This is the second part of a two-part post on Right Action (Part. 1: click here)
Part two continues by exploring the themes of theft, sexual misconduct, and cruelty as the basic elements of unethical behaviour.
In exploring these three areas of unethical behaviour we might reach the conclusion that actively practising their opposites could be a good idea. Instead of killing, that is taking life, we might see that preserving life and creating the right conditions for healthy life to emerge are the logical counter. If we were to take this logical conclusion on board, then some of the ethical behaviour that I outline in part one would make more sense. With that in mind, let's begin the next phase of our meal together.
Taking what is not given (give me my fork back)
Theft doesn’t require a huge amount of discussion. Outside of stealing and robbery and so on, it is generally an issue of being clearer in our choices. Taking paper from work, or stealing a pen from a shop due to mindlessly placing it in your pocket are both examples of taking what is not given.
There is a need to apply care to the small things. We are asked to be more present in how we are occupying the spaces we move in. Potentially unseen consequences to our actions can be countered by living with integrity and striving for impeccability in our actions coupled with conscious choices. In lateral thinking puzzles there is a classic scenario designed to see if you would return a lost wallet full of cash if you found it with no ID inside. Another concerns helping an old lady up the stairs, even if it entails missing your bus. Right Action is in great part the returning of the wallet, assisting that old lady and basically being willing to help when it’s needed. These are actually forms of generosity.
Greed is the opposite of generosity and a form of theft too. We may have money and feel the right to purchase whatever we desire, ‘I’ve earned it, it’s my money’, you say. But greed is all about taking too much. It is having a lack of dignity in what you consume too. We become like a leech, sucking the life out of the world in order to feed a mindless hunger for more. There are countless manifestations of this. Among the most topical at present are obesity and vulture funds, but perhaps bankers are today’s best example of taking too much. The 1% that has the vast majority of the world’s wealth is a blindingly clear example of why greed is wrong. For that 1% to own all they do, they have to have taken it from the 99%, and even though our economic system congratulates them for it and western society has legalized such behaviour, we all know it is wrong and bad for the 100% in the end.
Generosity counteracts our selfish tendencies and helps us to loosen our small self complex. The small self never has enough. It defends itself from perceived outside enemies and believes that it must barricade itself in, in order to protect its precious wealth. We have a collective blind spot with regards to wealth, failing to see the real value of things. This is mirrored in our economic system which only values growth, failing to give proper value to well-being, the environment, creativity and pretty much anything that cannot produce financial gain. It’s an extremely impoverished view of humanity and the planet that has to be changed ASAP. Bhutan’s happiness index is famously hailed as an alternative, but whether it’s workable or not, a different global index that values quality over quantity must be possible without all out revolution.
Greed on a basic level is perhaps simply recognising those moments when we wish to indulge and noticing what is really going on. Meditation is in great part learning to first resist urges, then to relax with urges, and then to see into what drives urges, in order to create change. Greed is often the impulse to grab at, to possess, to hold onto and cherish. Yet, as many of us will recognise, once you hold onto that thing which was so desired, it starts to lose its appeal. We sort of squeeze the life out of it. The most memorable and attractive of experience is best embraced with a light touch. We can have a similar attitude towards our possessions…and our roles. We will feel all the better for doing so.
Buddhism is not Jainism, so extremes are not welcome. Living in false poverty and denying ourselves life’s pleasures is not the right direction to take. Learning to live within our shared means is however. Finding balance in how we use our resources and how we use the Earth’s resources is surprisingly uncomplicated. Simple questions put us in touch with what ought to be obvious; How much should I take? Do I really need a new car, TV, wife, etc? Could I share some of my earnings with those less fortunate? What's really important here?
Sexual misconduct (What are you doing with that chicken, sir?)
Ethical sexual behaviour is predicated on integrity and honesty. Free sexual expression and exploration should be the right of each adult individual, but doing so without integrity and honesty leads to all manner of mess and confusion. The simple strategy for avoiding such sticky messes is clear communication and the respect for spaces within a relationship that allow such communication to take place.
Personal sexual relationships are cauldrons in which boil the ingredients of our less developed selves. Desire plays out, it waxes and wanes and temptations emerge. Sexual relationships are delicate affairs that require trust, mutual respect, and a whole lot of care. The desire for quick fixes, for a partner to satisfy our needs, for sex to always be perfect, for our partner to never change, or to change faster than they are currently doing, these and many, many other thoughts and forces push at the container that is an intimate relationship. How we address these impulses and forces determines whether we are able to move forward together in a way that increases mutual understanding. Whether you’re straight, gay, bi, it really doesn’t matter. What engenders mutual care and growth within a relationship where sex is present, is genuine, open communication and clear agreements.
As adults we need to be responsible enough to be extremely clear about what we desire and how we go about feeding those desires. Through clear open dialogue we can avoid harming each other. It’s so simple and yet we mess it up time and time again.
Relationships end, people move in different directions. Honouring your partner, whether of fifteen years, or a single night, is an act of care, whoever and however they might be. This is part of ethical sexual behaviour: not using others for our own needs.
There are countless examples of sexual misconduct instigated by ordained members of the Buddhist community too. The issue though is not usually the sex. The suffering that emerges is almost always due to lies, lack of transparency and betrayal. These events can be highly damaging to a community whose purpose should be to engender understanding, share knowledge and provide a community that supports practice. The roles we inhabit have rules and when those roles involve leadership, we must be doubly attentive to what's important. Satisfying carnal desires at the expense of others is not one of them.
The same is true of a relationship. Breaking agreements, sleeping around, lying and deception create confusion and mistrust. Is it worth indulging in that short-term pleasure for the long-term harm it causes? Perhaps it’s better to reflect on such questions before the occasion arises.