Unskillfulness and Sin

Christians believe in a variety of sins: original, venal, mortal. An external Evil Agent, Satan, tempts us into it.

Jews believe in an innate יצר הרע (yetzer hara) or evil inclination that entices us to stray from God.

In either case, sin is Evil with a capital ”E” and denotes a rupture in our relationship with God. Certain things are sinful because they violate God’s commandments. They are sinful because God has ordained it so.

Buddhism has no concept equivalent to that of sin. While there may be gods in Buddhism, there is no God, The Eternal Creator and Judge. In Buddhism actions are judged by their utilitarian value: whether they lead to greater happiness for the person and affected others, and whether they lead to better karma, rebirth, and progress on the path to Enlightenment. The Buddhist terms for judging whether actions have a felicitous or unfelicitious effect are (in the Pali language) kusala and akusala, which usually gets translated as either wholesome and unwholesome, or skillful and unskillful. The utilitarian nature of these concepts is made clear in the Kusala Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya 2.19):

“Abandon what is unskillful, monks. It is possible to abandon what is unskillful. If it were not possible to abandon what is unskillful, I would not say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’ But because it is possible to abandon what is unskillful, I say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’ If this abandoning of what is unskillful were conducive to harm and pain, I would not say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’ But because this abandoning of what is unskillful is conducive to benefit and pleasure, I say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’

“Develop what is skillful, monks. It is possible to develop what is skillful. If it were not possible to develop what is skillful, I would not say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’ But because it is possible to develop what is skillful, I say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’ If this development of what is skillful were conducive to harm and pain, I would not say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’ But because this development of what is skillful is conducive to benefit and pleasure, I say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.'”
Kusala Sutta [ref]–translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu[/ref]


When we say that skillful actions promote happiness, we are not just talking about the happiness of the individual. In Buddhism the individual and others in the community have equal claims to happiness. Buddhism is, as Shohaku Okumura has observed, [ref] Okumura, S. (2010). Realizing Genjokoan, Boston:Wisdom [/ref] neither individualist nor collectivist, but represents a middle-way between these dialectical opposites. This is, in part, a consequence of the Buddhist emphasis on emptiness, the interdependence of all things. It is also due to the Buddhist view of the absolute truth of the oneness of all things balanced against the relative truth of our individual uniqueness. Skillful actions promote the happiness of the individual and the community synchronistically.

Just as something unskilful, like an addictive behavior, brings ruin to the individual and his family and involves broader social costs, skillful actions bring happiness to the individual, his social group, and the larger social order. Selfish behavior does not bring genuine happiness, but only fleeting sense pleasures and ego gratification. Selfishness disturbs our loving social ties with others, creates dissension in the community, and makes us slaves to the hedonic treadmill of transient pleasure. The Buddha (like Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics) believed that real happiness came from the cultivation of wisdom and character. Aristotle differentiated eudamonia, or genuine well-being, from hedonia, or sense-based pleasure. Contemporary Positive Psychology is demonstrating the truth of the Aristotelian-Buddhist idea of a deeper, more worthwhile sense of well-being that is wisdom and character based.

Not only can actions be unskillful, but thoughts, which are really interiorized actions, can also be unskillful. Thoughts are often the first stirrings of action, with skillful thoughts leading to skillful actions, unskillful thoughts to unskillful ones. We are what we think. If we are to live skillfully we must first establish some degree of control over our unruly minds. This is where mindfulness comes in. If we’re heedless of thoughts we’re driven by them like a leaves in the wind. If we’re mindful of thoughts, we can exercise discerning judgment about them. We can discern whether or not a thought is skillful and then decide whether or not to rehearse, practice, nurture, and reinforce it.

Thinking about actions as being unskillful rather than sinful allows us to take responsibility for behavior without the added burden of surplus guilt. We avoid unskillful behavior because we want ourselves and others to be happy, not because we’re afraid of Hellfire or God’s wrath. The only source of retribution we really need worry about is the one we ought to: Cause-and-Effect. This is true whether one believes in the Buddhist concept of karma, or the modern scientific understanding of cause and effect.

Go and sin no more.


8 Replies to “Unskillfulness and Sin”

  1. Hamlet has a line, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Similarly, we hear that, according to Buddhist doctrine, there is no right or wrong in an absolute sense. It must be so because the world is so patently unfair, full of cruelty, violence and senseless losses and suffering. Either our judgments or an innate sense of right and wrong create a different perception. In religions based on the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient, infinitely good God, this uncomfortable fact requires uncomfortable doctrinal contorsions. The ancient Greeks had no such problems with their “Theoi,” because they were rather imperfect and, motivated by base emotions, actually intervened in human affairs and fought among themselves for self-serving purposes. Still, in our relative world, Buddhism recognizes Sila as one of the six paramitas. Zen does not always place much emphasis on this paramita. I think perhaps it should. I have often heard teishos during sesshin that seem to directly speak to me, and my condition at the time. I have found that this experience is common among participants. Likewise, when read Seth’s latest posting, it seemed to speak to me directly about my condition at this time. It is helpful that Buddhism speaks of upaya rather than sin. At least for me, it is easier to grasp and work with this concept than the concept of sin. In one way or another, we are always challenged to act skillfully and avoid bad karma–in the true sense of the word as used in the post.

  2. I don’t understand this: “emptiness, the interdependence of all things” can someone please explain to me how the Buddhist concept of emptiness is the equivalent of interdependence?

    1. In Buddhism “emptiness” means that things are empty of “self-nature.” A flower, for example, doesn’t have an existence in and of itself. It exists as a process of an interaction between seed, soil, sun, and water. It constantly changes, one moment a seed, one moment a flower, the next moment, compost. The water doesn’t exist by itself, but is part of a complex interaction of sky, ocean, and wind. The soil is a complex interaction of compost, minerals, and earthworms. The sun is part of a complex astronomical and cosmological process. Thus the existence of the flower is dependent on all these things – – ocean, sky, earthworms, wind, clouds, compost. Emptiness points to how everything depends on the existence of everything else and is constantly transforming according to causes and conditions. Thus things are “empty” of an inner essence that makes them what they are.
      Hope this explanation helps!

  3. I had understood that early Buddhism had no equivalent concepts to “good and evil’ but, instead, spoke in terms of “skillful and unskillful.” Many Enlgish translations of the dhamadpadha do use the word evil, a lot, but I simply thought that those were mistranslations. But somebody told me that the words “Papa vagga’ does in fact mean “evil.” Can anybody help clear that up for me, please?

    1. Ethan, the Pali term “papavagga” is indeed usually translated as “evil.”The problem is, exactly what did the ancient Indian Buddhists mean by the term, and does it have the same connotations as the English word “evil.” I am not a philologist, so I can’t know for certain, but I suspect the word has different connotations than our “evil” does. The English “evil” seems to have metaphysical properties, as if it was an independent force in the world, and it also has specific meanings within Christian theology, identified as it is with Satan as a source of evil outside of ourselves, and with “sin” in terms of turning away from God. I don’t think the early Buddhists thought in those terms. I think “evil” is closer to “wicked” or “harmful” or “ill-intended” or “a cause of suffering”——in other words, actions tainted by the motivation of greed, hatred, or ignorance that harm oneself or other beings.

  4. Thanks. Every translation of the Dhamapadha I can find has a section called “evil” in which the word is used a lot. however, I don’t remember seeing it ever come up in the Pali Canon. Anyway, I agree with you.

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