What are Right Action and Right Livelihood according to the teachings of the Buddha?
First, comes the consideration of Right Action: having learned to discipline ourselves with regard to right speech, we turn to governing bodily actions. The Buddha subdivided the factor of Right Action into three categories: 1. Abstaining from killing living creatures, 2. Abstaining from taking what is not given, and 3. Abstaining from sexual misconduct.
In the words of the Buddha, one should abstain from killing living beings. Withour stick or sword, one should be conscientious, full of sympathy, and desirous of the welfare of all sentient beings. (Anguttara Nikaya X. 176)
This means one should abstain from killing or destroying beings, either by physical action or by verbal incitement, ranging from killing the eggs of bugs and lice to causing abortion or the slaughter of living sentient beings, especially human beings. (Ledi 1977, 49)
This means to refrain from destroying any form of life, for all living beings love life, fear death, seek happiness, and avoid pain; it applies even to animals and insects though not including plants, which lack full-fledged consciousness, which explains the monk’s primarily vegetarian diet.
It is of interest to note here that the Buddha did not require a fully vegetarian diet of his monks. They were to accept whatever was given them as alms food. Fish and even meat were allowable, provided that they had not been killed especially for oneself. (Jivoka Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 55)
One should avoid killing oneself by suicide and harming or torturing sentient beings. Killing by accident is not accompanied by any degree of negative kamma, as there is no intention. The higher the sentient being, the more negative is the kamma. The motive for killing carries grave weight, and killing dependent on greed, hatred, and delusion is of the worst kind. (Bodhi 1984, 58–59)
The antidote for abstaining from taking life is loving-kindness and compassion for all sentient beings—identifying with all beings with heartfelt sympathy and wishing their welfare. Right intention means good will, harmlessness, and concern for others. One who feels such concern will be so imbued with feelings of love for other sentient beings that he will not be able to harm them.
The next subdivision concerns abstaining from taking what is not given—avoiding stealing in any of its forms. On this point, the words of the Buddha are clear. He tells us to abstain from taking, with intention to steal, living beings or non-living materials that have an owner. To refrain from removing or appropriating them without the owner’s consent, either by physical effort or by inciting another to do so. (Ledi 1977, 49)
We should not take with thievish intent what another possesses, whether it be in the village, outside in the woods or in nature—although it is not wrong to take things like wood, stones, earth, or gems in the earth, which do not have an owner. It is equally wrong to withhold from others what ought to be rightfully theirs. Similarly, stealing, robbery, snatching, fraudulence, and deceit carry bad karmic weight and hinder spiritual development.
The antidote is honesty, having respect for the property of others and their rights—having contentment with one’s livelihood, showing generosity of heart, not coveting the wealth and possessions of others, and even giving away one’s own wealth and possessions for the benefit of others.
The third subdivision is abstain from sexual misconduct, and here again the word of the Buddha is clear. He tells us to abstain from wrong sexual conduct in sensual pleasures, which will cause pain for others. Examples would be adultery, rape, intercourse with minors, and the perversion of others. (Ledi 1977, 51)
Laymen should avoid sex with illicit partners such as those who are married or betrothed, or still under the protection of the family. The point is to curb sexual desire so it does not lead to moral transgression. One should avoid a banal attachment to promiscuity because it blocks the path to purification.
Instead, it is the antidote that must be stressed. The opposite of desiring somebody as an object to fulfill one’s sensual needs is to see that person for what he/she really is—a sentient human being worthy of care, regard, and compassion—and feeling a form of loving-kindness that transcends the limits of mere grasping and desire.
The point is to protect such persons from the negative effects of unwholesome kamma and to protect marriage and the family, as a way of avoiding suffering for a great many, promoting trust, confidence, union, and harmony and, last but not least, promoting progress on the path to spiritual development by removing hindrances from the path.
Sensual desire can wreak havoc in the lives of laymen and householders, and monks and nuns avoid such distraction by living celibate lives. This brings our discussion of Right Action to an end and leads us on to the next factor.
Right Livelihood is the fifth factor of the Noble Eightfold Path, and it explains the practice of Right Intention in acts of daily life where earning a living is concerned. The Buddha, who thought of everything, gave us a code of economic conduct to follow. In short, he said we should avoid gaining our livelihood by doing anything harmful to others: by acting illegally, using coercion, violence, trickery, or deceit, dealing in weapons or human beings, animals to be slaughtered, poisons, intoxicants, soothsaying, trickery, usury, or any livelihood that violates an understanding of Right Speech and Right Action.
The antidote is to gain one’s living by doing no harm, by benefiting others, in a righteous way, legally, peacefully, honestly, openly, courteously, in such a way as to gain merit and avoid the pitfalls of greed and delusion. Similarly, workers should fulfill their duties in an honest and trustworthy manner, avoiding idleness, deceit, and pocketing the employer’s goods. One should show respect and consideration for customers, colleagues, and employers. Moreover, employers should follow the same practice with employees. Articles should be represented and sold honestly without deceptive representation of quality, quantity, and so on.
The Buddha says: “When the noble disciple, avoiding wrong living, gets his livelihood by a right way of living—this is called ‘Mundane Right Livelihood,’ which yields worldly fruits and brings good results.” (Bodhi 1984 65–66)
Abstaining, desisting, refraining from wrong livelihood—the mind, being holy, being turned away from the world and conjoined with the path, the holy path being pursued—this is called Supramundane Right Livelihood—not of the world, but supramundane and conjoined with the path.” (Majjhima Nikaya 117)
Once one has got Right Livelihood in order and combines it with the practice of Right Understanding, Right Effort, and Right Mindfulness, one is on the way to supramundane understanding on the path to wisdom.
Bodhi, Bhikkhu. 1984. The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society.
Ledi Sayadaw. 1977. The Noble Eightfold Path and its Factors Explained. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society
Nyanatiloka, Mahathera. 1967. The Word of the Buddha. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society.