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Nourishing The Roots
Essays on Buddhist Ethics
by Bhikkhu Bodhi

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Mind and the Animate Order

As we cast our gaze out upon the landscape of animate nature, it does not take long before our attention is struck by the tremendous diversity of forms the animate order displays. The folds of nature's lap, we find, teem with a multitude of living beings as staggering in their range of specific differentiation as in the sheer impression of their quantitative force. Before our eyes countless varieties of creatures -- insects and reptiles, fish and birds, mammals domestic and wild -- turn the earth With its seas and skies into a complex metropolis, throbbing with the pulse of sentient life. But realms of being beyond sight -- vouched for by spiritual cosmology, folklore, and the reports of seers -- are no less crowded, and no less diversified in their composition. According to this testimony, gods, Brahmas, angels and demons populate boroughs of the city of life invisible to fleshly eyes, while other creatures, such as fairies, ghosts and goblins, fill up unfamiliar pockets of the same borough.

The human world, again, is itself far from homogeneous. The family of man breaks down into a great diversity of types -- into people black, white, brown, yellow and red, dividing still further, according to their fortunes and faculties, into the long-lived and the short-lived, the healthy and the sickly, the successful and the failures, the gifted and the deprived. Some people are intelligent, others are dull-witted, some are noble, others ignoble, some are spiritually evolved, others spiritually destitute. Human beings range all the way from mental retards who can manage their bodily needs only with great difficulty, to sages and saints who can comprehend the deepest secrets of the universe and lift the moral outlook of their less acute brothers and sisters to heights undreamed of in the common stream of thought.

To the thinker who would dig below the surface presentations and discover the reasons for the manifest phenomena, the question naturally arises why life exhibits itself in such variegated apparel. Reflection upon this question has given birth to a multitude of schools of thought, religious and philosophical, each offering its own speculations as the key to unravel the riddle of nature's kaleidoscopic design. In the intellectual history of humanity, the two dominant positions around which these schools cluster are theism and materialism. Pitted against one another by their antithetical tenets, the two have come down in different guises from ancient times even to the present. Theism refers the diversity of sentient life, including the disparities of fortune evident in the human world, to the will of God. It is God, the theist holds, the omnipotent, omniscient author of the universe, who creates through the fiat of his will the variety of natural forms, allots to beings their respective shares of happiness and suffering, and divides people into the high and the low, the fortunate and the miserable.

Materialism, in contradistinction, rules out any recourse to an extraterrestrial agency to account for the differentiation in the faculties and capacities found amongst living beings, and attempts to provide in its place a system of explanation which works exclusively with naturalistic principles, pertaining to the material order. The entire gamut of living forms together with all life's modes of expression, the materialist claims, can be effectively reduced in the end to the adventures of matter governed by physical, chemical and biological laws. Even consciousness represents, for the materialist, only a secondary superstructure built upon a material base devoid of any larger significance in itself.

It is not our present purpose here to examine at length these two rival doctrines. Let it suffice to note that both, in different ways, throw into jeopardy the postulate of a progressive spiritual evolution of beings by withholding, implicitly or explicitly, the necessary condition for such a course of evolution -- namely, an inwardly autonomous will which finds in the diversity of the sentient order the field for the working out of its own potentialities for growth and transformation, in accordance with laws governing freely chosen possibilities of action.

Theism withholds this condition by its basic postulate of an omnipotent deity directing the entire field of nature from above. If all of nature runs its course in obedience to divine command, then the individual will, which belongs to the natural order, must be subject to the same divine supervision as the rest of animate nature. The autonomy of the individual will and its direct impact on the sentient sphere are excluded, and with them also goes the thesis of a genuine long-term spiritual growth, to which they are essential.

Materialism likewise shuts out the notion of a progressive spiritual evolution of beings, but more simply and directly, by explicitly denying the basic presupposition of such a notion. The will's claim to freedom is here rejected, its autonomy usurped by the irresistible pressure of the determinative influences at its base. Consciousness becomes a mere by-product of material processes; the individual life-stream leaves no impact on any continuous current of experience enduring beyond the grave. Both conscious action and evolution in the biotic sphere proceed in the grip of the same play of cosmic forces -- blind, brute, and insentient in their fundamental mode of operation.

Buddhism also offers an explanation for the diversity of the sentient order, an explanation which bridges the gap between volition and the diversity and thus opens up the prospect for long-term spiritual development. According to Buddhism, the explanation for the variegation of sentient beings -- in their kinds, faculties, and fortunes -- lies in their kamma, that is, their volitional action. Beings are, in the words of the Buddha, "heirs of their action." They spring forth from their store of accumulated action as a matrix out of which they are fashioned, inheriting the results proper to their deeds even across the gulf of lifetimes. Through the succession of life-terms, kamma holds sway over the individual evolutionary current. Acts of will, once completed, recede into the forward moving mental stream out of which they emerged, and remaining in the form of psychic potencies, pilot the future course of evolution to be taken by that particular current of experience called an "individual being." Just as the kamma rises up out of the stream of consciousness, so does the stream of consciousness again flow forth from the germinative kamma, which thus serves to link into a single chain the series of separated lives. The kammic force drives the current of consciousness onward into new modes of existence conformable to its nature; it determines the specific form of life in which the individual will take remanifestation, the set of faculties with which the new being will be endowed, and a substantial portion of the happiness and suffering that being will meet during the course of its life.

It is, therefore, not God or chance in the Buddhist picture, but the differentiation in volitional action, functioning across the succession of lives, that accounts for the differentiation in the animate order, and the differentiation in action again that divides beings into the high and low, the happy and the miserable, the gifted and the deprived. As the Buddha declares: "Beings are the owners of their actions, heirs of their actions. Their action is the source from which they spring, their kinsman and their refuge. Action divides beings into the inferior and the superior."

Since the effective determinant of destiny is kamma, and kamma is essentially volition, this means that the operative factor in the formation of future becoming is lodged in the individual will. The will, from the Buddhist perspective, is no accidental offshoot of the machinery of nature, compelled to its course by the conspiracy of cosmic forces; it is, rather, in the deepest sense the artisan behind the entire process of animate evolution. Here will is primary and the material factors secondary, the plastic substance with which the will works and by which it gives tangible expression to its store of dispositional tendencies. The varied landscape of sentient existence, for Buddhism, represents but an outward register of the inward transactions of the will, and the hierarchy of living forms -- the "great chain of being" -- but a congellation of its functional modalities in the world of spatio-temporal extension.

Differentiation in the biological sphere is thus preceded and paralleled by a set of transformations in the mental sphere, which finds in animate nature the channel for actualizing its own potentialities throughout the series of successive becomings comprising the individual continuum. Through the exercise of our will, therefore, we build for ourselves our own world independent of coercion by extrinsic forces and mould the destiny that awaits us in time to come, whether for happiness or misery, for bondage or liberation.

For the spiritual aspirant, however, it is not sufficient merely to understand the theoretical ground for the differentiation of living beings. For us it is of the utmost importance to know what we can do to further our own progress along the scale of spiritual evolution -- to advance to higher levels of attainment during the course of our earthly life, to secure a rebirth conducive to spiritual growth in the life to come, and ultimately to transcend this repetitive cycle of birth and death and attain Nibbana, the supreme and irreversible deliverance.

The answer to this problem begins with the fact that kamma divides itself, according to its moral quality, into two types -- the unwholesome (akusala) and the wholesome (kusala). Unwholesome kamma is action -- physical, verbal or mental -- that springs from the three unwholesome roots of action: greed (lobha), hatred (dosa) and delusion (moha). Any action grounded in these roots is spiritually detrimental and morally defective. It destroys the higher faculties, entails suffering as its consequence, and causes a plunge into lower states of existence; in short, it brings decline along the scale of spiritual evolution and deeper immersion in the mire of phenomenal existence. Wholesome kamma, on the other hand, is action springing from the three contrary wholesome roots -- non-greed (alobha), non-hatred (adosa) and non-delusion (amoha), finding positive expression in the qualities of charity, loving-kindness and wisdom, respectively. Wholesome action functions in a way diametrically opposite to its dark counterpart. It is spiritually beneficial and morally commendable, stimulates the unfolding of the higher faculties, and entails happiness both in the present and in time to come. Consistently practiced, it promotes progress along the evolutionary scale, leading to higher states of existence in successive life-spans, and finally to the realization of deliverance.

On ultimate analysis, life is a self-regenerating sequence of occasions of experience, comprising occasions of action and occasions of reception. Action is volition, and volition inevitably involves decision or choice -- a selection from the welter of possibilities open to the will of that alternative most, conformable to the individual's purpose, a selection even, at a higher level, of the purposes themselves. Every moment of morally significant action, therefore, confronts us with the call for a decision, with the necessity for choice. Choice must work within the gamut of options open to the will, and these options, despite their great differences of qualitative character, necessarily fall into one of two classes according to their ethical nature -- into the wholesome or the unwholesome. The one leads to progress, the other to decline.

Thence progress or decline depends entirely upon our choice, and not upon any external agency whether conceived in spiritualistic or materialistic garb. Through our fleeting, momentary decisions, accumulated over long periods, we model our fortune and chisel out of the unshaped block of futurity the destiny that will befall us in the span of time to come. Each call for a decision may be depicted as a ladder, one end leading upward to unknown heights, and the other extending downward into forbidding depths, while our successive decisions may be taken as the steps that lead us up or down the ladder's graded rungs. Or again, each moment of action may be compared to a crossroad at which we stand, a forked road one side of which leads to a city of bliss and the other to a swampland of misery and despair. The two roads stand, fixed and silent, awaiting our choice, and only our decision determines whether we shall reach the one destination or the other.

In sum, then, it is our kamma that precipitates our destiny, for it is kamma that brings about manifestation of all the destinations (gati) or realms of sentient existence, and kamma ultimately that fashions the entire variegated landscape of sentient existence itself, according to the ethical tone of its associated moral roots. As the Exalted One explains, speaking not through speculation but through his own direct penetration of the paths leading to all destinations:

It is not celestial beings (deva), or humans, or any other creatures belonging to happy forms of existence, that appear through action (kamma) born of greed, born of hate, born of delusion; it is rather beings of the hells, of the animal kingdom, of the ghostly realm, or any other others of miserable form of existence that make their appearance through action born of greed, hate and delusion...

It is not creatures of the hells, of the animal kingdom, of the ghostly realm, or any others of a miserable form of existence, that appear through action born of non-greed, born of non-hate, born of non-delusion; it is rather celestial beings, humans, or any other creatures belonging to a happy form of existence that make their appearance through action born of non-greed, non-hate, and non-delusion.

Anguttara Nikaya, 6:39


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