Wise Action

  • Wise Action

The thought manifests as the word
The word manifests as the deed
The deed develops into habit
And the habit hardens into character
So watch the thought and its ways with care
And let it spring from love
Born out of concern for all beings

This is one of my favorite pieces of wisdom from the Buddha because I think it’s really true. I know that when my mind thinks caring and kind thoughts, my speech and actions will likely follow suit. I feel clear and at ease. Or if my mind is caught in contention with whatever is happening, I hope I’ll have enough restraint and wisdom to keep from acting in a harmful way.

In the classical Buddhist teachings of the Noble Eightfold Path, Wise or Right Action are those actions that are rooted in harmlessness. The Buddha gives specific guidelines in the form of precepts; a code of ethical conduct to be followed by lay Buddhist practitioners. Really, they aren’t so specific to Buddhism; they’re simply the skillful and harmless way of living. You’ll recognize them.

1.      Abstain from taking life; don’t kill

2.      Abstain from taking anything that has not been freely given; don’t steal

3.      Abstain from the misuse of sexuality

4.      Abstain from using harmful or false speech; don’t lie

5.      Abstain from the use of intoxicants to the degree that the mind becomes clouded and causes heedlessness

At first glance, these precepts seem quite obvious, but in actuality they may be more difficult to carry out. How far do we take not killing? What about the ants carrying aphids to the artichoke plants or string beans in the garden? What about that magazine on the table in the waiting room at the dentist’s office that has an article you’d like to read? And how do we express our sexuality and in what environments? How about the time we said something in public that was told to us in confidence and caused a friend humiliation? And, the consequences of drinking too much or using other intoxicants are well-known.

Our actions really do have consequences, whether in the immediate or somewhere down the line. This is the law of karma. In fact, karma translates as action. I remember a difficult time in my life many years ago when I desperately wanted to be in relationship with a person who did not share my sentiments. I did everything I could think of to change the situation, but nothing worked. In fact, nearly every encounter I had brought me pain, seemingly endless pain. One day a trusted friend said it was like watching me repeatedly sit in a four-legged chair that was missing a leg. Each time I sat in that broken chair, I fell on the ground.

The Buddha taught that our happiness and unhappiness are dependent upon our own actions, not on anyone else’s wishes for us. This is what it means to be the heir to our own karma. The truth that we really can and do directly influence our lives through our own actions is a profoundly liberating statement. When our motivations and intentions come from harmlessness and goodwill, we are likely to act wisely. I find that when I really pay attention, I am my own best guide making the best choices I can. Abraham Lincoln said it well,

   “When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That is my religion.”

Here is a wonderful piece from Portia Nelson, the 20thC musician, artist, and writer. It so perfectly illustrates how our actions become habit and how by really noticing and being deliberate we can actually make a different choice, perhaps the wiser choice.

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

 Chapter One

I walk down the street.
There's a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I fall in.

I am lost…. I am helpless.

It isn't my fault.

It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter Two
I walk down the same street.
There's a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don't see it.
I fall in again.
I can't believe I am in this the same place!
But, it isn't my fault.
And it still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter Three
I walk down the same street.
There's a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in... it's a habit…but,
my eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter Four
I walk down the same street.
There's a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter Five
I walk down a different street. 

from There's a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self-Discovery 

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