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I was thinking about whether the goal of a wholesome action is to reduce suffering (dukkha) or to "shrink" the roots of suffering, namely craving, desire or aversion (the three poisons). In fact, there are actions that temporarily create more suffering with the ultimate goal of eliminating its roots---This is the case with exposure therapy, where a psychotherapist exposes a patient to the object of their phobia in order to train them to let go of the aversion towards it.

This leads me to three questions:

  1. Is it sometimes wholesome to perform actions that can temporarily lead to suffering with the goal of "shrinking" its roots?

  2. If so, how much suffering is allowed in order to "shrink" its roots? For example, can a Master lead someone towards a path that includes a lot of suffering in this lifetime if they know it to be necessary to eliminate the roots of suffering in the next?

  3. Do wholesome actions always lead to a "shrinking" of the roots of suffering (ignorance, craving, and aversion)? It seems possible to me that this is not the case. Take for example the case of a Master who---with the best of intentions---exposes someone to an advanced insight. Two scenarios:

    • This person was not ready for the teaching and ends up developing more ignorance, craving and aversion. Did he perform an unwholesome action?
    • He didn't realize that five other people were listening to this teaching through the door and they were not ready for it. Unwillingly, he ends up creating more ignorance, aversion, and desire in these five. Did he perform an unwholesome action?
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    You're rightly concerned, if you treat teaching as an objective event with no regard of its appropriate audience, then any such "wholesome" teaching with spiritual advancement as its ultimate goal will have side/negative effect for those misunderstood. That's why master teaching is extremely rare and hard to find, and some sutras mentioned Buddha's single teaching voice became different voice to every different listening disciple. It's entirely unlike our common Q&A online digital exchange in fixed literal words and alphabets, in other words, such teaching is not replicable digitally...
    – cinch
    Jun 4, 2022 at 1:40
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    Having said above, btw regarding your understanding of suffering, according to Vajra Sutra there's only suffering coming and ceasing, so how can any "wholesome" teaching reduce or shrink an iota of it? I believe you mean the degree of some physical or psychic suffering, and here of course we're most interested in the latter kind. Bear in mind the more psychic suffering doesn't necessarily mean it should be shrinked or reduced, sometimes the more degree of such suffering the better enlightenment...
    – cinch
    Jun 4, 2022 at 1:56

2 Answers 2

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Is it sometimes wholesome to perform actions that can temporarily lead to suffering with the goal of "shrinking" its roots?

There is this

Now at that time a baby boy was lying face-up on the prince’s lap. So the Blessed One said to the prince, “What do you think, prince? If this young boy, through your own negligence or that of the nurse, were to take a stick or a piece of gravel into its mouth, what would you do?”

“I would take it out, lord. If I couldn’t get it out right away, then holding its head in my left hand and crooking a finger of my right, I would take it out, even if it meant drawing blood. Why is that? Because I have sympathy for the young boy.”

“In the same way, prince:

....

[3] In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing & disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. - Mn58

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  • This shows that sometimes it is necessary to inflict a larger amount suffering so that the suffering in the future is lessened. But it doesn't really mention that it's ok for the prince to inflict suffering on the boy for spiritual advancement purposes.
    – JoJo
    Jun 3, 2022 at 14:33
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"Intention (cetana) I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect." - The Nibbedhika Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya 6.63

It’s important to distinguish between activity that clings to particular outcomes, and is aversive to others, and activity which recognises the futility of that. Great Compassion comes from Bodhicitta, the spontaneous wish for all beings to attain release from suffering. In that sense, the outcome has no impact on that, the intention is wholesome. But that encounters the negative behaviour of getting a teaching not suited to them, from their karma.

I read that Ananda gave the wrong teachings: He taught a blacksmith to contemplate the unpleasantness of the body, and a washerwoman to count breaths, and they both became iccantikas. The correct teachings were given, and they both attained awakening.

So, I would talk about it as skilful or unskillful. Buddhism generally is not characterised by secret teachings (with notable exceptions), and I would point to this kind of circumstance as why. Say if a child got hold of something dangerous; causally, the child is responsible. But skilful parenting, means don’t leave knives out.

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