Based on Right View, and with the right attitude, we will want to do the right thing for the right reasons. This means making a commitment to avoid harmful actions for the purpose of self-training as a form of mind development.
To cultivate mind development, we begin by practicing the relinquishment of desires arising in the mind that may lead to unwholesome results. This does not mean developing self-control by force of will, but rather by gradually developing the discernment to foresee the effects of mental causes.
Right Intention acts on our ability to see a cause-and-effect relationship based on dependent origination: “when this happens, that happens.”
This is conducive to harmlessness. It means recognizing that good will leads to more good, and that ill will leads to more ill. It means the development of loving-kindness and compassion in place of anger and violence and cruelty.
Right Intention practiced is a beginning that can, when continued with mindfulness, take us to the end of the path.
The Noble Eightfold Path begins and ends with Right View and Right Intention. We are careful to monitor the potential dangers that might arise in connection with sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch, and mind, gradually cultivating right discernment through insight and morality. We practice clear awareness in every thought, word, and deed. As thought precedes action, we consider everything we say before we say it. We learn to be heedful that our thoughts always lead to spoken words that are based on noble intentions and contain no potential harmfulness—either to others or to ourselves.
A good way to keep right practice in mind in our daily routine is to always be careful about the way that we talk.
We need to be heedful about what we say because words can break or save lives, make enemies or friends, even create war or peace.
We should abstain from false speech: we should not deliberately tell lies; we should avoid speaking deceitfully. We should abstain from slanderous speech and not speak maliciously; abstain from harsh words that may harm or hurt others; and abstain from idle chatter and gossip that is shallow and contains no depth.
In short, we should tell the truth, and speak kindly and thoughtfully to others; speak softly and gently, warmly and compassionately to others; and remain silent when speech is not necessary.
Ideally, we should speak about the Dhamma only with like-minded individuals.
It follows that if we are paying close attention and being mindful of every thought before it turns into an action of speech, then we should be even more careful about controlling how thought turns into action.
One good thing is that the mind is quicker than the body, so a person who develops mindfulness will develop the skill of catching the mind when inclinations or potentially harmful and dangerous intentions are arising. Thus we become capable of halting any unskillful bodily actions before they occur. This is called Right Action.
We should avoid bodily actions that arise from unwholesome or harmful intentions toward ourselves, toward other persons, and toward any form of living being. Unwholesome actions lead to unsound states of mind, while wholesome actions lead to sound states of mind.
Right Action means abstention from harming sentient beings, especially taking life in all its forms; abstention from the intention of suicide; abstention from intentionally doing any sort of harm or delinquency; abstention from taking what is not given, including stealing, robbery, fraud, deceptiveness, and dishonestly; and abstention from sexual misconduct.
In short, we should act kindly and compassionately, respectfully and honestly toward others and their belongings, being mindful that our relationships with ourselves and with others and with the world at large are harmless.
If we must be mindful, it follows that there is no harmfulness intended in our actions, and thus we should earn our living and engage in an occupation that does no harm to others or to any sentient being in any way.
Right Livelihood means that we should earn our living in a clean, moral, innocent, guiltless, upright, and virtuous way. We should earn our income legally and peacefully.
In earning our living, we must abstain from harming others in any way. In particular, we should abstain from dealing in arms and weapons. We should abstain from dealing in living beings, including human beings for slavery or prostitution, or animals for slaughter. We should abstain from butchering and selling meat. We should abstain from selling intoxicants and poisons such as alcohol and drugs and harmful substances. And lastly, we should abstain from following any occupation that would violate the principles of Right Speech and Right Action.
This means that if most of us looked at ourselves and closely examined the ways in which we earn our livings, we might see ourselves as being compromised by our occupations in some ways. And, if this is so, we should ask ourselves what we can do about it. Some, such as teachers and nurses, are in a good position to practice Right Livelihood if they mindfully observe their actions in every detail of their daily routine and practice.
In all cases concerning Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood, there is only one person who can know if their actions are virtuous. The one who knows is you—and you are the only one who can do anything about it.
The wonderful thing about morality (Pali: sila) is that the responsibility falls solely upon the individual, including the sense of blame and shame you feel when you know, through the mind watching the mind, when and how you are secretly deceiving yourself. The good news is that the sense of moral dread you feel motivates you to do what you need to do to set things straight.
There are all too few of us who can say: “I have done what needed to be done, and now I have set things right.” The reason for this is that it takes the greatest effort possible to overcome the inertia of just plain remaining in the worldly world. It takes the greatest effort to make a paradigm shift—by swimming against the current of mundane life—with no other guarantee of success but your own ardent single-mindedness and confidence that proper practice will lead to a happy or supra-mundane state.
The blessing is that once you find yourself in state of mixed-consciousness—being pulled between two worlds—for the one with Right View there is no turning back. And so, because of your inclination toward Right Intentions, you continue going forward and you’ll never want to turn back to face the consequences of wrong actions.
Those who do fall back may feel an inherent sense of apprehension, that they are returning to experience yet another round of the kind of hell from which they have just come.
So what do we do?
We try to continue striving. To do our best without expectation and without any goal in view, because this is the best thing that we can do. We continue to tidy the workshop of our mind and to sharpen our tools in preparation for formulating right mental actions, following Right Effort and leading to ever more purer and clearer states of mind.