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The Fourth Noble Truth is the Noble Eightfold Path
(part I)

[Sarika at IBMC June/July 1996]

These are steps on the path the Buddha discovered as the way to the end of suffering. The eight steps are divided into three categories:

Sila or harmonious living 1. Right Speech 2. Right Action 3. Right Livelihood Samadhi or meditation 4. Right Concentration 5. Right Mindfulness 6. Right Effort Prajna or wisdom 7. Right Thought 8. Right Understanding

The "right" in every case is not spelled out in detail. Life is too complicated for that. And, because our choices are our own responsibility, we need to consider each situation as it arises; it's not helpful to make rules and assume they will cover every possible event. The criteria we need to follow is whether what we do is beneficial to ourselves and other sentient beings and is not harmful to ourselves or other sentient beings.

Sila tells us how to get along in the world, with other human beings, in such a way that we don't burden ourselves with negative karma. We do not live in isolation. We are part of our family, our community, our society, and, to be happy within ourselves, we must find ways to be happy in these groups. It is not practical nor is it beneficial to separate ourselves from others. In fact, as our practice develops we become more and more aware that we are connected to everyone.

The most important thing we can do in our lifetimes is to attain awakening and become Bodhisattvas, helping others to end their own suffering. The Buddha did Bodhisattva work by staying in the world and teaching what he had learned. Other Bodhisattvas, such as Kwan Yin who personifies compassion, Kshitigarbha who chooses to be reborn into hell to help all beings there, and Manjusri who represents wisdom and uses his sword to help all beings cut through ignorance are all predominate images in Mahayana Buddhism.

The three steps in this category of moral behavior are Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. The hardest one for most of us is Right Speech. It is so easy to open our mouths and watch the wrong words come out. We may not realize that what we say is harmful until it is too late. Often we react, rather than taking time to be silent and then respond when we have a better grasp of the situation. Despite the fact that, as children, we hear "Sticks and stones can break our bones, but words will never hurt us," words do cause pain.

Impure speech includes not only lying but actually speaking more or less than the truth; gossiping and carrying tales that cause friends to become enemies; making disparaging remarks and using harsh language that disturbs others; using manipulative ways that persuade people to do something they wouldn't do otherwise, being involved in keeping secrets, all of these can cause others harm. And if this happens, we have strayed far from the compassion and loving-kindness that moves us along the path. If we honor and respect the other person, we are less likely to be inconsiderate in our speech.

Right action is a further extension of the intention to do that which benefits ourselves and others and not to do that which harms ourselves or others. Here is where karma is created. If we plant a seed by our actions, that seed will grow and eventually the fruit will ripen and plop on our heads. For better or for worse. Good karma or bad. It is all a manifestation of cause and effect. And it is our intentions that create the outcome. We have no control over the results of our actions. We must consider carefully before we do something, for all our actions affect other people and the world around us.

Right Action means that we refrain from killing any living being, refrain from taking what is not given to us, refrain from impure sexual acts, refrain from becoming intoxicated. But it also means going beyond this to encourage life, to give rather than take, to have loving relationships, and to keep our minds clear. If we become intoxicated, we are more likely to break our other precepts. If we act impurely in sexual relationships, being manipulative in order to force someone to do what they do not want to do, applying pressure to get our own way, we are harming both others and ourselves. 
vajrayogini, queen of great bliss

The last of the steps under harmonious living is Right Livelihood. It is very important that we earn our living in a way that benefits the world and does not cause harm. Our livelihood should not involve breaking the precepts nor should it involve encouraging others to break the precepts. Obviously, it is wrong to earn money through degrading actions, such as procuring prostitutes or committing crimes. And manufacturing weapons or chemicals that can kill or maim other beings is also clearly harmful. Killing of humans or animals is not right livelihood, nor is dealing in the parts of slaughtered animals, their skins, flesh, bones, etc. Selling liquor or drugs may be profitable but is certainly harmful, even if we don't indulge in them ourselves. Operating or working for a gambling casino is also harmful, not only to the gamblers, but to their families as well.

Beyond that we may need to decide whether the company we work for is doing beneficial things for society by enhancing peace and participating in good works or if it is harming the world by creating and dumping toxic wastes and otherwise destroying the environment. Some choices are harder than others, especially when the job is allowing us to support our families and when the ties to improper action are somewhat tenuous. For example, it may be beneficial to help build airplanes, but what if those airplanes carry bombs. It is good to be a farmer and help to feed the world, but what if that includes killing sentient beings. Each individual must make their own choices.

See Part II for the other five steps on the path.

Gassho, Sarika

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