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The next stage of our journey along the Noble Eightfold Path is understanding how Ethical Conduct affects every single aspect of our lives.
By conducting Right Speech, Action and Livelihood to the best of our abilities, we can move closer towards an enlightened body, heart and mind.
You don’t have to be Buddhist to follow these principles. As you read on, you will see that that these concepts, and indeed Buddhism itself, is a way of life that emphasizes growing and practice.
It’s not about overhauling your life completely, rather, it’s about doing our best to make small changes, and choosing the right decisions as you encounter them. You don’t have to do everything at once, even a small attempt at any of them will improve your life, and the lives of others around you.
Unlike our actions, because we cannot always see the potential effects straight away, we sometimes forget how powerful words can be. They can move people to laugh or cry, make someone fall in love or into an enemy, they can create friendship, war, art, memories, arguments, admiration, motivation or inspiration.
The Buddha points out four different types of wrong speech which actually can be much more common in our lives than we like to admit:
1. False speech refers to the telling of lies to others. We should not speak deceitfully to exaggerate our worth or convince people of something that is not true.
Perhaps sometimes telling very small lies for the sake of peace is acceptable when your intention is in the best interest of somebody else, not your own. However, while it may be difficult to eliminate lies completely, we should strive to remain genuine and honest as much as we can. That way, people will come trust us, and believe in the things we say. Nobody would choose to confide in or take advice from a liar.
2. Slanderous speech. We should not use words maliciously against others. Some things are just not our business, so it is a waste of our time to gossip about them. As good people, we shouldn’t talk about people behind their backs, and in return, people won’t talk about you behind yours.
Slanderous speech does nothing but divide people and create enemies.
3. Harsh words. It might take some practice, but even if we are angry, we should try to remain civil and calm as much as we can. Resorting to insults that offend or hurt others will never make the situation better.
Similarly, putting the blame on ourselves or others for something that happened in the past cannot reverse it.
We should also try to take all criticism constructively, even if the intention of the person wasn’t so. There is always something you can learn from others. And when we are trying to give feedback, we shouldn’t just point out everything they did wrong but include praise for the things they did right.
4. Idle chatter. We should always try to speak with purpose, depth and good timing. Using speech only when we have something useful or interesting for the other person to hear and knowing when to remain silent is a sign of wisdom.
A lot of people are uncomfortable with silence, but actually if you are truly close to someone, or if you are confident in yourself, there’s no need to impress people with small talk to ‘prove that you’re not boring’.
In the end, the things that you don’t say are just as important as the things you do say.
It’s not always easy to do the right thing all the time. However, as much as we can, we should try to:
1. Abstain from doing harm towards others intentionally or delinquently. This includes any sort of violence or action that may hurt other people or prevent them from having basic human rights such as food or water, freedom and equal love.
We should refrain from taking life, including, as much as we can, the lives of animals. You don’t have to be vegetarian, but you should respect that an animal has literally given it’s life for you to eat. Even insects are sentiment beings and as much as it is practical, we should try to spare their lives.
We should act kindly and compassionately towards everyone we meet, and try to make their day better for happening to cross our path.
2. Abstain from taking what is not given. This means refraining from stealing and fraud. We should respect the belongings of others and we should try to repay our debts to the people we owe and not take advantage of those who are in a position of less power than us.
If you manage to do this, the next stage is attaining contentment, which means being satisfied with what you already have, without feeling that you have to keep collecting more stuff, especially via unscrupulous means.
Finally, the highest goal is developing a perpetual sense of generosity – using or giving away one’s own wealth and possessions in order to better the lives others. You don’t have to live in a hut, but if you are content with what you have, then you will realise that most things that people desire, such as a sports car or huge house are not really needs but wants. A true practitioner would not waste their resources on such superfluousness and instead they would do what they can to help those in actual need.
3. Abstain from sexual misconduct. Although this mostly refers to relationships with our partners, we can also include any sort of loving relationship, such as friendship or family bonds. People should be honest and faithful to each other, care for them and be prepared to put their interests above their own.
Even if we only want what’s best for the people we love, we cannot change them by shouting about minimalism or Buddhism or any other way of life we believe is better. We must show them. When they see how happy and content we are, they may wish to change, and only then should we guide them.
Wealth is not evil. It’s how people obtain it or what people decide to do with it that makes it ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and even these labels can sometimes fall into grey areas.
In general, wealth should be gained legally and peacefully. In other words, we should try not to harm other beings in pursuit of it. Therefore, we should avoid:
1. Dealing in weapons or anything malicious that could potentially be used to exploit others. We should not knowingly be involved with violence or trickery.
2. Dealing with living beings in a harmful manner such raising animals for slaughter or being involved in the slave trade or prostitution. If it is within our power, we should try to reduce the suffering of workers, especially those who are exposed to dangerous or over-laborious conditions.
3. Working in meat production and butchery. If this is not possible, we should at least try to discourage the slaughtering of animals by not eating meat excessively. Check out this TED talk.
4. Selling intoxicants and poisons, such as alcohol and drugs. Again, it might be a lot to ask for to completely stay away from alcohol or cigarettes, for example, but at least we should stay away from being involved in potentially very dangerous, illegal or addictive drugs or substances that are bad for people’s mental or physiological health and draw people in against their will.
Finally, we should try to stay away from jobs or activities that would violate the principles of Right Speech and Right Action.
When you think that minimalism is all about asking “what is necessary?”, it’s easy to see how it relates to Ethical Conduct – don’t lie or show off about the things you own, do what is right and be content with what you have.
There was so much to cover here, and this is only the tip of the iceberg. It may take a while to master all of these, indeed, it may even take a lifetime, but remember, there is no goal, what truly counts is doing your best with all your heart.
These three principles act as a bridge towards the next stage, Mental Development, which I will talk about in the next post. In the meantime, due to popular request, I will start posting book recommendations on Twitter!