Excerpts from Chapter 6 – The Eightfold Noble Path, continued from 3) Right Speech…
4) Right Conduct
Right Conduct encourages us to refrain from killing, stealing and sexual misconduct.
Killing is the act of taking life, which includes human life. In the history of Buddhism, this teaching discouraged lay Buddhists (who are not monks or nuns) to stay away from occupations that involve killing, such as making and selling of arms and weapons.
Buddhists also stayed away from work that involve killing animals, birds, fish and other living creatures. However, that does not mean that all Buddhists are vegetarian, for even the Buddha ate meat when offered. That is true even for Theravada monks and laypeople in Southeast Asian countries. (Note: when Buddhism entered China and the rest of East Asia, especially monks and nuns adopted vegetarian practices. Today many lay Buddhists are not strict vegetarians.) When they do so, they expressed their deep gratitude for the lives sacrificed and do their best not to waste them.
Stealing is simply the act of taking what does not belong to you. This, too, is one of the widely held prohibitions found in virtually all religions.
Refraining from sexual misconduct for Buddhist monks and nuns meant that they could not take part in any form of sexual activity, since they have taken vows of celibacy. For laypeople, a Buddhist understanding is that sex has the potential to cause great harm and suffering is misused, but, on the other hand, it can be a source of pleasure and fulfillment between two people in a loving and committed relationship.
And it is true that it becomes a little more difficult to define what constitutes “misconduct” for people in different cultures and over time. However, the best way for those of us living today to understand “misconduct” is to understand that it means any action that causes harm. So, for someone in a committed relationship (such as marriage), having an affair would cause a lot of pain to that person’s partner. Further, acts of obvious sexual misconduct such as sexual harassment, rape and sex with a minor constitute not only criminal behavior but also because enormous pain and emotional damage to the victims forever.
5) Right Livelihood
For monks and nuns, Right Livelihood prohibits them from engaging in activities that are unbecoming of spiritual seekers. Lay Buddhists are discouraged from being in occupations that go against the basic Buddhist ethical values.
One such value is refraining from killing, as mentioned before. Such being the case, traditionally there have been occupations that are considered unsuitable. They include occupations that involve training in arms and lethal weapons, as well as in the killing of animals. (Note: while Buddhists are discouraged from going into these occupations, we realize that some people may not have been a choice. So, we should not be too quick to judge other people’s choices and circumstances. Plus, those who are not vegetarians are able to enjoy their meat precisely because there are people working in the slaughterhouses.) Other unsuitable occupations are those that involve slavery, prostitution and illegal drugs.
It is clear from this that Buddhism discouraged professions that bring harm to others. This is in line with the Buddhist position of strongly opposing any kind of war and aggressive acts, as seen in the Buddha’s well-known words, “Hatred is not overcome by hatred, but only by acts of non-hatred is hatred overcome.” [Dhammapada]
To be continued from Chapter 6 – The Eightfold Noble Path, parts 6-8