Lecture Thirteen: Development 13.4

13.4 Establishing moral conduct

As mentioned in the previous lecture, the discourses distinguish between actions performed by thought, speech, and body. This threefold division is also applied to moral conduct. This order entails a hierarchy: actions by thought are more fundamental than actions by speech and body, since the latter are grounded in the former. Moral conduct extends into the grosser domain of physical acts, and the relatively subtler domain of speech acts, but they are both rooted in thought acts and intentions. By contrast, purifying intentionality leads naturally to a purification of speech and physical acts. In pedagogical terms, though, training usually begins from (or, at least, with a strong emphasis on) external physical acts, namely, with the grosser domain, easier to observe, but also the one more explicitly exposed to social interactions (which might be normatively essential, especially when training is taken up within a community).

The cultivation of moral conduct reveals some of the more apparent biases that affect behaviours and render an untrained understanding epistemically unreliable. The factor of right intention encompasses three attitudes: (i) non-sensuality, (ii) non-ill will, and (iii) non-violence. Their opposites are (i’) the craving for acquiring objects or experiences for the sake of enjoying the sensual pleasure they might give; (ii’) the attitude of malevolence towards others or oneself (like aversion, hatred, but also sadness, grief, depression); and (iii’) the intention of deliberately harming other living beings or oneself. Right intention thus encapsulates the project of replacing the threefold basis of desire-aversion-ignorance with its opposite, as discussed in Lecture Twelve, but gives a stronger emphasis on the more explicit and apparent components of (non-)desire and (non-)aversion (the basis of ignorance is somehow already tackled by right view, which is the prerequisite for right intention).

The factor of right speech and right (physical) action move in the same direction. Stealing, killing, and malicious speech are necessarily based on intentions of aversion and greed. Cultivating these attitudes reinforces these bases for action, while having established the intention of foregoing these bases for action inevitably undermines any intention to act in these ways. In the context of the eightfold path, frivolous speech and non-celibacy also have a problematic status since they are seen as an unnecessary form of indulgence into distraction and sensuality.

Right livelihood takes this practice to a more systematic level, shifting attention from individual actions to the whole framework or fabric in which these actions are interwoven. While occasional wrong actions might inevitably occur, certain ways of living (including killing animals, working as a soldier, or trading in drugs) are inherently bound to rely on wrong intentions, and hence they inevitably have to be abandoned if one is committed to travelling the eightfold path.[1]

The cultivation of moral conduct consists, to a significant degree, in restraining or refraining from intentionally acting in certain ways by thought, speech, and body. This practice entails a purely negative component, in which one simply drops certain acts or habits, but it also reveals a more positive component, in which one develops new ways of acting and intending. For instance, non-sensuality opens up the possibility of cultivating the wholesome pleasure of composure, while non-ill will and non-violence are the spark that leads one to develop attitudes of friendliness (mettā) and compassion (karuṇā), which are two of the four divine abidings, thus called for the exquisite experience they offer. From a worldly perspective, the cultivation of moral conduct might appear as leading to a life of deprivation, grief and sadness. However, in actual practice, moral conduct is an immense resource of brightness and joy, and for this reason the discourses recommend, praise, and encourage it.

This can offer a first positive testing of right view. The result of relinquishing the grosser forms of thirst and craving at the level of moral conduct results in an increase in ease and contentment, which is the opposite of what any mundane view would expect. To take this test one step further, one needs then to focus more directly on the thought processes that shape one’s way of understanding and experiencing reality. This is covered by the last three factors of the eightfold path. Notice, however, that this progression consists in a sort of internalization of a cognitive and pragmatic pattern that is first instantiated in the domain of external (and thus socialized) actions. As mentioned in Lecture One, ancient Buddhist training is far from private and solitary introspection, but rather a deliberate development and interiorization of certain schemes of actions and intentionality.[2]


  1. MN 117 provides only a few suggestions about what a wrong livelihood might entail, dealing mostly with the point of view of an ordained disciple who seeks the wrong means for obtaining their requisites. AN 5.177 illustrates wrong livelihood with any profession that entails having to deal with weapons, meat (i.e. killing animals), and intoxicating substances. In general, wrong livelihood is any form of livelihood that will lead one to break moral precepts.
  2. For a more detailed survey of how the discussion of moral conduct is interwoven in the whole gradual training, see Giuliano Giustarini, ‘The Interaction of Morality (sīla) with Cognitive Factors in the Pali Nikāyas’ (2017).          

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