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Buddhist Outlook on Daily Life

Nina van Gorkom


Wholesome Deeds

The Buddha helped people to have right understanding about unwholesomeness and wholesomeness; he helped them in teaching them Dhamma.  Dhamma excels all other gifts, because there is nothing more helpful than giving other people the right understanding so that they can cultivate wholesomeness.  In this way they will find true happiness.

In the Anguttara Nikaya (Book of the Twos, Chapter IV, par. 2)  we read that it is not easy to repay one's parents for all they have done:

Monks, one can never repay two persons, I declare.  What two?  Mother and father.  Even if one should carry about his mother on one shoulder and his father on the other, and so doing should live a hundred years, attain a hundred years; and if he should support them, anointing them with unguents... if he should establish his parents in supreme authority, in the absolute rule over this mighty earth abounding in the seven treasures- not even thus could he repay his parents.  What is the cause of that?  Monks, parents do much for their children: they bring them up, they nourish them, they introduce them to this world.

Moreover, monks, whose incites his unbelieving parents, settles and establishes them in the faith; whose incites his immoral parents, settles and establishes them in morality; whose incites his stingy parents, settles and establishes them in liberality; whose incites his foolish parents, settles and establishes them  in wisdom, - such an one, just by so doing, does repay, does more than repay what is due to his parents.

In this sutta the Buddha points out how important it is to help other people to have right understanding about the development of wholesomeness; he explained that this is the way to repay one's parents.  Establishing one's parents in faith is mentioned first.  The word 'faith' however, is not used in the sense of 'faith in a person'.  The Buddha did not want people to perform wholesome deeds in obedience to him or in obedience to certain rules.  Faith means confidence in wholesomeness, confidence that the cultivation of wholesomeness leads to happiness.  Therefore any time there is wholesomeness there must be faith.  After faith the above-quoted sutta speaks about 'morality', and then generosity is mentioned.  Wisdom or right understanding is mentioned last.

When the different ways of kusala kamma are explained in the sutta, 'dana' or generosity is usually mentioned first, 'sila' or morality is mentioned next, and after that 'bhavana' or mental development.  There are many ways to develop kusala or wholesomeness.  It is very helpful to know about these different ways in order to make progress in wholesomeness.  Therefore 'panna', or 'Right Understanding', is the factor which conditions people to develop wholesomeness.  There can be no 'bhavana' or mental development without pannaPanna is an indispensable factor for 'bhavana', and on the other hand panna is developed through 'bhavana'.

Panna, understanding things as they are, will help people to lead a more wholesome life. There are many levels of 'panna'. To the extent that panna is developed defilements will be eliminated and thus people will find peace of mind. We should cultivate panna and help other people to cultivate panna as well. We should have right understanding about unwholesomeness and about wholesomeness.

All akusala cittas are caused by ignorance or 'moha'. There are different types of akusala cittas. Some cittas are rooted in 'moha' alone' There are akusala cittas rooted in 'moha' and 'lobha'. ('Lobha' is attachment, selfishness, or greed.) Furthermore there are akusala cittas rooted in 'moha' and 'dosa'. ('Dosa' is ill-will or aversion.) Unwholesome deeds are motivated by akusala cittas.

When there is a kusala citta there is no 'lobha', 'dosa' or 'moha' with that citta. kusala cittas motivate wholesome deeds or kusala kamma. When we perform 'dana', 'sila' or 'bhavana', there is no 'lobha', 'dosa' or 'moha' with the kusala citta which motivates the wholesome deeds. It is very helpful to know more about 'dana', 'sila' and 'bhavana' in order to lead a more wholesome life.

The first way of cultivate wholesomeness is 'dana'. 'Dana' is giving useful things to other people, for example, giving away food, clothing or money to those who are in need. When we give something away we purify ourselves: we think of other people, we have no selfish thoughts. At these moments there is no lobha, dosa or moha.

Giving with the right understanding that giving is kusala is more wholesome than giving without this understanding. People who give with the understanding that they purify  themselves by this wholesome act, are stimulated to do as many good deeds as possible. One may think it a selfish attitude to consider one's own accumulation of wholesomeness. However, it is not a selfish attitude. When one has the right understanding of the ways to develop wholesomeness, it is therefore not selfish to think of one's development of kusala kamma, but rather it is to the benefit of everyone. It is to one's fellow  man's advantage too if one eliminates lobha, dosa, and moha. It is more agreeable to live with someone who is not selfish and who is not angry than with a selfish or an angry person.

There are many degrees of panna. When panna is more highly developed, one understands that it is not 'self' who performs wholesome deeds, but cittas which are conditioned by accumulation of wholesomeness in the past. Thus there is no reason for conceit or pride. By the development of panna, which is a mental phenomenon and which is not 'self', one can accumulate more wholesomeness.

Young children in Thailand are trained to give food to the monks and thus they accumulate kusala kamma. The Thais call the performing of good deeds 'tham bunn'. When children learn to do good at an early age it is a condition for them to continue to be generous when they are grown-up.

When someone gives food to the monks, it is the giver in the first place who will benefit from this wholesome act; the monks give him the opportunity to develop wholesomeness. The monks do not thank people for their gifts; they say words of blessing which show that they rejoice in the good deeds of the giver. One might find it strange at first that the monks do not thank people, but when there is more understanding about the way wholesomeness is developed one sees these customs in another light.

Even when one is not giving something away oneself, there is still opportunity to develop wholesomeness in appreciating the good deeds of other people: at that moment there is no lobha, dosa or moha. The appreciation of other people's good deeds is a way of kusala kamma, included in dana as well. It is to everyone's advantage if people appreciate one another's good deeds. It contributes to harmonious living in society.

The third means of kusala kamma included in dana concerns giving other people the opportunity to appreciate our own good deeds so that they can have wholesome cittas as well. We should not hide our good deeds but we should let our good example inspire other people looking after their old parents, or to see people studying or teaching Dhamma. We should follow the example of the Buddha. We should continually think of means to help other people develop wholesomeness. This way of kusala kamma is a means to eliminate our defilements. There are opportunities to cultivate wholesomeness at any moment. When one has developed more wisdom one will try not to miss any opportunity for kusala cittas because human life is very short.

There are three ways of kusala kamma included in sila, or morality. The first way is observing the precepts. Laypeople usually observe five precepts. The five precepts are: abstaining from killing living beings, from stealing, from sexual misbehavior, from lying, and from the talking of intoxicants such as alcoholic drinks. One can observe these precepts just because one follows the rules, without thinking about the reason why one should observe the precepts. Observing the precepts is kusala kamma, but the degree of wholesomeness is not very great if there is no right understanding. One observes the precepts with panna if one understands that unwholesomeness is eliminates while one observes them.

The killing of a living being is akusala kamma. One might wonder whether it is not sometimes necessary to kill. Should one not kill when there is a war, should one not kill insects to protect the crops, and should one not kill mosquitos to protect one's health? The Buddha knew that as long as people were living in this world they would have many reasons for breaking the precepts. He knew that it is very difficult to keep all the precepts and that one cannot learn in one day to observe them all. Through right understanding however, one can gradually learn to keep them. The precepts are not worded in terms of, for example, 'You shall not kill.' They are not worded as commandments, but they are worded as follows: 'I undertake the rule of training to refrain from destroying life.'

The Buddha pointed out what is unwholesome and what is wholesome, so that people would be able to find the way to true happiness. It is panna or right understanding which will lead people to train themselves in the precepts. Without panna the precepts will be broken very easily when the temptations are too strong, or when the situation is such as to make it very difficult for people to keep the precepts. When panna is more developed one will not so easily break the precepts. One will find out from experience that one breaks the precepts because of lobha, dosa and moha. When one understands that one purifies oneself in observing the precepts, one will even refrain from intentionally killing mosquitoes and ants. One always accumulates dosa when there is the intention to kill, even if it is a very small insect. One should find out for oneself that one accumulates akusala kamma when killing living beings, no matter whether they are human beings or animals. However, one cannot force other people to refrain from killing living beings.

To refrain from killing is a kind of dana as well- it is the gift of life, one of the greatest gifts we can give. The classification of kusala kamma as to whether it be dana or sila is not very rigid. The way realities are classified depends on their different aspects.

As regards the taking of intoxicants, one should find out for oneself how much unwholesomeness is accumulated in this way. Even if one has but a slight attachment, one accumulates unwholesomeness, and this may be harmful in the future. When the attachment is strong enough it will appear in one's speech and deeds. Even the taking of a little amount of an alcoholic drink can cause one to have more greed, anger and ignorance. It might have the effect that one does not realize what one is doing and that one is not aware of the realities of the present moment. Panna will induce one to drink less and less and eventually to stop drinking. One does not have to force oneself not to drink, one just loses the taste for alcohol because one sees the disadvantages of it. In this way it becomes one's nature not to drink. The person who has developed panna to such a high degree that he has attained the first stage of enlightenment, the 'sotapanna', will never break the five precepts again; it has become his nature to observe them.

The second way of kusala kamma included in sila, is paying respect to those who deserve respect. It is not necessary to show respect according to a certain culture; the esteem one feels for someone else is more important. this induces one to have a humble attitude towards the person who deserves respect. In which way one shows respect depends on the customs of the country where one is living or on the habits one has accumulated. In Thailand people show respect to monks, teachers and elderly people in a way different from the way people in other countries show their respect. In some countries  the respect people feel towards others may appear only in a very polite way of addressing them.

Politeness which comes from one's heart is kusala kamma; at that moment there is no lobha, dosa or moha.  It is kusala kamma to show respect to monks, to teachers and to elderly people.  In Thailand people show respect to their ancestors; they express their gratefulness for the virtues of their ancestors.  This is kusala kamma.  It is not important whether the ancestors are able to see the people paying them respect or not.  We cannot know in which plane they have been reborn- in this human plane, or in some other plane of existence where they might be able to see people paying respect to them.  It is wholesome to think of one's ancestors with gratefulness.

We should always try to find out whether there are akusala cittas or kusala cittas motivating a deed, in order to understand the meaning of the deed.  Thus one will understand and appreciate many customs of the Thais and one will not so easily misjudge them or take them for being superstitious.  In the same way we should understand the paying of respect to the Buddha image.  It is not idol worship; indeed, it is kusala kamma if one thinks of the Buddha's virtues: of his wisdom, of his purity and of his compassion.  One does not pray to a Buddha in heaven, because the Buddha does not stay in heaven or in any plane of existence; he passed away completely.  it is wholesome to be grateful to the Buddha and to try to follow the Path he discovered.  The way in which one shows respect to the Buddha depends on the inclinations one has accumulated.

The third way of kusala kamma included in sila is helping other people by words or deeds.  The act of helping other people will have a higher degree of wholesomeness if there is the right understanding that helping is kusala kamma, and that one purifies oneself in this way.  Thus one will be urged to perform more kusala kamma in the future; one will be more firmly established in sila.  It is therefore more wholesome to perform sila with right understanding, or panna.

Performing one's duties is not always kusala kamma; people may perform their duties just because they are paid for their work.  For example, a teacher teaches his pupils and a doctor takes care of his patients, because it is their duty to do so.  However, they can develop wholesomeness if they perform these duties with kindness and compassion.

Panna conditions one to perform kusala kamma, no matter what one's duties are.  Wholesomeness can be developed at any time we are with other people, when we talk to them or listen to them.

Helping other people with kind words and deeds alone is not enough.  When it is the right moment one can help others in a deeper and more effective way, that is by helping them to understand who they are, why they are in this world and what the aim is of their life in this world.  This way of helping is included in bhavana or mental development.


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Source: Dhamma Study Group, http://www.dhammastudy.com

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updated: 17-11-2001