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The 10 constructive actions

Part of a series of teachings on the text The Essence of a Human Life: Words of Advice for Lay Practitioners by Je Rinpoche (Lama Tsongkhapa).

  • The two ways to create constructive actions
  • The value of taking and keeping precepts
  • Setting the intention to cultivate the constructive actions

The Essence of a Human Life: The 10 constructive actions (download)

We’ll continue on a little bit from the section on karma that we were talking about. We talked about the 10 destructive actions. It’s important also to talk about the 10 constructive ones.

There are two ways to create constructive actions. The first one is simply by avoiding the nonvirtuous ones. You’re faced with an opportunity where you could lie and you make a conscious decision to yourself, “No, I’m not going to do that.” Or, you’re faced with a situation where you could really tell someone off, and you say, “No, I’m not going to do that.” It’s just the avoidance of a destructive action itself is a constructive one.

This is why taking and keeping precepts is so helpful because you have that determination to avoid the destructive actions, and that determination is always in your mind, so every moment that you’re not acting counter to that determination, every moment that you’re keeping the precept you’re accumulating that constructive karma of that virtuous deed, even though you’re sleeping, or not doing anything special. So taking and keeping precepts is a very powerful way to accumulate a lot of merit, and we should really understand this and respect our precepts because of it.

Then acting in the opposite way of the destructive actions itself is a second way to create constructive actions.

  1. For example, instead of killing, then to protect others’ lives. Fortunately we don’t live in a war zone, but there may be hunters, there may be people who are going to kill bugs, or whatever, so any way to protect life. Or even protect people from being physically harmed. Even though the action is killing and abandoning killing, any kind of physical harm that we do to people falls under those, and so protecting people from physical harm also would be a constructive action.

  2. Instead of stealing, to protect others’ property.

  3. Instead of unwise and unkind sexual behavior, using sexuality wisely and kindly, or being celibate.

  4. Instead of using speech to create disharmony, speaking in ways whereby we can bring people together. And that’s really nice. Sometimes we don’t think enough about that, how good it feels when you can talk to people and help them reconcile. Or you can talk to people and help them see that no, somebody wasn’t out to get you, they weren’t criticizing you—you know, because somebody misunderstood something—and then you can help them reconcile. And just how nice that is, how good that feels to be able to use our speech to bring people together. And I think any of the outreach programs that we do, too, that are aimed to bring people together and create harmony fall under this one.

  5. Instead of harsh speech, speaking kindly to others, pointing out the good things they do, praising them. And the praise isn’t because we want to butter them up so we can get something from them, the praise is real sincere praise. And it’s interesting because it really changes our mind when we get in the habit of pointing out people’s good qualities. You don’t realize it until you try and do it. If you really make a focused thing that you want to try and do in your life is to point out people’s good qualities, or an action they did that you really appreciate. When you start getting in the habit of doing that it feels really good. It feels much better than criticizing other people.

  6. Instead of lying, speaking the truth.

  7. Instead of idle talk, again, making a habit to be aware of what we’re talking about and the topics we’re talking about, if they’re really useful. To be aware of the time we’re talking. Does the other person really want to talk now? Or are they trying to be quiet? Learning to talk at the right time about topics that are beneficial and interesting to people. So not going on and on about something that we’re interested in that the other person clearly finds boring.

  8. Then of the three mental ones, instead of coveting others’ possessions, cultivating thoughts of generosity, and thoughts of rejoicing that other people have good opportunities and they have good qualities. That kind of generosity of spirit as well as the generosity of sharing possessions and resources. A very different mindset from the one that says, “I’ve got to protect what I have because if I give it then they’ll have it, and I won’t have it. And if they steal it, ohhhh…” Pulling ourselves out of that kind of mental state.

  9. Instead of malice and ill will and wishing bad things happen to people, or planning to get our revenge, or any kind of hateful way of thinking of others, here the opposite is to cultivate a mind of loving-kindness, and really train the mind to see other people’s good qualities, and, as I keep talking about, to see ourselves as the recipient of others’ kindness. It’s really the opposite of malice, isn’t it?

  10. And then instead of wrong views, to really learn the Dharma, study the Dharma, review our notes, think about the teachings we’ve heard, think about what we read, develop correct Dharma understandings, then that’s the remedy, or the opposite, to wrong views. Cultivating right views.

    There are two kinds of right views. One right view is the right view about conventional truths—in other words, talking about causality, karma and its effects, that our actions have effects aside from what happens in the next two minutes. And the other kind of correct view is about the ultimate nature of reality, finding the middle way view of emptiness free of the two extremes.

Really set our intention on deliberately going out of our way to cultivate these 10 constructive actions. Actually, there are 20, because just abandoning the 10 and then acting in the opposite is another 10. But it really changes our lives. And it changes our mood, if we set our intention to speak and act and think differently. Nowadays so many people, they say, “I’m in such a bad mood all the time, and I’m depressed, and I just feel blah.” And you can see that these people don’t realize that happiness comes from their own mental state, from what you decide to think about, and what you decide to talk about and do. So when we’re fortunate enough to hear these teachings and to have the time and space to make these aspirations and determinations about where we want to put our mental energy. Do we want to just put it into “this is wrong and that’s wrong and I want this and I want that, but I can’t get it, these people have more than I do and it’s not fair, and the whole world’s rotten, and my friends betray me, and my parents didn’t give me what I want, and on and on….” You can spend your whole life thinking like that, or you can spend your whole life in another kind of mood.

I was just talking this morning with one of my old Dharma friends. She wants to set up a monastery in Mexico and she’s going through what I went through here. And I can sense her “Oh my god, what have I gotten myself into? Are the waves crashing on me? I can’t swim….” And to be able instead to encourage her in the virtuous thing she’s doing, and giving her some tips and encouragement and stuff like that. And how it feels really good when you can do something for somebody that you can see alleviates their anxiety and their suffering, and encourages them to do something valuable.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.