Mundane Right View


Mundane right view involves a correct grasp of the law of kamma, the moral efficacy of action. Its literal name is "right view of the ownership of action" (kammassakata sammaditthi), and it finds its standard formulation in the statement: "Beings are the owners of their actions, the heirs of their actions; they spring from their actions, are bound to their actions, and are supported by their actions. Whatever deeds they do, good or bad, of those they shall be heirs." More specific formulations have also come down in the texts. One stock passage, for example, affirms that virtuous actions such as giving and offering alms have moral significance, that good and bad deeds produce corresponding fruits, that one has a duty to serve mother and father, that there is rebirth and a world beyond the visible one, and that religious teachers of high attainment can be found who expound the truth about the world on the basis of their own superior realization.

To understand the implications of this form of right view we first have to examine the meaning of its key term, kamma. The word kamma means action. For Buddhism the relevant kind of action is volitional action, deeds expressive of morally determinate volition, since it is volition that gives the action ethical significance. Thus the Buddha expressly identifies action with volition. In a discourse on the analysis of kamma he says: "Monks, it is volition that I call action (kamma). Having willed, one performs an action through body, speech, or mind." The identification of kamma with volition makes kamma essentially a mental event, a factor originating in the mind which seeks to actualize the mind's drives, dispositions, and purposes. Volition comes into being through any of three channels -- body, speech, or mind -- called the three doors of action (kammadvara). A volition expressed through the body is a bodily action; a volition expressed through speech is a verbal action; and a volition that issues in thoughts, plans, ideas, and other mental states without gaining outer expression is a mental action. Thus the one factor of volition differentiates into three types of kamma according to the channel through which it becomes manifest.

Right view requires more than a simple knowledge of the general meaning of kamma. It is also necessary to understand: (i) the ethical distinction of kamma into the unwholesome and the wholesome; (ii) the principal cases of each type; and (iii) the roots from which these actions spring. As expressed in a sutta: "When a noble disciple understands what is kammically unwholesome, and the root of unwholesome kamma, what is kammically wholesome, and the root of wholesome kamma, then he has right view."
  1. Taking these points in order, we find that kamma is first distinguished as unwholesome (akusala) and wholesome (kusala). Unwholesome kamma is action that is morally blameworthy, detrimental to spiritual development, and conducive to suffering for oneself and others. Wholesome kamma, on the other hand, is action that is morally commendable, helpful to spiritual growth, and productive of benefits for oneself and others. 
  2. Innumerable instances of unwholesome and wholesome kamma can be cited, but the Buddha selects ten of each as primary. These he calls the ten courses of unwholesome and wholesome action. Among the ten in the two sets, three are bodily, four are verbal, and three are mental. The ten courses of unwholesome kamma may be listed as follows, divided by way of their doors of expression: 
    1. Destroying life
    2. Taking what is not given
    3. Wrong conduct in regard to sense pleasures
    4. False speech
    5. Slanderous speech -- Verbal action
    6. Harsh speech (vacikamma)
    7. Idle chatter
    8. Covetousness
    9. Ill will
    10. Wrong view

    The ten courses of wholesome kamma are the opposites of these: abstaining from the first seven courses of unwholesome kamma, being free from covetousness and ill will, and holding right view. Though the seven cases of abstinence are exercised entirely by the mind and do not necessarily entail overt action, they are still designated wholesome bodily and verbal action because they centre on the control of the faculties of body and speech.

  3. Actions are distinguished as wholesome and unwholesome on the basis of their underlying motives, called "roots" (mula), which impart their moral quality to the volitions concomitant with themselves. Thus kamma is wholesome or unwholesome according to whether its roots are wholesome or unwholesome. The roots are threefold for each set. The unwholesome roots are the three defilements we already mentioned -- greed, aversion, and delusion. Any action originating from these is an unwholesome kamma. The three wholesome roots are their opposites, expressed negatively in the old Indian fashion as non-greed (alobha), non-aversion (adosa), and non-delusion (amoha). Though these are negatively designated, they signify not merely the absence of defilements but the corresponding virtues. Non-greed implies renunciation, detachment, and generosity; non-aversion implies loving-kindness, sympathy, and gentleness; and non-delusion implies wisdom. Any action originating from these roots is a wholesome kamma.
The most important feature of kamma is its capacity to produce results corresponding to the ethical quality of the action. An immanent universal law holds sway over volitional actions, bringing it about that these actions issue in retributive consequences, called vipaka, "ripenings," or phala, "fruits." The law connecting actions with their fruits works on the simple principle that unwholesome actions ripen in suffering, wholesome actions in happiness. The ripening need not come right away; it need not come in the present life at all. Kamma can operate across the succession of lifetimes; it can even remain dormant for aeons into the future. But whenever we perform a volitional action, the volition leaves its imprint on the mental continuum, where it remains as a stored up potency. When the stored up kamma meets with conditions favourable to its maturation, it awakens from its dormant state and triggers off some effect that brings due compensation for the original action. The ripening may take place in the present life, in the next life, or in some life subsequent to the next. A kamma may ripen by producing rebirth into the next existence, thus determining the basic form of life; or it may ripen in the course of a lifetime, issuing in our varied experiences of happiness and pain, success and failure, progress and decline. But whenever it ripens and in whatever way, the same principle invariably holds: wholesome actions yield favourable results, unwholesome actions yield unfavourable results. 

To recognize this principle is to hold right view of the mundane kind. This view at once excludes the multiple forms of wrong view with which it is incompatible. As it affirms that our actions have an influence on our destiny continuing into future lives, it opposes the nihilistic view which regards this life as our only existence and holds that consciousness terminates with death. As it grounds the distinction between good and evil, right and wrong, in an objective universal principle, it opposes the ethical subjectivism which asserts that good and evil are only postulations of personal opinion or means to social control. As it affirms that people can choose their actions freely, within limits set by their conditions, it opposes the "hard deterministic" line that our choices are always made subject to necessitation, and hence that free volition is unreal and moral responsibility untenable.

Some of the implications of the Buddha's teaching on the right view of kamma and its fruits run counter to popular trends in present-day thought, and it is helpful to make these differences explicit. The teaching on right view makes it known that good and bad, right and wrong, transcend conventional opinions about what is good and bad, what is right and wrong. An entire society may be predicated upon a confusion of correct moral values, and even though everyone within that society may applaud one particular kind of action as right and condemn another kind as wrong, this does not make them validly right and wrong. For the Buddha moral standards are objective and invariable. While the moral character of deeds is doubtlessly conditioned by the circumstances under which they are performed, there are objective criteria of morality against which any action, or any comprehensive moral code, can be evaluated. This objective standard of morality is integral to the Dhamma, the cosmic law of truth and righteousness. Its transpersonal ground of validation is the fact that deeds, as expressions of the volitions that engender them, produce consequences for the agent, and that the correlations between deeds and their consequences are intrinsic to the volitions themselves. There is no divine judge standing above the cosmic process who assigns rewards and punishments. Nevertheless, the deeds themselves, through their inherent moral or immoral nature, generate the appropriate results.

For most people, the vast majority, the right view of kamma and its results is held out of confidence, accepted on faith from an eminent spiritual teacher who proclaims the moral efficacy of action. But even when the principle of kamma is not personally seen, it still remains a facet of right view. It is part and parcel of right view because right view is concerned with understanding -- with understanding our place in the total scheme of things -- and one who accepts the principle that our volitional actions possess a moral potency has, to that extent, grasped an important fact pertaining to the nature of our existence. However, the right view of the kammic efficacy of action need not remain exclusively an article of belief screened behind an impenetrable barrier. It can become a matter of direct seeing. Through the attainment of certain states of deep concentration it is possible to develop a special faculty called the "divine eye" (dibbacakkhu), a super-sensory power of vision that reveals things hidden from the eyes of flesh. When this faculty is developed, it can be directed out upon the world of living beings to investigate the workings of the kammic law. With the special vision it confers one can then see for oneself, with immediate perception, how beings pass away and re-arise according to their kamma, how they meet happiness and suffering through the maturation of their good and evil deeds.