If a coconut falls to the ground the moment that the crow lands on the palm tree, did the crow cause the coconut to fall, or was the coconut going to fall anyway, and the crow just happened to land at that moment? This is the question the sage Vasistha poses to Lord Rama in the Yoga Vasistha, a text in yoga philosophy and mythology, which points to the practice of Right Action. This outlook is posed throughout yogic scriptures, such as in the Bhagavad Gita: we are entitled to our actions, but not to the fruits of our actions. We show up with as much kindness or honesty in our actions as we can, and accept that our actions may be perceived in any number of ways. What matters is that we continue to apply our actions-thoughts, words, deeds- so that we can influence more coconuts to fall. This practice also evacuates the ego-that we act in a kind, patient, compassionate way because it is the right thing to do, not because it reaps any rewards or because anything specific will happen from it.
Right Action is a particularly useful contemplation as we approach the holidays with our families and the expectations that often surround the holidays, to act as if everything we do makes a world of difference, knowing all the while that anything we do may make no difference at all. Or as the Buddha says, to “practice as if your hair is on fire.” The practice of Right Action is to commit to love and prevent harm, our own and that of others, with the understanding that every action matters.
When entering into family situations where patterns may be ingrained, it might seem that Aunt Barbara always cooks the same green bean dish, or Cousin Anna always brings home another unfamiliar partner, or Tio Roberto always makes the same judgment on the spread of food ahead of him, even as he gobbles it down. Right Action can be an invigorating practice, that everything we do matters, that each action can change the trajectory of this holiday, all family holidays to come, or the dynamics of our families into the future.
A question that I ask myself currently over any nationally recognized holiday, is, is this a ritual, a recognition, a celebration that I choose? If so, what actions and traditions might I invoke to make it authentic to me? If not, how might I reorient the day or time of year to resonate with my own spiritual and political beliefs? I am not Christian, and never have been, though I have “celebrated” Christmas in my family every year with gifts, a decorated tree, an elaborate meal, time at home in Colorado with family. Now as a queer Buddhist in partnership creating new traditions, I have the opportunity to navigate which rituals my own family lives into, planting seeds now that my child will inherit, and either continue to cultivate, or abandon. It no longer seems like Right Action to engage with the holiday rituals of Christmas, for we do not believe in buying gifts just because it is a certain time of year or cutting down a tree to have in my house for three weeks, and we do not want the pressure or expectations of a big dinner with family that we haven’t seen and do not feel close to. My partner and I have decided to no longer exchange gifts, as we do so throughout the year when something calls reminds us of each other, we send homemade sweet treats to loved ones to enjoy this dark time of year, and reorient ourselves to this time of year being a time to rest and rejuvenate, to go on silent retreat and listen inwardly.
Four aspects of Right Action are good reminders for me:
- Reverence for Life – to revere all of life, without exceptions, every moment of every day.
- Generosity – it benefits the giver before, during, and after a gift is given, connects us to one another, and redistributes resources.
- Behave responsibly – to act as if your teacher, mentor, student, or your god is watching, to behave in a way in which you have nothing to hide, or to be able to be “blameless” in any space you are in-that you have done everything you could to create healing or reduce harm.
- Mindful eating, drinking and consuming – to eat, drink and purchase “five spoons from full,” as is the customary Buddhist practice. What would happen if the whole world spent money in a way that was “five spoons from full”? Or if the whole U.S. drove cars “five spoons from full,” or if we cut down forests “five spoons from full”?
Right Action points towards karma-that whatever we put out, we get back. Whatever seed we plant, grows. And, whatever is growing in our particular family at this moment had a seed that was planted long ago, these patterns we encounter arose from a particular place. Buddhist teacher Larry Yang often asks himself a series of questions: “can I be loving in this moment? If I can’t be loving, can I be kind in this moment? If I can’t be kind, can I not be judgmental? If I can’t not be judgmental, can I not cause harm? If I can’t not cause harm, can I cause the least harm possible?” These are questions that can be asked each moment of our lives, but it can also be specifically invoked to address harmful or difficult discussions or reactions that arise over political beliefs, a family member’s sexual orientation, or the kinds of foods one prefers to eat. In practicing Right Action, we aspire towards being loving, but accept ourselves when that is not available in the moment. Sometimes causing the least harm possible is the best we can bring.