by Wayne Ren-Cheng
Of the practices of the Eightfold Path, one of them in particular you have been practicing every moment since birth. Call it ‘trial and error’ or ‘on-the-job-training’, you’ve learned what to do, and when to do it so that you get desired results. You’ve been practicing appropriate action. In all aspects of your life you’ve been doing it, with mixed outcomes. Whenever you’ve looked back on a situation and said to yourself, “That could have gone better’, it was a recognition that your actions in that moment weren’t as effective as they might have been. Whenever you said to yourself, “Next time I’ll do it differently”, it was a recognition that there was the potential to change your actions in order to change the outcome of future similar situations. In short, you’ve been aware of the ideal of appropriate action and have been applying it to the realities of life.
Every time you get in your car and drive you engage in appropriate action. You prepare yourself by checking to see what the weather is like. You know that you’ll need to drive differently depending on whether the roads are dry, wet, icy . . . the surface is smooth roadway or rough and rutted dirt road . . . bright sun, grey clouds, rain, snow, or the darkness of night . . . all phenomenal factors you consider before you even get behind the wheel.
You know the limits of your car . . . where can it go and how fast can it get there . . . safely. Each time you drive you engage your knowledge of those limits.
On the road you know you’ll encounter other drivers, drivers who rely on what you do to not put them in danger . . . and you rely on other drivers for the same reason. Still you know you must be mindful of how you are, and be aware of the actions of others, prepared to act defensively if the need suddenly arises. You drive in the correct lanes, stop at stop signs, yield at yield signs, watch for pedestrians at crosswalks, and detour cautiously around constructions sites and holes in the road. You drive appropriately.
You know to obey the posted speed limits . . . most of the time . . . unless road conditions or situations require you to take different actions. You’ll need to exceed the speed limit when passing other cars on a two-lane highway and drive slower through tight curves on a mountain road. You might choose, rightly, to drive under the speed limit in wet and icy conditions, if there is loose gravel on the road, or you’re driving through an area where animals or children are known to cross the road. Maybe you left late for work and have the urge to speed to work, disregarding the speed limit; or you realize the danger you put yourself and others in by reckless driving and choose the more appropriate action.
You don’t drive with the windows open when it is raining. You drive with them open when the weather is nice, and roll them up, turn on the air conditioner when it gets too hot.
You maintain your car. Keep the windows clean so you can see, put gas in it so it runs, have the oil changed and the belts tightened, and make certain the tires aren’t worn out. You treat the car appropriately so it gets you where you want to go . . . safely.
Whether you are driving, getting ready for work or school, performing your job, or any of the other activities that make up the actions of your day-to-day life . . . you are practicing appropriate action. You do these things to keep yourself happy, healthy and in a state of harmony with the world around you.
Of the Eightfold Path, appropriate action is already part of how you are . . . in your Buddhist practice engaging in appropriate action expands to encompass not only what you do for you. It expands to encompass what you do and how it can, and will affect others through the causal process of the Universe. You come to understand that what you do matters on a wider scale and taking appropriate action becomes an integral aspect of your moral character and ethical behavior.
You must drive your bodymind with the same mindfulness and awareness with which you drive your car. You prepare yourself for the day by looking at the emotional “weather” . . . calm, anxious, fearful, happy, angry, content . . . and act appropriately. Sitting in meditation you tune up the bodymind so you can engage your negative dispositions and habits in such a way that don’t become a hindrance, instead they fall away . . . allowing the arising of the positive dispositions and habits. You practice appropriate actions by responding with calmness to anger, friendliness to hatred, confidence to fear, and contentment to anxiety. Each time you do so, you strengthen your bodymind and learn through experience the most appropriate way to act in future situations.
You don’t work as a lifeguard if you can’t swim. You listen deeply to the teacher if you’re a student. You don’t stand in the street and try to direct traffic if you’re not a trained policeman. You leap over tall buildings with a single bound if you’re Superman. You engage the day appropriately through preparation and a knowledge of your skills and resources. Through experience you learn to prepare better and you gain new resources of knowledge and skills.
There are many other people on the road of life with you. Their attitude may not be the same, their faith or spirituality may differ from yours, and they way they “drive” will be different than yours . . . yet they are as vital a part of the karmic process as you are. There will be times when you must stop so that you can gain a clear view of them and their actions. In some situations you might have to yield to their actions without yielding to your own commitments. Detours around those whose thoughts and actions can have negative impact on how you are will also arise. In each instance you are practicing appropriate action. You practice ‘wearing the right hat’. Through experience and time you’ve learned how to dress, and how to act dependent on where you are, and who you are with. You move quickly and decisively in some situations, slow and deliberate in others. You practice appropriate action.
Like you maintain your car, you maintain your bodymind by engaging in periods of study, exercise and meditation. You visit the dentist and the doctor regularly to keep the body healthy. To keep the mind healthy and vital you engage in life-long learning. Sitting in regular meditation you improve your mindfulness and awareness, and you become rigorously self-honest about how you are and how you can be. You practice appropriate action.
Appropriate action isn’t a new phenomena for you. Whenever you said to yourself, “Next time I’ll do it differently”, you realized the potential to change your actions in order to change the outcome. In Buddhist practice you go beyond the ideal to the reality. You take the ideal of acting appropriately given any situation and you make a real part of how you live in each moment. You’ve been practicing it, now you’ll practice appropriate action with a deeper level of mindfulness and an awareness of the broader implications of every action you take.
WHAT WE DO MATTERS.