Right Speech, Behavior and Livelihood


The three trainings in ethical discipline, concentration and discriminating awareness are always focused on helping us to overcome our problems and any suffering we experience. The method is to identify the causes of our difficulties, and to apply the three in order to eliminate these causes.

The three trainings are also extremely helpful to cultivate in our daily life when dealing with others.

  • Ethical Discipline – it’s important to watch how we behave and speak toward others. We need ethical discipline to refrain from doing anything that would be harmful or destructive.
  • Concentration – we need to be able to concentrate when we interact with others, so we know what’s going on with them and what their needs are. If our minds are all over the place, constantly looking at our phones, that makes communication with others quite difficult.
  • Discrimination – if we have listened well to the other person, we’ll be able to use discriminating awareness to decide what an appropriate response is. This again leads to thinking, acting, and speaking properly toward others.

The three trainings go hand in hand and reinforce one another, which is why we need to apply all of them simultaneously. When we’re not with others, the three trainings are great in terms of ourselves too:

  • They prevent us from acting in a self-destructive way.
  • Our minds are focused, so we can accomplish whatever we want to accomplish.
  • We use our basic intelligence to discriminate what is appropriate and inappropriate.

Like that, they are very basic principles we can apply in our daily life, for both personal situations and social interactions.

The Eightfold Path

When we train in the three trainings, one presentation of how we do this is called the “eightfold path.” These are simply eight types of practices that we train in that will cause the three aspects to develop.

For our training in ethical discipline, there are three practices:

  • Right speech – our way of communicating
  • Right boundaries of action – how we behave
  • Right livelihood – how we make a living.

For our training in concentration, there are also three:

  • Right effort – to rid our mind of destructive trains of thought and develop states of mind conducive to meditation
  • Right mindfulness – to not let go of our object of focus and our motivation
  • Right concentration – to stay focused on something constructive.

For our training in discriminating awareness, there are two:

  • Right viewwhat we believe to be true, based on discriminating correctly between what is correct and incorrect, or harmful and helpful
  • Right intention (right motivating thought) – the constructive state of mind that our right view leads to.

In more elaborate form, each of the eight practices has an incorrect way of applying it, which we want to discard, and a right way of doing it, which we want to adopt.


How we speak with others reflects our own state of mind. It affects how others feel and how they regard and treat us in response. Therefore, we need to know which ways of speaking are helpful and which ones are harmful.

Wrong Speech

Wrong speech is the type that causes unhappiness and problems:

  • Lyingsaying what’s untrue and deceiving others. If we become known as a someone who lies or cheats others in terms of what we say, nobody will believe us, trust us, or even listen to what we say. This creates an unhappy situation.
  • Speaking divisively – saying bad things about people to their friends or partners, to try and ruin relationships. This makes people wonder what we're saying about them behind their backs, and ruins our own relationships.
  • Speaking harshly – speaking in a cruel manner, or yelling and swearing at others. When we abuse others with our speech, they will then start to speak to us like this, too, and unless they are masochists, they’ll not want to stay around someone like us who constantly yells at them.
  • Chattering meaninglessly – talking “blah blah blah” all the time, interrupting others and speaking about nonsense, or gossiping. The result is that no one takes us seriously, and people will think we’re a pain to be with. We waste our time, and that of others too.

Right Speech

Constructive speech is what helps us to refrain from the above four types of wrong speech. The first level of discipline is that, when we feel like saying something untrue, yelling at someone, or chattering away, we recognize that it is destructive and causes unhappiness, and so we try hard not to do it.

This isn’t easy at all, because you need to catch yourself at the moment where you feel like doing it, before you just compulsively say it. It’s like wanting a piece of cake. Sometimes we’ll have the opportunity to have a second piece, but before we impulsively grab one, we can think, “Even though I want it, I don’t need to act on it. I don’t need this cake; it’ll just make me more fat, and I need to lose some weight.” This is what we’re talking about in terms of discipline.

When we feel like doing these things, the ancient Indian master Shantideva advises us to remain like a block of wood. I feel like yelling or saying something nasty, but realize that it will make both me and you upset, so I don’t say it. I just remain like a block of wood. I feel like telling some stupid joke or making a silly comment, but realize that it’s just idle chatter and I don’t say anything. It’s this sort of thing.

The second level of discipline is where you actually do something constructive instead – so, speaking in a beneficial way. This comes from realizing that doing so will bring happiness, and make every situation more harmonious. What we need to do is think in terms of cause and effect.

Cultivating right speech actually requires a very conscious effort and a strong resolution to speak truthfully, gently, kindly, at the appropriate time, in the appropriate measure, and only what’s meaningful:

  • We should endeavor not to constantly interrupt people or continually call or text message them, especially about trivial things like what you had for breakfast, or gossip. It’s meaningless chatter that just interrupts others.
  • An appropriate measure would be where, if talking to other people, we don’t talk too much or overly try to convince people about certain things, especially if they’ve already agreed with us.

Of course, we need to use discrimination. For instance, with speaking truthfully, if someone is wearing an ugly shirt or dress and it’ll hurt them, you don’t just say, “Well, that really does look ugly.” Sometimes you need to be careful, but it depends on the person. My sister just visited me, and we were going out and she put on a blouse. It was a little bit stretched and didn't fit nicely, but she’s my sister so I can obviously tell her that it looks awful. But it’s difficult to do that with people other than your family! You wouldn’t say to your new girlfriend, “That’s an ugly blouse you’re wearing. Put on something else!” even if it might be the truth.

As for harsh language, well, sometimes you might need to say something strong. If your child is playing with matches, or a lighter or something, then you need to speak strongly. That wouldn’t really be counted as harsh speech because your motivation is not anger. So, motivation is really paramount.

Other Examples of Wrong Speech

We can also extend these destructive ways of speaking to include not only that which we direct toward others, but also that which we direct toward ourselves. We can think in a much broader way about these destructive ways of speaking.

Lying can also include lying to others about our feelings or what our intentions are toward them. We might be very nice with someone, telling them we love them – even fooling ourselves into believing it – when all we want is their money or something else. In a sense, this is deception. Of course we don’t then just go and tell that person, “I don’t actually love you, I just want your money,” as that would be a bit inappropriate. But we need to examine ourselves if we’ve been truthful about our feelings and intentions.

Divisive speech could be where we say things that are so obnoxious that it causes our own friends to leave us. Some people just complain all the time or are constantly negative, and it drives everyone else away from them. If we’re like that, who’ll want to be with us? Or speaking nonstop so the other person doesn’t even have a chance to say anything – this drives people away. We all know people like that, and it’s unlikely we particularly want to meet them very often. It’s good to say nice things about others, and be positive as much as possible.

Harsh language comes in when we abuse not only others, but also ourselves. When we tell others that they’re stupid or horrible, of course it’s cruel. So it’s also cruel when we direct it towards ourselves. It certainly doesn’t make us any happier, so it’s important to have a good attitude towards ourselves and how we treat ourselves, and how we speak to ourselves in our minds.

As for idle chatter, we shouldn’t speak indiscriminately about our own private matters, our doubts, our worries and so on to others. There are certain things that simply don’t or shouldn’t be shared with others. For instance, if someone were to confide in you that they’re gay or have cancer, and asks you to keep it to yourself, you should do just that. Betraying people’s confidence usually comes under idle chatter.

Right speech is really about speaking appropriately, at the right time, in the right situations. Sometimes we’ll need to speak formally, and sometimes informally. We need to speak in a way that makes people comfortable. When you explain something to a child, you need to explain it in a way that they will understand, but this extends as well to adults and people from other cultures and so forth.

Boundaries of Action (Behavior)

The second of the eightfold path is about right boundaries of action, which is the technical term. When we talk of boundaries, we are talking about a certain limit, as in “I will act up to this boundary, but not beyond it.”

Wrong Behavior

Going beyond the boundary refers to three types of destructive behavior:

  • Taking a life – killing some living being
  • Taking what has not been given to us – taking something that does not belong to us, stealing
  • Engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior.


Simply, this is taking the life of somebody else. This doesn’t just refer to humans, but includes all sorts of animals, fish, insects and so forth.

I think, for the majority of us, giving up hunting and fishing isn’t so difficult. For some, not killing insects might be more difficult. There are many ways to approach this without getting into past and future lives, thinking, “This fly was my mother in a previous life.” The main emphasis is that if there’s something that annoys us, we don’t want to have killing it as our initial, instinctive response. This builds up the habit of wanting to destroy anything we don’t like in a violent way and comes to extend beyond the fly that’s buzzing around our face. Instead, we need to try to find peaceful methods of dealing with something that’s annoying. So with flies or mosquitoes, when they land on a wall we can put a glass over them, a piece of paper underneath, and release them outside. In many, many situations, we can find a much more peaceful, nonviolent way of dealing with something we don’t like.

If you live in India, like I did, you learn to live with insects. There is simply no way to get rid of all the insects in India. I used to imagine an advertising campaign for travel agents: “If you like insects, you’ll love India!” When I first moved to India, my background was such that I was not at all fond of insects, but I was a great fan of science fiction. I imagined that if I traveled to a distant planet and the life form there was in the shape of insects like this, it would be quite awful if when I met them all I’d want to do was squish them! If you start to put yourself in the place of the insect – they are after all just doing their own thing – then you start to respect it as a life form.

Obviously, there are harmful insects, just as there are harmful people, and sometimes it’s advisable to use strong measures to control them. But it’s best to first try a peaceful method, whether we’re talking about human conflict or a house infested with ants or cockroaches.

But consider the case of locusts eating your crops. A great deal has to do with motivation. An example is a previous life of Buddha, when he was the navigator of a ship. There was someone on board who was planning to kill everyone else on the ship, and Buddha saw that there was no way to prevent this mass murder in a peaceful way; the only solution to prevent it would be to kill this potential mass murderer himself. So Buddha killed this person, but with the motivation of compassion – to spare the lives of the passengers, and to prevent the person building up a huge amount of negative karma – rather than anger or fear. But Buddha also acknowledged that he killed someone, and that regardless of the motivation it’s still a destructive act, and so he decided, “I am willing to accept the karmic consequences from this on myself in order to spare the others.”

So, if it’s necessary to kill a predator like locusts to save crops – not out of anger, or fear, or wanting to make lots of money from selling the crops – but out of compassion, then the consequence of it will be much less than doing it out of anger. However, like Buddha, it’s still important to acknowledge that it’s a negative act and accept whatever consequences will come from it.


Most people are much more attached to their lives than their possessions, but still, if you take somebody’s possession, it causes a great deal of unhappiness on both sides. Especially the thief has a nagging feeling of “Am I going to be caught?”

Now, what we want to do is avoid problems for ourselves. Obviously, if you kill a fish or insect, it’s a problem for them. But we also have a problem because if we’re very disturbed by insects, then we’re always worried about mosquitoes invading our space, getting up in the middle of the night to hunt for them. It’s an uneasy state of mind. If we generally use peaceful methods to deal with these things, our minds are more at ease.

It’s the same thing with stealing, where you have to be sneaky, and you get worried that you’ll be caught. It’s based on a very strong desire, where you’re also not patient enough to do the work required to get something, and so you just steal it from someone else.

There are also examples of killing and stealing with the opposite motivations:

  • You could kill out of attachment and greed, maybe because you really want to eat an animal or fish. If there is absolutely nothing else to eat then that’s one thing, but if there are alternatives, then it’s another.
  • You could steal out of anger, because you want to hurt someone, and so you take something that belongs to them.

Inappropriate Sexual Behavior

This is a difficult topic because for most of us, the strong drive behind our sexual behavior is longing desire. Buddhism explains basic guidelines of what to avoid, which are:

  • Causing harm with our sexual behavior, including rape and violating others
  • Pressuring people, even our own partner, to have sex when they don’t want to
  • Having sex with someone else’s partner, or if we have a partner, having sex with somebody else. No matter how careful we are, it always leads to trouble, doesn’t it?

There are many other aspects to inappropriate sexual behavior, but the idea behind it is that we don’t just act like animals. An animal will jump on any other animal whenever it wants, no matter who else is around. They’re totally under the control of desire and lust – this is what we want to avoid.

What we would want to do, then, is to set certain boundaries and resolve to limit our sexual behavior within them, and not beyond. Those limits we set could deal with frequency, types of sexual acts, sexual positions, or whatever. The point is to establish certain guidelines for how we conduct our sexual lives, and not just do anything that we feel like, at any time, any place, and with just anybody, like an animal. This is really very important in terms of ethical self-discipline. The self-discipline is to refrain from going beyond the boundaries we set, because we understand that going beyond is just based on lust, and lust is the cause of countless problems.

Taking Intoxicants

Taking intoxicants is not included in these destructive actions, but giving them up is very important in terms of our development.

We want to develop concentration, we want to develop discipline. Well, when we get drunk, we lose all discipline, don’t we? We take psychedelic drugs or marijuana and we lose all concentration. Our minds become filled with mental wandering and fantasy. If we look at the effects of various drugs, or alcohol, and compare it to what we want to accomplish in terms of our own personal development, we see that getting high or drunk is contradictory. It creates obstacles that last not only for the duration of being drunk, but there can be leftovers – like hangovers! So it’s definitely good to set some form of limitations to our use, and of course it’s best to give them up completely.

Right Boundaries of Action (Right Behavior)

One aspect of self-discipline is refraining from destructive types of behavior. The other aspect is to engage in constructive ways of acting, and this is what is called “right behavior.”

Thus, instead of taking the life of others, you actively help to preserve life. A wider application of this would be not destroying the environment, but to take care of it, so that animals and fish can live freely. Feeding your pigs, if you have them, not so they’ll fatten up and you can eat them, but so that they thrive – that is preserving life. Feeding your dog – that’s a way to help preserve life! It also includes things like taking care of sick people, or helping those who get hurt.

Think of a fly or a bee that buzzes into your room. It doesn’t really want to be there. It wants to get out, but doesn’t know how, so if you kill it for making a simple mistake of flying into your room, that’s not very nice, is it? You can help it to get out by opening a window and saying “shoo” or something – that’s helping to preserve life. And the bee wants to live! If a bird flew into your room by mistake, you wouldn’t get out a gun to shoot it, would you? But between the bee and the bird the difference is just size, appearance, and the sound it makes. If you don’t like flies coming into your room – don’t open the window, or put up screens!

As for not stealing, the right action is protecting other people’s possessions. If someone loans you something, you try your best not to damage it. You try to help other people have nice things.

Instead of inappropriate sexual behavior, which includes not only sex with other people but also sex with yourself, sexually we need to be kind and gentle, not just like a dog in heat.

Other Examples of Right and Wrong Behavior

If we look at an extension of our discussion, we can see that there are many other aspects that are involved with these three types of behavior.

For instance, an extension of not killing is to stop treating others in a rough physical manner. This includes not only not beating people, but also not overworking them or pushing them too hard to do things that might cause some sort of physical harm. We can apply this to ourselves as well – we shouldn’t mistreat ourselves through overwork, nor should we eat poorly, or get too little sleep. We often think of our behavior in terms of others, but it’s important to apply it also to ourselves.

As for stealing, it’s not just taking the possessions of others, but it’s also using other people’s things without first asking. Like just taking someone’s phone and making an expensive call, or helping ourselves to other people’s food in their fridge without getting permission. Sneaking into a cinema without paying, or – and people don’t like to hear this one – not paying your taxes! This is stealing. We could argue, “Well, I don’t want to pay my taxes because it goes toward funding wars and buying weapons.” But the reality is that it also goes for making roads and building hospitals, schools and so forth. If you want to have those, then, you need to pay some tax.

What about downloading unlicensed or pirated software or videos, is this stealing? I think it is, especially if it says explicitly, “Do not download this without paying,” then it’s quite clear. There is no way to say that it’s not stealing. The principle however, is to set boundaries. There is a spectrum from doing anything you want without thinking of the consequences, and not doing anything at all. As for stealing, we might say, “I’m not going to rob a bank or steal from a store, but downloading without paying? I can’t really avoid that right now.” At least this creates some sort of boundary, but it’s still important to acknowledge that downloading without paying is stealing. There’s also a big difference between downloading stuff when you have the money to pay, and when you don’t. It’s more serious when you can pay and you don’t, just to be cheap or nasty. This is something that should be avoided.

On this point of stealing, we could look at ourselves – we can stop wasting money on trivial things. Gambling, for example, is misusing our own possessions. We also shouldn’t be stingy on ourselves, when we can actually afford it. You have the money to eat a proper diet and buy good food, but you’re stingy and so you buy the cheapest, worst quality food. This is almost like stealing from yourself!

When it comes to inappropriate sexual behavior, it’s not just pushing ourselves on others or their partners, it’s also stopping engaging in sexual acts that could endanger our own physical or emotional health. For example, you meet someone you’re very attracted to, and on the one hand you’d like to have sex with them. But the problem is that they’ve got all sorts of emotional issues and other difficulties, and you realize that if you get involved with them, there’s going to be trouble ahead. So for your own personal health, you don’t get involved. We shouldn’t be driven by our lust just because someone is pretty!

What to Do When We Have Gone Beyond the Boundaries We Have Set

Inevitably, from time to time, we go beyond the boundaries we have set for our behavior, so Buddhism offers a set of opponents to deal with such situations:

  • Acknowledge what you did. Be honest with yourself.
  • Regret the action, wishing you hadn’t done whatever it is. This is different from guilt, where you basically think of yourself as an awful person and don’t let it go.
  • Make a resolution to try and not repeat the action.
  • Reaffirm your motivation, that you don’t want to go beyond the boundary because it leads to unhappiness and causes problems.
  • Apply an opponent. For instance, if you yell at someone, you can honestly apologize to them, explaining that you were in a bad mood or whatever.


This concerns how we make a living, some ways are ethical and some are not.

Wrong Livelihood

This concerns avoiding making money from some sort of harmful industry, or in a way that is harmful to ourselves and others. This includes, for instance:

  • Manufacturing or dealing in weapons
  • Slaughtering animals, hunting, fishing, and exterminating insects
  • Making, selling or serving alcohol or drugs
  • Operating a gambling casino
  • Publishing and distributing pornography.

These types of livelihood cause harm to others or, like with pornography, cause lust and desire to just increase. Even if we’re involved with a regular type of job, it is important to be honest, and avoid dishonesty:

  • Overcharging clients, trying to get as much money from them as possible
  • Embezzlement, taking funds from the business for your own use
  • Extortion, threatening others in order to get money from them
  • Bribery
  • Exploitation of others
  • False advertising
  • Adulterating food or products in order to make more money.

There are so many dishonest ways to make a living! We need to apply ethical self-discipline to avoid this type of livelihood.

Right Livelihood

We should aim to make our living in a way that is honest and that can benefit society, like:

  • Medicine
  • Social work
  • Fair commerce
  • Making or selling products and services that are of benefit to others.

Anything that contributes to the healthy functioning of society and the welfare of others is great. On top of this, we should:

  • Not cheat others, nor overcharge them
  • Set a fair price, so that we can make a profit, but within reason
  • Pay our workers well, so that we don’t exploit them.

One point that often comes up in questions is about necessity. Once I translated for a Tibetan teacher in Australia, where there’s a tremendous amount of sheep, and someone asked, “In the town I live in, the only work available is to raise sheep, which are then used for wool and meat. What should I do? I can’t just move to another city and try and find other work.” The Tibetan lama said, “The main thing is to be honest in your work and not cheat others, and for you not to mistreat the sheep but to treat them very kindly, feed them well, and take good care of them.” Thus, the main emphasis is on being kind and being honest.


When we look at the advice we get from the eightfold path, we shouldn’t take these as some sort of regulations that constrict us, but as boundaries that free us from negative actions, which only end up causing harm to ourselves and others.