The Eightfold Noble Path: Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood


The second grouping of the Eightfold Noble Path includes what Bodhi and others refer to as the moral practices – Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood.  

Moral discipline is seen as a core prerequisite to obtaining Nibbana.  Just as a Christian mystic would say that one cannot make progress towards Union with God while being uncharitable towards their neighbor, practicing deceit, or regularly stealing goods, so too a Buddhist monk would see moral purity as a non-negotiable part of the Path.  Success in meditative practice is, in fact, dependent on one's moral state:
 

"Though the principles laid down in this section restrain immoral actions and promote good conduct, their ultimate purpose is not so much ethical as spiritual. They are not prescribed merely as guides to action, but primarily as aids to mental purification."


While aiding toward one's progress in spiritual practice, moral discipline – Sila – also leads to harmony – Samadhana – within one's own inner being and in human community.  
 

Right Speech
 

The moral disciplines are often presented in Buddhist texts as abstentions – things one should abstain from doing.  Right Speech is thus presented as:
 

1. Abstaining from false speech
2. Abstaining from slanderous speech
3. Abstaining from harsh speech
4. Abstaining from idle chatter


Bodhi quotes the Buddha as recorded in the Angutara Nikaya to explain each of the abstentions.
 

"Herein someone avoids false speech and abstains from it. He speaks the truth, is devoted to truth, reliable, worthy of confidence, not a deceiver of people. Being at a meeting, or amongst people, or in the midst of his relatives, or in a society, or in the king’s court, and called upon and asked as witness to tell what he knows, he answers, if he knows nothing: 'I know nothing,' and if he knows, he answers: 'I know'; if he has seen nothing, he answers: 'I have seen nothing,' and if he has seen, he answers: 'I have seen.' Thus he never knowingly speaks a lie, either for the sake of his own advantage, or for the sake of another person’s advantage, or for the sake of any advantage whatsoever."

 

"He avoids slanderous speech and abstains from it. What he has heard here he does not repeat there, so as to cause dissension there; and what he has heard there he does not repeat here, so as to cause dissension here. Thus he unites those that are divided; and those that are united he encourages. Concord gladdens him, he delights and rejoices in concord; and it is concord that he spreads by his words."

 

"He avoids harsh language and abstains from it. He speaks such words as are gentle, soothing to the ear, loving, such words as go to the heart, and are courteous, friendly, and agreeable to many."

 

"He avoids idle chatter and abstains from it. He speaks at the right time, in accordance with facts, speaks what is useful, speaks of the Dhamma and the discipline; his speech is like a treasure, uttered at the right moment, accompanied by reason, moderate and full of sense."


An interesting note that Bodhi discusses under idle chatter is the difference between monastic and lay practice, acknowledging that "small talk," is more necessary, and even good, in the lay life.  Monastic communities from a variety of traditions discourage talk that is frivolous, or merely "idle chatter." 


Right Action
 

As with Right Speech, Right Action is presented in terms of abstentions, specifically:
 

1. Abstaining from taking of life
2. Abstaining from taking what is not given
3. Abstaining from sexual misconduct


Again, Bodhi quotes the Buddha's words for each.
 

"Herein someone avoids the taking of life and abstains from it. Without stick or sword, conscientious, full of sympathy, he is desirous of the welfare of all sentient beings."

 

"He avoids taking what is not given and abstains from it; what another person possesses of goods and chattel in the village or in the wood, that he does not take away with thievish intent."

 

"He avoids sexual misconduct and abstains from it. He has no intercourse with such persons as are still under the protection of father, mother, brother, sister or relatives, nor with married women, nor with female convicts, nor lastly, with betrothed girls."

 

Avoiding the taking of life includes all sentient beings, making strict Buddhists vegetarians and perhaps vegans.  The distinction between monastic and lay practice again comes up in sexual misconduct as monks and nuns take vows of celibacy while lay practitioners restrict sexual activity to specific partners.  


Right Livelihood
 

Right Livelihood deals with how one makes his or her living.  This applies mostly to lay members as monks and nuns typically rely on financial support from the community to survive.  The lay Buddhist following the Path should make their living legally, peacefully, honestly, and in ways that do not harm other beings.  Specifically five kinds of occupations are mentioned as needing to be avoided: dealing in weapons, dealing in living beings (prostitution, slave trade, cattle for slaughter), dealing in meat production, dealing in poisons, and dealing in intoxicants.  


Thus the moral group of the Eightfold Path regards how we speak, how we act, and how we make a living.