Kusala and Akusala Kamma, Puñña and Pāpa Kamma

April 27, 2018; revised August 19, 2019; January 26, 2021; May 31, 2021


1. There are six causes for things to arise in this world: lōbha, dōsa, mōha and alōbha, adōsa, amōha.

  • Akusala kamma (immoral actions) done with lōbha, dōsa, mōha give rise to births in the four lowest realms or apāyās.
  • Puñña Kamma (moral deeds) done with alōbha, adōsa, amōha give rise to births in the human and higher (good) realms.

2. However, births in good planes do not solve suffering for the long term.

  • If one still has hidden defilements (anusaya), one could act with avijjā and taṇhā.
  • Therefore, when strong sense attractions become too tempting, one could do akusala kamma with lōbha, dōsa, mōha, and then be born in the apāyās.
Comprehension of Noble Truths/Paṭicca Samuppāda/Tilakkhana 

3.  When one comprehends #1 and #2 above, one would have realized the anicca nature, which is the following. Existence in any realm WILL NOT bring permanent happiness, or more correctly, it will not REMOVE future suffering.

  • When one starts realizing the anicca nature, one will start “seeing” the dangers in continuing in the rebirth process. And that comprehension will lead to the gradual “wearing away” of hidden anusaya.
  • That comprehension of Tilakkhana is the same as comprehension of the Four Nobel Truths or Paṭicca Samuppāda. They all describe why the rebirth process only perpetuates suffering.
Difference Between Puñña Kammā and Kusala Kamma

4. Puñña kammā are meritorious actions that CAN lead to rebirth in the higher realms. However, when one does puñña kammā without any comprehension of Tilakkhana, there could be asōbhana cetasika involved. (Especially greed at lower levels, possibly including a desire for something in return for those actions.) Such actions would not count as kusala kammā, but they are still puñña kammā.

  • Kusala kammā are actions that lead to the cleansing of the mind and help stop the rebirth process.
  • This is stated clearly in the “Sabhiya Sutta (Snp 3.6):”

“Kosāni viceyya kevalāni,                                                     “Having thoroughly investigated all possibilities (of rebirth),
Dibbaṁ mānusakañca brahmakosaṁ;                                  Heavenly, human, even the Brahmā-realms,
Sabbakosamūlabandhanā pamutto,                                      One is freed from the root binding to all of them,
Kusalo tādi pavuccate tathattā.”                                          True to themselves: such is called “kusala”.

  • All kusala kammā are puñña kammā. But not all puñña kammā are kusala kammā, because puñña kammā done without true wisdom (knowledge of the Noble Truths/Paṭicca Samuppāda/Tilakkhana) will not lead to Nibbāna.
Two Eightfold Paths – Mundane (Lokiya) and Transcendental (Lokottara)

5. That is why the Path is two-fold. In the beginning, one will be on the mundane eightfold path and will be doing puñña kammā.

  • When one switches to the Noble (Lōkottara) Path as a Sōtapanna Anugāmi (with comprehension of Tilakkhana), one’s actions will have more and more kusala components.
  • A big jump from puñña kammā to kusala kammā is when one attains the Sōtapanna stage. However, any trace of the akusala component due to the remaining avijjā will be completely removed only at the Arahant stage. At that point (for an Arahant), such actions are called ”kriya” or just activities.
  • For a discussion on the two paths, see “Mahā Cattārisaka Sutta (Discourse on the Great Forty).”
Switching From Mundane Eightfold Path to Noble Eightfold Path

6. When one is on the mundane eightfold path, one knows the difference between moral and immoral. Thus one will (try to) abstain from akusala kamma and make an effort to engage in puñña kammā (virtuous deeds).

  • That will help one keep away from rebirths in the apāyās, and be directed to rebirths in good realms at or above the human plane.

7. With the comprehension of Tillakkhana, one will start switching to the Noble (Lōkottara) Path. One will begin realizing that anicca nature leads to dukkha, which in turn leads to anatta or helplessness when born in the apāyās.

  • Then one will  AUTOMATICALLY start doing moral deeds without any (hidden) expectation of a “good return in terms of good birth.” One has understood that even births in the higher realms WILL NOT be permanent. Future rebirths in the apāyās can happen due to anusaya (hidden defilements.)
  • In other words, more and more PUÑÑA kamma will automatically become KUSALA kamma as the understanding gorws. Kusala kamma are better than puñña kamma.
  • That is a point that is hard for many people to understand. But it should not be difficult.

8. When one proceeds this way, lōbha, dōsa, mōha will be removed in four stages: Sōtapanna, Sakadāgāmi, Anāgāmi, Arahant.

  • By the time one gets to the Arahant stage, one has eradicated lōbha, dōsa, mōha.
  • By that time, one has also removed alōbha, adōsa, and amōha. One will do moral deeds without any expectations for “good births.” That is because one would have seen the futility of getting births in those good realms.

9. Therefore, removing ALL SIX ROOT CAUSES leads to Nibbāna (Arahanthood).

  • However, since an Arahant still has a live physical body, previous kamma vipāka can bring bodily pains like injuries or body pains or sicknesses. But any mental suffering would be gone.
  • Then that Arahant attains Parinibbāna (full Nibbāna) when the physical body dies at his death.
  • AT that point, one attains full Nibbāna, and NO MORE SUFFERING will ever materialize.

10. It is essential to understand that Nibbāna IS NOT REACHED due to ANY causes. Nibbāna results when all six root causes are REMOVED.

  • That is why Nibbāna is also called asankata, unborn, unmade, unconditioned, etc.
  • On the other hand, sankata (things in this world) arise due to those six causes. Words like born, made, and conditioned, are associated with sankata.
Pāli Word Analysis (Pada Nirutti)

11. We can see the difference between kusala kammā and puñña kammā by looking at Pāli roots of those words. Kusala comes from “ku” + ”sala,” where “ku” refers to “kunu” or kilesa or evils, and “sala” means “to get rid of.” “akusala” is the opposite of “kusala.” Kamma is an action.

  • It is always good to know how Pāli terms originated (“pada nirutti”).
  • Therefore, an akusala kammā is an action that defiles or contaminates one’s mind (one of dasa akusala). Any kusala kammā involves an activity that leads to the removal of evils or dasa akusala from one’s mind; see, “Ten Immoral Actions (Dasa Akusala).”

12. 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 kammā is an action that makes one’s heart filled with joy. It is usually an action out of saddha (faith in the Buddha, Dhamma, Saṅgha). Such activities may not necessarily be kusala kammā, but some puñña kammā are kusala kammā too.
  • For example, when one offers food to the bhikkhus (or even to a hungry person) with joy in heart, that is a puñña kammā because one does with pleasure. It will be a kusala kammā if one has comprehended Tilakkhana.
  • Ten types of puñña kammā are discussed in “Puñña Kamma – Dāna, Sīla, Bhāvanā.”
What Are Pāpa Kammā?

13. We talked about kusala/akusala kammā and puñña kammā but did not discuss the opposite of puñña kammā. The opposite of puñña kammā is pāpa kammā.

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

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

  • Usually, pāpa kammā lead to rebirth in the apāyās. Ānantara pāpa kammā are the strongest, and will even break the “bhava shakti” in a human bhava. That will lead to rebirth in the apāyās when the current physical body dies (even if more kammic energy remains in the current human bhava).
  • Mild akusala kammā can only bring pavutti vipāka, i.e., those can bring difficulties and sufferings during even a “good bhava” like a human bhava.
Some Examples of Puñña Kammā

15. Engaging in any moral deed is a puñña kamma. Offering flowers and chanting pirith (paritta) or paying homage to the Buddha, Dhamma, Saṅgha is also puñña kammā.

  • The key reason is that one’s mind becomes temporarily free of pañcanīvaraṇa (kāmaccandha, vyāpāda, tina middha, uddacca kukkucca, and vicikiccā) when doing a puñña kammā. All those actions make one’s mind joyful and receptive to profound Dhamma. It is good to do them before sitting down to listen to a dēsanā.

16. 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?”.

  • Circumambulation around a stupa or Buddhist relic (usually while reciting a gātha or Tisarana Vandanā) could be a puñña kamma. It belongs to the same category as offering flowers and chanting pirith (paritta).
  • Whether there is an effect for clockwise or counterclockwise, I am not sure. If there is, it must be a small effect.
  • The short answer is that it can benefit if done with the correct mindset. However, it cannot remove evils (i.e., it is not a kusala kammā) by itself. It could be a puñña kammā that can set up conditions that will enable oneself to do kusala kammā.

17. Puñña kammā are NECESSARY to setting up CONDITIONS suitable to cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to Nibbāna (stopping the rebirth process).

  • One may also think that doing puñña kammā is part of silabbata parāmāsa. That is not correct. Silabbata parāmāsa is the wrong view that one can ATTAIN Nibbāna just by doing puñña kammā.
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