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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 Buddha’s 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 (1993): 17ff].

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 so on.

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 agent’s actions, which should be avoided. Buddhaghosa gave the etymology of kusala as something destroying evil and vice:

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 samsaric cycle:

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 follows:

"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 person’s 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].



= 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, 1913)

Ud. = Udaana, ed. P. Steinthal. (London: PTS, 1885)

Vbh. = Vibha"nga, ed. and tr. by S. K. Mukhopadhyaya. (Santiniketan: 1950)

Vin. = Vinayapi.taka, I-V, ed. H. Oldenberg. (London: PTS, 1879-83)

2. Studies

Keown, D., (1992) The Nature of Buddhist Ethics. London: The Macmillan Press.

Payutto, Bhikkhu P. A. (1993) Good, Evil and Beyond Kamma in the Buddha’s Teaching. Bangkok: Buddhadhamma Foundation.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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