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Course of lectures given at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, in 1983.
It is the view maintained by some modern scholars that Nibbana is "beyond good and evil" and therefore that from an ethical point of view it is amoral. This, in other words, means that, according to Buddhism, the moral life is only a means to an end. The title of this paper shows that we do not agree with this interpretation. Before we give our own reasons in support of our interpretation, we propose to discuss here first, the theory of the Buddhist moral life. It must also be mentioned that we do not intend here to discuss any of the Buddhist moral precepts.
The early Buddhist teaching on the moral life is based on three fundamental theories, namely Kammavada, Kiriyavada and Viriyavada [The following discussion is based on the Pali Tipitika, in particular the Samyuttanikaya, Vinaya, Anguttaranikaya and Dighanikaya].
The first, in a general sense, means the advocacy of the moral life, the recognition of the distinction between morally good and bad acts, and thereby, by implication, that they have good and bad results. It is best understood when contrasted with the moral nihilism advocated by Ajita Kesakambili who lived during the time of the Buddha. As recorded in the Samannaphala Sutta, his opinion on the moral life is as follows: "There is neither fruit nor result of good or evil deeds. It is a doctrine of fools, this talk of gifts. It is an empty lie, mere idle talk when men say there is profit therein. Fools and wise alike, on the dissolution of the body are cut off, annihilated, and after death they are not". His refusal to recognize that "there are in the world recluses and Brahmins who have reached moral perfection" and his denial of Kammavada altogether, shows that his was a general indictment against all religions.
For what was common to all religions was Kammavada, which in its general sense means the recognition of the moral order. It is also worth noting here that Buddhism did not contest the claim made by other religious teachers as advocates of Kammavada. What Buddhism contested was that their Kammavada did not lead to Kiriyavada, that is the doctrine that recognizes the efficacy of moral acts. This becomes clear, from the rejection, on the part of Buddhism, of all forms of Kammavada based on the theory of external causation (paramkata). This theory maintains that there is a principle external to man - such as God, past kamma, destiny (niyati) and nature (svabhava), which is the agent of the act (so karoti) and that man is the experiencer of its result (anno patisamvedeti). It obliterates the causal connection between the moral act and its effect and thereby it fails to explain the moral efficacy of (moral) acts. This, in other words, means that it leads to akiriyavada. In the context of akiriyavada, human effort (purisaviriya) and human endeavour (purisatthama) have no role to play.
For if there is no connection between what one does and what one experiences as a result of it, then one's own effort has no practical significance. This, in other words, means that it does not lead to viriyavada, the advocacy of human effort. It is against this background that the Buddhist kammavada becomes significant.
If kammavada in its general sense means the advocacy of the moral life, the term kamma has a more specific sense. In Buddhism, it is given an entirely psychological interpretation to cetana, volition, intention or the motive. kamma is threefold, as mental (mano-samcetana), vocal (vacisamcetana) and physical (kaya-samcetana) [cf. Visuddhimagga]. This refers to how kamma expresses itself. Otherwise, only cetana (volition) is kamma. For kamma is not identified with the means of its manifestation. Hence it is stated: after having willed (volition) one commits a moral act through the body speech or mind (Cetayitva kammam karoti kayena vacaya manasa).
Cetana is not an agent, but a mental coefficient which arises by way of dependent origination (paticcasamuppada). The egocentricity of volitional acts which constitute what Buddhism calls kamma does not depend on the person being necessarily aware of it. It is rooted in ignorance. The latent stage which serves as a fertile background to cetana is called anusaya, [cf. reference article on ethics, Encyclopaedia of Buddhism] i.e. mental dispositions in their dormant stage. They get excited when the appropriate conditions arise. In the Abhidhamma tradition, this stage when the latent tendencies get excited is called pariyutthana. And their manifestations through vocal and physical acts is called vitikkama. It is at this stage that an individual's psychological dispositions have a direct influence, for good or bad, on the society in which he lives.
It is important to remember here that Buddhism does not consider that cetana which is kamma is the result of another (past) kamma. If it were, then this would lead to kammic determinism, the doctrine referred to in the Buddhist texts as sabbam pubbekatahetu (i.e. everything is due to the past kamma). Such a theory gives rise to the situation where the present kamma is completely determined by the past kamma. This in turn precludes all possibility for the exercise of individual effort (attakara). If Buddhism avoids karmic determinism, it also avoids strict indeterminism, the theory which maintains that everything happens due to befallen chance or due to fortuitous circumstances (adhiccasamuppanna). It is by avoiding these two extremes that Buddhism recognizes the possibility of human effort (attakara). Human effort is not strictly determined or indetermined, but can serve as a factor in the causal process. The very evident fact that we feel free to act and exercise our effort (arambhadhatu) in many situations is cited as an example for the possibility of human effort". Hence the Buddha says: "How can one walking up and down with one's own effort say that there is no personal effort". The importance attached to human effort is also shown by the use of a variety of terms to designate it: attakara, purisakara, arambha-dhata, purisatthama, purisa-viriya.
Let us now consider how Buddhism seeks to evaluate volitional acts (kamma) as morally wholesome and morally unwholesome. This is done with reference to two kinds of criteria. One is based on the Buddhist teaching on the root-causes of what is morally wholesome (kusala) or otherwise (akusala). According to Buddhism all that is morally unwholesome can be traced to three root-causes. They are lobha (greed or covetousness), dosa (hate or malice) and moha (confusion or delusion). These are the primary psychological dispositions which manifest themselves in different forms. Conversely, their opposites, namely alobha (non-greed), adosa (absence of hate or malice) and amoha (absence of confusion or delusion) are the root causes to which all that is morally wholesome can be traced. Any karmic/volitional act which is motivated by the unwholesome roots is akusala, morally unwholesome. Conversely, any karmic/volitional act which is motivated by their opposite root-causes is kusala (morally wholesome).
The other criterion is based on objective factors in that it takes into consideration the nature of the consequences a volitional act has, both on the person who commits it and also on persons other than himself. This latter criterion is mentioned in the Ambalatthika Rahulovada Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya. Here, the Buddha tells Rahula that just as a mirror is meant for reflection, even so every volitional act should be committed after proper reflection. The object of this reflection is the possible consequences which an act brings about on oneself and on others. If a particular act brings about harmful consequences to oneself (attabyabadhaya) or to others (parabyabadhaya) or to both (attabyabadhaya caparabyabadhaya), it should be evaluated as morally unwholesome. Conversely, any act which brings about opposite (beneficial) consequences in a similar way is to be evaluated as morally wholesome. In the context of the Buddhist teaching on rebirth or the samsaric dimension of the empiric individuality, these consequences should be understood in a wider perspective, without limiting them to the immediate present. In point of fact, all Buddhist teachings on morality should be understood in the context of Samsara and Nibbana. For in the ultimate sense what is morally wholesome is that which leads to Nibbana and conversely what is morally unwholesome is that which leads away from it.
What we have discussed so far amounts to a brief resume of the Buddhist theory of the moral life. Its actual practice is based on the Noble Eightfold Path, the middle path that transcends the two extremes of sensual gratification and self-mortification. Since this path is often defined as the path that leads to Nibbana, this has given rise to a misconception that it is not meant for the laymen who lead a worldly life. We would like to give three reasons as to why this interpretation is not acceptable.
In the first place it must be noted here that all the Buddhist moral teachings, whether they concern the clergy or the laity, are ultimately traceable to the Noble Eightfold Path. It therefore follows that the Buddhist teachings pertaining to happiness in this world (dhittadhamma-sukha) and well-being in future existence (samparayahita) are all based on it. This means that it is the repository of Buddhist ethics from which all other moral teachings emanate.
Secondly, that the laymen, too, were taken into consideration in defining the Path-factors is shown by the definition given to samma ajiva, or Right Livelihood. This is defined as abstention from trading in weaponry, slavery, intoxicating drinks and poison, also as abstention from slaughtering and killing. One objection that could be raised here is that some who have given up the household life in order to practise the Higher Life (brahmacariya) could also engage in this kind of activity. This objection could also be supported by reference to some of the rules laid down in the Buddhist Vinaya. However, we wish to submit that the likelihood is otherwise.
The third reason is the most important since it is based on direct textual evidence. In the Magga Samyutta of the Samyuttanikaya the Buddha refers to two kinds of path. One is miccha patipada (the wrong path) and other is samma patipada (the right path), After defining the wrong path as the direct opposite of the Noble Eightfold Path - the Buddha says: "Monks, I do not uphold (na vannemi) the wrong path either for laymen or monks" (Gihino caham bhikkhave pabbajitassa va micchapatipadam na vannemi). This clearly shows that the Middle Path which, according to Buddhism is the Right Path is meant for both laymen as well as :monks.
What this means is that it could be followed on different levels or in varying degrees of intensity. As a moral teaching it is the ideal that Buddhism upholds for all - the laymen and the monks. The implication is that if the Noble Eightfold Path cannot be followed fully, it is better to follow it as far as possible. If the best thing is to realize the ideal, the next best thing is to be nearer the ideal. This situation is, in fact, also true of all present-day social and political ideals. Just because there are varying degrees of difference between the ideal and the practice we do not propose to give up the ideal. The ideal is an invitation to do the right thing and refrain from doing the wrong thing.
As a religious teacher who upholds the moral life, the Buddha defines his position by the following words: "You yourselves should do what ought to be done. The Tathagatas (only) show the way" (Tumhehi kiccam atappam; akkhataro Tathagata) [Dhammapada]. Therefore the Buddhist moral teachings may be described as descriptive rather than prescriptive. There are no injunctions or commandments as to what ought to be done and what ought not to be done. This also means that good and bad acts are neither rewarded nor punished, but that they have their own consequences according to the principles of moral causation.
However, saddha or faith in the Buddha and his Doctrine (Dhamma) is necessary if the followers were to embark on the course of spiritual discipline which culminates in Nibbana. Reference is made in the Buddhist text to two kinds of saddha. One is called amulika saddha, i.e. baseless or blind faith. The other is called akaravati saddha, rational faith, i.e. faith or confidence arrived at by examining reasonable evidence for any claim made. It is this latter kind of faith that Buddhism emphasizes. In point of fact, excessive faith or devotion to the Buddha could be an obstacle to spiritual progress as is seen from the story of the Buddhist monk called Vakkali.
It, therefore, follows that those who have faith in the efficacy of the Dhamma to elevate a person from a morally lower position to a morally higher one come to consider the Buddha as a Moral Authority. Here by authority is not meant to be a person who has authoritative power, but one who has authoritative knowledge on the subject. Hence the followers of the Buddha, both laymen and monks, consider him as the highest authority on all problems relating to the moral life. Therefore they all have faith in the Buddha and the Dhamma. There have been some attempts made to minimize the importance of the role of faith in Buddhism. Textual evidence does not support such a conclusion.
However, in presenting the Buddhist moral teachings the Buddha also took into consideration the necessity of keeping to a minimum what may be called the faith-factor. A moral teaching, if it is to be effective, should be persuasive rather than coercive. In this connection he also took into consideration that if not all, at least the intelligent members in the society (vinnu purissa) have the ability to be rationally persuaded to make a proper distinction between what is morally good and bad. For this purpose the Buddha has laid down a set of guidelines which each individual could follow when confronted by a moral problem.
One such guideline is the one called attupama or self-comparison. This is an invitation to the individual to put himself in another individual's position. If one does not like to be killed, it follows that the other person also does not like to be killed. This is very well illustrated in the well-known Dhammapada verse: "All tremble at punishment, all fear death. . Comparing oneself to another, let one refrain from killing another, let one refrain from killing and tormenting others." The same idea is more poignantly expressed in the Sammyuttanikaya: "What is not pleasant and delightful to me is not pleasant and delightful to the other person either. How could I inflict upon another that which is not pleasant and delightful to me. Having reflected in this manner, he, on his own part refrains from killing and encourages others, too, to refrain from killing." The basic idea behind this moral precept is that all living beings, whether they are human or otherwise, are led by the pleasure-principle (sukhakama) and therefore recoil from pain (Sabbe satta sukhakama dukkhapatikkula)". If the human beings, as observed in the Vasettha Sutta, differ biologically (jatimaya) from all other species of living beings, yet what is common to all is the fact that they like to be happy, they do not like to be unhappy.
A second guideline for moral action is the one based on what is called the three-fold adhipateyya or the three kinds of dominant influence. This requires the necessity of examining the moral quality of an act from three different points of view. The first, called attadhipateyya, invites the individual to examine whether the act he is going to commit results in self-blame or repentance. This is a clear reference to what may be called conscience although a word corresponding to it does not seem to occur in the early Buddhist texts. This is a case of allowing oneself to be controlled by oneself. The second, called lokadhipatiyya, requires the individual to examine whether such and such acts will be approved or disapproved by the intelligent people. This is a case of allowing oneself to be controlled by public opinion. However, the Buddhist idea of public opinion does not correspond to how we understand it today, i.e. as the opinion of the majority. According to Buddhism what matters is neither the opinion of the majority nor that of the minority, but the opinion of those who really know - the term used is vinnu purisa. This is the yardstick that should be adopted when we are confronted with what others say. Hence what is morally approvable is referred to a vinnuppasattha and conversely what is morally reprehensible is called vinnugarahita. The third point of view from which our acts are to be examined is called dhammadhipatiyya, i.e. whether they conform to the Moral Norm. This threefold examination is thus intended as a check from refraining from doing what is morally unwholesome and also as an incentive to do what is morally wholesome.
A third guideline is based on a rational appeal to a reasonably intelligent person's moral sense - if this term is permissible. In the Kalama Sutta, it is recorded that the people of Kalama complained to the Buddha that they were at a loss to discriminate what is morally good and bad, because they were confronted with a variety of contradictory opinions on this matter. Then the Buddha put this question to them: "Now what think you, Kalamas, when greed (for example) arises within a man, does it arise to his profit or to his loss?" When the Kalamas admitted that it conduces to one's own loss, the Buddha continued: "Now, Ka1amas, does not this man, thus become greedy, being overcome by greed and losing control of his mind - does he not kill a living creature, take what is not given, go after another's wife, tell lies and induce others, too, to commit deeds that would conduce to disadvantage and unhappiness for a long time?" This same observation was made in respect of malice (dosa) and delusion (confusion). A similar argument, with the opposite effect, is repeated in respect of the absence of greed, malice and delusion. It was through this rational appeal to Kalamas' moral sense that the Buddha was able to convince them of the undesirability of what is morally reprehensible and of the desirability of what is morally rewarding. As P. D. Premasiri observes, the Kalama Sutta "is philosophically significant in that it draws attention to the possibility of independent inquiry into moral questions."
The next question that we propose to take up is the relative position which Buddhism assigns to our own good and the good of others. How is the distinction between egoism and altruism maintained? The Buddhist answer to this question is very well illustrated in a classification of individuals into four groups. The first individual is he who does not strive either for his own well-being (attahita) or for the well-being of others (parahita). The second individual is he who pursues the well-being of others but fails to pursue his own well-being. The third individual is he who strives for his own well-being and not for the well-being of others. The fourth individual is he who strives for his own well-being as well as for the well-being of others. The most important thing that must not be overlooked here is that in this classification, the words "pursuit of well-being" mean the pursuit of moral well-being, and not any other kind of well-being. We should bear this in mind if we are to draw the correct conclusion as to how Buddhism draws the line between one's own good and the good of others.
This classification of the four kinds of individuals is done in an ascending order of excellence. Therefore, the fourth individual is judged to be the best. An examination of the classification should also show the great importance attached to one's own moral well-being. This is very clear from the fact that the third individual who pursues his own moral well-being is superior to the second person who pursues the moral well being of others while neglecting his own moral well-being. This same idea is implied by the fact that the fourth individual is judged to be the best. If the fourth individual is held out as the best this means that, although he pursues the moral well-being of others, he also pursues his own moral well-being.
Why does Buddhism attatch more importance to one's own moral well-being? Does this mean that the early Buddhist morality is individualistic, that it considers self-interest more important than altruism? In fact, this is one accusation levelled against what is derogatorily called Hinayana, the Lowly or Inferior Vehicle (not Small Vehicle as is usually translated) by the Mahayana. This kind of assessment of early Buddhist moral teachings is not lacking in modern writings on Buddhism, either. The question we raised need not lead to any kind of unwarranted speculation. For the answer to it is provided by Buddhism itself.
The Buddhist answer to this question is; that one who is lacking in morality cannot make others morally good. In illustrating this situation it is observed that a person who is stuck in mud cannot pull out another who is also stuck in mud. The lesson to be drawn is that a person who is stuck in the mud of moral depravity cannot save another who is also in the same predicament. Before one seeks to eliminate another's moral depravity , one must first eliminate it from oneself. This reminds us of the well-known saying: Example is better than precept.
It is also maintained that the benefits of moral cultivation are reciprocal. When a person eliminates from his mind such unwholesome mental dispositions as greed, malice and delusion, they will not manifest themselves in practical form in relation to others. Thus moral cultivation has not only an individual dimension but a social dimension as well. This is the significance of the Buddha's saying: "Monks, one who takes care of oneself, takes care of others. And one who takes care of others, takes care of oneself."
If Buddhism attaches more importance to an individual's own moral well-being, from this it should not be concluded that a person who has attained moral perfection remains indifferent to society. On the contrary he addresses himself to the pursuit of others' moral well-being. This is clearly shown not only by the life led by the Buddha, but also by the lives led by the Arahants as recorded in the Pali texts. It is best illustrated by the Buddha's admonition to the first sixty Arahants to go forth and preach the doctrine of emancipation "for the benefit, well-being and happiness of the many".
Now let us take the question which we raised at the very beginning of this lecture. Is the Buddhist moral life only a means to an end which, in other words, means, is nibbana, from an ethical point of view, amoral? One of the first scholars who came out with the view that the Buddhist moral life is only a means to an end is S. Tachibana. In his 'Ethics of Buddhism' he says that both according to the Upanishads and early Buddhism, the highest spiritual attainment transcends all moral distinctions. Hence he maintains that "when one attains nibbana, one has reached the mental condition where there is no consciousness of moral, aesthetical or logical distinction. The relative ideas, therefore, of good and evil, pleasure and pain, agreeableness and disagreeableness, right and wrong are all annihilated to him [S Tachibana: Ethics of Buddhism, Colombo, 1943 (reprinted), pp 37 ff.]. This conclusion is based on the authority of several canonical instances where it is asserted that one who has attained Nibbana transcends both punna and papa, i.e. what is morally good and bad. Tachibana's interpretation has been endorsed by a number of scholars since then.
As far as we are aware the first to contest this interpretation, which remained unchallenged since the publication of Tachibana's book in 1925, is P. D. Premasiri in his reference article to the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism on Buddhist Ethics. In his opinion why this conclusion is wrong is that it fails to take notice of another pair of ethically evaluative terms, namely kusala and akusala. This means that early Buddhism uses two pairs of terms -or ethical evaluation: One is punna and papa, and the other is kusala and akusala. Papa and akusala seem to mean the same thing, i.e. what is morally bad or unwholesome. However the same is not true of punna and kusala. Textual evidence suggests that there is a qualitative difference between them.
The term punna appears to become significant only in the context of samsara. Thus acts of punna are always described as those which have a tendency to promote one's well-being and happiness in future births in samsara. It is often stated that those who accumulate punna would be born in heavenly existences. As the Dhammapada says, one who has done acts of punna delights both here and hereafter. (Katapunno ubhayattha nandati) . That acts of punna do not lead to Nibbana is clearly shown by what the Bodhisattva tells Mara: "I do not see any purpose even in an iota of punna (anumattena punnena attho mayham na vijjati) [Suttanipata].
Kusala, on the other hand, represents a higher level of what is morally good. It appears to have been used to refer to such acts which have an opposite effect, i.e., rather than prolonging the samsara process, they lead towards the attainment of Nibbana. Buddhist texts therefore omit the term punna and use the term kusala in analysing the conditions that conduce to the attainment of Nibbana. Thus, although punna and kusala mean what is morally good, there is this distinction to be noted: Acts of punna are those that ensure well being in samsara. Acts of kusala are those which lead towards Nibbana. From this distinction it does not follow that acts of punna are discouraged. It is certainly better than papa and akusala. As Nathan Katz rightly observes, punna could be defined as the habituating ground of kusala, because it prepares the necessary background for the emergence of kusala.
We may then conclude that, according to Buddhism, what is morally good has two levels. One is represented by punna and the other by kusala. Both have significance in the context of the Buddhist doctrine of karma, because both operate within the sphere of karma. In this connection it must also be noted here that Nibbana is described as Kammanirodha, i.e. as the cessation of karma. Then the question that arises here is this: if acts of kusala prepare the way to Nibbana, what exactly is the position of kusala when Nibbana is attained? P. D. Premasiri seems to have overlooked this problem as he does not discuss the position of kusala in relation to the definition of Nibbana as the cessation of karma.
What should be clarified here is that since Nibbana transcends karma there cannot be in Nibbana acts of kusala-kamma. However, there is evidence to suggest that at this level kusala begins to operate at a higher level, a level that transcends the operation of karma. This explains why one who has attained Nibbana is described as sampanna-kusala (endowed with kusala qualities), parama-kusala (has reached the culmination in what is kusala). He is the one who has reached perfection (paramippatta) in noble virtue (ariya-sila), in noble concentration (ariyasamadhi), in noble wisdom (ariyapanna) and in noble emancipation (ariya-vimutti).
Accordingly, one who has attained Nibbana is also defined as one who is endowed with ten kusala qualities (dasangehi kusala-dhammehi samannagata). What is most significant to notice here is that among these ten kusala qualities eight are identical with the eight factors of the Noble Eightfold Path. The other two are Right Emancipation (sammavimutti) and Right Knowledge and Insight (Samma nanadassana). This suggests that the latter two factors are what result from the practice of the eight wholesome qualities of the Noble Eightfold Path. The fact that the eighth Path Factors are included among the ten kusala qualities of one who has attained Nibbana shows that to follow the Path means to become the Path, to absorb it internally. Therefore the Noble Eightfold Path should not be understood in the sense of a path that leads to a building. The Noble Eightfold Path is itself Nibbana, when to this is added the two additional factors called Right Emancipation and Right Knowledge and Vision. The attainment of Nibbana is due to the perfect practice of the eight Path Factors which result in the emergence of two additional factors, i.e. Right Emancipation and Right Knowledge and Vision. Thus, according to Buddhism, the means as well as the end coincide.
The foregoing observations should show that Nibbana is not an ideal which transcends all kusala qualities. It is in fact the very culmination, the highest perfection (parama-kusala) of all those qualities which Buddhism assesses as wholesome. The fact that one who has attained Nibbana is described as sabbakusaladhamma-samannagata clearly shows that he is endowed with all kusala qualities. The fact that he is also described as sabba-akusala-dhamma-pahina shows that he is free from all akusala or unwholesome qualities. Thus our conclusion is that Nibbana cannot be described as amoral in the sense that it "goes beyond both good and evil." If it does transcend anything it is what we call evil, and not what is good. Therefore Nibbana should be understood as an out-and-out ethical ideal.
Those who maintain that Nibbana is beyond good and evil sometimes hint at the Theravada Abhidhamma as providing a clue for such a conclusion. That this is also due to a misreading of the texts is clear from what the Abhidhamma has to say on this matter. It must first be mentioned here that the ethical terminology of the Abhidhamma is somewhat different from that of the Pali suttas. For in the former, the pair of terms punna and papa is not retained, only the pair of terms kusala and akusala is used. The latter two terms refer to karmically qualifiable wholesome and unwholesome volitional acts [cf. Dhammasanghani]. Now, since Nibbana transcends both kusala-kamma and akusala-kamma, the consciousness of one who has attained Nibbana is described as neither kusala nor akusala. In order to refer to this particular consciousness and also to the consciousness which arises as a result of karma (= vipaka) a new term is coined. It is called abyakata, that is that which cannot be determined either as good or bad from the point of view of karma. This then means that the result of karma, which is vipaka as well as Nibbanic consciousness, are neutral. Apparently, the use of the term neutral suggests that Nibbana is beyond good and evil.
Such a conclusion does not arise if the term neutral is understood in relation to its proper context. Here neutral means neutral in relation to kusala-kamma and akusala-kamma. This is another way of saying that Nibbana transcends the operation of karma altogether. This is precisely what early Buddhism has to say on this matter. Now, since the consciousness of one who has attained Nibbana is neither kusala nor akusala, i.e. from the point of view of karma, the Abhidhamma has coined another term to designate it. It is called kiriya-citta. It is very likely that this term is coined in order to distinguish the Nibbanic consciousness from the consciousness that arises as a result of karma (=vipaka-citta); because, as mentioned above, both are abyakata (neutral). What must be emphasized here is that although the kiriya-citta is neutral from the point of view of karma, it is not neutral from an ethical point of view. This is because as in early Buddhism, the Abhidhamma, too, recognizes a higher order of morality which transcends karma. It is precisely for this reason that the kiriya-citta is also defined as one of the sobhana-cittas [Abhidhammatthasangaha]. Sobhana-citta means beautiful consciousness. For, according to the Abhidhamma, what is morally good is also morally beautiful.
From what we have observed so far, it should become clear that, according to early Buddhist texts, what is good has three levels. One level is represented by the term punna. It refers to those self-motivated good acts which ensure a better position in samsara. The other level is represented by the term kusala. It refers to those good acts which tend towards the realization of Nibbana. Both levels operate within the sphere of the operation of karma. If both punna and kusala are judged to be good, it is purely on the basis of karma. The third level of what is good is also called kusala, but in a different sense. It is kusala in this second sense that operates in Nibbana. Since Nibbana is described as the complete cessation of karma, it logically follows that Nibbana transcends the first two levels of what is good, because they operate within the sphere of karma. It therefore follows that, in Nibbana, the kusala operates transcending the sphere of karma.
How does this third level of what is good operate in Nibbana? This is the next question that must be clarified here. The answer to this question is found in the definition of Nibbana as the cessation of greed (ragakkhaya), hatred or malice (dosakkhaya) and confusion or delusion (mohakkhaya). This shows that one who had attained Nibbana is no more conditioned by these three factors, which are defined as the root-causes of all that is morally unwholesome. They are also defined as pamanakarana. Pamanakarana means that which sets limits to our freedom. When we are overcome by them we do not get a clear and total vision into the nature of reality. What we get instead is a blurred and twisted vision, coloured by our own prejudices. One who has attained Nibbana has transcended all such limiting and conditioning factors. Hence the Arahant is described as simatiga, i.e. one who has gone beyond all boundaries, boundaries that bind the total vision. Accordingly the Arahant is said to lead a life with a mind transcending all boundaries (vimariyadikata-cetasa-viharati). This freedom from all boundaries comes with the decomposition of the self-notion. When the self-notion and the egocentricity are no more, the mind becomes universal. Thus the Buddhist ideal of emancipation coincides with the Buddhist ideal of universalism. This also implies that the idea of universalism is a barren notion if it is not grounded on moral perfection. When it is maintained that the acts of one who has attained Nibbana are not conditioned by greed, malice and delusion, this means that they are free and spontaneous acts. They are free from self-interest, free from self-motivation, free from self-expectation and free from any kind of self-identification. This is because realization of Nibbana means the complete elimination of all self-centred motives and ego-centric impulses. Such acts are not without interest, but free from self-interest. Renunciation means not renunciation of activity but renunciation of self-centred activity.
Before we conclude this lecture, we would like to draw your attention to another important aspect of the Buddhist moral life, that is from the point of view of Nibbana experience. This refers to the fact that, according to Buddhism, moral perfection should be accompanied by knowledge and must also be based on knowledge. If they do not go together moral perfection loses its very foundation. To put it briefly, this means that a person who is morally perfect but is not aware of his moral perfection is not morally perfect. This may appear rather paradoxical, nevertheless from the Buddhist point of view it is the case.
This situation is very well illustrated in the Samanamandika Sutta of the Majjhimanikaya which records the theory of moral perfection as advocated by a religious teacher of the Buddha's day, called Uggahamana. As recorded here his definition of a morally perfect person is a follows:
"A person who does not do an evil act with his body, speaks no evil speech, intends no evil intention, leads no evil livelihood is - to that extent - morally perfect".
Apparently this seems to be how the Buddha himself teaches moral perfection. However, the fact that it comes to be criticized by the Buddha shows that this definition of moral perfection is not acceptable to Buddhism. In criticizing it the Buddha makes these observations:
"According to this view of moral perfection, even a young baby-boy, lying on its back, would be morally perfect. A young baby-boy, lying on its back, does not think of his own body. How then could he do an evil deed with his body, except for a little kicking about. He does not think of his own voice. How then could he utter an evil speech, except for a little crying? He does not think about his own intention. How then could he intend an evil intention, except for a little excitement? He does not think of his own mode of livelihood. How then could he lead an evil mode of livelihood, except for taking his mother's milk?"
This criticism is based on the observation that the naive innocence of a baby-boy, lying on his back, is not based on knowledge and is not accompanied by awareness. It is not something that is deliberately and consciously cultivated. In the same way, moral perfection devoid of the knowledge factor is not moral perfection. This same idea is repeated in a different form elsewhere as follows:
"Just as a man whose hands and feet are cut off knows that his hands and feet are cut off, even so one who is morally perfect, whether he is walking or standing still or asleep or awake, in him there is constant and perpetual presence of knowledge to the effect that all mental defilements are destroyed by him."
The Buddhist moral life is not based on a theory which states that either the sense-organs or corresponding sense-objects are in themselves an obstacle to mental culture. If two oxen, one white and the other black - so runs the argument - are tied by a yoke, it is not correct to say that the black ox is a bond for the white ox or vice-versa. For it is the yoke that constitutes the bond, it is that which unites them both. In the same way, what stands as an obstacle to mental culture are neither the sense organs nor the sense objects, but craving or attachment. If it were otherwise, then one would have to rule out the very possibility of the practice of the moral life (Brahmacariya). More or less the same idea is reflected in the Indriyabhavana sutta where the Buddha questions a disciple of Parasariya as to how his Master teaches moral culture. In reply the latter says that the senses are to be trained to the extent when they fail to fulfill their respective functions: The eye does not see forms; the ear does not hear sounds. Then the Buddha rejoins that this kind of mental culture leads to the conclusion that the blind and the deaf have their senses best cultivated . The clear implication is that mental culture is not to be associated with the suppression of the senses. They should be cultivated to see things as they truly are (Yathabhuta).
The following quotation from E.M. Hare's translation of the Anguttaranikaya [Gradual Sayings, Vol III, p. 291, Pali Text Society] eloquently expresses the Buddhist attitude as well as the Buddhist solution to the problem of man's ensnarement by his own passionate desires:
In passionate purpose lies man's sense-desire
The world's gay glitters are not sense-desires
In passionate purpose lies man's sense-desire
The world's gay glitters as they are abide
But wise men hold desire therefore in cheek.
We would like to thank Dr. Tadeusz Skorupski for organising these lectures and making them available to the Middle Way.
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