The Fourth Noble Truth: Insight 2 The Eightfold Path Step 4 Skillful Action

Dancing with Life (DWL) Chapter 20; Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness:  Step Four (pp. 109-132); Mindfulness:  A Practical Guide to Awakening (pp.379-386)

“And what, monks, is Right Action?  Refraining from taking life, refraining from taking what is not given, refraining from sexual misconduct. This is called Right Action.”  The Buddha

Step Four:  Skillful Action

Skillful Action “is cultivating the clarity and strength of mind to abstain from those actions of the body causing harm to oneself or others.”  (Mindfulness p. 380) The Buddha stated a code of conduct with three behaviors:  to abstain from:  killing, stealing and sexual misconduct.  The expanded code for lay people is called the Five Precepts:

  • Abstaining from killing
  • Abstaining from stealing
  • Abstaining from speaking falsely (from Right Speech
  • Abstaining from sexual misconduct
  • Abstaining from misusing intoxicants such as alcohol (because this can lead to unskillful behavior).

Ethics in Action

Ethical action shifts our focus to what we personally want to what will most benefit ourselves and others.”  This is a shift from behavior motivated by greed, hatred and delusion.  Putting ethics into action starting with the Five Precepts leads to more skillful behavior.  With more skillful behavior we encounter fewer obstacles to full realization (enduring awakening).  The sooner you can start, the more fulfilling your life will be. Otherwise, it can be “like winning the lottery on your deathbed.” (Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness p. 111-113).


Skillful behavior is not following a set of rules.  Doing so leads to rigidity and attachment to a set of beliefs.  From Right Understanding, we know that there are consequences to everything that we do.  “The basis of Buddhist morality is that acting in unskillful ways leads to unhappy results, and acting in skillful ways leads to happy results.”  (Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness p. 27).

Abstaining from taking life

“Here someone avoids the taking of life and abstains from it.  Without stick or sword, conscientious, full of sympathy, he is desirous of the welfare of all sentient beings.” The Buddha

Sentient beings are beings with consciousness.  This includes all living things including insects.  In those moments of restraint, we are considering the welfare of that being.  It always feels better, more connected, more loving, to remove an insect from the house than to kill it.  And so we find the feelings of living-kindness and compassion grow as we practice this abstinence.”  (Mindfulness p. 381)

A guiding factor is intention because we often inadvertently kill living beings by accident. For example, running over insects as we are driving an automobile is not intentional.  Bhante G. notes:  “Understanding that there are different levels of impact, we make our choices and accept the consequences.”  (p. 116).

Abstaining from stealing (taking from what is not given)

Bhante G. notes:  “Stealing is an expression of our greed or envy…..Practicing Skillful Action of not stealing means making an effort to be honest and to respect the property of others.”  This includes pointing out mistakes to those who have given you back too much change because they are not aware of what they have given.

Abstaining from speaking falsely.

This is adhering to Step Three of the Eightfold Path:  Skillful Speech.  False speech includes slanderous speech.

“It is said that in the course of his long training for enlightenment over many lives, a bodhisatta can break all the moral precepts except the pledge to speak the truth.” Bikkhu Bodh

Abstaining from sexual misconduct.

Engaging in sexual misconduct is a form of stealing as one is taking from someone else what is not freely given.  Sexual desire can be very strong.  As Sayadaw U Pandita said, “Lust cracks the brain.”  With mindful awareness, we can experience objectively the energy generated and when we stay with it, we can see that after arising it will pass away by itself.  When we abuse our senses by not being mindful, whether it be with sex or other addictions, we find that we can never get enough.  Trying to get more leads to more unskillful behavior.

Abstaining from misusing intoxicants.

The use of intoxicants can lead to unskillful behavior such as negligence, infatuation, and heedlessness.  Medications used as treatment for specific medical conditions are not a problem as long as we are mindful of any side effects that can lead to unskillful behavior or harm to ourselves.

Using Intoxicants is a way that we avoid being mindful.  Consider other activities that you may engage in that avoid or escape mindfulness.  This might include excessive reading, texting, listening to music, etc.

Observance of the precepts

“The observance of the Five Precepts is a voluntary act which each individual must take up on his or her own initiative. The Buddha did not formulate the precepts as commandments, nor did he threaten anyone with punishment for violating them. However, this much has to be said: The Buddha perfectly understood the workings of the universe, and he proclaimed the inviolable moral law of cause and effect: good deeds beget pleasant fruits, evil deeds beget painful fruits. The Five Precepts are the guidelines the Buddha has bequeathed us to steer us away from evil conduct and towards the lines of conduct that will prove most beneficial for ourselves and others. When we mold our actions by the Five Precepts, we are acting in accordance with the Dhamma, avoiding future misery and building up protection and happiness for ourselves and others both here and in the hereafter. Thus the closer we live to the Five Precepts, the greater will be the blessing power of our lives.”   (Robert Bogoda, A Simple Guide to Life)

“but by definition, mindfulness keeps us in control of what we think, how we act, and what we say.  It’s impossible to shout at someone mindfully, or to abuse alcohol mindfully.  If you are truly mindful, you cannot do these things!” (Bhante G, Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness p 106)


  • Reread this talk and reflect on it.  Goldstein notes that if practicing the precepts doesn’t make us uncomfortable, it’s probably a sign that we should investigate them more deeply.  Is this true for you?


  • Meditate as usual in your daily practice being mindful of what arises and falls away and how all have the same characteristics of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and selflessness.

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