The Principle of Skillful Action
Instead of arguing from abstract science, the Bodhisatta focused directly on the level of immediate experience and explored the implications of truths that both sides overlooked. Instead of fixing on the content of the views expressed, he considered the actions of those who were expressing the views. If views of determinism and total chaos were followed to their logical end, there would be no point in purposeful action, and yet the proponents of both theories continued to act in purposeful ways. If only physical acts bore consequences, there would be no point in teaching a proper understanding of the nature of action -- for the mental act of understanding, right or wrong, would have no consequences -- and yet all sides agreed that it was important to understand reality in the right way. The fact that each side insisted that the other used unskillful forms of observation and argumentation to advance its views implied that mental skills were crucial in determining the truth. Thus the Bodhisatta looked directly at skillful mental action in and of itself, followed its implications in developing knowledge itself as a skill -- rather than as a body of facts -- and found that those implications carried him all the way to release.
The most basic lesson he learned was that mental skills can be developed. As one of the Pali discourses notes, he found that thoughts imbued with passion, aversion, and delusion were harmful; that thoughts devoid of these qualities were not harmful; and that he could shepherd his thoughts in such a way to avoid harm. The fact that he could develop this skill means that mental action is not illusory, that it actually gives results. Otherwise, there would be no such thing as skill, for no actions would be more effective than others. The fact of skillfulness also implies that some results are preferable to others, for otherwise there would be no point in trying to develop skills. In addition, the fact that it is possible to learn from mistakes in the course of developing a skill -- so that one's future actions may be more skillful -- implies that the cycle of action, result, and reaction is not entirely deterministic. Acts of perception, attention, and intention can actually provide new input as the cycle goes through successive turns.
The important element in this input is attention. Anyone who has mastered a skill will realize that the process of attaining mastery requires attention to three things: (1) to pre-existing conditions, (2) to what one is doing in relation to those conditions, and (3) to the results that come from one's actions. This threefold focus enables one to monitor one's actions and adjust them accordingly. In this way, one's attention to conditions, actions, and effects allows the results of an action to feed back into future action, thus allowing for refinement in one's skill.
In the first stage of his practice, the Bodhisatta refined the skillfulness of his mind until it reached a state of jhana, or concentrated mental absorption, marked by perfect equanimity and mindfulness. The question that occurred at that point was how much further the principle of skillful action could be applied. Did action (kamma) directly or indirectly explain all experience in the world, or only some of it? If all of it, could the same principle be used to gain escape from the suffering inherent in the world, or were the Jains right in saying that action could only keep one bound to the cycle of suffering?
As the texts tell us, the Bodhisatta's first attempt to answer these questions was to direct his mind -- now stable, bright, clear, and malleable -- to knowledge of previous lifetimes. If it were true that he had been born before, his actions from past lives might explain experiences in this life -- such as the circumstances into which he was born -- for which no actions in this life could be held accountable. He found that he could indeed remember previous lives, many thousands of them: what he had been born as, where, what his experience of pleasure and pain, how he had died and then experienced rebirth as something else.
This first insight, however, did not fully answer his question. He needed to know if kamma was indeed the principle that shaped life, not only in terms of the narrative of his own lives, but also as a cosmic principle effecting the lives of all beings. So he directed his mind to knowledge of the passing away and arising of beings throughout the cosmos, and found that he could indeed see beings dying and gaining rebirth, that the pleasure and pain of their new lives was shaped by the quality of their kamma, and the kamma in turn was dependent on the views that gave rise to it. Right views -- believing that good kamma, based on skillful intentions, gave rise to happiness -- lay behind good kamma, while wrong views -- not believing these principles -- lay behind bad.
Even this second insight, however, did not fully answer his question. To begin with, there was no guarantee that the visions that gave him this knowledge were true or complete. And, even if they were, they did not tell whether there was a form of right view that would underlie a level of skillful kamma that would lead, not simply to a pleasant rebirth within the cycle of rebirth, but to release from the cycle altogether.
It was here that the Bodhisatta turned to look again at the events in the mind, in and of themselves in the present, and in particular at the process of developing of skillfulness, to see if it offered any clues as to what a right view leading out of the cycle of rebirth might be. As we noted above, the process of skillfulness implies two things: a non-linear principle of cause and effect, involving feedback loops to allow for greater skillfulness; and the fact that some results are preferable to others. The Bodhisatta used these principles, in their most basic form, to divide experience into four categories based on two sets of variables: cause and effect on one hand, and stress and its cessation on the other. He then dropped the categories in which the first two knowledges had been expressed. In other words, he dropped the sense of "self" and "others" in which the narrative of the first knowledge had been expressed; and the sense of "beings" inhabiting a "world" in which the cosmology of the second knowledge had been expressed. In his place, he analyzed experience in categories empty of those concepts, simply in terms of the direct experience of stress, its cause, its cessation, and the path of mental factors leading to its cessation.
In the first round of this new insight, he was able to identify each of these categories: stress, in ultimate terms, was attachment to anything that might be identified as a "self." The cause of stress was craving, which in turn was based on ignorance about the true nature of stress. The cessation of stress was the total abandoning of craving, while the path to the cessation of stress was a cluster of eight factors: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. In the second round of this insight, he realized the duties that had to be performed with regard to each of these categories. Stress was to be comprehended, its cause abandoned, its cessation realized, and the path developed. He then proceeded to pursue those duties until the mental powers of the path were so fully developed that stress was totally comprehended that there were no more objects where craving could land, and thus it was naturally abandoned. Thus in the third round of this insight he realized that the duties with regard to all four truths had been fulfilled. At that point there was nothing further for the mind to do -- there was nothing more it could do in these terms. Right view and concentration -- the mental qualities lying at the heart of the path -- had done such a thorough job of nosing out stress and craving that, as their final act, they detected the subtle stress and craving inherent in the act of right view and right concentration themselves. Thus, as its final act, the mind let go even of these path factors, just as a carpenter would let go of his tools when they had finished their job.
As a result, all present mental input into the processes of experience naturally came to a halt in a state of non-fashioning. This state opened onto an experience of total liberation, called Unbinding (nibbana; in Sanskrit, nirvana). Realizing that this Unbinding was the total cessation of suffering and of the processes of death and rebirth as generated in the mind, the Bodhisatta, now the Buddha, knew that his questions had been answered. Skillful action, based on right view in the form of the four categories based around stress -- which he termed the four noble truths -- could indeed bring about a total happiness free from the limitations of birth, aging, illness, and death.
The Teaching of Right View
The texts tell us that the Buddha spent the first seven weeks after his Awakening experiencing that happiness and freedom. Then he decided to teach the way to that happiness to others. His teachings were based on the three insights that had led him to his own experience of Awakening. Because right view lay at the heart of his analysis of kamma and the way out of kamma, his teachings focused in particular on the two forms of right view that he learned in the course of those insights: the form he learned in the second insight, which led to a favorable rebirth; and the form he learned in the third insight, which led out from the cycle of death and rebirth once and for all.
The first level of right view the Buddha termed mundane right view. He expressed it in these terms:
There is what
is given, what is offered, what is sacrificed. There are fruits and results
of good and bad actions. There is this world and the next world. There is mother
and father. There are spontaneously reborn beings; there are priests and contemplatives
who, faring rightly and practicing rightly, proclaim this world and the next
after having directly known and realized it for themselves.
This passage means
that there is merit in generosity; that the moral qualities of good and bad
are inherent in the universe, and not simply social conventions; that there
is life after death; that one has a true moral debt to one's parents; and that
there are people who have lived the renunciate's life properly in such a way
that they have gained true and direct knowledge of these matters. These beliefs
form the minimum prerequisite for following the path of skillful action that
will lead to happy results within the cycle of rebirth. Thus this might be termed
right view for the purpose of a happy rebirth.
The second level of right view, which the Buddha termed transcendent right view, he expressed simply as:
Knowledge in terms
of stress, knowledge in terms of the origination of stress, knowledge in terms
of the cessation of stress, knowledge in terms of the way of practice leading
to the cessation of stress.
In other words,
this level of right view consists of knowledge in terms of the four noble truths,
and might be called right view for the purpose of escaping from rebirth altogether.
Just as the third insight grew out of the first two insights, the second level of right view grows out of the first. Its purpose is impossible to fathom if taken outside of the context of mundane good and bad kamma and their good and bad results. Together, the two levels of right view provide a complete and complementary picture of the nature of kamma as viewed from two different perspectives. The first level views kamma as a cosmic principle at work in the narrative of each individual's many lives. The second form views kamma as a principle at work in the present moment, approached from a frame of mind empty of the categories of self and other, being and non-being, which lie at the essence of narratives and cosmologies.
To see how these two levels of right view complement one another in shaping the form and content of the Buddha's teachings, we can look at his most common mode of presenting his teachings: the "graduated discourse" (anupubbi-katha), beginning with the principle of good and bad kamma and gradually building up through the topics of generosity, virtue, heaven, drawbacks, and renunciation, ending with the topic of the four noble truths. There were several reasons for this gradual approach, but primarily they came down to the fact that the four truths were too abstract to appear immediately relevant, and the goal of escape from rebirth made no sense unless viewed in the proper context. The role of the graduated discourse was to provide that context.
Starting with the first level of right view, the Buddha would describe good actions under two main categories: generosity and virtue. Together, the two categories could be stretched to cover almost any type of good physical, verbal, or mental deeds. For example, generosity covers not only the giving of material gifts, but also generosity with one's time, knowledge, gratitude, and forgiveness. Virtue begins with the five precepts -- against killing, stealing, illicit sex, lying, and taking intoxicants -- includes prohibitions against five forms of wrong livelihood -- selling slaves, intoxicants, poisons, weapons, and animals to be killed for food -- and goes on to cover abstention from all forms of harmful behavior. Thus good behavior, taken under these two categories, means both refraining from harmful behavior and performing actions that are positively beneficial.
Having described good actions, the Buddha would describe their rewards, as results of the cosmic principle of kamma that good actions lead naturally to pleasure, and bad actions to pain. The rewards here include both visible rewards in this world and rewards to be anticipated in the next, i.e., in the various levels of heaven and in this world on one's return to a human birth. Scattered throughout the Buddhist texts are glowing descriptions both of the sense of well-being in the immediate present that results from good actions, and of the exquisite pleasures that rebirth in heaven entails. Implicit in these descriptions was the dark side of the principle of kamma: the inherent punishments that come from bad behavior, again both those visible in this world and those that could be anticipated in the next: in the various levels of hell and other lower births -- such as a common animal -- and again in this world on one's return to the human state.
The fact that the rewards of good kamma were not eternal -- in line with the fact that the actions that engendered them were not eternal -- led naturally to the next topic in the discourse: the drawbacks of the cycle of rebirth as a whole. No happiness to be found within the cycle is permanent; even the most refined heavenly pleasures have to end when the force of one's good kamma ends, and one is forced to return to the rough and tumble of lower realms of being. The changeablility of the mind lying behind the creation of kamma means that the course of an individual's life through the realms of rebirth is not necessarily ever upward. In fact, as the Buddha saw from his remembrance of his own lives, the course leading from one rebirth to another is filled with aimless ups and downs, like a stick thrown up into the air: sometimes it lands on this end, sometimes on the other end, sometimes in the middle. The amount of suffering and stress suffered in the course of these many throws is more than can be measured.
These considerations led naturally to the next topic of the discourse: renunciation. Having realized the fleeting nature of even the most refined pleasures that the round of rebirth has to offer, the sensitive listener would be prepared to look favorably on the idea of renouncing any aspiration for happiness within the round, and cultivating the path that would lead to release. The texts compare this mental preparation to the act of washing a cloth so that it would be ready to take dye. This was when the Buddha would take the listener beyond the level of mundane right view and broach the transcendent level.
The texts describing the steps of the graduated discourse give this step simply as "the teaching special to the Buddhas: stress, its origination, its cessation, and the path," i.e., the four noble truths. However, the four noble truths are simply one out of three interrelated versions of transcendent right view taught in the texts: (1) this/that conditionality (idappaccayata), (2) dependent co-arising (paticca samuppada), and (3) the four noble truths (ariya sacca). In order to gain a full picture of the Buddha's teachings on the nature of kamma, it is useful to look at all three.