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Pali Canon - Dhammapada Chapter Nine - On Evil

by Sangharakshita

Dhammapada - Chapter 9 - The Section of Evil

Held at Padmaloka, 12-13 March 1983Prasannasiddhi, Duncan Steene, Roy Parker, Antonio Perez, William Brawley, Tejananda,
Vairocana, Chris Pegrum, Abhaya.
S: I think everybody knows that the theme of the weekend as a whole is living ethics, so I
thought I would select from the Dhammapada a couple of sections which had mainly an
ethical bearing and as we usually do we'll go through those sections verse by verse. The first
section is the section on evil, the (?)vagga. And the second is the (?) Alta vagga, the section
of the Self. We may be able to get through only the first. It depends how much we can bring
out of each verse. In fact I originally did have it in mind that we should just do simply the
first section on evil. But I thought we'd better have a second section, the section on "self",
ready just in case we got through the first. So we will be in no hurry, we'll go through each
verse as thoroughly as need be. All right.
v.116. "Be quick to do what is morally beautiful; restrain the mind from evil; he who is
sluggish in doing good, his mind delights in evil."
Perhaps I should explain that the translation which we are using here is my own. I did happen
to translate these two sections in Pali some time ago. And I think that in a way that is
important because I have translated this first sentence of the first verse a little differently from
the way in which it is usually translated, though at the same time not in any way eccentrically;
I have translated it completely literally, which, for some reason or other, other translators
haven't done, as far as I know. I have translated "be quick to do what is morally beautiful", the
word that I have translated as beautiful in the original is simply Kalyana. An even more literal
translation would be "be quick in the beautiful", that is the Pali idiom, but the meaning is to
be quick in the doing of the beautiful; that is to say that which is morally beautiful. Now, this
word Kalyana is really quite important, we get it again in that well known phrase, "Kalyana
Mitrata." Here in this context, we usually translate it as spiritual, we speak of spiritual
friendship. We could just as well speak of beautiful friendship; it would even be more
accurate perhaps, more literal, or "lovely friendship"; sometimes it is translated as that. So we
could even translate here, "be quick to do what is lovely", that is to say, that which is lovely
in the moral sense.
Now what do you think is the significance of bringing out this fact that what is usually spoken
of as the good is in fact in a sense the beautiful? Not so much the beautiful in the purely
aesthetic sense, the artistic sense, but the beautiful in the sense of [2] morally beautiful, what
is the significance of using this sort of term in an, as it were, ethical context ?
Chris: If you use the word good, then it demands some sort of judgement as to what is good
and what is bad, whereas if you say beautiful, I think most people appreciate beauty, and they
respond to beauty.
S: I think that this is the main point, that ethics is not a question of do's and don'ts; ethics is
basically a question of being attracted towards an ideal if you like, which is actually
appealing. Do you see the difference ? Of course it assumes that you have some sensitivity to
what is kalyana, what is beautiful, or what is lovely or what is good in that sense that you are
capable of being affected by it, capable of responding to it. If someone has no sense of what is
morally beautiful or ethically lovely, well, then he has to be restrained perhaps by do's and
don'ts. But if one can simply feel the beauty, as it were, of the ethical ideal, well obviously,
that is a much better way of going about things.
But is this usually the way in which we think about an ethical ideal, or think about anything
of an ethical nature, that it is beautiful?
Vairocana: Most people don't.
S: Most people don't. But there is also another question which is what exactly do we mean by
the morally beautiful?
Abhaya: I thought it was brought a little bit by Ratnavira, last night in the Ideal of David, the
image, of summing up all those virtues as being expressed by that figure. I know that was an
aesthetically beautiful thing but it also brought home the moral beauty of someone actually
following an ideal and...
S: But the question still arises! Well, what do we exactly mean by moral beauty? Well in a
sense it raises even the question what do we mean by beauty? But presumably an important
element is that of attractiveness, we feel naturally attracted. The beautiful appeals to us; the
morally beautiful appeals to our, what we can only call our ethical sense; the actions seem to
fine one, a noble one, a lovely one, a beautiful one. But if, for instance, suppose you think of
some, say well known ethical act, well, one could go back to ancient Greece, one could think
of Socrates, one could think of the death of Socrates, one could think of Socrates' voluntary
death for the sake of the principles which he believed in, for the sake of standing by the
principles as something which was ethically beautiful; one could well apply that praise to the
death of Socrates, but what exactly makes it ethically beautiful? Why does it impress us in
that sort of way? [3] Why is it that we feel a sort of quasi-aesthetic feeling when we read
about the death of Socrates? What makes us say it was a very beautiful death, a morally
beautiful death?
Chris: It is quite moving to read.
S: It is moving to read, yes, but it also seems fitting, it seems appropriate. And that fittingness
and appropriateness have a sort of, well one might even say elegance; there is going to be a
talk on "Elegance". Sometimes one reads in connection with Mathematics, that
mathematicians talk about an elegant demonstration, that is to say, an elegant mathematical
demonstration, so here in the mathematical demonstration there is a sort of element that
appeals to an aesthetic sense; it doesn't just appeal to the sense of Truth. So in the same way,
here, the morally beautiful action doesn't just appeal to the moral sense, it also in a way
appeals to the aesthetic. It somehow seems to be elegant, to be fit, to be appropriate.
Chris: It's as if there is some intuitive understanding, some sort of..
S: There is something in human nature which derives deep satisfaction, from contemplating
the good, a satisfaction that is almost aesthetic in nature. It gives you the sort of satisfaction
that you get from great Art. It is as though a great action, a great ethical action has a sort of
artistic value as it were. It is so appropriate, so fitting. But the verse, or the Buddha in the
verse says "Be quick to do what is morally beautiful." Now what does that suggest?
Abhaya: It suggests the tendency that to do the morally unbeautiful is predominant.
S: Well not only that, but even if there is a tendency to do the morally beautiful, we don't, we
tend not to do it very quickly. I mean, it's as though you are attracted by the morally beautiful,
you are inspired by the ethical ideal, that response is there, but if you don't act upon it, you
delay. Sometimes we find that we have sort of ethical impulses, we may have noble impulses,
we may have an impulse of generosity, but unless we act upon it immediately, very often we
will have second thoughts and decide that it is not such a good idea after all to be as generous
as all that, or maybe we'll reduce the scale of the generosity, or some thing of that kind. Very
often our immediate response is of a quite noble nature, a quite strongly ethical nature, but
unfortunately we do allow these second thoughts to come in, we give them perhaps undue
Abhaya: There is the famous example of the person who had the strong impulse at the end of
the metta bhavana to buy someone a book, and goes to the book shop, takes the book off the
shelves and starts reading it and keeps it to himself. (laughter)
S: What often happens with money is that someone might be in need of money and ask for
help; your immediate response is to give them ten pounds, but if you don't give it on the spot,
well after a while you'll start thinking, well maybe they could manage with five. And then you
might think if a further period elapses, well maybe they don't need it really all that much, but
anyway I'd better give something, so you give two. And this is what happens. It is as though
you do perceive the moral beauty of the ethical action when it appears before you or when it
is suggested to you quite quickly; you do respond to it, but you do not act upon that response
... and if you don't act, sometimes that has fatal consequences, so you must be quick to do
what you see, or what you perceive as being the morally beautiful thing to do. Otherwise it
gives an opportunity for all sorts of other forces and factors to arise and to eventually prevent
you from carrying out your original intention.
And then, "restrain the mind from evil"; more literally, that would be hinder the mind from
evil"; the word is nivarana, which is connected with the nirvarnas, the hindrances; it is
"hinder", "restrain", "prevent" the mind from evil. I mean this obviously suggests that to some
extent at least, there is a tendency of the mind ...

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