top of page

Right Actions and their Relationship to Wisdom

An excerpt from the upcoming Wisdom in Buddhism.

Elements 4 and 5 of the eightfold path relate more to ethical behaviour, than to wisdom per se. Still, much wisdom can be found in behaviour that is conductive to building positive relationships, not harming others and being a responsible member of any society.


(Pali, silakkhandha )

#4 Right Actions

(Pali, samma sammanta )

Abstain From the Taking of Life

The first thing to recognize here is that we should abstain from killing each other – for any reason. We are all desirous of life and wish to continue as long as we can. Our lives are short enough without others cutting it shorter still. It is wise to follow such a rule, for we would not want someone to cut short our life.

Don’t kill other sentient creatures. If we agree that all sentient creatures can feel pain, then inflicting pain upon such creatures runs contrary to ethical behaviour. Killing such creatures would, similarly, be contrary to ethical behaviour.

Still, there is some question about the ethics of killing an animal for food. In the most general terms, Buddhist monks tend not to eat meat, when they prepare their own food. Some may eat meat if they receive it from others and it wasn’t not killed specifically for them. The Dali Lama himself is not a strict vegetarian, yet he recognizes the benefits to ones physical health and karma of not eating meat.

Abstain From Taking That Which Does Not Belong to You

This is relatively simple. It’s a injunction not to take things which either do not belong to you or are not freely offered. This has nothing to do with “the law” or what’s “legal.” It has everything to do with harming others and the effect it will have on our karma.

This goes a little further than simply not stealing. It also involves giving something back which you possess to the person you know who is the rightful owner of the property.

Last spring, I was hiking in Rouge National Urban Park. I knelt to take a close up of a trillium flower and felt my knee strike something hard amongst the leaves. Turned out it was a little Swiss Army knife. After a bit of oil and a thorough cleaning, it was good as new. I didn’t steal it or come to possess it in any way that could be described as questionable. There was no way I could reasonably determine to whom the knife belonged. It wasn’t engraved with any name or identifying marks. It was found in a public park. My keeping it was not going to cause any greater suffering by the person who had originally lost it.

Sometimes things just come your way, you have no way of knowing to whom these things belong, so you can keep it with little karmic disturbance. If you wanted to get a little more mileage out of finding something, you might donate it to a good cause, for performing meritorious acts would seem to have a good affect on karma.

Trent Hamm, in his blog post on The Simple Dollar, offers some good advice when finding money. Whether or not Trent is a Buddhist does not matter, but he does seem to look after his karma while attempting to look after the victims interest as far as he can.

He writes;

If I find money with any form of identification attached to it, I try to return it. Anything that can possibly distinguish the money I’ve found from normal money, such as a money clip or a wallet or anything like that, results in some effort to return it to its rightful owner. It doesn’t matter where I find it – if I find it with something that makes identification directly possible, I try to return it myself.

If there is no identification and I’m in a place of business or government, I inform the manager but retain the item. I usually go to the manager and simply state that I’ve found a small amount of cash and would like to return it to its rightful owner. I offer to leave my contact information there. I don’t turn over the money to the person at the counter because that money is often pocketed. I then wait and see if anyone contacts me and can identify the exact amount lost. If someone does, then I’ll happily return it to them. If I don’t hear from anyone in thirty days, I keep the money.

If there is no identification and I’m in a public place, like a sidewalk or a park, I pocket the money. There is no simple or effective way to return the money in this situation because there is no effective “lost and found” for someone to seek the item. If someone has lost cash in such a situation, I view it as irresponsibility and feel no guilt about pocketing it. Of course, if someone returns while I’m still there and is searching for the money, I’ll ask them what they’re looking for and if they tell me, then I’ll give them the money that I found. If it’s possible for me to leave a note (with sidewalk chalk or something), I’ll do so, simply stating “I found an item of some value here. If you lost it, call me and identify it!”

In other words, if there is a reasonably simple way for me to return the money, I’ll do so. If there is no clear way to make it possible for me to return the money, however, I’ll pocket the money. In the end, it’s all about putting yourself in the shoes of the person that lost it – if they put up a reasonable effort to find it, I’ll do the same.

The karmic consequences of taking things that don’t belong to you seem to vary, when we engage in some moral gymnastics. For example, If I ran into the AGO and grabbed a Matisse off the wall, my karma would have significant impact on me. First, I’d likely get caught before I got out of the building and charged with theft and who knows what else, but as importantly, my karma would suffer from the act. The painting clearly belong to someone else and it was not freely offered to me. Decamping with it, causes pain to another or, in this case, to many other art lovers. So, major impact on the karma.

On the other hand, if I ran into a building where stolen art was being stored and myself stole a painting from there, it seems my karmic consequences might be less. If I had the intention of returning the painting to the original owner, the consequences might be even less or, maybe, even positive. I might even be called a “hero.”

This then, brings up the question of how karma might be affected by our mental state or by our ‘intent.’ If I steal a stolen painting, with the intent of returning it to the original owner and don’t seek any accolades for the effort, I would seem to have had a good karmic even. On the other hand, if I stole the previously stolen painting, but after I got it home, decided to keep it for myself even when I knew who the rightful owner was, I would have a different karmic outcome. If I felt good or bad about keeping it, that would affect my karma too.

Intention, deed and consequential feelings all seem to have varying affects on karma. Whether or not the intention was to actually perform a deed has consequences. Leaving a coffee shop, having simply forgotten to pay, (as I did only yesterday BTW - sorry John) would not negatively affect our karma as much as knowingly, leaving the coffee shop without paying. In either case, going back next day to pay them seems to offset any original, negative intent.

Feeling some guilt about an intentionally negative deed and then doing or at least saying something about that would seem to have some beneficial effect on negative karma.

Abstain from Sexual Misconduct

For the purposes of this discussion, from a Buddhist perspective, it’s fairly simple and straightforward;

  • Abstain from sexual encounters those who are under age

  • Abstain from sexual encounters with engaged or married people

  • Abstain from non-consensual sex

If it’s not clear, this still leaves a lot of room for personal preferences, proclivities, sexual orientation and kinks. So long as we’re talking about consenting adults, Buddhism has very little to say about who you do. There is no concern about same sex coupling or multiple partners, pre-marital sex or S&M or whatever you’re into.

Once again, we are not looking at this from a “legal” point of view. In-so-far as we don’t want to harm others, it makes sense to follow these rules. While laws may be in place around certain sexual acts, in certain countries, states or counties, Buddhism itself has very few injunctions on the subject.

In the case of abstaining from sex with engaged or married people, it should be clear that even if they are both consenting, there is a third party involved who may be harmed – namely the spouse or intended spouse of one or both of the partners.

It would be unwise for a supervisor to engage in sexual relations with an employee he or she supervises – even though it may be consenting. It may put the employee in a difficult or compromised position and cause harm, however unintended it may be. Ask Bill Clinton about that. Many companies have strict, if not always enforced, rules around supervisors not putting employees into such positions. Any person in power or authority must abstain from inappropriate sexual contact with any one whose lives, careers, jobs or pay may be adversely affected.

Only this week, as I edit this section of the book in mid October 2017, investigative reporter, Jodi Kantor broke a story in the New York Times about Hollywood producer, and film industry mogul, Harvey Weinstein. Her well researched and documented story puts Weinstein right in the middle of multiple allegations around sexual harassment and inappropriate sexual contact with a number of actresses and those who worked for him. Most of the allegations seem to be about using his position of authority to coerce women into having sex with him. There are even allegations being put forward regarding sexual assault and rape.

The Weinstein story isn’t about just this one man who has allegedly been acting in a manner that is not only inappropriate, but illegal, it’s about almost everyone around him knowing about it, then turning a blind eye. It was, and appears to be even now, a perfectly acceptable way for some people to behave in Hollywood.

Since this story first broke, dozens of his friends and acquaintances have maneuvered to distance themselves from any relationship they had with him. Many have expressed their shock and disgust. He has publicly disgraced and humiliated himself, lost his status and even livelihood within the film industry and will likely face jail time. More importantly he has done irreparable damage to those he coerced and abused.

Weinstein could have demonstrated both wisdom and compassion when dealing with these women. He could have been a mentor, an aide or an invaluable ally as these women worked their way through their acting careers. In the end, they might have stood and sung his praises for the invaluable support they received from Weinstein, as they accepted their Oscar. But this is not how it’s going to end for Weinstein, for he unwisely chose to cause harm, unwisely chose to demean others and unwisely chose to deny, deflect and deceive when found out. Given Weinstein’s unscrupulous, despicable and illegal behaviour, it’s not going to end well for him. It probably isn’t going to end well for anyone.

As we near the end of this section of the book, I don’t want to leave the reader with a sense that one must abstain, avoid, run from or be fearful of having sex with anyone. We are human and the urge to merge is deep and powerful. The drive to couple and reproduce is biological and not easily set aside. It is pleasurable, therapeutic, comforting and with the right partner, loving. It has an honoured place in our psychology and physiology that is millions of years old. Without it, you and I would not be here.

In the end, and taking into consideration the cautionary tale of Harvey Weinstein, so long as everyone agrees and everyone is adult, knock your socks off. So long as everyone involved is of legal age and everyone gives their consent and no one is likely to be hurt it seems reasonable to engage in relations.

For monastic purposes, at least in Buddhism, sexual contact is widely discouraged. Sexual and sensual pleasures are viewed as a distraction for those who are seriously on the spiritual path. The passion to which it can give rise is one of The Three Fires of the human mind that must be dealt with before approaching Nirvana, that of passion. For the average Buddhist on the street or the so-called “householder” this prohibition is not applicable. We discuss this further in the next section.

#sexualmisconduct #harveyweinstein #billclinton #sexscandal #Iveprecepts #buddhism #jokikantor #Monikalewinsky #eightfoldpath

8 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page