Monday, 12 January 2015

The Role of Kusala

Pilgrims perform the kusala action of giving robes to monks at Shwekyin Monastery

“Kusala” is usually translated into English as “merit,” a word that can create confusion for many foreign yogis. Different renderings may be helpful in expressing the depth of this term. For instance, the Access To Insight website translates a kusala deed as being one that is “wholesome” or “skillful.”

When one understands the law of cause and effect, one sees that all wholesome acts bring a degree of calm and joy is brought to the mind. In other words, no good deed goes unrewarded, and the opportunity for skilful actions, both large and small, can be found in plentitude during the course of one’s day. For many Burmese Buddhists, the most meritorious of all deeds will involve monasteries and monks to some degree.

However, the idea of “accumulating merit” can be misunderstood by foreign yogis whose primary form of practice is mediation. The common misperception is that performing meritorious deeds has a materialistic tinge, in which the devotee tries to to amass points that will go on a score card or tally, with more points leading to better future births. The usual criticism is that it would be a better to give time towards meditation on the cushion than trying to accumulate yet more points.

But here it may valuable to try to understand the perspective of the Burmese Buddhist. Rather than as a score card trying to add more points, the continual performing of kusala actions can also be seen as a muscle being strengthened through repeated use. As with any physical skill or mental habit that one is trying to develop, establishing a routine for consistent practice makes it easier to keep on doing that particular activity—or as a neural scientist might say, by strengthening the neural pathways, the tendency towards repeating those actions becomes more automated, which may help establish the desired behavior. Thus performing kusala actions such as devotion, service and generosity both trains the mind to do these virtuous duties and make it less likely for the mind to perpetuate unskillful actions that will bring bad results. Naing Naing Tun gives the Burmese perspective for this, noting that one who gets in the habit of doing kusala deeds eventually comes to possess a “kusala mind,” which is then primed to view the world from this wholesome state. “We need to cultivate the quality of a kusala mind, which is pure and clean, and has happiness and peace,” he said. “And this is not like the kind of mundane happiness that comes in daily life. If you can keep in mind the good deed you’re doing, then the happiness will be refreshed over and over again, with the kusala mind arising again and again.”

A common saying in Burmese describes how the quickest cows go into the pen first, and the slowest and laziest last. Then when the pen is opened, the laziest go out first. This is a metaphor for how kamma works: whatever is most base in the mind tends to come out first. Therefore, doing good deeds is important to develop wholesome inclinations of the mind, so these are first “out of the pen.” Or as is expressed simply through the Burmese proverb, kaung hmu ta khu nei zin pyu, or “perform a good deed every day.”

Maha Gandayone Sayadaw U Janaka also spoke about what he characterized as an urgency to do good. He wrote that “merit cannot be obtained without really trying. You must do good work to earn it. The confidence (in the good) that in with you now must be used so that new confidence will be developed. The diligence that you are using at present will intensify the diligence you will have in the future.” Elsewhere, he said simply, “don’t wait for good luck; make good luck by doing good deeds.”

Prekhemma Sayadaw makes the practical observation that only those who have attained may find no further urgency to make kusala actions, since they may not fear rebirth in lower worlds where Vipassana practice is no longer possible. “But for the meditator who hasn’t become a sotapanna,” he says, “the cycle of rebirths will continue. And without having a strong store of kusala merits, one will really have a struggle ahead.

Doing such acts regularly will bring a measure of peace to the mind. What is more, this then creates a stronger base for future or present meditative pursuits. As more and more good acts—and the accompanying wholesome states of mind that bring these very acts into fruition, followed by feelings of joy and calm that accompany the completion of the skillful deed—are taken, the mind may also gain greater faith and confidence in the overall teachings, thus providing increased energy with which to practice. Such meritorious deeds, and the pure volition pushing them forward, are thus a powerful aid for developing increasingly higher qualities of mind.