Kusala and Akusala Kamma, Puñña and Pāpa Kamma

April 27, 2018

1. There is a big difference between kusala kamma and puñña kamma. The following question came up in the discussion forum: “ Does circumambulation (walking around) a stupa or Buddhist relic brings merits to oneself? Does it matter whether one goes clockwise or counter-clockwise?”.

  • The short answer is that it can beneficial if done with correct mindset, but it cannot remove defilements (i.e., it is not a kusala kamma) by itself. It could be a puñña kamma that can setup conditions that will enable oneself to do kusala kamma.
  • It is always good to know how the key Pāli terms originated (“pada nirukti”).

2. Kusala comes from “ku” + ”sala”, where “ku” refers to “kunu” or keles or defilements, and “sala” means “to get rid of”. “akusala” is the opposite of “kusala”. Kamma is an action.

  • Therefore, an akusala kamma is an action that defiles or contaminates one’s mind (one of dasa akusala). Any kusala kamma involves an action that involves removal of defilements or dasa akusala from one’s mind; see, “Ten Immoral Actions (Dasa Akusala)“.
  • Now it must be clear that circumambulation (walking) around a stupa or Buddhist relic is neither a kusala or an akusala kamma.

3. The word “puñña” is related to joy; the Sinhala word “pina” or “pin” is associated with “pinaveema” or “making one’s heart joyful.

  • Therefore, a puñña kamma is an action that makes one’s heart filled with joy. It is usually an action out of saddha (faith in the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha). Such actions may not necessarily be kusala kamma, but some puñña kamma are kusala kamma too.
  • For example, when one offers food to the bhikkhus (or even to a hungry person) with joy in heart, that is both a kusala kamma (giving which is the opposite of stealing), and also a puñña kamma because one does with joy.
  • Ten types of puñña kamma are discussed in, “Punna Kamma – Dāna, Sīla, Bhāvanā“.

4. Circumambulation around a stupa or Buddhist relic (usually while reciting a gatha or Tisarana Vandana) is a puñña kamma. In fact, it belongs to the same category as offering flowers and reciting pirith (paritta).

  • The key reason is that one’s mind becomes temporarily free of pancanivara (kamaccandha, vyāpāda, tina middha, uddacca kukkucca, and vicikiccā) when doing a puñña kamma. All those actions make one’s mind joyful and be receptive to deep Dhamma. It is good to do them before sitting down to listen to a dēsanā.
  • Whether there is an effect for clockwise or counter- clockwise, I am not sure. If there is, it must be a small effect.

5. In fact, when one does mundane ānapāna (breath meditation), that could be a puñña kamma, but NOT a kusala kamma.

  • That is because it helps keep the mind focused on the breath and thus suppress pancanivarana temporarily. But, by itself, it does not remove any defilements.

6. Puñña kamma are meritorious actions that CAN lead to rebirth in the higher realms. However, when one without any comprehension of Tilakkhana does puñña kamma, there could be asōbhana cetasika involved (especially greed at lower levels, possibly involving desire for something in return for those actions), and such actions would not count as kusala kamma; but they are still puñña kamma.

  • Kusala kamma are actions that lead to cleansing of the mind and help stopping the rebirth process.

7. This may get some people to think that puñña kamma are bad and lead to extending the rebirth process. But that is NOT the case. Punna kamma are REQUIRED to setting up CONDITIONS suitable to cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to Nibbāna (stopping the rebirth process).

  • One may also think doing puñña kamma may be actions that are part of silabbata parāmāsa. That is not necessarily correct. Silabbata parāmāsa means one believes that one can ATTAIN Nibbāna by doing puñña kamma.
  • Anyone with a magga phala (all the way up to the Arahant) would do meritorious deeds or puñña kamma.

8. Another way to state the difference is: All kusala kamma are puñña kamma too. But some puñña kamma may be a mixture of kusala and akusala kamma. How is that possible, especially since we know that both sōbhana and asōbhana cetasika CANNOT arise together in a given citta (thought)?

  • The key here is that billions of citta are involved in a puñña kamma. For example, if one is offering food to bhikkhus, both kusala and and akusala citta can arise while preparing for the event, during the event, and even after the event (recalling the event).
  • At times, kusala citta with sōbhana cetasika (saddha, alōbha, adōsa, amōha) may be running through one’s mind. But at other times one may be thinking about possible future good vipāka, and at such times akusala citta (with lōbha and mōha) could be running through one’s mind.
  • But the overall event is called a puñña kamma, offering food for the bhikkhus. Therefore, such a puñña kamma could have mostly good vipāka, but some bad vipāka too depending on the mindset of the person.

9. This is why the Path is two-fold. When one starts, one will be on the mundane eightfold path and could be doing puñña kamma (some of which are kusala kamma).

  • As one progresses on the mundane path, one’s actions will have more and more kusala component.
  • A big jump will be made when one attains the Sōtapanna stage, but any trace of akusala component due to remaining avijja will be completely removed only at the Arahant stage. At that point (for an Arahant) such actions are called ”kriya” or just actions.

10. We talked about kusala/akusala kamma and puñña kamma, but did not discuss the opposite of puñña kamma. The opposite of puñña kamma is pāpa kamma.

  • Pāpa in Pāli and Sinhala means “evil” or “sinful” actions, that are obvious: Killing of a human or habitual killing of animals, raping, and niyata micca ditthi are some examples of pāpa kamma.
  • So, what is the difference between akusala kamma and pāpa kamma?

11. The simplest way to state the difference is to say that pāpa kamma are the worst of akusala kamma.

  • Usually, pāpa kamma lead to rebirth in the apāyās. Anantara pāpa kamma are the strongest, and will even break the “bhava shakthi” in a human bhava and lead to rebirth in the apāyās when the current physical body dies (even if more kammic energy is left in the current human bhava).
  • Mild akusala kamma can only bring pavutti vipāka, i.e., those can bring difficulties and sufferings during even a “good bhava” like a human bhava.

Discussion of this post is at, “Is circumambulation a mere rite or ritual?“.

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