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CHAPTER 10 Right Action (Samma-kammanta)

Updated: July.2 10:2,2012

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CHAPTER 10
 
RIGHT ACTION
(Samma-kammanta)
 
 
RIGHT action is the second member of the morality group in Buddhism. It is abstinence from three wrong actions: killing, stealing and sexual misconduct. As we discussed in the preceding chapter, it inculcates compassion to all living beings; the taking only of things that are given; and living a pure and chaste life. These then are the first three of the five basic precepts, the other two being abstinence from lying and intoxicants. Not much science is needed to understand that these basic training precepts, while moulding the character of the individual who observes them, pro-mote harmony and right relations with oneself and others. By such moral conduct one gives others fearlessness, security and peace. All morality, or the good life, is founded on love and compassion, metta and karuna, which we discussed at length in the chapter on Right Thought. A person without these two salient qualities cannot really be called a man of morals.  Verbal and physical acts not tinged with love and compassion cannot be regarded as good and wholesome. Surely one cannot kill, steal and so forth with thoughts of love and a good conscience, but one is driven by thoughts of cruelty, greed and ignorance.
 
It is necessary to cultivate a certain measure of mental discipline, because the untamed mind always finds excuses to commit evil in word or deed. `When the thought is unguarded, bodily action also is unguarded; so are speech and mental action.¡¯ 1
 
Says the Buddha:
 
`A fool is known by his actions and so is a sage. By conduct is knowledge made bright.
 
`One endowed with three qualities should be known as a fool. With what three? With wrong bodily behaviour, wrong speech and wrong thought. A fool should be known as one endowed with these three qualities.
 
`One endowed with three qualities should be known as a sage. With what three? With right bodily behaviour, right speech and right thought. A sage should be known as endowed with these three qualities.
 
`So, monks, you should train yourselves thus: We shall live having given up the three things endowed with which a man is known as a fool, and shall practise three things endowed with which a man is known as a sage. Thus, monks, should you train yourselves.' 2
 
Conduct builds character. No one can bestow the gift of a good character on another. Each one has to build it up by thought, reflection, care, effort, mindfulness and concentrated activity. Just as in the mastery of an art one has to labour hard, so to master the art of noble conduct on which a good and strong character depends, one must be diligent and on the alert. As William Hawes says: `A good character is, in all cases, the fruit of personal exertion. It is not inherited from parents, it is not created by external advantages, it is no necessary appendage of birth, wealth, talents or station; but it is the result of one's own endeavours.' If we would acquire a sterling character we ought to remember the Buddha's words of warning against negligence and day-dreaming: 'Be vigilant, be ever mindful.¡¯ 3
 
In the training of character the first thing necessary is to practise restraint (samyama). If, instead, a man gives himself up to sense pleasures, his good conduct and character will fall away--on this all teachers of religion and psychology agree. Those who are in-toxicated with pleasures and are driven by the urge to enjoy them-selves, cannot be properly educated until they have learned to control their minds.
 
Restraint comes through reflection on virtue and its advantages. The young especially should develop a love of virtue, for it nourishes mental life. An unrestrained mind dissipates itself in frivolous activity. Character is something we have to build up, to forge on the anvil of our resolution.
 
The training precepts, however, are in no sense commandments. The Buddha was no arbitrary law-giver. There is no coercion or compulsion in Buddhism. The acceptance of the precepts by laymen or monk is voluntary.
 
It is interesting to see how the Buddha trained his disciples. Kesi, a horse-trainer, once visited the Blessed One, and the following dialogue ensued:
 
- 'You, Kesi, are a trained man, a trainer of horses to be tamed. How do you train a horse to be tamed.
- I train a horse to be tamed, venerable sir, by mild ways and harsh ways, also by both ways.
 
- Suppose, Kesi, a horse to be tamed, does not submit to your training, then what do you do with that horse?
 
- In such a case, venerable sir, I kill him. For what reason? Lest he bring discredit to my teacher's clan. Now, venerable sir, the Blessed One is a peerless trainer of men to be tamed. How, venerable sir, does the Blessed One train a person to be tamed?
 
- I too, Kesi, train a person to be tamed by mild ways and harsh ways, also by both ways. This, Kesi, is the mild way: Thus is good conduct in body; thus is the result of good conduct in body. Thus is good conduct in speech; thus is the result of good conduct in speech. Thus is good conduct in thought; thus is the result of good conduct in thought. Thus are the devas (deities) and thus are the humans.
 
And this, Kesi, is the harsh way: Thus is evil conduct in body; thus is the result of evil conduct in body. Thus is evil conduct in speech; thus is the result of evil conduct in speech. Thus is evil conduct in thought; thus is the result of evil conduct in thought. Thus is hell, thus the realm of animals, thus is the realm of the petas (ghosts).
 
And this, Kesi, is the way of both the mild and the harsh: ... (as above) ...
 
- But suppose, the person does not submit to your way of training, then what do you, venerable sir, do to that person.
 
- In that case, Kesi, I kill him.
 
- But surely the Blessed One does not deprive another of his life! Nevertheless, the Blessed One says: 'I kill him, Kesi!'
 
- It is true, Kesi, that the Tathagata does not deprive another of his life, nevertheless, if the person does not submit to the training by mild ways and harsh ways, and both ways, then the Tathagata thinks that he needs not be spoken to and admonished by his fellow monks who are wise. It kills a man in the Ariyan Discipline, Kesi, when both the Tathagata and his fellow monks think that he need not be spoken to and admonished.' 4
 
This dialogue clearly tells us that the Buddha did not believe in imposing commandments on his followers, but as a compassionate teacher he pointed out to them what was right and what was wrong and the consequences.
 
'I say: "Monks, do ye give up evil." Evil can be abandoned. If it were not possible to give up evil, I would not say so. Since it can be done, I say unto you: "Monks, do ye give up evil."
 
'If this giving up of evil led to loss and pain, I would not say: "Give up evil."
 
`Monks, do ye cultivate the good. Good can be cultivated. If it were not possible to cultivate good, I would not say so. Since it can be done, I say unto you: "Monks, do ye cultivate the good."
 
'If cultivation of the good led to loss and pain, I would not say: "Cultivate ye the good." But since it leads to welfare and happiness, therefore do I say: "Monks, do ye cultivate the good."'
 
It is left to the individual to make the necessary effort to translate into action the precepts he has undertaken voluntarily. The training administered and the support that others give by way of precept and example, are of no avail if he is indifferent and slothful. The responsibility lies in his own hand.
 
'According to the seed that's sown
So is the fruit ye reap therefrom.
The doer of good (will gather) good,
The doer of evil, evil (reaps).
Sown is the seed and planted well.
Thou shalt enjoy the fruit thereof. 5
 
1. The first precept to abstain from killing and to extend com-passion to all beings does not entail any restriction. 'All beings', in Buddhism, implies all living creatures, all that breathe. It is an admitted fact that all that live, human or animal, love life and loathe death. As life is precious to all, their one aim is to preserve it from harm and to prolong it. This applies even to the smallest creatures that are conscious of being alive. As it is said: 'Whoever in his search for happiness harasses those who are fond of happiness, will not be happy in the hereafter.' 6
 
The happiness of all creatures depends on their being alive. So to deprive them of that which contains all good for them, is cruel and heartless in the extreme. Is it therefore surprising that those who would kill others bring on themselves the hate and ill-will of those they seek to slay?
 
'All fear punishment,
Life is dear to all;
Comparing one with others
Kill not nor cause to perish. 7
 
`As I am so are they
As they are so am I;
Comparing one with others
Neither slay nor cause to kill.' 8
 
Not to harm and kill others is the criterion of a Buddhist and of all who feel. Those who develop the habit of being cruel to animals are quite capable of ill treating people as well when the opportunity occurs. When a cruel thought gradually develops into an obsession it may well lead to sadism. As the Buddhist books point out: `Those who kill suffer often in this life and may come to a terrible end. After this life the karma of their ruthless deeds will for long force them into states of woe. Should such destroyers of life be born in prosperous families with beauty and strength and other happy bodily attributes, still their karma will dog them to an early grave.'
 
On the other hand: `Those who show pity towards others and refrain from killing will be born in good states of existence and if reborn as humans, will be endowed with health, beauty, riches, influence, intelligence, etc.¡¯ 9
 
Right Action--samma-kammanta is no other than samma--kamma. The doctrine of kamma is one of the principal tenets of Buddhism. It is our own volitional actions that we call kamma. If one understands the operation of kamma and the result of volitional acts (kamma-vipaka) one may not be tempted to evil and unwhole-some actions which will come home to roost so that `suffering follows as the wheel the feet of the ox'. 10
 
It is interesting to note that during the last few years investiga-tions have been made into karma and rebirth. Many convincing accounts can be found in two most interesting books by Miss Gina Cerminara. Here is an extract from her Many Mansions (p. 50). 11  
 
¡®The Cayce life readings are fascinating because they trace human affliction and limitations of the present to specific conduct in the past and thus bring the abstract notion of karma into sharper and more immediate focus.... A College professor who had been born totally blind, heard about Cayce . . . . and applied for a physical reading ... which outlined four previous incarnations.... It was in Persia that he had set in motion the spiritual law which resulted in his blindness in the present. He had been a member of a barbaric tribe whose custom was to blind their enemies with red-hot irons and it had been his office to do the blinding.'
 
Yes, the world seems to be imperfect and ill-balanced. Amongst us human beings, let alone the animal kingdom, we see some born in misery, sunk in deep distress and supremely unhappy; others are born into a state of abundance and happiness, enjoy a life of luxury and know nothing of the world's woe. Again a chosen few are gifted with keen intellect and great mental capacity, while many are wrapt in ignorance. How is it that some of us are blessed with health, beauty and friends, while others are pitiful weaklings, destitute and lonely? How is it that some are born to enjoy long life while others pass away in the frill bloom of youth? Why are some blessed with affluence, fame and recognition, while others are utterly neglected? These are: intricate problems that demand a solution.
 
If we inquire we will find that these wide differences are not the work of an external agency or a superhuman being, but are due to our own actions and reactions, so that we are responsible for our deeds whether good or ill. We make our own karma.
 
Thus it is incumbent on all men of understanding to stop hurting and harming others and to cultivate a boundless heart full of pity and benevolence. Killing is killing whether done for sport, or food or--as in the case of insects--for health. It is useless to try to defend oneself by saying `I did it for this good reason or that.' It is better to call a spade a spade. If we kill we must be frank enough to admit it and regard it as something unwholesome.
 
Then, with regard to the question of vegetarianism, meat eating is not prohibited in Buddhism. If you have neither seen, heard, nor suspect that an animal was killed especially for you, then its meat is acceptable, but not otherwise. There is no rule or injunction in the teaching of the Buddha that a Buddhist should live wholly or even principally on vegetables. Whether or not meat is eaten is purely an individual concern, but those who consume fertilized eggs, however, break the first precept.
 
2. The second training precept under Right Action is to abstain from stealing and to live honestly taking only what is one's own by right. To take what belongs to another is not so serious as to deprive him of his life, but it is still a grave crime because it deprives him of some happiness. As no one wants to be robbed, it is not difficult to understand that it is wrong to take what is not one's own. The thought that urges a person to steal can never be good or whole-some. Then robbery leads to violence and even to murder.
 
This precept is easily violated by those in trade and commerce, for all kinds of fraud and dishonesty come under the second pre-cept. A man can use both his pen and his tongue with intent to steal. There can be no peace or happiness in a society where people are always on the look-out to cheat and rob their neighbours.
 
Sometimes it is thought that poverty leads to theft. There is some truth in it, but if people are lazy and workshy, or if, they misuse their talents, they become poor. They are then tempted to rob the rich, while others may consider theft an easy means to living a gay life. And so crime increases. It is the duty of governments to reduce poverty by removing unemployment.
 
Theft may take many forms. For instance, if an employee slacks or works badly and yet is paid in full, he is really a thief, for he takes money he has not earned. And the same applies to the employer if he fails to pay adequate wages. So, as Carlyle said: 'Make yourself an honest man, and then you may be sure that there is one less rascal in the world.'
 
3. The final training precept here of Right Action is to abstain from wrong sexual behaviour. What is needed is more self-control rather than sermons and books on the subject.    In the chapter on Right Thought we discussed at length sense indulgence with reference to renunciation. Here we shall try to understand in brief what, according to Buddhism, sexual wrong is. Let us first listen to the opening discourse of the Anuguttara Nikaya, another original collection in Pali:
 
'Monks, I know not of any other single form by which a man's heart is attracted as it is by that of a woman. Monks, a woman's form fills a man's mind.
 
'Monks, I know not of any other single sound ....
              I know not of any other single smell ....
              I know not of any other single flavour....
              I know not of any other single touch ... by which a man's heart is attracted as it is by that of a woman. A woman's sound, smell, flavour, and touch fill a man's mind.
 
'Monks, I know not of any other single form, sound, smell, flavour and touch by which a woman's heart is attracted as it is by the form, sound, smell, flavour and touch of a man. Monks, a woman's mind is filled with these things.'
 
Here is a sermon on sex explained in unmistakable language, the truth of which no sane man dare deny. Sex is described by the Buddha as the strongest impulse in man. If one becomes a slave to this impulse even the most powerful man turn into a weakling; even the sage may fall from the higher to a lower level. The sexual urge, especially in youth, is a fire that needs careful handling. If one is not thoughtful and restrained, it can cause untold harm. 'There is no fire like lust.¡¯ 12 'Passions do not die out: they burn out.'
 
Since the Buddha was a practical philosopher he did not expect his lay followers to lead ascetic lives. Indeed, he called them 'en-joyers of sense pleasures' (gihi kamabhogi). Being well aware of man's instincts and impulses, his appetites and urges, the Master did not prohibit sexual relations for the laity as he had done for monks. But he warned man against wrong ways of gratifying the sexual appetite. He went a step further and recommended the observation of the eight precepts 13 with special emphasis on the third one for the laity during days of retreat (uposatha) or as the occasion demanded.
 
If a person makes up his mind to live an unmarried life he should make a real effort to be chaste in body, speech and thought. If he is not strong enough to remain single, he may marry, but he should refrain from such sexual relations as are wrong and harmful. As the Buddha explains in the discourse on 'Dawnfall': 14
 
'If a person is addicted to women (given to a life of debauchery), is a drunkard, a gambler, and squanders all his earnings--this is a cause of his downfall.
 
'Not satisfied with one's own wives, if one has been with whores and the wives of others--this is a cause of one's downfall.
 
'Being past one's youth, to take as wife a girl in her teens, and to be unable to sleep for jealousy--this is a cause of one's downfall.'
 
Speaking of women the Buddha says tersely: 'Loose or immoral behaviour is the taint of a woman.' 15  ¡®Best among wives is she that pleases the husband.¡¯ 16  'The wife is the comrade supreme.¡¯ 17 Goldsmith writes: 'The perfect wife is much more serviceable in life  than petticoated philosophers, blustering heroines, or virago queens. She who makes her husband and her children happy is a much greater character than the ladies described in romance whose whole occupation is to murder mankind with shafts.'
 
Bhikkhu Silacara (Mr. McKechnie) writing on the third precept says:
 
'At every moment it is our minds that make us what we are. And in this matter of sex, mind plays a very important part; indeed, we might say that if the mind were completely under our control here, there would be little or no need for vigilance elsewhere.
 
'If we look about us we can see to what a pass lack of mental control in this matter of sex has brought the human race. Consider the "lower animals" as we are pleased to call them, and their sexual behaviour. Which really is lower here, the animal, or the man? Which acts in a normal, regular manner as regards sexual behaviour? And which runs off into all manner of irregularities and perversities? Here it is the animal that is the higher creature, and man that is the lower. And why is this? It is simply because man who possesses the mental capacity which, rightly used, could make him master over his sexual impulsion, has actually used his mental powers in such deplorable passion as to make himself more a slave to those impulsions than are the animals.' 18
 
The Buddha's explanation of the third precept in the forty-first discourse of the Majjhima Nikaya and elsewhere, is interesting and important. The discourse deals with all the ten wholesome and un-wholesome actions. What follows is a slightly condensed version of it.
 
Answering a question of the brahmin householders of Sala as to why some beings after their death are born in an evil and others in a good state of existence, the Master said: "Householders, some beings after death go to a state of woe owing to their not having lived a life of Dhamma, a life of righteousness, and harmony.'
 
Now when the brahmins did not fully understand what the Buddha said and asked him to explain in detail, the Master replied:
 
'Householders, some are cruel and merciless to living beings. Some take what is not given. Some abuse the pleasures of the senses, having sexual relations with those (virgins) protected by a mother, father, parents, a brother, sister or relations, with those who have a husband, with those whose use (in this way) deserves punishment and even with those who are engaged.' 19    
 
Such, householders, is the threefold practice of a-dhamma, of unrighteousness and disharmony in regard to the body.
 
The Buddha went on to describe the fourfold practice of a-dhamma in speech, namely lying, slandering, harsh words and idle chatter. He then said:
 
'Householders, some are covetous; they covet another's property thinking: "O that what belongs to others might be mine"; some are malevolent, polluted in mind, and think: "let these beings be killed, slaughtered, annihilated or destroyed, or let them not even live"; and some are of wrong view, of perverted outlook and think: "There is no (result) from gifts and offerings; no result from deeds well or ill done; there is neither this world nor a world beyond. (To those is the world beyond there is not this world, to those here, there is not a world beyond, Com.) There is no (result from good or bad behaviour to) mother and father; there are no beings who spon-taneously arise (this denies the existence of devas or deities); there are no recluses and brahmins who are of good conduct, who live righteously and proclaim this world and the world beyond, having realized super-knowledge (this denies the existence of omniscient Buddhas)." Such, householders, is the three-fold practice of a-dhamma, of unrighteousness and disharmony in regard to thought.'
 
Then the Buddha went on to explain the threefold practice of Dhamma, of righteousness, and harmony in regard to body, speech and thought--the opposite of all that is mentioned above.
 
It is good to bear in mind that as a religious teacher, the Buddha pointed out to Indian society the right and wrong way in ethics and morals, and the evil consequences of immoral and loose behaviour, but he never interfered in sexual matters, neither did he meddle with institutions or policies because these were the concern of a government. In his own kingdom, that is in his Dispensation, how-ever, the attitude of the Buddha was different; at times he was strict with his disciples. As guide and teacher, he often advised the mem-bers of the Order to be of good conduct, seeing terror even in minute faults, and to be decent, quiet and modest so that the displeased might have pleasure and t  happiness of those who were already pleased might be increased. 20
      
To those who joined him and entered the Order to lead an ascetic life, the Buddha gave special admonition. To the monks, sexual relations of any kind are forbidden, with good reason. But a monk is at liberty to put away the robes and return to lay life if that of a monk is too trying, and he finds it hard to delight in renunciation. In such cases the Master gave advice and explained things like an affectionate father, but never compelled his followers to lead the ascetic life against their wishes because these are psychological problems and must be so treated. One of the benefits obtained from meditation and other practices recommended by the Buddha to the members of the Order, is for the purpose of sublimation--the elimination of pathological conditions that may spring up as a result of abstinence from indulging in the senses.
 
Two verses in the Dhammapada (246, 247) enumerate the training precepts and in a word make plain the evil consequence of their violation:
 
'Whoever in this world takes life,
Speaks what is not truth,
Takes what is not given,
Goes to other's wives,
 
Indulges in drinking
Intoxicating liquors,
He even in this world
Digs up his own root.' 21
 
In this and in the preceding chapter we have discussed in detail the five precepts (panca-sila), the minimum moral obligation expected of a layman who becomes a Buddhist by taking as his refuges the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. 22 In conclusion, it may not be out of place to mention briefly the advice given by the Buddha to little Rahula, the novice, who was his own son:
 
- What do you think, Rahula, for what purpose is a mirror?
 
- For the purpose of reflecting, venerable sir.
 
- Even so, Rahula, after repeated reflection should bodily actions be done; after repeated reflection should verbal and mental actions be done.
 
Then the Buddha goes on to say that if, on reflection, one realizes that a bodily act tends to harm oneself, others or both then it is unwholesome and productive of pain, and should on no account be performed. If on reflection one realizes that a bodily act tends to harm neither oneself, nor others nor both it is wholesome and productive of happiness, and should be performed. Similarly with regard to one's verbal and mental actions.
 
Continuing the Master says:
 
'Whosoever, Rahula, in the distant past--recluses or brahmins--purified their bodily, verbal and mental actions--they all did so after repeated reflection. Whosoever, in the distant future--recluses or brahmanas--shall purify their bodily, verbal and mental actions they all too, will do so after repeated reflection. And whosoever, in the present time--recluses or brahmanas--purify their bodily, verbal and mental actions--they all do so after repeated reflection.
 
'Therefore, Rahula, thus must you train yourself: "We will purify bodily action after repeated reflection; we will purify verbal action after repeated reflection; we will purify mental action after repeated reflection" --thus must you train yourself Rahula.¡¯ 23
 
The careful reader of this condensed account of the discourse will understand how well the Buddha brings out the psychological im-portance of man's actions, his kamma, which in the ultimate sense is volition or cetana, and the Buddhist view of self and others. 'As I am, so are they' is the criterion to be adopted in all we do.
 
The tendency in man to give way to his desires, his longings and inclinations, is very strong. But too often he does not reflect enough before taking action, so that the results turn out to be not what he intended. In this discourse, reflection, thinking arising from meditation, is stressed by the Master. The advice to Rahula, the novice, though given twenty-five centuries ago, is indeed apt today. Space and time are no impediment to good counsel when it embodies eternal principles.
 
 
1. A. i. 261.
 
2. A. i. 102.        
 
3. D. ii. 120.
 
4. A. ii. 111, sutta 111.
 
5. S. i. 227: The Kindred sayings, I, p. 293.
 
6. Dhp. 131.
 
7. Dhp. 130.
 
8. Sn. 705.
 
9. See A. iii. 40 and M. 135 (Culakammavibhanga-sutta).    
 
10. Dph. 1.
 
11. Many Mansions; The World Within by Gina Cerminara (William Sloane Associates, Inc. New York, 1950).
 
12. Dhp. 262.    
 
13. See chapter 9.
 
14. Parabhava-sutta, Sn. 16, 18, 20.
 
15. Dhp. 242.    
 
16. S. p. 7.
 
17. S. i. 37.
 
18 The Five Precepts (Colombo).
 
19. Lit. 'adorned with the garland of engagement'.
 
20. Vinaya; A. iii. 67, also see chapter 11.
 
21. Of prosperity and happiness.
 
22. See chapter 1.     
 
23. M. 61.
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