The Kamma of Inaction

I was listening to Buddhist Insights recently, and Bhante Suddhaso was giving a Dhamma talk on Kamma and Rebirth.

Early on in the talk, he is discussing wholesome and unwholesome kamma. He mentions specifically that inaction can lead to the development of akusala kamma, citing an example of merely standing by as something bad is happening to someone else.

This makes sense to me, as it exhibits a lack of compassion. However, are there any places where the Buddha specifically uses examples such as that in the EBT’s?



Possibly some of the suttas mentioned in this discussion might be helpful:


Great, thank you friend!

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Interesting, cause, what I learnt from others is that not killing means not killing from your side, but it doesn’t mean one must save people.

This is the reasoning for some people on the trolley problem to not do anything, allow the trolley to kill 5 people rather than to switch the rails and kill one to save 5.

Personally, I am all for help when you can.

The idea of doing nothing elicits a negative response according to a western perspective. Buddhism is a different culture and the value of non-action is an important part. When refuge is taken in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, that means progressively abandoning acquisitive material culture and putting trust in the action of kamma, that is the first kind of right view. Non-action in avoiding an unwholesome action creates positive kamma and that thought should be used by the practitioner as motivation for non-action. It should be thought of as an energy which doesn’t manifest itself in the heat of the moment, but later when it is possible to see the results of non-action. When non-action is implemented it opens up a space:

“Non-doing is also a significant way of learning about ourselves. As we attempt to stop our usual activities, we discover the impulses that make stopping so difficult. In this way we learn where we are attached, and we learn about the emotions, impulses, and beliefs that keep us caught up. When we refrain from doing something we habitually do, we might get to see for the first time the cost the activity has had—sometimes over a lifetime. Finally, it may be only when we have ceased being active that we can see that we have more choices in how to act.”—-Fronsdal

In doctrinal terms this relates to the fourth foundation of mindfulness, where removal of the hindrances allows space for the factors of awakening to develop. That could be either insight or tranquillity.

" The hindrances not only obstruct absorption attainment, they also
impede the establishment of the awakening factors (bojjhaúga).23
This antagonistic relationship between the hindrances and the
awakening factors is of considerable importance, since the removal
of the former and the development of the latter are necessary conditions for realization.24"—Analayo

The reality is complex. As Westerners or western-influenced (see-through colonialism) educated in a Christian centric society, the idea of intervention for doing good is part of the ethical-moral background. Yet Buddhism has a different approach. It ultimately comes to wisdom. More wisdom you have developed more your actions will be devoid of adverse Kamma effects, with Arahants so full of perfect knowledge that their actions do not attract any Kamma.
This is relevant since, actually, in some cases, only deep wisdom can bring you to decide if to act or not.
For instance: if you see a predator attacking, it’s pray (say a bird); what are you going to do? Save the life of the bird, so potentially starving the other animal? Not action, so letting the bird die?
Any action you may decide may be different in the various context it might happen. So how step and no action can be discussed in general? They cannot be.
The good news is that the Buddha marked that intentions do matter, and so if you decide to act or not, it comes to the reasons you do so.
In the end, the only way to free ourselves from the inevitable law of Kamma is to do the hard work and free ourselves from re-birth or at least become a non-returner. My advice would be: instead of worrying if an action or not action brings in that instance Kamma, work hard to remove as many defilements as you can. Work hard on eliminating some parts of the roots that keep us here.
The rest will be resolved by itself. :pray: