Right Action (sammā kammanta) is the fourth step on the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. An action is an activity or task done with the body. Negatively, the Buddha defined Right Action as abstaining from killing, stealing and sexual misconduct (M.III,251). Positively, Right Action would be any action motivated by kindness, generosity, patience, the desire to help others or to preserve life.
No killing or causing to kill, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no taking of narcotics or intoxicating drinks.
Killing is considered one of the worst actions in any culture because it goes against nature. It involves the death of a being before their natural course. It is a crime against nature. As rational animals we must have an understanding of cause and effect. The Buddha knew that we must also avoid doing things which cause the death of beings too.
The guideline against stealing or taking what is not earned or given to us is a valuable precept to live by so that we may be at peace with others. We do not want things stolen from us, so we do not steal or take from others.
Sexual misconduct is engaging in any sexual activity if you are a monk or nun. For lay people, sexual misconduct means not abusing sexual relations through force or coercion. Certain relationships are to be avoided such as between teacher and student, adult and minor, employer and employee. In general, relationships of superior to subordinate are not to engage in sexual relations since there is an obvious power relationship in play and for ethical considerations to other subordinates and possible favoritism.
The Buddha did not specifically mention anything about homosexuality in regard to lay people. He specifically forbade homosexuality to monks and nuns, as he did for all sexual acts. Since there are many homosexual couples who have loving, consensual relationships, the consensus at Buddhist centers has been that homosexuality is allowed for lay people with the same restrictions against misconduct that applies to heterosexuals.
The Buddha also did not specifically mention or state that monogamy is in any way the ideal form of marriage. The same is true with the Bible as many Biblical heroes had several wives. Mostly in the past, there have been a small percentage of Buddhists who have practiced polygamy. Currently in modern societies and in traditional villages, the preferred marriage is monogamy. Unlike the traditional form of polygamy that has been practiced in Western religions of one man and several wives, in some Buddhist cultures there has been a practice of one woman with several husbands. This polyandry type marriage is still practiced in some cultures such as the Bhutias of Nepal. Before you judge or condemn these polygamous types of marriage, remember that in the West it is becoming more common for people to not get married. Some are not getting married, but date several people at one time. This is really no different from polygamy. However, in all these types of relationships there is the chance for unequal power and favoritism, which would make it sexual misconduct. But all forms of polygamy are pretty much dying out as traditional villages become more modern.
Lay people who engage in adultery are violating the precept against sexual misconduct. This is because of the dishonesty involved to the other partner in the long term relationship. However, a couple that engages in sexual activities with other couples without the dishonesty (such as swingers) appears to have no sexual misconduct at play. This may appear to be true, but there is still the attachment to the pleasures of the senses and the acts can become another form of addiction.
In all forms of sexual relations, be it monogamy, polygamy, multiple consensual partners, and / or homosexuality, there is the same driving force of craving. The desire is the same. Therefore, there is no need to judge one form as superior or inferior to another. All do not provide any lasting happiness. If you have sex one thousand-and-one times, you will still want a thousand-and-second time. There is no “finishing” or quenching of that desire.
The Buddha once asked his followers, “which do you think is greater, the salt in the four great oceans or the salt from your tears, chasing after pleasures of the senses?” The Buddha said, “the salt from your tears (including past lives) chasing after pleasures is greater.”
Without judging the other types of relationships we can look to the two person monogamous relationship or living with someone whom you love and care for, without marriage, as an ideal form to strive for. In Buddhism, there is no “living in sin” clause, because as stated above there is no set “ideal” form of marriage. The two person loving relationship provides for fewer opportunities for favoritism, jealousy, and too much craving.
Maybe you have engaged in such behavior or know someone who has, chasing after pleasures of the senses through such things as multiple sex partners, excessive alcohol, or drugs. The end result is always tears. How many broken relationships or lost fixes does it take? Eventually they all end in tears when it becomes an addiction. Many swingers have ended what they call the “lifestyle” after a few years when they realize that the acts, like any other addiction never fully satisfy the person.
Alcohol and narcotics are to be avoided because they cloud the mind. Alcohol and narcotics can become an addiction in a very short time. But even if there is no addiction, there is still an impaired concentration and reasoning ability.
Right action (samyak-karmānta / sammā-kammanta) can also be translated as "right conduct". As such, the practitioner should train oneself to be morally upright in one's activities, not acting in ways that would be corrupt or bring harm to oneself or to others. In the Chinese and Pali Canon, it is explained as:
And what is right action? Abstaining from taking life, from stealing, and from illicit sex (or sexual misconduct). This is called right action.
And what, monks, is right action? Abstaining from taking life, abstaining from stealing, abstaining from unchastity: This, monks, is called right action.
For the lay follower, the Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta elaborates:
And how is one made pure in three ways by bodily action? There is the case where a certain person, abandoning the taking of life, abstains from the taking of life. He dwells with his... knife laid down, scrupulous, merciful, compassionate for the welfare of all living beings. Abandoning the taking of what is not given, he abstains from taking what is not given. He does not take, in the manner of a thief, things in a village or a wilderness that belong to others and have not been given by them. Abandoning sensual misconduct, he abstains from sensual misconduct. He does not get sexually involved with those who are protected by their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, their sisters, their relatives, or their Dhamma; those with husbands, those who entail punishments, or even those crowned with flowers by another man. This is how one is made pure in three ways by bodily action.
For the monastic, the Samaññaphala Sutta adds:
Abandoning uncelibacy, he lives a celibate life, aloof, refraining from the sexual act that is the villager's way.