2021-05-31 Kusala (6 of 10) Ten Wholesome Actions
1:08AM Jun 1, 2021
Our topic continues to be wholesomeness or skillfulness. There is a Pali word that we translate into English in both these ways. That word is kusala – "K U S A L A". Maybe in the ancient Buddhist world it had a singular meaning at that time, but in English, the two primary meanings or translations that we have settled on now are "wholesome" and "skillful". The opposite is "unwholesome" and "unskillful".
To some degree the meaning depends on the context in which the term is being used. It seems that with things of an interpersonal nature – relating to other people, for example, or maybe relating to ourselves as if we are another person – then "wholesome" seems to be the better translation. But when it has to do with personal spiritual development – one's meditation practice – then it seems like a better translation is "skill".
Wholesomeness is associated in English with something which is nourishing, something which is healthy. The dictionary definition that I have seen is: "promoting health and well-being of mind, spirit and body". Whereas skillfulness has to do with proficiency – one's ability to do something well. Wholesomeness can imply the goodness of something in and of itself. Just doing it is its own reward, because it feels so good to do it. Whereas skillful has a bit more the sense that you are doing something for a purpose, and it supports a purpose. Skillfulness might support the growth of wholesome qualities – the growth of what is good – but still, it is skillful for a purpose. When you say, "This is skillful", you can ask for what purpose or in what way.
These distinctions are not so absolute, but there is a tendency to divide these two different translations. One has to do with the interpersonal, and the other with personal development. One has to do with with promoting health and well-being in a direct way for oneself with wholesome qualities – acting on the wholesome and acting in ways that benefit other people. If something is done wholesomely, it is nourishing and supportive, according to this translation: "conducive to or promoting health or well-being in mind, spirit, and body".
It is interesting that another definition of wholesomeness in the dictionary is: "conducive to or promoting moral well-being". This particularly has to do with how kusala sometimes refers to interpersonal relationships. In fact, the word "kusala" is probably the closest match for the English words "moral" or "ethics". But rather than having some kind of authoritarian or moral obligation feeling around the word, the concept has for me a warm internal feeling of up-welling of what is nourishing and supportive – the good within us. So there is an inner source for ethics, rather than external source of right and wrong, should and should not. To keep using this wholesome inner experience – to be connected to this and to know it.
In a way this can be eclipsed, if we are too much caught up in the cognitive and abstract ideas of what is and is not ethical, what we should and should not do, what is right and wrong, that come from our society or from religious textbooks. From all kinds of sources that are very different than this welling up of a reference point inside of what really feels nourishing and healthy. This is also different than using the experience of pleasure as a reference point. If we refer simply to what we enjoy or what brings pleasure, then we might go askew – might go astray a little bit. But if we use what is wholesome, I think the Buddhist idea is that is a really reliable reference point for ensuring that we will act well in the world – generously in the world.
Staying for a moment with this translation of wholesome as having to do with the interpersonal world. Probably the most common reference to this wholesome quality in terms of our relationship to other people in the teachings of the Buddha, is found in a list of ten ethical guidelines called the ten courses or ten practices of wholesome action. The opposite are the ten courses of unwholesome action. The word "action" here means karma – wholesome and unwholesome karma.
Because the word "kusala"– wholesome – is used, these ten practices look like precepts, and maybe should be seen as precepts. In some of the teachings we find the association with precepts. They are more like the ten wellsprings of wholesome actions that we can act on and live by.
There is a longer description of each guideline in the suttas. But for now, the ten are: not killing, not stealing, not taking what is not given, not engaging in sexual misconduct, not lying, not speaking maliciously, not speaking harshly, not speaking frivolously, not being avaricious, and not having ill will. Having right view – a skillful view and understanding. One of the skillful views is to distinguish between what is wholesome and unwholesome. One of the skillful views and understandings is to understand how to come from what is wholesome as we engage in our life.
These mostly talk about what not to do. But it turns out that not doing killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and so forth, just clears the decks in a sense for what is inside – the wholesome – to come out. It also provides a tremendous sense of safety and room for other people to thrive and to do well. If we kill and steal and hurt people through our sexuality, that does not allow the best in other people to come out. Violence and hostility against others and meanness to others can close people down or cause challenges for people in a community – really, for centuries.
It was very touching to read about the survivors of the Tulsa massacre, who went to Congress recently. Today is the 100th anniversary of that massacre. Someone who is 107 years old came and spoke about the legacy of what happened 100 years ago – that violence. Now every day of her life, every night of her life, she relives and is troubled by what happened to her – for 100 years. That is a long time.
So the impacts of our negative actions are huge. But what we are trying to do is to live a wholesome life. For me, that is a very different feeling than living an ethical life. A wholesome life just feels wholesome. It feels good. It is relaxing. It is softening. It is warm-heartening for ourselves.
Some examples of what is most wholesome are these ten wholesome actions. As I said, there is a paragraph-long description of each one. I will give you an example of the first one so you get a sense of it. It is actually relatively short compared to the others.
"Abandoning killing living beings, one abstains from killing living beings. With weapons laid aside, gentle and kindly, one abides compassionate to all living beings". So this is not just a matter of avoiding killing. There are also positive, wholesome qualities here that are being encouraged and allowed to develop and grow. So the action is not simply a prohibition of something. Because it is focusing on what is wholesome. It says, "Yes – and these beautiful qualities as well – let's live by them as well". "With weapons laid aside, gentle and kindly, one abides compassionate to all living beings".
" In abstaining from malicious speech, one reunites those divided and promotes friendship, and unites those who are not yet united. In avoiding harsh speech, one speaks gently and courteously. In abstaining from frivolous speech, one speaks by what is factual and useful. In abstaining from ill will, one wishes for others that they be free from affliction".
These ten wholesome qualities get listed and talked about over and over again in the suttas – much more, in my impression, than the five precepts. It seems to me that in the suttas, these ten skillful actions, while they overlap with the five precepts, are richer and more heartfelt in nature in terms of these positive qualities. But more importantly, they are presented also as important stepping stones on the path to liberation. Whereas the five precepts have a lot of benefit, but they are not so directly tied to the purpose of liberation. Their purposes are to create a better society, to help other people feel safe, and not create bad karma for ourselves – things like that.
So the ten courses of wholesome action lead both to liberation, and also to the growth of wholesomeness in ourselves. What a wonderful thing to do. What a wonderful thing to do with one's life – to develop wholesome qualities that support and protect others and are for the benefit of others. Right on the path to liberation – what a nice thing that these two things coincide.
The ten courses of skillful or wholesome actions are found repeatedly in the suttas – in the Middle Length Discourses – I see there is a note on the source. That may be a relatively easy place to find the list for those who have access to it. The Middle Length Discourses in Discourse Nine has a list of them. But I don't know if it's a full list – the full description. The full description might be in the Middle Length Discourses: 39 or 40. Thank you, and may your day be wholesome.