The Noble Eightfold Path
The Noble Eightfold Path
The Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path are the foundations of the Buddha’s Teaching. The eight steps of the Noble Eightfold Path are divided into the three ways of practice, namely Good Conduct, Mental Development and Wisdom. Good Conduct includes right speech, right action and right livelihood. The rules of Good Conduct are based on the recognition of the fact that all living beings wish for happiness and dislike suffering. Therefore, one should follow these rules for the sake of one’s happiness and the happiness of others.
To practise right speech, one must avoid telling lies, tale-bearing, harsh speech and idle talk.
(a) To avoid telling lies
If one has respect for truth, one will avoid telling lies. When a person consistently avoids telling lies, his relatives, friends and associates will trust him and value his sincerity. But if a person lies for the first time and the lie is not detected by others, he may continue to tell more lies until it becomes part of his nature. He will eventually lose the respect and trust of others.
There is a well-known fable of the shepherd boy who cried,“Wolf!” when there was actually no wolf attacking his sheep. The villagers, on hearing his cry for help, rushed to his aid but saw him sitting on the ground and laughing at them. He did this again and again until eventually nobody believed him. One day, when a wolf did attack his sheep, no one came to his help and all his sheep were killed.
This story reminds one that it is always better to be truthful. Lies, even when spoken out of fun, can cause regrets later on.
(b) To avoid tale-bearing
Tale-bearing is often a cause of ill will and quarrels among people. The tale-bearer speaks out of ill will because he intends to damage the reputation of others. One should speak to foster mutual understanding and harmony rather than create quarrels and disharmony.
(c) To avoid harsh speech
Harsh and abusive speech is also a cause of ill will and quarrels among people. Sometimes, on the road, one may see two aggressive motorists rushing out of their cars to confront each other because of a minor collision. One then hears a hot exchange of rude and abusive words as each tries to point out the other’s mistake. Instead of settling the matter calmly and reasonably, they quarrel and may even come to blows.
It is best to refrain from using harsh words, as these only arouse anger and resentment in others. One should speak gently and courteously at all times.
(d) To avoid idle talk
Idle talk or gossip should be avoided because it disturbs the mind and distracts one from more important activities such as one’s studies or work. A person who spends his time gossiping about others and criticising their faults, is not doing anything useful. His idle words may even cause quarrels and discord among his friends, relatives or neighbours. He only creates enemies for himself and others.
Thus one can see that speech plays a very important role in human relations. It can promote truth, harmony and peace but it can also create misunderstanding, discord and quarrels among men and nations. A good speaker can influence others immensely for better or for worse through his words. With this in mind, the Buddha advised one to consider these five conditions before speaking:
(1) Do I speak the truth?
(2) Do I speak gently?
(3) Are my words beneficial to others?
(4) Do I speak out of goodwill?
(5) Do I speak at the proper time and place?
The practice of right action involves the respect for life, property and personal relationships. It helps one to develop a character that is self-controlled and mindful of the rights of others. To practise right action means to avoid killing, stealing and sexual misconduct.
(a) To avoid killing
All living beings, whether human or animal, love life and fear death. The Buddha said,
“All tremble at punishment, all fear death.
Putting oneself in the place of another,
One should not kill nor cause another to kill.”
Accordingly, the first aspect of right action is to avoid killing any living being. Just as one does not wish to be killed, so all living beings do not wish to be killed. If people resort to killing others in their desperate attempts to satisfy their desires for material things, power, fame or other pleasures of the senses, they may subsequently suffer punishment or revenge and be killed in turn. As the saying goes,“He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.” Once one understands that killing inflicts pain and suffering on others, one should avoid killing.
(b) To avoid stealing
The second aspect of right action is respect for the property of others. This means that one should not steal, that is, take what is not one’s own by right. Robbery, theft and fraud are dishonest ways of possessing the property of others by force or deceit. The dishonest businessman who sells faulty goods and the employee who neglects his duties and yet collects his salary, are just as guilty of taking what is not rightfully theirs as the robber and the theft.
A famous teacher once wanted to find out which of his students was worthy of marrying his beautiful daughter. One day, he decided to test their character by announcing, “I want to give my daughter in marriage, but I must have proper ornaments for her. Steal some ornaments. If you can steal some without anyone’s knowledge, I will accept them. But if anyone knows that you have stolen the ornament, I shall not accept them.”
All the students, except one, agreed to do as their teacher had instructed. The teacher then asked the youth why he remained silent. The youth replied that the teacher’s plan was impossible to carry out. “You accept nothing which is not taken in secrecy,” he said, “but I find that there is no secrecy in wrongdoing. Even if no one should see my wrongdoing, I myself shall know of it.”
The teacher was very pleased with his response as it revealed his upright character. The teacher then gave his daughter in marriage to this honest youth. This story shows the importance of being able to recognise and avoid an unwholesome act.
Stealing is wrong because it takes away a source of happiness from others. In a society where the law has become ineffective and fraud, stealing and even robbery go unchecked, people live in fear and insecurity.
In recognising the anguish of loss when one is robbed or cheated, one should not think of stealing. It is for the security and good of everybody in society that people should avoid taking what is not rightfully theirs.
(c) To avoid sexual misconduct
Unlike the members of the Order, who lead celibate lives, Buddhist lay followers are not expected to abstain from sex altogether. However, the Buddha advised people to control their sexual desires so that they do not become a source of sorrow and suffering to themselves, their families and society as a whole. This means that they should avoid sexual relationships with the spouses of others, with those who are dependent on their parents or other relatives, and even with those who are engaged. This is the third aspect of right action.
Sexual misconduct will bring problems and suffering to the parties involved, and create tension and uneasiness in social relationships. Thus for their own good and that of society, people should avoid sexual misconduct.
Right livelihood means earning one’s living in a way that is not harmful to others. In the choice of one’s occupation, one should show respect for the life and welfare of all living beings.
There are five trades which the Buddha specifically considered as unworthy means of earning one’s living. These are trades in deadly weapons, animals for slaughter, slavery, intoxicants and poisons. These five kinds of livelihood should be avoided because they cause suffering and unhappiness to others and create disunity in society in many instances.
(a) Trade in deadly weapons
To deal in deadly weapons is to provide others with the means of killing. This goes against the first aspect of right action which is to avoid killing.
(b) Trade in animals for slaughter
Similarly, any livelihood which involves the killing of animals goes against the principle of respect for life.
(c) Trade in slavery
Slavery takes away the liberty and happiness of those who are being offered for sale. It degrades human dignity when people are sold like goods. As no respect is shown for the life and welfare of these victims of slavery, any involvement in the slave trade should be avoided.
(d) Trade in intoxicants
Intoxicating drugs and drinks disturb and cloud the mind so that one cannot think and act clearly. A person addicted to intoxicants may squander his entire income on it and cause family quarrels and material problems. Thus dealing in intoxicants can create social problems and disharmony.
(e) Trade in poisons
Like deadly weapons, poisons are for the purpose of killing. Any occupation dealing with the manufacture and sale of poisons is not conducive to the life and welfare of others.
The practice of Good Conduct through right speech, right action and right livelihood helps one to live at peace with oneself and with others in society. As one speaks or acts with respect for the happiness and welfare of others, the goodwill and concern is appreciated and reciprocated. When such an environment is created, it is conducive to personal growth and lays the foundation for Mental Development and Wisdom leading to Enlightenment.
Three steps of the Noble Eightfold Path are included in Good Conduct. They are right speech, right action and right livelihood. Right speech means to avoid telling lies, tale-bearing, harsh speech and idle talk. Right action means to avoid killing, stealing and sexual misconduct. Right livelihood means to avoid trading in deadly weapons, animals for slaughter, slaves, intoxicants and poisons. Good Conduct is the basis for Mental Development and Wisdom.
Title: Buddhism for Beginners
By: Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery
Chapter 17,18,19 | Page 82 to 96