Kusala-Mula Saṅkhāra Are Needed to Attain Nibbāna

December 20, 2021; revised August 31, 2022

Kusala-mula saṅkhārā” lead to Nibbāna. This category of saṅkhāra is generated via wisdom or paññā, the opposite of avijjā.

We Live Life with Saṅkhāra

1. As discussed in recent posts, everyone (including Arahants) generates saṅkhāra while living in this world.

  • Saṅkhārā are, in simple terms, THOUGHTS.
  • Everything we do involves thoughts. Thoughts can vary: compassionate, loving, greedy, angry, jealous, etc. Then we speak and do things with such thoughts with intentions.
  • Mano saṅkhāra are thoughts that arise automatically according to one’s gati (character/habits). If the sensory input (an ārammaṇa) is interesting, one starts thinking about it, and vaci saṅkhārā arise; such vaci saṅkhārā also lead to speech. If then one decides to take action, corresponding body movements happen via kāya saṅkhārā.
  • For example, you automatically start looking at an item in a shop if your gati matches it. Then if you think it is worthwhile to investigate it further, you keep looking at it, debating whether to buy it. If you lean toward buying it, you may decide to pick it up and look at it more carefully. Those involve mano, vaci, and kāya saṅkhārā, respectively. Such THOUGHTS related to attachment to worldly things (i.e., with chandarāga) are Abhisaṅkhāra. Arahants generate saṅkhāra, but not abhisaṅkhāra.
Chandarāga Lead to Abhisaṅkhāra

2. The easiest way to see the difference between saṅkhāra and abhisaṅkhāra is as follows. Saṅkhāra with chandarāga are abhisaṅkhāra.

  • The correct “pada nirutti” (etymology) of “rāga” comes from “” + “agga” where “” means to “travel (in the saṁsāric journey)” and “agga” is to “give priority.” Thus, “rāga” means to “willingly engage (in the saṁsāric journey.)
  • Chanda” (“ca” + “anda“) means “blinded mind.” Therefore, one with “chandarāga” has not comprehended the dangers of remaining in the rebirth process. See, “Lōbha, Rāga and Kāma cchanda, Kāma rāga.”
  • Chandarāga is of three types: Kāma rāga (attachment to kāma loka), rupa rāga (attachment to rupa loka, the 16 rupāvacara Brahama realms), and arupa rāga (attachment to the four arupāvacara Brahma realms.)
  • Note that kāma rāga, rupa rāga, and arupa rāga are three saṁyojana (saṁsāric bonds) that bind one to the rebirth process—Kāma rāga broken at the Anāgāmi stage and the other two bonds broken at the Arahant stage.
  • Thus, the removal of chandarāga leads to Nibbāna; see Ref. 1.
Three Main Types of Saṅkhāra

3. The following categorization could be helpful:

  1. Our thoughts, speech, and actions involved in daily activities are “kammically neutral.” Thus they involve kammically-neutral saṅkhāra.”
  2. Abhisaṅkhāra keeps one on the rebirth process. These are saṅkhāra arising due to avijjā, i.e., “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” in the Akusala-mula Paṭicca Samuppāda process; see, “Akusala-Mūla Uppatti Paṭicca Samuppāda.
  3. Then there are kusala-mula saṅkhāra cultivated by those on the Noble Path (Noble Persons above the Sotapanna Anugāmi stage.) Those saṅkhāra arise with the comprehension of the Noble Truths. Those are the “kusala-mula paccayā saṅkhāra” in the Kusala-mula Paṭicca Samuppāda process; see, “Kusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda.”
We Have to Attain Nibbāna While in This World

4. We cannot do ANYTHING in this world without generating saṅkhāra. Thus, working toward Nibbāna also involves saṅkhāra.

  • To work towards attaining Nibbāna, one needs to engage in physical activities (with kāya saṅkhāra) and discuss Dhamma concepts (with vaci saṅkhāra.) Furthermore, when the mind is in an appropriate state (samādhi), certain Dhamma concepts automatically come to mind as mano saṅkhāra.
  • Those are kusala-mula saṅkhāra.” One would start cultivating kusala-mula saṅkhāra from the Sotapanna Anugāmi stage. However, until the Arahant stage, some abhisaṅkhāra can arise via the Akusala-mula Paṭicca Samuppāda process. 
  • Once attaining the Arahanthood, abhisaṅkhāra would not arise at all. However, Arahants would still generate saṅkhāra after attaining Nibbāna until Parinibbāna. See, “Saṅkhāra – Should Not be Translated as a Single Word.”
Three Types of Abhisaṅkhāra 

5. In the post, “Saṅkhāra – Should Not be Translated as a Single Word,” we discussed three types of abhisaṅkhāra that can come into play in “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra.” See #8 there.

  • First, there are apuññābhisaṅkhāra (“bad saṅkhāra“) involving lobha, dosa, moha (and other related cetasika like jealousy. They are “apunna abhisaṅkhāra” that can lead to rebirths in lower realms (apāyās.) Such apuññābhisaṅkhāra will move one away from Nibbāna. That is easy to see.
  • However, we saw that two other types of “good saṅkhāra” can move one away from Nibbāna. Those “relatively good” abhisaṅkhāra that can lead to rebirths in the “good realms” at or above the human realm. Those are puññābhisaṅkhāra and āneñjābhisaṅkhāra.

6.  Puñña kamma with puññābhisaṅkhāra can bring “good results” in this world, including rebirths at or above the human realm. Giving, moral living, and meditation come under puñña kamma; see “Puñña Kamma – Dāna, Sīla, Bhāvanā.” Puññābhisaṅkhāra also includes the cultivation of rupāvacara jhāna (first four jhāna) that lead to rebirths in the 16 rupāvacara Brahma realms.

  • Āneñjābhisaṅkhāra comes into play in the cultivation of the four higher (arupāvacara) jhānas that lead to rebirths in the four arupāvacara Brahma realms.

Per #2 above, all three types of abhisaṅkhāra arise due to chandarāga.

How Can Puññābhisaṅkhāra and Āneñjābhisaṅkhāra Arise Due to Avijja?

7. For those who do not have a solid background in the basics, it won’t be easy to see why puññābhisaṅkhāra and āneñjābhisaṅkhāra also arise due to avijjā. The simple explanation is that one MAY act with avijjā until one understands the Four Noble Truths/Paṭicca Samuppāda/Tilakkahana. When one starts comprehending the Noble Truths, one would see why striving for future rebirths ( even those in the higher realms) can be dangerous in the long run.

  • That is related to the fact that one would understand many deep suttas ONLY after one gets that critical understanding.
  • That is also why it is dangerous to translate deep suttas word by word without understanding the more profound concepts in Buddha Dhamma.
  • I hope to discuss those in detail soon. Let us now discuss another related issue.
All Religions Encourage Doing Good Deeds to Achieve Happiness

8. Before the Buddha, people believed in morally good, morally wrong, and neutral deeds. All religions (to some extent) teach that one must abstain from evil deeds and engage in good deeds. In Pāli terms, that means one should avoid apuññābhisaṅkhāra and need to cultivate puññābhisaṅkhāra.

  • The principle behind that rationale is that doing good will lead to good results, and the opposite will happen to those engaged in evil deeds. That is the “BASE LEVEL of understanding of laws of kamma.”
Difference Between Buddha Dhamma and Major Religions

9. Buddha also advised people to live moral lives and to cultivate puññābhisaṅkhāra.

  • But there is a DEEPER LEVEL of understanding in Buddha Dhamma. That involves understanding the “real nature” of this world of 31 realms embedded in the Three Characteristics of Nature or Tilakkhana. That understanding goes hand-in-hand with understanding Paṭicca Samuppāda and the First Noble Truth on Suffering. That DEEPER teaching says that suffering will never end until this world’s true nature is understood and one decides to stop the rebirth process. That truth says it is foolish (avijjā) to assume that one can stop future suffering by just doing “good deeds” and by abstaining from “bad deeds.”
  • The more profound point (that may be initially hard to understand) is that the Buddha saw that real suffering in this world during his Enlightenment. There is a broader world with 31 realms, among which rebirths occur. Living beings commit “bad deeds” pursuing worldly pleasures and end up in the four lowest realms (apāyās.)  He explained the process (Paṭicca Samuppāda) by which future rebirths occur.
  • Until that process is understood (and thus one can comprehend Tilakkhana), one would still have that “subtle wrong view” of our world. That is the deeper level micchā diṭṭhi removed at the Sotapanna stage! That is the DEEPER LEVEL of understanding mentioned above.
Doing Good Deeds Is Not Enough to End Suffering

10. The CRITICAL point is that “good results” from “good deeds” do not last forever. Since we all have done “bad deeds” in past lives, their results can bring “bad births.”

  • Suppose person X avoids doing ANY evil deeds in this life. When this life ends within 100 years or so, there will be two possibilities:
    (i) Kammic energy for this human bhava has not been exhausted, and thus X will be reborn human again. Suppose X can avoid doing any evil deeds in that life and possibly a few more human lives. Eventually, X has to face option (ii) below.
    (ii) X will be reborn in a new existence (bhava,) and it will be determined not only by the “good kamma” that X has accumulated in the current human bhava but also by any “bad kamma” accumulated in previous lives extending to billions of years to the past.
  • That danger is evident in some accounts in the Tipitaka. Even after stating the Arahanthood, Ven. Moggalana was beaten to death. That was due to a trace of kamma vipāka leftover from killing his parents in a previous life. Angulimala killed almost a thousand people and would have been born in an apāya if he did not meet the Buddha. If such highly-regarded Arahants had committed such heinous crimes in the past, how can we say that we have not?

11. That is why Buddha Dhamma needs to be understood in the context of the rebirth process. Of course, it is up to each individual to decide the validity of the rebirth process.

  • Not believing in rebirth is one of the ten types of wrong views (micchā diṭṭhi) in Buddha Dhamma. Thus, making ANY progress with that wrong view would be impossible. One gets to mundane Sammā Diṭṭhi by getting rid of such wrong views. Only then would one be able to comprehend more profound concepts like Paṭicca Samuppāda and Tilakkhana and get to the lokottara Sammā Diṭṭhi and start on the Noble Path.
  • It is an excellent idea to contemplate the above. Discussing deep suttas without understanding these basic concepts is a waste of time.
Difference Between Kusala Kamma and Puñña Kamma

12. Any “good deed” done with the BASE LEVEL of understanding is a puñña kamma. The same deed done with the DEEPER LEVEL of understanding is a kusala kamma. Let us discuss that briefly next.

Let us start with ten types of akusala kamma (dasa akusala.) Three by actions: pānātipātā (killing), adinnādānā (taking what is not given), kāmēsu micchācārā (not just sexual misconduct, but also excessive sensory pleasures.) Four by speech: musāvāda (Lying), pisunā vācā (slandering), pharusā vācā (harsh speech), and sampappalāpā (frivolous talk). Then there are three directly by the mind: Abhijjā (covetousness; greed for other’s belongings), Vyāpāda (ill-will, hatred), and Micchā Diṭṭhi (wrong views.)

  • Those ten become stronger IF THEY ARE DONE WITH micchā diṭṭhi. Such strong versions of akusala kamma are pāpa kamma. They involve apuññābhisaṅkhāra that can DIRECTLY lead to rebirths in the apāyās. In Abhidhamma, such “apāyagāmi deeds” are done with “diṭṭhi sampayutta citta” or “citta that arise with wrong views.” We can also say that they involve apuññābhisaṅkhāraYet another way to say that a stronger version of avijjā (or moha) is in play when one has one or more of the ten types of micchā diṭṭhi or wrong views.
  • The ten types of wrong views are discussed in “Micchā Diṭṭhi, Gandhabba, and Sōtapanna Stage.”
  • Again, if one has any of the ten types of micchā diṭṭhi, one can act with moha (under high temptations) and do “apāyagāmi pāpa kamma.” Note that it DOES NOT mean one with micchā diṭṭhi will always act with wrong views and will inevitably do pāpa kamma. But the possibility is there.
Akusala Kamma May Be Done by Anyone Except aa Arahant

13. The critical point is that even if one does not have the ten types of micchā diṭṭhi, one could act with avijjā and still do pāpa kamma and be reborn in an apāya. But the possibility of that is much less than that for someone with the ten types of micchā diṭṭhi.

  • That is why only those above the Sotapanna Anugāmi stage are genuinely free from rebirths in the apāyās. In addition to losing the ten types of wrong views, they have understood the following:  The possibility of Future suffering in the apāyās will be there as long as one believes that one can achieve permanent happiness within the rebirth process.
  • (However, even a Noble Person below the Arahant stage can do “mild akusala kamma” that can lead to rebirths in the human or higher realms.)
  • What if one does not believe that there is a rebirth process?
  • Then there is no need to read deep suttas about Nibbāna. One WOULD NOT be able to understand them. But even more importantly, why bother reading about Nibbāna if one does not believe in the concept of Nibbāna?
  • That is why not believing in the rebirth process is one of the ten wrong views.
Wasting Time Discussing (Incorrectly Translated) Deep Suttas

14. Many people can save time by carefully reading and understanding what I discussed above. Of course, word-by-word translations of such deep suttas make it worse. The problem is that even translators do not understand the above-mentioned concepts. If they did, they would not do such nonsensical translations.

  • Many people have engaged in the same discussion forums for years. They have wasted a lot of valuable time. Of course, some people do not even take these discussions seriously. It is like discussing philosophy for them.
  • But if one even starts to understand the key message of the Buddha, one would not waste any time. We have a limited time of fewer than 100 years to use this rare opportunity.

15. The “Kusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda” process leads to Nibbāna. That process starts with “kusala-mūla paccayā saṅkhāra.”

  • On the other hand, the rebirth process continues with “Akusala-Mūla Paṭicca Samuppāda. “That process starts with, “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra.” Good, moral deeds done without comprehending the Noble Truths (i.e., puñña kamma) also fall under this category.
  • The same kind of moral deeds done with the comprehension of Four Noble Truths/Paṭicca Samuppāda/Tilakkahana are kusala kamma.
  • But many people believe moral, good deeds by anyone belong to the kusala kamma category. That is not correct.  Kusala kamma can be done only with the comprehension of the Noble Truths.

1. “Chandarāga Sutta (SN 22.25).” English translation there: “Desire and Lust (SN 22.25).” Note that “chandarāga” is translated as “desire and lust.” That is not correct, as I explained in #2 above.


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