Verses 651, 652, and 653, of the Suttanipāta are as follows:

651 Kassako kammanā hoti, sippiko hoti kammanā,
vānijo kammanā hoti, pessiko hoti kammanā.

By action is one a farmer, by action a craftsman,
By action is one a merchant, by action a servant,

652 Coro pi kammanā hoti, yodhājīvo pi kammanā,
yājako kammanā hoti, rājā pi hoti kammanā.

By action is one a thief, by action a soldier,
By action is one a priest, by action a king.

653 Evam etam yathābhūtam kammam passanti panditā
paticcasamuppādadasā kammavipākakovidā.

In this way the wise see action as it really is,
Seeing dependent arising, understanding result of action.

Verse 653 is sometimes isolated from its context and used to justify the 'three-life' interpretation of the twelve-factored formulation of paticcasamuppāda as kamma/kammavipāka—kamma/kammavipāka, an interpretation that is wholly inadmissible (see PATICCASAMUPPĀDA and A NOTE ON PATICCASAMUPPĀDA). When the verse is restored to its context the meaning is clear: kammam paticca kassako hoti, sippiko hoti, and so on; in other words, what one is depends on what one does. And the result (vipāka) of acting in a certain way is that one is known accordingly. For vipāka used in this sense see Anguttara VI,vi,9 <A. iii,413>: Vohāravepakkāham bhikkhave saññā vadāmi; yathā yathā nam sañjānāti tathā tathā voharati, Evam saññī ahosin ti. Ayam vuccati bhikkhave saññānam vipāko. ('Perceptions, monks, I say result in description; according as one perceives such-and-such, so one describes: 'I was perceptive thus'. This, monks, is called the result of perceptions.') (For the usual meaning of kammavipāka as the more or less delayed retribution for ethically significant actions, see e.g. Anguttara III,iv,4 <A.i,134-6> [The P.T.S. numbering has gone astray here].)

The question of kamma or 'action'—'What should I do?'—is the ethical question;; for all personal action—all action done by me—is either akusala or kusala, unskilful or skilful. Unskilful action is rooted in lobha (rāga), dosa, moha, or lust, hate, and delusion, and (apart from resulting in future dukkha or unpleasure) leads to arising of action, not to cessation of action—tam kammam kammasamudayāya samvattati na tam kammam kammanirodhāya samvattati. ('That action leads to arising of action, that action does not lead to ceasing of action.') Skilful action is rooted in non-lust, non-hate, and non-delusion, and leads to cessation of action, not to arising of action. (Anguttara III,xi,7&8 <A.i,263>) The puthujjana does not understand this, since he sees neither arising nor cessation of action;[a] the ditthisampanna does understand this, since he sees both arising and cessation of action—Yato kho āvuso ariyasāvako akusalañ ca pajānāti akusalamūlañ ca pajānāti, kusalañ ca pajānāti kusalamūlañ ca pajānāti, ettāvatā pi kho āvuso ariyasāvako sammāditthi hoti ujugatā'ssa ditthi, dhamme aveccappasādena samannāgato, āgato imam saddhammam ('In so far, friend, as a noble disciple understands unskill and understands the root of unskill, understands skill and understands the root of skill, so far too, friend, the noble disciple has right view, his view is correct, he is endowed with tried confidence in the Teaching, he has arrived at this Good Teaching') (Majjhima i,9 <M.i,46>)—; the arahat not only understands this, but also has reached cessation of action, since for him the question 'What should I do?' no more arises. To the extent that there is still intention in the case of the arahat—see CETANĀ [f]—there is still conscious action, but since it is neither unskilful nor skilful it is no longer action in the ethical sense. Extinction, nibbāna, is cessation of ethics—Kullūpamam vo bhikkhave ājānantehi dhammā pi vo pahātabbā pageva adhammā ('Comprehending the parable of the raft, monks, you have to eliminate ethical things too, let alone unethical things') (Majjhima iii,2 <M.i,135>).[b] See MAMA [a].

For a brief account of action see NĀMA; for a definition see RŪPA [b].



[a] A puthujjana may adopt a set of moral values for any of a number of different reasons—faith in a teacher, acceptance of traditional or established values, personal philosophical views, and so on—, but in the last analysis the necessity of moral values, however much he may feel their need, is not for him a matter of self-evidence. At the end of his book (op. cit., p. 111) Jean Grenier writes: 'En fait toutes les attitudes que nous avons passées en revue au sujet du choix ne se résignent à l'absence de vérité que par désespoir de l'atteindre et par suite des nécessités de l'action. Elles n'aboutissent toutes qu'à des morales provisoires. Un choix, au sens plein du mot, un "vrai" choix n'est possible que s'il y a ouverture de l'homme à la vérité; sinon il n'y a que des compromis de toutes sortes: les plus nobles sont aussi les plus modestes.' ('In fact all the attitudes we have passed in review on the subject of choice are resigned to the absence of truth only out of despair of attaining it and as a consequence of the necessities of action. They end up, all of them, only at provisional moralities. A choice, in the full sense of the word, a "real" choice is possible only if man has access to the truth; if not there are only compromises of all kinds: the noblest are also the most modest.') And Sartre, more bleakly, concludes (op. cit., p. 76) that man is bound by his nature to adopt values of one sort or another, and that, although he cannot escape this task of choosing, he himself is totally responsible for his choice (for there is no Divine Dictator of values), and there is absolutely nothing in his nature that can justify him in adopting this particular value or set of values rather than that. The puthujjana sees neither a task to be performed that can justify his existence—not even, in the last analysis, that of perpetual reflexion (Heidegger's Entschlossenheit or 'resoluteness', acceptance of the guilt of existing; which does no more than make the best of a bad job)—nor a way to bring his unjustifiable existence to an end. The ariyasāvaka, on the other hand, does see the way to bring his existence to an end, and he sees that it is this very task that justifies his existence. Ariyam kho aham brāhmana lokuttaram dhammam purisassa sandhanam paññāpemi. ('I, divine, make known the noble world-transcending Teaching as the business of man.') Majjhima x,6 <M.ii,181> [Back to text]

[b] Hegel, it seems, in his Phänomenologie des Geistes, has said that there can only be an ethical consciousness in so far as there is disagreement between nature and ethics: if ethical behaviour became natural, conscience would disappear. And from this it follows that if ethical action is the absolute aim, the absolute aim must also be the absence of ethical action. This is quite right; but is ethical action the absolute aim? The difficulty is, precisely, to see the action that puts an end to action in the ethical sense. Whereas unskilful action is absolutely blameworthy as leading only to future unpleasure and to the arising of action, there is action, leading to a bright future, that yet does not lead to the ending of action. See Majjhima vi,7 <M.i,387-92>. The generous man, the virtuous man, the man even who purifies his mind in samādhi, without right view remains a puthujjana, and so does not escape reproach: Yo kho Sāriputta imañ ca kāyam nikkhipati aññañ ca kāyam upādiyati tam aham Sa-upavajjo ti vadāmi. ('One who lays down this body, Sāriputta, and takes hold of another body, he I say is blameworthy.') Majjhima xv,2 <M.iii,266> [Back to text]