The Lakkhana Sutta, Mindfulness of Actions

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The Lakkhana Sutta, Mindfulness of Actions teaches the importance of being mindful of actions. This short sutta is a teaching on the importance of Right Action, the fourth factor of the Eightfold Path. By extension, Right Speech and Right Livelihood are aspects of Right Action. Right View, Right Intention, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Meditation inform and support the virtuous factors of the path.

In this sutta, the Buddha teaches that actions are the outward expression of either foolishness originating in ignorance, or wisdom originating in understanding. The simplicity of this teaching belies its profundity. Awakening, developing full human maturity, is a process. Until the process is complete arising views continue to be rooted in ignorance but can be directed towards wisdom. The Eightfold Path provides the framework for directing actions and thoughts towards full release.

Lakkhana Sutta

Majjhima Nikaya 3.2

“Sangha, there are fools and there are those imbued with wisdom. It is through actions that one’s understanding is apparent. A person who acts with bodily misconduct, or verbal misconduct, or mental misconduct is acting foolishly. A person who acts with skillful bodily actions, or skillful verbal actions, or skillful mental actions is acting with wisdom.

“Train yourselves in this manner: Be mindful to abandon foolishness in thought, word, and deed. Develop and maintain mindful wisdom in thought, word, and deed.”

End Of Sutta

Despite its brevity, this is a powerful sutta, and useful for developing understanding of the Dhamma. The Buddha taught an Eightfold Path as the framework for developing heightened virtue, heightened concentration, and heightened wisdom. When one’s actions, whether in thought, word, or deed, whether a bodily action, a verbal action, or a mental action, are contrary to the direct guidance of the Eightfold Path it is immediately apparent where mindfulness of the path is lacking.

The Buddha taught mindfulness in two distinct though mutually supportive applications. He taught the Four Foundations of Mindfulness to bring mindfulness of the breath in the body, to feelings and to thoughts, and to the present quality of mind as the ground to build a concentration practice on. As the true foundation of Dhamma practice, The Four Foundations Of Mindfulness are established through Shamatha-Vipassana meditation. 

As meditation practice develops and concentration increases, it becomes possible to be dispassionately mindful of the interaction of feelings and thoughts and the resulting quality of mind. This dispassionate mindfulness begins to interrupt reacting, or clinging, to thoughts arising and thoughts relax.

The Buddha also taught to be mindful of each factor of the Eightfold Path: 

  • Be mindful to abandon wrong view and enter and remain in Right View.
  • Be mindful to abandon wrong intention and enter and remain in Right Intention.
  • Be mindful to abandon wrong speech and enter and remain in Right Speech.
  • Be mindful to abandon wrong action and enter and remain in Right Action.
  • Be mindful to abandon wrong livelihood and enter and remain in Right Livelihood.
  • Be mindful to abandon wrong effort and enter and remain in Right Effort.
  • Be mindful to abandon wrong mindfulness and enter and remain in Right Mindfulness.
  • Be mindful to abandon wrong meditation and enter and remain in Right Meditation.

With dispassionate mindfulness of Right View it is immediately apparent if thoughts, words, or deeds will lead to continued confusion and stress or will further the path of developing wisdom. With dispassionate mindfulness of Right Intention it is immediately apparent if thoughts, words, and deeds, are arising from the clinging needs of anatta, of the ego-self, or will develop the cessation of clinging and the cessation of conceit.

If thoughts, words, or deeds are contrary to Right Speech, Acton, or Livelihood, ignoring or justifying actions is avoided and insight into self-identification, into conceit, arises. When actions are contrary to the Eightfold Path, being mindful of the concentration factors also provide guidance. 

Right Effort guides the overall process of abandoning clinging to objects, views, and ideas by developing mindfulness of the practical application of the path. Is effort spent to develop and maintain a shamatha-vipassana meditation practice? Is effort spent to develop a deeper application of the Eightfold Path?

If actions are unskillful Right Mindfulness provides guidance on refining the focus of thoughts and what is held in mind. The Buddha’s Dhamma brings a refined and deeply mindful presence of mind. Right Mindfulness inclines the mind towards recognizing and abandoning conceit. Right Meditation develops the concentration necessary to remain mindful, ardent, and aware of the Eightfold Path. 

All eight factors of the Eightfold Path support the development of useful insight, vipassana, by providing a framework for recognizing and abandoning unskilful actions and developing actions that further abandoning conceit and clinging to objects, views, and ideas.

The Lakkhana Sutta is a wonderful example of the simplicity of the direct teachings of the Buddha. Engaging whole-heartedly with the Eightfold Path brings profound insight into those areas of our lives that were ignored or avoided. When mindfully and dispassionately acknowledged, unskillful actions can become the catalyst for abandoning craving and clinging and developing a life of lasting peace and happiness.

The Pali Canon

My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings  (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland and Maurice Walsh, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.

Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.

I have made contextual edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.

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