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The Roots of Good and Evil: An Anthology by Nyanaponika Thera
There are three roots of the unwholesome: greed, hatred
and delusion; and there are three roots of the wholesome: nongreed, non-hatred
Digha Nikaya 33 (Sangiti Sutta)
These two sets of three are, respectively, the roots of
unwholesome and wholesome volitional action (kamma), by way of deeds,
words or thoughts.
The term 'root' (mula), the
commentaries explain, has the sense of firm support, cause, condition and
producer. The figurative character of the term suggests that the roots
can also be taken as conveyors of the 'nourishing sap' of the wholesome
or unwholesome. They convey this sap to the mental factors and functions
existing simultaneously with themselves, as well as to the wholesome or
unwholesome actions in which they issue. They are producers by being
productive of rebirth.
The words 'unwholesome' and 'wholesome',
as used here, are renderings of the Pali terms akusala and kusala,
Alternative renderings used by other translators are, for the wholesome:
profitable, skilful; for the unwholesome: unprofitable, unskilful. The
terms 'wholesome' and 'unwholesome' comprise all volitional actions that
bind living beings to samsara, the round of rebirth and suffering. The
actions having these roots may, therefore, be called kammically
or unwholesome. Hence the range of the unwholesome is wider than that of
the immoral, as it includes forms of the rootdefilements which are not
immoral in the strict sense explained above. The wholesome, as dealt with
here and in most, though not all, of the following texts, is that of the
mundane type. The wholesome of the supramundane type is not productive
of kamma and therefore does not result in rebirth (See Text
The commentators to the Pali scriptures
the wholesome, as a healthy state of mind (arogya),
morally faultless (anavajja), and as having
favourable or pleasant kamma-results (sukha-vipaka).
connotation of kusala,'dexterous' or 'skilful',
according to the commentators, does not apply in this context. Yet kammically
wholesome actions may also be described as skilful insofar as they lead
to happiness in the present and future, and to progress on the path to
Akusala, the unwholesome, has
the opposite characteristics: it is an unhealthy or sickly state of mind(gelanna),
faulty and blameworthy (savajja),
and has unpleasant
For all these
reasons, unwholesome actions in thoughts, words and deeds can also be said
to be unskilful responses to life.
The Range of-the Six Roots
(a) The Unwholesome - The three unwholesome roots
are not restricted to the strong manifestations suggested by the English
terms greed, hatred and delusion. To understand their range it is important
to know that in the Pali these three terms stand for all degrees of intensity,
even the weakest, of the three defilements, and for all varieties in which
these appear. In their weak degrees their unwholesome influence on character
and kammic consequences is, of course, not as grave as that of their stronger
forms. But even weak forms may carry the risk of either growing stronger
or of making a person's character more susceptible to their graver main
stations. A fuller view of the various forms the unwholesome roots assume
may be gained from a list of their synonyms, partly taken from the Dhamma-sangani
first book of the Abhidhamma Pitaka
Greed: liking, wishing, longing,
fondness, affection, attachment, lust, cupidity, craving, passion, self-indulgence,
possessiveness, avarice; desire for the five sense objects; desire for
wealth, offspring, fame, etc.
Hatred: dislike, disgust, revulsion,
resentment, grudge, illhumour, vexation, irritability, antagonism, aversion,
anger, wrath, vengefulness.
Delusion: stupidity, dullness,
confusion, ignorance of essentials (e.g. the Four Noble Truths), prejudice,
ideological dogmatism, fanaticism, wrong views, conceit.
(b) The Wholesome - Though formulated negatively,
the three wholesome roots signify positive traits:
Non-greed: unselfishness, liberality, generosity;
thoughts and actions of sacrifice and sharing; renunciation, dispassion.
Non-hatred: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathy,
friendliness, forgiveness, forbearance.
Non-delusion: wisdom, insight, knowledge,
understanding, intelligence, sagacity, discrimination, impartiality, equanimity.
2. THE COMMENTARIAL DEFINITIONS OF THE UNWHOLESOME
Greed has the characteristic of grasping an object, like birdlime
(lit. 'monkey-lime'). Its function is sticking, like meat put in a hot
pan. It is manifested as not giving up, like the dye of lamp-black. Its
proximate cause is seeing enjoyment in things that lead to bondage. Swelling
with the current of craving, it should be regarded as carrying beings along
with it to states of misery as a swift-flowing river does to the great
Hatred has the characteristic of savageness,
like a provoked snake. Its function is to spread, like a drop of poison,
or its function is to burn up its own support, like a forest fire. It is
manifested as persecuting like an enemy that has got his chance. Its proximate
cause is the grounds for annoyance (aghata-vatthu). It should be
regarded as being like stale urine mixed with poison.
Delusion has the characteristic of blindness,
or it has the characteristic of unknowing. Its function is non-penetration,
or its function is to conceal the true nature of an object. It is manifested
as the absence of right view,3
or it is manifested as darkness. Its proximate cause is unwise (unjustified)
attention. It should be regarded as the root of all that is unwholesome.
Visuddhimagga: The Path of Purification,
pp. 529 ff., 532
3. THE COMMENTARIAL DEFINITIONS OF THE WHOLESOME
Non-greed has the characteristic of the mind's lack of desire
for an object, or it has the characteristic of non-adherence, like a water
drop on a lotus leaf. Its function is not to lay hold (or not to grasp),
like a liberated bhikkhu. It is manifested as not treating (the desire-evoking
object) as a shelter (or noncleaving), as a man who has fallen into filth
(will not cling to it).
Non-hatred has the characteristic of lack
of savagery, or the characteristic of non-opposing, like a congenial friend.
Its function is to remove annoyance, or its function is to remove fever,
as sandalwood does. It is manifested as agreeableness, like the full moon.
Non-delusion has the characteristic of penetrating
(things) according to their true nature, or it has the characteristic of
sure penetration, like the penetration of an arrow shot by a skilful archer.
Its function is to illuminate the objective field, like a lamp. It is manifested
as non-bewilderment, like a forest guide.
The three should be regarded as the roots of all
that is wholesome.
Visuddhimagga: The Path of Purification, p. 525
4. THE NATURE OF THE WHOLESOME ROOTS
Non-greed is opposed to the taint of avarice; non-hatred to the
taint of immorality; non-delusion to an undeveloped state of wholesome
Non-greed is a condition of giving (dana);
non-hatred is a condition of virtue (sila); non-delusion is a condition
of mental development (or meditation; bhavana).
Through non-greed one does not overrate (an
attractive object), as the lustful person does. Through non-hatred
one does not underrate or deprecate (an unattractive or disagreeable object),
as the hater does. Through non-delusion one has an undistorted view
of things, while one who is deluded conceives things in a distorted way.
With non-greed one will admit an existing
fault (in an attractive object) and will behave accordingly, while a greedy
or lustful person will hide that fault. With non-hatred one will
admit an existing virtue (in a disagreeable or hostile object) and will
behave accordingly, while the hater will disparage that virtue. With non-delusion
will admit facts as they are and behave accordingly, while a deluded man
holds the true for false (the factual for non-factual) and the false for
true (the non-factual for factual).
With non-greed one does not have the suffering
through separation from the beloved; but the greedy and lustful
person identifies himself with the beloved and hence cannot bear separation
from him. With non-hatred
one does not have the suffering through
association with the unbeloved; but the hater identifies himself with (his
aversion against) the unbeloved and cannot bear association with him. With
does not have the suffering through not obtaining what one wishes, because
the undeluded person will be able to reflect in this way: 'How can it be
possible that what is subject to decay should not enter into decay!'
With non-greed one does not
encounter the suffering of birth, because non-greed is the opposite of
craving, and craving is at the root of the suffering of birth. With non-hatred
suffering of ageing is not felt (strongly, or prematurely); because it
is one harbouring strong hate who ages quickly. With non-delusion
is no suffering in dying; because it is dying with a confused or deluded
mind that is suffering, but this does not happen to one who is undeluded.
Non-greed makes for a happy
life among lay people (who often quarrel about property). Non-delusion
for a happy life among ascetics and monks (who often quarrel about opinions).
for happy living with all.
Through non-greed there is no
rebirth in the realm of the famished ghosts (preta); because generally
beings are reborn there through their craving, and non-greed (unselfishness,
renunciation) is opposed to craving. Through non-hatred there is
no rebirth in the hells; for it is through hate and a fierce temperament
that beings are reborn in hell, which is congenial to hate; but non-hate
(loving-kindness) is opposed to hate. Through non-delusion there
is no rebirth in the animal world, for it is generally through delusion
that beings are reborn as animals who are always deluded; but non-delusion
(wisdom) is opposed to delusion.
Among these three, non-greed prevents
approach in lust, non-hatred prevents alienation through hate, non-delusion
the loss of equipoise (or impartiality) due to delusion.
Furthermore, to these three roots,
in the order given, correspond the following sets of three perceptions:
the perception of renunciation, of good-will, and of nonviolence; and also
the perception of bodily foulness, of boundless love and compassion, and
of the elements.
Through non-greed the extreme
of sense-indulgence is avoided; through non-hatred the extreme of
self-mortification; through non-delusion a middle course is practised.
Non greed breaks the bodily
bondage of covetousness,
breaks the bodily bondage of
ill-will, and non-delusion
breaks the other two bondages (i.e. that
of clinging to rites and rituals, and of dogmatic fanaticism).
By virtue of the first two wholesome
roots, the practice of the first two foundations of mindfulness (i.e. body
and feelings) will succeed; by virtue of the third wholesome root (non-delusion),
the practice of the last two foundations of mindfulness (state of mind
and contents of mind) will succeed.
Non-greed is a condition of
health, because one who is not greedy will not partake of something unsuitable,
even if it is tempting, and hence he will remain healthy. Non-hatred
is a condition of youthfulness, because one who is free from hate is
not consumed by the fires of hate that cause wrinkles and grey hair, and
thus he remains youthful for a long time. Non-delusion is a condition
of longevity, because one who is undeluded will know what is beneficial
and what is harmful, and by avoiding the harmful and resorting to the beneficial
he will have a long life.
Non-greed is a condition of
the boon of wealth, because one who is not greedy will obtain wealth through
his liberality (as its kammic result). Non-hatred is a condition
of the boon of friendship, because through loving-kindness one will win
friends and not lose them. Non-delusion is a condition of the boon
of self-development, because he who is undeluded and does only what is
beneficial will perfect himself.
Through non-greed one has detachment
to persons and things belonging to one's own group; because even in the
case of their destruction, one will not feel the suffering that is caused
by strong attachment. With non-hatred, the same will hold true in
the case of persons and things belonging to a hostile group; because he
who is free of hatred will have no thoughts of enmity even towards those
who are hostile. With
the same holds true concerning
persons and things belonging to a neutral group; because in him who is
undeluded there is no strong attachment to anybody or anything.
Through non-greed one will understand
impermanence; for a greedy man, in his longing for enjoyment, will not
see the impermanence of transitory phenomena. Through non-hatred one
will understand suffering; for one inclined to non-hate, in comprehending
the grounds of annoyance discarded by him, sees phenomena as suffering.
one will understand not-self; for one who is
undeluded is skilled in grasping the nature of reality, and he knows that
the five aggregates are without an internal controller. Just as the understanding
of impermanence, etc. is effected by nongreed, etc., so are also non-greed,
etc. produced by the understanding of impermanence, etc. Through the understanding
of impermanence arises non-greed; through the understanding of suffering
arises non-hatred; through the understanding of not-self arises non-delusion.
For who will allow attachment to arise for something which he fully well
knows is impermanent? And, when knowing phenomena to be suffering, who
would produce the additional and exceedingly pungent suffering of anger?
And, when knowing phenomena as void of self, who would again plunge into
confusion of mind?
From the Atthasalini (commentary to the Dhammasangani
the Abhidhamma Pitaka), Pali Text Society edition, pp. 127 ff.
5. THE DIVERSITY OF THE UNWHOLESOME
There may be outsiders, O monks, who will ask you: 'There
are, friends, three states of mind: greed, hatred and delusion. What is
their distinction, their diversity, their difference?
Questioned thus, O monks, you may explain
it to those outsiders in this way:
'Greed is a lesser fault and fades
away slowly; hatred is a great fault and fades away quickly; delusion is
a great fault and fades away slowly.'
Anguttara Nikaya, 3: 68 (extract)
The statements in this text about greed being a lesser
fault, and so on, have to be taken in a relative sense. The commentary
explains: 'Greed (or lust) is a lesser fault in a twofold way: (1)
public opinion (loka; i. e. in the 'eyes of the world'), and (2)
regard to kamma-result
(vipaka), i.e., the rebirth resulting from
the kamma (impelled by greed). (t)
for instance, parents give their children in marriage, according to the
standards of worldly life no fault is involved (though greed enters into
the parents' affection and sexuality in marriage). (2) If in marriage one
is satisfied with one's own marriage-partner (and thus observes the third
percept), there is thereby no rebirth in the lower worlds. Thus greed or
lust can be a lesser fault in regard to kamma-result. Greed, however, is
"slow in fading away", being as hard to remove as oily soot. Greed for
particular objects or sensual lust for a certain person may persist throughout
life. It may even continue for two or three existences without disappearing.'
Thus, relative to hatred and delusion,
greed is a lesser evil. For if it remains within the bounds of basic morality,
and does not entail a violation of the five precepts, it will not exclude
a favourable rebirth caused by good kamma. Greed, however, is very hard
to overcome entirely. Its fine hair-roots reach deep into our nature, and
it may clad itself in many alluring garments, assuming subtle disguises
and sublime forms of beauty. As 'lust for life' or 'the will to live' it
is the very core of existence. As life-affirming craving it is the origin
'Hatred', according to the commentary,
'may lead to wrong-doings towards parents, brothers, sisters, ascetics
(i.e. people of religious calling), etc. Wherever such an offender goes,
blame and bad reputation will follow him. If, through hatred, he even commits
one of the heinous offences (anantariya-kamma), such as parricide, etc.,
he will suffer in hell for aeons.4
In that way, hatred is a great fault both in public opinion and by its
kamma-result. Yet hatred may quickly fade away; for soon after committing
an offence out of hatred or anger one may repent, ask those whom one has
wronged for forgiveness, and if that is granted, the act is atoned for
(as far as the offender's state of mind is concerned.)'
Hatred is a disruptive and anti-social
factor, a source of untold misery for individuals and all human groups.
One would thus expect society to regard it as a 'great fault', as the great
enemy of societal welfare, and make every effort to weaken and eliminate
it. But on the contrary we find that human institutions, large and small,
have often promoted hate for their own selfish ends, or have fostered deeds,
words and thoughts of hate motivated by delusive ideologies. Throughout
history, leaders seeking the support of the masses have always found it
easier to unite people by means of a common hate than by a common love.
On the individual level, hatred in
all its degrees is often roused by conflicting self-interests and by other
kinds of egocentric antagonism. Hatred can grow as obsessive as lustful
passion, but it is generally more destructive for both the hater and his
victim. It can take deep roots in the mind, be it in the form of smouldering
resentment or the enjoyment of outbursts of violence. Through hatred, man's
mind may sink to a subhuman level, and thus for the hater there is always
the risk of being reborn in a sub-human realm of existence.
Yet for one who does not identify himself
with all his states of mind, but sees the need and has the will to transform
himself for such a one it will not be difficult to control his hatred or
anger before it grows stronger. Hatred causes irritation, tension and distress;
and since men are basically beings 'desirous of happiness and averse to
unhappiness', those who do understand the consequences of hatred will normally
wish to get rid of it.
'Delusion', according to the commentary,
'is a great fault for both reasons, that is, in the eyes of public opinion
and with regard to its unhappy kamma-result (in the same ways as mentioned
above for hatred). If an action is done under the impact of delusion, such
action will set man free only very slowly; it can be likened to bear skin,
which will not become bright even if washed seven times.'
If unrestrained acts of unlawful greed
or lust are performed without a feeling of guilt, but are, on the contrary,
justified by such prejudiced views as the claim that might makes right,
such deluded greed will obviously not be easy to eliminate. It will not
be given up even under the impact of repeated failures to satisfy it, which
may only strengthen the greed through frustration and resentment. There
are also forms of deluded greed supported by a religious (or pseudo-religious)
sanction (See Comment to Text 14). All these forms of deluded greed can
be eliminated only when the delusive false views and principles are discarded.
But even in cases where greed is not backed by wrong theory, when self-indulgence
has the uninhibited innocence of ignorance or when the delusive view involved
is just the naive belief that 'this is the right and natural thing to do'
- in these cases, too, our bondage by such deluded greed will be hard to
It is similar when delusion instigates
hatred and keeps it alive with
wrong views or attitudes. If, for instance, due to delusive views, people
regard others belonging to certain races, classes or religions as legitimate
objects of hate, this will be a much stronger bondage than any impassioned
but temporary outburst of anger having only the normal admixture of delusion.
Without the presence of delusion, no
greed or hatred can arise. The unwholesome roots of greed and hatred always
occur associated with delusion. Delusion, however, may occur by itself
and can be a very powerful source of evil and suffering. In view of that
omnipresence of delusion in the unwholesome, the Dhammapada says that there
is no entanglement equal to the widespread net of delusion (v. 251), and
that ignorance (a synonym of delusion) is the greatest taint of the mind
(v. 243). Hence the Buddha declares: 'All unwholesome states have their
root in ignorance, they converge upon ignorance, and by the abolishing
of ignorance, all the other unwholesome states are abolished' (Samyutta
Nikaya 20: I).
Ignorance, of course, does not mean
a mere lack of information about this or that subject of worldly knowledge.
It is, rather, the lack of right understanding concerning the Four Noble
Truths: namely, the ignorance (or wilful ignoring) of the full range and
depth of suffering, of its true cause, of the fact that there can be an
end of suffering and of the path that leads to the end of suffering.
The truth of suffering is hidden by
the four distortions of reality (vipallasa), the four great illusions
of seeing permanence in the impermanent, happiness in what is truly suffering,
selfhood in what is void of a self and beauty in the unbeautiful. These
distortions, powerful universal manifestations of ignorance and delusion,
shut out an understanding of the truth of suffering, and thereby obscure
the other truths, too. The four may appear on any of three levels: at the
level of quite ordinary misperceptions (sauna-vipallasa), or as
wrong ways of thinking (citta-vipallasa) or as expressed in definite
wrong ideas and theories (ditthi-vipallasa). Tenaciously held wrong
views can forge the strongest chain fettering beings to pain-fraught samsara.
If these views go so far as to deny the moral relevance of any action,
they will lead in the next existence to a 'fixed destiny' of rebirth in
a world of misery. 5
Sheer stupidity is, of course, also
a form of delusion, and it can stultify a man's inner growth throughout
life and for many lives to come. But there can be an escape from it, if
that dull person's good roots of non-greed (selflessness) and non-hate
(kindness, compassion) are strong enough to become active.
The most deep-rooted and powerful aspect
of delusion, and the most consequential of wrong views, is personality-belief.
Personality-belief is the belief in an abiding self or soul, with its attendant
conceits and conceptions. The belief may be naive and unreflective, or
supported by definite theories and convictions. But however it is held,
this personality-belief makes delusion a barrier hard to overcome and slow
to fade away, while the moral implications of egocentricity make it a 'great
Considering the wide range and universal
influence of delusion, it is understandable that, under the name of ignorance,
it appears as the first factor in the chain of dependent origination (paticca-samuppada).
As the chief impelling force that keeps the wheel of existence in rotation,
delusion is, indeed, 'a great fault and slow to fade away'.
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