Rel 150: Buddhist Journey of Transformation, Sec. A
Right Action is not best considered on its own. It is a facet of the Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha. The Eightfold Path is a unitary whole. It is not complete without all of its elements. Any one aspect of this Path is insufficient, in and of itself, to lead to enlightenment, but it is instructive to consider these facets one at a time to better understand them.
The Four Noble Truths, the primary teachings of the Buddha, are thus: Suffering (duḥkha), which is existence ; the Cause (samudaya) of suffering, which is thirst (tṛṣṇa); the Cessation (nirohda) of suffering, which is possible, and the Way (mārga) to end suffering, which is the Eightfold Path . The Eightfold Path consists of Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort. Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. Of all these aspects of the Eightfold Path, Right Action is possibly the most all-encompassing. It can cover many, if not all, of the others.
The way I have been taught to view aspects of the path, such as Right Action, is not as rules or strictures to be adhered to, but as descriptions of reality, and at the same time, tools for thinking more deeply about the implications and consequences of my actions. My teacher, Hojo-sama Keibun Otokawa, had a story that illustrates this: his new-born son was asleep when Hojo-sama saw a mosquito feeding on the baby. Hojo-sama was recently out of the monastery, and had just taken over as abbot of his family temple, and was very earnest and pious as a Buddhist. He was therefore very conflicted over whether to swat the mosquito, sparing his son the pain of a bite, or to spare the mosquito and allow it to make it's living in the way nature intended. There was no perfect solution. He ended up killing the mosquito, but only after deep consideration of the nature of reality, within the framework of Right Action.
Mitchell, Donald W. Buddhism—Introducing the Buddhist Experience. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught. New York: Grove Press, 1974