“And what is right action? Abstaining from taking life, from stealing, and from illicit sex [or sexual misconduct]. This is called right action.” ( from wikipedia)
This is all very blunt. But what is the connection between these three things that we should have them listed under the one rubric, Right Action? Given that the whole point of Buddhism is to dissolve suffering, we can only conclude that killing, stealing and engaging in illicit sex cause suffering. Right Action then is simply to try not to increase suffering.
To set the tone of this discussion:
I am reminded of an incident that to this day often comes up in my memory. I know that we are always being told that it is unscientific to ascribe anthropomorphic characteristics to animals, but judge for yourself. I had use of a summer place on the Sunshine Coast. There was a set of steep stairs leading down from a cabin to a rocky shore. At the foot of the stairs, a cliff about twelve feet high, tangled all over with vines and small plants rooted in cracks in the rock. A small, wren-like bird had built a nest that clung to the cliff at about my eyes’ height. As I passed on my way to the beach, the bird, perched on a branch near the nest, chirping madly away not two feet from me, pleaded with me to save her children. The feet of one poor chick were sticking out of the displaced jaws of a garter snake who had it’s head resting on the edge of the nest. The snake, precariously but successfully clinging to the cliff, was totally within my power as it could not easily escape any action I might take towards it. There was a suspicious bulge some distance down the snake’s body which I surmised was the dead body of another baby chick.
A tableau punctuated by the mother bird’s impassioned chirping. What was I to do? I told the bird that there was nothing I could do. Both chicks were most likely dead. If they were not, I would be required to kill the snake in order to save them. The snake, well aware of the pleading of the bird, looked at me with what looked like a curious mixture of shame and pride: I am what I am and out of necessity I do what I have to do.
While I sympathized with the poor bird, I advised her that she needed to be more careful in building her nest. The bird, understanding that I would or could do nothing, turned all her ineffectual ire at the snake, forgetting me or any danger I might pose towards her. The snake carefully retreated, ungainly with two lumps in it’s length.
In the context of Right Action, I can only conclude that although there was suffering in the situation, it was unavoidable given the nature of the creatures involved. They all did only what was necessary. Nothing was done gratuitously. The snake was unavoidably a carnivore. The little bird would learn from its mistake. I everyday meditate on the fact that causing harm is unavoidable and all one can do is minimize it. Is what I do necessary?
source for the Taoist symbol above