‘Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action.’ If you attend my classes regularly, this is a phrase that many of us have become accustomed to. I began saying it at the end of every class after hearing one of my teachers say it a number of years ago, but I wanted to know where it came from if I was going to use it all of the time, so I did a little research.
‘Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action’ is a simplified way of referring to the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path, a practical guideline for ethical and mental development designed to free us from attachments and delusions, eventually leading to an understanding of the truth about all things. It is in everybody’s interest to seek actions that lead to happiness and avoid those which lead to suffering. I am passing this longer version onto you now because the eight fold path, like any great spiritual or religious path gives us the chance to reflect upon our own lives. Since many of us do this at this time of year, we can use this information as a tool to look at where we can continually focus our energies to become more effective at sharing our innate gifts with the world, which is how personal health and happiness are sustained.
The eight principles are interdependent and should be seen in relationship with each other as opposed to having a specific order. The first four principles relate to Right Thought. If four of the eight principles relate to right thought, it’s probably pretty obvious that what we do with our minds is essential to living a joyful and meaningful life.
‘Right Mindfulness’ is the mental ability to see things as they are, with clarity. Usually, the cognitive process begins with an impression induced by perception, or by a thought, but then we interpret them and set them in relation to other prior thoughts and experiences, which naturally go beyond the facts of the original impression. This process happens half consciously, and as a result we often see things obscured. Right mindfulness enables us to be aware of the process of conceptualization in a way that we actively observe and eventually control the course of our thoughts.
‘Right Concentration’ is described as one-pointed mind, meaning a state where all mental faculties are directed onto one particular object. Right concentration for the purpose of the eightfold path means concentration on wholesome thoughts and actions. The Buddhist method of choice to develop right concentration is through the practice of meditation. The meditating mind focuses on a selected object. It first directs itself onto it, then sustains concentration, and finally intensifies concentration step by step. Through this practice it becomes natural to apply elevated levels of concentration in everyday situations.
‘Right View’ means to see things through, to grasp the impermanent and imperfect nature of worldly objects and ideas. Right view begins with the insight that all beings are subject to suffering – something essential to come to terms with — and it ends with complete understanding of the true nature of all things.
‘Right Intention’ can be described best as a commitment to ethical and mental self-improvement. Buddha distinguishes three types of right intentions, the intention of renunciation, which means resistance to the pull of desire, the intention of good will, meaning resistance to feelings of anger and aversion, and the intention of harmlessness, meaning not to think or act cruelly, violently, or aggressively, and to develop compassion.
This next principle alone, if practiced diligently for a year, could transform a life!
Right speech is the first principle of ethical conduct in the eightfold path. A pure mind can only be achieved through the cultivation of ethical conduct. Words can break or save lives, make friends or enemies, start war or create peace. Buddha explained right speech as the ability to abstain from false speech, especially not to tell deliberate lies and not to speak deceitfully, to abstain from slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others, to abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others, and to abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth. Positively phrased, this means to tell the truth, to speak friendly, warm, and gently and to talk only when necessary.
Right Action includes not only the principle of Right Action, but also Right Livelihood and Right Effort. ‘Right Effort’ can be seen as a prerequisite for the other principles behind Right Action. Without effort, which is in itself an act of will, nothing can be accomplished. The same type of energy that fuels desire, envy, aggression, and violence can on the other side fuel self-discipline, honesty, benevolence, and kindness. Right effort is detailed in four types of endeavors that rank in ascending order of perfection, to prevent the arising of unwholesome states, to abandon unwholesome states that have already arisen, to arouse wholesome states that have not yet arisen, and to maintain and perfect wholesome states already arisen.
‘Right Livelihood’ means that one should earn one’s living in a righteous way and that wealth should be gained legally and peacefully. The Buddha mentions four specific activities that harm other beings and that one should avoid for this reasons, dealing in weapons, dealing in living beings (including raising animals for slaughter as well as slave trade and prostitution), working in meat production and butchery, and selling intoxicants and poisons, such as alcohol and drugs. In other words our work in the world should contribute to rather than harm others.
And finally, ‘Right Action’ involves the body as a natural means of expression, as it refers to deeds that involve bodily actions. Unwholesome actions lead to unsound states of mind, while wholesome actions lead to sound states of mind. Right action means to abstain from harming sentient beings, especially to abstain from taking life and doing harm intentionally or delinquently, to abstain from taking what is not given, which includes stealing, robbery, fraud, deceitfulness, and dishonesty, and to abstain from sexual misconduct. Positively formulated, right action means to act kindly and compassionately, to be honest, to respect the belongings of others, and to keep sexual relationships harmless to others.