The Eightfold Path: Right Action

Actions can be helpful in one situation yet harmful in another. Rebecca Li says awareness is needed to identify right action.

Rebecca Li
7 May 2023

Right action refers to actions in accordance with wisdom and compassion. Wisdom means responding to what the present moment calls for without vexation, and hence not generating suffering for ourselves. When our mind isn’t agitated, we’re less prone to act in ways that cause harm. With clear awareness of what’s needed to benefit everyone, including ourselves, we do what’s needed within our ability. If our current capacity is limited, we cultivate the conditions that will improve our ability to bring benefit, such as taking care of our health, using our time more wisely, developing a support network, and learning new skills. Acting this way accords with compassion.

Right action arises when we’re firmly grounded in right view and cultivate clarity with right mindfulness and right concentration. Remembering our interconnectedness with all beings, we see that benefiting others is no different from benefiting ourselves, and we reconnect with our natural capacity for kindness and generosity toward self and others. Recognizing that actions have far-reaching consequences, we cultivate clear awareness of the effects of our actions and refrain from perpetuating habits that cause harm.

The word “right” here doesn’t mean certain actions are always absolutely right. Actions that were helpful and made someone feel supported at one time can hurt and offend in a different situation. It’s important to remember that every moment is brand new—the coming together of constantly changing causes and conditions. The person who once benefited from an action is no longer the same person, nor is the person who helped. The relationship between the two has changed, so has the situation. There’s no inherently “right” action nor is there any independently existing “helpful” person doing “helpful” deeds.

To identify the right action for this brand-new moment, we cultivate awareness of what’s needed in each emerging moment. We contribute what we can, working with our current circumstances to benefit all involved, fully recognizing that our action is only part of all causes and conditions. We do our best without being attached to a particular outcome. This way, we don’t generate suffering for ourselves and others by striving to be a “helpful” or “generous” person. Such striving would be to act with self-centered attachment, which even if it’s well-intentioned is not right action.

Right action includes not taking any action. Moments of nonaction, such as those in sitting meditation, can help us gain insight into our busy, action-oriented mind. If we notice strong resistance to not doing anything, that’s a good opportunity to see what stories we’re telling ourselves. Perhaps we believe we’re only lovable if we do things, or we keep ourselves busy to avoid being with our thoughts. These are helpful discoveries. There’s no need to judge ourselves for having these beliefs; being familiar with them allows us to release the urge to act when it’s neither necessary nor helpful to do so. It doesn’t mean we become apathetic; we maintain clear awareness of the moment-to-moment changes of everyone and everything in the situation to identify the action that’s beneficial to all.

When right view has yet to be firmly integrated in practice, precepts provide useful guidance in cultivating right action. Upholding precepts helps us refrain from hurting others. When we forget to practice and our mind is agitated, we’re prone to react with vexation and act on it. In these moments, we’re convinced, albeit misguidedly, that acting on our craving or aversion will reduce our suffering or give us what we want. We may find ourselves hating someone so much that we want to kill them, or we may crave success so strongly that we want to steal someone’s work or crave intimacy so intensely that we want to cheat on our partner. Remembering that we’ve taken the precepts to refrain from killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct helps disrupt the chain of thoughts and feelings that fuel our urges.

When your mind is filled with craving and aversion that’s compelling you to inflict pain on others, pay close attention to how the experience unfolds. You may notice that although it might feel good for a moment, more suffering follows. Take note that the moment you release the urge to act on your craving or aversion, there’s less suffering. With this realization, the belief that we can get what we want by harming others loses its power.
By cultivating awareness of the moment-to-moment arising of thoughts and feelings, which are compelling us to act in harmful ways, we learn to allow these powerful feelings to be fully experienced and recognized as empty of independent existence. We don’t have to believe in or act on them.

As we maintain clarity of mind by engaging in meditative practices and become more familiar with how our habitual reactivities are triggered and unfold, we catch ourselves engaging in harmful actions. Noticing we’ve caused harm allows us to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions. When it’s skillful, we apologize and try to repair the damages done, and we accept it when we’re not forgiven. Refraining from causing serious harm is the starting point for cultivating right action.

Paying attention to our experience and the effect of our actions on others, we notice how some seemingly harmless actions are hurtful in subtle ways. For instance, we may discover that we have the habit of taking someone’s kindness for granted; maybe we waste their time or neglect to express appreciation. Even though they may not expect any recognition, a prolonged period of being underappreciated and disrespected causes burnout, while gestures of appreciation and support keep someone from losing heart. Understanding that our actions have ripple effects, we’re motivated to unlearn even the subtlest habits that cause harm.

Benefiting others can take many forms. Fully present, we become more aware of the appropriate action for this moment. Working with causes and conditions instead of imposing our self-centered idea of what should happen, we do what’s needed to alleviate suffering and bring joy. Practicing this way, our actions become more in accordance with wisdom and compassion.

Rebecca Li

Rebecca Li

Rebecca Li, PhD. is a Dharma heir in the lineage of Chan Master Sheng Yen and the founder and guiding teacher of Chan Dharma Community. She teaches meditation and Dharma classes, gives public lectures, and leads retreats in North America and Europe. Her talks and writings can be found at www.rebeccali.org.  She is a sociology professor and lives with her husband in New Jersey. She is the author of Allow Joy into Our Hearts: Chan Practice in Uncertain Times, and her new book is Illumination: A Guide to the Buddhist Method of No-Method (Shambhala Publications, October 2023).