What, exactly, is right action?
There are general descriptions that are correct but unhelpfully vague. For example, it is action that decreases suffering whereas wrong action increases suffering. Rather than characterizing what we are seeking, this merely describes its outcome or results.
There are types of actions used as examples, but they, too, may be unhelpful because it’s not clear what they have in common or how they relate to other possible actions. The Buddha himself, for example, says that it is: “Abstinence from the destruction of life, abstinence from taking what is not given, abstinence from sexual misconduct” [Samyutta Nikaya 45:8, Bodhi, tr.]. Apparently, too, non-actions (not doings) can be right actions.
In the Buddhist tradition, the path or way for attaining final Nibbana (Nirvana) has eight aspects. These are: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Since this is the path taken by those who would be noble (by realizing their buddha nature, by becoming buddhas), it’s called “the Noble Eightfold Path.”
So the right action in a given set of circumstances is the action that would be committed by a buddha in those circumstances.
It’s important to notice that being a buddha precedes doing right; in other words, being is primary and doing is secondary. (In western thought, this pattern of ethical reasoning was followed by, among others, Plato, Aristotle, and Nietzsche.) Right conduct is an outcome of being the right kind of person.
Since the possible sets of circumstances that may arise are innumerable, it would be hopeless to try to list what the right acts would be for all those different sets of circumstances.
The only other way to answer the question is to specify what all right conduct has in common that all wrong conduct lack.
This is what Thich Nhat Hanh does: “The basis of Right Action is to do everything in mindfulness.” [from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching] To be right, an act must come from mindfulness.
It’s also what Eckhart Tolle does when he says, in effect, that it comes from the cessation of thought without loss of consciousness (awareness, alertness), which is a definition of “Presence” [in “The Art of Presence”]. To be right, an act must come from Presence [Being].
It’s important to notice that it doesn’t work the other way around. Tolle gives the example of a Christian who has never realized Presence spending his life fruitlessly trying to love his neighbor as himself. Though the Christian’s intentions are consistently good, he’s wasting his life.
All actions are doings. All doings occur in Becoming. What’s critical is the source of the actions. If the source of doing is Being, the action is right; but, if the source of doing is Becoming, the action is wrong.
If so, from an ethical point of view, realization of Being logically precedes right action.
What’s the practical takeaway?
Focus on realizing Being and ethically right behavior will follow. To realize Being is to stop thinking without any loss of consciousness. Though it is not easy to do, it is simple.
It is when you recognize your neighbor as yourself that you will be able to stop trying to love your neighbor as yourself. There will be no more need to try because of the underlying identity. Your doings that relate to your neighbor will automatically be loving.
It is always the difficult but simple identification of what appears to be other as really being self that is the foundation of loving action.
As always, if you know someone who might benefit from this, please pass it along.