Buddhism in Daily Life

Wholesome Deeds

The Buddha helped people to have right understanding of unwholesomeness and wholesomeness; he helped them by teaching them Dhamma. Dhamma excels all other gifts, because the most beneficial gift one can give others is helping them to develop right understanding so that they can lead a more wholesome life. In this way they will find more happiness.

In the Gradual Sayings (Book of the Twos, Ch IV, par 2) we read that it is not easy to repay one’s parents for all they have done:

Monks, it is not an easy task to repay two persons, I declare(12). 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, whoso incites his unbelieving parents, settles and establishes them in faith; whoso incites his immoral parents, settles and establishes them in morality; whoso incites his stingy parents, settles and establishes them in liberality; whoso incites his foolish parents(13) , settles and establishes them in wisdom, such a 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 is beneficial. 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 suttas, dāna or generosity is usually mentioned first, sīla or morality is mentioned next, and after that “bhāvanā” or mental development. There are many ways to develop kusala and understanding of these ways conditions the performing of them. Paññā, understanding, is the factor which above all conditions the elimination of akusala and the development of kusala. There can be dāna and sīla without paññā , but when there is paññā , dāna and sīla are of a higher degree of kusala. There can be no bhāvanā or mental development without paññā . Paññā is an indispensable factor for bhāvanā, and on the other hand paññā is developed through bhāvanā.

Paññā, understanding things as they are, will help people to lead a more wholesome life. There are many levels of paññā . To the extent that paññā is developed defilements will be eliminated and thus people will find peace of mind. It is beneficial to develop right understanding of akusala as akusala and of kusala as kusala and to help others to develop this understanding as well.

All akusala cittas are caused by ignorance or moha. There are different types of akusala citta. Some akusala cittas are rooted in moha alone. There are also 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 aversion, ill-will or anger. Unwholesome deeds are motivated by akusala cittas.

When there is kusala citta there are no lobha, dosa or moha with the citta. Wholesome deeds are motivated by kusala cittas. When we perform dāna, sīla or bhāvanā, there are no lobha, dosa or moha with the kusala cittas which motivate these wholesome deeds. It is helpful to know more about dāna, sīla and bhāvanā in order to lead a more wholesome life.

One way of developing wholesomeness is dāna. Dāna is giving useful things to other people, for example, giving away food, clothing or money to those who are in need. True generosity is a way of eliminating defilements: at such moments we think of other people, we have no selfish thoughts. When there is generosity there are no lobha, dosa or moha.

Giving with the right understanding that generosity is kusala is more wholesome than giving without this understanding. People who give with the understanding that this wholesome act is a means to have less selfishness, are stimulated to develop more wholesomeness. One may think it a selfish attitude to consider one’s own accumulation of kusala. However, it is not a selfish attitude. When we have the right understanding of the ways to develop kusala, it is the condition for kusala cittas to arise more often and this is to the benefit of everyone. It is to our fellow-man’s advantage too when lobha, dosa and moha are eliminated. 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 paññā . When paññā is more highly developed, one understands that it is not “self” who performs wholesome deeds, but cittas which are conditioned by the accumulation of kusala in the past. Thus there is no reason for conceit or pride. By the development of paññā , which is a mental phenomenon and which is not “self”, more wholesomeness can be accumulated.

Young children in Thailand are trained to give food to the monks and thus they accumulate kusala. The Thais call the performing of good deeds “tham bun”. When children learn to do good deeds 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 of the way wholesomeness is developed, one sees these customs in another light.

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

The third way of kusala kamma included in dāna concerns giving others, no matter whether they are in this world or in other planes of existence, the opportunity to appreciate our good deeds so that they can have kusala cittas as well. In performing kusala we can help others to perform kusala as well. It is very inspiring to see other people looking after their old parents, or to see people studying and teaching Dhamma. We should follow the example of the Buddha. We should continually think of means to help others to develop wholesomeness. This way of kusala kamma is a means to eliminate our defilements. There are opportunities to develop kusala at any moment. When we have developed more wisdom we will try not to waste the opportunity for kusala which presents itself, because human life is very short.

There are three ways of kusala kamma included in sīla or morality. The first way is observing the precepts. Laypeople usually observe five precepts. These precepts are:

  • abstaining from killing living beings
  • abstaining from stealing
  • abstaining from sexual misbehaviour
  • abstaining from lying
  • abstaining from the taking of intoxicants including alcoholic drinks

One can observe these precepts just because one follows the rules without thinking about the reason why one should observe them. Observing them is kusala kamma, but the degree of wholesomeness is not very high if there is no right understanding. One observes the precepts with paññā when one understands that one purifies oneself of akusala while one observes them.

The killing of a living being is akusala kamma. One may 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, should one not kill mosquitos to protect one’s health? The Buddha knew that so long as people were living in this world they would have many reasons for transgressing the precepts. He knew that it is very difficult to observe all the precepts and that one cannot learn in one day to observe them all. Through right understanding, however, one can gradually learn to observe 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 find the way to true peace. It is paññā or right understanding which will lead people to train themselves in the precepts. Without paññā they will transgress them very easily when the temptations are too strong, or when the situation is such as to make it very difficult for people to observe them. When paññā is more developed it conditions the observing of the precepts more often. One will find out from experience that the precepts are transgressed because of lobha, dosa and moha. When it has been understood that observing the precepts is a way of eliminating defilements, one will even refrain from intentionally killing mosquitos and ants. We always accumulate dosa when there is the intention to kill, even if it is a very small insect. We should find out for ourselves that we accumulate akusala when killing living beings, no matter whether they are human beings or animals. However, we cannot force others to refrain from killing living beings.

To refrain from killing is a kind of dāna 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 dāna or sīla is not very rigid. The way realities are classified depends on their different aspects.

As regards the taking of intoxicants, people should find out for themselves how much unwholesomeness is accumulated in this way. Even if one has but a slight attachment to them, 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 may have the effect that people do not realize what they are doing and that they cannot be aware of the realities of the present moment. Paññā 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 paññā to such degree that he attains the first stage of enlightenment, the “streamwinner” or “sotāpanna”, will never transgress the five precepts again; it has become his nature to observe them.

The second way of kusala kamma included in sīla is paying respect to those who deserve respect. It is not necessary to show respect according to a particular culture; the esteem we feel for someone else is more important. This induces us to have a humble attitude towards the person who deserves respect. The way in which people show respect depends on the customs of the country where they are living or on the habits they have accumulated. In Thailand people show respect to monks, teachers and elderly people in a way different from the way people in western 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 are no lobha, dosa and 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 good qualities of their ancestors. This is kusala kamma. It is not important whether ancestors are able to see the people paying respect to them 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 which motivate a deed, in order to understand the meaning of that deed. Thus we will understand and appreciate many customs of the Thais and we will not so easily misjudge them or find them 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 excellent qualities: 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. In which way one shows respect to the Buddha depends on the inclinations one has accumulated.

The third way of kusala kamma included in sīla 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 this is a way to eliminate selfishness and other defilements. Thus one will be urged to perform more kusala kamma; one will be more firmly established in sīla. It is therefore more wholesome to perform sīla with right understanding or paññā .

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 profession to do so. However, they can develop wholesomeness if they perform their duties with kindness and compassion.

Paññā 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 we can help others in a deeper and more effective way, that is, helping them to understand who they are, why they are in this world and what the aim of their life in this world is. This way of helping is included in bhāvanā or mental development.