Forest Sangha Newsletter October 1996

Who We Really Are; Ajahn Sumedo
Sutta Class: Punna & Papa; Venerable Asabho
Right Effort: Making It Work; Ajahn Siripanna
Going Forth - From Three Insiders
Sharing the Blessings; Venerable Thanuttaro
The Dalai Lama at the Barbican; Ajahn Sobhano
High on Black Turtle; Yatiko Bhikkhu
Sign of Change:


Sutta Class No.38: Punna & Papa
Venerable Asabho, Nakhon Pathom, July 2539

At a time when the West has begun to shed both its old rationalist and more recent romantic distortions of the East, and Western values are spreading rapidly to the East, the stereotypes of Asian & Western Buddhists are less & less true.

Western Buddhists, when asked what attracted them to the Buddha's Teaching, don't differ much in their answers: for some it was the encounter with a teacher, for others meditation practice; but most often it was inspiration for a teaching that emphasises enquiring wisdom, hands-on compassion and active responsibility for our destinies.

Today, travel and global migration make it more likely than at any time before that we meet Asian Buddhists. It is fascinating, and deeply revealing about our own Western background, to learn from Asian Buddhists how they see and practise a religion which until very recently they have seen exclusively as their own.

Asian Buddhists who have grown up in their religion tend to see meritorious action punna as the most important of their religious commitments: generosity in supporting Dhamma literature for free distribution, the support of a monastery or the Sangha in general are seen as the practical expression of this attitude. They are quite often surprised to find out that the concepts of punna and papa (meritorious and demeritorious action), which they see as self-evident, seem to play a considerably less important role in the lives of Western Buddhists. The Western Buddhists in turn are impressed by the spontaneous generosity they witness, but are occasionally surprised by the spiritual significance attached to material offerings. (What have a can of baked beans and half a dozen bars of soap to do with Nibbana?) They themselves see their spiritual commitment more in the practice of meditation and the study of the Buddhist Teachings. Moreover, a casual first explanation of punna and papa may remind the Western practitioner uncomfortably of a kind of spiritual ledger with debit and credit columns. The prospect that an excess of black ink will earn the aspirant rebirth in one of the privileged realms of the Buddhist cosmology rarely ranks high among the motivations for the spiritual path as the psychologically 'enlightened' Westerner likes to imagine it. We have learnt to mistrust incentives based on notions of any hereafter and are unwilling to put up with delays in receiving the fruit of our virtues. However, at a time when the West has begun to shed both its old rationalist and more recent romantic distortions of the East, and Western values are spreading rapidly to the East, the stereotypes of Asian and Western Buddhists are less and less true. Instead of here rehearsing them yet again, it may be useful to take a close look at the concept of punna in the Buddha's discourses.
the popular notion of meritorious action generally remains limited to acts of generosity ... the Suttas reveal a considerably broader scope for the term.

Punna is used as a noun as well as an adjective. It roughly means 'virtue, merit', sometimes 'virtuous action, meritorious deed', i.e. it can refer to the performance as well as to the result of wholesome actions. As an adjective it means 'good, wholesome, meritorious'. The term punna is the popular expression of its close relative, the more technical and more comprehensive kusala- kamma (rendered usually as 'wholesome action'), and it occurs repeatedly in the Suttas. It is generally used with two distinct meanings. One is in the description of an arahant, whose actions are described as being beyond punna and apunna (the latter is a synonym for papa. The second meaning, which we shall be concerned with here, signifies almost everywhere in the texts a promise of future happiness. This happiness is often depicted as a rebirth in the heavenly realms (A viii 361) and such a paradisiacal existence in one of the deva-worlds has for millennia spurred the fantasies and the longing of the earthbound. Yet punna and its promise of future happiness do not simply mean a fortunate rebirth after our physical death - though such a prospect by itself is, given the range of grim alternatives, not to be sneezed at. That it unequivocally means happiness for this life as well as for future existences, can be seen from the following Dhammapada verse:
Here one is glad and hereafter one is glad:
having done good deeds brings gladness in both worlds;
one is glad at one's goodness
and even more so after having gone to a blissful realm.'
Dhammapada 18

While the popular notion of meritorious action generally remains limited to acts of generosity (to the extent that 'to make punna' tends to become synonymous with 'to give something'), the Suttas reveal a considerably broader scope for the term. Included as 'grounds for meritorious actions' the texts speak (at D iii 2183), not only of dana-maya but also of sila-maya and bhavana- maya-punna-kiriya-vatthu - 'generosity', 'ethical conduct' and 'meditation' are seen as equal bases for meritorious action. It is clear from the Buddha's Teaching that the creation of punna is by no means limited to donations and material support dana but can be achieved through individual ethics sila and the cultivation of insight and tranquillity bhavana .
If the Western meditator (with more than a hint of conceit) occasionally looks down on non- meditating fellow Buddhists and fancies himself in his attempts to meditate as the truer disciple of the Buddha, then such an attitude finds little justification in the scriptures. It is true that according to the Buddha's Teaching elsewhere, the ultimate happiness of Nibbana can only be found through introspection. In many of his discourses the Accomplished One leaves no doubt as to how highly he holds the practice of meditation. But human motivations are mysterious stuff and our motivations for Dhamma-practice are no exception. The moral philosopher Spinoza once remarked that although all human beings wish for freedom, only few wish for what actually leads to freedom. For a religion in which freedom and the highest happiness coincide, this may be read with a small twist: that although all human beings wish for happiness, only few wish for what leads to true happiness. Who really just wants what leads to 'the highest happiness' of Nibbana? Is it not the small and often slow steps of 'disendarkenment' which in truth motivate us, equally if not more than the final, by definition unfathomable, goal of enlightenment? If so, then the distinction between 'meditation for liberation' and 'generosity for future happiness' doesn't hold any longer: whoever practises meditation and expects of insight and tranquillity, not just the realisation of Nibbana, but also some elucidation of his or her existence now, is doing - in the light of the teaching on the three grounds for meritorious action - nothing different from the person who practises generosity and hopes for future happiness by virtue of his or her meritorious deeds. The scriptures explain that both acquire punna - one in the field of giving, the other in that of mind-cultivation - and both can be certain of the good fruits of their actions. It is not for the mountain to belittle the valley; both belong as obviously together as they are different. The one great Path beneath our feet can appear misleadingly diverse.

According to the commentarial tradition, the three bases of wholesome action, generosity, ethical conduct, and meditation, are joined by seven others that occur scattered in the older texts: reverence apaciti; service veyyavaca; sharing of merit pattanuppadana; rejoicing in the merit of others abbhanumodana; explaining the Teaching dhammadesana; listening to the Teaching dhammasavana ; and rectifying one's views ditthujukamma . All ten are grounds for wholesome action and, if cultivated, reduce our susceptibility for future suffering.

How, practically, does such meritorious action affect our lives? For an answer to this question we have to look at the broader context of kamma (action) and vipaka (fruit) to bring the function of punna into a clearer focus. A short passage in the Samyutta Nikaya (S ii 822) describes in plain terms how meritorious and demeritorious activity impregnate our consciousness. On the one hand, all punna acquired in the ten spheres of wholesome action is directly conducive to our well-being and can be looked at as a source of future happiness. On the other hand, punna is the wholesome result of good action and purifies the mind. The commentator Dhammapala interprets the term (in a more edifying than strictly etymological passage) as coming from the root of the verb 'to clean': 'it cleanses the continuation of life'. Punna may be thus understood as something that cleanses the mind of unwholesome akusala habits and their results. It mitigates and 'dilutes' the effect of previous unwholesome actions and ameliorates their vipaka or, at best, neutralises it entirely. In one Sutta of the Gradual Sayings (A i 2491), where the Buddha explains that the same action for different people can bring about kammic results of differing intensity, he uses the following simile: A person of little virtue and understanding who commits an unwholesome action resembles a small vessel of water to which a lump of salt is added. The water in the small vessel instantaneously turns salty and becomes undrinkable. The person of many virtues who performs the same unwholesome action resembles the Ganges: even a sizeable lump of salt will fail to turn the great river salty or render it undrinkable. The effect of punna remains the same whether the 'salt' of our unwholesome actions is diluted afterwards or whether the 'waters' of accumulated virtue are abundant enough to neutralise the salt to begin with. The simile throws some light on the relationship between the performance of good actions and the morality of our general conduct. It is obvious that such punna improves our well-being much more dramatically if it is not constantly bound up with neutralising the kammic fallout of unskilful living.
It is important to recognise that punna brightens the plane of our existence here and now as well as in the long run - yet it cannot liberate us from the wheel of samsara. Its main function is to create here (and hereafter if need be) favourable conditions for us to engender our liberation through wisdom and insight. The welcome fruits of punna along the path are, in view of the last deliverance, only beneficial if we take them as the confirmation of effective practice, allow them to nourish us - and go on.

The term punna, thus restored from the popular to its fuller meaning, can be seen as the common ground for Buddhist practitioners East and West - to whatever extent they may differ in their emphasis on generosity or on meditation. As the Buddha has praised both virtues throughout his Teaching, there is no basis to consider one superior to the other. Their relation- ship is indicated in the Suttas when generosity is praised as a virtue essential to diminish attachment and to lead us to the Path, while meditation is singled out as indispensable to deepen true understanding and to follow it through to the precious goal.