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The Roots of Good and Evil: An Anthology by Nyanaponika Thera
The Wheel Publication No. 251/253
Copyright © 1977
Buddhist Publication Society
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The Range of the Six Roots
2.The Commentarial Definitions of the Unwholesome Roots
3.The Commentarial Definitions of the Wholesome Roots
4.The Nature of the Wholesome Roots
5.The Diversity of the Unwholesome Roots
6.Overcoming Birth and Death
8.Crossing the Ocean
9.The Three Fires
From the Commentary by Bhadantacariya Dhamapala
10.Three Inner Foes
III.The Roots and Kamma
11.The Cause of Action
12.The Ten Ways of Action
13.The Roots of the Ten Unwholesome Ways
14.Rebirth and Its Cessation
Comment on Section II
15.The Exposition of Prevalence(ussada-kittana)
IV.The Social Significance of the Roots
16.From the Kalama Sutta
17.Why Give Up the Roots of Evil?
18.The Visible Teaching
19.Four Types of People
20.The Roots of Violence and Oppression
V.The Removal of the Unwholesome Roots
21.The Tripple Gem and the Abandoning of the Evil Roots
22.It Can Be Done
23.The Arising and Non-Arising of the Roots
24.Five Methods for Removing
25.For One's Own Sake
26.The Noble Power
VI.Removal through Mindfulness and Insight
27.To be Abandoned by Seeing
28.From the Satipatthana Sutta
30.The Visible Teaching
Comment on Texts 28-30
31.Removal through the Comtemplation of Feelings
32.The Visible Nibbana
33.What is Nibanna?
34.Two Aspects of Nibbana
35.The Happiness of Liberation
The Buddha has taught that there are three roots of evil: greed, hatred
and delusion. These three states comprise the entire range of evil, whether
of lesser or greater intensity, from a faint mental tendency to the coarsest
manifestations in action and speech. In whatever way they appear, these
are the basic causes of suffering.
These roots have their opposites: non-greed, non-hatred
and non-delusion. These are the three roots of good: of all acts of unselfishness,
liberality and renunciation; of all expressions of loving-kindness and
compassion; of all achievements in knowledge and understanding.
These six mental states are the roots from which
everything harmful and beneficial sprouts. They are the roots of the Tree
of Life with its sweet and bitter fruits.
Greed and hatred, maintained and fed by delusion,
are the universal impelling forces of all animate life, individually and
socially. Fortunately, the roots of good also reach into our world and
keep the forces of evil in check, but the balance is a precarious one needing
to be preserved by constant watchfulness and effort. On the level of inanimate
nature, too, we find counterparts to greed and hatred in the forces of
attraction and repulsion, kept in their purposeless reactive movement by
inherent nescience which cannot provide a motive for cessation of the process.
Thus, through an unfathomable past, the macrocosm of nature and the microcosm
of mind have continued their contest between attraction and repulsion,
greed and hatred; and unless stopped by voluntary effort and insight, they
will so continue for aeons to come. This cosmic conflict of opposing energies,
unsolvable on its own level, is one aspect of dukkha (unsatisfactoriness):
the ill of restless, senseless movement as felt by a sensitive being.
On the human level, too, we see that man, who proudlybelieves
himself to be a 'free agent' - the master of his life and even of nature
- is in his spiritually undeveloped state actually a passive patient driven
about by inner forces he does not recognize. Pulled by his greed and pushed
by his hatred, in his blindness he does not see that the brakes for stopping
these frantic movements are in his reach, within his own heart. The brakes
are the roots of good themselves, which can be cultivated to such a degree
that greed, hatred and delusion are utterly destroyed.
Though we have spoken of the six roots
as being 'roots of good and evil', our use of the terms 'good' and 'evil'
is provisional, a simplification chosen to introduce this teaching by familiar
terms. In the Buddhist texts they are called the roots of the wholesome
the roots of the unwholesome (akusala-mula).
And thus we, too, shall
generally call them.
This differentiation of terms marks
an important distinction, for the 'spread' of the mental states called
roots is much wider and deeper than the moral realm to which the words
'good' and 'evil' refer. The distinction may be defined as follows. An
intentional action performed by body or speech is immoral- an evil or a
'sin'- when it is motivated by the unwholesome roots and is intentionally
and directly harmful to others.This constitutes
immorality, for which it is the criterion. Such actions are termed unwholesome
bodily or verbal kamma. Thoughts associated with these unwholesome
roots, wishing the harm of others, constitute
immorality, for which they are the criterion. They include thoughts such
as those of injury, murder, theft, fraud and rape, and also false ideologies
leading to the harm of others or condoning such harm. Whether or not these
thoughts are followed by deeds or words, they constitute unwholesome
When greed, hatred and delusion, in
any degree, do not
cause intentional harm to others, they are not
evil or immoral in the strict sense of our definition. However, they are
still kammically unwholesome in that they maintain bondage and lead to
unpleasant results. Similarly, the term 'wholesome' extends beyond socially
significant morality to comprise also what is individually beneficial,
such as acts of renunciation and attempts to understand the nature of reality.
The recent crisis of theistic faith
which has taken hold in the West has brought in its trail a moral crisis
as well. For many, belief in God has been shattered, and often those who
lose their belief in God fail to see any convincing reason for morality
without a divine sanction coming down from above. Left without a sound
foundation for ethics, they either accept materialistic political ideologies
or allow their conduct to be guided by self-interest. Yet we also find
today a growing number of people seeking better alternatives. To them the
Buddha's teaching on the wholesome and unwholesome roots provides a criterion
of good and evil that is neither theological nor authoritarian but experiential,
one with a sound psychological basis offering an autonomous pragmatic motivation
for avoiding evil and choosing the good.
The social and political motivations
for moral conduct proposed to modern man may not openly contradict the
basic sentiments of morality, but as their structures are bound to specific
historical conditions and reflect the varying selfinterests and prejudices
of the dominant social group, the values they propose are highly relative,
lacking universal validity. In contrast, Buddhist ethics, being based on
psychological fact and not on external contingencies, provides a core of
moral principles inherently free from relativistic limitations, valid for
all time and under all circumstances. By introspection and observation,
we can understand that the unwholesome roots are undesirable mental states,
productive of suffering for ourselves and others; and since it is our common
nature to avoid suffering and to desire happiness, we can understand that
it serves our own long-range interest as well as the good of others to
restrain actions born of these roots and to act in ways motivated by their
wholesome opposites. A brief survey of the evil roots will make this clear.
Greed is a state of lack, need
and want. It is always seeking fulfilment and lasting satisfaction, but
its drive is inherently insatiable, and thus as long as it endures it maintains
the sense of lack.
Hatred, in all its degrees,
is also a state of dissatisfaction. Though objectively it arises in response
to undesired people or circumstances, its .true origins are subjective
and internal, chiefly frustrated desire and wounded pride. Buddhist psychology
extends the range of hatred beyond simple anger and enmity to include a
variety of negative emotions - such as disappointment, dejection, anxiety
and despair - representing misguided reactions to the impermanence, insecurity
and imperfection inherent in all conditioned existence.
Delusion, taking the form of ignorance, is
a state of confusion, bewilderment and helplessness. In its aspect of false
views, delusion issues in dogmatism; it takes on a fanatical, even obsessive,
character, and makes the mind rigid and encapsulated.
All three unwholesome roots lead to inner disharmony
and social conflict. In Tibetan paintings they are depicted at the very
hub of the Wheel of Life,
symbolically represented by a cock, a pig and a snake, turning round and
round, catching each other's tails. The three unwholesome roots, indeed,
produce and support each other.
The root of greed gives rise to resentment, anger
and hatred against those who obstruct the gratification of desire or compete
in the chase to gain the desired objects - whether sensual enjoyment, power,
dominance or fame. In this way greed leads to conflict and quarrels. When
frustrated, instead of producing enmity and aversion, greed may bring about
grief, sadness, despair, envy and jealousy - states which also come under
the heading of hatred. The pain of deprivation and frustration again sharpens
the keenness of desire, which then seeks an escape from pain by indulging
in other kinds of enjoyment.
Both greed and hatred are always linked with delusion.
They are grounded upon delusion and, on their part, produce still more
delusion as we pursue the objects we desire or flee from those we dislike.
Both love and hate blind us to the dangers besetting our pursuits; they
lead us away from our true advantage. It is the delusion beneath our love
and hate that really blinds us, delusion that leads us astray.
The basic delusion, from which all its other forms
spring, is the idea of an abiding self the belief in an ego. For the sake
of this illusory ego men lust and hate; upon this they build their imagination
and pride. This ego-belief must first be clearly comprehended as a delusive
viewpoint. One must pierce through the illusion of self by cultivating
right understanding through penetrative thought and meditative insight.
Though the wholesome and unwholesome roots are individual
mental states, their manifestations and repercussions have the greatest
social significance. Each individual in society rises up at once to protect
himself, his loved ones, his property, security and freedom, from the greed,
hatred and delusions of others. His own greed, hatred and ignorance may
in turn arouse others to anxious concern and resentment,
though he may not be aware of this or care about it. From all this there
results an intricate interlocking of suffering - suffering caused to others
and suffering experienced oneself. Hence the Buddha repeatedly said that
the unwholesome roots cause harm both to oneself and to others, while the
wholesome roots are sources of benefit for both the individual and society
(See Texts 16-20).
The wholesome and unwholesome roots
are of paramount human concern on all levels. As the originating causes
of kamma, our life-affirming and rebirth-producing intentional actions,
they are the motive powers and driving forces of our deeds, words and thoughts.
They mould our character and our destiny and hence determine the nature
of our rebirth. Being dominant features in the structure of the mind, the
unwholesome roots are used in the Abhidhamma Pitaka for the classification
of unwholesome consciousness and also for a typology of temperaments. All
stages of the path to deliverance are closely concerned with the wholesome
and unwholesome roots. At the very beginning, the coarsest forms of greed,
hatred and irresponsible ignorance have to be abandoned through virtue
(Sila), while in the advanced stages the aids of meditation (samadhi)
and wisdom (panna) have to be applied to a deeper-reaching removal
of the unwholesome roots and to the cultivation of the wholesome ones.
Even Arahatship and Nibbana - the consummation of the great quest - are
both explained in terms of the roots: as the extinction of greed, hatred
This wide-ranging significance of the
Buddha's teaching on the roots places it at the very core of the Dhamma.
Showing the distinct marks of a fully enlightened mind, it is a teaching
simple as well as profound, and hence accessible on many levels. The fact
that greed, hatred and delusion, in their extreme forms, are the root causes
of much misery and evil should be painfully obvious to every morally sensitive
person. Such an initial understanding, open to commonsense, may well grow
into full comprehension. It may then become the insight that moves one
to enter the path to deliverance - the eradication of greed, hatred and
Within the framework of
the Buddha's teaching, the Roots of Good and Evil have found their place
in a great variety of contexts. To illustrate this by an ample selection
of Buddhist texts - almost entirely taken from the discourses of the Buddha
- is the intention of the following pages.
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