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Kusala and Akusala

For Buddhists, the practice of moral life is a graduated course.  It involves self-transformation from a lower to higher level.  Moral teachings in Buddhism are not commandments but rather as guidelines for moral actions.  The Buddha says, “You yourselves ought to do what ought to be done.”  Morally good or bad actions are neither rewarded nor punished – they have their own consequences according to the principle of moral causation. The Samyutta Nikaya says, As you sow the seed so shall you reap the fruit.

In this regard, it is of vital importance to introduce two terms – kusala and akusala.  In the Buddhist dictionary, ‘kusala’ is explained as ‘kammically wholesome’ or ‘profitable’, ‘salutary’, ‘morally good’, ‘skillful’ and ‘blamelessness’. ‘Akusala’ hence refers to the opposite – the ‘unwholesome’, ‘unskillful’, etc.

The question then arises as to how we should understand what is skillful as kammically or morally wholesome and what is unskillful as unwholesome.

Six radical roots

In Buddhism, all moral good and moral evil can be traced to six radical roots.  All moral evil spring from the three radical roots of lobha (greed, covetousness), dosa (hatred, aversion) and moha (ignorance, delusion, mental confusion).  All defilements and all unwholesome mental dispositions that manifest themselves either mentally, vocally or physically come into being.  On the contrary, all moral good can be traced to three radical roots of alobha (non-greed, non-covetousness), adosa (non-hatred, non-aversion) and amoha (non-delusion, absence of ignorance).  In other words, generosity, compassionate love and wisdom.

A mind obsessed with greed, malice and delusion is in bondage.  It fails to see things in their proper pespective, and prevents one from acting properly.  Thus it is called akusla or unskillful.

When kusala qualities are dominant, we experience mental health (arogya), mental purity (anavajjata), dexterity (cheka), mental felicity (sukha-vipaka).  Such a mind is healthy and skillful.

It is said that kusala leads to Nibbana, the ultimate goal in Buddhism for nibbana means the complete elimination of all traces of self-eccentricity and ego-centric impulses.  The more selfless acts (kusala) are done, the more selfless we become, and the closer we come to the realization of nibbana.

Self and others

If the act of selflessness is the goal, then what is the relative position of one’s own good and the good of others?

In the early Buddhist discourses, individuals are classified into four groups, in the following manner :

1.     The individual who pursues neither his own (moral) well-being nor others’ (moral) well-being
2.     The individual who pursues others’ (moral) well-being but not his own (moral) well-being
3.     The individual who pursues his own (moral) well-being but not others’ (moral) well-being
4.     The individual who pursues his own (moral) well-being as well as others’ (moral) well-being

The four individuals are mentioned here according to an ascending order of excellence, with the first individual being the most inferior and the fourth, naturally, as the most superior.  One may wonder why the third individual is considered a better person than the second – with one pursuing one’s own well-being before that of others.

The answer to this can be found in the Buddha’s reply to one Cunda, “it is not possible for one who is stuck in mud to pull out who is (also) stuck in the mud”.  One who is stuck in the mud of moral depravity is not in a position to save another in the same predicament.  As exemplified in the life of the Buddha himself, it is after realizing his own moral perfection that the Buddha began his mission for the moral uplift of others.

In deeming the fourth person the most superior, the Buddha is affirming that equal priority should be given to both.  In short, whatever that is kusala is beneficial to oneself and others – in thoughts as in deeds.

Hence we must be mindful at all times for kusala  and akusala  thoughts and actions take us to opposite directions.  We are the architects of our own fate.  We are our own creators and destroyers.  We build our own heavens and hells.

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