Kusala in Pali Canon

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JBE Research Article

ISSN 1076-9005 Volume 3 1996:136–164 Publication date: 1 July 1996

Good or Skilful? Kusala in Canon and Commentary

L. S. Cousins University of Manchester

© 1996 L.S. Cousins Copyright Notice Digital copies of this work may be made and distributed provided no charge is made and no alteration is made to the content. Reproduction in any other format with the exception of a single copy for private study requires the written permission of the author. All enquiries to jbe-ed@psu.edu.

Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Volume 3, 1996:136–164

Abstract This paper examines the use of kusala in the commentarial sources and finds that, although the commentators are aware of various senses of the word kusala, they tend to give primacy to meanings such as ÒgoodÓ or ÒmeritoriousÓ. A detailed examination of the canonical Pali sources gives a rather different picture. Sometimes kusala is found in association with the idea of kamma or related notions, but very commonly too it belongs in a distinctly meditational context and points towards the states of the Buddhist path produced by wisdom. An examination of the etymology of the word ku÷ala leads to the conclusion that TedescoÕs attempt to derive it from:

should be rejected. A revised version of CharpentierÕs link to Got. *hug(s), etc. is preferred. The original meaning of ku÷ala in the sense with which we are concerned would then be ÒintelligentÓ. Its sense in early Buddhist literature would be Òproduced by wisdomÓ. The paper concludes with a brief discussion of the concept of pu¤¤a—Òfortune-bringing actionÓ rather than ÒmeritÓ.


Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Volume 3, 1996:136–164

Kusala Damien Keown comments that:
… the most natural translation for kusala when used in a moral context is ÒvirtueÓ or ÒgoodnessÓ. It is very common for kusala to be rendered as ÒskilfulÓ, but it should be recognised that this translation carries with it a specific implication for the nature of Buddhist ethics, namely that it is utilitarian.1

In fact, I am not convinced that a utilitarian implication does in fact necessarily follow. Skill, let alone wisdom, can be valued for more reasons than utilitarian ones. Keown then distinguishes what he calls the moral and the technical senses of the word kusala and argues strongly against translating it as ÒskilfulÓ: Although I have no statistics to back this up there can be little doubt that in the Nikàyas the occurrences of kusala in a technical context are massively outnumbered by those in a moral context. So why, when translating the term into English, is the tail allowed to wag the dog and the moral sense suppressed in favour of the technical one ?

He goes on to point out:
The problem with using ÒskilfulÓ as a translation of kusala is that whereas both ÒgoodÓ and ÒkusalaÓ extend in their respective languages to both moral and technical commendation, the English word ÒskilfulÓ does not. ÒSkilfulÓ denotes approval in the technical sense only and does not figure at all in the vocabulary of moral discourse in English.

As Keown indicates, the use of ÒskilfulÓ is stylistically slightly 138

Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Volume 3, 1996:136–164

unnatural here in terms of English usage. Perhaps, however, this only shows that Buddhist concepts are themselves unfamiliar to ordinary English usage and we should be cautious about adopting concepts with many hidden implications, deriving from a long history of European theological and philosophical debate. In fact I think that the use in the Buddhist literature is rather more complex than Keown allows and deserves to be investigated more fully. Here I shall look first at the commentarial account and then turn to the earlier sources. Kusala in the commentarial sources In the commentary to the Dãgha-nikàya Buddhaghosa gives five senses of the word kusala:2 àrogya anavajja kosalla-sambhåta niddaratha sukha-vipàka absence of illness, health (originally) not...
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