Right Action

Dharma Talk: Right Action: Waking Up to Loving Kindness

#14 Autumn 1995

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Right Action is a part of the Noble Eightfold Path taught by the Buddha. It includes, first of all, the kinds of actions that can help humans and other living beings who are being destroyed by war, political oppression, social injustice, and hunger. To protect life, prevent war, and serve living beings, we need to cultivate our energy of loving kindness.

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Loving kindness should be practiced every day. Suppose you have a transistor radio. To tune into the radio station you like, you need a battery. In order to get linked to the power of loving kindness of bodhisattvas, buddhas, and other great beings, you need to tune in to the “station” of loving kindness that is being sent from the ten directions. Then you only need to sit on the grass and practice breathing and enjoying.

But many of us are not capable of doing that because the feeling of loneliness, of being cut off from the world, is so severe we cannot reach out. We do not realize that if we are moved by the imminent death of an insect, if we see an insect suffering and we do something to help, already this energy of loving kindness is in us. If we take a small stick and help the insect out of the water, we can also reach out to the cosmos. The energy of loving kindness in us becomes real, and we derive a lot of joy from it.

The Fourth Precept of the Order of Interbeing tells us to be aware of suffering in the world, not to close our eyes before suffering. Touching those who suffer is one way to generate the energy of compassion in us, and compassion will bring joy and peace to ourselves and others. The more we generate the energy of loving kindness in ourselves, the more we are able to receive the joy, peace, and love of the buddhas and bodhisattvas throughout the cosmos. If you are too lonely, it is because you have closed the door to the rest of the world.

Right Action is the action of touching love and preventing harm. There are many things we can do. We can protect life. We can practice generosity (dana). The first person who receives something from an act of giving is the giver. The Buddha said, “After meditating on the person at whom you are angry, if you cannot generate loving kindness in yourself, send that person a gift.” Buy something or take something beautiful from your home, wrap it beautifully, and send it to him or to her. After that, you will feel better immediately, even before the gift is received. Our tendency when we are angry is to say unkind things, but if we write or say something positive about him or her, our resentment will simply vanish.

We seek pleasure in many ways, but often our so-called pleasure is really the cause of our suffering. Tourism is one example. The positive way of practicing tourism – seeing new countries, meeting new people, being in touch with cultures and societies that differ from ours – is excellent. But there are those who visit Thailand, the Philippines, or Malaysia just for the sake of consuming drugs and hiring prostitutes. Western and Japanese businessmen go to Thailand and the Philippines just to set up sex industries and use local people to run these industries. In Thailand, at least 200,000 children are involved in the sex industry. Because of poverty and social injustice, there are always people who feel they have to do this out of desperation. In the Philippines, at least 100,000 children are in the sex industry and in Vietnam, 40,000. What can we do to help them?

If we are caught up in the situation of our own daily lives, we don’t have the time or energy to do something to help these children. But if we can find a few minutes a day to help these children, suddenly the windows open and we get more light and more fresh air. We relieve our own difficult situation by performing an act of generosity. Please discuss this situation with your Sangha and see if you can do something to stop the waves of people who profit from the sex industry. These are all acts of generosity, acts of protecting life. You don’t need to be rich. You don’t need to spend months and years to do something. A few minutes a day can already help. These acts will bring fresh air into your life, and your feeling of loneliness will dissolve. You can be of help to many people in the world who really suffer.

Right Action is also the protection of the integrity of the individual, couples, and children. Sexual misbehavior has broken so many families. Children who grow up in these broken families become hungry ghosts. They don’t believe in their parents because their parents are not happy. Young people have told me that the greatest gift their parents can give them is their parents’ own happiness. There has been so much suffering because people do not practice sexual responsibility. Do you know enough about the way to practice Right Action to prevent breaking up families and creating hungry ghosts? A child who is sexually abused will suffer all his or her whole life. Those who have been sexually abused have the capacity to become bodhisattvas, helping many children. Your mind of love can transform your own grief and pain. Right Action frees you and those around you. You may think you are practicing to help others around you, but, at the same time, you are rescuing yourself.

Right Action is also the practice of mindful consuming, bringing to your body and mind only the kinds of food that are safe and healthy. Mindful eating, mindful drinking, not eating things that create toxins in your body, not using alcohol or drugs, you practice for yourself, your family, and your society. A Sangha can help a lot.

One man who came to Plum Village told me that he had been struggling to stop smoking for years, but he could not. After he came to Plum Village, he stopped smoking immediately because the group energy was so strong. “No one is smoking here. Why should I?” He just stopped. Sangha is very important. Collective group energy can help us practice mindful consumption.

Right Action is also linked to Right Livelihood. There are those who earn their living by way of wrong action – manufacturing weapons, killing, depriving others of their chance to live, destroying the environment, exploiting nature and people, including children. There are those who earn their living by producing items that bring us toxins. They may earn a lot of money, but it is wrong livelihood. We have to be mindful to protect ourselves from their wrong livelihood.

Even when we are trying to go in the direction of peace and enlightenment, our effort may also be going in the other direction, if we don’t have Right View or Right Thinking, and are not practicing Right Speech, Right Action, of Right Livelihood. That is why our effort is not Right Effort. If you teach the Heart Sutra, and do not have a deep understanding of it, you are not practicing Right Speech. When you practice sitting and walking meditation in ways that cause your body and mind to suffer, your effort will not be Right Effort, because it is not based on Right View. Your practice should be intelligent, based on Right Understanding of the teaching. It is not because you practice hard that you can say you are practicing Right Effort.

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There was a monk practicing sitting meditation very hard, day and night. He thought he was practicing the hardest of anyone, and he was very proud of his practice. He sat like a rock day and night, but he did not get any transformation. His teacher saw him there and asked, “Why are you sitting in meditation?” The monk replied, “In order to become a Buddha.” Thereupon his teacher picked up a tile and began to polish it. The monk asked, “Why are you polishing that tile?” and his master replied, “To make it into a mirror.” The monk said, “How can you make a tile into a mirror?” and his teacher responded, “How can you become a Buddha by practicing sitting meditation?”

To me, the practice should be joyful and pleasant in order to be Right Effort. If you breathe in and out and feel joy and peace, you are making Right Effort. If you suppress yourself, if you suffer during your practice, you are probably not practicing Right Effort. You have to examine your practice. Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort are manifested as the practice of mindfulness in daily life. This is the teaching of engaged Buddhism – the kind of Buddhism that is practiced in daily life, in society, in the family, and not only in the monastery.

During the last few months of his life, the Buddha talked about the Threefold Training – sila (precepts), samadhi (concentration), and prajna (understanding). Mindfulness is the source of all precepts: We are mindful of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, so we practice protecting life; We are mindful of the suffering caused by social injustice, so we practice generosity; We are mindful of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, so we practice responsibility; We are mindful of the suffering caused by divisive speech, so we practice loving speech and deep listening; We are mindful of the destruction caused by consuming toxins, so we practice mindful consuming. These Five Precepts are a concrete expression of mindful living. The Threefold Training – precepts, concentration, and understanding – helps us practice Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort.

In his first Dharma talk, the Buddha taught the Noble Eightfold Path. When he was about to pass away at the age of eighty, it was also the Eightfold Path that the Buddha taught to his last disciples. The Noble Eightfold Path is the cream of the Buddha’s teaching. The practice of the Five Precepts is very much connected to his teaching. Not only is the practice of Right Action linked to the Five Precepts, but the practice of Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort are also linked to all Five. If you practice, you will see for yourself. The Five Precepts are connected to each link of the Eightfold Path. We need Right Speech, Right Livelihood, and Right Action. Buddhism is already engaged Buddhism. If it is not, it is not Buddhism. It is silly to create the term engaged Buddhism, but in society where people misunderstand so greatly the teaching of the Buddha, this term can play a role for a certain time. Whatever we say, what is most important is that we practice.

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Right Effort

Shifting gears from being on the road to settling into a regular householder rhythm, has given me the opportunity to deepen my relationship with Jeff in our paradisiacal home, have a regular rhythm to practice, study, work on the land, and to cultivate ease. In addition the morning meditation sangha has flowered, with a regular cast of characters and very welcomed drop-ins from new folks. I miss a lot about being a Grateful Roadwarrior, but the joy of being in a home that doesn’t change frequently has brought expanded joy.

I will be writing weekly about the practice in the Sangha and over the next several weeks the community will be studying and inquiring into The Eightfold noble Path. This week: Right Effort. If this is your first visit, it may be helpful to visit the two previous posts on Right View and Right Intention.

Through calm abiding meditation and inquiry into the reality of the moment, the Right View of the nature of Nature arises: that all beings are essentially good and that all beings’ actions, in their essence, are ignited by the Right Intention to manifest and sustain goodness. These are the seed and root of the sprouting of Right Effort.

When I reflect on my actions in the world, I’m able to see those actions that cause suffering, relieve suffering, or are neutral, and looking more carefully, I am able to see the origin of those actions in my effort. (Suffering in this context would be any action that causes the veiling or obstruction of the essential ground of goodness in myself or others.) Effort then is not the actions that I take, but the movement or will beneath and before the actions. 

How I effort is based on the causes and conditions, conscious or unconscious, that precede the effort. Unconscious conditioning is often a result of how I was raised, how my physical being was formed, how I learned to interact with the environment, as well as any pre-birth experiences and are the foundation of the causes that have led to my view of the world and developed my intentions. This unconscious conditioning is often the primary engine behind my suffering and the suffering that I inflict on others. This conditioning manifests in afflictions like ignorance, anger, hate, jealousy, or fear that seem to lurk and arise unbidden especially in situations where I feel threatened.

While this is all going on there is an ever-present call to return to goodness. I notice that when I slow the process and my thinking down, there is space for goodness to be seen, and the veiling of goodness caused by the afflictions becomes conscious. In this awakened consciousness, I begin to think toward goodness with my intention and an effort arises to move away from the afflictions. That effort is the slowing down that began the reflection as well as the effort to move toward goodness. 

Besides the call to return to goodness, the experience of suffering is another significant trigger of these processes. When I experience or see suffering I usually recoil from it or have a reaction to it. Through the practices of calm abiding and inquiry, I train my thinking, feeling and willing to pause before moving towards an action. With practice, the unconscious causes and conditions that often propel me into reaction, become conscious and are calmed by the simple act of attending to them. Then I am able to allow the natural effort that arises from Right View and Right Intent to be the ground of my actions.

Right Effort then, is the conscious willing to bring about goodness in all that I do, feel and think. The effort to sit in practice, the effort that leads to taking vows, saying prayers, cultivating Loving-kindness, Compassion, Joy and Equanimity, following commandments, or anything that flowers as actions that lead to the cessation of suffering is Right Effort.

Paradoxically, the more I practice this way of making Right Effort, the less effort there is. More and more, Right Effort appears effortless and the perpetual generator of goodness comprised of Right View, Right Intention and Right Effort, becomes a way, the only way, of being who I am.

If any of this strikes a chord or sparks some interest, the sangha would enjoy your presence in the morning practice.

We meet Monday, Tuesday and Thursday at 6 AM Pacific time. Zoom link: https://zoom.us/j/4257749477 Sunday at 7 AM Pacific time at a different Zoom link: https://zoom.us/j/2867859631 

Right Intention

(Beginning last week and over the next several weeks these writing will be dedicated to exploring the Noble Eightfold Path. It may be helpful to look over the previous post as an introduction and ground for subsequent postings. I would enjoy hearing from you about your experience, insights or anything else that shows up when you read these. – William)

As Right View develops in our experience, other aspects of the Eightfold Noble Path unfold. After seeing that there is suffering in the world, in our personal lives and in the lives of sentient beings, that there is the experience of knowing the causes and conditions of suffering, that there is a potential for experience without suffering, and that there is a path, or practice, or way of being, that brings about the cessation of that suffering. This is the fundamental ground of Right View that also leads to the true experience of reality:

  • Universal Goodness is the essential nature of all sentient beings
  • The core intent of all beings is to act out of that goodness.

These two Right Views of the way the world really is, precipitates the development of a personal Right Intention as well as a true perception of how all sentient beings, in all of their actions, thoughts and expressions have at their core, basic goodness and an intent to create, sustain, and offer goodness to the world. 

How I show up in the world, how I think, and how I feel, arise out of intentional and unintentional causes and conditions, and the ignorance or awareness of the effects of those causes and conditions. When I have the good sense to slow down the cataract of thought streams in the midst of my own suffering and ask “What is happening right now?” “What is the cause of this contraction, anger, fear, frustration?”, when I settle into the experience of my body and breath and kind of sit back and watch the movie unreeling, I am able to get a glimpse of some of the links to the suffering and the path that leads to its cessation. It doesn’t usually take very long, minutes maybe, and then I see or experience a memory, or a habit of thinking, or a chronic aversion, that has manifested in a clenched jaw, a bouncing foot, or an urge to say or do something to relieve the pressure.

Then I try to look at my own intention and causes and conditions  behind the suffering. I inquire into the pictures and memories that float to the surface and see the link. Usually an experience comes to the fore that was similar to an earlier experience that caused me to feel like my basic goodness, or when my intention to be good, was being challenged, or that the innate human desire and belief that all beings  are good and have good intentions had been been threatened. If I am sufficiently present in the moment, I can open my senses to the people or animals or insects around me! (See: https://gratefulroadwarrior.org/failure/) I can look at the scene playing out in front of me and see that this is not that earlier situation but merely an echo of it. My mind and body are reacting to signals that seem the same as an earlier experience and they work to defend me against the threats to my essential nature. In the simple realization of that, I often experience a settling of the turbulence and am able to look deeper into the situation as it is. In that looking I have a chance to begin to see, not only the causes and conditions of my own suffering but the causes and conditions of the situation, and the suffering of others. I may also see how their expression, or their action, may be igniting my suffering. In that moment I become free to respond, rather than react; to see that cycle of suffering working and then to bring forward the practices of loving kindness and compassion for myself and the all the beings present.

Here is a story from buddhist lore of the buddha and the raging elephant that elucidates this more clearly:

Buddha had a cousin, Devadatta, who was extremely jealous of him. Devadatta felt that he himself was as good as Buddha and was jealous that people ignored him and did not honour him the way they honoured the Buddha.He was always thinking of ways to harm the Buddha. One day he devised a plot to kill Buddha. He knew that day that Buddha was going to pass through a particular town. Before the Buddha came into the town, he brought the elephant to the town, hiding it beside a wall. He then fed the elephant a lot of liquor to make it drunk. His plan was to make use of the drunken elephant and trample Buddha to death. When he saw from a distance that the Buddha was coming, he immediately used sticks to beat the elephant brutally. The drunken elephant was in great pain and was totally enraged. Seeing this, Devadatta immediately released the elephant in the direction of the Buddha. Overwhelmed with anger and pain, the elephant was now mad and started at full speed towards the Buddha. It raised its ears, tail and trunk, making a lot of noise. It was as if thunder was striking. All the disciples who were with Buddha were horrified at this terrible sight and scrambled to flee from harm’s way. Only Ananda, Buddha’s attendant, stood firmly beside the Buddha. At that time, Buddha himself remained totally at ease and composed. He took a look at the elephant and felt great love and compassion for the poor beast. He stood where he was and radiated his loving-kindness towards the elephant. Buddha’s love and compassion was so strong and powerful that the elephant could feel it. Just a few steps before it was about to charge into the Buddha, it stopped in its path and calmed down. It then trotted towards Buddha and respectfully bowed its head. Buddha stroked the elephant’s trunk and comforted it with soft & kind words. The elephant was totally tamed.

When I am in a situation where I am particularly activated and where withdrawal for reflection and inquiry is not possible because of the activity or place, or where it might appear like i am being anti-social or aloof, I try settle into my breath and, like a mother easing a crying child or a person soothing an anxious pet, I simply breathe and follow my breath until I come to some ease or I can extricate myself. Once in a place and time where I can reflect, I look deeply into the experience and ask: “Where was the suffering and what were its causes and conditions in and beyond the immediate moment? “ From that inquiry and the resulting arisings, I am able to practice cultivating loving kindness to meet the raging elephant of my karma and the karma of all sentient beings.

This practice has the effect of activating the Right Intention to bring about the cessation of all suffering of all beings, the wish for all beings to know their own goodness, and the realization of the inherent intent in all beings to act, speak and think, out of this Universal Goodness.

If any of this strikes a chord or sparks some interest, the sangha would enjoy your presence in the morning practice.

We meet Monday, Tuesday and Thursday at 6 AM Pacific time. Zoom link: https://zoom.us/j/4257749477 Sunday at 7 AM Pacific time at a different Zoom link: https://zoom.us/j/2867859631 

Right View

During the morning meditation sessions with the Sangha of the Pandemic, we have been reflecting on the Four Noble Truths introduced by the Buddha 2600 years ago: 

1) There is suffering

2) There are causes and conditions that lead to suffering.

3) There is a cessation of suffering.

4) There is a path or a practice that leads to the cessation of suffering.

This week after four  weeks of reflecting on and inquiring into these Truths we began inquiring into the fourth; the practice of The Noble Eightfold Path.

The first step on the path, or the first practice, is the understanding of and experience of Right View. Although considered the first step, it is essentially the only step. The remaining seven might be considered the natural result of the cause and condition of Right View.

In  a culture that is waking up to the immeasurable diversity that exists in our biosphere, cultures, and our ways of thinking, and a culture that has, as one of its primary foundations, the Puritanical approach to goodness and evil, rightness and wrongness, and has conditioned our perceptions into rigid polarities, there is often a resistance to the word “Right”; especially when it is proclaimed by an authority. When I hear “Right View” I have an internal reaction of contraction, resistance and aversion. “Who’s to say what is the Right View anyway?” “On such a diverse planet, how can any one view be the Right View?’

In Buddhism, Right View is not a qualifier of actions, feeling or thoughts. It is not a point of view. It is not a way to separate the chaff from the wheat. Right View in this practice is the essential view of seeing things as they are, especially in terms of suffering and the Four Noble Truths. Paradoxically there is no right or wrong from this view. There is no judgment or categorizing. There is no better or worse. There is just seeing things as they are.

When I look into the world and reflect upon my own experience, I see that there is suffering; suffering including and beyond the material experience of pain, suffering of the whole being. This is a simple fact and thus from this perspective, a Right View.

When I inquire into what has led to suffering in the psyche and the mind I see that it has causes and conditions. In the same way that body pain is not a phantom and has a direct cause, suffering of the heart and mind has conditions and causes that lead to it. Through further inquiry, I discover that this is a simple fact and thus a Right View. 

When I inquire even further I notice that there are times when the experience of suffering has diminished and may even be absent and through deeper inquiry I discover that this is a simple fact and thus a Right View.

This naturally seems to lead to the question, “How does that happen?” “How can I make suffering go away?” How can I keep it from coming back?” This is where I have gotten stuck throughout this life. It is where I have latched onto dogmas and doctrines and then trashed them because they often seemed to cause just as much suffering, either for me or for those around me or other beings. While blindly engaged in the newest, wokest way, I have jumped into the quicksand of righteousness and clung to a grass blade of promised liberation while remaining ignorant of the quicksand of suffering that I was drowning in. “That blade is the true path!” “If I cling to that it will free me.!” “I’ll get to heaven, or Nirvana, or bliss, or wealth, or adoration, or a beautiful body, or a life partner.” Thrash thrash, thrash, gurgle… I had stepped away from seeing what was present and just working with that. I had stepped away from the Right View. In the case of the quicksand, that view might be: “Oh I am in deep doo-doo here and all I have is this blade of grass to get me out. I am drowning and I will die.” Or: “Oh I am stuck in some deep shit here. This blade of grass is worthless, what other options are there?”

Right View, as a step on the Noble Eightfold Path is just seeing what is without preconceived ideas about what is. This primary practice of the path has been more accessible for me when I have been able to set aside the promises of tomorrow and the fears from past experiences; when I allow my thoughts and feelings to settle down into the body in calm abiding. When I stop thrashing around in the quicksand of concepts, cravings, clinging, promises, and fears, I inevitably stop sinking in the shit of my own making. I begin to become aware: “Wow, there is suffering here.”

When I was on the Grateful Road, there were several times when my life’s conditioning and my intellectual conceptualizations about white men in pick-up trucks and MAGA hats, and black men at night in urban centers, threw me into a quicksand of fears that seemed involuntary yet overwhelming. Sometimes my impulse was to put the Element in gear and drive away, leaving campsite and all behind, or put my backpack on my belly and my hands on my key ring to prepare to defend myself. And boy was I suffering! And now, especially after recent national events, I know that there was a chance that I had also caused suffering for those men who may have just wanted to say hi or needed help, and their own conditioning was probably reaffirmed by my actions. 

Over time and with practice, I have begun to develop a capacity for Right View. Over time and with practice, the light of this view has exposed more and more of the causes and conditioning of my own suffering. Over time and with practice, my experience and view of the world has softened and opened up resulting in more, real, and simple, human connections with folks that I had shunned or run away from in the past. Over time and with practice, I have felt more human and hopefully been more humane with the whole, beautifully diverse population of all beings who may be suffering just like me.

If any of this strikes a chord or sparks some interest, the sangha would enjoy your presence in the morning practice.

We meet Monday, Tuesday and Thursday at 6 AM Pacific time. Zoom link: https://zoom.us/j/4257749477 Sunday at 7 AM Pacific time at a different Zoom link: https://zoom.us/j/2867859631