One of the ‘spokes’ on the ‘wheel of the dharma’ — which sym­bol­izes the eight­fold path — is right (ideal, skill­ful) action.

Buddhism is delib­er­ately vague about what con­sti­tutes right action. I think the rea­son for that is because there’s just no way to know, absolutely and with com­plete reli­a­bil­ity, what ‘right action’ means for dif­fer­ent peo­ple in dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions. I’d like to think Gotama real­ized that. It’s grat­i­fy­ing to imag­ine that, 2500 years ago, he under­stood that he couldn’t lay down solid rules which would apply uni­ver­sally to all peo­ples of all nations all through­out time.

That’s quite dif­fer­ent from a more fun­da­men­tal­ist or abso­lutist phi­los­o­phy, which tends to insist that it has all the answers to every­thing, all the time, and that any­one which doesn’t agree is wrong, end of dis­cus­sion. That’s prob­a­bly a reas­sur­ing world­view for peo­ple within it, but for the rest of us, it makes con­ver­sa­tion unnec­es­sar­ily difficult.

Right action includes some pretty obvi­ous things, such as not inten­tion­ally doing any­thing that causes harm to oth­ers; not inten­tion­ally doing any­thing that does dam­age to the places we inhabit; and not inten­tion­ally act­ing against oth­ers’ indi­vid­ual rights.

Beyond that, there aren’t too many par­tic­u­lars (unless you’re a monk or nun), though there are some sketches regard­ing sex­ual behav­ior, since that’s some­thing pretty much all soci­eties have reg­u­lated in one way or another since the begin­ning of the notion of society.

But even these sketches are just that — sketches. We’re advised to avoid vio­lat­ing oth­ers’ mar­riage con­tracts (adul­tery), advised against using untruth to get sex, advised against using our per­sonal power to get sex (both in the sense of rape and of tak­ing advan­tage of a sub­or­di­nate), advised to avoid sex­ual con­tact with those under the pro­tec­tion of their fam­ily (this includes youths, of course; but inter­est­ingly, this can be extended to include the men­tally and phys­i­cally challenged).

You’ll notice, if you’re pay­ing atten­tion, that there are some things left undis­cussed in these guidelines.

I bring this up because of the most recent con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment that North Carolina enacted. I’m not sure, exactly, what part of mar­riage was being threat­ened, nor am I sure what part of mar­riage has been pro­tected, by NC’s deci­sion to per­ma­nently bar same-​​gender mar­riage (as well as civil unions for everyone).

What I do know is that the def­i­n­i­tion of right action has not been taken into con­sid­er­a­tion, and I can jus­tify that view.

I under­stand that some peo­ple are pas­sion­ate about their beliefs, and that’s fine. I also know that those peo­ple would like to see their beliefs being upheld by all peo­ple, every­where. I can under­stand that. The world would be a much less con­fronta­tional place if every­one thought alike, wouldn’t it?

But here’s the thing. The way to get oth­ers to agree with you is not, I think, to com­pel them to behave as you wish them to. The way to get them to agree with you is to per­suade them, in dis­cus­sion, that your view is the bet­ter one. If they agree, they will nat­u­rally choose to behave as you wish them to.

Of course not every­one will agree, but is that really so impor­tant? Is it truly nec­es­sary to, in effect, cre­ate bound­aries that oth­ers must abide by, in the name of defend­ing some­thing nebulous?

Robert Frost had some ideas on this topic as well. In ‘Mending Wall’, he wrote:

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’

This is part of a larger rumi­na­tion of a neighbor’s activ­ity in mend­ing a wall along their prop­erty lines. The neigh­bor says, famously, ‘Good fences make good neigh­bors’, and Frost seems to take that as a sug­ges­tion of oppo­si­tion to his per­sonal free­doms, or pos­si­bly a sug­ges­tion that we, as humans, choose to impose the bound­aries we put up to block one another out.

I can see both points of view, I think; the neigh­bor has a point. Frost is cor­rect that his trees are not going to invade the neighbor’s and vice-​​versa, that walls impose lim­its that are both arbi­trary and unnec­es­sary — but his neigh­bor is cor­rect in the sug­ges­tion that sep­a­ra­tion between one indi­vid­ual and another is some­times a good thing. At the very least it’s good manners.

Compromise is the essence of any func­tion­ing soci­ety. Compromise under­stands that not every­one will (or can) agree all the time on every­thing. Compromise is about set­ting bound­aries — social dis­tance — between groups, bound­aries that allow flex­i­bil­ity and sep­a­ra­tion. Compromise is, at least in part, about hav­ing good man­ners — and butting into the pri­vate lives of other indi­vid­u­als is one very solid exam­ple of poor manners.

Good man­ners, not fences and not walls, make good neighbors.

In choos­ing to erect the lat­est wall in an entirely-​​manufactured bat­tle against basic social rights, North Carolina has essen­tially guar­an­teed that a sig­nif­i­cant minor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion will not visit or live in its con­fines any more.

One could argue that those who wish to be involved in same-​​gender rela­tion­ships can sim­ply leave. That’s true, by and large. But is that the best choice? Would it be right of me to force a neigh­bor to leave because of my per­sonal dis­com­fort about some­thing that’s none of my damn busi­ness in the first place?

And what of the peo­ple being born, right now, in North Carolina? What will hap­pen to them in twenty years, when they’re caught in a social lig­a­ture that was never their choice to begin with? It won’t be all of them, but it will cer­tainly be some. Does their guar­an­teed future pain not mat­ter today?

There’s a hid­den cost as well: The cost of shame that the peo­ple there must now live with, know­ing that they have abro­gated free­doms. That quiet shame will fes­ter and become toxic, and under­mine the open­ness of neigh­bor with neigh­bor. That’s unfor­tu­nate, and the more so because it never needed to be in the first place.

To inten­tion­ally encroach on the free­doms of oth­ers is not an exam­ple of right action. The after­ef­fects of that encroach­ment will per­sist for years, pos­si­bly gen­er­a­tions. I feel deep empa­thy for the peo­ple caught in this ter­ri­ble trap — and I feel pity for those who chose to spring it. They have sown their seeds, and will reap appropriately.

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