The Meaning of ‘Skillful’ and ‘Unskillful’ in Buddhist Ethics

Sam Woolfe
16 min readMar 20, 2023

In Buddhism, actions that are deemed good or bad are framed as being ‘skillful’ or ‘unskillful’. In this conception of ethics, morality is distinguished from other religious traditions, such as Christianity — where we find the concept of sin — or common notions of morality where we speak of actions being morally right or wrong. While much of Buddhist philosophy is rooted in non-dualism — the belief that, fundamentally, there are no dualities, or dichotomies (such as right or wrong, good or evil) — the Buddha still taught that we can tell the difference between what we should and shouldn’t do. Before detailing this distinction in Buddhist ethics, however, I want to frame it within the context of the two major schools of Buddhism.

Non-Dualism vs Dualism in the Theravada and Mahayana Traditions

It should be noted that, according to American Theravada Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Bodhi, Mahayana emphasises the non-dualistic perspective (dualism is denied because the ultimate nature of all phenomena is interdependence and emptiness; nothing is truly separate and everything lacks substantial or intrinsic reality, respectively), while Theravada rejects the Mahayana claim connected to non-duality that “there is no ultimate difference between samsara and Nirvana, defilement and purity, ignorance and enlightenment,” as Bhikkhu Bodhi states.

Mahayana Buddhists, nonetheless, believe that there are two different ways of perceiving: dually and non-dually. From one perspective, there is a subjective ‘knower’ and an object of ‘knowing’, but at a different level, there is only pure being, awareness, or consciousness; yet in Mahayana Buddhism, the former dualistic perspective is seen as dangerous since it leads to egoism and possessiveness. Still, everything exists in both an absolute and relative (or conventional) way.

Bhikkhu Bodhi states the following with respect to the Theravada tradition (the adherents of which believe it remains closest to the original teachings of the Buddha):

The teaching of the Buddha as found in the Pali canon does not endorse a philosophy of non-dualism of any variety, nor, I would add, can a non-dualistic perspective be found lying implicit within the Buddha’s discourses. At the same time, however, I would not maintain that the Pali Suttas propose dualism, the positing of duality as a metaphysical hypothesis aimed at intellectual assent. I would characterize the Buddha’s intent in the Canon as primarily pragmatic rather than speculative, though I would also qualify this by saying that this pragmatism does not operate in a philosophical void but finds its grounding in the nature of actuality as the Buddha penetrated it in his enlightenment. In contrast to the non-dualistic systems, the Buddha’s approach does not aim at the discovery of a unifying principle behind or beneath our experience of the world. Instead it takes the concrete fact of living experience, with all its buzzing confusion of contrasts and tensions, as its starting point and framework, within which it attempts to diagnose the central problem at the core of human existence and to offer a way to its solution. Hence the polestar of the Buddhist path is not a final unity but the extinction of suffering, which brings the resolution of the existential dilemma at its most fundamental level.

At the peak of the pairs of opposites stands the duality of the conditioned and the Unconditioned: samsara as the round of repeated birth and death wherein all is impermanent, subject to change, and liable to suffering, and Nibbana as the state of final deliverance, the unborn, ageless, and deathless. Although Nibbana, even in the early texts, is definitely cast as an ultimate reality and not merely as an ethical or psychological state, there is not the least insinuation that this reality is metaphysically indistinguishable at some profound level from its manifest opposite, samsara. To the contrary, the Buddha’s repeated lesson is that samsara is the realm of suffering governed by greed, hatred, and delusion, wherein we have shed tears greater than the waters of the ocean, while Nibbana is irreversible release from samsara, to be attained by demolishing greed, hatred, and delusion, and by relinquishing all conditioned existence.

Thus the Theravada makes the antithesis of samsara and Nibbana the starting point of the entire quest for deliverance. Even more, it treats this antithesis as determinative of the final goal, which is precisely the transcendence of samsara and the attainment of liberation in Nibbana. Where Theravada differs significantly from the Mahayana schools, which also start with the duality of samsara and Nirvana, is in its refusal to regard this polarity as a mere preparatory lesson tailored for those with blunt faculties, to be eventually superseded by some higher realization of non-duality. From the standpoint of the Pali Suttas, even for the Buddha and the arahants suffering and its cessation, samsara and Nibbana, remain distinct.

With this context in mind, we can discuss the difference between the contrasting concepts of skillfulness and unskillfulness in Buddhism as of primary importance; these are concepts intimately tied to the actual suffering of ourselves and others and to the Buddhist goal of achieving the state of nirvana (however, one may subscribe to the former ethical teachings without necessarily believing in claims about achieving a permanent state of existence without suffering).

These concepts matter deeply to both the Theravada tradition (which strictly adheres to the original teachings and rules of monastic discipline taught by the Buddha) and the Mahayana tradition (a later school of Buddhism that arose in the 9th century, which values the bodhisattva path — helping all beings attain nirvana and the complete release from suffering — rather than the path of only seeking personal release from suffering). Theravada Buddhists believe only monks (bhikkhus) or nuns (bhikkhunis) can achieve nirvana, whereas Mahayana Buddhists subscribe to the idea that everyone is capable of reaching this state. Regardless of this difference in focus, skillfulness and unskillfulness still matter in terms of the alleviation of suffering.

Distinguishing Skillfulness From Unksillfulness

Kusala is a concept translated not only as ‘skillful’ but also as ‘wholesome’, ‘karmically wholesome’, ‘karmically beneficial’, ‘profitable’, or ‘salutary’. The three roots of kusala are alobha (non-greed, non-covetousness), adosa (non-hatred, non-aversion), and amoha (non-delusion, absence of ignorance); in other words: generosity, compassionate love, and wisdom. It is said that when these qualities of kusala are dominant in the mind, we experience arogya (mental health), anavajjata (mental purity), cheka (dexterity), and sukha-vipaka (mental felicity). Such a mind is healthy and skillful; thus, in Buddhism, we find that morality is connected to psychological health. Kusala also leads to nirvana or the complete elimination of all traces of egocentric impulses. The more selfless acts (kusala) we carry out, the more selfless we become, and so the closer we get to the realisation of nirvana.

Skillfulness, or kusala, means whatever is beneficial to oneself and others, in both thoughts and deeds (our thoughts and desires are the first stirrings of action, so the state of our minds is of utmost importance in Buddhist ethics). Akusala, or unskillfulness or unwholesomeness, in contrast, are those actions that produce negative results. The roots of unskillfulness are known as the three poisons or the three unwholesome roots: lobha (greed, covetousness), dosa (hatred, aversion), and moha (ignorance, delusion). Negative results arise when we think, speak, and act from the place of these mental dispositions. In Buddhism, then, there are six roots in total that lie behind ethical action: three wholesome roots and three unwholesome roots.

In the early Buddhist discourses, individuals are classified into four groups, according to an ascending order of moral excellence:

  1. The individual who pursues neither his own (moral) well-being nor others’ (moral) well-being
  2. The individual who pursues others’ (moral) well-being but not his own (moral) well-being
  3. The individual who pursues his own (moral) well-being but not others’ (moral) well-being
  4. The individual who pursues his own (moral) well-being as well as others’ (moral) well-being

The reason why the third type of person is considered better than the second can be found in the Buddha’s reply to the disciple Cunda: “it is not possible for one who is stuck in mud to pull out who is (also) stuck in the mud.” The more morally effective person is the one who is not stuck in moral depravity, who, through the purification of their mind, is more capable of uplifting others.

In Buddhism, unlike in other religious traditions, skillful or unskillful actions are neither rewarded nor punished; they have their own consequences according to the principle of moral causation (karma) — our nature, the results that manifest in the world, and our future lives are determined by our intention-driven actions. As stated in the Samyutta Nikaya (a collection of the Buddha’s discourses), “As you sow the seed so shall you reap the fruit.” We design our fates; we build our own heavens and hells.

On Skillful Means

Upaya is another important concept for understanding skillfulness in Buddhist ethics, and it has the same fundamental basis as kusala: we should do what produces beneficial results. This term means skillful or expedient means, which is the ability to translate wisdom, compassion, and good intentions into desirable outcomes. In A Short History of Buddhism, Buddhist scholar Edward Conze states, “‘Skill in means’ is the ability to bring out the spiritual potentialities of different people by statements or actions which are adjusted to their needs and adapted to their capacity for comprehension.”

The concept of skillfulness is also prominent in Mahayana Buddhism with respect to the actions of a bodhisattva, the person who has generated bodhicitta (“enlightenment mind”): this is the mind (citta) that is aimed at awakening (bodhi), full of wisdom and compassion, for the benefit of all sentient beings. A bodhisattva has attained enlightenment, or liberation, but has willingly chosen to be reborn in the world of suffering in order to help other beings escape saṃsāra (the continuous cycle of life, death, and rebirth). The bodhisattva will use any expedient means in order to ease the suffering of others, introduce them to the dharma, or assist them on their path to nirvana. For instance, in chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra, one of the most important Mahayana sutras, the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (who embodies compassion) changes his form to meet the needs of the student (e.g. taking the form of a monk).

But what are some more down-to-earth examples of skillfulness? For those who aren’t bodhisattvas, what do skillful means look like in the real world? In the Lotus Sutra, we can find parables where lying is deemed permissible.

The Lotus Sutra contains a famous story about upaya, known as the parable of the burning house. One day, a fire broke out in the house of a wealthy man who had many children. The father shouted at the children inside the burning house to flee, but they were too absorbed in their games and did not heed his warning, even though the house was being consumed by flames. The father devised a practical way to get them to flee: knowing they were interested in playthings, he called out that there were carts they had always wanted — carts pulled by goats, deer, and oxen. He encouraged them to come out and play with them. The children rushed out and were saved, but the carts he had promised them were not to be found. Instead, the father gave them a cart much better than any he described, one draped with precious stones and pulled by white bullocks. The important thing, however, was that the children were saved.

In this parable, the father represents the Buddha, the children trapped in the burning house are everyone in existence, and the burning house is the world that burns with the fires of old age, sickness, and death. The teachings of the Buddha are like the father encouraging the children to leave their playthings for the greater happiness of nirvana. When the Buddha asks Śāriputra (one of the two chief disciples of the Buddha) whether the father was guilty of falsehood, he answers:

No, World-Honored One. This rich man simply made it possible for his sons to escape the peril of fire and preserve their lives. He did not commit a falsehood. Why do I say this? Because if they were able to preserve their lives, then they had already obtained a plaything of sorts. And how much more so when, through an expedient means, they are rescued from that burning house!

In another parable in the Lotus Sutra, the children of a physician drink poison, which makes them delirious, so much so that they refuse to take the antidote their father has prepared. Desperate to save them, the physician leaves and sends word back home that he has died. The grief they feel brings them to their senses, so they take the antidote and are saved. The Buddha asks his disciples if the physician was guilty of lying, to which they respond “No.” The Buddha explains that when the power of skillful means is used for the sake of living beings, one isn’t guilty of lying because one is taking the circumstances into account. So while lying may be against the moral precepts in Buddhism (which we will soon turn to), it is acceptable — and even recommended, on occasion — to lie out of compassion. Such action is blameless.

By way of contrast, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that lying is always morally wrong — he thought there were no conceivable circumstances in which lying would be permissible. In his essay ‘On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies from Benevolent Motives’ (1797), Kant states, “For a lie always harms another; if not some human being, then it nevertheless does harm to humanity in general,” and this is because, he claimed, every lie works to undermine trust between people. Kant maintains this view even in the case of lying to a murderer who arrives at your door looking for someone who has taken refuge in your house (most Kantians, and reasonable people in general, would not say we are obligated to tell the truth in this instance; after all, many of our duties compete with each other, and some must take priority over others depending on their weightiness).

Sam Harris also defends a strong position on truth-telling in his book Lying (2011), in which he maintains that we should always tell the truth. He believes avoiding white lies and false encouragement — so being brutally honest, even about the smallest matters — will allow us to have more beneficial relationships with others. Honesty leads to deeper and more meaningful connections, and it enhances public trust. Lying — in other words, pretending to be someone we’re not — erodes our integrity and authenticity, and, as Harris states, “When you give yourself the out of lying, you deny yourself the kinds of collisions with reality that are necessary to improve your life.” He adds: “By lying, we deny others a view of the world as it is. Our dishonesty not only influences the choices they make, it often determines the choices they can make — and in ways we cannot always predict. Every lie is a direct assault upon the autonomy of those we lie to.”

Nonetheless, Harris concedes that there are life-or-death situations in which a person is required to lie, such as self-defence or Kant’s murderer at the door example (or the similar case of Nazis looking for Jewish people who may be hiding in people’s basements). Buddhism likewise teaches that lying is unskillful, but not always, which Harris would agree with, although Buddhism appears much more flexible with respect to this precept — and precepts in general — because of the recognition that our lives and relations are messy. They are subject to contingencies and grey areas.

For Buddhists, skillfulness means having the well-being of sentient beings in mind and skillfully acting in ways that protect their well-being. Being skillful, in an ethical sense, means doing what works. It means being creative when acting or getting a message across while maintaining a sincere desire to benefit others. Protests, artistic endeavours, or impassioned speeches could be other examples of wake-up-and-listen types of actions — perhaps provocative or controversial, yet beneficial in light of extenuating circumstances.

Robin Davenport, in a review of Harris’ book Lying, provides a psychological angle to the issue of lying, namely, how unconscious factors can prevent honest communication. She writes: “One might argue that it is impossible for anyone to be truly honest about many things, as long as he carries biased perspectives, hidden resentments, unresolved longings, unacknowledged insecurities, or a skewed view of self,” and concludes that:

if absolute honesty is impossible, then we are all liars by nature, at least to a degree. Perhaps the best we can do, then, is only to lie in ways that are intended to promote another’s well being or spare her unnecessary pain, and so further our integrity. The ‘noble liar’ is someone who tries to live by good intentions, even if that means intentionally lying to another person, if doing so is the lesser of two evils. Thus, if Winston deceives Molly by telling her that he’s taking her to a business meeting rather than her own surprise party, we can judge his actions through his good intention to provide her with a pleasant surprise rather than through the fact that he had to lie to achieve this. This is a very different ethical situation from that of the deceiver who deliberately hurts another person through his manipulations and lies. Before we cast too harsh a judgment on the liar, let’s first understand what his motives are.

Buddhist Ethics: Consequentialist, Virtue-Based, Deontological, or Situationist?

Based on the above discussion of skillfulness and unskillfulness, it would appear that Buddhist ethics is consequentialist in nature: what matters most in our conduct in the world is whether we produce beneficial results. Buddhism seems to promote the ethic of both positive utilitarianism (we should seek to maximise well-being) and negative utilitarianism (we should seek to minimise suffering), although the Swiss philosopher Bruno Contestabile argues Buddhism favours the latter since its main goal is the elimination of suffering (through nirvana) and he posits that the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism agree with the negative utilitarian notion that suffering cannot be compensated by happiness. The Four Noble Truths focus on addressing suffering, not achieving happiness — the former is prioritised, just as in negative utilitarianism.

Nevertheless, Buddhist ethics can be considered virtue-based as well (see my posts on the Buddhist virtues of loving-kindness and sympathetic joy). Indeed, Buddhists aim to develop the four positive emotional virtues known as the brahma-viharas or ‘sublime attitudes’: metta (loving-kindness), mudita (sympathetic joy), karuna (compassion), and upekkha (equanimity). Thus, following Buddhist ethics entails not just acting in a way with certain outcomes in mind but becoming a certain kind of person. But, of course, both goals are connected. The person who cultivates the brahma-viharas will become more kind, appreciative of others’ happiness, compassionate, and calm, and through these qualities they will be more likely to think, speak, and act in a way that benefits the well-being of oneself and others.

One reason why Buddhist ethics might be thought of as deontological (rule-based) is due to the Five Precepts: the basic code of ethics to be respected by lay followers of Buddhism. These are commitments to refrain from:

  1. Killing living beings
  2. Stealing
  3. Engaging in sexual misconduct
  4. Wrong speech (e.g. lying and gossiping)
  5. Intoxicants that cloud the mind (these include alcohol and drugs, although whether or not psychedelics should be included is a point of controversy)

Since these are normative rules to follow, this area of Buddhist ethics has, understandably, been framed as deontological in character. Nonetheless, the Five Precepts are formulated and understood as guidelines or principles of training rather than commandments enforced by a moral authority. Also, unlike Kant’s deontological ethics, as we have seen, Buddhism allows (and even recommends) the breaking of precepts depending on the circumstances and outcomes. The Five Precepts could perhaps be framed as weak rule utilitarianism, which holds that the rightness of an act depends on whether it accords with rules that have been selected for their capacity to generate good consequences. The weakness of Buddhism’s rule consequentialism, however, is that the rules may be broken if this will result in better outcomes. Barbara O’Brien, a journalist and student of Zen Buddhism, writes:

According to some sources just about anything is allowable as upaya, including breaking the Precepts. Zen history is full of accounts of monks realizing enlightenment after being struck or shouted at by a teacher. In one famous story, a monk realized enlightenment when his teacher slammed a door on his leg and broke it. Obviously, this no-holds-barred approach potentially could be abused.

Moreover, spurred on by their compassion, bodhisattvas are described in some sources (such as the Upāya-kauśalya Sūtra) as violating the precepts and committing actions that would otherwise attract moral censure, such as breaking monastic vows or engaging in sex, violence, lying, and stealing. The assumption here, in Mahayana Buddhism, is that all teachings are provisional; the philosophical doctrines and moral precepts of Buddhism are only a means to reach the final goal of liberation.

The Five Precepts, which are formulated in negative terms (to refrain or abstain from doing certain things) are also accompanied by virtues and positive behaviours, which are cultivated by putting the precepts into practice. The virtues that go along with each precept are, in order: (1) kindness and compassion, (2) generosity and renunciation, (3) contentment and respect for faithfulness, (4) being honest and dependable, and (5) mindfulness and responsibility. Buddhist ethics is mostly consequentialist and virtue-based. While there are arguably elements of deontology as well, most scholars of Buddhism and philosophers do not consider Buddhist ethics to be deontological. This is because there are no moral absolutes.

Many philosophers, including Christopher Gowans, argue that Buddhism does not neatly fit into Western conceptual boxes like ‘utilitarianism’, ‘virtue ethics’, or ‘deontology’. Nevertheless, in his book The Nature of Buddhist Ethics (1992), Damien Keown proposes that Aristotelian virtue ethics is the closest Western analogue to Buddhist ethics. But this widely accepted interpretation has been challenged by writers like Charles Goodman and Barbra Clayton who insist that Buddhist ethics is consequentialist in nature. Specifically, they believe Buddhist ethics corresponds to what Philip Ivanhoe refers to as ‘character consequentialism’ — a type of consequentialism in which the cultivation of one’s character takes the centre stage. Other philosophers, such as Charles K. Fink, advance the idea that while consequentialist considerations play an important role in Buddhist moral reasoning, this does not mean Buddhist ethics is consequentialist; instead, it should be seen as a form of act-centred virtue ethics.

Finally, the flexible attitude found in Buddhist ethical teachings could be classed as a kind of ‘situational’ ethic or an expression of ‘moral particularism’, which allows moral decision-making to be less rule-bound. Situationist or particularist ethics resists systematisation and teaches that ethical decisions should follow flexible guidelines rather than absolute principles and be taken on a case-by-case basis, with correct action being based on the particulars of a situation. According to the situationists, now known as moral particularists, moral principles are, at best, rules of thumb and, at worst, can lead us seriously astray.

As we can see, there are many disagreements about what Western system of moral philosophy corresponds best to Buddhist ethics, if two or more are involved (and to what relative degrees), or whether or not we should interpret Buddhist ethics in the light of Western morality. Regardless of these ongoing and complex debates in Buddhist and moral philosophy, Buddhism’s emphasis on desirable outcomes helps us to better understand the relationship between the precepts and skillfulness or unskillfulness. Rules in Buddhism, even the doctrines of Buddhism as a whole, should be taken as provisional, as a vehicle and not the goal — and we are not necessarily ‘bad’ people for breaking the precepts, so long as we think, speak, and act from a place of virtue and, in so doing, are able to effectively ease our suffering and that of others.

Lastly, the framing of ethics in terms of skillfulness and unskillfulness, rather than right and wrong or good and evil, can be useful in terms of alleviating the (often heavy) burden of guilt and shame that can follow our undesirable actions. After all, excessive negative emotions following personal failings, which may be more likely to result from the strictures of moral absolutism, only serve to limit our ability to benefit ourselves and others.

Originally published at https://www.samwoolfe.com on March 20, 2023.

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Sam Woolfe

I'm a freelance writer, blogger, and author with interests in philosophy, ethics, psychology, and mental health. Website: www.samwoolfe.com