Printer Friendly

Ethical confusion: possible misunderstandings in Buddhist ethics.

There has been much fruitful discussion of Buddhist ethics over the last two decades, much of it in response to Damien Keown's The Nature of Buddhist Ethics (1992). However, the discussion has been complicated by a number of possible misconceptions leading to less than helpful formulation of important questions and attempts to solve at least one problem that does not seem to exist in the tradition (at least the Theravada) itself. In the present paper I address inadequate understandings of the term punna, the motivations for good and right behavior in the Buddhist context, and the distinction between what I shall call "karmic results" (2) and "ordinary consequences." (3) To motivate the discussion and provide context, I briefly review Keown's book and two responses, those of Abraham Velez de Cea (2004) and Martin T. Adam (2005). I do not mean by this choice of authors to imply that the issues and possible misunderstandings discussed here are exclusively the provenance of western scholars. Indeed Keown's thesis owes much to the work of Sri Lankan P. D. Premasiri, whom he cites, and all three authors reviewed here refer to Premasiri's position on the difference between punna and kusala, either agreeing or disagreeing. It may well be that Premasiri initially problematized the relation between these concepts; his paper, "Interpretation of two principal ethical terms in early Buddhism," (1976) is cited in nearly every academic paper I have found treating the subject. (4) Other nonwestern scholars have discussed the issue as well, for example P. A. Payutto (2012) of Thailand (although he does not reference Premasiri) and Piya Tan (2006) of Malaysia.

My purpose is to clarify a few concepts rather than to give an exposition and critique of these authors' work. Thus, I focus only on the issues here raised rather than their overall arguments, and make no attempt at proposing an overall characterization of Buddhist ethics. Neither is it my purpose to definitively characterize the relationship between punna and kusala, the debate about which motivates the present effort. Although I offer a suggestion here, the main purpose is rather to clarify some of the issues involved. It should also be noted that my expertise and experience are in the Theravada, and it is to that tradition that my remarks apply.

Keown, Velez de Cea, and Adam

Damien Keown characterizes Buddhist ethics as a virtue ethics, similar to that articulated by Aristotle. In his understanding, the rightness or wrongness of actions (5) has nothing to do with results or consequences of any kind; rather their moral status is determined solely by the "preceding motivation" (178). Actions are right to the extent that they manifest or participate in "nirvanic values" such as "Liberality (araga), Benevolence (adosa) and Understanding (amoha)," (ibid.). "If an action does not display nirvanic qualities then it cannot be right in terms of Buddhist ethics whatever other characteristics (such as consequences) it might have" (177). "Nirvanic qualities" Keown identifies with kusala dhamma (118), that is, by his definition, "those things which are to be pursued if enlightenment is to be attained."

But actions that are said to be good and right are associated in the Pali Nikayas and the tradition with punna as well as with kusala. Punna and its opposite, apunna or papa, have to do with kamma and the vipaka of karmic results, that is, actions and the pleasant or painful results necessitated by the law of kamma, often, though not necessarily, following rebirth. In his effort to maintain a unified ethics, Keown maintains that punna and kusala refer to the same set of actions--with an exception for arahants. (6) Kusala in Keown's formulation refers to the rightness of actions, that is, in his characterization, their participation in nirvanic virtues, and punna refers to the tendency of those same actions to generate pleasant results (122), though he does not follow this definition consistently. He then seems to feel constrained by his position that Buddhist ethics are strictly non-consequentialist to minimize the significance of the results of kusala/punna actions, whether ordinary consequences (e.g., "A good reputation") or karmic results ("A happy rebirth in heaven"), characterizing them as "non-moral," "secondary, contingent, consequences of moral actions" (125), and holding that their "primary effect" isto enhance the actor's participation in "nibbanic goods" (127).

Part of Keown's motivation for maintaining a unified ethics, and for insisting on the referential equivalence of these two terms, is his rejection of what he calls the "transcendency thesis," whereby the ethics of ordinary people aim at a happy rebirth but arahants transcend ethics and are beyond good and evil. Keown is right to reject this thesis, and I shall take it as given that the transcendency thesis, at least as Keown presents it, is indefensible.

Keown's thesis is immensely appealing, yet its very novelty may give one pause. Abraham Velez de Cea calls into question Keown's stripping results of moral status, a move that Velez de Cea calls the "marginalization" of "proximate goals" (125). Velez de Cea notes that many Buddhists perform good deeds and observe sila motivated by "nonnirvanic virtues such as craving for a proximate goal such as a good rebirth," and even those whose ethical behavior is aimed at "nirvana do so, at least on some occasions, motivated by subtle forms of spiritual greed" (125). If so, then much ostensibly good behavior would, by Keown's criteria, be wrong, or at best non-moral. Velez de Cea, reasonably enough, finds this conclusion unsatisfactory (125).

But Velez de Cea's most decisive argument against making nibbana the locus of all that is good and right exclusive of results or consequences is that "proximate goals," independent of any relation to nibbana, have from the very beginning been invoked to validate the goodness and rightness of actions (126-127). Such validation is indeed ubiquitous in the Pali Nikayas and commentarial literature, (7) although it may here be remarked that such validation in no way implies that results and consequences are determinative of moral status. (8)

Velez de Cea rejects Keown's assimilation of punna to kusala. He gives little real justification for this position beyond the claim, citing Lance Cousins (1996) that the term "punna is most often used in regard to actions intended to bring about results of a pleasant kind in the future" (Cousins 154, cited at Velez de Cea 130). Hence, because of the greedy intention, such actions cannot be kusala. He also claims that "Theravada Buddhist ethics, in practice, seems to maintain a clear distinction between actions leading to the accumulation of punna and the experience of pleasant consequences within samsara, and kusala actions leading to nirvana." I have detected no such clear distinction, either in text or in practice. On the contrary, kusala is frequently said to accumulate punna in the Nikayas (I return to this below) and traditional Thai Buddhists, at least, sometimes refer to very good deeds as bunkuson, literally "punna-kusala." (9)

Velez de Cea's argument for an element of consequentialism in Buddhist ethics is drawn from the Ambalatthikarahulovada Sutta (MN I 414) in which the Buddha advises his son, Rahula, to reflect carefully about whether actions are harmful to himself, others or both, defining such actions as akusala actions with painful yield (udraya) and result (vipaka), and defining the opposites as kusala actions with pleasant yield (udraya) and result (vipaka). Velez de Cea understands this as defining kusala actions as those that "minimize suffering for the greatest number," hence, at least in part, as utilitarian (133). (10)

In spite of maintaining a distinction between punna and kusala actions, Velez de Cea endeavors to reinstate Keown's thesis, albeit in somewhat modified form. His insertion of consequentialist considerations sets up his solution: a "heuristic distinction between instrumental and teleological actions" wherein instrumental actions lead to "favorable conditions for cultivating nirvanic virtues," and teleological actions manifest those virtues (129). This formulation allows him to maintain that actions that do not in themselves manifest "nirvanic virtues," such as observing sila out of craving for a heavenly rebirth, nevertheless participate in the good instrumentally, because their results or consequences are favorable to the cultivation of those virtues (130). Although he takes care to point out that the distinction he makes is "not exactly equivalent to the distinction between punna and kusala," it allows him to argue that both kusala and punna actions are morally good in that they can be understood "as leading in different ways (teleological and instrumental) to one and the same soteriological goal" (131).

Responding to Velez de Cea, Martin T. Adam (2005) argues that kusala and punna do, after all, except for arahants, (11) refer to the same class of actions. His argument is based on a discussion of the "bright and dark" (sukka and kanha) pair of action types, as presented in the Kukkuravatika Sutta (MN I 387). In Adam's interpretation, kusala actions, with an important exception not only for those of arahants but also for those of sekhas, that is, sotapannas, sakadagamis, and anagamis, are here represented as having bright results, thus, as being punna. Neither-bright-nordark actions he identifies as those of sekhas; these actions are certainly kusala, but they are also punna though in a different way from bright actions, that is as instrumentally but not teleologically punna (72-75). (12) Having reunited kusala with punna, and retaining Keown's idea of a close association of kusala with nibbana and the pursuit of nibbana, he must contend with the problem that, as he believes, "Punna is a term usually used to refer to actions that are intended to bring about pleasant results" (70, emphasis added), again citing Cousins. In other words, Adam concludes, punna typically refers to actions characterized by the non-kusala, "non-nirvanic," quality of lobha--craving, greed, and the like. But, he worries, how can such actions be assimilated to the class of right, kusala, actions? His solution is a refinement of Velez de Cea's instrumental/teleological distinction: the same action may be both instrumental and teleological. For ordinary persons, good deeds may be teleologically punna in that the motivation is pleasant results for oneself; "In most circumstances ... one's moral conduct is motivated by the desire to benefit oneself (e.g. with a higher rebirth, the prospect of pleasure, etc.)" (74). The same act, according to Adam, may be instrumentally kusala in that it contributes to future conditions beneficial to the pursuit of nibbana. On the other hand, the actions of a person committed to the pursuit of nibbana may be teleologically kusala inasmuch as he or she is "inevitably drawn to" nibbana (but "not motivated by the goal of attaining it for him or herself"), but instrumentally punna given that these actions will nevertheless issue in pleasant results should the actor fail to escape rebirth (75). For Adam, the distinction is one of intention; the teleology of an action is in the actor's purpose or what he is "drawn to," its instrumentality in the unintended results (74-75).

What we seem to have here are distinctions and refinements of distinctions never made in the tradition in order to answer questions never asked in defense of a thesis that has no precedent. It is not, of course, illegitimate to formulate novel theses and to propose new distinctions in the effort to understand traditional Buddhist positions in modern terms, but such theses and critiques of them should be firmly grounded in Buddhist reality, both text and practice. I submit that the grounding of the present discussion, although citing the texts, has become rather tenuous, having been led astray by a number of misunderstandings that seem to be fairly common in the field. I discuss three areas of misunderstanding below in the hope of bringing some clarification to the discussion: (1) the meaning of punna; (2) human motivation in relation to kamma and vipaka; and (3) the distinction between ordinary consequences and karmic results.


The writers cited above are concerned with whether or not punna refers to the same class of actions as kusala (excepting acts of arahants). Typically, however, rather than as an adjective predicated of action, punna, appears as a noun, for example in the construction, punnarn pasavanti, "they bring forth/give birth to/produce punna," (Pasadika Sutta, DN III 120), and seems to mean a force of goodness that is built up, produced, and accumulated. The phrase apunnar pasavanti is much more common, and evidently the characterization presented here can be applied to both, though the parallelism may not be complete.

According to the PED, punna is "Always represented as foundation and condition of heavenly rebirth & a future blissful state." Although the Nikayas, in fact, only occasionally make that connection explicit, it does seem to be an implicit assumption (cf. MN III 71, DN I 60, MN III 172). In other words, in its time the force of punna issues positive vipaka as karmic result, including, though not limited to, a happy rebirth for one who possesses it. The marks of a great man as well are said to be a result of great punna (DN III 149) and having accumulated much punna is of great benefit to the pursuit of nibbana (DN III 278). In the Janavasabha Sutta, Brahma Sanakumara, speaking of the destinies of the followers of the Buddha, says that he is unable to speak of the destiny of arahants, as they have "gone on" through splendorous punna: puMa-bhagati (DN II 218). In other words, they have gone beyond rebirth by the force of punna. This seems anomalous in that an arahant is supposed to have gone beyond punna (13) and the mechanics of the law of kamma. True, the statement is put in the mouth of an unenlightened Brahma, but the Buddha approves and repeats the deity's words.

In the Brahmajala Sutta the Buddha speaks of beings falling from one heavenly realm to another, a kind of death and rebirth, when their punna has been exhausted, making the connection with karmic result explicit (DN I 18). Besides confirming the connection with rebirth, punna is here seen as a kind of store that is depleted as the vipakas accrue.

This force is built up and accumulated (bahur punnar pasavanti) in a number of ways. Following the teaching of the Buddha builds up the store (DN III 121). (14) Being well behaved and moral like the samanabrahmanas does the same (DN II 332). Punna is generated or accessed (15) in large amounts by gifts to the Sangha: the standard formula of praise for the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha includes the statement that the Sangha is worthy of gifts and an incomparable field of punna for the world (punna-kkhettam lokassati) (DN II 94). The Mahaparinibbana Sutta story of Cunda's gift of the Buddha's final meal says that the gift is of very great fruit, followed immediately by the statement that giving accumulates punna: dadato punnam pavaddhati (DN II 136). In the Cakkavatti Sutta, the Buddha says Kusalanam bhikkhave dhammanam samadanahetu evamidam punnam pavaddhati, "Monks, it is just rooted in the undertaking of kusala states that this punna increases" (16) (DN III 58): things kusala bring an increase of punna. This concept of punna appears to have been current beyond the Buddha and his followers. In the Samannaphala Sutta, for example, Purana Kassapa is said to have espoused the wrong view that actions normally thought to be right, such as giving and truth telling, bring no punna: n'atthi tatonidanam punnam n'atthi punnassa agamo (DN I 53). A more extended discussion of teachers who hold this and the opposite view is given in the Apannaka Sutta (M II 404-407).

This understanding may be conceptualized as follows. Certain actions will, by the law of kamma, be followed eventually and inevitably (17) by a pleasurable experience, vipaka as karmic result. That vipaka, however, may be a long time, even lifetimes, in coming. In the meantime, the force of the act hovers, as it were, waiting until it is expended in vipaka. That "hovering" force is punna, more-or-less what we mean in English when we say that someone "has good karma."

On the other hand, there are a few places where the term clearly is predicated of actions. In the Mahapandana Sutta, it is said of one who has gone forth: kusala-kiriya sadhu puMa-kiriya sadhu avihimsa sadhu (DN II 28). Kiriya means action, a near synonym of kamma, so we have kusala action, punna action, and harmlessness as all being sadhu, or good. In the Sangxti Sutta (DN III 218), dana, sxla, and bhavana are said to be punna-kiriya-vatthu, or the bases of punna action, or, perhaps, bases for effecting punna. (18) In the Subha Sutta the Buddha discuss five things conducive to punnassa kiriyaya kusalassa aradhanaya (MN II 204-206) translated by Nanamoli and Bodhi as "the performance of merit ... accomplishing the wholesome" and Horner as "the doing of good ... success in what is skilled." In any case, punna-kiriya is a kind of action. Punna-kiriya, and more often apunna-kiriya, turn up in a few other passages, but with nowhere near the frequency with which punna appears as something that is built up and accumulated. Punna-kamma scarcely appears at all in the Nikayas, though it is not uncommon in the commentaries.

Punnani karoti occurs more often, for example, in the Kutadanta Sutta, where King Mahavijita is said to be opanabhuto punnani karoti (DN I 137), having become a welling spring he punnani karoti. According to the PED, puMani karoti (s.v. punna) means "to do good," but "performs deeds productive of punna" seems quite possible as well. In any case, punnani is not an adjective modifying karoti but a noun in the accusative, so that since karoti can mean "to make" or "to build" as well as "to do," the most probable meaning is that king is a welling spring producing punna.

The noun punna has sometimes been translated by constructions such as "meritorious action," for example in translations of the Metta Sutta of the Itivuttaka (It 15-16) by Peter Masefield (11) and by John Ireland (14). The passage in question reads ma, bhikkhave, punnanam bhayittha, "Do not, monks, fear punnas." By the understanding suggested above, punnanam would mean the force of goodness that is built up by right/good actions, not the actions themselves. The commentary would seem to support that interpretation, explaining punna in this phrase by citing: "kusalanam, bhikkhave, dhammanam samadanahetu evamidam punnam pavaddhati' tiadxsu" (it-a I 74) "Things kusala, monks, undertaken, accumulate punna," and continuing, "punna-phale agato," "the fruits of punna accrue."

This sutta continues with an interesting discussion of the concept:
   sukhassetam, bhikkhave, adhivacanam itthassa kantassa piyassa
   manapassa yadidam punnani. abhijanami kho panaham, bhikkhave,
   digharattam katanam puManam ittham kantam piyam manapam vipakam
   paccanubhutam- satta vassani mettacittam bhavetva satta
   samvattavivattakappe nayimam lokam punaragamasim

   "Punnas," monks is a word for what is happiness, pleasing,
   enjoyable, dear, charming. I know from experience the results of
   punnas built up for a long time as pleasant [etc]. Having
   cultivated a heart of lovingkindness for seven years, for seven
   kalpas I did not return to this world [but was reborn as a variety
   of deities].

The first sentence seems to define punna simply as "good" in an affective, non-moral sense, the second as something that is built up and that has such "good" results, and the third connecting that "something" with the cultivation of lovingkindness on the one side and on the other placing the results clearly in the realm of karmic results accruing over multiple rebirths. That "something" could be either the cultivation itself, thus a kind of action, or the force of goodness built up by the cultivation. The impression here is that punna is not a precisely defined concept, but "good" in a roughly affective sense with strong connotations of kamma and karmic results, and especially of the links between the two.

It may be noted here that the standard, if rather late, Abhidhamma textbook, the Abhidhammattha Sangaha, sometimes uses punna as a synonym for kusala as predicated of karmic results. For example, punnapakiani, "ripened punna" is contrasted with akusala-pakani, "ripened akusala" (Bodhi 45, cf. p. 51, etc.). Punna is also predicated of the jhanas (74), and of kusala cittas in general (170). In all such cases, Bodhi translates punna as "wholesome," also his favored rendering of kusala (389).

In a much-cited paper Lance Cousins writes:
   As a noun [punna] is applied either to an act which brings good
   fortune or to the happy result in the future of such an act. Of
   course the early Buddhists certainly taught that the kind of act
   which brings good fortune is precisely one which is blameless and
   praiseworthy, one which is skilful in the sense that it is produced
   by wisdom or at all events because it is the kind of thing that a
   wise person would do or approve. (155)

This is accurate as far as it goes, if we substitute "adjective" for "noun," and these usages are recognized by all three of the authors discussed above, though focusing on punna as applied to actions. Our discussion above, however, suggests that by far the more usual meaning of the term, alluded to but not explicitly recognized by the authors, is a force of goodness, generated through certain actions and accumulated until expended in actually experienced vipaka as karmic result. When it appears as an adjective modifying action, it would be natural to understand punna actions as those that build up punna for the actor, but the rarity with which it appears this way, provides insufficient evidence for a high degree of certainty. It may well be that, as suggested by Cousins, actions believed to be right and good were simply not distinguished from those issuing in pleasant karmic results, and that punna as an adjective often simply meant "right and good"--with an underlying assumption that pleasant results would obtain.

The diversity of usages, and the fact that the word is not used anywhere nearly as often as is kusala, suggests that punna is not a precisely delineated technical term in the Nikayas. That suspicion is supported by the fact that the term seems not to appear at all in the Dhammasangani, which, among other things, constitutes a compendium of technical terms. Cousins comes to the same conclusion (153).

Velez de Cea alludes to the typical meaning suggested here when he writes of "actions leading to the accumulation of punna" (131) Keown occasionally does the same, for example writing that observing the precepts is "associated with the production of merit (punna)" (46). But elsewhere (122), Keown suggests that punna refers to the "pleasant consequences of good deeds" themselves, as does the Abhidhammattha Sangaha, and on the same page, to a class of actions, and again on the next page as the "felt consequences of an increase or decrease in virtue." I would suggest that these slippages in meaning may reflect ambiguity in the sources themselves, and that the question of the relationship between kusala and punna actions, and the attendant problem, may be demanding more precision than one (at least) of the terms is capable of bearing.

The Thai scholar-monk P. A. Payutto, for one, does not seem to find the relationship between these terms deeply problematic. In his voluminous The Buddhadhamma (2012), he defines punna in the following way:
   The Buddhadhamma teaches that the good is of value in cultivating
   the mind, cleansing, purifying and elevating it, called punna,
   giving rise to flourishing beauty in the life of the mind/heart for
   going beyond, that is, liberation both of mind and of wisdom,
   acting intelligently, acting according to wisdom boosting mental
   health, called kusala. (765) (19)

Thai famously can be quite ambiguous and he could be saying either that they are the same or that the first leads to the other, but on page 164 he lists punna as a synonym of kusala, and in his most explicit discussion of the relation between these two concepts, having asked, almost rhetorically, what is the difference between them, given they are often used interchangeably he writes,
   In their widest meanings punna ... and kusala ... mean the same
   thing, but in actual usage [of the Buddha], the meaning of punna is
   narrower and takes a more specific perspective. (169)

Punna, he continues influences the substratum of rebirth (opadhika) and is to be identified with lokiya kusala. It does not fully correspond to kusala, in that there is lokuttara kusala but no lokuttara punna, he writes, citing the commentaries, especially to the Itivuttaka (169-170). (20) However, Ven. Payutto is here discussing the concepts themselves and does not indicate that they specifically apply to actions.

Given these considerations, the question whether kusala and punna name the same class of actions might better be rephrased as whether the class of kusala actions is exactly the class of actions that build up punna, or even better, given the ambiguity of the latter term, whether the class of kusala actions is just that class of actions that generate future pleasant karmic results. Adam comes close to this formulation with, "Are all nirvanic actions karmically meritorious?" (65).


The attempt to understand punna and its precise relationship to kusala seems to have been complicated by a serious misunderstanding about motivation--both as described in Buddhist texts and in the psychology of actual human beings. That is, the assumption that because right actions are believed to lead inevitably to pleasant experiences, people perform such actions motivated by desire for those experiences. This assumption has been around at least since C. A. F. Rhys Davids asserted in the early days of Buddhist Studies that "The Buddhist, then, was a Hedonist," and "his morality ... utilitarian" (Rhys Davids xciii). As we have seen, Lance Cousins (130) claims that the term punna typically refers to actions intended to achieve future pleasure. Velez de Cea and Adam then wrestle with the problem that in Velez de Cea's words, moral action for Buddhists may often be motivated by "craving for a proximate goal such as a good rebirth" (125). The hope of rescuing Keown's central thesis then leads them to the instrumental/teleological distinction, whereby actions with "non-nirvanic" motivations may yet be counted as morally good.

But all this is unnecessary. First, nowhere in text or commentary, as far as I am aware, does punna refer specifically to actions motivated by craving for pleasant results. The Mahaniddesa defines it as whatever is of the nature of kusala (PED s.v. punna) and, as we have seen, in the Nikayas, kusala actions are said to generate the force of goodness, punna, that eventually issues in pleasant karmic results; but then, those same kusala actions would seem to lack craving by definition (MN I 47; DN III 269) and the problem how punna actions could also be kusala disappears--assuming that punna actions are those that generate punna. Keown does not make this mistake and notes (180) that there is "something is wrong with the premises of the argument," that a Buddhist would cultivate, say, compassion for selfish reasons. Indeed, it is hardly credible that in all cases, good or right actions would, in the act itself, be characterized by craving for pleasure to come in a probably distant future in which there may not even be the memory of this lifetime and these actions. As a child with a Christian upbringing, my young friends and I were taught that certain kinds of action would store up treasures in heaven and that other kinds of action would earn black marks against our names in God's ledger. But although these beliefs validated for us the rightness or wrongness of certain actions, we did not really visit the elderly in order to build up treasure in heaven; we did not really refrain from stealing candy in order to avoid those black marks; certainly, adult Christians do not typically act with such motivations. Rather, people typically perform, say, acts of charity out of compassion, piety, or just because they believe them to be right, knowing also that such acts build up treasures in heaven or punna; at other times they perform acts of dishonesty or infidelity, knowing also that such acts build up papa or earn black marks in God's ledger. The intention of the act itself remains to give or to cheat, though the prospect of future pleasure or pain may help to tip the balance in a decision.

My experience among traditional Buddhists in Thailand is indeed that the intention of putting food in a monk's bowl is typically something resembling piety, or to a beggar, compassion. In Thailand such acts are typically referred to as thambun, usually translated "making merit," but tham means "to do" as much as "to make" (sang, ko), thus "doing/making punna"--the sense is doing good and producing or accessing goodness, which by definition includes building up one's store of punna. One typically puts food into a monk's bowl not in order to store up treasures in heaven, but to transfer the spiritual essence of the food to one's deceased relatives in their next lives; (21) similarly, one gives robes to a monk as a way of transferring clothing to those who have gone on. (22) Giving to a beggar is an act of pure compassion, as it is thought that the same gift to a monk would produce or access a greater store of punna and accompanying prospects for a happy rebirth. I do not of course deny that more selfish motives often come into play, (23) especially when contemplating and planning future activities in the abstract. But as Keown writes, "some Christians keep the commandments in the hope of going to heaven [but that is no argument that] Christian morality is merely enlightened self-interest" (74).

On the other hand, although it is incontestable that actions free of craving, hatred and delusion, are kusala and generate punna, it is not entirely clear that all kusala actions are devoid of craving. In spite of the many texts that seem to so imply, others seem to equivocate. In the MahacattarTsaka Sutta, for example, the Buddha speaks of "right action" that is "with cankers," hence presumably craving, "conducive to punna," and "ripening in attachment [i.e. rebirth]" (sammakammanto sasavo puMabhagiyo upadhivepakko) (MN III 73). The term used is samma rather than kusala, but the statement is given in the context of the Eightfold Path, all of which is presumably kusala. Thus, actions harboring some element of craving and the other akusala roots are not universally presented as morally reprehensible or even as akusala. It may be noted too, that in teaching Rahula the difference between kusala and akusala actions, the Buddha makes no mention of craving and the like. Buddhaghosa seems to allow that kusala actions may have akusala qualities when he grades moral virtue (sfla) as inferior, middling, or superior depending on whether it is motivated by craving (kamata) for fame, for punna, or undertaken in pursuit of the ariyan condition (Vism 10, 13). Velez de Cea (134) notices, though with different motivation, that in the Nikayas whether or not an action is kusala is not necessarily determined by the exclusive presence of kusala roots, referring to a standard list of 10 kusalas: (24)
   Certainly, mental states add unwholesomeness or wholesomeness to
   actions, but it is important to highlight that (MN I.47) does not
   state that ... external bodily and verbal actions are unwholesome
   or wholesome depending on just the mental root from which they

That craving for pleasant vipaka may, as it were, contaminate otherwise right actions is rarely recognized explicitly in the Nikayas, but there is a story toward the end of the Payasi Sutta (DN II 354-357) that illustrates how desire for a happy rebirth diminishes the goodness of deeds without rendering them morally reprehensible. (25) King Payasi, desiring punna, establishes a center for distributing food and clothing in hopes thereby of earning a heavenly rebirth. However, because of his lack of genuine generosity, the food given was poor fare and the clothing used and worn. After being rebuked for his stinginess by the manager of the distribution center, the king authorized more lavish provisions. Nevertheless, because his motivation was a happy rebirth rather than true generosity, he was reborn in the lowest regions of heaven in a lonely, empty mansion, whereas the manager who gave unstintingly and with his own hands was reborn in the Tavatimsa heaven.

Given that "punna actions" does not specifically refer to actions motivated by desire for future pleasure, and that such motivations, if present, diminish the punna accessed, without necessarily rendering the actions akusala, the problem of how punna actions could also be kusala actions disappears. However, that brings to light another set of questions having to do with the precise relations among moral/immoral actions, kusala/akusala actions, kusala/akusala roots, and pleasurable/painful karmic results. Exploring these is beyond the scope of this article. I would comment, however, that if it is the case that kusala actions might harbor akusala elements, then Velez de Cea's teleological/instrumental distinction may have utility in understanding why and how that may be.

Consequences and Karmic Results

The final issue I raise here is the tendency to conflate the ordinary consequences of actions (e.g., those resulting from psychological, social, and/or material causes) with karmic results, the pleasurable and painful personal experiences that are the inevitable effect of right and wrong actions according to the law of kamma. Although there seems to be no unambiguous terminological distinction in Pali, the Buddha himself recognized not only the operations of the law of kamma but also that actions were socially and psychologically effective, independent of that law--that certain actions tended, socially, psychologically, or materially, to produce happy or sad results as ordinary consequences (e.g., Devadahasutta M II 214). Moreover, it is well known that Nikayan doctrine holds that much but not all suffering is due to past kamma.

Keown lists traditional benefits of observing sfla, including both ordinary consequences and rebirth in heaven, treating them as morally and qualitatively equivalent, in spite of a separate section entitled "A Happy Rebirth" (45-46). Keown later examines five of these benefits:

1. A large fortune produced through diligence.

2. A good reputation.

3. Entering confident and unconfused into any assembly.

4. An unconfused death.

5. A happy rebirth in heaven. (125-126)

The first four of these we would today normally call consequences (i.e., "ordinary consequences"), the fifth being karmic result. He terms all five "secondary, contingent, consequences of moral actions." But there is nothing contingent about karmic results. Whether or not one who observes sila gains "a large fortune produced through diligence" and "a good reputation," depends on such factors as social and material context and may or may not accrue (at least in this life). Rebirth, on the other hand, is dictated by the immutable, as it were contextless, law of kamma. (26) In his effort to assimilate karmic results to ordinary consequences, Keown writes, "Kamma is not a form of sympathetic magic by which the universe mechanically rewards moral action ... not an occult power; ... stated simply it is the principle that moral actions have consequences," effectively erasing the distinction. To the extent that punna has to do with karmic results, Keown sustains the erasure when he conflates punna with the pleasure of social approval for good deeds (179) and when, as we have seen, he identifies punna with the feeling accompanying an increase in virtue; these would be social and psychological consequences rather than karmic results. He does, however, recognize the distinction between consequences for oneself and for others (180). Similarly, Velez de Cea, after insisting on the importance to Buddhist ethics of "proximate goals" such as a good rebirth, proceeds to speak indiscriminately of "consequences," evidently including both ordinary consequences and karmic results. Adam does not fall into this equivocation as he focuses primarily on the karmic result of rebirth rather than ordinary consequences and he indicates an appreciation of the distinction, for example, in Note 6 (Adam 78).

One may wish to take the doctrine of kamma and karmic result as a mythological way of recognizing the connection between actions and their social and psychological effects, i.e., recognizing that "actions have consequences." Indeed, the actions that the Buddha considered right and good were, for the most part, those that were socially acceptable and that would tend to have beneficial results for the actor in sociological and psychological ways. Such results would be contingent; things would only tend to work out that way rather than following the necessity of the law of kamma. Such discrepancies are, I believe, acceptable in demythologizations. The myth expresses the sense of an equivalence of the right and the good, of what is morally right with what is beneficial, and of the necessary goodness of the right, even where that goodness is not evident. The problem with this approach is, first, the problem with all demythologization: the myths were believed by those who propounded them; they meant exactly what they said. The more serious problem is that, as noted above, the Nikayas make an explicit distinction between these realms of causation, and insist on the law of kamma, not as myth, but as actual and as distinct from "ordinary" causation. (27) As a bit of an aside, I would say that the passages equating heavens and hells with the experience of pleasure and pain do not at all call the existence of karmic results or of heavens and hells into question, or reduce them to metaphors for this-life ordinary consequences. Rather they simply state the obvious, that what makes hell hellish is the experience of pain, and that what makes heaven heavenly is the experience of pleasure.

The tendency to assimilate karmic results to ordinary consequences may be due to the utter unfamiliarity--at least to some scholars--of concepts such as punna and karmic result, and with lingering hopes that Buddhism can be characterized as rational in a thoroughly modern sense, almost even as scientific. (28) Dale Wright, proposing a "naturalized" (i.e. demythologized) concept of karma, asks incredulously of the practice of merit transfer: "What kind of magical or supernatural entity would karma have to be to make such a gift of merit make sense?" (87). The answer is: precisely that kind of magical or supernatural entity. Although I am not aware that such transfers are explicitly mentioned in the Nikayas, punna is there said to be accumulated, held, and expended, and its transfer is fully coherent. Wright worries that with this practice it is "inevitable that you come to realize that donating your merit to another ... can't help but win you lots of good merit" (87). But this is not what actually happens. (29) Typically, one transfers merit, or the spiritual essence of the food and clothing offered to monks, to one's deceased friends and relatives. It is a way of connecting with them and assisting them in their next lives; I have never known it in practice to be understood and felt as a means of redoubling one's own merit. (30)

Failure to appreciate the "magical or supernatural" character of kamma and karmic results and to clearly distinguish them from ordinary consequences gets in the way of asking what seem to me important questions of Buddhist ethics. For example, why should the class of actions manifesting "nirvanic virtues" (to use Keown's formulation) and the class of actions yielding pleasurable karmic results be identical? Why should those same actions, by and large, be those that enjoy social approbation? Does the cosmos just happen to be structured that way, or is there some hidden, meaningful connection among them? Conflating ordinary consequences and karmic results also muddies the waters in the discussion whether or not Buddhist ethics has an element of consequentialism or utilitarianism, given that we are here dealing with a fundamentally different kind of result than has been considered significant by consequentialists and utilitarians. But more importantly, it makes it difficult to focus specifically on the significance of the law of kamma for Buddhist ethics.

Again, the Nikayas themselves do not maintain a clear terminological distinction between these two realms of causation, and the Buddha himself often uses vipaka evidently to refer to both; to the Buddha's listeners it would not always have mattered by what mechanism right action yielded happiness. But as noted, the Nikayas do recognize the distinction, and both realms of causation are taken for granted. We moderns need remind ourselves of the reality of the law of kamma for the Nikayas and Buddhist traditions if we are to explore the underpinnings of Buddhist ethics without slipping into what are to us common sense notions of cause and effect, right and wrong.


This discussion has brought to light a number of possible misunderstandings: (1) that punna refers to actions that are motivated by craving; (2) that it is impossible that kusala actions could harbor any element of craving; (3) a conflation of ordinary consequences with karmic results; and (4) a failure to appreciate punna as a force of goodness that is accumulated through actions and expended through karmic results. Not all the authors reviewed here share all these "misunderstandings" or share them in the same degree.

It should now be evident that an inadequate understanding of the concept of punna led to the formulation of a potentially significant question about kamma and vipaka in a way that is less than fully adequate: whether or not kusala actions and punna actions are the same class of actions. Punna most often appears as a noun referring to a force of goodness generated or accessed by certain actions, issuing at some later time in karmic results, rather than to a class of actions themselves. When it does appear as an adjective modifying action it may well refer to actions that generate/access punna but it may often simply mean right and good. In any case, the term only very rarely modifies action, and "punna action" does not appear to be a precise, or even doctrinally significant, concept. The question demands too much precision of the term. I would suggest that for Keown, a failure to appreciate the meaning of punna as force of goodness that is built up, together with his tendency to assimilate karmic results to ordinary consequences resulted in his rather tortured explanation for excluding the actions of arahants from the class of punna actions--the completely novel, and inconsistently maintained, idea that punna refers to the feeling accompanying an increase in virtue.

A subsequent misunderstanding, which Keown does not share, is that punna actions are those otherwise good actions motivated by craving for future pleasure. That, in turn, led to concern over how greedy actions could count as kusala, and to attempts to solve the problem with distinctions and refinements. However, nowhere in text and tradition, is it said or implied that punna refers to good actions motivated by craving. Indeed, if kusala actions lack craving by definition, then the Nikayan passages that link kusala actions with punna indicate that punna actions do not harbor an element of craving. On the other hand, text and tradition seem to allow that kusala acts can indeed have an element of craving, but that the punna accessed thereby is diminished. In either case, the problem exists only in the minds of certain Buddhist Studies scholars.

I shall not here address the validity of Keown's main thesis, but the question of the relation between kusala and punna actions, properly stated, would seem to be easily answered. Understanding punna as a force of goodness issuing in pleasant karmic results, we would ask whether those actions building up punna are just those termed kusala. Given that the concept punna itself may be less than precise in text and tradition, we might better ask whether or not kusala actions are just those actions that set up subsequent pleasant karmic results. The Abhidhammattha Sangaha gives an answer that, as far as I can tell, is consistent with the Nikayas: all kusala actions, and only kusala actions (of non-arahants), set up pleasant karmic results. The actions of arahants, termed kiriya rather than kusala but otherwise identical with the kusala actions of non-arahants, do not. Precisely why the exception for arahants should hold is an important, and not so easily answered, question, (31) but the first task is to realize that it does exist and has to do with the fact that arahants no longer generate the (magical?) forces that bring future karmic results, that is, punnas. The fact of the exception, if not the mechanics, is unproblematic, however, given that the goal of the Buddhist path is escape from rebirth and karmic results.

Other issues raised in the discussion that bear further exploration include the relation between kusala kamma and the kusala mulas: is it really possible, as suggested here, that kusala actions may include, say, craving, and if so, what are the implications for existing characterizations of Buddhist ethics such as those discussed here? The Abhidhamma literature does not allow that any "moment" of action can both be kusala and include akusala roots, but it may be that some other Theravada literature implicitly understands an "act" as including many such moments. The evident discrepancy here suggests a need for us to discover and articulate the theories of action assumed in the various literatures of the Theravada.

Why should it be the case that right actions necessarily (with the standard exceptions) issue in pleasant karmic results? That these same actions are conducive to and manifest nibbana and escape from karmic results? It also occurs to me that the moral category itself is in need of delineation. For example, it is generally recognized that kusala is broader than morality (Harvey 199), yet in practice we tend to treat it as a surrogate for that category (Harvey 176).

My purpose has been clarification, and in spite of criticisms, I believe that the scholars cited here have made important contributions to the conversation. I would also emphasize that there can be no objection to restating in modern terms and demythologizing Buddhist doctrines by and for contemporary Buddhists. I believe, however, that it is incumbent upon scholars to continue to endeavor to understand and elucidate the mythology that is to be reinterpreted and to be absolutely clear when we are engaged in one exercise or the other. That means, among other things, taking the mythology of kamma, punna, and vipaka seriously.


I should like to thank the anonymous reviewers for pointing out multiple problems in the original article, thus saving me from embarrassment, and for their many helpful suggestions, much improving the argument.


References to DN, MN, and S are to volume and page of the Pali Text Society editions. References to It, It-a, Pv-a, Sn, and Vism are to page numbers of Pali Text Society editions.

DN: Digha Nikaya

It: Itivuttaka

It-a: Itivuttaka Commentary

MN: Majjhima Nikaya

Pv-a: Pettavatthu Commentary

Sn: Sutta Nipata

S: Samyutta Nikaya

Vism: Visuddhimagga

PED: The Pali Text Society's Pali-English Dictionary


Adam, Martin. "Groundwork for a Metaphysic of Buddhist Morals: A New Analysis of Punna and Kusala, in Light of Sukka," Journal of Buddhist Ethics 12 (2005), 78-93.

Bhikkhu Bodhi (tr., ed.). A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma: The Abhidhammattha Sangaha of Acariya Anuruddha. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1993.

Cousins, L. S. "Good or Skilful? Kusala in Canon and Commentary," Journal of Buddhist Ethics 3 (1996), 136-164.

Evans, Bruce. "Introduction," in P. A. Payutto, Good, Evil and Beyond: Kamma in the Buddha's Teaching, trans. by Bruce Evans. Thailand: Buddhadhamma Foundation, (1996), viii-xii.

Evans, Stephen A. "Payasi as Scientist: A Nikayan Critique of Scientific Method," Mahachulalongkorn Journal of Buddhist Studies 1 (2008), 53-51. Available online at < buddhist-studies> (accessed 10 April 2012).

Harvey, Peter. "An analysis of factors related to the kusala/akusala quality of actions in the Pali tradition," Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 33, nos. 1-2 (2010(2011)), 175-209.

Keown, Damien. The Nature of Buddhist Ethics. London: Macmillan, 1992.

Payutto, P. A. The Buddhadhamma, revised and expanded (Thai). Bangkok: Buddhadhamma Foundation, 2012.

Premasiri, P. D. "Interpretation of Two Principal Ethical Terms in Early Buddhism," Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities 2 (1976), 63-74.

Rhys Davids, C. A. F. "Introductory Essay," in A Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics (Dhammasangani), translated by C. A. F. Rhys Davids, xxi-ciii. London: Pali Text Society, 1974.

Velez de Cea, Abraham. "The Criteria of Goodness in the Pali Nikayas and the Nature of Buddhist Ethics," Journal of Buddhist Ethics 11 (2004), 129-142.

Wright, Dale S. "Critical Questions Towards a Naturalized Concept of Karma in Buddhism," Journal of Buddhist Ethics 11 (2004), 63-82.

Horner, I. B. (tr.). The Collection of the Middle Length Sayings, Vol. II. Oxford: The Pali Text Society, 1989.

Bhikkhu Nanamoli, Bhikkhu Bodhi (trs.). Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. Somerville: Wisdom Publications, 1995.

Piya Tan. "Beyond Good and Evil: Moral virtue as means and as ends," Living Word of the Buddha SD, 18, no. 7 (2006), at <> (accessed 15 June 2012).

Stephen A. Evans [1]

[1] Independent Researcher, Roi Et, Thailand. Email:

(1) Independent Researcher, Roi Et, Thailand. Email:

(2) I shall use "karmic result" to refer to the results of actions accruing by the law of kamma, whether in the present or in a subsequent lifetime. Although "vipaka" often, and I believe typically, refers to karmic result, the term is also sometimes is used in the Nikayas for what I call here "ordinary consequences."

(3) By "ordinary consequences" I mean the modern western common sense notion of "consequences of actions," roughly those results of actions that accrue through social, psychological, and material forces. Although, as we shall see, the Nikayas clearly recognizes the distinction between karmic results and ordinary consequences, there seems to be no unambiguous terminological distinction.

(4) I have been unable to gain access to this paper. I suspect the same is true of many other scholars, as most references I have found simply paraphrase Keown's or Cousins's remarks. The only quote I have found other than in Keown simply repeats one of the quotes in Keown (122).

(5) Throughout I mean "action" in the Buddhist sense as including thought, word, and bodily deed.

(6) His justification for the exception is based on his unsupported assertion that punna refers to the feeling that accompanies an increase in virtue; but because an arahant's virtue is already complete, no increase is possible (124).

(7) Velez de Cea gives a long list of references, both from scholars and the Nikayas.

(8) Roman Catholics, for example, believe that receiving the sacraments will yield happy consequences in heaven; that belief may validate the sacraments for them but they do not imagine that it is those happy consequences that makes it right to receive the sacraments.

(9) I do not mean to suggest that Thai Buddhist behaviors provide a reliable guide to interpreting early and traditional texts. But they do provide a window into the psychology, attitudes, and behavior of people fully and culturally immersed in the complex of ideas and beliefs that we refer to as Buddhist ethics.

(10) Dr. Velez de Cea maintains that he did not mean to assimilate Buddhist ethics to the utilitarianism of Mill or Bentham, but only to say that "consequences are morally relevant" (private communication). In any case, a more natural interpretation of the Sutta is that the Buddha is simply encouraging his son to be mindful in his actions, and to intend to do no harm. That is, kusala actions are those that intelligently intend no harm, considering likely outcomes, even if the consequences happen to turn out badly.

(11) Interestingly, Adam seems to make an exception also for the jhanas, which he describes as "non-intentional" (70) and as "mental states not associated with action," (70).

(12) See below. However it is not my purpose here to present and critique Adam's overall argument, but to clarify terms.

(13) See, e.g. Sn 121: yodha punnanca papauca, ubho sangamupaccaga ... tamaham brami brahmanam, or S II 82: vijjuppada neva puMabhisankharam abhisankharoti na apuuuabhisankharam

(14) But the Mahacattarisaka Sutta seems to imply that following the Eightfold Path while genuinely endeavoring to eradicate defilements does not: "right view that is on the side of merit [puuuabhagiya], that ripens unto cleaving (to new birth).... [and] right view that is ariyan, cankerless, supermundane, a component of the Way." (MN III 72, Horner's translation). The second kind of right view would seem to refer to those at the first three levels of enlightenment, thus dovetailing with Adam's understanding of "neither bright nor dark" action (Adam 72).

(15) There is sometimes a sense that the monks generate punna which is then tapped into and accessed through gifts.

(16) Translations from the Pali by the author unless otherwise attributed.

(17) There are minor exceptions: a weak kamma may become inactive if its vipaka does not "come due" within a certain number of lifetimes (ahosikamma) (Bodhi, 1993 205), and when an arahant dies, remaining unarisen vipaka can no longer affect him/her.

(18) Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for the suggested interpretation.

(19) Quotations from Buddhadhamma translated from the Thai by the author.

(20) This portion of Payutto's Buddhadhamma, Chapter 5 (pp. 151-222), has been translated into English as Good, Evil, and Beyond, by Bruce Evans (1996). However, the discussion cited above was omitted as "not particularly relevant to non-Buddhist cultures" (Evans xi).

(21) The indiginous Thai understanding of rebirth is mixed up with animist conceptions of going to live in the phii (ghost) village with a phii family etc. But the issue here is the motivation for performing actions believed to generate punna.

(22) I am not aware that this understanding appears in the major Nikayas, but it certainly does appear in the Commentaries, e.g. in the Peta Vatthu story of the bald peta, Khallatiyapetavatthuvannana (Pv-a 46-53), in which clothing is transferred to a naked peta via a gift of clothing to a savaka.

(23) At least one monastery in Bangkok solicits donations with a large banner reading, "Make Merit and Get Rich." Too many fall for this, donating their meager incomes in expectation of winning the lottery as a result of punna gained.

(24) Abstention from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, false, malicious and harsh speech, and gossip, together with non-covetousness, non-malevolence, and right view, (M I 47).

(25) Peter Harvey makes the same point: "the greater the concern with punna, the lesser the degree of the good result" (202). However, the texts he cites do not clearly support this interpretation.

(26) Of course, when and where karmic results accrue may well be influenced by circumstances, contingencies, that give opportunity for such results to arise, but the results themselves are not the outcome of what we would today consider an ordinary sequence of events.

(27) Again, this is not to deny that material causes may provide the occasion for a karmic result to acrue.

(28) I have elsewhere challenged the characterization of Buddhism as scientific or empirical in any modern sense (e.g. "Payasi").

(29) Note that I am not denying that such transfers are held in the tradition to generate more personal punna.

(30) Wright is thinking of a Mahayana context, while my experience and expertise are in the Theravada. Nevertheless, I doubt that the psychology of merit transfer is radically different.

(31) When I asked my traditional teacher why, given that cetana is a universal quality of action, including for arahants, and that the Buddha taught that cetana is kamma, arahants commit no kamma, he first said that panna predominates. When pressed, he gave the standard evasion: "Only a Buddha knows."
COPYRIGHT 2012 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Evans, Stephen A.
Publication:Journal of Buddhist Ethics
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2012
Previous Article:The case of Sudinna: on the function of Vinaya narrative, based on a comparative study of the background narration to the first Parajika rule.
Next Article:Buddhism, punishment, and reconciliation.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters