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In the sutra it says:

“And what is the cause by which effluents come into play? Ignorance is the cause by which effluents come into play. … “And what is the result of effluents? One who is immersed in ignorance produces a corresponding state of existence, on the side of merit or demerit. This is called the result of effluents. … “And what is the cessation of effluents? From the cessation of ignorance is the cessation of effluents; and just this noble eightfold path—right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration—is the way leading to the cessation of effluents.

Is buddha only being nice (compassionate) to call the result of fermentation - taints, corruptions, intoxicating bias - both merit and demerit? I recall buddha praises heightened virtue, so this seems like a contradiction to me. Only virtuous quality could lead to merit, so is buddha calling for an end to all mentality, i.e. all mentality is essentially not good.

2 Answers 2

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When the Buddha says "on the side of merit or demerit" this means, dependent on current conditions: one or the other, not both at the same time.

Because the actor is not circumspect in vision, they cannot act skillfully, heedfully, with discernment / wisdom. Because of this—and even if they think their intentions are "good"—their results will be mixed because they are still acting out of ignorance.

It's like throwing a stick up in the air: you don't know how it's going to hit the ground. See The Stick - Daṇḍa Sutta  (SN 15:9).

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  • hmm...like a coin toss? now i now why they say call it in the air..
    – blue_ego
    Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 18:28
  • This makes sense. Under the influence of stress, perception & feeling tone may be altered to see conditions differently than they would otherwise be seen. This leads to a choice of action which might be skillful in one circumstance which is unskillful in the current circumstance.
    – Alex Ryan
    Commented Jan 2, 2023 at 21:03
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    liked "depending on current conditions"
    – blue_ego
    Commented Jan 3, 2023 at 15:33
  • i think the point is the karmic state is continuous, regardless of feeling or fermentation...
    – blue_ego
    Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 16:34
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I believe reading the entire sutta in Pali provides context which makes clear what the Buddha means here. https://suttacentral.net/an6.63

I believe that "merit" and "demerit" are close but imprecise translations about what the Buddha is trying to communicate here.

I believe that

"demerit" means something like "action compelled by untamed (carnal) flight or fight impulses to pull towards (greed) or push away (hate)" i.e. Māra-driven actions.

"merit" means something like "action compelled by tamed (spiritual) flight or fight impulses to pull towards (greed) or push away (hate)" i.e. Metta-driven actions

Clearly merit is more skillful than demerit.

However, I believe the Buddha is referring to a special state of being called "abandoning both merit and demerit" (

puññabhāgiyaṁ vā apuññabhāgiyaṁ vā

In the Cittavagga (https://suttacentral.net/dhp33-43), the Buddha makes clear why this is special state:

puññapāpapahīnassa

He says that

(1) When dukkha arises, for those who do NOT go to this place of "abandoning both merit and demerit", understanding does not mature.

and, by contrast,

(2) When dukkha arises, for those who DO go to this place of "abandoning both merit and demerit", fear does not exist.

What precisely is this special state?

Why does this special state promote the maturation of understanding and the extinguishment of fear?

It is neither fight nor flight, but freeze.

It is a state wherein we might enter into the ekaggata so as to best process this experience.

It is a state wherein we might respond to dukkha (notification of misprediction in our predictive model of the world) by seeking to fix the error in our predictive model that gave rise to the notification.

i.e. By seeking to increase our understanding.

Why does fear not exist for those who increase their understanding in this fashion?

Because fear is "uncertainty" in our predictive model of the world. To the extent to which we replace uncertainty with certainty, we become more fearless.

To the extent to which we respond to dukkha by cleansing the āsava which gave rise to it, our predictive model of the world will have less uncertainty. In this fashion, understanding extinguishes fear.

Avijjānirodho, bhikkhave, āsavanirodho.

If we train ourselves to habitually respond to the dukkha of misprediction by going to this place of "abandoning both merit and demerit", we will habitually create the conditions whereby the errors in our predictive model which give rise to and sustain fear, can be corrected.

However, in AN 6.63, the Buddha goes further than this to describe the precise means by which we do surgery on the saṅkhāra to make this change.

He says that contact is the source of both feeling tone and perception.

i.e. the āsava (bad habit which gave rise to the dukkha) is being sustained by a perception and feeling tone which need to be replaced.

UPDATED:

How is the the āsava (saṅkhāra conditioned by avijjā) being sustained by contact, conditioning perception & feeling tone?

My understanding is that our brain predicts sensory experience by means of sensory motor predictions. AKA saṅkhāra. We are constantly predicting sensory experience but we are unconscious of it until we make a misprediction whereupon we experience dukkha.

When we experience dukkha, this is notification of misprediction which should compel us to search for (dhamma vicaya) the saṅkhāra which predicted sensory experience incorrectly with the intention of replacing it with one that predicts sensory experience more correctly. (For a deeper explanation, see Jeff Hawkins’ “A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence”.)

Each saṅkhāra (sensory motor prediction) consists of 3 parts: (1) In this place (2) with this aim, (3) make this move. 1&2 can be thought of as “get oriented”. i.e. identify the place in our map of the world which matches the current circumstances.

I ‘think* this “matching process” is what is triggered by “contact”. When we make this connection, it’s like we are bringing order to the chaos of sensory experience by saying “I am here. I am here, I am here, …”. We maintain equanimity by moving through sensory experience by predicting sensory experience correctly in this fashion. So long as our predictions are accurate, we remain equanimous.

saṅkhāra = sam + kara = together (get oriented) + move.

IF (1) “contact” triggers the mapping of “I am here”

and (2) contact conditions “perception” and “feeling tone”

and (3) the dukkha of misprediction arises leading to a loss of equanimity and signifying a predictive error (i.e. this saṅkhāra is āsava),

THEN we should come to a full stop and question contact, perception & feeling tone because one or more of them has led us to dukkha.

I think the error can be with any of the 3 parts of the saṅkhāra:

(1) In this place, (2) with this aim, (3) make this move.

(1) In this place: Error: “I am NOT here”. Rather “I am somewhere else”.

(2) With this aim: Error: My aim is unskillful

(3) Make this move: Error: This move does not lead to the desired aim

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  • Like “is being sustained by perception and feeling...”
    – blue_ego
    Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 5:51
  • Exactly. If we respond to dukkha by clinging to such things instead of uprooting them where appropriate, we remain trapped in suffering which, in turn, leads to our decay and death. Summoning the courage to face and conquer avijjā by striving to see the world the way it actually is is the cure for the disease.
    – Alex Ryan
    Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 6:50
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    liked "enter into the ekaggata so as to best process this experience."
    – blue_ego
    Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 16:04

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