Wholesome and unwholesome

One important point from the previous post is that the Buddha emphasized the moral efficacy of action; that all of our actions have moral consequences, for good or ill. This is a guiding principle that the Buddha taught to all people, of all faiths, in all situations. It was not a way of enticing people to follow him; it was a statement of a simple truth, intended to benefit the hearers.

The Buddha often followed on with a list of important distinctions between wholesome and unwholesome actions which are categorized as the five (or four, in early suttas) precepts.  Sometimes the principle of right speech, the fourth precept, is divided into the sub-categories of truthful, harmonious, gentle and meaningful speech.

When, friends, a noble disciple understands the unwholesome and the root of the unwholesome, the wholesome and the root of the wholesome, in that way he is one of right view,…

And what is the wholesome? Abstention from the destruction of life is wholesome; abstention from taking what is not given is wholesome; abstention from sexual misconduct is wholesome; abstention from false speech is wholesome; abstention from divisive speech is wholesome; abstention from harsh speech is wholesome; abstention from idle chatter is wholesome… and what is the root of the wholesome? Non-greed is a root of the wholesome; non-hatred is a root of the wholesome; non-delusion is a root of the wholesome.  — from MN9, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

For us, today, having these principles stated in the negative instead of positive form (non-greed instead of generosity, for example) can seem awkward. Part of the reason it’s phrased this way comes from a characteristic of the Pali language, and part of the reason is that these statements were not written down, but memorised, so repetition, with one version stated positively and one negatively, was easier to remember.

Still, even for us, there may be more clarity in “non-greed” than in another word. We’re pretty clear on what greed feels like in ourselves, and perhaps less clear about its opposite. Abstention from false speech is subtly different from always telling the truth. If we’re inclined to say something but can’t be sure that it’s beneficial, we might stay silent and wait. If we’re abstaining from a negative behavior, we might have a variety of reasons. It turns out that abstaining from a particular action is not the same as performing its opposite. Sometimes we’re not sure what to do, where the wholesome and unwholesome intentions lie, and doing nothing (for the moment) might be the best thing.

We’ll get back to reflecting on each of the precepts individually before too long, but for today let’s think about curbing our unwholesome roots as the first line of intentionality. We can recognize and release greed, hatred and (sometimes) delusion in ourselves. It’s likely that when hatred is set aside, love is what’s left, and when greed is set aside, generosity is there naturally.

1 Comment

Filed under Causes and results, General, Precepts

One response to “Wholesome and unwholesome

  1. Catherine B

    Stating ethical principles in negative form opens up the boundaries of the opposite to a wide range of possibilities. Instead of framing wholesome behavior as constricting, it allows us to pinpoint what is unwholesome, then abandon it in favor of a vaster array of wholesome activity. I so appreciate this unique presentation of how to live well. CB

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