akusala (unskillful)

The puzzle of “skillful” and “unskillful” as ethical terms

Man practicing piano in a darkened room, with the piano illuminated by a desk lamp.

One of the things that struck me as odd when I first encountered the Buddha’s teachings was the terms he used when he discussed living ethically or morally: “skillful” (kusala) and “unskillful” (akusala).

Maybe these terms are new to you. Or maybe they’re so familiar that you’ve stopped thinking about them. Either way, they are an unusual way to talk about morality.

The most common terms for describing ethical actions are good and bad, right and wrong, and good and evil. These are the terms most of us grew up hearing.

It’s not that the Buddha never used that kind language. Particularly when he was composing poetry, or when he was speaking to uneducated people, he’d use the word puñña, which means merit or “good,” and pāpa, which means bad or evil.

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But when he was talking technically, to serious Dharma practitioners — monks, nuns, and those householders who were dedicated disciples — he used these words “skillful” and “unskillful.”

No one can know for sure why Buddha chose those terms, but what might he have had in mind?

What is Skill?

So let’s think about what skill is. What does it mean to do something in a skilled way?

My understanding is that if you have skill you’re able to achieve something challenging that you set out to do. That’s the definition of being skilled.

So a skilled carpenter has the idea they’re going to make, say, a beautiful coffee table. And lo and behold, a beautiful coffee table appears. They have the skill to be able to create it. A skilled potter, wants to make a particular kind of pot. And because they’ve done a lot of practice, because they know what they’re doing, they’re able to make that kind of pot. They have the skill to accomplish what they set out to do. A person who lacks skill cannot do that. So that’s what it means to be skilled, or unskilled.

Skillful and Unskillful As Ethical Terms

Now, the Buddha used these terms, skilled and unskilled, in an ethical sense.

What does it mean to have skill in an ethical sense? Well, ethics is a part of practice. The Buddha talked about “the threefold training” which comprised ethics, meditation, and wisdom. These are three things we train in. Training itself is about developing skill, so there’s a consistent theme here.

What is the point of practice? What are we training for? The aim of practicing is to liberate ourselves from suffering. It’s to become happier, more content, more fulfilled, and to have more of a sense of meaning in our lives. It’s to have a better life, and, out of compassion, to help other people to have that experience as well. These are the things we’re developing skill in.

Ethics Is Not About Being Good

It might sound deeply contradictory to say that ethics is not about being good, but I think that’s a fair claim to make about ethics in Buddhism. The Buddha didn’t tell us to abandon greed, hatred, and delusion because they are evil, but because they cause suffering. He said that if they didn’t cause suffering, then he wouldn’t tell us to abandon them:

If giving up the unskillful led to harm and suffering, I would not say: ‘Give up the unskillful.’ But giving up the unskillful leads to welfare and happiness, so I say: ‘Give up the unskillful.’ (AN 2.19)

Skillful and Unskillful Qualities and Actions

Just as a carpenter shows skill when they intend to create a beautiful piece of furniture and are successful, so we’re ethically skillful when we have the aim of living in ways that free us from suffering and that help others be free from suffering, and are successful in accomplishing that aim.

We’re unskillful when we aim to be free from suffering but end up creating pain and confusion.

The thoughts, words, and actions that free us from suffering are skillful. Those that do the opposite are unskillful.

When the Buddha talked about ethics he pointed out that there were two trends in the mind. (See MN 19) The mind can act based on selfish craving, hatred, or a lack of understanding. And those things will lead to suffering. He called these “unskillful.”

The other trend is that the mind acts with mindfulness and exhibits qualities such as patience, courage, kindness, empathy, compassion, appreciation, and so on. These are things that free us from suffering and bring peace and happiness. He called these ethical qualities “skillful.”

So we’re acting skillfully when we’re exercising skillful qualities — that is, qualities that help us move closer to the goal of freeing ourselves from suffering. We’re acting unskillfully when we’re in the grip of unskillful states of mind that create suffering.

So this is what I think the Buddha perhaps had in mind when he was using these terms — skillful and unskillful — which seem, at first glance quite unusual.

Why This Matters

It’s an interesting shift of perspective to think about ethics in terms of skill. It’s quite different from how we might have been raised to see things. We may have been raised to see things in terms of good and bad.
We get caught up in the idea of people themselves being good and bad. But it’s only actions that can be skillful or unskillful. You can’t talk about an unskillful person because no person is entirely skillful or unskillful.

Lots of people think of themselves as being good or bad. They want to present themselves to themselves as being good, which I’ve described elsewhere as a disastrous move. And of course lots of people become convinced that they are bad, or unworthy, and usually they’re sadly mistaken. You may be one of those people, or you probably know some of them. And your impression of them is probably that they are lovely people with many fine qualities. They’re probably kind and thoughtful, and you probably benefit from being with them.

We’re all a mixture of skillful and unskillful qualities. No one is all one or all the other. And spiritual training — or at least a lot of spiritual training — is about, on the one hand, exercising and strengthening the skillful, and on the other hand recognizing and letting go of the unskillful.

Life Is Practice

And this is for me the most important implication of the Buddha’s language of ethics as a skill. Skills are to be practiced and refined. Life — our ordinary everyday actions, and even our thoughts — is where we train. Our mistakes — the times we make ourselves or others suffer — is how we learn.

We can include in our lives constant reflections: did my actions lead to suffering? How could I do this differently in the future? Is what I’m doing or saying now leading to suffering? How can I change what I’m doing? Is this thing I intend to do or say or think likely, based on my past experience, to create unnecessary suffering? How might I act differently? (See MN 61)

Our lives are lessons to be learned. As long as we keep learning from our ethical mistakes, those mistakes are useful ones, because they bring us closer to our goal of living with peace, joy, and meaning.

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“The actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts.” John Locke

John Locke

One of the most radical and attractive things about Buddhist ethics is that the rightness or wrongness of an action is not to do with some arbitrary set of rules developed by a deity, but is based on the intention behind the action.

If an action is fueled by craving, hatred, or delusion, then it’s considered to be unskillful, and if it’s not based on those qualities, but instead is based on qualities such as “renunciation” (which would include contentment and generosity), kindness, compassion, and mindfulness, then it’s considered skillful.

For this reason, Buddhism is often said to have an “ethic of intention.” This, however, can be misleading. What determines the ethical status of unskillful mental states, after all, is the results they produce! For example, in an important teaching the Buddha described how, before his Awakening, he came to recognize that there were some mental states that were skillful and some that were unskillful:

As he observed his mind, he noticed:

Thinking imbued with craving [or ill will, or cruelty] has arisen in me, and that leads to my own affliction or to the affliction of others or to the affliction of both. It obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, and does not lead to Awakening.

It’s because unskillful states of mind cause suffering to ourselves, others, or both, that they are unskillful.

The idea that Buddhist ethics is an ethic of intention sometimes acts as a “get out of jail free card” for certain Buddhists. For example, they repeatedly say things that give offense to others, and say, “Well, I didn’t mean to give offense. It’s your fault if you get offended. That’s your choice. It’s not something I’m doing.”

But there’s another important teaching in which the Buddha undercuts this argument. In talking to his son, Rahula, who had been ordained as a monk, the Buddha made the important point that we need to look at our actions, words, and thoughts before they arise and see whether we think they are likely to cause suffering to ourselves, others, or both. Further, we’re to look at the effects of our actions, words, and thoughts in retrospect, and to see whether they caused suffering. If they did, then we’re to consider what we did as unskillful.

See also:

The point that’s implicitly being made is that often we aren’t clear about our intentions. We want to see ourselves as good, and to be seen as good by others. We may therefore believe, or want to believe, that we don’t mean to cause offense, but if offense repeatedly happens then it’s likely that we have an unacknowledged desire to do so.

Because we’re deluded, we often don’t understand our own motivations. Sometimes we don’t even want to understand them. The Buddha’s teaching to his son helps us escape from the apparent paradox of a deluded mind trying to become aware of its own delusions. How do we become aware of unconscious volitions? By observing their effects. The results of our actions reveal to us our hidden volitions—if we’re prepared to look.

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The pursuit of happiness (Day 64)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

We all want happiness, but much joy do you experience in your life? And I mean real “heart welling up,” “spring in the step,” “full of the joys of spring joy,” “happy for no reason” joy, rather than the dull sense of pleasure that we often experience.

Most people, when they’re asked this question, will say “not much.” Many may go entire days, or even weeks, without any significant joy. Life can often seem like an endless round of chasing deadlines and striving to stay on top of an ever-growing to-do list, and so be imbued with a sense of stress.

Do we even expect to be happy? It strikes me that many of us have low expectations for how happy we will be. We don’t expect our lives to produce much joy.

How do we look for happiness? By vegging out in front of the TV, or by eating, or shopping, or Facebook, or through alcohol? But these pursuits often lead, at best, to that sense of dull pleasure I mentioned earlier, rather than genuine joy.

Maybe we think that happiness is just around the corner, but we haven’t got there yet. Or maybe it’s a ways off; perhaps we’ll be happy after we get a new job, or more pay, or once we lose some weight, or when we’re on vacation, or after we get past this busy spell.

The trouble is, that we create unhappiness for ourselves through our thoughts and attitudes, and then expect to consume our way out of unhappiness. And that just doesn’t work.

There’s a piece of “cowboy wisdom” I heard many years ago that goes, “When you find you’re in a hole, the first thing you gotta do is stop diggin’.” And I think that’s absolutely true. To live happily, we have to drop the mental habits that make us unhappy. Often that’s all we have to do — stop making ourselves unhappy, since joy is something we actively suppress. Joy is our natural way of being, but most of our “doing” cuts us off from our natural happiness.

So what are those mental habits that suppress our happiness? Basically, they are anything we do that resists the present moment. The “usual suspects” are things like responding with clinging rather than letting go, resisting rather than accepting, anger rather than kindness, complaining rather than celebrating, worrying rather than being optimistic, and trying to escape our experience rather than being mindful.

Being joyful is a skill, and most people lack skill in creating joy. Just look at people driving or walking past you; what percentage of people are actually smiling? The things we do that suppress our joy are called “unskillful” activities in Buddhism. Conversely, when we act in ways that allow joy to emerge, we’re acting skillfully.

As soon as we drop any of these unskillful, joy-suppressing activities, we feel happier. We may not go straight to a deep sense of joy the moment we drop an angry thought, but at least when we do that we’re heading in the right direction. If we keep letting go of unskillful thoughts, and refrain from unskillful words and actions, we are creating a space for joy to emerge. And if we cultivate skillful habits of thought, speech, and action, joy will emerge. It’s guaranteed.

So just watch your mind. Notice your thoughts, and notice whether they’re contributing to a sense of joy, or a sense of disharmony. And if you’re creating suffering for yourself, let go of or change those thoughts or replace them with more skillful ones. And you can do the same with your speech, as well.

You can see all the posts from 100 Days of Lovingkindness here.

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“No man chooses evil, because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.” Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft’s words encapsulate perfectly something I’ve long held, which is that the Buddhist view of greed, hatred, and delusion — often called the Three Unwholesome Roots (akusala mūla) — is far removed from the western conception of sin.

Sin is “bad.” It’s “evil.” It’s a transgression against the Divine law.

When we encounter the Buddhist teaching of the Three Unwholesome Roots, it’s easy to slip it into the sin-shaped space that exists in our minds. But the Buddha’s understanding of these roots is wholly different from how sin is understood, and we need to disentangle the two sets of concepts in our own minds.

Here’s something that when you think about it is rather stunning. The Buddha said:

I say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’ If this abandoning of what is unskillful were conducive to harm and pain, I would not say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’ But because this abandoning of what is unskillful is conducive to benefit and pleasure, I say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’

So if giving up greed, hatred, and delusion (“what is unskillful”) made you unhappy, then he wouldn’t ask you to do it. If greed, hatred, and delusion made you truly happy, then the Buddha would say it was all right to keep on doing them!

The reason for this is that the Buddha said that “Both formerly and now, it is only suffering that I describe, and the cessation of suffering.”

So the Buddha was only concerned with the problem of suffering, and of how to end suffering. He was concerned with the effects that your actions have on your welfare. And it’s only because greed, hatred, and delusion are detrimental to your welfare that they’re to be given up — not because they’re in some sense ultimately “evil.”

So the Buddha was the ultimate moral pragmatist. He took a totally practical regard toward “the unskillful.” Greed, hatred, and delusion can’t make you happy, so you should abandon them. Abandoning them will make you happy.

But if greed, hatred, and delusion can’t make you happy, why do you still do them? The answer is simply that you believe, on some level, that they will in fact bring happiness. This belief is very strongly rooted in our psychology. We think that by having aversion toward things we don’t like, we can avoid sources of suffering. We think that by desiring what we want, we can have it, or by trying to hold on to the pleasant we can make it last forever. But actually both those things — aversion and craving — simply cause more suffering.

I find all of this very encouraging, because it suggests that, deep down, our impulses are a desire for happiness and well-being. Below the level of the skillfulness or unskillfulness of our actions, there is a simple, basic, human desire for happiness. Whether we act skillfully or unskillfully, we have the same motivation — to be happy. And our skillful or unskillful actions are simply strategies to being about the happiness we seek.

The difference between skillfulness and unskillfulness is simply pragmatic — acting unskillfully doesn’t work. Acting skillfully does. We simply suffer from delusion, thinking that things that make us unhappy will somehow make us happy. Acting unskillfully, then, is simply an ineffective strategy for finding happiness.

This is encouraging because it means you can drop any notion you might have that there is something inherently bad inside you. Even when you hurt others, you’re not doing it out of inherent badness. You’re doing it because you’re under the sway of a powerful belief that hurting others will, in the end, bring you joy. When others try to hurt you — or even just hurt you accidentally — they too are simply acting under the influence of delusion. Deep down they simply want to be happy. In fact, at your core, below the level of all the strategies you employ in order to find happiness and escape suffering, is this basic need for happiness. That need is the most fundamental thing about you. And it’s good.

Knowing this, it’s easier to be forgiving of ourselves and others, and to drop the idea that unskillfulness is just another name for sin, evil, or badness.

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