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The Roots of Good and Evil: An Anthology by Nyanaponika Thera
|Contents| I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII |

I.Basic Explanations
    1.    Definitions
           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


There are three roots of the unwholesome: greed, hatred and delusion; and there are three roots of the wholesome: nongreed, non-hatred and non-delusion.
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, respectively. 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 wholesome 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 14).2

    The commentators to the Pali scriptures explain kusala, the wholesome, as a healthy state of mind (arogya), as morally faultless (anavajja), and as having favourable or pleasant kamma-results (sukha-vipaka). Another 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 liberation.

    Akusala, the unwholesome, has the opposite characteristics: it is an unhealthy or sickly state of mind(gelanna), morally faulty and blameworthy (savajja), and has unpleasant kamma-results (dukkha-vipaka). 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 the 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.


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 ocean.

    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


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


Non-greed is opposed to the taint of avarice; non-hatred to the taint of immorality; non-delusion to an undeveloped state of wholesome qualities.

    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 one 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 non-delusion one 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 the suffering of ageing is not felt (strongly, or prematurely); because it is one harbouring strong hate who ages quickly. With non-delusion there 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 makes for a happy life among ascetics and monks (who often quarrel about opinions). Non-hatred makes 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 prevents 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, non-hatred 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 non-delusion, 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. Through non-delusion 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 of the Abhidhamma Pitaka), Pali Text Society edition, pp. 127 ff.


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) in public opinion (loka; i. e. in the 'eyes of the world'), and (2) with regard to kamma-result (vipaka), i.e., the rebirth resulting from the kamma (impelled by greed). (t) If, 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 of suffering.

    '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 break.

    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 fault'.

    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'.

|Contents| I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII |

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