Excerpt from Buddhism for Dudes by Gerry “Strib” Stribling.
The Buddhist guide to successful living is called the Noble Eightfold Path. It’s the blueprint for a proper life, humankind’s user’s manual. It’s what you’re supposed to do. All eight list out as follows:
These eight notions constitute the Fourth Noble Truth, the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering. The eight can be grouped into three categories based on the type of practice they embody: some are practices of ethical conduct, others involve mental discipline, and others are meant to cultivate wisdom. If we intend to lead the best possible lives, then we must work at all of these things. As should be becoming evident, the essence of all of these practices and the source of true happiness can be boiled down to wisdom and compassion. Compassion. Hang on to that word. It’s the most important word in Buddhism.
You should keep in mind that you don’t cultivate the path within yourself one part at a time; you have to learn to develop these skills concurrently. For now let’s skip over the first two categories of the Noble Path (we’ll return to them later) and get into the three action-oriented topics: Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood.
Right Speech implies thoughtfulness with regard to the words that come out of your mouth. Not lying is an important part of Right Speech, but Buddhists also refrain from gossip, backbiting, rudeness, harshness, and saying abusive things. You also have to avoid bullshit—idle, time-wasting chatter. Be polite and friendly, gentle, meaningful, constructive, and encouraging. Say things that are true, useful, and beneficial. Say it nicely, or don’t say it at all.
My dog Trixie has run off from us on occasion. Once when it happened, my wife bellowed: “Trixie! Bad dog! Get over here.” And of course she didn’t obey; who in doggie-land would come to someone using that tone of voice? I whistled and called out “Trixie, come!” the sweetest way I could and patted my thighs like I wanted to play. Trixie trotted right up to me with a smile on her face. And the light bulb went on over my wife’s head.
Right Action invites us to live a life that is honorable, compassionate, peaceful, and moral. This is accomplished, unsurprisingly, by doing honorable, compassionate, peaceful, and moral things. In this sense, Right Action is a positive expression of the “don’ts” listed in the Five Precepts.
I love a positive spin. “Don’t commit adultery” sounds pretty sleazy, doesn’t it? I’m surprised it’s not followed by, “And while you’re at it, keep your hands out of your pockets.” You know what sounds better? “I love my wife. And because I love her, I am faithful to her.” The positive makes the admonition unnecessary. I’m not walking around grumbling because I’m forbidden to go to the Happy Endings Massage Parlor; I’m happy because I am in love. (Plus I think she’s still pretty hot stuff, too, after forty years.) Right Action is about what you do, not what you don’t do. Love, after all, is a dimension of compassion, and compassion makes us happy.
Then there’s Right Livelihood. People have to make a living, after all. In Buddhist life, what you do and don’t do to earn your daily bread is important. Apart from telling his business-minded followers not to cheat people, the Buddha offered examples of shady dealings that we can translate into contemporary terms: dealing in arms, poisons, intoxicants, or human flesh—really any job that requires or facilitates killing or exploitation—is suspect. There were no Enrons in Buddha’s day, no corporate polluters or rocket-propelled grenades, no crack cocaine, nuclear proliferation, international sex slavery, or insider trading. But there were butchers, pimps, hired thugs, and usurers. It’s not as if the Buddha was unfamiliar with the darker side of commerce.
Right Livelihood doesn’t mean that everyone should become a doctor, teacher, nurse, or social worker. People do business because that’s what people do, and there is no reason for altruists to be smug about the good they accomplish through their work. The richest people in the world contribute millions of dollars to good causes, and if it is their forte to make money instead of running soup kitchens, then they’re using their talents for good the best way they can. Charity, after all, is a dimension of compassion. Ask Bill and Melinda Gates.
For the ways in which they contribute to the betterment of society, I think that artists, storytellers, athletes, and entertainers are some of the world’s most underrated people. Comparing Mother Teresa to Keith Richards might be the ultimate apples-and- oranges thing, but imagine what life would be like without art. Or college basketball, for that matter. Life without art or March Madness would be unbearable. Ballerinas, I believe, are just as important as brain surgeons. But doctors, for their part, might be more Buddhist than they realize. The only part of the Hippocratic Oath I know by heart are the first four words: First, do no harm.
That’s the way the Dharma, particularly the practice of ethical conduct, looks at the world in general.