Meaning of "evil" and "unwholesome"

What are the differences between the words “evil” and “unwholesome”? Or are they synonymous in the EBTs? For example, sensual desire is unwholesome, but to name it, as in a committed relationship, evil doesn’t sound very correct because “unwholesome” sounds like something that won’t be beneficial in the long-term, whereas “evil” has a much more moralist meaning.

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“Evil” is usually translated from the Pali pāpa
“Unwholesome” is usually translated from the Pali akusala

I am quoting below answer from Bhante Dhammanando in DhammaWheel forum:

When the words are used as terms for judging the moral character of kammas, the difference is only in the phrasing. Whatever is puñña is kusala, and vice versa. Whatever is pāpa is akusala, and vice versa.

It’s only in other contexts, outside of good and bad thoughts, words and deeds, that the words take on distinctive meanings. For example, one could use kusala to describe “a skilful acrobat”, but not puñña. Or one could describe a snake’s bite as pāpa, but not as akusala.


It seems ‘puñña’ may not be used in supramundane contexts where as ‘kusala’ may be. For example:

There is right view that is accompanied by defilements, has the attributes of good deeds, and ripens in attachment.

atthi, bhikkhave, sammādiṭṭhi sāsavā puññabhāgiyā upadhivepakkā;


When a mendicant has given up ignorance and given rise to knowledge, they don’t make a good choice, a bad choice, or an imperturbable choice.

Yato kho, bhikkhave, bhikkhuno avijjā pahīnā hoti vijjā uppannā, so avijjāvirāgā vijjuppādā neva puññābhisaṅkhāraṁ abhisaṅkharoti na apuññābhisaṅkhāraṁ abhisaṅkharoti na āneñjābhisaṅkhāraṁ abhisaṅkharoti.


“When a mendicant is perfected, proficient,
“Yo hoti bhikkhu arahaṁ katāvī,

with defilements ended, bearing the final body:
Khīṇāsavo antimadehadhārī;

they would say, ‘I speak’,
Ahaṁ vadāmītipi so vadeyya,

and also ‘they speak to me’.
Mamaṁ vadantītipi so vadeyya;

Skillful, understanding the world’s conventions,
Loke samaññaṁ kusalo viditvā,

they’d use these terms as no more than expressions.”
Vohāramattena so vohareyyā”ti.


As one would extinguish
Yathā saraṇamādittaṁ,

a blazing refuge with water,
Vārinā parinibbaye;

so too a sage—a wise,
Evampi dhīro sapañño,

astute, and skilled person—
Paṇḍito kusalo naro;

would swiftly blow away grief that comes up,
Khippamuppatitaṁ sokaṁ,

like the wind a tuft of cotton.
Vāto tūlaṁva dhaṁsaye.


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This quotation from The Roots of Good and Evil, by Nyanaponika Thera was helpful to me:

“An intentional action performed by body or speech is immoral—an evil or a “sin”—when it is motivated by the unwholesome roots and is intentionally and directly harmful to others. This constitutes socially significant immorality, for which it is the criterion. Such actions are termed
unwholesome bodily or verbal kamma. Thoughts associated with these unwholesome roots, wishing the harm of others, constitute individually significant immorality, for which they are the criterion. They include thoughts such as those of injury, murder, theft, fraud and rape, and also false ideologies leading to the harm of others or condoning such harm. Whether or not these thoughts are followed by deeds or words, they constitute unwholesome mental kamma.
When greed, hatred and delusion, in any degree, do not cause intentional harm to others, they are not evil or immoral in the strict sense of our definition. However, they are still kammically unwholesome in that they maintain bondage and lead to unpleasant results.”


Yes, i believe that is a big difference. When something is called ‘evil’, or ‘sinn’ for example sensual desires or hate, then one wants to hide it for oneself and others, deny its presence in oneself, or become judgemental with others who show desire and hate.

I feel the Dhamma is not like that. Dhamma is not about becoming judgemental and hiding things, denying things to exist. I feel it is about admitting that one has all kinds of defilements and that this is very normal. One must see the shadowside. A lotus grows from the mudd. Seeing these defilements clearly, not judging them as sinns or evil, not within oneself and others, but understanding that following such defilements leads to suffering. This is a very different approach or understanding then a perception of evil and sinn.

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It’s true that the acts of an arahant are never termed puñña, but nor are they ever termed kusala-kamma.

When kusala is predicated of an arahant’s acts, or of his person, it’s being used in its extra-kammic sense of dexterous /smart/shrewd (kallo, cheko, kovido), not its kammic sense of healthy/blameless/ripening in pleasure (arogyo, anavajjo, sukhavipākajo).

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Thank you Sir. How would you place the quote below in your framework above?

Note: The elephant footprint & ocean similes are used elsewhere for the Four Noble Truths (MN 28) and Nibbana (AN 8.19) therefore seem to imply they are supramundane dhamma in AN 10.15 below.

The footprints of all creatures that walk can fit inside an elephant’s footprint, so an elephant’s footprint is said to be the biggest of them all.

Seyyathāpi, bhikkhave, yāni kānici jaṅgalānaṁ pāṇānaṁ padajātāni, sabbāni tāni hatthipade samodhānaṁ gacchanti, hatthipadaṁ tesaṁ aggamakkhāyati, yadidaṁ mahantattena;

In the same way, all skillful qualities are rooted in diligence and meet at diligence, and diligence is said to be the best of them.

evamevaṁ kho, bhikkhave, ye keci kusalā dhammā, sabbe te appamādamūlakā appamādasamosaraṇā. Appamādo tesaṁ aggamakkhāyati.

All the great rivers—that is, the Ganges, Yamunā, Aciravatī, Sarabhū, and Mahī—flow, slant, slope, and incline towards the ocean, and the ocean is said to be the greatest of them.

Seyyathāpi, bhikkhave, yā kāci mahānadiyo, seyyathidaṁ—gaṅgā, yamunā, aciravatī, sarabhū, mahī, sabbā tā samuddaṅgamā samuddaninnā samuddapoṇā samuddapabbhārā, mahāsamuddo tāsaṁ aggamakkhāyati;

In the same way, all skillful qualities are rooted in diligence and meet at diligence, and diligence is said to be the best of them.”

evamevaṁ kho, bhikkhave, ye keci kusalā dhammā, sabbe te appamādamūlakā appamādasamosaraṇā. Appamādo tesaṁ aggamakkhāyatī”ti.