In the Noble Eightfold Path, Right Action is very simple. It does not require you to do anything, but to refrain from doing three things. They are to refrain from killing, stealing and sexual misconduct.
To refrain from killing means not to deprive sentient beings of life. By exercising such forbearance, one is practising compassion for all beings. If you wish for the well being of others, you will not take another’s life. All beings are scared of death — even a mosquito. However, while I was attending a retreat in Kota Tinggi once, the mosquitoes there seemed to know that no one would kill them. One came to suck blood from my hand. When I tried to blow it away, it simply ignored me. Then I nudged it; yet still it stayed put. I had to push its backside until it pointed upwards before that persistent mosquito finally gave up!
How bad is the resultant kamma of killing? Its severity depends on the status of the victim. The resultant kamma for killing an ant is of course not as bad as that of killing a human being. The act of killing a good person is one that is worse than that of killing an evil one. Should one kill an arahant or one’s parents, one will end up in the depths of hell — Avici, and there is no way one can escape such a resultant kamma.
There is the story of King Ajatasattu who had his father killed. Later he was very troubled when he realised how much his father loved him. He went to see the Buddha who saw that he had the potential to be enlightened, but lost it when he killed his father. Furthermore, he has Avici Hell as his next destination. Another story is that of Angulimala who had been a serial killer, but was still able to become an arahant as he had not killed his parents.
To refrain from stealing means not to take things not given. Therefore, picking up something that has been discarded is not considered stealing. Nor is borrowing something when the owner is not around with the intention of replacing it. Cheating by manipulating a weighing machine to give short weight to customers is considered stealing. When something should be given but is deliberately withheld, such as in tax evasion or deliberately not returning change, it also constitutes an act of stealing, just as shoplifting and robbery. By refraining from stealing, one should cultivate contentment.
To refrain from sexual misconduct does not refer only to adultery. It means not to have sexual intercourse with someone who is still under the care of his or her parents, a married woman, female convicts, and someone’s betrothed. For men, illicit partners also include someone’s mistress. However, if the woman is divorced or widowed, then it does not constitute a breach of this precept. A monk who was once a sailor told me that before he became a monk he did have an affair with someone’s mistress, but since he was not aware of that at that time, his precept was intact. For women, once they are married, they should have no sexual partners other than their husbands. Incest also constitutes sexual misconduct; so too having sexual intercourse with a monk.
So, by avoiding these three wrong actions, we would be practising Right Action as indicated in the Noble Eightfold Path.