Right Action in Buddhism – The Fourth Spoke of the Wheel

Right Action in Buddhism

right action 2

Right Action in Buddhism is the second component of ethical conduct and can be better translated from the Pali term Samma-kammanta as “right conduct”.  This branch of the Eight-fold Path is concerned with morally upright actions that are not harmful to the oneself and others.

I think we can find evidence of similar kinds of commandments in other religions as well.  The most obvious example of this is Christianity with its Ten Commandments.  In the world of monastic Buddhism they follow the guidelines discussed below as if they were commandments.  While for lay people it isn’t necessary to go that far, but rather to become a vegetarian or vegan.

What is Meant by Right Action?

The Buddha taught that Right Action is defined as:

  1. Refraining from killing or destroying living beings
    right action in buddhism

    The ripened Bilva Fruit is a symbol of Right Action.

    Don’t kill anything, not even a fly.  Every living being is part of the interdependence of all things, and some Buddhist monks do go to great lengths to not hurt any living being.  For lay people this guideline is less strict since this is part of the teaching of dukkha.  With every breath that we breathe micro-organisms inside of us are dying and others are being born.  So if you need to swat a fly, then at least do it mindfully.

  2. Refraining from stealing
    I think this one is self-explanatory.
  3. Refraining from sexual misconduct
    This would include adultery, rape, and sexual abuse of any kind

The Pali canon scripture “Cunda Kummaraputta Sutta” goes into a little more detail when asked about purification shortly before his death the Buddha explains:

“And how is one made pure in three ways by bodily action?

  1. There is the case where a certain person, abandoning the taking of life, abstains from the taking of life. He dwells with his rod laid down, his knife laid down, scrupulous, merciful, compassionate for the welfare of all living beings.
  2. Abandoning the taking of what is not given, he abstains from taking what is not given. He does not take, in the manner of a thief, things in a village or a wilderness that belong to others and have not been given by them.
  3. Abandoning sensual misconduct, he abstains from sensual misconduct. He does not get sexually involved with those who are protected by their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, their sisters, their relatives, or their Dhamma (or Dharma in Sanskrit); those with husbands, those who entail punishments, or even those crowned with flowers by another man.This is how one is made pure in three ways by bodily action.”

The following video from Buddha Bits explains it in under three minutes:


So how do we practice this in daily life.  I find it helpful to reword the definition of Right Action in a positive way.

Putting all of this together : Overall we aspire to act kindly and compassionately, be honest, respect other people’s belongings, and keep sexual relationships in a way that is not harmful to others.

I think we can look to a quote by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh on Right Action:

“The basis of Right Action is to do everything in mindfulness.”

I hope you enjoyed this article on Right Action in Buddhism.

May we attain perfect Buddhahood for the sake of all living beings.

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10 Responses to Right Action in Buddhism – The Fourth Spoke of the Wheel

  1. RuthM says:

    I came across this article as I wanted to know a little more about the beliefs of Buddhism. A lady I sit next to at work is really into it, and the way she talks is so positive and gentle, I wanted to have a decent conversation with her about it.

    There is A LOT more I need to know but your website is a good start. DO you have a recommendation for me for a book that would be for beginners as I can’t find anything that assumes you know NOTHING about Buddhism?

  2. Nelson says:

    I have not really looked into buddism

    But after reading how powerful the belief system is, automatically made me curious to learn that way of life. For me it is super important to be one with all things, life nature, and everyone around you.

    thanks for a great post. I will start following more along with your content.

    • Ian H says:

      Thanks for the comment. I think that you’ll find many insights into the oneness and interdependence of all things in Buddhism.

  3. Tar says:

    Howdy Ian. It’s Tar again. On killing living things, does that include death sentences? A second chance to amend the sins the person made?

    Having said that, I got the other two as the scripture explained clearly and completely. Great detailed interpretation.

    It’s great that you think about the Zen master when it comes to this matter. Nice way which is considered as a reminder.

    • Ian H says:

      Hi again, Tar. 🙂

      Yes that includes death sentences. In fact during the time of the great Indian Emperor Ashoka (who adopted Buddhism), death sentences were forbidden.

  4. braxa0103@gmail.com says:

    Hey, great post.

    I’ve had a brief encounter with Buddhism before but i found your article truly eye-opening.

    The way that you’ve broken down the concept of ‘Right Action’ has been very clear, concise and easily digestible.

    I have heard about this concept before but never fully understood it until I read your post.

    This was a great read and I look forward to reading more.

  5. Martin says:

    I really enjoyed your article Right Action in Buddisim – The-Fourth-Spoke-Of-The-Wheel. It was like getting an introduction in Buddisim. I didn’t know that Buddists believed that killing any living thing is morally wrong, but I get it. I love the philosophy of refraining from killing, refraining from stealing and refraining from sexual misconduct. I also liked your little Buddist store! What a great site.

    • Ian H says:

      Thanks for the comment. Given how hard it is to refrain from killing (organisms die with every breath we take), we must conclude that this is part of dukkha (suffering) and since the nature of the world is dukkha from the ignorant worldview, sometimes it can’t be helped.

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