The Ethics of Non Action (General Theravada version)

General discussion of issues related to Theravada Training of Sila, the Five Precepts (Pañcasikkhāpada), and Eightfold Ethical Conduct (Aṭṭhasīla).

The Ethics of Non Action (General Theravada version)

Postby Bankei » Sat Feb 07, 2009 11:30 pm

Hi

I am wondering if there is any concept of Karmic consequences of not doing something.

eg. You see someone drowning and don't save them.

In this situation would you have an intention to left them suffer. Kamma = Intention.

What do you think?

Bankei
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Re: The Ethics of Not Action

Postby thecap » Sat Feb 07, 2009 11:32 pm

Hi Bankei

As Suzuki said in Beginner's Mind, "not-doing is doing too". Is there an equivalent of 'passive aggressive' in Abhidhamma?
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Re: The Ethics of Not Action

Postby clw_uk » Sat Feb 07, 2009 11:33 pm

Well it all depends on what the intention is of the individual at the time. However I cant see how watching someone drown would be anything other than unwholesome kamma.

The act not to act is an act itself

If one intends not to help then this is action and not non-action.
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Re: The Ethics of Not Action

Postby Ben » Sun Feb 08, 2009 12:34 am

Hi Bankei

Unfortunately, I do not have the majority of my texts with me to help you with this problem.

Morally there seems to be very little difference, if any, between acting and passively standing by to allow an event to unfold to effect a desired result.

Just a few quotes...

"In which four ways does one commit no evil action? Led by desire does one commit evil. Led by anger does one commit evil. Led by ignorance does one commit evil. Led by fear does one commit evil.
-- DN 31 Sigalovada Sutta


Righteous conduct is the observance of the ten good actions (kusalákammapatha) in thought, word and deed: freeing the mind of greed, ill-will and wrong views; avoiding speech that is untruthful, slanderous, abusive and frivolous; and the non- committal acts of killing, stealing and sexual misconduct.
-- Everyman's Ethics: Four Discourses of the Buddha adapted from the translations of Narada Thera: http://www.bps.lk/wheels_library/wheels_pdf/wh_014.pdf


The person who 'passively' allows something immoral to happen, is actually led by the akusala thoughts of desire, anger, ignorance and fear, and attracts the consequent vipaka as a result.
Metta

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Re: The Ethics of Non Action

Postby kc2dpt » Sun Feb 08, 2009 3:00 am

I can't recall coming across anything in the texts which points to non-action as unwholesome.
On the other hand, various abstinences are taught to be wholesome. :shrug:
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Re: The Ethics of Non Action

Postby Jechbi » Sun Feb 08, 2009 5:39 am

Is the question possibly related to the wrong view of ahetu-apaccayavada, the belief that all happiness and suffering are random, having no cause? I came across that idea here. It's one of three philosophies considered wrong view in a sutta cited there. The linked page quotes the sutta, which I'm having trouble tracking down (maybe someone else here can find it?), and it includes this line:
Bhikkhus, these three sects, on being questioned by the wise, fall back on tradition and stand fast on inaction.

To me that suggests that when we find ourselves in circumstances where, with wisdom, we can see a course of action that would be compassionate (yet nontheless would require action on our part), in that case to resort to inaction would be to quelch that wisdom and ignore the causal circumstances that brought us to that moment.

In other words, maybe it's not completely random that we have this opportunity to help someone else. So if we don't act, then we're behaving as if it were just random, as if our presence in that person's moment of need is an accident, and as if we bear no responsibility. That might be regarded as the wrong view of ahetu-apaccayavada, and thus inaction would stem from an unwholesome view and would itself be unwholesome.

Okay, I realize that's probably a stretch.

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Re: The Ethics of Non Action

Postby Ben » Sun Feb 08, 2009 6:17 am

Thanks Jechbi and Peter.

Its time like these I wish I had my Dhamma books. In particular my copy of Ven Bodhi's translation of the Majjhima, A comprehensive manual of the Abhidhamma and the Vissudhimagga. I think they could shine some light on this issue.

My reasoning above is based on the Upali Sutta (?) in the Majjhima Nikaya where the Buddha refutes the doctrine of the Jains who held that the 'physical rod' to be the root of kamma. The Buddha, in the Upali Sutta and elsewhere, asserted that it was the 'mental rod', to use the expression favoured by the Jains, as kammically most potent. Perhaps it was an error of my interpretation to then jump to say that inaction, particularly when the result coincided with the unwholesome roots of desire, aversion or ignorance, were not kammically neutral.

Hi Jechbi
From memory, ahetu-apaccayavada maybe treated in Ledi Sayadaw's Manual of Conditionality and perhaps also in the Compendium of Conditionality in Venerable Bodhi's A Comprehensive Manual of the Abhidhamma.
Kind regards

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Re: The Ethics of Non Action

Postby Annapurna » Sun Feb 08, 2009 12:05 pm

Bankei wrote:Hi

I am wondering if there is any concept of Karmic consequences of not doing something.

eg. You see someone drowning and don't save them.

In this situation would you have an intention to left them suffer. Kamma = Intention.

What do you think?

Bankei


Hello, Bankei.

it depends on more than one factor.

If a person is physically not fit enough to drag somebody out, -old, weak, sickly,- this person a cannot be asked to sacrifice his or her life in a futile effort to save another, and so create perhaps more suffering, for 2 families, left behind.

Even though a Bodhisattva or Buddha like person probably wouldn't worry about self, like the Buddha in one of his earlier incarnations, as the Monkey King.

But perhaps there are other possibilities to get help.

But if there is a fit person who mercilessly watches another drowning, with no compassion in his heart, even though he could help, then the Buddha said:

7. "Householders, there are three kinds of bodily conduct not in accordance with the Dhamma, unrighteous conduct.....
8. "And how are there three kinds of bodily conduct not in accordance with the Dhamma, unrighteous conduct?
Here someone is a killer of living beings: he is murderous, bloody-handed, given to blows and violence, and merciless to all living beings. That is ...... unrighteous conduct.[/b]


Kammic result: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka ... .than.html
The Blessed One said: "There is the case, student, where a woman or man is a killer of living beings, brutal, bloody-handed, given to killing & slaying, showing no mercy to living beings. Through having adopted & carried out such actions, on the break-up of the body, after death, he/she reappears in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, hell. If, on the break-up of the body, after death — instead of reappearing in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, hell — he/she comes to the human state, then he/she is short-lived wherever reborn. This is the way leading to a short life: to be a killer of living beings, brutal, bloody-handed, given to killing & slaying, showing no mercy to living beings.


:namaste:

I personally think the answer rests in the own heart:

Would we want to drown and have others watch our suffering without mercy?

Would we want to hear our child drowned and nobody helped, just watched ?

This would increase our suffering immensily.

Hence, if our non- action increases suffering, based on a lack of compassion, it is unwholesome, and will cause an effect of a similar type.

A strange coincidence.

My former neighbor Maria, who now lives in Munich, came to a lake where a child was drowning, with numerous people watching, also strong and healthy men, and nobody even called for help on the cell phone, but she did.


Several of the watchers got caught and convicted of:

non-assistance of a person in danger

I think the Buddha also didn't encourage to break laws...
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Re: The Ethics of Non Action

Postby retrofuturist » Sun Feb 08, 2009 10:59 pm

Greetings,

This thread is being moved to the General Theravada Discussion forum given the replies that have been received and the perception I get that Bankei wasn't exclusively interested in the Mahavihara perspective. (If that is wrong Bankei, please let us know).

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 Ethics of Non Action

Postby Bankei » Mon Feb 09, 2009 1:38 am

Hi Retro

Yep, that is ok. I was after the 'Mahavihara' perspective, but am happy to hear other 'modern' idea.

I personally would find it hard to justify non action if someone was suffering in front of me.

The reason I ask this question is that I had been reading some writings by Peter Singer who is a modern philosopher. He argues that it is also unjustifiable to not help someone who you can see suffering. But he takes things further.
e.g. there are people starving right now in many places of the world.
e.g. There are people dying because they can't afford medicine etc.

Do we have a moral obligation to help these people (even though they may be located far away)?

Could there be any karmic affects of not helping them - there is no real conscious decision as there would be with watching someone drown in front of you. Most people would not give a moments thought to these issues, so how could there be Karma?

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Re: The Ethics of Non Action (General Theravada version)

Postby retrofuturist » Mon Feb 09, 2009 4:44 am

Greetings Bankei,

I've duplicated this thread and left a copy in the Classical Mahavihara Theravada section, with all the off topic posts removed. We'll leave this one here too for the more generic Theravada responses since you say you're interested in those too.

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 Ethics of Non Action

Postby Annapurna » Mon Feb 09, 2009 8:28 am

Bankei wrote:Hi Retro

Yep, that is ok. I was after the 'Mahavihara' perspective, but am happy to hear other 'modern' idea.

I personally would find it hard to justify non action if someone was suffering in front of me.

The reason I ask this question is that I had been reading some writings by Peter Singer who is a modern philosopher. He argues that it is also unjustifiable to not help someone who you can see suffering. But he takes things further.
e.g. there are people starving right now in many places of the world.
e.g. There are people dying because they can't afford medicine etc.

Do we have a moral obligation to help these people (even though they may be located far away)?

Could there be any karmic affects of not helping them - there is no real conscious decision as there would be with watching someone drown in front of you. Most people would not give a moments thought to these issues, so how could there be Karma?

Bankei


Hello, Bankei. :smile:

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka ... .than.html

"There is the case where a woman or man is not a giver of food, drink, cloth, sandals, garlands, scents, ointments, beds, dwellings, or lighting to priests or contemplatives. Through having adopted & carried out such actions, on the break-up of the body, after death he/she reappears in the plane of deprivation... If instead he/she comes to the human state, he/she is poor wherever reborn. This is the way leading to poverty: not to be a giver of food, drink, cloth, sandals, garlands, scents, ointments, beds, dwellings, or lighting to priests or contemplatives.

"There is the case where a woman or man is obstinate & arrogant. He/she does not pay homage to those who deserve homage, rise up for those for whom one should rise up, give a seat to those to whom one should give a seat, make way for those for whom one should make way, worship those who should be worshipped, respect those who should be respected, revere those who should be revered, or honor those who should be honored. Through having adopted & carried out such actions, on the break-up of the body, after death, he/she reappears in the plane of deprivation... If instead he/she comes to the human state, then he/she is low-born wherever reborn. This is the way leading to a low birth: to be obstinate & arrogant, not to pay homage to those who deserve homage, nor rise up for... nor give a seat to... nor make way for... nor worship... nor respect... nor revere... nor honor those who should be honored.


If you accept that everybody was our mother before, and that the mother (father) deserves the highest respect, and full support, then you can conclude that this bolded part:

"respect those who should be respected, revere those who should be revered, or honor those who should be honored."


really applies to more than just the stranger that we become aware of through TV, - miserable somewhere on this planet.

So, this stranger was our mother before....

....we know he or she is lacking food and medicine....

We know we have some money left over at the end of the month....

Why not give a part of that money to somebody to whom it means health and life...why not?

I'd be very happy to be in that position, and if I were really rich, I wouldn't hang a diamond necklace around my poodles neck, but give that money to an organization I trust, to spend it wisely.

I would inform myself which organization has a good reputation.

I personally would also donate large sums to Green Peace, because a healthy planet is our all fundament, to begin with, for animals and humans alike.

The earth is our mother too.

So, yes, I feel that there is a moral obligation to help, but it has to come from within.

So, this said, I hope you found something in my post.
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Re: The Ethics of Non Action (General Theravada version)

Postby Jechbi » Thu Feb 12, 2009 4:49 pm

fwiw ...

It rained last night where I live, and this morning there were worms out crawling across the blacktop. This discussion must have been in the back of my mind, because the thought occurred to me, maybe I should try to rescue all those worms. Immediately I realized how impossible that would be.

As I was getting closer to my house, I saw a single worm struggling on the blacktop in the shade, inching toward the grass a few feet away. Again the thought occurred to me that maybe I should rescue this one worm. Usually I would just dismiss the thought, but then I remembered this discussion. So first I brought my mail inside the house and set it on the counter, then I went back outside to rescue the one worm.

When I took a closer look at the worm, I realized that it was an extremely healthy, moist worm in no apparent danger. It was moving toward the grass at its own pace and probably would have been fine if I had left in alone. Then I reached out to pick it up. When I touched it, it squirmed violently in protest. I pinched it gently to pick it up, and the thought crossed my mind that I hoped I wasn't injuring it. Then I dropped it into the dirt in the grass.

I know, it's kind of silly.

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Re: The Ethics of Non Action (General Theravada version)

Postby clw_uk » Fri Feb 13, 2009 1:53 am

You had right intention though :smile:

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Re: The Ethics of Non Action (General Theravada version)

Postby Bankei » Thu Feb 19, 2009 10:37 am

Thanks for all the replies so far.

What about this scenario, what would you do?:

"Not truly rich, your one luxury in life is a vintage Mercedes sedan that, with much time, attention, and money, you've restored to mint condition... One day, you stop at the intersection of two small country roads, both lightly travelled. Hearing a voice screaming for help, you get out and see a man who's wounded and covered with a lot of his blood. Assuring you that his wound is confined to one of his legs, the man also informs you that he was a medical student for two full years. And, despite his expulsion for cheating on his second year final exams, which explains his indigent status since, he's knowledgeably tied his shirt near the wound as to stop the flow. So, there's no urgent danger of losing his life, you're informed, but there's great danger of losing his limb. This can be prevented, however, if you drive him to a rural hospital fifty miles away. "How did the wound occur?" you ask. An avid bird-watcher, he admits that he trespassed on a nearby field and, in carelessly leaving, cut himself on rusty barbed wire. Now, if you'd aid this trespasser, you must lay him across your fine back seat. But, then, your fine upholstery will be soaked through with blood, and restoring the car will cost over five thousand dollars. So, you drive away. Picked up the next day by another driver, he survives but loses the wounded leg."



Any comments?
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Re: The Ethics of Non Action (General Theravada version)

Postby clw_uk » Thu Feb 19, 2009 12:13 pm

I would help the guy and bay the bill, better for him to have an easier existence than an awkward one and the money is just money
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Re: The Ethics of Non Action (General Theravada version)

Postby kc2dpt » Thu Feb 19, 2009 2:57 pm

Bankei wrote:What about this scenario, what would you do?

How does asking what a bunch of unawakened folks would do help answer the question of what the Buddha teachings are regarding "the ethics of non action"? Isn't it perhaps more relevant to ask "What would the Buddha advise us to do?"

The desire to protect the car's upholstery is clearly rooted in greed, an unwholesome quality, while the desire to help the man is clearly rooted in compassion, a wholesome quality.

I think everyone here agrees it is possible to abstain from acting for unwholesome reasons, just as it is possible to act for unwholesome reasons.
- Peter

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Re: The Ethics of Non Action (General Theravada version)

Postby Bankei » Fri Feb 20, 2009 10:42 pm

The reason I ask these questions is that I have been reading some modern philosophy/ethics such as the works by Peter Singer and Peter Unger. The above quote about the car is by Peter Unger, there is a bit at wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Living_High_and_Letting_Die

Unger gives the car example where most people would agree that you should help the victim and disregard the car. He then compares this to people dying of starvation, aids etc. We each have the economic power to save a number of people if we choose.
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