexuality. (The fourth precept, Right Speech, gets its own whole limb. Here’s the talks on right speech.) Interestingly, the fifth precept, to not use intoxicants, doesn’t appear literally in the Eightfold Path. But it’s such an important inquiry that of course we should talk about it. So here’s a couple weeks unpacking this powerful and interesting ethical discipline.

Meditation: Breath, the senses, and refuge. (01.28.20)

Talk: The relationship between sensory contact, grasping, and addictive action. How lust and distraction are sibling states. This is the bridge between the conversation about sexuality/lust and the conversation about intoxication/heedlessness. The core quality of vigilance (appamāda), or heedfulness, as a primary reason to avoid intoxicants that cloud the mind.

We touched a bit on psychedelics, also called entheogens (“things that bring you into contact with God”), and think through some ways they may or may not be part of this precept. (01.28.20)


Intoxicants, part 2: “But don’t stop taking your meds.”

Continuing our inquiry into the 5th Precept: abstaining from intoxicants that cloud the mind. What does “intoxicant” mean, anyway?

Meditation: Whole body breathing. (02.04.20)

Talk: Ways we might understand the difference between the conceptual categories “medicine,” “recreational,” and “intoxicant,” and especially how we might think about substances like SSRIs and other emotion- and attention-regulation drugs in light of the precept. (02.04.20)


Screens and media as complex intoxicants

Week 3 of looking at the 5th Precept, about the dangers of intoxication. We looked last week and the week before at challenges in figuring out what substances to call “medicine,” “recreation,” or “intoxicant,” and how to think about our relationship to the various complex substances we have access to now.

The conversation is centering on how everything we ingest changes our state in various ways, some helpful and some not helpful. In order to know the difference between those two basic categories, we have to know what we want to attain, and so we’re back at right view and intention. Wanting “health” is different from wanting “awakening,” or “success,” after all, and so the desire (symptom) will have to be matched by the substance (medicine) in order for a goal to be attained.

Tonight we’ll look at some other cognitive and emotional addictions, particularly screens, media, and information in general. We’ll explore some skills for unbinding those addictions, and achieving skillful relationships with technology.

Meditation: Resting the body, resting the heart and mind. (02.11.20)

Talk: screens and other addiction-conditioning shiny sensory objects. (02.11.20)


Meaning, perception, context, discernment

Tonight at Satsang, finishing our discussion of the five precepts, we’ll take a mini detour into perception, meaning, and context. (In Buddhist jargon this means the relationship between emptiness and action, or suññatā and kamma in Pāli.)

This is important in the conversation about ethics because at the heart of every moral or ethical decision is discernment about the particular contexts and conditions affecting the choice. Conditions are both internal and external, of course, and so all choices are complex assessments that in the context of the Path, come down to the discernment of what supports, or not, progress toward liberation.

The most challenging choices, of course, are those that place the good of one person or group against that of another. And so we have to contend as well with individual and collective conceptions of liberation. I bring in famous ethics puzzles from Peter Singer and utilitarian philosophy, and offer a Buddhist “out” from their painful dilemma.

Meditation: Balancing our energies. (2.18.20)

Talk: Emptiness and the problem of ethical relativism. How to cultivate discernment in relation to the choices we have to make in the light of this identity-challenging discipline. (2.18.20)


Ok, that was a lot! Bows if you made it through the whole set. Now we’ll move on into the 5th limb of the Eightfold Path, right livelihood. Just in time to talk about the differences between socialist, capitalist, and Buddhist economic visions!

Blessings in your practice always, and thanks for being in community with us.

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