Forest Sangha Newsletter October 1995

The Human Family; Ajahn Sumedho
The Sima Ceremony; Ajahn Attapemo
Traceless Traces; Venerable Master Hsuan Hua
In Memory of Luang Por Jun: Pt. 2; Sr. Sanghamitta
Sutta Class; Ajahn Thiradhammo
Less Trust requires More Faith; Ajahn Sucitto
Signs of Change:


Sutta Class: Ethical Causality and Morality

Ajahn Thiradhammo reflects on the law of Kamma and the roots of wholesome and unwholesome action.

The basis of morality in Buddhism is the 'Law of Kamma', or ethical conditional causality. In a rather over-simplistic form this may be expressed as: 'good actions give a pleasant result, evil actions give an unpleasant result'. Or in the words of a scriptural passage:
Mind precedes all things,
Mind is supreme, produced by mind are they.
If one should speak or act with mind defiled,
Suffering will follow,
Just as wheel-follows-hoof of the drawing ox.
If one should speak or act with mind purified,
Well-being will follow,
Like a never-parting shadow.
Dhammapada 1 - 2
Ethical conditional causality means that there is a definite cause and effect relationship functioning within human activity and, since human beings are continuously acting, this relationship is subject to a variety of conditions or influencing factors, such as the quality of mind. In order to understand the principle of ethical causality it is necessary to clearly comprehend the distinction between action kamma and result vipaka. Failure to make this distinction leads to the equating of action and result, ending in determinism or fatalism. However, the Buddha said that if one must reap the result of all actions then there is no possibility to realise liberation A.I,249.

The main point is that action has a potential to give a result. When further related action is engaged in, another potential is created which may then have an effect upon the previous potential, correspondingly altering the result. And, since we are continuously acting and reacting, the results of any specific action are extremely hard to determine, so much so that the Buddha is quoted as saying:

The results of kamma are unthinkable and should not be speculated about. Thinking thus, one would come to distraction and distress. A.II,80
Therefore, Ananda, kamma is the field, consciousness is the seed, craving is the moisture.

It is possible, however, through developing a consistent awareness in regard to one's actions, to detect certain ethical causal patterns running through one's life. For example, if one is prone to anger, one notices that this elicits an angry response in others, which may cause us to re-act with our usual anger, causing them to respond with further anger and so the reactive cycle revolves.

Also, the Buddha distinguishes three kinds of kamma - result: ripening in this life-time, ripening in the next life, ripening in later lives A.III,415. Thus, it may appear that some of our actions do not give a result, whereas it may be that they will actually ripen later in life or perhaps the next life. The reality of future existences was a direct experience of the Buddha and many of his disciples. The future destination was frequently mentioned in reference to the results of wholesome and unwholesome actions. Several discourses elaborate in detail some of the gruesome punishments imposed upon those who reappear in the hell realms A.I,141; M.III,183. It should be emphasised, however, that Eastern thought does not make the divisive contrast between mental and physical, psychological and cosmological, as is done in the West. Thus, for example, unwholesome actions create unwholesome states of mind which if the inherent craving for further becoming is not removed - condition the re-becoming in unwholesome or afflictive realms of being just like the hell realms M.I,389

Therefore, Ananda, kamma is the field, consciousness is the seed, craving is the moisture. For beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving, consciousness is established in a lower realm. Thus in future there is again-becoming, rebirth.A.I,223
Kamma, literally 'action', is defined by the Buddha as will, volition or intention:
It is intention (volition) that I call kamma. Having willed, one produces kamma through body, speech and mind. A.III,415
The fundamental motivating influence of kamma is the belief in and attachment to a permanent sense of self. Thus, for the unenlightened person, all intentions are aimed at preserving selfhood, whether manifesting as bodily, verbal or mental activity. The corresponding result of this intentional activity then contains the seeds of continuing selfhood. In terms of morality, the so-called evil or unwholesome actions (i.e., selfish actions) are the most effective or strongest in reinforcing selfhood, while the so-called good or wholesome actions (i.e., unselfish actions) lead to the lessening or surrendering of selfhood.
When considering ethics, the wholesome and the unwholesome, reference is usually made to good and evil. But in the Buddha's teaching, more important emphasis is given to wholesome kusala and unwholesome akusala as these are much more extensive than the context of morality. Good and evil are generally defined relative to the prevailing social values at any time, however, the foundations and values of Buddhist ethics are, in essence, free from relativistic limitations. They provide a core of moral principles which are valid for all time and under all circumstances, since they are based on psychological fact and not on external contingencies. By introspection and observation, it can be experienced that the unwholesome roots are undesirable mental states, while it is the common nature of man to avoid what is undesirable or painful and to desire happiness. Nyanponika Thera, Wh.251-3,p.4-5)

For example, while it is generally recognised as evil to kill, during times of war killing 'the enemy' is defined as good, and even moral. Or, while most people would define killing a human being as evil, they would not necessarily consider the killing of animals as such. In Buddhism the killing of any living being, even as insignificant as a fly, under any circumstances is considered as unwholesome action. However, the degree of unwholesomeness is conditioned by the severity of the intention and the kind of living being killed. For example, killing a person because they stand in the way of one's greedy ambitions is much more unwholesome than killing a person in self-defence (as modern legal systems recognise), and killing a human being is more unwholesome than killing an animal.

The Buddha's approach to morality was experiential and pragmatic. "This is how I understood bodily conduct: When I observed that by the performance of certain actions, unwholesome factors increased and wholesome factors decreased, then that form of bodily conduct was to be avoided. And when I observed that by the performance of other actions unwholesome factors decreased and wholesome ones increased, then such bodily action was to be followed. The same applies to conduct of speech and the pursuit of goals." D.II,281 - THIH, p.330 (cf. Kalama Sutta, A.I,188ff.)

The roots of the unwholesome; greed, aversion and delusion, wholesome and unwholesome actions, also have their causes. While on one hand the Buddha accepted that human beings have 'an element of initiative', he also acknowledged that humans are conditioned by the results of previous actions which manifest in certain fundamental wholesome and unwholesome qualities or tendencies. Thus, in a simple form, Buddhists hold that human nature is neither completely free nor completely determined. Rather they are under the influence of certain conditioned forces but they also have a certain ability to make an effort to change or counter these forces depending upon the strength of the inherent wholesome tendencies. The basic roots of the unwholesome are defined as greed lobha, aversion dosa, delusion moha, and the roots of the wholesome are their opposites: non-greed, non-aversion and non-delusion M.I,47; D.III,215.

There are three sources for the origin of kamma. What three? Greed, aversion and delusion are the sources of the origin of kamma. An action done in greed, aversion or delusion - born of, originating in or arising out of greed, aversion or delusion - is unwholesome, blameworthy and has a painful result. It leads to the arising of (further) kamma, not to the cessation of kamma. That action done in non-greed, non-aversion or non- delusion - born of, originating in or arising out of non- greed, non-aversion or non-delusion - is wholesome, not blameworthy and has pleasant result. It leads to the cessation of kamma, not to the arising of (further) kamma. A.I,263

The three roots of the unwholesome are only entirely given up by the fully-enlightened saint or Arahant. While they still act, their actions are completely selfless and thus create no self- confirming kamma and result.

The three unwholesome roots also have their cause and way of being abandoned. Greed arises and increases from unwise attention to an attractive image; aversion arises and increases from unwise attention to a repulsive image; delusion arises and increases from unwise attention. They can be abandoned through the development of: meditation on an unattractive object asubha, the freeing of the mind through friendliness metta cetovimutti and wise attention yoniso manasikara, respectively A.I,200.

"But is there, friend Ananda, a path, a way that leads to the giving up of greed, aversion and delusion?"
"Yes, friend, there is such a path, there is a way. It is, friend, this Noble Eightfold Path, namely: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. This, friend, is the path, this is the way to the giving up of greed, aversion and delusion." A.I,217, adapted from Nyanaponika, Wh.251,p.44

If greed, aversion and delusion are given up, one does not plan for one's own harm, for another's harm nor for the harm of both, and one does not experience any mental anguish or distress. Thus is Nibbana seen here and now, is independent of time, inviting inspection, leading onwards and experienced by the wise for themselves. A.I,159

A = Anguttara Nikaya
D = Digha Nikaya
    translated as 'Sayings of the Buddha' by P.T.S.; and as 'Thus Have I Heard' by Wisdom Publications
Dh = Dhammapada
    (various translations, generally using this title)
M = Majjhima Nikaya
    Middle Length Sayings by PTS ; Middle Length Discourses by Wisdom Publications
Wh.= Wheel Series
    published by Buddhist Publication Society