In a discussion, my meditation leader was talking about people who cannot control their cravings and wants, who are easily subjected to actions based on their whims and wants of their anger. He associated these people with having akusala thoughts. He could not find the English word to describe the person, and so I gave him the word impulsive as a way to describe these people.

Was this the right word to use, and is there a better word that I could have used?

  • You're asking for an English translation, a word equivalent to akusala (and asking whether "impulsive" is a good translation/description).
    – ChrisW
    Commented Sep 15, 2016 at 14:28
  • 2
    @ChrisW more asking if it's a good translation for akusala, yes.
    – tuskiomi
    Commented Sep 15, 2016 at 14:42
  • 1
    A related question: Does 'kusala' (skillful) also mean 'wholesome' and 'morally good'?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Sep 15, 2016 at 18:50
  • Also, just as an FYI, he is not talking about the kinds of people but the kinds of thoughts which is an important distinction, as all beings are worthy of love and certainly worthy of compassion.
    – sova
    Commented Sep 15, 2016 at 19:14
  • @sova I am sure he was looking to describe those people themselves.
    – tuskiomi
    Commented Sep 15, 2016 at 19:17

4 Answers 4


There's a definition of kusala here:

kusala: characterizes all which has pleasant and happy results: advantageous, meritorious, skilful, virtuous, morally good, good, right, prosperous, salutary, skilful. Especially used in its moral sense.

The Commentary defines the term as having three meanings:

  1. (psychologically, spiritually) healthy
  2. blameless
  3. productive of pleasant and favourable results.

Kusala can also be defined as what arises on the basis of the three kusala·mūlas. In terms of action, ten main kusala actions are listed and called together kusala·kamma·pathas.

I think 'impulsive' isn't exactly the same as akusala.

Let's look at an antonym of 'impulsive', for example "cautious". Or @slova's answer suggests "slow" and "prudent". I imagine that someone who is not impulsive might think twice before speaking, look both ways before crossing the street, save their money instead of spending it ... but that (e.g. hoarding their money) is not necessarily kusala.

Or let's consider for example Siddhārtha Gautama's deciding to leave home: that story might (or might not) seem a bit "impulsive", but we shouldn't call it akusala.

Being impulsive might be one example of akusala (e.g. losing your temper and suddenly killing someone in anger), but there are other forms of akusala which are not impulsive (e.g. carefully planning a crime for a long time before doing it).

Also I hope that there are some forms of being impulsive that are not very akusala (for example impulsively deciding to try to help someone else, being impulsively kind).

You said that your "leader was talking about people who cannot control their cravings and wants, who are easily subjected to actions based on their whims and wants of their anger".

Things like cravings and anger (and ignorance) are known akusala-mūla which are translated/called/known in English the "three poisons" or "three unwholesome roots", also "three roots of evil" and "the three unwholesome mental states". In that phrase, akusala is translated as "unwholesome" or even evil.

As @sova mentioned in a comment it's the mental state (e.g. of anger) that's unwholesome, or the result (like the tree which grows from the "root") that's unwholesome.


That's a great translation. Other words that may fit like impulsive

  • hasty
  • imprudent

@ChrisW mentions in a comment that kusala means skillful, so a +kusala would mean the negation of kusala (if you look at how sanskrit works), thus another word may be unskillful and it sounds like your meditation friend was trying to expound on what that term actually means.

Many words have nuances that can become lost in translation, so sometimes it is good to leave words untranslated, or look at how they were constructed. For example: we could not say "pulsive" as the negation of "impulsive" even though "possible" and "impossible" have the same relationship as "kusala" and "akusala" -- it just depends. Again, good translation, but be open to the idea that not everything need be translated (and thus nuance can be ushered into a new language body and preserved)

  • in my opinion it's a poor translation because it doesn't account for the ethical significance of consequences this type of action brings about and which is actually envisaged in the meaning of the words kusala/akusala, there's no contradiction between impulsiveness of action and its being kusala Commented Sep 16, 2016 at 15:53
  • @БаянКупи-ка well, provide an alternative then! =)
    – sova
    Commented Sep 16, 2016 at 17:16
  • i believe extant English sutta translations provide good enough alternatives, in fact it's the rendering impulsive which is alternative in my opinion Commented Sep 16, 2016 at 17:24
  • @БаянКупи-ка what words do the sutras use?
    – sova
    Commented Sep 16, 2016 at 17:31

Although 'impulsive' can describe a part of what exactly "akusala" means, I'm not sure if we can see it as an English translation of the Pali word "akusala".

As we know, "Akusala" is the antonym for "Kusala".

"Kusala kamma" denotes "Righteous action" or to simply put it, "Good/virtuous actions' ,which are actions that bring happiness and give rise to pleasant feelings. h Hence, "Akusala" is just the exact opposite of this....that is it means something sinful or immoral, something that yields results that are unpleasant for one's heart.

I personally think, 'unrighteous' ,'unvirtuous' or something as simple as 'wicked' can be the closer translation of 'Akusala'.

Hope this helps :)


As I see it, impulsive is not the right word to describe “Akusala”. Because the word is the opposite of “kusala”, depending on the situation and what I would have to convey, there are other ways to better describe it; for example:

  • If “kusala” denotes the advantageous, the “akusala” is disadvantageous when referring to intentions, as in kusala and akusala-cetanā.
  • If “kusala” denotes the wholesome, the “akusala” is unwholesome when referring to the roots of the wholesome (kusala-mula) and the roots of the unwholesome (akusala-mula).
  • If “kusala” denotes the meritorious, the “akusala” is de-meritorious when again referring to volition (Kusala Akusala Cetana).

When “kusala” is the Good, the “akusala” is the Bad/Evil. When “kusala” is the Advantageous, the “akusala” is the Disadvantageous / detrimental. When “kusala” is the Skilful, the “akusala” is the Unskilful.

I can understand you wanting to define it as “impulsive”. But since the defilement tends to work impulsively, without deliberation, the transgression is less serious than slander and the kammic consequence generally less severe. Still, harsh speech is an unwholesome action with disagreeable results for oneself and others, both now and in the future, so it is a “akusala”. I agree that we speak and we act impulsively, and out of our thoughts arise speech and action. It just means that mindfulness and clear comprehension were lacking.

Two suttas to read on “Akusala” are:

  • (Akusalamula) Aññatitthiya Sutta - A 3.68. The nature of the 3 unwholesome roots.
  • (Akusala) Kamma Nidana Sutta - A 10.174. The negative root causes of karma.

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