Palms together as a sign of appreciation.

How Right Action and Loving-Kindness Work Together

Nikki Mirghafori on why the cultivation of good will can lead to wise action—and vice versa.

By Nikki Mirghafori

Photo by Austin Ban.

There is so much I love about Buddhist teachings. Many have brought me delight simply upon being introduced to them. Awe at first sight. This sense of joy, of being touched by beauty and profundity, has been similar to the exultation felt when understanding an elegant mathematical equation, seeing a painting, or reading a poem that captures a refreshing, insightful, or unique perspective. I am grateful that my acquaintance with many of the Buddha’s teachings has continued to deepen over time, and they have kindly revealed layers of subtlety and meaning, and unleashed inner and outer transformation. Two such teachings, which at first glance appear unrelated (since they live on different Buddhist lists, yet, upon closer exploration are all but inseparably intertwined), are the teachings of right or wise action and metta, or loving-kindness. 

First, let us unpack the definition of wise action, or samma kammanta in Pali. Samma is often translated as wise, right, or appropriate, as in using the appropriate tool for a given task. Using a fork is right action when we are eating broccoli, and wrong action when eating soup. “Right” is not a moral judgment, but an assessment of appropriateness. 

We often think of wise action as the physical actions we take—what we do and don’t do—in the world. This teaching is often framed as being about moral restraint, an absence of harmful behavior: refraining from killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. Even in this narrow scope, every action entails an ethical decision, not stemming from a law-and-order mentality (associated with conventional stages of moral development), but rooted in deep care for all beings and a realization of our deep interconnectedness (a post-conventional stage). As we consider further implications of wise action, we realize that it represents not merely an absence or avoidance of harmful actions, but actively embodying and implementing our values in the world. Primary in these values is mettalove and care for all beings, which includes this being who is me.

In the Buddhist teachings, action includes that of the body, as well as speech, and, more generally, the action of the mind. Our thoughts are our mental actions. The teaching on wise action has vast implications not just in the external, but also in the internal dimensions of our lives. Even if we don’t leave the house, stay in bed, do nothing, and talk to no one, we are committing mental actions. We are making ethical choices, manifesting our values and intentions through the actions of the mind every moment of every day, simply by being conscious and thinking. In other words, our very thinking is born of what we deem valuable, and in turn, every weightless little wisp of thought activity shapes our lives and karmic futures.

A true realization of the power of our thoughts can feel halting, but also profoundly empowering. We can choose how to incline our mind, what content to expose ourselves to, and the values not just to live by, but, more importantly, to think by. “What you frequently reflect and ponder upon, that becomes the inclination of your mind,” as the Buddha taught in the Dhammapada.

Let us consider the internal dimension of our mind-actions, that is, the thoughts we have about ourselves, others, and the world. As evolution has shaped us, the majority of our thoughts are rooted in a self-referential framework. And for many of us, self-judgment, self-criticism, lamentation, and worry can masquerade as care but have ill-will and hatred at their root (perhaps subtly), and stand in stark contrast to loving-kindness. The cultivation of good will and care, for ourselves and others equally, and living with a mindset of “just like me” and “just like others” is essential—not merely a luxury—for practicing wise action within ourselves and in our interactions with the world. In this way, our commitment to wise action becomes a commitment to growing boundless, exultant, and immeasurable loving-kindness. 

Conversely, if our starting point is a commitment to develop good will toward ourselves and all beings, our thoughts, words, and actions will naturally be imbued with care and a dedication to avoid causing harm. This transformation is a hallmark of wise action. 

One opportunity for cultivating the inner dimensions of wise action is when we find ourselves lost in thought and rumination. We can simply stop and ask ourselves: Do these thoughts express kindness and care toward myself? Toward others? Are they wholesome in and of themselves, and leading to other skillful states? If not, what would an appropriate response of wisdom and kindness be in this moment?

Just as scaffolds support the construction of towering structures, our outer acts of ethical restraint and service in the world shape the inner architecture of our minds and hearts. In a similar way, starting within, cultivating metta, establishes and strengthens the beams of our moral framework, launching our thoughts, words, and actions in the world toward greater wisdom and compassion.  

Nikki Mirghafori

Nikki Mirghafori

Nikki Mirghafori is an empowered teacher in the Theravada tradition and an AI scientist. She serves as a stewarding teacher and on the board of directors at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, and as a teacher at the Insight Meditation Center. She is of Persian heritage and is an advocate for wisdom and compassion in daily life, as well as for benevolent AI in our zeitgeist.