This is the second part of a two-part post on Right Action (Part. 1: click here)
Part two continues by exploring the themes of theft, sexual misconduct, and cruelty as the basic elements of unethical behaviour.
In exploring these three areas of unethical behaviour we might reach the conclusion that actively practising their opposites could be a good idea. Instead of killing, that is taking life, we might see that preserving life and creating the right conditions for healthy life to emerge are the logical counter. If we were to take this logical conclusion on board, then some of the ethical behaviour that I outline in part one would make more sense. With that in mind, let's begin the next phase of our meal together.
Taking what is not given (give me my fork back)
Theft doesn’t require a huge amount of discussion. Outside of stealing and robbery and so on, it is generally an issue of being clearer in our choices. Taking paper from work, or stealing a pen from a shop due to mindlessly placing it in your pocket are both examples of taking what is not given.
There is a need to apply care to the small things. We are asked to be more present in how we are occupying the spaces we move in. Potentially unseen consequences to our actions can be countered by living with integrity and striving for impeccability in our actions coupled with conscious choices. In lateral thinking puzzles there is a classic scenario designed to see if you would return a lost wallet full of cash if you found it with no ID inside. Another concerns helping an old lady up the stairs, even if it entails missing your bus. Right Action is in great part the returning of the wallet, assisting that old lady and basically being willing to help when it’s needed. These are actually forms of generosity.
Greed is the opposite of generosity and a form of theft too. We may have money and feel the right to purchase whatever we desire, ‘I’ve earned it, it’s my money’, you say. But greed is all about taking too much. It is having a lack of dignity in what you consume too. We become like a leech, sucking the life out of the world in order to feed a mindless hunger for more. There are countless manifestations of this. Among the most topical at present are obesity and vulture funds, but perhaps bankers are today’s best example of taking too much. The 1% that has the vast majority of the world’s wealth is a blindingly clear example of why greed is wrong. For that 1% to own all they do, they have to have taken it from the 99%, and even though our economic system congratulates them for it and western society has legalized such behaviour, we all know it is wrong and bad for the 100% in the end.
Generosity counteracts our selfish tendencies and helps us to loosen our small self complex. The small self never has enough. It defends itself from perceived outside enemies and believes that it must barricade itself in, in order to protect its precious wealth. We have a collective blind spot with regards to wealth, failing to see the real value of things. This is mirrored in our economic system which only values growth, failing to give proper value to well-being, the environment, creativity and pretty much anything that cannot produce financial gain. It’s an extremely impoverished view of humanity and the planet that has to be changed ASAP. Bhutan’s happiness index is famously hailed as an alternative, but whether it’s workable or not, a different global index that values quality over quantity must be possible without all out revolution.
Greed on a basic level is perhaps simply recognising those moments when we wish to indulge and noticing what is really going on. Meditation is in great part learning to first resist urges, then to relax with urges, and then to see into what drives urges, in order to create change. Greed is often the impulse to grab at, to possess, to hold onto and cherish. Yet, as many of us will recognise, once you hold onto that thing which was so desired, it starts to lose its appeal. We sort of squeeze the life out of it. The most memorable and attractive of experience is best embraced with a light touch. We can have a similar attitude towards our possessions…and our roles. We will feel all the better for doing so.
Buddhism is not Jainism, so extremes are not welcome. Living in false poverty and denying ourselves life’s pleasures is not the right direction to take. Learning to live within our shared means is however. Finding balance in how we use our resources and how we use the Earth’s resources is surprisingly uncomplicated. Simple questions put us in touch with what ought to be obvious; How much should I take? Do I really need a new car, TV, wife, etc? Could I share some of my earnings with those less fortunate? What's really important here?
Sexual misconduct (What are you doing with that chicken, sir?)
Ethical sexual behaviour is predicated on integrity and honesty. Free sexual expression and exploration should be the right of each adult individual, but doing so without integrity and honesty leads to all manner of mess and confusion. The simple strategy for avoiding such sticky messes is clear communication and the respect for spaces within a relationship that allow such communication to take place.
Personal sexual relationships are cauldrons in which boil the ingredients of our less developed selves. Desire plays out, it waxes and wanes and temptations emerge. Sexual relationships are delicate affairs that require trust, mutual respect, and a whole lot of care. The desire for quick fixes, for a partner to satisfy our needs, for sex to always be perfect, for our partner to never change, or to change faster than they are currently doing, these and many, many other thoughts and forces push at the container that is an intimate relationship. How we address these impulses and forces determines whether we are able to move forward together in a way that increases mutual understanding. Whether you’re straight, gay, bi, it really doesn’t matter. What engenders mutual care and growth within a relationship where sex is present, is genuine, open communication and clear agreements.
As adults we need to be responsible enough to be extremely clear about what we desire and how we go about feeding those desires. Through clear open dialogue we can avoid harming each other. It’s so simple and yet we mess it up time and time again.
Relationships end, people move in different directions. Honouring your partner, whether of fifteen years, or a single night, is an act of care, whoever and however they might be. This is part of ethical sexual behaviour: not using others for our own needs.
There are countless examples of sexual misconduct instigated by ordained members of the Buddhist community too. The issue though is not usually the sex. The suffering that emerges is almost always due to lies, lack of transparency and betrayal. These events can be highly damaging to a community whose purpose should be to engender understanding, share knowledge and provide a community that supports practice. The roles we inhabit have rules and when those roles involve leadership, we must be doubly attentive to what's important. Satisfying carnal desires at the expense of others is not one of them.
The same is true of a relationship. Breaking agreements, sleeping around, lying and deception create confusion and mistrust. Is it worth indulging in that short-term pleasure for the long-term harm it causes? Perhaps it’s better to reflect on such questions before the occasion arises.
The theme of cruelty (evil toothpicks)
Cruelty underlies much unethical behaviour, whether intentional or not. The belief that we are separate from the world allows us to hurt the planet, to hurt others and to hurt those closest to us. Cruelty emerges from a profound lack of maturity and care for the world around us. Cruelty is based on separation.
As Thich Nhat Han so eloquently puts it, when we touch the world deeply, we touch ourselves. When we look deeply into ourselves, we see how intimately linked to the world we are. Many tribal cultures continue to hold the truth of such an observation in the way they live. Many of their truths are simple yet profound. To see the Earth as a living being does not have to be validated as fact by science before we finally realise how, by taking this as our own view, we take the most effective method possible for ensuring a proper relationship with and care for our collective home.
Cruelty plays out in our deliberate separation from other. In racism we see how the racist has to view the other person as lesser, as separate, as alien in order to maintain hate. Racists very often emerge as individuals who are feeling a loss of identity, or simply an inability to connect to any perceived value in other. In the study of psychopaths what has become clear is the total lack of empathy they have. They are unable to feel other and therefore other does not really exist. In this partial world everyone outside exists on my terms. External forms are objects wit humans being no different. We can all express a degree of psychopathic behaviour.
The more distance we feel from something, the easier it is for any of us to be cruel. The antidote then is to connect, which funny enough is one of the key ills that modern society is plagued by. Loneliness, depression, isolation are marks of the inability to connect and feel that's created and worsened through the great project of atomisation.
It’s the same with our country, the more politicians and leaders are separate from us, the less chance we have of having politicians and leaders who are ethical in their behaviour, who hear what we have to say, who are less absorbed into their own particular interests. Power has always sought to protect itself through maintaining distance. The whole story of class and privilege in England, my home country, is based on this.
To counteract cruelty we must be willing to connect again and open in our connections. We must connect to the earth, to the different forms of life on this planet; to the animals, to the insects, to other humans, to cultures, to other. Transparency, truth, openness are key. To see and be seen. To keep things from being hidden.
In Mahayana Buddhism compassion is seen as the jewel in the crown of the Buddhist path and the core of the Bodhisattva’s way. Compassion at its root is 'con' (with) 'passion'. So it’s not witnessing from outside, but it is engaging fully, willingly and passionately, which means we put our energy into our experiences. Without that passion, our action does not have the fuel to make the difference that we so desperately need on this earth.
When it comes to social justice and the wider ramifications of an ethical approach to life through Buddhist practice, there is no other figure that has done more to popularise and initiate a wider awareness of the need for engagement in the world than Thich Nhat Han. He is a wonderful human being. Although criticised by some hardcore folk in the new wave of Buddhists for being part of Buddhism light for the masses, I consider him to be an exceptional individual and to be communicating from the heart on how he sees the Buddhist teachings unfolding in a relevant form for the times we live in. Although his approach to practice is not mine, I find his dedication to social action extremely admirable and sincere and a wonderful and important addition to making Buddhism relevant.
For those who don’t know, he started the Engaged Buddhism movement, which seeks to combine social activism with Buddhist ethics and principles. He started Meditation Sit-ins as a form of active non-violent protest and is one of the key figures in outreach projects designed to teach meditation in prisons and on death row. His famous 14 precepts for socially engaged Buddhism are idealistic, but inspirational, but isn’t that usually the way, I mean most people are not inspired by cynicism, are they?
There are many other such figures that are also doing great work and deserve attention including Joan Halifax, who I have quoted from in some of my earliest posts. Interestingly, many of the most prominent figures in social activism from Buddhism’s ranks come from the world of Zen. I’ll mention David Loy again. I will post a few more links than usual to this post. You’ll find them below.
Right Action then continues as a step of more awake and more responsible living. Conscious choices about how we wish to live our lives need to be made in the reorganisation of the relationship we have with experience, and with the building blocks of our material world, including our home, work, city, society, political structure, economic structure and the global stage. To follow a simple and workable code is an extremely useful method for tidying up our interactions with others, and with our planet as the ground of experience. Remember that without this planet, there is no body, and without this body, there is no practice. Remember that without political freedoms and sufficient monetary wealth, there is no access to practice, to teachers and to a quality of time that will allow us to sit and meditate and make change.
Right Speech and Right Action call us to regulate our use of energy, movement and engagement in order to align them with our intent to wake up and ease dukkha. We can make this process of developing ethical awareness our own and by doing so incorporate all aspects of our lives into the unfolding path of awakened living in a way that naturally brings us into more ethical conduct.
Explore the three ethical bases above and how they play out in your life and decide what is doable. You are in relationship with the world right now, how do you wish that relationship to be and to evolve? See how the world is being made and shaped and how it might emerge for the next generations and what your part could be in the grand scheme of things. Thank you for taking the time to read this post.
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