Theravada certainly has a marked negative outlook, negativity being the tendency to consider only the bad, the ugly or the deficient side of things. Traditionally, Theravadin monks will attend funerals but none of life’s joyful or happy rites of passage. They can see the spiritual significance in sickness, decay and death but nothing positive about a wedding, a birth or a coming of age. When we look at Theravadin discourse on virtue we see this same tendency. The first chapter of the Visuddhimagga, that great compendium of Theravada, is entitled ‘A Description of Virtue’ and is the longest and most detailed analysis of morality in all traditional Theravadin literature. [1]

According to Buddhaghosa the function of virtue is to stop bad actions and to avoid blame and its ‘proximate causes’ are remorse and shame. [2]

Starting off on this negative note he proceeds in the same manner for a full 58 dry-as-dust pages in the English translation. There is hardly any mention of actually doing anything one would normally think of as being virtuous. Virtue is defined and described, its proximate causes and kammic effects are discussed in detail, but in the final analysis it is presented entirely as the avoiding of bad rather than the actual doing of anything good. But the Visuddhimagga was written centuries ago, perhaps Theravada has become more inclusive since then.

I reach up to the bookshelf behind me, pick a volume at random and look to see what it says about virtue or Right Action. I have taken Mahasi Sayadaw’s commentary on the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. I turn to the section on Right Action to see what he says. ‘[W]hen an occasion arises for one to commit killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, if one restrains oneself from committing them, then one is established in Right Action.’ Here again, virtue and goodness are understood only as avoiding bad. I reach up and take another book, again at random. This time I find I have put my hands on Khantipalo’s Lay Buddhist Practice. Khantipalo was an English monk who spent many years teaching Theravada in the West so he may take a more positive approach. I turn to the section dealing with the five Precepts. He lists the Precepts and then says: ‘These precepts are the basic and minimal observances of moral conduct by a Buddhist. They are designed to restrain him from making bad kamma in speech and body and to serve as a basis for further growth in the Dhamma’ (italics mine). The Precepts are described correctly as the bare minimum of morality, but nothing beyond this bare minimum is discussed. He mentions, again correctly, that the Precepts are the basis for further growth but as before what that growth might be (e.g. going beyond refraining from killing to actually doing something to promote the welfare or life of others) is not mentioned. I turn to the section dealing with the eight Precepts to see what Khantipalo has to say about them. ‘It has always been understood by Buddhist lay people that if one undertakes these Eight Precepts then great effort should be made not to break them… If one takes them on, then one should feel reasonably certain… that none of the precepts will be broken.’ Here as almost everywhere else, virtue is understood not in terms of doing something good and beneficial but in terms of not doing anything bad.

When we look at the Buddha’s teachings on virtue we find that he usually balances the avoidance of wrong (varita) with the doing of good (carita). The famous epitome of the teaching from the Dhammapada is a typical example of this: ‘Cease to do evil, learn to do good …’etc. (Dhp.183). This balance of the negative with the positive, of the passive with the dynamic aspects of virtue is well illustrated by the Buddha’s description of the first Precept. He says: ‘Having abandoned the taking of life the monk Gotama abstains from taking life. He has laid aside the stick and the sword and abides full of consideration, kindness and compassion for the good of all living beings’ (D.I,40). The commentary on this passage has a long, convoluted discussion on various aspects of killing and the sub-commentary takes the opportunity to elaborate on some of these ideas at even greater length. But predictably, neither the commentary or the sub-commentary bother to discuss even briefly the implications of the words ‘abides full of consideration, kindness and compassion for the good of all living beings.’ Another way in which Theravadin virtue could be said to be negative is that it is primarily selfish. The impact that one’s behavior, whether good or bad, has on others is of little importance in Theravada. A Theravadin refrain from hurting others, not because he cares about them, but so that he can avoid bad karma and if he does good it is not because it helps others but for the personal advantages he derive from it. Mahayanists criticized this pinched selfish understanding of sila centuries ago. The Upayakausala Sutra it says: ‘The Buddha teaches Bodhisattvas precepts which need not be strictly and literally observed, but teaches sravakas (Theravadins) precepts which must be strictly and literally observed; he teaches Bodhisattvas precepts which are at once permissive and prohibitive, but teaches sravakas precepts that are only prohibitive.’ Another text, the Mahayanasangraha, stresses that sila has three facets; the encouragement of restraint, the pursuit of the good and the benefit of others. It correctly points out that the savakas only teach the first of these and practice sila only for their own benefit. As an example of the second proactive facet of sila the Mahayanasangraha mentions caring for the sick, getting involved in the interests of others so as to be able to teach them Dhamma, helping travelers, learning sign language in order to communicate with the deaf, protecting others from various dangers, etc. The Buddha also urges us to do things that make a positive difference to peoples’ lives. In the Samyutta Nikaya for example, he suggests planting trees along highways, constructing irrigation works, digging wells and providing shelter for the homeless (S.III,45-6). Practical and positive examples of virtuous actions like these are frequently recommended in Mahayana works but rarely if ever in the traditional literature of Theravada.

The Theravadin tendency to see virtue in negative terms has had, I believe, a profound influence on how people think and behave. In Thailand for example, people dump unwanted dogs in monasteries because with so much food going to waste there is usually enough for the strays to get at least something to eat. These pi dogs as they are called, are always fighting with each other and are usually thin and diseased. No one is cruel to them, but no one does anything to improve their situation either. They are left to scratch their mange, defecate around the monastery and breed yet more unwanted offspring. As with dogs, so with people. Although Christians make up a tiny minority of Thailand’s population they do a significant percentage of its non-governmental social work. The same is true in other Theravadin lands. Once I stayed in a large and wealthy monastery in Sri Lanka where there were a dozen or so servants, one of who was deaf and dumb. In Sri Lanka, as in other peasant societies, many people find human handicaps a source of amusement and in this monastery the deaf and dumb man was constantly being teased. The other servants would sneak up behind him and pull off his sarong, knock him on the head or put insects down his back, to general laughter all round. Sometimes he would cry out in frustration and humiliation. I never saw the abbot or the other monks torment this poor man (although they often joined in the laughter), but they never did anything to stop others doing it. One word from the very formidable abbot would have been enough to stop this torment, but that word was never spoken. In Theravada, just avoiding bad is enough. The common practice of spending the full-moon day in a monastery in order to ‘practice sila’ is further evidence that Theravada sees virtue predominately in negative terms. People spend the day in the monastery in order to avoid situations that might lead them into doing anything wrong. No tradition of spending the day doing good for others had ever evolved.

The Khuddakapatha, the smallest book in the Pali Tipitaka, is a collection of readings and suttas including the Dvattisakara and the famous Metta Sutta. The Dvattisakara consists of a bare list of body parts and is meant to be reflected upon to help bring about a detachment or in Theravada, a revulsion, towards the body. The Metta Sutta is a beautiful and deeply stirring song advocating benevolence towards all that lives. Buddhaghosa expands the meager 36 Pali words of the Dvattimsakara into a commentary 36 pages long, while the Metta Sutta which is more than three times the length of the Dvattisakara, is expanded into a dull and rather uninspiring commentary of only 21 pages. It was mentioned before that of the two different schema of dependent origination all emphasis is given to the one about suffering. Why should the ancient Theravadin pundits give almost blanket coverage to the teaching describing the cause of human suffering and completely ignore the one describing the way out of that suffering? If we look at the ‘links’ in each of these schema we see the reason for this. The first is about ‘grief, sorrow, suffering, lamentation, pain and despair’, experiences that Theravada has a fixation with. The second is about faith, gladness, joy, serenity, happiness, knowledge and vision and ultimately, freedom, things that Theravadins have little interest in. The tendency of either ignoring the positive or if commenting on it, doing so as briefly as possible or at least more briefly than the negative, is to be seen in almost every aspects of Theravada.

Now let us have a look at meditation. The Buddha taught many different types of meditation. Some of these, like the contemplation on death or the contemplation on the loathsomeness of food, could be called negative in the sense that they induce restraint, detachment and the cooling of emotions. Others, like metta bhavana, could be described as positive in that they uplift, give joy or awaken enthusiasm. It seems likely that the Buddha taught this rich variety of contemplations to cater to different personalities types, to help deal with specific problems, to develop certain virtues and to balance each other. Let us have a look at how meditation is presented in the Visuddhimagga. Buddhaghosa devotes a full 11 pages to the meditation on death, while a generous 26 pages are devoted to the meditation on the repulsiveness of the body. But it is when describing the contemplation on rotting corpses that Buddhaghosa is really in his element. Through a full 19 pages he lingers lovingly and in minute detail over putrid flesh, bloated viscera and maggots oozing out of eye sockets. By contrast when he comes to elaborating on meditations that could lift the heart and refresh the mind his imaginativeness seems to dry up. The recollection on generosity or example, is passed over in less than three pages while the recollection on peace gets only two pages. Other positive meditation like the recollection on spiritual friendship (kalyanamittaanussati, A.V,336) are ignored completely.

Modern meditation manuals show this same preference for the negative. Most will give plenty of space to metta bhavana but other positive meditations are given little or no notice, whereas the contemplation on the loathsomeness of food and on death are nearly always included. This last contemplation and the practices surrounding it have taken on an almost talismanic significance in Theravada. Any Sri Lankan meditation center worth the name has to have its rickety old human skeleton on view. Thai meditation centers and even sometimes ordinary monasteries will often have a collection of gruesome photographs happily provided by the local police showing autopsies, bloated corpses and mutilated murder victims. A recently published book called Treasury of Truth consists of a translation of the Dhammapada with color pictures illustrating the verses. Twenty one percent of the pictures in the book show images of either human cadavers or skeletons. I have before me the biography of a popular contemporary Thai meditation monk which includes this paragraph. ‘Watching day by day the decomposition of the bodies, he lived with these rotten corpses which became bloated, with blood and bloody fluids exuding and also with the smell of rotten flesh. To expose and search for the internal organs for contemplation, he cut open rotten bodies, removed some organs and preserved them in liquid. Living side by side with these corpses enabled him to make good progress in the way of Dhamma.’ Whether this monk really did spend months in such ghoulish surroundings I don’t know, but to be taken seriously as a meditator he would have to claim that he did.

In Theravada necrophilia is almost synonymous with spiritual virtuosity. The typically crude psychology of Theravada is that beauty causes attachment and therefore wallowing in repulsiveness lead to detachment. [3]

Ironically, if evidence is needed that this is not true one need only read the Vinaya, which contains numerous stories about monks doing this contemplation who ended up copulating with or masturbating over corpses, including those in advanced stages of decomposition (Vin.III,36). [4]

The Vinaya claims that up to 60 monks once committed suicide after the Buddha gave a talk in praise of the contemplation on the repulsiveness of the body (Vin.III,67). One would think this would be enough for meditation teachers to recommend this practice only with caution. Not so! It is quite usual for it to be taught to anyone who comes for meditation instruction. I personally know of numerous cases in Singapore and Malaysia where this has ended up having disastrous consequences for the people who practiced it on the instruction of monks. As with most things Mahayana takes a more balanced and positive approach to the body. While recognizing its unattractive aspects the Mahayanist is also encouraged to consider how he or she could use their bodies for the benefit of others. For example the Akshayamati Sutra asks the bodhisattva to think like this: ‘ “I must wear out even this body for the benefit of all creatures” …Seeing that it is to be used for this purpose, he looks fixedly at the misfortunes of the body and is not distressed, because he cares more about all creatures.’

Now one might ask: ‘If Theravada is so negative why are people in Theravadian lands so warm and friendly?’ While it is true that people in Thailand, Sri Lanka etc. certainly are smiling and good-natured, the reason for this, I would submit, is not because they practice Theravada but, on the contrary, because they don’t practice it. Anthropologist Paul Wirs correctly says: ‘In reality, it is the same [in Sri Lanka] as in other Buddhist countries; only very few comprehend the true Buddhist dogma in its real profoundness; the rest are Buddhists in name only, among them also a great part of those who wear the yellow gown…’ As mentioned before, for the majority of people in Theravada lands religion goes little beyond giving dana to monks, consulting them about astrology, worshiping relics, doing pujas and perhaps keeping the Precepts on full moon days when they become very old. As soon as they start taking Dhamma study or meditation seriously, that distinctive vale of Theravada gloom settles upon them and they become withdrawn, self-absorbed and morbid. Go to a festival in a Sri Lankan temple and you will find color, smiles and an atmosphere of simple piety. But then go to the typical meditation center. The buildings are as functionally ugly as a municipal toilet block, the rooms are stark, no one smiles and the mediators walk around looking like the long-term inmates of a psychiatric hospital. Indeed it is not unknown that some people who spend time in these meditation centers end up having serious mental problems. A joke circulating in certain circles in Sri Lanka in the 1990s went ‘One month in Kanduboda, six months in Angoda’, Kanduboda being a well-known vipassana meditation center in Colombo and Angoda being the city’s main mental asylum.


  1. Commenting on this analysis Damien Keown says ‘[D]espite the details provided by Buddhaghosa the harvest in terms of a deeper understanding of sila is disappointingly sparse. He skimps on what are for us the most promising areas and goes into great detail…about minute monkish matters of deportment and trivial infringements of the Vinaya…’ [back]
  2. By comparison the Buddha calls virtue a way of being considerate which ‘creates love and respect and which conduces to helpfulness, non-dispute, harmony and unity’ (A.III,287). In other places he calls virtue ‘a treasure’, ‘the supreme adornment’, ‘freedom-giving’, confidence-building’, ‘leading to happiness’, ‘conducive to concentration’, ‘bringing success’, ‘imparting good health’ ‘resulting in being liked, admired and respected’, etc. [back]
  3. For more on this topic see Liz Wilson’s Charming Cadavers, 1999. [back]
  4. I once sat and listened as a group of young Thai monks roared with laughter and made ribald comments about a collection of particularly nauseating photos of female corpses that they were passing around to each other. [back]