The two sides of "skilful"

Theravāda in the 21st century - modern applications of ancient wisdom

The two sides of "skilful"

Postby retrofuturist » Fri May 25, 2012 2:13 am

Greetings all,

I thought it might be a good idea to have a discussion on the notion of "skilful" in terms of the modern Theravada practice.

In the suttas, the term most commonly translated as "skilful" is kusala. Kusala is alternatively translated as wholesome, and it points towards the wholesome roots (mula) underlying wholesome actions of body, mind and speech. These skilful roots are alobha (non-greed, generosity), adosa (non-hatred, goodwill), amoha (non-deluded, wisdom).

Thus (if the Pali Canon is anything to go by) in the early days of Theravada, "skilful" primarily pertained to cetana (intention), which is kamma. However, it was not exclusively so. In the Digha Nikaya, we see that "skilful means (upàya kusala) is a teacher’s willingness to adapt him or her self to the interests, needs and level of understanding of others in order to be able to successfully communicate the Dhamma to them" (Source: http://www.dhammawiki.com/index.php?title=Skilful_means )

Skiful means was picked up by the Mahayana tradition and became one of the centrepieces of the Bodhisattva Ideal. In communication and exchange with the Mahayana tradition over recent centuries, it appears that the Theravadin understanding of "skilful" is shifting progressively away from the kamma/mula perspective, and more towards a broader and more global assessment of the outcome of the action, rather than the intention of the action.

In this context, I'd like to explore the issues arising from the various uses of the term, including but not restricted to...

- What "skilful" means to you in your practice
- In your speech, are you cognizant of the two-sides (outcome, intention) when using the term "skilful" and how do you ensure accurate communication of your meaning
- Whether "skilful means (upàya kusala)" is relevant to all, or only to those established as teachers

Feel free to take this topic in whatever direction you feel would be "skilful". 8-)

Metta,
Retro. :)
If you have asked me of the origination of unease, then I shall explain it to you in accordance with my understanding:
Whatever various forms of unease there are in the world, They originate founded in encumbering accumulation. (Pārāyanavagga)


Exalted in mind, just open and clearly aware, the recluse trained in the ways of the sages:
One who is such, calmed and ever mindful, He has no sorrows! -- Udana IV, 7


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Re: The two sides of "skilful"

Postby hanzze_ » Fri May 25, 2012 4:38 am

Dear retrofuturist,

I guess the most problematic point is the alobha - thing. I guess it is always good to it point out "resolve on renunciation". Not greedy is a really complicated thing to transport today. We are very attached to adosa this in this day and forgetting to lift up the second end of the stick, to get the stick it self (delusion) find no more base.

"And what is right resolve? Being resolved on renunciation (greed), on freedom from ill-will (hatred), on harmlessness (delusion): This is called right resolve."
— SN 45.8
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Re: The two sides of "skilful"

Postby zavk » Fri May 25, 2012 4:40 am

Hi Retro

Learnt about this from the other thread on the 'Angry Asian Buddhist'.

My preferred understanding of 'skilfulness' is more aligned with the first one you mentioned: i.e. how it is influenced by intention. I do appreciate the Mahayana view of skilful means but since I have not looked into it in any sustained manner I shan't comment about it. You quoted me in the last post in the other thread:

Even if one feels that one has sound basis for making such propositions, given that we always speak from a situated position, and given that we always and already inhabit an environment constituted by unequal relations, such propositions have certain reverberations which may be unskilful.


I'll quickly speculate on why these remarks might have prompted you to raise these questions (I hope my speculations are at least partially accurate). I'm not suggesting that if the discourses or views one articulates lead to unwholesome or unskilful (akusala) outcomes even though one had good intentions (cetana) for articulating them, it would still generate 'bad' kamma. When I say that one's propositions may have certain unskilful reverberations, I am largely informed by certain sociological outlooks which posit that knowledge production/discourses are shaped by existing social and power relations, and hence would generate certain effects regardless of the speaker's or author's intention.

I've chosen to bring this understanding together with the (Theravadin) Buddhist understanding, not so much to synthesise them but to mutually inform-support each other. To me, if one's discourse is shaped by pre-existing conditions and could potentially generate unforeseeable effects or outcomes regardless of one's intention, then, it might be fruitful to be mindful of these outcomes. The reason I choose to pay attention to these outcomes is not because they are the consequences of my intention, but because by paying attention to them I could discover new opportunities to strengthen my intentions and plant new seeds of wholesomeness and skilfulness for further cultivation.

Hope this is helpful.
With metta,
zavk
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Re: The two sides of "skilful"

Postby Sam Vara » Fri May 25, 2012 8:13 am

Hi Retro,

Thus (if the Pali Canon is anything to go by) in the early days of Theravada, "skilful" primarily pertained to cetana (intention), which is kamma. However, it was not exclusively so. In the Digha Nikaya, we see that "skilful means (upàya kusala) is a teacher’s willingness to adapt him or her self to the interests, needs and level of understanding of others in order to be able to successfully communicate the Dhamma to them"


In the context of Dhamma, I tend to use the term in the former sense of cetana. Thoughts, speech, and actions are skilful in so far as they are informed by non-greed, non-hatred, and non-delusion. I probably favour this meaning because Ajahn Thanissaro makes much of the term and he uses it like this (for example, in the commentarial bits of Wings to Awakening). But it also makes sense to me in that the other meaning (a skilful means to achieving something) leads one in the direction of consequentialism. One cannot know (at least at my level of discernment!) whether an action is genuinely skilful until the outcome (i.e. that which is was intended as a means to achieving) has manifested. And even then, how does one know what the further, unintended, consequences are? With the former meaning associated with cetana, one can at least be more certain of one's skill or lack of it, in that it is manifested immediately.

Having said that, there is obviously scope for a good deal of overlap between the two meanings. One can have the wholesome intention to teach the dhamma by adapting oneself to circumstances, etc.

I sometimes hear people within the Theravadan tradition using the concept of upaya in order to justify in Dhamma terms what might superficially look like self-interest. As in a bit of sensual indulgence or relaxation keeping one in a position whereby one can keep the precepts rather than losing one's temper. The spoonful of honey in the tea, which satisfies the sugar-craving at a critical moment...
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Re: The two sides of "skilful"

Postby retrofuturist » Fri May 25, 2012 9:25 am

Greetings,

:goodpost:

Metta,
Retro. :)
If you have asked me of the origination of unease, then I shall explain it to you in accordance with my understanding:
Whatever various forms of unease there are in the world, They originate founded in encumbering accumulation. (Pārāyanavagga)


Exalted in mind, just open and clearly aware, the recluse trained in the ways of the sages:
One who is such, calmed and ever mindful, He has no sorrows! -- Udana IV, 7


Dharma Wheel (Mahayana / Vajrayana forum) -- Open flower ~ Open book (blog)
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Re: The two sides of "skilful"

Postby DarwidHalim » Fri May 25, 2012 10:19 am

I think we need to differentiate the understanding of buddhism from Mahayana and Theravada point of view.

Although these 2 schools share the same view of emptiness, the implementation of emptiness in daily practices seem different.

In Mahayana, because everything has the nature of emptiness of inherent existence, everything is not bad, not good, and not neutral.

THe action of killing in Mahayana is not viewed as killing, but just as a phenomena where by shared convention it is labeled as killing.
The action of giving in Mahayana is also not viewed as giving, but just as a phenomena where by convention it is labeled as giving.
The action of sex in Mahayana is also not viewed as sex, but just as a phenomena where by convention it is labeled as sex.

Killing, giving, and sex are free from bad, good, and neutral.

This bad, good, neutral are purely the value we impose into that phenomena. The understanding of emptiness confirms this.

A Mahayana can do any action without any borders. He or she cannot be limited by the rules of human, the rules of country, and the rules of particular realm. Because by nature, everything is free from bad, good, and neutral.

A boddhisattva can have a sex with someone, if accroding to his wisdom that is the best action to help another party. A boddhisattva also can kill him, if according to his wisdom, that is the best action to help another party.

Why they can do that? Because they have the view that the action itself is free from god, bad, and neutral.

The biggest issue about this understanding is someone may then think, oh I can do anything. He doesn't rely that as long as he still have dualistic mind (I and you), he is still bound to good, bad, and neutral. So, by no means his action for sure will give him penalty as a good karma or bad karma.

Unless you have reached a mahasiddha states where you are absolutely free from dualism, free from good, bad, and neutral, you can then do it.

Theravada has a notion of subtle dualism. Why do I say this? Theravada has renunciation. Why do you renounce something? You renounce something because you think there is something bad. This view contradict with the view of emptiness.

So, the action of Theravada practitioners is limited within the boundary of good and bad. In your life, you will face a situation where you will confuse - if I do, it is wrong, but if I don't do it, it is also wrong. In this case, your skillful means is limited.

All of them boil down into the understanding of emptiness.

The skillful means are the action of that understanding in practice.

THe path of renunciation also becomes the source of dispute. We heard that oh this school doesn't need renounciation. So, they can do anything. This is wrong. Although in reality there is nothing to renounce, as long as you still have this innate dualistic mind, it is better for you to renounce. Don't try to be a hero, when you are still far from hero.

This differences are interesting. It depends fully on what is the implication of emptiness in practice.
I am not here nor there.
I am not right nor wrong.
I do not exist neither non-exist.
I am not I nor non-I.
I am not in samsara nor nirvana.
To All Buddhas, I bow down for the teaching of emptiness. Thank You!
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Re: The two sides of "skilful"

Postby Dan74 » Fri May 25, 2012 11:57 am

I don't think the Mahayana view is appropriate for this subforum, Halim (also don't quite agree on your presentation of it - see Huayen).
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Re: The two sides of "skilful"

Postby Zom » Fri May 25, 2012 3:43 pm

Killing, giving, and sex are free from bad, good, and neutral.


Sorry, but this is really stupid, indeed.
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Re: The two sides of "skilful"

Postby santa100 » Fri May 25, 2012 4:07 pm

Let's not forget the wonderful story about Master Pai Chang. And yes, this is a Zen story from the Mahayana tradition:

"Every time Master Pai Chang gave a dharma talk, a certain old man would come to listen. He usually left after the talk, but one day he remained. Pai Chang asked, "Who is there?"

The man said, "I am not actually a human being. I lived and taught on this mountain at the time of Kashyapa Buddha. One day a student asked me, 'Is an enlightened person with great wisdom and devotion still subjected to the law of causation?' I said to him, 'No, such a person doesn't.' Because of this statement I was reborn as a wild fox for five hundred lifetimes. Reverend master, please say a turning word for me and free me from this wild fox body." Then he asked Pai Chang, "Is an enlightened person with great wisdom and devotion still subjected to the law of causation??"

Pai Chang said, "Never to ignore cause and effect."

Immediately the man had great realization. Bowing, he said, "I am now liberated from the body of a wild fox"
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Re: The two sides of "skilful"

Postby hanzze_ » Fri May 25, 2012 4:27 pm

:goodpost:
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Re: The two sides of "skilful"

Postby DarwidHalim » Fri May 25, 2012 9:42 pm

We need to differentiate between "cause and effect" and whether you are conditioned by it.

If ordinary person put the seed of mango, pour the water, the tree will come out. Within same condition, if it is enligtenened being, the tree will come out.

Everything is bound within cause and effect.

But enlightened being is not subjected to the result of his kamma.

Mahamoggalana is an arhat. Although he is an arhat, he still subject to cause and effect. Buddha himself still subject to cause and effect.

Mahamoggalana's head was crushed or injured. Buddha still had a headache. Thy are subject to cause and effect.

However, they are no longer affected by any outcome of the effect.

When enlighten being cut his hand, he is subjected to cause and effect. If I cut your hand, you will not have hand.

This is cause and effect.

But, if you are ordinary being, not yet achieved arhat or enlightened state, losing of your hand, will give you great sadness to you.

It is said that if you haven't reached a boddhisattva state, dont pretend you are. Don't try to give your leg or hand to the dogs. You will not ready for the consequence, which is losing hand. Because of your dualistic mind, day and night, the thought of " I am losing my hand" will haunt you and you will suffer tremendously. Dont try to give your one eye, you will suffer tremendously.

But if you have reached enlightened state, please go ahead, because you are no longer subjected to whatever cause and effect is going to occur. You are subjected to cause and effect, but you are no longer haunted by any effects and consequences that will occur. If you give your eyes, you will subject to losing your eye. But you are no linger subjected to the experience of losing your eyes.

Aryadeva gave his eyes to a stranger during his journey to Nalanda university. He is known as the one eye. He is subjected to cause and effect losing one eye. By he is not subjected to the condition of having no eye.

All beings subjected to cause and effect. We cannot clean the unlimited bad karma which we have planted the seeds. However, just by realizing the no I, although the thing still occur, you are no longer subjected to the experience of that bad experience.

Ordinary being. Losing 1 eye. They will cry day and night.
Enlightened being. Losing 1 eye, so what?

Both are subjected to cause and effect. But one is conditioned by the experience of it. Another one is no longer conditioned by the experience of it.

If you are enlightened being, your skillful action is unlimited. Even people chop you, you will not be conditioned by the consequence. Even people burn you, you will not be affected by the consequence of fire.

You will experience losing hand, eyes, or skin burn, but experiences no longer give you suffering, because they are no longer yours. There is no I anymore. They no longer subjected to the social judgement- oh so pity you have no eyes, rtc.

However if you are not ready, don't pretend to be a hero.

The skillful action of enlightened being is without limit, goes beyond the dualistic of good, bad, and neutral.
I am not here nor there.
I am not right nor wrong.
I do not exist neither non-exist.
I am not I nor non-I.
I am not in samsara nor nirvana.
To All Buddhas, I bow down for the teaching of emptiness. Thank You!
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Re: The two sides of "skilful"

Postby hanzze_ » Sat May 26, 2012 2:13 am

Pai Chang said, "Never to ignore cause and effect."


Why, even if one is no more subject to it, others would get a wrong idea and would imitate it in a bubble of ideas. That is the reason why all liberated beings behave in the same way, which never ignore cause and effect.
Virtue is a good indicator between people with artificially liberation and real liberation. People who ignore cause effect therefore easy will see them self as fox again, even they had a good amount of insight.

Reality is not something in mind, but something the mind as able to lead to. If reality has grown something in mind, we might close the door to liberation for a long time. We use cause and effect to come out of it and we would never ignore cause and effect even we are no more subject to it.
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