The second aspect of the eight-fold path is living responsibly. We can achieve this by being mindful of our communication, actions and livelihood.
Appropriate communication is a big part of this path and can help us live a more responsible life. Traditionally, there are four different aspects of this, and they are refraining from lying, divisive speech, using abusive words and gossiping.
I am sure the majority of us wish to live in a kind and compassionate place where people communicate wisely and appropriately, contributing to a more harmonious world. We can go some way in achieving this by being truthful, using words that bring us together, being polite and talking meaningfully. These are skilful ways for us to connect with each other.
Of course, we shouldn’t fool ourselves and think that we can always be truthful, polite and meaningful. There are going to be occasions where it makes sense to stretch the truth, talk harshly and spend time in idle chatter.
Not telling the truth
once we have lied to someone, we invariably have to tell another lie to cover the first one, and then another, and another, until we have created a web of lies. It truly harms someone when they realise they have been lied to, and it will harm us when we are branded a liar.
Some say they lied so as not to hurt the other person’s feelings, but have you considered how they will feel when they find out you lied? Maybe the truth is painful or difficult to say, but there are various ways of breaking it to someone. You can tell them in a kind and sympathetic way. You can support them once you have told them the truth. What you do not have to do is charge in like a bull in a china shop. However, it is kinder in the long run to tell someone the truth.
I get very upset when I have been lied to, as most people do, and so I keep this fact in mind when I am talking to others.
When people use divisive speech they are hell-bent on causing a severance between a person and a group of people. Divisive speech is never positive or productive. It is used only to harm.
This type of speech mainly stems from jealousy, pride or hatred. I have come across it several times in the workplace. A colleague has been promoted and some people are jealous, so they try to split the workforce. This is divisive speech.
You are jealous of your sibling, so you tell divisive stories to your parents in the hope they will favour you over your sibling. This is divisive speech.
When I lived in London, before I was a monk, I had a large group of friends who used to meet at least once a week to have some fun. One of the group members introduced to us a very attractive woman he had gone to school with. Several of the guys took a fancy to her and started to flirt. Several women took a dislike to her because of her beauty and bubbly personality. All of them started to be divisive. It eventually split the group and we stopped meeting. This is divisive speech and shows how destructive it can be.
These are just a few examples, but what is clear is that we must refrain from this type of speech because it will harm others and eventually harm ourselves. You will get a reputation for being someone who is always trying to cause trouble, and people will disassociate themselves from you.
These are swear words, bad language or words that are said only to cause harm. They are never useful or kind, and usually stem from anger or impatience.
If someone upsets us we can lose control and say things we do not really mean. The words are meant to hurt the other person, but usually, after we have calmed down, we regret them and the words come back to hurt us also. We must stay mindful of our speech and not allow this to happen.
Sometimes we get impatient with people when they are not doing what we want, they are doing it wrong or just differently, they are not being open and truthful or they are not doing anything and it is just us who is irritable. At these times we tend to get angry and start saying harsh words. Obviously, the way around this is to be more patient and have respect for other people’s viewpoints and feelings.
Every time you raise your voice or say harsh words, you have lost the argument. When your voice goes up, your credibility comes down.
Gossip stems from jealousy, hatred, aversion, ignorance or just having nothing better to do with your time. It is very destructive, cruel and can never be classed as helpful. At the time we may enjoy spreading some rumour or other, but just think how you would feel if people were saying the same things about you.
Gossip is both harmful and a waste of time. I do believe that social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, encourage such unhelpful and wasteful gossip. I am not saying these sites are not of any use—I use them every day—but they can be used wrongly and end up ruining someone’s reputation or career.
So, the antidote to these four unhelpful ways of talking are: speak only truthful words, words that spread harmony and not discord, words that are kind and compassionate, words that help and not harm others.
I understand that this isn’t always possible, so let’s look at some examples. If a seriously ill person asked you if they are going to die and by telling them the truth you would be making matters worse, it is better to lie to them and allow them to have some peace. Maybe one of your friends has gotten in with the wrong crowd, so you decide to speak divisively and try to break up the group. Your young child is about to put their hand into a fire and out of compassion you speak harshly to stop them. A work colleague is having a rough time and is finding it hard to open up, so you indulge in idle chatter to win their trust, so they can finally feel comfortable to talk about their problems.
All these examples show that appropriate communication isn’t always black and white. I think as a rule of thumb, we should ensure that if we do lie, are divisive, talk harshly or gossip it is for the benefit of others and not just for our own selfish gain.
The final word I will give to Buddha, he said this is appropriate communication:
‘It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of goodwill’.
Appropriate action traditionally covers those actions we should refrain from. We are advised to avoid violent acts, to refrain from taking what has not been given, to limit our consumption of intoxicants and to refrain from causing harm through sexual activity. However, I believe the concept of appropriate action should cover all the actions we undertake in our lives. The more we can bring mindfulness to our everyday actions the more our life improves and the impact our life has on others will also grow.
This doesn’t just cover violence towards humans; it also covers animals, big or small. I should make it clear here that I am talking about intentional and/or unnecessary acts of violence, which include killing as well as physically harming. We have to understand that all beings have the equal right to live and be free from suffering, so that is why we have to refrain from doing them any intentional harm.
It is very difficult to go through life without unintentionally killing or harming things. When we wash vegetables, we are more than likely killing small insects, but this is not our intention. Our intention is to prepare the vegetables for eating, so this is not what I am talking about here. Having said that, we should check the vegetables beforehand to ensure there are no insects on them.
Once you get into the habit of killing, it is very hard to break that habit. You may see a mosquito on your arm and squash it. You do the same the next time a mosquito lands on you and the time after that. Eventually you do not even have to look; you just automatically squash it. This is when the act of killing has become a habit.
The way to prevent ourselves from killing/harming is to understand that all beings are the same as us. They want to be happy and not suffer. So, if we know this, a feeling of compassion will rise in us and it will become much harder to kill/harm.
Taking what has not been given
If we take something that has not been given or belongs to someone else, this is stealing, no matter how big or small the item is.
The first time we steal we may feel guilty and scared of being caught. However, the more you steal the less guilty and scared you are. In the end you steal just because you can and not because you need to. This is when stealing has become a habit.
In Buddhism, we talk about five factors relating to taking what has not been freely given and they are: someone else’s belongings, the awareness that they are someone else’s, the thought of theft, the action of carrying it out, the taking away as a result of it. All five factors have to be in play for a theft to take place.
We don’t like people stealing from us, so we should refrain from stealing from them. Once we get the reputation of being a thief, it will be very hard for people to trust us. So, by stealing we are hurting both ourselves and others.
This is causing harm to someone by the use of the sexual act, such as rape, sex with someone underage or sex with a married person—here the victim being the person’s partner. If we physically, emotionally or mentally force someone into sex, this is causing him or her harm and must be refrained from. There are many people today still carrying the scars of sexual misconduct. So, this precept should not be taken lightly.
It is important to keep in mind that Buddha taught the precept on sexual misconduct to help us refrain from harming someone through the sexual act. He did not teach it to be moralistic or make people feel guilty for their sexual orientation.
This is an important aspect of the path and one we probably do not give a lot of thought to. We should aim to engage in compassionate activity and earn our living in a way that does not cause harm and is ethically positive. Most of us spend a large part of our waking hours at work, so it’s important to assess how our work affects us and those around us. We need to work to earn money, without money we cannot survive, this is an unavoidable fact of life. But have you ever stopped to think whether your work is helping or harming? Come to think about it, have you ever stopped to think what is an ethically appropriate livelihood at all?
Do you have an appropriate livelihood? It may not be as black and white as you first think. You may sell guns to the army to keep the country safe, but those guns could fall into the hands of a terrorist and be used to kill innocent people. You may make cars, so people can get around, but one of those cars may be involved in an accident and someone is killed. You may make rope and it is used by someone to commit suicide. I know I have given extreme examples here, but I just want to get you thinking about the consequences of your livelihood.
It would be impossible to examine all the possible effects our work has in the world, but we should certainly contemplate whether we are causing harm in any obvious or direct ways, to humans, to animals, and to the planet.
I recently met a young biologist and he had a dilemma. He had just graduated and was looking for work, but every job he applied for required testing on animals. He said he just couldn’t bring himself to kill animals, even if it meant he might discover a new way to help humans. Our choices are not always clear cut, we need to think very carefully about what path we decide to take. We should consider the consequences, to ourselves and to others, of any choice we make.
I fully understand that we need to work to earn money and sometimes we have to do the jobs we find unpalatable. So, I am not being judgemental here. I am just pointing out that we have to be mindful of our livelihoods, and reiterating the fact that actions have consequences.
Pause here for a moment and give your livelihood some thought.
- Is it ethical?
- Am I forced to do things that go against my redlines?
- Do I fully understand the consequences of my livelihood?
Living responsibly highlights the importance of acting in an appropriate way physically, verbally and psychologically. If we don’t, we can often inadvertently cause conflict and bitterness amongst the people we come into contact with. We must integrate this part of the path into our daily lives and be constantly mindful of the actions we are carrying out.
The key point about living responsibly is to have integrity. I find that the best way for my actions to remain skilful is to keep the view of cause and consequences in the forefront of my mind. Whenever a thought arises, I try to gauge whether it will be helpful or harmful and what the consequences are going to be. This is no easy task and requires us to be mindful of our thoughts.
When we are being mindful it gives us the space to think before we act. An alert mind has the opportunity to override unhelpful or destructive thoughts. It brings awareness into whatever we are intending to do. This is how we can ensure our actions are appropriate and skilful.
This ends the ‘living responsibly’ aspect of the eightfold path.