To abstain from all evil, to cultivate the good, and to purify one’s mind — this is the teaching of the Buddhas.
Dhammapada 183, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi
The Buddha mentions three components of right action as part of the 8-fold path: (1) abstaining from taking life, (2) abstaining from taking what is not given, and (3) abstaining from sexual misconduct. You might recognize these as three of the five training precepts. Many of the same elements turn up in various lists of the Buddha’s training, and we can deduce that the more often something is repeated, the more important it is to give it our attention.
(1) Abstaining from taking life
…means not killing or harming any sentient being. The impulse to take life is based on some form of aversion or anger. An example of this is when we swat a mosquito that’s sucking our blood; if we didn’t feel fear, we wouldn’t kill the insect. This is something we can work with when it comes up. Similarly, whenever we strike out at a living being, small or large, we can carefully examine our motivation.
The positive counterpart to taking life or harming other living beings is developing kindness and compassion for them. Metta (boundless loving-kindness) is the specific cure for ill-will, so it’s directed right at the root of our inclination to harm sentient beings.
(2) Abstaining from taking what is not given
…means respecting others’ belongings. This applies not only to stealing but also to taking things through threats, or fraud and deceit — for example, selling things that are not what they’re advertized to be. It also means not cheating on our taxes or taking something we’re not entitled to because we know we can get away with it. Taking more than our share of something is another way of taking what is not given.
The way I break this precept most often is by cleaning things up before people have finished with them, or rearranging things that aren’t mine. It can be a very refined practice to just let things be as they are until there’s a need to interfere. Bhikkhu Bodhi points out (in http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/waytoend.html) that there can be different unwholesome motives for taking things not given – could be greed or hatred or plain carelessness.
Positive counterparts to taking what is not given are honesty, contentment, and generosity.
(3) Abstaining from sexual misconduct
…means not harming anyone with our sexual energies. This applies not just to acts but also to speech: pretending to be unpartnered when it’s not true, or flirting with people we know to be unavailable. Worst of all is taking advantage of people who are in a position of relative weakness. By acting with respect and honesty, we protect everyone’s established trusting and committed relationships, including our own. With this precept we become protectors of others’ safety, and our own.
The factors of the eight-fold path are:
1. Right View (of the ownership of action)
2. Right Intention (renunciation, goodwill, harmlessness)
3. Right Speech (truthful, harmonious, gentle, meaningful)
4. Right Action (non-harming, non-taking, good conduct in sensual matters)
5. Right Livelihood
6. Right Effort
7. Right Mindfulness
8. Right Concentration