Many of the Buddha’s teachings focus, in one way or another, on the importance of action in a wise life. When he gave instructions on how to live, he emphasized the importance of choosing actions that benefit ourselves and others. To understand his instruction on action it helps to be familiar with the teachings that provide the context for knowing how to act.
For people on the Buddha’s path of liberation, understanding the relationship between action and karma is important. The central teaching the Buddha gave concerning karma is that our actions are consequential, and that it’s possible to act in ways that lead to beneficial consequences. This teaching is based on the understanding that we can know and choose which actions to engage in and which to refrain from in order to achieve peace and well being, and to avoid suffering. Rather than emphasizing past and future lives, as people often do when discussing karma, the Buddha’s teachings point to the importance of the present moment as the only time we can take responsibility for, and train in, the actions that bring freedom.
Because of the important role of karma, the Buddha emphasized being mindful of what we do rather than what we are—and here, we can think of ‘doing’ as encompassing mental activities as well as external actions. Instead of looking for some fixed, essential psychological state, inner nature, or spiritual essence, the Buddha focused on the dynamic psychological processes that are operating when we suffer. When we know enough about how our minds function we can begin to avoid those mental actions that cause suffering, and choose to engage in the mental trainings and skillful actions that place us on the path to liberation.
It’s sometimes said that the Buddha emphasized action over belief. In one sense this is true. When it came to the kinds of supernatural beliefs that underlie most religions, it appears that the Buddha had very little interest. However, he saw that belief is also a form of action, a mental activity, and so in that sense our beliefs are actions worthy of investigation. This means that in addition to investigating the truth or falsehood of a belief, it is possible to notice whether the act of believing is, in itself, helpful. In particular it can be useful to notice why we believe what we do. What is the intention behind our believing?
Another quality the Buddha emphasized in his teachings on action was faith—not blind faith in something that can’t be known, but a faith in those things that can be tested and verified through our actions. Until we see for ourselves the results of our actions, we are supported by a trust that there are activities that will lead us to happiness and protect us from suffering. When we see and experience the results of practice, this faith can become an unshakeable confidence—we have no doubt about what actions lead to inner freedom and peace.
The role of intention is also central to the Buddha’s teachings on action. Our intentions are a form of mental activity that have consequences for our mental life. It is the nature or quality of an intention that determines how it affects the mind. When we act on an intention that has suffering as part of it, more suffering results. For example, when we speak with hostility, not only is the act of hostility stressful in itself, it often creates the conditions for continued suffering for ourselves and others. Because greed, hatred and delusion all entail the suffering of clinging, actions motivated by these three intentions reinforce our clinging and so perpetuate the suffering of clinging. When we act on an intention that embodies freedom from clinging, the benefits of that freedom will strengthen within us. In this way, when we act on openhanded generosity, love, and wisdom—the opposites of greed, hatred, and delusion—we create mental conditions for happiness and further freedom.
This cultivation of beneficial states of mind is important; the Buddha advocated more than simply ridding ourselves of intentions that are based on clinging. The purity that comes from avoiding certain behaviors and intentions, while worthwhile, is not enough in itself to attain the highest goal of liberation, we have to see directly into the nature of our own suffering.
But because this direct seeing isn’t easy to do, the Buddha suggested engaging in specific actions to help the mind perceive the ways it grasps and suffers. Key among these are the practices of concentration, mindfulness, and letting go. The training in concentration helps keep the mind stable and focused on our present moment experience so that mindfulness can help us see more clearly. The more insight we have into the present moment, the better able we are to recognize the moments of choice in which we can choose more skillful actions. Training in letting go helps us let go of those behaviors that interfere with the further deepening of mindfulness. At times the only action needed is letting go of all other actions.
While the Buddha’s teachings on action may seem like instructions for staying in constant activity, they are actually instructions in those actions that lead to greater and greater peace. It’s the untrained mind that is always busy. A trained mind can experience profound rest. It’s the mind that understands skillful actions that can know freedom from all actions.