- Kusala and Akusala as
Criteria of Buddhist Ethics
- Bhikkhu Thich Nhat-Tu
Kusala and akusala, a pair of terms coined by the Buddha,
are the primary terms to evaluate human behavior and morality. Literally, kusala
can be differently rendered as skilful, intelligent, expert; good, right, virtuous,
meritorious, beneficial; lucky, happy, healthy and prosperous, as the context demands. Akusala
can, therefore, be translated into English as the opposite qualities from kusala such
as unskillful, bad and so on. Like the concept of dhamma, no single English word
can convey or render exactly what kusala denotes. According to Keown, it is very
common for kusala to be rendered as skilful, but it should be
recognized that this translation carries with it a specific implication for the nature of
Buddhist ethics, namely that it is utilitarian. Even then, he warned us, it is a poor
translation on aesthetic grounds, and we may note that utilitarian philosophers retain the
traditional moral terminology of good, bad, right, and
wrong. [Keown (1992): 119]. Payutto appears to be inclined to favor the
rendering of kusala as skilful, when he, in his Good, Evil and
Beyond Kamma in the Buddhas Teachings, translated some scriptural passages from Dhammapada,
Anguttaranikaaya, Itivuttaka, Udaana and Sa"myuttanik
ya [Payutto (1993): 30-3] although some fourteen pages earlier, he rendered it as
intelligent, skilful, content, beneficial, good, and that which removes
affliction. [Payutto (1993): 18]. There is problem with using skilful as
a translation of kusala, that is the English word skilful does not
extend in English to both moral and technical commendation as the word kusala does
in its Pali, as Keown has been rightly pointed out that:
Skilful denotes approval in the technical sense only and
does not figure at all in the vocabulary of moral discourse in English. No-one word
describe a simple act of generosity as a skilful deed, and who has ever heard
of a boy scout doing his skilful deed for the day? Instead, one naturally
speaks of good or virtuous deeds. While skilful may be
a perfectly correct translation of kusala when the term appears in a technical
context (for instance, a skilful artisan), it is forced and awkward in a moral one. In
English the natural way of describing the moral state of an Arahat is as
endowed with virtues (sampannakusala) and of the highest
virtue or of the highest skill, on the other hand, is an attribute of a
master-craftsman, not a saint [Keown (1992): 119-20].
However, it may also be misleading to translate kusala and akusala
into English simply as good and evil respectively, although both can convey approbation or
commendation and disapprobation or condemnation, respectively in both moral and technical
sense. In some certain context, good and evil can be the best
candidates of translations of the Pali kusala and akusala. For instance,
"we use the word good in English when we speak of good deed
or good man, implying moral approval; and we use the same word to denote
technical approval, for instance, when we speak of a good dentist or a
good plumber. Kusala enjoys the same elasticity of meaning as the word
good in that it can denote either moral goodness or technical excellence
according to the context" [Keown (1992): 119].
Good and evil are just of conventional values while those of kusala
and akusala of the same, on one hand, and of paramatha values, on the other. A
person virtuous and moral may be said to be good by one person or community, but may not
be good to many others. In the same vein, every particular might be said to be good or
evil by one person but might not be the same by many others. So far as the convention is
concern, there is always some disparity regarding value-judgement. The latter should
therefore be considered from different viewpoints, such as good or evil in naturalist
sense, in emotionist sense, in prescriptive sense, in hedonistic sense, in an artistic
sense, in an economic sense, so forth and so on. From the Buddhist point of view, there
are things of kusala nature, which may not always be considered good, while
something of akusala not always be evil. Depression, melancholy, sloth and
distraction, for example, although akusala, are not usually considered to be
evil as we know it in English. In the same vein, some forms of kusala,
such as calmness of body and mind, may not readily come into the general understanding of
the English word good. Thus kusala and akusala and
good and evil are not necessary the same things [see Payutto
In the hope of avoiding confusion, both the word kusala and akusala
may be rendered differently in various contexts. It should be, however, noted here that
the distinction should be made between the descriptive and the
moral meaning of both the term kusala and akusala. In the case
of kusala, the former refers to conduct or mentality that is morally good or right,
whereas the latter, generally, it means anything that causes happiness (sukha) or
bliss (nibbaana) or conductive to final good or partake of nibbaana. In the
case of akusala there can be also of descriptive meaning and
moral meaning. In descriptive meaning, it conveys the factual judgement that
something is bad, harmful and unhappy. As an ethical term, akusala sorts with a
family of such terms, for instance, immoral, morally bad or
wrong, unskilful, unhealthy, sinful, and
Kusala and akusala describe the moral status of human
action and dispositions vis-a-vis the summum bonum. Kusala is
something conductive to profit and happiness while akusala is of the contrary
nature [A. I. 58]. Kusala denotes moral qualities, which should be
cultivated. Its cultivation may lead to welfare, happiness as a worldly level, and
intrinsically partake of supreme bliss (nibbaana) as higher level. Akusala,
to the contrary, is generally referred to as immoral qualities, which are accordingly to
be abandoned by a truth-seeker. The cultivation of kusala qualities transforms an
ordinary man (puthujjana) to a perfect human being (Arahat). The abandoning
of akusala qualities is confirmative in this respect. Contrary to akusala,
kusala is the good moral qualities or states, which lead gradually to the highest
state. Kusala is conductive to destruction of kilesa whereas akusala
to what is contrary to good moral oriented-goal. Kusala is a source for action and
wholesome attitude while akusala is identified with fundamental evil motives. Kusala
is a cause for moral action and mental purity whereas akusala for evil conduct
and mental impurity. Akusala is described as a source of the arising of karma (kammaana"m
samudayaaya) while kusala of its destruction (kammaana"m nirodha) [A.
I. 264]. The Baahitika Sutta of Majjhimanikaaya [M. II. 114]
stresses on the consequentalist approach to the concept of kusala and akusala. It
says that kusala is moral conduct conducing to no-harmful nor injurious
consequences (asavyaapajjha-vipaaka), whereas akusala immoral conduct
involving harmful or injurious consequences (savyaapajjha-vipaaka) to the agent as
well as others, who could be affected by the agents actions, which should be
avoided. Buddhaghosa gave the etymology of kusala as something destroying evil and
Etymologically speaking, things are known as kusala because they
shake, react against, disturb and destroy evil, wicked things. Or, kusa describes
things which are latent in an evil way, and kusa-la (qualities) are so called
because they cut off and sever those things, which are akusala. Again, knowledge is
known as kusa because it stops, reduces or terminates evil things, and so the
meaning is that good things (kusala) should be grasped and promoted, taken hold of
by that kusa or knowledge. Or just as the grass known as kusa can cut part
of the hand with either edge, so these things cut off the vices in two ways, both in their
latent and manifest forms. This is why they are known as kusa- because they cut
like the kusa grass [Asl.39. Translation from Keown (1992)].
Buddhaghosa in his commentaries further gave a fivefold connotation of kusala,
namely, (i) free of illness or health (aarogya), (ii) unstained, clean and clear (anavajja),
(iii) based on wisdom or intelligence (kosala-sambhuuta), (iv) freedom from bondage
(niddaratha), and (v) conductive happiness or well-being (sukha-vipaaka).
This implies that being well trained in kusala, the mind is freed from moral
diseases or imperfection. It is clean and unstained by all moral corruption and having
wisdom or intelligence as its base. Such qualities are totally free from distress and
intrinsically conductive to welfare and happiness in this very life. Akusala
characterizes whatever is negative in this regard. That is to say, it is a state or
quality of mind, which is unhealthy, harmful, having ignorance as its root and resulting
in suffering here and hereafter. In brief, kusala can be defined as those
qualities, which lead the mind to generate and promote both in morally good quality and
efficiency, leading to the attainment of nibbaana. Akusalaa, as the contrary
to kusala, are those qualities or states of mind, which are against nibbanically
oriented-goal and leading to regression in the samsaric cycle.
What is evil or wrongful is renounced (akusala"m pajahati)
while the good should be cultivated (kusala"m bhaaveti) [A. IV. 353] is
the constant advice to human beings given by the Buddha. In the Anguttaranikaaya, observing
clearly the possibility of pursuing the good (kusala) and destruction of the evil (akusala)
by human beings, the Buddha urges his disciples to abandon what is akusala while
cultivating what is kusala:
Bhikkhu, what is morally evil should be abandoned. It can be done. If
it were not possible I would not tell you to do so. Moreover, if the abandoning morally
evil qualities were not conductive to welfare, but to suffering, I would not tell you
abandon evil, but because its abandoning conduces to well being and happiness,
I therefore ask you to do so.
Bhikkhu, what is morally good should be cultivated. It can be done. If
it were not impossible I would not tell you to do so. Moreover, if the cultivation of
morally good qualities was not conductive to welfare, but to suffering, I would not tell
you cultivate good, but because its cultivation conduces to well-being and
happiness, I therefore ask you to do so [A. I. 58, also at A. I. 158].
In the Diighanikaaya A.t.thakathaa, Buddhaghosa told us that one
who is virtuous suffers no painful feelings whereas the accumulation of vice, on the other
hand, will indubitably lead to an increase in suffering [DA. III. 1050]. On the
nature of kusala, the author of the Dhammasa"nga.nii wrote that:
Kusala are mainly of threefold root or virtue, namely,
non-greed, non-aversion and non-delusion, and generally are those feelings, perceptions,
proliferations and consciousness which are of morally good nature, and those bodily kamma,
verbal kamma and mental kamma which have those roots as their base."
Akusala are mainly of threefold root or vice, namely, greed,
aversion and delusion, and generally are those feelings, perceptions, proliferations and
consciousness which are of morally evil nature, and those bodily kamma, verbal kamma
and mental kamma which have those roots as their base." [Dhs. 181]
In the scriptural contexts, the Buddha himself is believed saying that
the kamma based on cardinal virtues (kusalamuulaani) conduces to moral
perfection while kamma based on the vice (akusalamuulaani) leading to
Whatever kamma performed out of greed, hatred and delusion or
have this threefold vice as their root is evil. That kamma is harmful, having
suffering as its result and bringing about the creation of more samsaric kamma.
Whatever kamma performed out of non-greed, non-hatred and
non-delusion or have these threefold cardinal virtue (kusalamuulaani) as their root
is morally good. That kamma is beneficial, having welfare or happiness, as a
result, and bringing about the cessation of samsaric kamma.[ A. I. 263].
And again, with the help of a simile, this idea is well expressed as
"Having abandoned the evil demeritorious states, which born of
greed, hatred and delusion, he lives in this world undisturbed, free from suffering,
bondage and attains the ultimate goal (nibbaana) in this very existence, just like
a palm-tree stump, unable to grow again in the future." [A. I. 204].
In Buddhism, kusala states are enumerated in detail. In terms of
siila, kusala are cardinal virtues (kusalamuulaani), five
moral precepts for laymen (pa ca-s la) [D. III. 235; A. III. 203, 275; Vbh.
285], eight moral precepts for those who want to practice the homeless life (a.t.tha-siila)
[A. IV. 248], ten moral precepts for a novice (dasa-sikkhaapada or dasa-siila),
[Khp. I. 1], ethical principles of noble deeds (ma"ngala-siila) [Sn.
II. 259-68] and Paatimokkha-samvara-sila for bhikkhu and bhikkhuni.
In term of wholesome mental states (kusalamahaabhuumika or sobhanaa saadhaaranaa),
kusala contains those moral qualities, such as confidence (saddhaa),
exertion for the good (viriya), mindfulness (sati), meditation (samaadhi),
individual shame of evil (hiri), social shame of evil (ottappa), charity (daana),
forbearance or patience (khaanti), persistence (adhittana), truthfulness (sacca),
non-attachment (alobha), good will (adosa), equanimity (tatramajjhattaa,
upekkhaa), loving kindness (metta), compassion (karu"naa),
sympathetic joy (muditaa) and wisdom (pa~n~naa). In terms of thirty-seven
constituents of enlightenment (bodhipakkhiyadhamma), kusala consists of the
four bases of mindfulness (cattaaro-satipa.t.thaanaa), the four modes of right
endeavour (cattaaro sammappadhaana), the four bases of psychic power (cattaaro
iddhipaadaa), the five faculties (pa~ncindriyaani), the five powers (pa~ncabalaani),
the seven factors of enlightenment (sattabojjhanga) and the eightfold path (ariyo
atthangiko maggo) [D. III. 102]. It is said, for instance, that The Buddha is
one who has discarded all morally evil states (akusala) and possessed of morally
good states (kusala) [M. II. 116: Sabbaakusaladhammapahiino . .
.Tathaagato kusaladhamma samannaagato ti.]. In another passage, the Buddha is
described as one who has abandoned all unwholesome states of mind and attained moral
perfection [Ud. 66].
So far as the level of consequence is concerned, there are two kinds or
kusala: one leading to rebirth (va.t.ta gaamii) in the pleasant form of
existence (sugati) and the other leading to the end of rebirth (viva.t.ta gaamii)
[MA. I. 89ff]. Of the former are family affection as well as merituous deeds or
deeds of positive merit (pu~n~na) including all acts of social welfare, while of
the latter the practice of foundation of mindfulness [DA. III. 847]. In the Diighanikaaya
A.t.thakathaa, Buddhaghosa confirms us that some particular pu~n~na and kusala
are of the same nature in functioning and leading to the end of rebirth. The pu~n~na
to that effect is lokuttara-pu~n~na up to the destruction of all aasavas [DA.
III. 858]. In the Pali canonical scriptures, there are instances in which kusala
and pu~n~na are used interchangeably as synonyms. This overlapping of the sense
shows that kusala, at a lower level, is conductive to or promote a persons
happiness here and hereafter [Idha nandati, pecca nandati. Dhp. 18; S. I.
18]. At a higher level, it will result in rebirth in heavenly sphere of existence (devaloka)
[S. I. 33; 197]. At the highest level, it leads to the attainment of ultimate goal
of Buddhism (nibbaana) [A. V. 240ff; 173ff; It. 14-15]. Of the first
two, kusala and pu~n~na are two aspects of the same class of merituous
deeds, resulted in sensuous enjoyments or happiness in human and deva worlds, i.e.
in sa"msaara. That is to say every pu~n~na is virtuous deed (kusala),
and every virtuous deed is both pu~n~na and kusala. Of the last, kusala,
as distinct from pu~n~na in higher status, will result only in non-sensuous
spiritual bliss (nibbaana) destroying the samsaric cycle by eradication of the
defilements of greed (lobha), hatred (dosa) and ignorance (moha).
That is to say in this higher status of attainment (nibbaana), the sphere of pu~n~na
is left behind while that of kusala remained the same as the sphere of nibbaana.
This is the reason why the Pali canon describes an Arahat as one who is being freed
from or is having passed beyond pu~n~na and papaa (pu~n~napaapapahii.na)
but not good (kusala) and evil (akusala) [Dhp. 39; S. II. 82; Sn.
520; 790]. In the other words, the Buddha makes a distinction merit (pu~n~na) and
demerit (paapa), on the one hand, and good (kusala) and evil (akusala),
on the other. So far as the unenlightened is concerned, merit (pu~n~na) is advised
to accumulate whereas demerit (p pa)
avoided. As to the enlightened one, only the ideas of merit (pu~n~na) and demerit (paapa)
should be renounced, but not those of good (kusala) and evil (akusala).
Because promoting good (kusala apasampadaa) is part of the Buddhist ethics [Sn.
183] and differentiation of good (kusala) and evil (akusala) can be
considered as virtue of an enlightened one, just as the night and day can not be confused
[M. I. 21]. This can be clearly seen in the Sa"myutta-nikaaya. Here,
the Buddha has properly laid down the moral distinctions between good and bad (kusala-akusala),
blameworthy and non-blameworthy (saavajja-anavajja), low and excellent (h na-pa.niita) and shady and clean (ka.nha-sukka) [S.
V. 106, see also D. II. 222ff]. Differentiating good (kusala) from evil (akusala)
as criterion of a wise person, the Buddha defines: "Those who comprehends what akusala
is, what the source of akusala is, what kusala is and the source of kusala
is, are said to possess right view (sammaadi.t.thi)" [M. I. 47]. In
the same manner, a person is said to be ignorant and deluded if he does not know these
moral distinctions [A. III. 165].
ABBREVIATIONS AND REFERENCES
= A"nguttara-Nikaaya, I-V,
ed. R. Morris, E. Hardy, C. A. F. Rhys Davids. (London: PTS, 1885-1900)
D. = Diighanikaaya, I-III, ed. T. W. Rhys
David and J. E. Carpenter, (London: PTS, 1889-1910)
DA. = Diighanikaaya A.t.thakathaa, I-III,
ed. T. W. Rhys David and J. E. Carpenter, W. Stede. (London: PTS, 1886-1932)
Dhp. = Dhammapada, ed. K. R. Norman and O.
von Hinuber. (London: PTS, 1931)
Dhs. = Dhammasa"mnga.nii, ed. E.
Muller. (London: PTS, 1885)
It. = Itivuttaka, ed. E. Windisch.
(London: PTS, 1890)
Khp. = Khuddakapaa.tha, ed. Mrs. C.A.F.
Rhys Davids. (London: PTS, 1931)
M. = Majjhimanikaaya, I-IV, ed. V. Trenckner, R. Chalmers, Mrs.
Rhys Davids. (London: PTS, 1888-1902)
MA. = Majjhimanikaaya A.t.thakathaa, I-V, ed. J. H. Woods, D.
Kosambi, I. B. Horner. (London: PTS, 1922-38)
PTS. = Pali Text Society
S. = Sa"myuttanikaaya, I-V, ed. L. Feer and Mrs. Rhys
Davids. (London: PTS, 1884-1898)
Sn. = Suttanipaata, ed. D. Andersen and H. Smith. (London: PTS,
Ud. = Udaana, ed. P. Steinthal. (London: PTS, 1885)
Vbh. = Vibha"nga, ed. and tr. by S. K. Mukhopadhyaya.
Vin. = Vinayapi.taka, I-V, ed. H. Oldenberg. (London: PTS,
Keown, D., (1992) The Nature of Buddhist
Ethics. London: The Macmillan Press.
Payutto, Bhikkhu P. A. (1993) Good, Evil and Beyond Kamma in the
Buddhas Teaching. Bangkok: Buddhadhamma Foundation.