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,