Eightfold Path to Public Service Enlightenment: Morality


Welcome back for part 2 of this series where we continue the journey down the Eightfold Path to Public Service Enlightenment. I will be building on concepts from last week so if you have not already read part one please do so.

In part 1 we covered the elements Right View and Right Intention which comprised the Wisdom segment. Now we will discuss Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood which comprise the Morality segment. I will start with a brief overview of the morality segment and then define each element. After that I will show how each can be applied in public service. Let’s get started!

Morality Overview                                                                           

Morality in the Eightfold Path is maintaining a calm and clear mind by refraining from actions, speech and occupations that contradict what we know as right. In Right View we talked about how we need to see reality as it is. During this segment we take that a step further and discuss how our actions, speech and occupation can either purify or pollute our mind. By purifying our minds we are better able to handle difficult situations and act in ways that cause the least amount of suffering for ourselves and others.

In government the practice of good ethics is stressed and there is often required training. A lot of what we cover here will be similar to that covered in ethics training but I think it is important to link it back to suffering. Keep this in mind as you choose your words, actions and occupation.

Right Speech

Right Speech is defined as anything that is not wrong speech. Some examples of wrong speech are:

  • Lying or misleading
  • Abusive or condescending
  • Idle chatter

Right Speech is controlled and decisive speech. We are speaking to limit suffering. This could be to answer a question, solve a problem or provide a service. We do not say things that are hurtful, deceiving or untrue about others or our organizations. It is the process of limiting conflict in our own minds because we speak in a way that is consistent with reality, our morals and the common good.

In Buddha practice they often take a vow of silence (Mauna) which is a testament to how important honest and purposeful speech is to Buddhism. Now I know it is not realistic for you to take a vow of silence but we can all practice being consistently honest and choosing when we should and should not speak.

Right Action

Right Action is defined as anything that is not wrong action. Some examples of wrong action are:

  • Physically hurting another human being
  • Taking things that do not belong to you
  • Sexual misconduct
  • Escaping reality through the use of drugs or intoxicants

Similar to Right Speech, practicing Right Action is limiting suffering in ourselves and others by controlling our actions. The examples of Right Action are pretty simple but we often don’t realize when our actions actually cross some of these boundaries. It is also important to note that the action and the damage itself are two separate things. If you do something that is wrong action but it does not turn out to actually cause suffering, it still creates a conflict in our mind and is a violation of this element.

Right Livelihood

Right livelihood is choosing an occupation or projects that are not in conflict of what is right. Some occupations that would be considered harmful to other human beings and ourselves would be:

  • Producing or selling weapons
  • Producing or selling drugs or intoxicants
  • Developing programs or services that negatively affect the target audience

I would imagine that most people are in public service to do good and help others but there are programs and services that could cross these lines. The easy example is collecting data that can be used to manipulate other human beings or programs that involve testing on animals or the elimination of natural resources and nature. The key here is at the end of the day do you feel good about what you are doing or is there a conflict. If there is a conflict you need to look in to it further and make sure it is not something that violates Right Livelihood.

Right Speech and Right Action in Public Service

These two go hand-in-hand in government because government is primarily a service based organization. We often provide these services through our speech and actions. The reputation of government is at an all-time low and a lot of that comes from lying and deceiving of public officials and the inaction or thoughtless action of a small percentage of public servants.

First I would start with an oath to not ever tell a lie, even white lies. This will be extremely difficult with bosses, spouses and children but if you take a deeper look at white lies you will see that they do not provide any real value and there are other ways to divert the question without answering, which is where wisdom really comes in to play.

Examples of Right Speech and Right Action in public service are straight forward. If you don’t lie and stick to your word you will already be on the right path. It is also important to not over commit yourself which will lead to you not living up to your word and having to cover it up with wrong speech or wrong action. It is important to note that when we make and break commitments it does have a negative effect on us. You may not realize it on the surface but over time we will begin to not trust our own words and this can spiral in a small amount of time.

Right Livelihood in Public Service

I hope that this is a given for most people in public service but it is a good reminder to always check yourself. Do not take on projects or roles that violate right livelihood. You want to make sure you feel good about what you are doing. It is also a good idea to see what motivates you and make sure that it aligns with the values and purpose of your organization. If you are in public service you need to be in it for the right reasons. If you are in it for the right reasons you should see a lot of success in your career because it is easy to point out people who love what they do.


The morality segment is mostly common sense but it is a good reminder to constantly evaluate yourself to make sure you are in line with the three elements presented here. Reaching enlightenment requires that you adhere to these in everything you do so that the mind is calm and clear. When we violate these we negatively impact the balance in our mind because unconsciously we are doing something that we know is not right. We must do the right things, the right way and for the right reasons to maintain a mind that is at ease and clear of conflicts. By doing so we increase are integrity and decisions become a lot clearer. We will get caught up in destructive behaviors and will become reliable and serve as a role-model to others within the organizations we work with.

Tim Howell is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Tim Howell

That would be a great series and I look forward to reading it. Technology is making the world a much smaller and flatter place and we will undoubtedly have to find ways to work across multiple belief systems.

Jim Cook

Hello Tim,
I really like the idea of applying the Buddha’s Path to Enlightenment to government service. The world would be a MUCH better place if governments actually followed the guidance, which is so simple. “Do not foster hostility towards neighbouring kings. Whoever hates, will be repaid with hatred by his enemies. Cultivate ties of friendship with your neighbours, for others honour those who are steadfast in friendship…Do not appoint as headmen of villages or provinces even your own sons or brothers if they are unscrupulous, violent or base…A foolish or greedy minister is of no value to either ruler or realm. Therefore, appoint as your ministers men who are not greedy but prudent and devoted in counsel and who can guide the realm.”

I am not sure I agree with the example given above about producing or selling weapons; the Buddha was not opposed to self-defense, and “justified the requirement of the king having an Army to provide guard, protection and security for different classes of people in the kingdom from internal and external threats”… and believed we should “always protect those who live justly”.

Looking forward to Part three…


Give me a break. You can find all these things in the BIBLE! You choose Buddha over Jesus for your blog reference? The government and this world is in the shape it’s in for just that reason. Lord help us all.

Tim Howell

The main point of the blog series is to reference the teachings of Buddha in direct regards to the Eightfold Path to Enlightenment. These teachings are covered in many religions in different ways but for me I have found this path to be the easiest to follow.

Sean – I kindly ask you to refer back to the introduction in my first post. If you truly believe the concepts in this post are making the world worst I would ask you to please explain why. If you look at just the teachings, not the teacher, do you still disagree?

Jim – Thanks for the information. The main point of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path are to eliminate suffering and I would agree that protecting oneself and others is a way of eliminating suffering. It is just how we approach that and how we decide to use that force. Obviously, selling illegal guns, etc… would be out of the question. To me, it just comes back to doing something that you truly believe is good in nature (eliminates suffering) after full examination.


Such a great post! I’m disappointed by Sean’s comment, but think your response demonstrated the kind of character and choices you are talking about. It seems to me like fewer and fewer people are making these “common sense” choices. Having said that, I will look harder for the good and do more to change the negative. I appreciate your post and thank you for bringing wisdom and positivity to my day.