The Roots of Buddhist Political Rhetoric: Knowledge of what is Wholesome and Unwholesome


Before one speaks and before one acts, the Pāli Canon suggests that one should have knowledge of what is wholesome and unwholesome. One begins with the cultivation of a particular mental attitude, a particular ‘right-view’ (sammā-diṭṭhi). This mental attitude entails that one understands the ‘unwholesome’ (akusala) and its ‘root’ (mūla), and the ‘wholesome’ (kusala) and its root. 

This insight, this type of knowledge, entails understanding that the unwholesome is the ‘ten unwholesome courses of action.’[1]  These are those actions of body, speech and mind that lead to a unwholesome course of action. It entails understanding that the roots of these courses of action are greed, hatred and delusion.[2] Greed, hatred and delusion are at the root of unwholesome political rhetoric.

Further, this attitude entails an understanding of what is wholesome, which is the ten wholesome courses of action. These are those actions of body, speech and mind that lead to a wholesome course of action. This beneficial insight, this right-view, entails understanding that the three roots of the wholesome are non-greed, non-hatred and non-delusion.[4] Generosity, compassion and wisdom are the root of positive political rhetoric.

With an understanding of the unwholesome and its roots, and the wholesome and its roots the bhikkhu, the Buddhist monk, is said to have abandoned three ‘underlying tendencies’ (anusayas), those of ‘lust’, ‘aversion’ and the ‘view and conceit “I am”’.[5]  The destruction of the three anusayas is the outcome of the attainment of sammā-diṭṭhi, right-view, the correct mental attitude which precedes correct action.

Right-view has this aim: the abandonment of these tendencies, not the correction of a false view, or the relinquishment of all views.  The aim of right-view is to promote what is wholesome and to abandon what is unwholesome.

A monk debating in a political context and doing so in order to promote Buddhist ideas, has their rhetoric rooted in a thorough knowledge of what is wholesome. In so doing  they, ideally have abandoned ‘lust’, ‘aversion’ and the ‘view and conceit “I am”’. They then act, speak and think free from craving, agitation of ignorance.

[1] pāṇātipāto kho āvuso akusalaṃ, adinnādānaṃ akusalaṃ, kāmesumicchācāro akusalaṃ, musāvādo akusalaṃ, pisuṇāvācā akusalaṃ, pharusāvācā akusalaṃ, samphappalāpo akusalaṃ, abhijjhā akusalaṃ, byāpādo akusalaṃ, micchā-diṭṭhi akusalaṃ, idaṃ vuccatāvuso akusalaṃ, M I 47.

[2] lobho akusalamūlaṃ, doso akusalamūlaṃ, moho akusalamūlaṃ, M I 47

[3] pāṇātipātā veramaṇī kusalaṃ, adinnādānā veramaṇī kusalaṃ, kāmesu micchācārā veramaṇī kusalaṃ, musāvādā veramaṇī kusalaṃ, pisuṇāvācā veramaṇī kusalaṃ, pharusāvācā veramaṇī kusalaṃ, samphappalāpā veramaṇī kusalaṃ, anabhijjhā kusalaṃ, abyāpādo kusalaṃ, sammā-diṭṭhi kusalaṃ, M I 47.

[4] alobho kusalamūlaṃ, adoso kusalamūlaṃ, amoho kusalamūlaṃ, M I 47.

[5] rāgānusayaṃ pahāya paṭighānusayaṃ paṭivinodetvā asmī ti diṭṭhi-mānānusayaṃ, M I 47.


One thought on “The Roots of Buddhist Political Rhetoric: Knowledge of what is Wholesome and Unwholesome

  1. Pingback: Quote of the Day 27 January 2014 – Rhetoric | Marc Gilbert-Widmann

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