Can inaction be akusala kamma?

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Can inaction be akusala kamma?

Postby Jechbi » Fri Mar 13, 2009 2:02 am

This is a split from this thread. In discussions on different topics, the notion repeatedly has come up that if we don't do anything, if we simply let life unfold and allow death or other physical suffering to occur without intervening, then we are not committing any unwholesome acts. I find this notion difficult to reconcile with my (incomplete) understanding of the Buddhadhamma.

In a different thread that I no longer can find, someone pointed out this reference to a monk sitting idly by and doing nothing to help while watching a person being swept away in a flood. From here:
Thus if a bhikkhu sits idly when seeing a flood sweep a person down-stream, he commits no offense — regardless of his feelings about the person's death — even if the person then drowns. Recommending that another person sit idly as well would also not fulfill the factor of effort here, because the category of "command" covers only the act of inciting the listener to do any of the four actions that would fulfill the factor of effort under this rule.

... The same holds true if a bhikkhu decides not to give a patient a treatment — or to discontinue treatment — that might conceivably extend the patient's life: It does not fulfill the factor of effort, for such acts do not cut off the life faculty. At most they simply allow it to end on its own.

Peter made a similar point in the above-referenced thread:
Peter wrote:Things die. All the time. Nothing about the Buddha's teachings seek to prevent that.
Peter makes some excellent, compelling points, but it is difficult for me to understand how it cannot possibly amount to akusala kamma if, for example, I see a child about to be hit by a passing car, and I know I can reach out and pull the child to safety, but instead I choose to allow the child to be hit by a passing car. Is there nothing in the Buddha's teachings that would prompt one to seek to prevent injury or death to that child? And to opt against inaction in such a situation?

What about the teachings of caritta-sila in, for example, the Sigalovada Sutta? Don't they imply that the Buddha taught we should help when we can?
22. "The helper can be identified by four things: by protecting you when you are vulnerable, and likewise your wealth, being a refuge when you are afraid, and in various tasks providing double what is requested.


In the thread referenced above, Ven. Dhammanando offered this helpful guidance:
Ven. Dhammanando wrote:I think it depends what you mean by 'inaction'. If you mean no action of body, speech or mind, then no, there's no kamma of any sort.

If you mean without doing anything with one's body or speech, then yes, one can accumulate akusala mind-door kamma by thoughts of covetousness, ill will, wrong view etc..

Furthermore, there are circumstances in which one can perform akusala body-door kamma without the body moving (e.g., by commanding someone to kill) or akusala speech-door kamma without saying anything (e.g., when a bhikkhu who knows himself to be guilty of a Vinaya offence remains silent when asked if he is pure during a Patimokkha recital. The bhikkhu's silence in this context will be taken as a statement of his being free of any offence, and so he commits the akusala kamma of false speech).
When I apply this to the example of the monk sitting by idling without helping as a person is washed away in a flood, I find it impossible to imagine how such a monk (unless he is an arahant) could watch a person dying and choose not to help, and yet still not accumulate akusala mind-door kamma of any kind.

So I ask the question (to put it in general terms): Is it proper understanding of the Buddhadhamma that inaction is never akusala kamma? My answer (wrong though it may be) is that the Buddhadhamma encourages us to be helpers, and not to fall back on inaction in the face of circumstances when we see suffering and know that we could help. This has broad implications for us on many fronts, including in the purchasing choices we make as consumers.

So if someone asked me the question: "Is it your understanding of the Buddhadhamma that inaction is never akusala kamma?" -- my short answer would be: "No." I'm sure there are those who disagree with me. I'm posting this to learn more.

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Re: Can inaction be akusala kamma?

Postby kc2dpt » Fri Mar 13, 2009 3:01 am

Jechbi wrote:So I ask the question (to put it in general terms): Is it proper understanding of the Buddhadhamma that inaction is never akusala kamma?

I am certain I don't understand your question. You already quoted Ven. Dhammanando thus:

Ven. Dhammanando wrote:I think it depends what you mean by 'inaction'. If you mean no action of body, speech or mind, then no, there's no kamma of any sort.

If you mean without doing anything with one's body or speech, then yes, one can accumulate akusala mind-door kamma by thoughts of covetousness, ill will, wrong view etc.

So clearly the answer is: Sometimes inaction of body and/or speech can be accompanied by unwholesome mental action. Sometimes yes and sometimes no. But you already know this so I assume there's something about your question I'm not understanding.

My answer (wrong though it may be) is that the Buddhadhamma encourages us to be helpers, and not to fall back on inaction in the face of circumstances when we see suffering and know that we could help.

I am willing to bet the answer you seek lies in understanding what the Buddha meant by "suffering" and by "help". We shall see as this thread develops.

May you, I, and all beings be well, happy, and peaceful. :anjali:
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Re: Can inaction be akusala kamma?

Postby Jechbi » Fri Mar 13, 2009 5:16 am

Thank you, Peter.

I'll try to clarify a bit more. It seems to me that everything we ordinarily think about as "inaction" is in fact a form of action. As Ven. Dhammanando says, this action can be in body, speech or mind. The first part of what Ven. Dhammanando described is this:
Ven. Dhammanando wrote:If you mean no action of body, speech or mind, then no, there's no kamma of any sort.
This strikes me as impossible for a non-arahant in most situations. How can one watch somebody else suffer physically or face a life-threatening situation and yet have no mind activity at all? If there is no kamma of any sort, then maybe we're talking about kiriya mind? Again, the arahant. So for practical purposes, the notion of "no action of body, speech or mind" is not going to apply to any of us when we witness another person in peril or hardship.

The second part of what Ven. Dhammanando described is this:
Ven. Dhammanando wrote:If you mean without doing anything with one's body or speech, then yes, one can accumulate akusala mind-door kamma by thoughts of covetousness, ill will, wrong view etc.
I think that the "etc." will be a lengthy list including all the shades of lobha, moha and dosa. So it seems that inaction, then, will almost certainly be accompanied by akusala mind-door kamma if we see a situation where we could help, but we choose to do nothing.

So is it proper understanding of the Buddhadhamma that inaction is never akusala kamma? It seems to me that in those cases when we have the opportunity to prevent death or serious injury, or even gross injustice, if we choose inaction, that is in fact an action of the mind, and it is akusala.

Peter wrote:I am willing to bet the answer you seek lies in understanding what the Buddha meant by "suffering" and by "help".
Yes, that may well be so. I think suffering can include old age, sickness and death, and I think "help" can mean putting compassion into action to ease people through these occasions rife with the potential for suffering. These are my opinions, based on my (incomplete) understanding of the Dhamma. I am open to feedback and clarification.

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Re: Can inaction be akusala kamma?

Postby SeerObserver » Fri Mar 13, 2009 6:10 am

Jechbi wrote:Peter makes some excellent, compelling points, but it is difficult for me to understand how it cannot possibly amount to akusala kamma if, for example, I see a child about to be hit by a passing car, and I know I can reach out and pull the child to safety, but instead I choose to allow the child to be hit by a passing car. Is there nothing in the Buddha's teachings that would prompt one to seek to prevent injury or death to that child? And to opt against inaction in such a situation?

It would seem that one is practicing indifference here as opposed to prescribed compassion.
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Re: Can inaction be akusala kamma?

Postby Cittasanto » Fri Mar 13, 2009 10:42 am

there is a story

http://www.vedanta-atlanta.org/stories/WayBuddha.html wrote:One day, four or five centuries B.C., when Buddha was out travelling with his monks (on foot, of course!) they came to a river where a fight was about to take place. The stream was a boundary between the lands of two tribes, the Sakyas and the Koliyas, and the farmers of both wanted to use the water. So heated the argument had become, that bands of armed men had gathered, shouting, on both sides of the river. Seeing this, Buddha walked among them and the men honored him and became quiet. "Send me," said Buddha, "six of your chief men from either side."

These came and he said to them, "you have lived as neighbors for centuries, for all the history of India; why are you going to wage war now?"

"Because it is the hot season and there is drought, and these robbers (each pointing to the other) want all the water of the river for their fields."

"Where does the water of this river come from?" Buddha asked.

"Sir, it gathers together from the slopes of the Himalaya mountains." "Who owns those mountains?" said Buddha. The men scratched their heads and said, "Ah, who can say that ? The mountains are God's. No man can claim or even climb them." "And if war begins between your two peoples," Buddha continued, "what will become of the crops? Will not your farmers lie dead in the mud, the rice not sown, your wives and children going hungry?" Buddha had good reason to think about this: he himself was from the Sakya clan, and Yashodhara, she who had been his wife, was a Koliya!

"Tell me," he said to the angry farmers, "Can you hold back the water of this river, the way men tether a goat?"

"Of course not, sir, it flows and stops nowhere." Then the Buddha made his judgment. It went like this:

"Let the Koliyas have freedom to draw the water today, and let the Sakyas dig their channels to the fields for them. Tomorrow let the Sakyas draw water and the Koliyas dig the channels. Thus working together you will bring life to your fields and fruition to the harvest."


I think some of the points peter has raised in the other thread although compelling are limited, the Buddha, and law acknowledges different type of intentional action, which have similar results, both for us and others. such as the many types of charges someone who kills could potentially have brought to them for a crime, and the varying levels of punishment of different crimes, be they unintentional results or intentional results of our intentional actions. several people who kill can each have different punishments, and some may be let of due to circumstances, one being loss of sound reasoning.
the four kinds of Kamma are
(i) dark with a dark result,
(ii) bright with a bright result,
(iii) dark and bright with a dark and bright result,
(iv) neither dark nor bright with a neither dark nor bright result.
the last being the eightfold path and the kind of Kamma-Vipakha the Buddha was concerned with teaching others to do.
the Buddha would act appropriately to the situation, as one former PM of the UK has pointed out about what is commonly called the problems in the middle east "There is no problem because there is no solution" and Gandhi has given a similar statement about other things "there is only a problem when there is a solution" or words to that effect. This is when I think the Buddha would of acted when there was a solution, if there was no solution he would not of acted.
I do not know if the quotes or something similar could be found in the canon but I would think they could be.
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Re: Can inaction be akusala kamma?

Postby sukhamanveti » Fri Mar 13, 2009 2:12 pm

I am no expert on Buddhist ethics, but I am reminded of a few famous passages from the Tipitaka:

When the Buddha and Ananda saw a monk suffering from dysentery, lying in filth, neglected by other monks around him, they bathed him. Then the Buddha questioned the monks near the sick man about their indifference. They said that the sick monk does nothing for them, so they do nothing for him. The Buddha replied, "Monks, you have no mother, no father, who might attend to you. If you do not attend to one another, then who will attend to you? Monks, he who would attend on me, he should attend to one who is ill." (Vin. I.301 f) Was there a hint of rebuke in the Buddha's words here? If so, then perhaps the inaction of the monks was blameworthy, a result of mental defilements.

In the Karaniya Metta Sutta (Sutta Nipata 1.8) we are told, "Just as a mother would protect with her life her own son, her only son, so one should cultivate an unbounded mind [of metta/lovingkindness] towards all beings." Does this imply that we ought to take action or can the love of a mother for her only child, a mother willing to risk her life for the child, be contained within? We are told that we "should" cultivate this sort of love. If we do not seek to do so, might that be a fault or a form of error?

What do we mean when we say "love" and "compassion" in Buddhism?

Metta is defined as "the aspiration for the true happiness of any, and ultimately all, sentient beings, for these are like oneself in liking happiness and disliking pain." [Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007) p. 104.]

Karuna means "the aspiration that all beings be free of suffering..." [ibid.]

Can these aspirations be genuine if they have no impact on our behavior? Might their absence imply the presence of defilements?

What do you think?

Ed
Sīlaṃ balaṃ appaṭimaṃ.
Sīlaṃ āvudhamuttamaṃ.
Sīlamābharaṇaṃ seṭṭhaṃ.
Sīlaṃ kavacamabbhutaṃ.


Virtue is a matchless power.
Virtue is the greatest weapon.
Virtue is the best adornment.
Virtue is a wonderful armor.

Theragatha 614


Sabbapāpassa akaraṇaṃ,
kusalassa upasampadā,
Sacittapariyodapanaṃ,
etaṃ buddhāna sāsanaṃ.


Refraining from all wrong-doing,
Undertaking the good,
Purifying the mind,
This is the teaching of the buddhas.

Dhammapada v. 183/14.5
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Re: Can inaction be akusala kamma?

Postby kc2dpt » Fri Mar 13, 2009 2:27 pm

Jechbi wrote:
Ven. Dhammanando wrote:If you mean without doing anything with one's body or speech, then yes, one can accumulate akusala mind-door kamma by thoughts of covetousness, ill will, wrong view etc.
I think that the "etc." will be a lengthy list including all the shades of lobha, moha and dosa.

It will also include all the shades of alobha, amoha, and adosa. You seem to be making the assumption that inaction will always be prompted by unwholesome thoughts. This seems to me an unwarranted assumption.

So it seems that inaction, then, will almost certainly be accompanied by akusala mind-door kamma if we see a situation where we could help, but we choose to do nothing.

I think that sometimes it will be accompanied by akusala mind-door kamma and sometimes not. I think it depends on what one is thinking about at the time, what else is on their mind. Here in a conversation we can take the time to think of all the possibilities. In real life that rarely happens.

So is it proper understanding of the Buddhadhamma that inaction is never akusala kamma?

This really doesn't seem to be the question you are asking. Rather, you seem to be asking if inaction always akusala kamma. I would say sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't. It depends on what thoughts arise at the time. It does not depends on what thoughts could arise. For example, just because a thought of generosity could arise that doesn't mean if it doesn't arise then there is therefore thoughts of greed arise instead.

It seems to me that in those cases when we have the opportunity to prevent death or serious injury, or even gross injustice, if we choose inaction, that is in fact an action of the mind, and it is akusala.

I think it's not enough that we have the opportunity. First the thought that we have the opportunity must arise. Then if the thought of opportunity arises and we choose inaction, whether that choice is akusala depends on the details of that choice. For example, if my child asks for the answer to her homework questions and I refuse to give her the answers, is that necessarily unwholesome? Or could it be I refuse because of the wholesome thought that she will benefit from trying to work it out herself?

For another example, "Oh look, there's a person in distress. I could stop and help. But I won't stop and help for this or that reason." Or it could go like "Oh look, there's a person in distress. Oh look there's good song on the radio." and on to other thoughts. Or there could be some other sequence of thoughts.

It seems you are assuming a particular series of thoughts always arises. I find in practice this is not the case. Nor do I find anything in the Buddha's teachings to say that certain thoughts always arise.
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Re: Can inaction be akusala kamma?

Postby Jechbi » Fri Mar 13, 2009 3:57 pm

Yes, Peter, those are some very good points in my opinion. :anjali:

I guess my line of inquiry is focused more on the notion that things die all the time but nothing about the Buddha's teachings seek to prevent that. It seems as if some things in the Buddha's teachings do seek to prevent that, as Ed noted in his insightful post. I'm also interested in the idea that a monk who watches a man being swept away and choses to do nothing -- and even encourages others to do nothing -- is always blameless in such a situation. That just doesn't make sense to me.

So yes, you are right, many different kinds of thoughts can and do arise, and there are countless hypothetical situations we could build in which the choice NOT to help someone would be an act of compassion. I think we can all agree that there are times when it's better NOT to help (like when it comes to cheating on homework). For example, if the monk watching the man swept away could see that it would be a suicide mission to try to help, then obviously his "inaction" and his encouragement of others to stay safely on the shore would be an act of compassion.

I'm not talking about those situations, though. I'm talking about situations when we clearly see that there is something we could do to help, we clearly see that there's no compelling reason not to try to help, yet we choose to do nothing. In those situations, you're right, I would argue that inaction is always akusala kamma. (Of course there may be additional nuances that I'm not recognizing.)

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Re: Can inaction be akusala kamma?

Postby jcsuperstar » Fri Mar 13, 2009 6:50 pm

I'm not talking about those situations, though. I'm talking about situations when we clearly see that there is something we could do to help, we clearly see that there's no compelling reason not to try to help, yet we choose to do nothing. In those situations, you're right, I would argue that inaction is always akusala kamma. (Of course there may be additional nuances that I'm not recognizing.)

unless youre some sort of a pychic you never know the outcome of what your actions will be when you interfere into another problems. how can you know that getting involved will not just make the situation worse? maybe the car is headed towards a child who will grow up to be the next pol pot and because you run out to save him the mother of the car headed towards him who was pregnant with the next ghandi wrecks and losses her baby so in efect yeah yuou saved one kid but you killed another and not let a horrible force into the world while removing another... it sounds "out there" but it's all out there when we're talking about could haves and should haves. i wa having a similar conversation with my girlfriend about my life, about what i could have done and should have done to make my life better, but then realized had i done any of them i never would have met her, it took a very specif and pain path to end up where i was to meet her, a lot of trauma and misery, it was also the same crappy life that let me be in the position to save my brother's life, so how am i supossed to feel about that? if someone had stepped in at a prior point and saved me, i know of at least two positive things that would have been lost, things that made all that suffering "worth" it. i'm not saying dont try to help people, and i dont think ven. dhammanando was either, but helping or no helping you have no idea what the outcome will be, so rushing in is just another form of ignorence, of heedlessness. that being said i'm sure our venerable would save the kid from the car... :woohoo:
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Re: Can inaction be akusala kamma?

Postby Individual » Fri Mar 13, 2009 7:36 pm

Non-kamma isn't merely "the stopping of action," in the sense of non-thinking or not moving, but it's the stopping of the entire system of causality. I think maybe it's clarified by using the word "causation" for kamma.

Using the word causation, the question answers itself: "Can non-causation be wholesome causation?" No, of course not. There's nothing there, no intention and nothing to lay the foundation for future consequences.

The question as it was, "Can inaction be akusala kamma?" is ambiguous. Non-kamma cannot be any kind of kamma, no, but the intention, "I will not act," is itself kamma, it is itself a causation, which leads to vipaka.
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Re: Can inaction be akusala kamma?

Postby Cittasanto » Fri Mar 13, 2009 9:52 pm

Individual wrote:The question as it was, "Can inaction be akusala kamma?" is ambiguous. Non-kamma cannot be any kind of kamma, no, but the intention, "I will not act," is itself kamma, it is itself a causation, which leads to vipaka.


Hi Individual,
there are four kinds of Kamma proclaimed in MN 57 Kukkuravatika Sutta The Dog-duty Ascetic which I mention above.
pay close attention to the fourth kind

[url=http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.057.nymo.html]
12. "What is neither-dark-nor-bright kamma with neither-dark-nor-bright ripening that leads to the exhaustion of kamma? As to these (three kinds of kamma), any volition in abandoning the kind of kamma that is dark with dark ripening, any volition in abandoning the kind of kamma that is bright with bright ripening, and any volition in abandoning the kind of kamma that is dark-and bright with dark-and-bright ripening: this is called neither-dark-nor-bright kamma with neither-dark-nor-bright ripening.[/url]

I don't think this correct you or anything along that line, but I do think it adds to what Right Action or in this case right non-action is.
This offering maybe right, or wrong, but it is one, the other, both, or neither!
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Blog, - Some Suttas Translated, Ajahn Chah.
"Others will misconstrue reality due to their personal perspectives, doggedly holding onto and not easily discarding them; We shall not misconstrue reality due to our own personal perspectives, nor doggedly holding onto them, but will discard them easily. This effacement shall be done."
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Re: Can inaction be akusala kamma?

Postby Individual » Sat Mar 14, 2009 9:45 pm

Manapa wrote:Hi Individual,
there are four kinds of Kamma proclaimed in MN 57 Kukkuravatika Sutta The Dog-duty Ascetic which I mention above.
pay close attention to the fourth kind

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka ... .nymo.html
12. "What is neither-dark-nor-bright kamma with neither-dark-nor-bright ripening that leads to the exhaustion of kamma? As to these (three kinds of kamma), any volition in abandoning the kind of kamma that is dark with dark ripening, any volition in abandoning the kind of kamma that is bright with bright ripening, and any volition in abandoning the kind of kamma that is dark-and bright with dark-and-bright ripening: this is called neither-dark-nor-bright kamma with neither-dark-nor-bright ripening.[/url]

I don't think this correct you or anything along that line, but I do think it adds to what Right Action or in this case right non-action is.

That is an excellent clarification. Thanks.
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