Kamma and Intention (Split from topic linked below)

To be precise, the meaning of kamma is still ‘action’, coming from Vedic karman and the root kṛ (to do, act, make). As so many fundamental terms it has of course many connotations. So AN 6.63 indeed says “It is volition, bhikkhus, that I call kamma.” But to my knowledge it is only here. So it cannot be generally said that Buddhist kamma is only intention.

Instead, the suttas repeatedly distinguish three aspects of actions: in body, (kāyakamma) speech (vacīkamma), and mind (manokamma) - see for example AN 4.234.

Yes, in some contexts intention is highlighted, but not in others. For example I don’t see where the intention to donate to Buddha/Sangha leads to divine rebirth, it is only the physical deed which does the trick.


I think you need to search a little harder.

"And how is a person of integrity a person of integrity in the way he gives a gift? There is the case where a person of integrity gives a gift attentively, with his own hand, respectfully, not as if throwing it away, with the view that something will come of it. This is how a person of integrity is a person of integrity in the way he gives a gift.

“This person of integrity — thus endowed with qualities of integrity; a person of integrity in his friendship, in the way he wills, the way he gives advice, the way he speaks, the way he acts, the views he holds, & the way he gives a gift — on the break-up of the body, after death, reappears in the destination of people of integrity. And what is the destination of people of integrity? Greatness among devas or among human beings.”
Cūlapuṇṇamāsutta MN 110.

At the end of the Pāyāsisutta, DN 23, you’ll find an example of this: the prince and the brahmin both end up in heaven, but the brahmin occupies a higher station (Tavatiṃsa rather than Catumahārājika) because he gave his gifts more thoughtfully than the prince did.


Sure, but where is an example for a mere intention to give that would lead to, for example heavenly, result? Yes, at a few places good intention + giving = better. But if kamma was intention-only then my mere intention (without giving) would suffice.

My point is, kamma in Buddhism cannot be reduced to intention only, it depends on the text.

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Fair enough. Then my earlier reply was to a point other than the one you intended.


It is true the mere intention does no much good when it comes to kāmāvacarakusala/akusala (deeds that gives birth in realms of sensual pleasure). But what is your opinion about rūpa or arūpa kusalas (mahaggata)?

This text does not say mere intention is kamma but he intention which is further explained in MN56.

cetanāhaṃ, bhikkhave, kammaṃ vadāmi. Cetayitvā kammaṃ karoti – kāyena vācāya manasā

Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, and intellect ( AN6.63, Ven. Tanissaro).

It is intention that I call deeds. For after making a choice one acts—by way of body, speech, and mind(Ven. Sujato).

So above texts says that the intention dominate that of deeds done by the body and speech. One should think before act making it the main part of kamma.

This is further explained in Upālisutta MN56.

I describe mental deeds as being the most blameworthy for performing bad deeds, not so much physical deeds or verbal deeds.
Imesaṃ kho ahaṃ, tapassi, tiṇṇaṃ kammānaṃ evaṃ paṭivibhattānaṃ evaṃ paṭivisiṭṭhānaṃ manokammaṃ mahāsāvajjataraṃ paññapemi pāpassa kammassa kiriyāya pāpassa kammassa pavattiyā, no tathā kāyakammaṃ, no tathā vacīkamman

As long as the act by body or speech has nothing to do with jhānas (one should get rid of kāyasankhāra and vacīsankhāra to attain samatha in meditaion) it should be the volition which is the kamma because jhānas also result birth in rūpa or arūpa realms.
MN 57 explains four types of kammas, where we can learn that kamma is a saṅkhāra/ a formation (which is a part of mental propotion of a person).

Katamañca, puṇṇa, kammaṃ kaṇhaṃ kaṇhavipākaṃ?Idha, puṇṇa, ekacco sabyābajjhaṃ kāyasaṅkhāraṃ abhisaṅkharoti, sabyābajjhaṃ vacīsaṅkhāraṃ abhisaṅkharoti, sabyābajjhaṃ manosaṅkhāraṃ abhisaṅkharoti.

And what, Puṇṇa, is dark action with dark result? Here someone generates an afflictive bodily formation, an afflictive verbal formation, an afflictive mental formation (Ven. Bodhi).

So when one deed is done what should be the main force that can be considered as kamma, is it bodily or speech? I guess not. It should be the intention (volitional part of the deed).


I would put it this way: when the suttas get philosophical, i.e. when they reflect upon specific kamma dynamic - especially when they distinguish themselves from nigantha concepts of kamma - then they highlight the intention-aspect of kamma.

In many other contexts they don’t: when it comes to matricide, patricide and buddhacide certainly the act is what is condemned, not the mere intention - not that the intention is inconsequential, but the decisive aspect is the physical action.

Same on uposatha: do I practice the intention of not-killing, not-stealing etc.? Or do I practice the abstention from the act of not-killing, not-stealing?

Also, leaving aside the suttas for a moment, at the latest since the dawn of psychoanalysis we also have to consider unconscious intentions, where I retroactively understand that I actually wanted e.g. to annoy someone without having consciously known it at that time. Also here, the effect of my kamma is my starting point, and the intention behind is inferred.

So Clearly, kamma is not a unified field in the sole register of intention but context-dependent. Sometimes the action counts more than the intention, and sometimes it’s the other way round. Statistically, I would argue, the suttas are not ‘philosophical’ about kamma and simply state that kamma is threefold and has according fruits.


The fact here is without non of the kammas can be done without the intention. When there is no intention there is no kamma. When one walk he might accidentally step on insects and they could die, still that is not considered as a kamma becuase there is no intention.
When we consider above examples still the main part is intention but physical action should be there, just thinking to kill mother and even planing to kill may be a kamma but it is appasavajja kamma, It is not a kammapatha unless the victim is dead, in this case ānantariyakamma.

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Just, this is again a ‘philosophical’ approach to it. And we single out intention because of the Buddhist discourse. When we actually open our perspective there are several other aspects which ‘have to be there’ in order for kamma to be effective.

For example, in order to kill I need intention, ok. But I also need a body, I also need a consciousness (for example killing while sleep-walking might be intentional but not fully conscious). I also need moral accountability, so for example toddlers and people with certain severe disabilities might not have ‘killed’ in this sense. Also, there needs to be an ‘other’ - if I float around alone in space no killing is possible. Also, I need a memorized set of procedural knowledge - I need to know that if I lift the stone hammer intentionally and force it upon the animal that I kill it, whereas it wouldn’t happen with a foam hammer. Also I need a culturally transmitted sense of what ‘life’ is - early Buddhism for example didn’t consider plants as alive (see the research of Schmithausen), but some of us today do see plants as alive.

So I hope you see that we learned to focus on ‘kamma is intention’ because there is a certain Buddhist tradition, based on few sutta quotes, to philosophize like that. One reason might be pedagogical. But it’s not ‘the truth’ as such.

In the Buddha’s teachings Kamma means actions to the body, verbal and mental with volitional conditions, and explain intention with actions keep human beings provide to rebirth to the next life. What the Kamma means not only just actions also included intension. Therefore, the actions of physical, verbal and mental perform with intension, volition to the wholesome or unwholesome; they can be defined as Kamma.

Why did the Buddha define kamma as “intention” instead of as “intention and action”?
Why did he define it only in terms of intention if it meant more than just intention?
If the Buddha meant that kamma means “intention and action,” why didn’t he simply and directly state that “kamma means ‘intention-and-action’ or ‘intentional action’”?

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Because the action itself has no direct relation to dependant origination. It is the intention (cetanā) which can be related to the paticasamuppāda.
Because deeds are considered as sankhāra.
There is no deeds done when one attained enlightenment (arahant).

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This, in particular, is a very good point.

Doesn’t this ^ run contrary to what you said here:

i.e. that kamma means “only intention,” not “intention and action”/“intentional action” (“not only just actions also included intension”)?

Aren’t Arahants living proof that one can act by means of body, speech, and mind - i.e. do bodily, verbal, and mental actions - without doing kamma? This seems to refute the notion that kamma is “both intention and action” because Arahants seem to act without “intending” - or whatever the most English translation is for this Pali word, no?

Well, it is kind of complicated. To the kamma to be completed the action is necessary. Here we should understand what is cetanā. Thinking I should do this and that"; imagination, is not the cetanā. Cetanā is the driving force behind the act or the speech. Cetanā is the action-potential (motive?) behind each and every action. So without completing the process which involves act or speech the kamma is not complete. Thats why I stated the first argument. Intension however seems to be the kamma according to Upālisutta.
When a person giving food to a monk, a bowl of food is placed in the hands of the monk. Placing the food that belongs to him in the hand of the monk is dhāna. The Cetanā can be found when we look at how the donor handled the food bowl. If there was no driving force which is here claim to be cetanā, the bowl of food would remain wherever it was earlier.


Thank you very much for explaining, Bhante!

I see. So kamma has to occur by means of the body, speech, or mind - i.e. via bodily, verbal, or mental action?

This makes sense.

Still, is the action-potential (kamma in the sense of cetanā) and the action distinct?
I.e. according to the Buddha, even if kamma requires the action in order to be completed (as it seems like it does), does kamma refer to that “action-potential only” or to “both the action-potential and the action”?

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According to AN6.63 and MN 56 it should be cetanā (intention).



This was said according to SN12.38. (Please read the sutta)
The sutta explains that the intentions are the force that propels consciousness from one life to the next.

Mendicants, what you intend or plan, and what you have underlying tendencies for become a support for the continuation of consciousness.
Yañca, bhikkhave, ceteti yañca pakappeti yañca anuseti, ārammaṇametaṃ hoti viññāṇassa ṭhitiyā

Commentary says,
Ettha ca cetetīti tebhūmakakusalākusalacetanā gahitā, pakappetīti aṭṭhasu lobhasahagatacittesu taṇhādiṭṭhikappā gahitā,

Here ceteti means good and bad intentions (cetanā) that belong to one of the three realms; kāma, rūpa, arūpa. yañca pakappeti means craving and the view (diṭṭhi) in craving based eight thoughts. (These are from abhidhamma classifications). yañca anuseti means 12 demerit thoughts( abhidhamma).
In the sutta, the word ārammaṇa means “cause” / reason. ārammaṇametaṃ (etaṃ ārammaṇaṃ)

When there is tendancy / motive to do merits or demerits that leads to formation of more and more merits or demerits due to craving and the view. Development of those deeds leads to another birth.

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An important and subtle point that is very easy to overlook and very relevant to this OP.
Not everything is due to kamma - thus, one cannot necessarily conclude that homeless is caused by one’s own past kamma - it could be potentially caused by kamma or other causes and conditions.

Astute observation/distinction.

The Buddha seems to have re-defined this term to mean something differently than what it meant before.
However, you raise some good points.
I am still confused about this topic myself.
Does kamma mean:
a) action?
b) intention?
c) intentional action?

Option © might be tempting, but the Buddha explicitly defines kamma as:

If the Buddha wanted “kamma” to mean “action” or “intentional action,” why didn’t the Buddha simply specify that directly? If it means more than just intention, why didn’t the Buddha clarify this in his definition?

:pray: :pray:

Very good point :thinking: I don’t know.
It occurred to me that the four brahmaviharas and even just developing metta alone seems to lead to objectively heavenly results without say, physical or verbal actions necessarily accompanying it.
Also, I am curious because I myself have wondered if developing the quality of generosity in one’s own mind would still lead to happy outcomes even if one does not physically give anything. :thinking:

Even here, I wonder if kamma is still purely mental.
The means by which kamma expressed might be physical or verbal, but doesn’t that still mean that kamma is purely mental and not physical and verbal?

Very good point!

Even here, the decisive action seems to be mental, not physical.
For example, accidentally taking physical actions that directly lead to the death of one’s father, mother, Arahant, etc. - especially in the Jain sense of physically killing another without the intention to do so, the way one might unintentionally kill an insect that they were unaware of while walking - does not seem to lead to the phala expected for one who committed patricide, matricide, etc.
Thus, it seems like the decisive aspect is mental, not physical.
Furthermore, perhaps the mere intention to kill one’s mother, father, a Buddha, etc. alone is enough to reap harm. This might have been the case for Devadatta, who committed the kamma to trying to kill the Buddha in three or more stretches - even though he did not succeed, I think that he would likely still reap what he sowed in those cases despite no physical actions - whereas the mere action of killing one’s father, mother, Arahant, etc. might lead to no harm at all to oneself if done completely accidentally.

Can you show any definitive proof for this? So far, this claim seems inferential at best - and unsupported at worse.

Good point. I had a very similar thought.

What do you mean “philosophical” - as opposed to what?

Aren’t non-human beings who do not possess a body incapable of killing? So is a body absolutely necessary? How can those who do not possess a body commit kamma if a body is necessary for kamma to occur? If they are incapable of kamma, that seems to imply that they are Arahants, which does not seem consistent with the Dhamma.

What other factors must be there besides kamma in order for kamma to lead to a phala/result?
Can you reference anything to support this view?

What do you mean by this?

Sure, but that does not mean “kamma” is not possible. If one floats around in space developing the four brahmaviharas among other good qualities, wouldn’t that be an example of committing kamma with the absence of other beings being present?

I still haven’t seen any conclusive evidence that “kamma” is anything besides “intention.”
The only “evidence” provided seems to be the absence of evidence: The Buddha didn’t say kamma is intention…only.
However, I haven’t see anything that suggests what else kamma might be besides intention.
Even “intentional action” - one can use the same reasoning used above to say “Buddha didn’t say kamma is intentional actions.” In fact, this point is stronger because the Buddha literally could have defined it in any way that he wanted, but he chose not to define it as “intentional action” and to define it as “intention.”

Of course, the translation of the word that he used to define kamma could be open to interpretation, and I haven’t seen any definitive conclusive proof that kamma is intentions only. The Buddha could have said “kamma is intentions only,” but he did not. If kamma is anything in addition to intention (which we all seem to agree on), where is the conclusive evidence of what else it includes?


I’ve found it helpful to view intention, not as an on/off thing but one of gradations - from 0 - the first flicker of a thought/intention right through to 100 - which is determined, purposeful action.

As such, at a specific point along this continuum, Kamma gets activated. This is enough information to guide practice, without having to try to find greater specificity eg. that ‘kamma is activated at 6.5’ on the scale :smiley:



For me ‘intention’ (as a word) is bound together with ‘action’. As I see it, intention means ‘plan of action’. I don’t see how there can be intention that is devoid of action? The only reasons to have the phrase ‘intentional action’ is to distinguish between that and an accident (failure of planning or lack of planning), or perhaps a ritual (where the planning is preordained by tradition).

So for me, if you fail in your ‘plan of action’ it is by necessity of definition going to have less weight than if you succeed in it. If I plan to kill someone and then fail, am I going to have to hold such an extreme burden as a result as I would if I had succeeded in the plan? If I plan to save a friend’s life and I fail, am I going to be as happy compared to having succeeded?