The 4 Types of Actions – The Mahadhammasamadana Sutta

In the Mahadhammasamadana Sutta, the Buddha explains why do bad things happen to people when they keep wishing for only good things to happen to them?

It’s because they are not aware that there are 4 types of actions they do and the consequences that these actions entail.

So it’s the type of actions that you undertake in the here and now that lead to good or bad future for you – which are the consequences that you experience down the line.

So one day, the Buddha announced one day to his monks:

“People always have thoughts like these – May no bad things happen to me and only good things happen to me.  But the opposite actually happens.  So why do you think this happens?”

“No, Lord Buddha, please explain the reason why.”

“It’s because these are ordinary people who have not learnt, seen, heard or trained in the teachings of the Noble Ones (the Enlightened Ones) – and so, they:

  • Practice things that shouldn’t be practiced
  • Don’t practice things that should be practiced

So this is why bad things keep happening to these people and good things decrease.

[So it’s your own actions influence the future.  What you do now affects your future.]

But if you do practice things that should be practiced and stop doing the things that you shouldn’t – then good things increase to you and bad things decrease.  So do the things that you need to do to get the required result.

There are 4 types of actions (you can probably put this into a 2×2 table for a visual understanding):

  1. Unpleasant now with Unpleasant results in the future (a foul drink laced with poison)
  2. Pleasant now with Unpleasant results in the future (a sweet drink laced with poison)
  3. Unpleasant now with Pleasant results in the future. (a foul drink with medicine in it)
  4. Pleasant now with Pleasant results in the future. (a sweet drink with medicine in it)

Foolish people do not recognize these actions for what they are – so they keep doing them or not doing them and reap the corresponding results.  So you need to reflect on whether this drink will be good for you or bad for you in the future before you drink it.

Similarly, you can reflect on your action before you do them.  Irrespective of how much pleasure I get out of it initially – will this action that I take cause any harm (poison) to me or others in the long term?  Will this action be beneficial (medicine) for me or others in the long run?

In action, you need to be aware of the different permutations of the 10 good/bad deeds. Say, out of pleasure or displeasure, you undertake different permutations of these 10:

  • 3 of the body:  Kill, steal, engage in sexual misconduct
  • 4 of speech:  Lie, say malicious things to split people up, speak harshly or say frivolous things
  • 3 of the mind:  Your mind is under the influence of greed, hatred and delusion (wrong views)

You experience pleasantness and unpleasantness even while undertaking these acts of body, mouth and mind and you will also experience bad consequences of these actions afterwards.

For example, if you kill, steal or have illicit sex with the wives/husbands of others – others will want to take out revenge on you, maybe even kill you in return out of rage – this will always be in the back of your mind if you engage in unwholesome actions – so your mind will not be at peace because you will be fearful, thinking that you’ve got to watch your back all the time.

If you lie and say malicious things to split people up – they might want to do the same thing to you and your friends and you and your family down the line.

So all of this is prevention rather than cure.  As Master Hsuan Hua used to say – living beings fear the effects, Bodhisattvas (Enlightened Beings) fear the causes.  An inch of prevention is better than a pound of cure.

So you shouldn’t do these things out of anger or hatred or spite (no matter how enraged you are) – and you shouldn’t do these things no matter how much pleasure they give you initially because they are going to come back to bite you severely later on.

So you’ve got to ask yourself when doing dubious, questionable things, is this drink that I’m drinking laced with poison or not?  If it is, then you need to immediately spit out the poison and stop drinking it any further – just in case it ruins your health, wealth, career or even kills you down the line.

Instead, you need to consider – is this drink going to heal me or nurture my health down the line?  Is it good for me?   Is this a beneficial action for me and others?  No matter how putrid or foul smelling it may look, smell or taste initially.

This is a metaphor for doing the hard things, the bitter things, the things that are difficult to bear – so that you may reap a good reward down the line.  Things like this might be:

  • If you have a list of things to do for the day – doing the most important yet it might also be the task you dread most (like needing to fix up a major problem by facing someone you really don’t want to face) – the task you always want to put off or make excuses to get out of.  Eat that frog first!  That means you may want to do the most unpleasant task first.  Why?  Because that will clear your mind for the rest of your day – and this way, you can approach the rest of your day with renewed energy.  Even if you don’t accomplish anything else for the rest of the day – it means you know that you have accomplished something that you dreaded, fixed it up, straightened it out and clear it from your plate properly – so that your plate is now clean and ready for the next use.
  • It might also mean that, even if not feeling like it – you get some action going and go for a walk or exercising – even when you’re really not in the mood for exercising – because you know it will help your circulation, your strength and physical and mental health in the long run.
  • It might also mean – drawing a line in the sand and forcefully restraining yourself from those doughnuts, sweets, chips and other junk food laced with artery clogging trans fats, saturated fats and sugars that will make you fat and affect your health adversely if you keep indulging in them in the long run.  And you forcefully stop yourself from eating them regularly no matter how good they may taste to you!

Now in the course of walking and cultivating the Buddhist path, Master Hsuan Hua used to say that at Buddhists, sometimes we need to bear things that are hard to bear to reap a sweet reward:

In the course of cultivation, we must “give” our bodies to the Chan (Zen) hall; we must uphold the precepts by refraining from evil and practicing goodness; we must patiently endure the pain. We must hold on to that single thought of practice and let it continue uninterrupted. When the time comes, after a period of disciplined practice, your wisdom will naturally manifest and Prajna light will illuminate the universe. But that requires a period of smelting.

Without enduring the bitter cold of winter,
How could the plum blossoms smell so sweet?

To achieve success in any endeavor takes time. Those who retreat as soon as the going gets rough won’t achieve anything.

Now this does NOT mean that you must be able to sit in full lotus in meditation and injure knees in the long run (because that would mean drinking a bitter drink with poison).  So you’ve still got to use your wisdom to look after yourself and look after your body in the long run (because we have to live with our bodies until we’re 70-80 years old).  Try to see the overall picture and apply right effort – don’t just mindlessly do things that are painful and unpleasant.  Instead, drinking a bitter drink with medicine in it is more about enduring a temporary, harmless unpleasantness for the sake of a long term reward.  So you still need to look at the big picture and see what would be the most beneficial for you and others in the long run:

  • If it is harmful to you and others, now and in the future – don’t do it
  • If it is beneficial for you and others, now and in the future – do it

Buddhism isn’t all about bearing things that are hard to bear – that’s just a small part of it.  There are also things that are pleasant now and pleasant in the future.

Like developing skill in meditation – gives you peace of mind, clears your mind of burdens, helps you let go and develop joy whilst you’re meditating and you have that skill to tap into and draw upon always, whenever and wherever you want.

It might also mean things like learning things you enjoy – so you’re happy now and you’ve got that new skill or new knowledge you can apply now and later on.  This is what is meant by drinking a sweet, refreshing drink that is pleasant to look at, smell and taste which also contains medicine in it.


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