Does ‘Acting’ Bad Create Bad Karma?

We are all ‘actors’
the moment we pretend
to be who we are not,
or to not be who we are.

Stonepeace | Books)

In the Talaputa Sutta, Talaputa, who heads an acting troupe, asks the Buddha on what he has to say of the ancient belief handed down by the lineage of actors, that when an actor makes audiences laugh and delighted with by mimicking reality, one will, upon death, be reborn in the company of laughing devas (gods, where there is great joy). To that, the Buddha replied, ‘Enough, headman, put that aside. Do not ask me that.’ However, Talaputa asked a second time, to which the Buddha again asked him not to. When asked the third time, the Buddha replied that since he was persistent, he would simply answer him.

As summarised, the Buddha replied that audiences already bound by (worldly) passion (attachment), aversion and/or delusion will focus with even more passion, aversion and/or delusion on that which spurs passion, aversion and/or delusion presented by an actor. Thus, an actor, oneself intoxicated (by these three poisons) and heedless (of their antidotes, of generosity, compassion/loving-kindness and wisdom), having made others also intoxicated and heedless, will, upon death, be (karmically) reborn in the hell of laughter (instead, where there is anguish due to the three poisons being intense), or as an animal (due to delusion being strong).

Hearing this, Talaputa sobbed and burst into tears, to which the Buddha replied, ‘That is what I could not get past you by saying, “Enough, headman, put that aside. Do not ask me that.”‘ Talaputa then explained that he was not crying because of what the Buddha said, but as he had been deceived for so long by the deluded belief. Praising the Buddha’s magnificence, in placing upright the overturned, to reveal the hidden, to show the path to the lost, and to carry a lamp to illuminate by using reason to clarify the truth, he goes to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha for refuge.

Is acting surely unskilful? The key deciding factor would be whether it has the potential to further the three poisons of oneself and others, or to cure them. For instance, some plays and films are scripted to incite lust and hatred, while some to propagate the Dharma. However, it gets grey when there the three poisons are depicted to contrast their antidotes. Karmically speaking, if an actor portraying evil did give rise to actual evil intentions, even if for a while, there is some negative karma created then. As such, good actors must not lose their goodness, even while acting convincingly, and must eventually lead audiences to greater good!

At times, the Buddha declines answering questions – not because he did know their answers, but because they are irrelevant, could not be put in words, or as above, because the questioner might not be ready for the answer, which is a hard truth. Of course, with his wisdom, the Buddha already anticipates the persistence of the questioner, and knows the receptivity. Nevertheless, he braces him or her for the answer out of compassion. This reminds us too, to check how persistent we are in our quest for truth, and how receptive we are for potentially hard truths. Well, when we ask for frank views about ourselves, do we get upset by them?

When something said about you
hurts very badly,
it is either very false or very true.

– Stonepeace | Books

Related Article:
Does Thinking Something Bad Create Bad Karma?

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