Something Other than Belief – Rigid Religious Belief and Unwholesome Action in Buddhism


In Buddhist history it has sometimes been noted that a system of orthodox actions have been valued above a system of orthodox beliefs. For example in the history of the Buddhist Sagha, the monastic community, a split in the Sagha (saghabheda) would not be caused by disagreements about doctrines or beliefs but about adapting, adding to and taking away prescribed actions and religious practices. One could live in monastic harmony with others even if one disagreed strongly about matters of doctrine. However, as soon as one disagreed about matters of behaviour, and particularly prescribed behaviour, then a split would not only be inevitable it would be necessary. This is no way unique in religious history but it does appear to be particularly pronounced in Buddhist culture.

The Pāali-sutta

A prominent example of this idea is found in the Pāali-sutta (S IV 340-58) from the Sayutta-nikāya. This sutta is interesting because it does not advocate views that are clearly explained as right-views, or correct beliefs, in other parts of the Nikāyas. I think this points to the correct understanding of right-view and the nature of Buddhist doctrines. They do not entail assent to a proposition, but a way of seeing that goes beyond doubt, calms the mind and leads to wholesome action. Action is placed above belief – indeed rigid, or one could say religious belief can lead to unwholesome action.

The second half of this sutta follows a conversation between Pāṭali and the Buddha. Pāṭali informs the Buddha that he has a rest-house and that on certain occasions, ascetics and brahmins stay there. He recalls one particular occasion when ‘four teachers holding different views, following different systems’[1] came to stay. Pāṭali then recounts how each teacher ‘taught thus, held this view’ (eva-vādi eva-diṭṭhi).


  1. Wrong-view: The first teacher held the view of nihilism (natthika-diṭṭhi, S IV 348), the wrong-view that actions do not have consequences
  2. Right-view: The second teacher the view of affirmation (atthika-diṭṭhi, S IV 348-9), the right-view that actions do have consequences
  3. Wrong-view: The third the view of non-doing (akiriya-diṭṭhi, S IV 349), the wrong-view that if we act in an unwholesome way, for example kills living being, no wrong is done by the performer of these actions
  4. Right-view: And the fourth the view that there is doing (kiriya-diṭṭhi, S IV 349-50), the right-view that if we act in a unwholesome way, for example kill living beings, wrong is done by the performer of these actions

On hearing these different views, Pāṭali explains to the Buddha that he has doubt (kakhā) and uncertainty (vicikicchā) not knowing which recluse and brahmin was speaking truth (sacca) and which was speaking falsehood (musā, S IV 350).[2]

The Buddha’s Reply – the ten unwholesome courses of action

The Buddha replies that though Pāṭali doubts and is uncertain, it is on a doubtful point that uncertainty arose.[3] Pāṭali explains to the Buddha that he has much trust (pasanna) in him and asks for a teaching whereby his ‘doubt will be abandoned’.[4] The Buddha explains that there is a concentration of mind (citta-samādhi) which is attained (pailabbhati) by concentration of the dhamma (dhamma-samādhi, S IV 350). The Buddha explains what dhamma-samādhi is. He explains that the ariya-sāvaka, the noble disciple:

‘Abandoning the killing of living beings, abstaining therefrom; abandoning the taking of what is not given, abstaining therefrom; abandoning misconduct in sensual pleasure […] abandoning false speech […] malicious speech […] harsh speech […] gossip, abstaining therefrom. Abandoning covetousness, he is no more covetous. Abandoning malevolence and hatred, his heart becomes free from ill will. Abandoning wrong-view, he becomes one of right-view.’[5]

These are the abandoning of the ten unwholesome courses of action (dasa akusala-kammapathā), by the ten wholesome courses of action (dasa kusala-kammapathā). The ariya-sāvaka is then said to be freed from covetousness (vigatābhijjha), freed from malevolence (vigatavyāpāda), not bewildered (asammūha), but attentive (sampajāna) and concentrated (patissato), with a mind full of loving-kindness (mettā-sahagatena cetasā).

That person then abides, suffusing the whole world with a mind possessed of loving-kindness.[6]

 Considers the 4 Views:

It is in this state that the person considers each view.

a. Firstly, he considers the view of nihilism (S IV 351),

b. then the view of affirmation (S IV 352),

c. then the view of non-doing (S IV 353),

d. and then the view that there is doing (S IV 354).

The views are given a final four times:

a. firstly considering the view of nihilism with ‘a mind full of compassion’ and ‘a mind full of sympathetic joy’,[7]

b. then the view of affirmation with ‘a mind filled with equanimity’,[8]

c. then the view of non-doing (S IV 356-7)

d. and the view that there is doing (S IV 357-8) with ‘a mind filled with equanimity’.

The noble disciple (ariya-sāvaka) considers that even if any of these views is true (sacca) – and two of them definitely are right-view, therefore ‘true’ – ‘for me it counts as incontrovertible’,[9] that the ariya-sāvaka does not cause harm (vyābādhemi) to anything (kiñci) weak or strong (tasa vā thāvara vā). Thus the ‘state of doubt is overcome’.[10]  The emphasis is on behaviour and action, not on correct propositions.


The ariya-sāvaka is not simply advised to reject wrong-view(s) and adopt right-view, for he doubts both wrong and right-views. He is advised to act in a certain way, ‘abandoning the taking of life, abstaining therefrom’ etc., ‘abandoning wrong-view, he becomes one of right-view’, not by accepting that ‘actions have consequences’ or that ‘actions do not have consequences’, this would be to simply believe in a correct proposition, but by acting in a certain way. Right-view, correct belief, or true doctrines are a practice and not a proposition. Orthopraxy is emphasised, not orthodoxy. Religious belief can lead to unwholesome action.

[1] cattāro satthāro nānādiṭṭhikā nānākhantikā nānārucikā, S IV 348.

[2] Similar to the ‘doubt and uncertainty’ (kakhā [] vicikicchā, A I 189), of the Kālāmas; see chapter one.

[3] alañ hi te […] kakhītu, ala vicikicchitu, kakhanīye ca pana te hāne vicikicchā uppannā ti, S IV 350.

[4] kakhādhamma pajaheyyan ti, S IV 350.

[5] pāṇātipātam pahāya pāṇātipātā paivirato hoti, adinnādānam pahāya adinnādānā paivirato hoti, kāmesu micchācāram pahāya kāmesu micchācārā paivirato hoti, musāvādam pahāya musāvādā paivirato hoti, pisua vācam pahāya pisuṇāya vācāya paivirato hoti, pharusa vācam pahāya pharusāya vācāya paivirato hoti, samphappalāpam pahāya samphappalāpā paivirato hoti, abhijjha pahāya anabhijjhālu hoti, vyāpādapadosa pahāya avyāpannacitto hoti, micchā-diṭṭhi pahāya sammā-diṭṭhiko hoti, S IV 350-1.

[6] eka disa pharitvā viharati, tathā dutiya, tathā tatiya, tathā catuttha; iti uddhamadho tiriya sabbadhi sabbattatāya sabbāvanta loka mettāsahagatena cetasā vipulena mahaggatena appamāena averena avyāpajjena pharitvā viharati, S IV 351.

[7] karuṇā-sahagatena-cetasā, muditā-sahagatena cetasā, S IV 354-5.

[8] upekkhā-sahagatena cetasā, S IV 355-6.

[9] apaṇṇakatāya mayha, S IV 351. Bhikkhu Bodhi cites the Spk: ‘This practice leads to what is incontrovertible for me, to absence of wrongness’ (anaparādhakatāya); Connected Discourses, Vol. II, p. 1453, note 364.

[10]kakhādhamma pajaheyyāsi. The full passage is: tassa pāmojja jāyati, pamuditassa pīti jāyati, pītimanassa kāyo passambhati, passaddhakāyo sukha vedayati, sukhino citta samādhiyati. aya kho so, gāmai, dhammasamādhi. tatra ce tva cittasamādhi pailabheyyāsi, eva tva ima kakhādhamma pajaheyyāsi, S IV 351-2, 353, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58.



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