Refraining from Every Evil (1/5)

(commentary on Dhammapāda, 183)

Refraining from every evil,
Accomplishing good,
Purifying the mind,
This is Teaching of the Buddhas.
(Dhammapāda 183)

Sabbapāpassa akaraṇaṃ
kusalassa upasampadā
etaṃ Buddhāna’sāsanaṃ.

Striking about the Dhammapāda are the many verses compelling in their simplicity and yet so far-ranging in their implications. We read verse #183 and it speaks to the heart: “Yeah, that’s how my life should be.” But having listened to it and taken it to heart, we find ourselves on what appears under our feet as the entire Buddhist path with all that that entails.

Nugget #183 in fact enumerates the three distinct systems of Buddhist ethics. Interestingly these correspond closely to the three major forms of modern normative ethics in the West: deontology or duty ethics, consequentialism, and virtue ethics. Refraining from every evil involves behaving according to duty, generally with regard to the prohibitive precepts of Buddhism. Accomplishing good is acting to bring beneficial consequences into the world. Purifying the mind, the most representative of the three Buddhist ethical practices, makes of virtue not only something we do in the world, but the way we think and feel, a way that, carried to its logical extreme, leads to awakening as the perfection of virtue.

Although duty ethics, consequentialism and virtue ethics are generally treated as mutually exclusive in Western thought,  in Buddhism they support and constrain one another. In exploring the Buddha’s integration of the three we recognize the fundamentally moral basis of the complete path of Buddhist practice, and that there is nothing in Buddhism that is not at root about ethics.

This verse from the Dhammapāda provides a particularly helpful perspective for us moderns also because we have a tendency to overlook ethics and virtue in our practice in favor of “higher” practices of mindfulness and samādhi, or in some traditions advanced esoteric practices that facilitate higher knowledges and awakening itself. This unfortunate tendency is a bit like building a high-rise starting with the penthouse. The high-rise of Buddhist accomplishment is to be built on a foundation of ethics, practical philosophy and values that ensures it does not start to lean as we advance to higher practices. This is clear in the teachings of the Buddha’s gradual path and even in the ordering of the eightfold noble path. Consider that a hunter, a sniper or a Wall Street stock broker can certainly attain deep levels of sustained concentration, but not Right Samadhi.

Lets turn to each of the three ethical practices of refraining from evil, accomplishing good and purifying the mind in turn, foreseeably one per week.

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6 Responses to “Refraining from Every Evil (1/5)”

  1. an Says:

    Thank you for this commentary Bikkhu Cintita,

    I will try more to refrain. Often when a person does the right thing the consequences to the person are negative in the short run, this makes refraining from evil more difficult (evil is a rather strong word – evil means that which is wholly wrong). However, I’m convinced that doing the right thing brings benefit in the long run, to the individual and to the world; and perhaps eventually to the entire universe (how would I know!). Certainly a human world built on lies, greed, et cetera, is like a house of cards, ready to tumble.

    Following the path remains a matter of faith for me. The way is not easy. I often take a wrong turn but somehow manage to find the path again. Your e-communication on this occaision has been another signpost.


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      I agree, evil is a strong word, but seems to be a standard translation of the Pali (paapa). I will point out next week that the meaning is really demerit, the opposite of merit (pu~n~na). A lot of your comment anticipates things that I will write about in this series, so stay tuned.


  2. jimmypandeiro Says:

    One of my favourite quotes from the Dhammapada. So simple at first glance yet….. 🙂 I look forward to reading the next few articles Bhante.


  3. Tim Earnshaw Says:

    This may be of interest –


  4. raindrop12 Says:

    Bhante- To be reminded to do first things first. A strong foundation of wholesome action has led the way for me. Wanting to be of service and finding I still get in the way is a pointer to my need to slow down. Lately I’ve been able to utilize gradual realizations in wisdom, virtue and concentration. My practice, as I have been taught, is leading smoothly to less troublesome behavior.

    I’m happy more and more– raindrop12


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