Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"The Roots of Good and Evil"

Amber Larson, Dhr. Seven, Wisdom QuarterlyVen. Nyanaponika, Wheel 251/253 (
Two sides to every one (Amber/Seven/WQ)
The Buddha has taught that there are three roots of "evil" [unwholesome, unskillful, unprofitable conduct of body, speech, or mind]: greed, hatred (which includes fear), and delusion.
  • NOTE: These are merely approximate English translations of the Pali/Sanskrit Buddhist terms lobha, dosa (including bhava), and moha. One might argue that "greed is good" in some instances or that hate is necessary for survival, but this happens due to delusion and is not said with a proper understanding of lobha (poorly translated as "greed" in our impoverished and relatively young language). Ancient Greek or Latin might provide closer terms.
These three states comprise the entire range of evil, whether of lesser or greater intensity, from a faint mental tendency to the coarsest manifestations in action and speech.

In whatever way they appear, these are the basic causes of suffering.
These roots have their opposites and antidotes: non-greed, non-hatred, and non-delusion.
These are the three roots of good: of all acts of unselfishness, liberality, and renunciation; of all expressions of loving-kindness and compassion; of all achievements in knowledge and understanding.
These six mental states are the roots from which everything [karmically] harmful and beneficial sprouts. They are the roots of the Tree of Life with its sweet and bitter fruits.
Ven. Nyanaponika Thera (
Greed and hatred, fed and maintained by delusion, are the universal impelling forces of all animate life, individually and socially. Fortunately, the roots of good also reach into our world and keep the forces of evil in check, but the balance is a precarious one needing to be preserved by constant watchfulness and effort.

On the level of inanimate nature, too, we find counterparts to greed and hatred in the forces of attraction and repulsion, kept in their purposeless reactive movement by inherent nescience (ignornace), which cannot provide a motive for a cessation of the process.
So through an unfathomable past, the macrocosm of nature and the microcosm of mind have continued their contest between attraction and repulsion, greed and hatred. And unless stopped by voluntary effort and insight, they will so continue for aeons to come.
This cosmic conflict of opposing energies, unsolvable on its own level, is one aspect of dukkha (unsatisfactoriness): the ill of restless, senseless movement as felt by a sensitive being.
On the human level, too, we see that humans, who proudly believe themselves to be “free agents” -- the masters of their lives and even of nature -- are in a spiritually undeveloped state actually a passive
patient driven about by inner forces we do not recognize.
Pulled by our greed and pushed by our hatred [drawn by attraction and repulsed by aversion], in our blindness we do not see that the brakes for stopping these frantic movements are within reach, within our own hearts.
The brakes are the roots of "good" [kusala, the health/wholesome, profitable, and beneficial] themselves, which can be cultivated to such a degree that greed, hatred, and delusion are utterly uprooted and eradicated.
Though we have spoken of the six roots as being “roots of good and evil,” our use of the English terms “good” and “evil” is provisional, a simplification chosen to introduce this teaching by familiar terms.

Shakyamuni the Buddha, Dordemna, Thimphu, Bhutan (Jokertrekker/
In the Buddhist texts they are called the roots of the wholesome (kusala-múla) and the roots of the unwholesome (akusala-múla). And thus we, too, shall generally call them.
This differentiation of terms marks an important distinction. For the “spread” of the mental states called roots is much wider and deeper than the moral realm to which the words “good” and “evil” refer. The distinction may be defined as follows.
An intentional (willed) action performed by body or speech is immoral -- unwholesome, harmful, regrettable when it eventually comes to fruition -- when it is motivated by the unwholesome roots. 
  • When we are motivated to benefit ourselves at the expense of others or to hurt and/or harm them, or to benefit both ourselves and them and harm neither, an act or body speech or mind becomes karma, that is, a trace with the power to bear its results even in the very distant future just as soon as it meets with the appropriate conditions.
This constitutes socially significant immorality, for which it is the criterion. Such actions are termed unwholesome bodily or verbal karma. Thoughts associated with these unwholesome roots, such as wishing the harm of others or wallowing in remorse for having done so, constitute individually significant immorality, for which they are the criterion.
  • Guilt is NOT a virtue. Our virtue may inspire guilt when we recognize a lapse in our conduct, but the guilt itself is neither laudable, appropriate, wise, or beneficial to anyone; it should, therefore, for the sake of everyone's benefit, be replaced with or transformed into something useful and not reactivated again and again, as seems to be the current Judeo-Christian/Western custom). They include thoughts such as those of injury,
murder, theft, fraud and rape, and also false ideologies leading to the harm of others or condoning such harm. Whether or not these thoughts are followed by deeds or words, they constitute and accrue as unwholesome mental karma. (Another term, unpopular in the West, is demerit).
When greed, hatred, and delusion -- in any degree -- do not cause intentional harm to others, they are not evil or immoral in the strict sense of our definition. However, they are still karmically unwholesome in that they maintain bondage and lead to unpleasant results.
Similarly, the term “wholesome” extends beyond socially significant morality to comprise also what is individually beneficial, such as acts of [internal] renunciation and attempts to understand the nature of reality.
The recent crisis of theistic, or God-centered, faith which has taken hold in the West has brought in its trail a moral crisis as well.

For many, belief in God has been shattered, and often those who lose their belief in God fail to see any convincing reason for morality without a divine sanction coming down from above. Left without a sound foundation for ethics, they either accept materialistic political ideologies or allow their conduct to be guided by self-interest and hedonism. Or worse, they are racked with doubt and uncertainty about the world.
Yet we also find today a growing number of people seeking better alternatives. To them the Buddha’s teaching on the wholesome and unwholesome roots provides a criterion of good and evil that is neither theological nor authoritarian but experiential.

It is a teaching with a sound psychological basis offering an autonomous pragmatic motivation for avoiding evil (profitless) and choosing the good (profitable).
The social and political motivations for moral conduct proposed to modern groups may not openly contradict the basic sentiments of morality, but as their structures are bound to specific historical conditions and reflect the varying self-interests and prejudices of the dominant social group, the values they propose are highly relative, lacking universal validity. 

In contrast, Buddhist ethics, being based on psychological fact and not on external contingencies, provides a core of moral principles inherently free from relativistic limitations, valid for all time and under all circumstances.
By introspection and observation, we can understand that the unwholesome roots are undesirable mental states, productive of suffering for ourselves and others. And since it is our common nature to avoid suffering and to desire happiness, we can understand that it serves our own long-term interest as well as the good of others to restrain actions born of these roots and to act in ways motivated by their wholesome opposites. A brief survey of the evil roots will make this clear.
Greed is a state of lack, need, and want. It is always seeking fulfilment and lasting satisfaction, but its drive is inherently insatiable. So as long as it endures, it maintains the sense of lack.
Hatred, in all its degrees, is also a state of dissatisfaction. Though apparently objective and arising in response to undesired people or circumstances, its true origins are subjective and internal, chiefly frustrated desire and wounded pride.
Buddhist psychology extends the range of hatred beyond simple anger and enmity to include a variety of negative emotions -- such as disappointment, dejection, anxiety, and despair -- representing misguided reactions to the impermanence, insecurity, and imperfection inherent in all conditioned existence.

Delusion, taking the form of ignorance, is a state of confusion, bewilderment, and helplessness. In its aspect of false views, delusion issues in dogmatism; it takes on a fanatical, even obsessive character, and it makes the mind/heart rigid and encapsulated.
All three unwholesome roots lead to inner disharmony and social conflict. In Tibetan paintings they are depicted at the very hub of the Wheel of Life, symbolically represented by a cock, a pig, and a snake, turning round and round, catching each other’s tails. The three unwholesome roots, indeed, produce and support each other.
  • (See The Wheel of Birth and Death by Bhikkhu Khantipālo, Wheel 147/149), p.16).
The root of greed gives rise to resentment, anger, and hatred against those who obstruct the gratification of desire or compete in the chase to gain the desired objects -- whether sensual enjoyment, power, dominance, or fame. In this way greed leads to conflict and quarrels. When frustrated, instead of producing enmity and aversion, greed may bring about grief, sadness, despair, envy, and jealousy -- states which also come under the heading of hatred.
The pain of deprivation and frustration again sharpens the keenness of desire, which then seeks an escape from pain by the only means most of us know -- indulging in other kinds of enjoyment.
Both greed and hatred are always linked with delusion. They are grounded upon delusion and, on their part, produce still more delusion as we pursue the objects we desire or flee from those we dislike.
Both love and hate blind us to the dangers besetting our pursuits; they lead us away from our true advantage. It is the delusion beneath our love and hate that really blinds us, delusion that leads us astray.

The basic delusion, from which all its other forms spring, is the idea of an abiding self: the belief in an ego. For the sake of this illusory ego men lust and hate; upon this they build their imagination and pride. This ego-belief must first be clearly comprehended as a delusive viewpoint.
One must pierce through the illusion of self by cultivating right understanding through penetrative thought and meditative insight.
Though the wholesome and unwholesome roots are individual mental states, their manifestations and repercussions have the greatest social significance. Each individual in society rises up at once to protect oneself, one's loved ones, property, security, and freedom from the greed, hatred, and delusions of others. One's own greed, hatred, and ignorance may in turn arouse others to anxious concern and resentment, though we may not be aware of this or care about it.
From all this there results an intricate interlocking of suffering -- suffering caused to others and suffering experienced oneself. Hence the Buddha repeatedly said that the unwholesome roots cause harm both to oneself and to others, while the wholesome roots are sources of benefit for both the individual and society. (See Texts 18-22).
The wholesome and unwholesome roots are of paramount human concern on all levels. As the originating causes of karma, our life-affirming and rebirth-producing intentional actions, they are the motive powers and driving forces of our deeds, words, and thoughts. They mold our character and our destiny and hence determine the nature of our rebirth.
Being dominant features in the structure of the mind, the unwholesome roots are used in the Abhidharma (Higher Teaching) collection of works for the classification of unwholesome consciousness and also for a typology of temperaments.

All of the stages of the path to deliverance are closely concerned with the wholesome and unwholesome roots. At the very beginning, the coarsest forms of greed, hatred, and irresponsible ignorance have to be abandoned through virtue (sīla), while in the advanced stages the aids of meditation (samādhi) and wisdom (paññā, prajna) have to be applied to a deeper-reaching removal of the unwholesome roots and to the cultivation of the wholesome ones.

Even enlightenment and nirvana -- the consummation of the great quest -- are both explained in terms of the roots: as the extinction of greed, hatred, and delusion.
This wide-ranging significance of the Buddha’s teaching on the roots places it at the very core of the Dharma. Showing the distinct marks of a fully enlightened mind, it is a teaching simple as well as profound, and hence accessible on many levels.

The fact that greed, hatred, and delusion, in their extreme forms, are the root causes of much misery and evil should be painfully obvious to every sensitive person. Such an initial understanding, open to commonsense, may well grow into full comprehension. It may then become the insight that moves one to enter the path to deliverance -- the eradication of greed, hatred, and delusion.
Within the framework of the Buddha’s teaching, the Roots of Good and Evil have found their place in a great variety of contexts. To illustrate this by an ample selection of Buddhist texts -- almost entirely taken from the sutras of the Buddha -- is the intention of the following pages.
May progress on that Path prevail and may there be a steady growth of the Roots of Good. More

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