Do arahants have kamma?

Hi Bhante. I wonder if you can just clear this up for me. I may have misunderstood you, or I may not understand the suttas (this is the most likely - I’m not very well versed in the suttas). My impression is that kamma is ‘intention’ or ‘deeds’ or ‘choices’, something like that. Further I note 4 kinds of kamma - ‘Bright’, ‘Dark’, ‘Mixed’ and ‘Neither’. ‘Neither’ being the eightfold path. If I’m understanding correctly, it seems that the suggestion that you are making is that arahants don’t make choices or are they don’t summon intention - which actually seems fairly reasonable. But (from the outside) they do seem to be engaging in intention/choices/deeds that would be categorised as ‘Neither’ kamma - i.e. sīla, samādhi, pañña. So I’m just wondering what you actually meant by “They don’t have karma anymore.” Is this explicit in the suttas, or maybe I am supposed to understand that neither-bright-nor-dark kamma is the same as no kamma?


Hey Stu, nice to “see” you again. :upside_down_face:

First of all, I wrote that post quite quickly. By arahants don’t “have” karma anymore I meant they don’t do karma anymore. Or in other words, their actions and intentions no longer count as karma. What this means primarily is they don’t produce rebirth through their intentions and deeds. They still make choices, still have intentions, but these aren’t classed as karma anymore, because they do no longer lead to rebirth. Or, you could also say, they don’t count as karma because there is no more ignorance. But there are still intentions. The whole aggregate of saṅkharas doesn’t suddenly disappear, only those saṅkharas based on ignorance.

To explain from another angle, the “definition” of karma (AN6.63) as intentions is not an equation of the two, of kama and intention. The statement is better understood in historical context. The Jains said everything one does is karma, and leads to rebirth, even unintentional acts, like stepping on a bug. (See MN101) That’s why their highest spiritual practice was lying still and starving to death, similar to what the Buddha-to-be tried. But the Buddha disagreed with this idea, saying what matters in producing rebirth is intention. That’s why he said ““I define deeds (karma) as intention. You intend something before you perform a deed, whether a physical, verbal, or mental one.” It doesn’t mean that every intention is karma. It means every karma (i.e. everything that leads to rebirth) is based on intention. Do you see the difference? This leaves room for an arahant to have intentions which are not karma.

The deeds (karma) that are neither dark nor bright (e.g. MN57) are said to “lead to the end of deeds”. In other words, they lead to enlightenment and to no more rebirth. So they are the intentions to practice the path as you suggested, to renounce, etc. But arahants already walked the path to the end, so they no longer do these karmas either. They are called neither dark nor bright because their result is (if practiced till the end) neither a dark rebirth (like hell) or a good rebirth (like heaven) but no rebirth at all. See the sutta’s explanation of the other types of karma first, and then read this one in light of those, and you’ll see.

AN6.63, the famous sutta on the definition of karma as intention, also says that the way to make karma ceases is the eightfold path. From that you can deduce that arahants do no longer do karma, because they finished the eightfold path. That arahants do no more karma you can see in suttas such as: “By abandoning craving, deeds (karma) are abandoned.” (SN46.26) But just like with intention, it is only deeds (karma) in the deep philosophical sense that are abandoned: deeds that lead to rebirth, deeds based on ignorance. Of course enlightened beings still do deeds in the ordinary sense of the word.

By the way, even the concept of dark and bright karma may be influenced by Jainism, because in Jainism karma was seen as physical particles with certain colors. The whole teaching on karma really arose in a historical context. The Buddha adopted the concept to fit his needs. If he were to teach right now, I bet he wouldn’t have taught in this same way. Richard Gombrich has written a lot about this historical background of karma, so you can check him out. You don’t need to know this stuff to practice, of course, but it does help illuminate why the Buddha taught the way he did. For example, why he called it ‘deeds’ (karma) and not just intention in the first place. Because that’s the term other religions used already.

That’s more or less how I understand it, anyway. Hope that helps. :slight_smile:


Great to see you again too Bhante!

So if I were to summarise what you say, then I might say that kamma is kamma if it has an effect and it’s type is known by that effect. So an arahant even though they do things that look like the noble eightfold path (that would normally result in the end of kamma), because they have already ended kamma these deeds have no effect and so are not kamma. Like me scrubbing a clean pan. No matter how hard I scrub, the pan won’t get any cleaner, so I’m not actually cleaning it anymore. Does that sound about right?

So my problem with using this sutta to suggest that arahants no longer do kamma is that we’ve got a sequence, that goes…

When craving is given up, deeds are given up. When deeds are given up, suffering is given up.

and so there may be a time lag, i.e. it might not be instantaneous that when craving is given up, doing kamma is given up. As you demonstrated in the other thread to @Thito the arahant still has bhava and dukkha. So the same argument might apply kamma?

But that’s really just about a definition of the word kamma. I understand and agree with your general thrust that no rebirth producing kamma is made by the arahant.

Yeah, I don’t see much wrong with that. It’s not just the outcome, though, that classes kamma as good or bad. It’s also the intention that underlies it. It’s a bit different with this neither-dark-nor-bright kamma, perhaps, because it’s not the case that we practice the path with neither good nor bad intentions. But we practice it to have neither good nor bad rebirth.

But these one or two suttas on neither-dark-nor-bright kamma are really outliers, and it seems the Buddha is being a bit more playful and creative here. Normally kamma was taught more black and white. Throughout the suttas kamma is mostly taught as a way to distinguish good actions from bad actions.

It takes a bit of a change of viewpoint, but I think it really helps to see kamma as a response to other religions, as a concept that existed already, but which the Buddha changed to include intention. For example, the Jain practice was to stop all actions totally, because they thought all actions lead to rebirth. As I said, the highest spiritual practice was to lie still and starve to death (called santhara, still practiced today). That’s a literal meaning of “doing no deeds”! The Buddha adopted the idea of “no deeds” for the enlightened ones, but of course not in the Jain way. The arahants still do actions (which is the literal meaning of kamma) in the ordinary sense of the word. But they have no will or intentions that lead to rebirth anymore, so in that sense they don’t make kamma.

In short, kamma is somewhat a matter of definition. You could almost say that per definition arahants don’t do kamma.

I think this helps explains why the concept sometimes becomes a bit slippery and difficult to graps when we try to define it strictly. Sometimes in the sutta the word kamma is also used to refer to the outcomes of kamma, which makes things even more messy.

Not sure if I’m making sense. Perhaps another way to put it is that kamma is a bit more conceptual compared to many of the Buddha’s teachings. Of course, it is pragmatic too, but probably it was more pragmatic to people of his time.

It may also explain why in more technical teachings on Dependent Arising he preferred to use the term saṅkhāra and not kamma, even though the two are closely related functionally.


Sariputta was hit on the head by a demon. Moggallana was murdered. Angulimala was beaten. These things happened after their enlightenment. Kamma is what kamma does. For a being who is enlightened there can still be debts and rewards to be reaped.