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Kamma of unintentional actions


#1

This question has long puzzled me - what kamma is associated with an accidental killing of a creature? This could be stepping on an ant, a mouse hidden in a lawn mower that gets shredded, a rabbit that runs in front of your car that you cannot swerve to avoid… In all of these cases, death is involved but is not intentional.

From my reading of Theravada texts, if there is no intention to harm, then there is no negative kamma. (This feels to me a bit too simplistic.)
A Tibetan monk told me that there is a difference between the kamma of ‘die’ (as in the situations above) and the kamma of ‘kill’ (intentional killing).
And a Mahayana monk said there is a teaching that the heaviest kamma is when you believe what you are doing is beneficial but it is in fact harmful. So maybe I believe it is ok to drive through a forest at dusk because I am doing a favor for someone, but the actual negative impacts (accidental death, eg) could outweigh the intended positive impact of the favor?

Any help in understanding the nuances here would be much appreciated!


#2

Unintentional killing creates no kamma.

I think what that Mahayana monk was getting at is that the problem of wrong view. if your view is wrong, you will not just do one or two harmful acts, but many, and you will justify them according to your view. This is why this is worse than, say, a simple act of carelessness or acting out of rage, etc.

There is a bigger problem in the case of things that we do knowing they have a bad effect, but not intending that bad effect. In fact, maybe your intention is the exact opposite. We don’t want animals to suffer, in fact we want them to be happy. Still, we buy meat, or eat meat, knowing that this is participating in a chain of causality that creates immense suffering for animals.

Climate change is perhaps the biggest example of this. None of us wants the environment to collapse: yet we continue to do those things (including eating meat) that are causing that very thing.

These kinds of issues are among the most pressing moral issues we face, yet the teaching of kamma does not cope with them very well. I am not sure what the solution is here.


#3

Part of what decides whether an intention is good or bad is the motivation that lies behind it. One of the bad motivations is delusion, moha. An example of this might be justifying killing because of some greater good that you think will come of this. This, of course, is the sort of reasoning that lies behind most killings, including genocides, etc. The problem with delusion is that it is very difficult to dislodge, because by its very nature it’s something you cannot see. I suspect this is the sort of thing the Mahayana monk had in mind.

As a general rule, if your mind is clear and at ease, and you don’t see any strong signs of defilements, you can be fairly sure of your ability to judge what is good and what is not. If your mind is pure, then unintended negative consequences do not nullify or diminish the good kamma of an act of kindness.

With metta.


#4

I do think the teaching of kamma may be used also in these more complex circumstances. In particular, I think the negative intention of hiṃsa/vihiṃsa, the negative side of the second factor of the noble eightfold path, is relevant here. These words normally refer to the opposite of compassion, and I believe one possible translation of them is “ruthlessness”. (“Ruth”, as you probably know, actually means compassion.) In other words, vihiṃsa is about being cold-hearted and not really caring about the consequences of your actions on others. A typical example might be the ruthless business person who leaves a trail of havoc in their pursuit of profit. Or it could mean not bothering to avoid insects as you are walking along a path. But it also includes not caring about more distant consequences of your actions, such as the ones you mention above. In these cases the effects are less personal and the kamma perhaps not as strong, yet they still fall under the same general category, I think.

With metta.


#5

These are really helpful replies. Re: wrong view, the ensuing discussion with the Mahayana monk was along the line of ‘ignorance is no excuse for breaking the law’. That accords with the idea of wrong view.

Re: the complexities of our choices in the modern world, this is a related but separate question (another I have long struggled with). The truth is we cannot live in this world without some degree of harm… Life eats life. Even if plant-based, innumerable insects die in food production, and plants respond to pain (The Secret Life of Plants is an excellent read on this).
Speaking from experience, one can paralyze oneself trying to minimize negative impact, becoming so open to big, small, close and distant impacts that one’s life becomes dampened down… and still there remain negative impacts. One can drive oneself crazy with this, which is in a way being ‘ruthless’ towards oneself.
Is there any guidance in the EBTs regarding balancing out the positive impacts of one’s actions (giving the Dhamma talk, doing the favor for the friend, etc) against the negative impacts (insects unintentionally killed, water polluted, etc)?


#6

Dear Claralynn and Bhantes,

thanks so much for the very interesting question and answers. The question really hit the nail on the head and the point of the strong impact of wrong view was very well clarified.

On the second question, I also sometimes have similar thoughts as Claralynn: Just being alive seems to create such a havoc. In our body and on our skin there is a massacre every second - hundreds of thousands of microbes and cells are being killed by our immune system. As Claralynn pointed out, unlike plants we cannot “eat minerals”, but we have to consume living beings. (We could try to sustain ourselves just on fruits that have fallen from plants or so, but even then we eat the food, some other being might have needed - or we eat food that cost valuable resources and destroyed animal habitat as a consequence to the huge population). We roam the surface of our fragile planet leaving trails of destruction, war and environmental disaster - pushing whole species into extinction. On the streets, I see so many people suffering (yet we are much better off in Germany than other parts of the world), I try to help a few, but my impression is that if I tried to help all, there would be no end to it…
My only reasonable answer so far has been, that this is just the way the human condition is. It is just the fruit of the karma that lead to a rebirth in the human condition. In my view, this very much points to the final goal described by the Buddha. The best thing for all (including “me”) is, not to exist at all. However, I cannot get there with ill will towards myself. The only path towards this goal is the eightfold noble path. I can only try to deal with this condition with mettaa and understanding, giving my body credit that it needs these things to sustain itself. I can only try to minimize the negative impact of my life and try to use this life for a wholesome course, which unfortunately I often enough forget in the daily routine of a layman. Recognizing this negligence as being the very fruit of my delusion, I can only try to forgive myself and deal with every moment constructively and in a wholesome fashion (however far I may be away from the ideal)…
At least this way, the otherwise overwhelmingly depressing outlook on the human condition can be turned into a striving towards the wholesome and can support the happiness of letting go and saying “no” to the latest gadget, etc…

This is just my current “best bet” on the issue :smile: . Any comments or suggestions are much appreciated.

With mettaa,
Robert


#7

The simile of the lump of salt comes to mind: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.099.than.html

I would also add that the bad kamma in unintentional killings would be the guilt you feel about doing something you had no control over…and that’s optional.


#8

I haven’t read the book but I think it would be better to say that plants respond to stimuli, not pain. I remember Ajahn Brahm saying the Buddha’s position was that plants are not concious beings but they have the ability to evolve into concious beings over time. According to my understanding, buddhist monks arent allowed to damage plants because at the time of the Buddha, there were many non-buddhist people around who believed that plants had some limited conciousness and they complained.


#9

Dear Bhante,
When you say unintentional acts produce no Kamma, is it only in terms of rebirth? Say I unintentionally hurt someone physically, and because of that she punches me in the face. Isn’t that considered as the result of Kamma? And also, when we do things unintentionally, which often just means lack of mindfulness and care, and often we are driven by moha. Moha is unwholesome, so how come no kammic results? Even in the Vinaya, there’s a rule about for one who does not confess an offence even sitting for more than two uposathas, that moha is a pacittiya. So say even if that act is not producing Kamma that leads to rebirth (is it true?), even that, unintentional acts can still be unwholesome, and shouldn’t be dismissed as ‘not a problem’. And certainly in the case just mentioned, that unintentional act based on moha is certainly obstructive to the Path? Please comment. Thanks.


#10

The EBTs are concerned with the path to the end of suffering, primarily for oneself. On this path it is intention that matters and not the whole spectrum of consequences of one’s actions. I don’t doubt that you got paralysed from trying to minimize negative impacts, and perhaps the complexity and impossibility of this is why the Buddha chose not to focus on it. As always the Buddha is pragmatic. He focuses on one particular problem - one’s own suffering - and how that can be solved.


#11

Dear Shirley,

If someone punches you in the face because you unintentionally hurt them, the cause for being punched is your unintentional act, not kamma. The suttas list a large number of unpleasant things that are not the result of kamma, including illnesses and even assault.

Being driven by moha is not the same as not being mindful. Moha is a deluded state of mind, such as wrong view, cloudedness of mind, and any distortions of perception due to anger or desire. Lack of mindfulness and care can be the result of moha, but they certainly don’t have to be.

One of the important facts about kamma that is often forgotten is that it is not usually just black or white. Kamma is complex and it comes in all shades of grey, as do the results of kamma. So the more delusion there is, the darker is the shade of grey. The greater the purity of the mind (clarity, peace, loving kindness, etc.), the lighter the shade of grey. Kamma that is entirely white is only achieved with the jhānas.

Lastly, the reference to the pātimokkha that you mention is about deluding others, in other words, lying to them or leading astray by deception. Anyway, in this case the action is quite deliberate and so this does not really apply to this discussion.


#12

Dear Monks,

What is the most accurate definition of kamma ? I am a little bit confused because you mentioned that it has to be intention but also what’s more… ?

with Metta.


#13

Dear Samma,

The actual meaning of kamma is just “action”. Thus bad kamma literally means bad action and good kamma good action. The Buddha then says that whether an action is good or bad is not about the action as such, but about the intention that lies behind it. In other words, kamma means intended action, and the quality of the kamma depends on the quality of the intention.


#14

I agree, but your argument shows indirectly exactly what I was meaning: that to deal with these problems we need to stretch the doctrine of kamma.

To give some background, when I studied the philosophy of ethics (“metaethics”) one of the things that became apparent was that there were many different sets of principles for talking about ethical problems. We might talk in terms of human rights, or in terms of God’s laws, or in terms of the balance of pain and pleasure; we might discuss ethics as a functional principle, as a metaphysical fact in the Universe, and so on.

Now, each of these systems comes from its own background and assumptions, and these affect how useful they are. Typically we find that some kinds of ethical language are more suited for certain situations than for others; that is, that they are more effective at dealing with certain kinds of ethical problems.

It’s a little like the situation in physics, where relativity works on big scales, quantum theory on small scales, and Newton is still the most practical on ordinary scales. One assumes that on some level they describe the same reality and that therefore they can be unified, but it is not obvious how that may be done.

Same with ethical languages, including the language of kamma. There are cases where it is just clear and straightforward: you kill an animal, you make bad kamma. In these cases the teaching on kamma is very useful, because it relates ethics to something you actually experience, to the suffering of the animal, and to your own sense of remorse. In this way it is far better, I think, than ethical systems that rely on a set of metaphysical assumptions, like belief in God, for example.

But when we apply kamma to more distant cases, where the intention is less clear, we are starting to reach. Is eating meat really a result of not caring enough? Perhaps my heart is full of caring; maybe I want to be healthy and believe that this is necessary for my health, or perhaps I am being kind to whoever cooked the meat. So we invoke the idea of ahimsa, and then we have to bring in wisdom as well. Okay, fine.

The point is not that the teaching on kamma can’t be applied to those cases, it is that its application is less obvious, more inferential, and more disputable. Pretty much every Buddhist would agree that killing an animal is bad kamma; but Buddhists are very much divided on the question of whether eating meat is bad kamma.

On the other hand, a more conventional form of Utilitarianism, for example, such as that of Peter Singer, has no problem with this case: eating meat, regardless of intention, creates much suffering and little pleasure, so it is wrong.

Perhaps the situation is unavoidable; perhaps we simply can’t find an ethical language that will deal with every situation equally well. If we are to deal with these issues within the framework of kamma, perhaps we need to develop a more robust framework to make it clear.


#15

Dear monks,
Can thoughts (separated from the action itself) be included in the concept of kamma? For instance, is a loving thought good kamma all by itself? Or is it necessary that it’s followed by a good action? And, if it is kamma, is it weaker than the one produced by action?
I’m curious to know how this idea relates to the practice of metta and also to prayer in general.


#16

Hello Fabiola,

Suggest you read Upali Sutta. In that discourse the Buddha answers your question:


#17

Dear Bhantes and Dhamma Friends,

many thanks for the insightful discussion on this topic. I find you made very important points. Also, thanks so much, Bhante Sujato, for todays Dhamma talk. In my view the talk’s topic was quite relevant to Claralynn’s poste on the inevitable damage that one causes as a living being. Seeing both sides of the medal is a good way to arrive at a balanced view.

It is also great you raised this issue of language and assumptions. This helps me to clarify a question that was lingering as an uneasy feeling in my mind after studying the reading material:

Actually, though the views offered are not too far apart, I am still not clear about which of those, is right view: While, for example, Bhante Dhammika seems to focus on the psychological aspects of Karma, saying that direct ‘deed → retribution’ relationships such as “greedy now -> poor in next life” are only meant symbolically. Bhikkhu Bodhi on the other hand seems to have no problem to include both, the psychological side and the direct relationships, into his view on Karma.
The ‘psychological’ approach could simply be an empirical one, saying: ‘This is just the way most minds seem to work. Desire and delusion drive them within a particular live and from one live to the next. If this also applies to your mind, then lucky you - the Buddha already found the solution for you!’ Opposed to that, the direct relationship of an action resulting in a cause (or retribution) implies a sort of metaphysical karmic law, which brings about mental as well as material consequences. T.M. Adams wrote about free will in his article and not directly on Karma, but had to touch upon Karma, as both are intertwined. He describes a metaphysical law: “Moral causality is simply one kind of causality operational in the universe.“ I am not sure, but I think that this metaphysical law is also often personified in Buddhist texts as the “wheel turning monarch”? In a way, to me this feels as if we are not far away, from some kind of God of justice. Another example is AN3.36. There, King Yama interrogates a man, if he did not notice at least one of three divine messengers.
I know that in one of your sutta classes you say that King Yama is not judging the dreadful man, but only helping him to reflect, but the man is still being punished, isn’t he? The Sutta (AN3.36) reads: “Surely, they will treat you in a way that fits your heedlessness. … When, Bhikkhus, King Yama has questioned, interrogated, and cross-examined him about the third divine messenger, he falls silent. Then the wardens of hell torture him with the fivefold transfixing. … so long as that bad kamma is not exhausted. … King Yama thought: ‘Those in the world who do evil deeds are punished with such diverse tortures. Oh, that I might attain the human state!”
Admittedly, King Yama is not torturing the man himself, but the Sutta conveys the view, that retribution is administered inescapably and automatically. Also, the Buddha’s theory of Karma that can come to fruition in this life, the next life or any later life sounds like a metaphysical automatism.

But what is the machinery behind this automatism? What are the foundations that this metaphysical law of karma rests upon? Is this not approaching another ultimate force or being that ensures “justice” in the world, of the kind of “an eye for an eye”? Or has this just to be accepted as: “That’s just the way it is.” Or is such a view a necessary part of right view?

Currently, I can relate most to the psychological interpretation of Karma. I also think to remember that you used similar considerations to bust the extreme position “everything is due to karma”. “Who does all the administration to sort out the exact retribution for each action?” was your question. Well, if we relax the law a little, so that not everything has to be due to Karma, but still keep the metaphysical/universal aspect and add infinite time, then inevitably there will at some point arise just the right conditions for a specific Karma to come to fruition (while we can try to bend the conditions to our favor and avoid certain Karma coming to fruition just now, e.g. by the protective function of mettaa)… Maybe this seems not as plausible, but it might be possible. I am not sure …

Apologies for playing the devil’s advocate. I would just like to get this right.

Many thanks for your patience and with much mettaa,
Robert


#18

Dear Bhante Sujato,

after sleeping over the matter and reading your post again, I think, I understand what you meant.

All of these laws are just approximations to reality. They are all right ant wrong at the same time, but it is justified to use them on their respective domain of validity. The domain of applicability of each law is known by insight into the problem. Newtons law is the easiest one and it misses an important relationship, but it is a good enough approximation for most engineering problems (well applicable if the system speed is well below the speed of light).

Also another parallel just comes to my mind, that shows that some law may still be applicable, even if we do not understand its inner workings (if we delve deep enough into physics, actually, we realise that we do not understand a thing… It is as Ajahn Brahm said: “We just get used talking about it.”). For example, an unstable isotope decays into two more stable atoms in what we call nuclear decay. Now it is impossible to predict when any single atom (unstable nucleus) will decay. It can decay right away or it can sit there for a long time. There is no way we can tell when the decay process will take place. Only if we look at very many decay processes, we see that after what we call the ‘half time’, usually 50% of the atoms have decayed. Yet for a single atom, we have no clue. Some scientists belief that there is a hidden mechanism behind this, which is related to small curled up spatial-dimensions which we cannot see yet. Others say that we just have to accept that nature has some randomness at its heart. In any case, just not knowing the exact mechanism, does not mean that a law cannot be applied or is invalid. People still used their understanding of nuclear decay to build power plants that deliver energy for whole metropoles (- unfortunately they missed another important problem, namely they forgot to think about what to do with the tons of highly radioactive junk that is being produced in the process, but the power plants do work as predicted …).

Hence, it is important to know all the differnent views on Karma and to get a feeling for how they are meant and when they might apply, until some day, we may be able to get a glimpse of these things with our own eyes (e.g. knowledge of our own past lives, knowledge of rebirth of other beings due to their Karma).

With much mettaa,
Robert


#19

It seems to me that trying to figure out the workings of kamma with our defiled minds is an endless source of distraction on the spiritual path.

Of course ideally we shouldn’t believe anything without seeing and knowing it directly, but having read most of the four nikayas, I have no problem substituting my own crooked view with the view that there is kamma and rebirth on confidence in the Buddha alone. Even if the Buddha had invented those concepts out of thin air (just to make sure people behaved better towards other living beings in a world where nothing really mattered, which would make the teaching itself pointless), to me, they seem essential for having right intention and getting the whole Eightfold Path going.

Then, along the way, we begin to see glimpses of kamma in action in ourselves and then in others, which boosts our confidence or faith in the Buddha and the Dhamma even more. Eventually we will have enough mental capacity to understand how it all really works.

So I would recommend focusing on what the Buddha said about kamma and rebirth, not on how it all works or if it’s compatible with science.

May you all be happy and well…


#20

Dear Raivo,

many thanks for your reply! I very much like the way you describe the development of confidence and faith through practice. Also thanks a lot for the other very valuable comments you made on this topic!

Just in order to clarify one point. I had no intention to state that the idea of Karma or any other part of the Buddhist teachings should be compatible with science. On the contrary, on this point I pretty much agree with the position taken by Richard Gombrich in the interview.

My quarrel came about as follows: I had known the different positions/views mentioned above on Karma before this course and I had always sort of agreed with them. They always seemed plausible or at least possible. Also, within one Dhamma talk or within one book, the exposition was always quite consistent. When I saw a new exposition, I did not worry too much how it related to other expositions, as long as it was quite similar. Now, however, reading the different expositions in parallel, I was shaken up thinking that they are not the same, but that there are some fundamental differences! That made me feel a bit uneasy, because what had seemed to be clear before now seemed to stand on shaky grounds and I started questioning and comparing the assumptions behind these views.

However, thinking about Bhante Sujato’s reference to physical laws again, helped me to consilidate the issue. I have an engineering background, so I am quite familiar with these laws. Using the physical laws as a parallel helped me, because I am quite happy and successful in working with each of these laws on a certain case, if that law is applicable under the given circumstances. So here, in physics, I do accept that there are different models of reality with different precision, and I know that they all have their purpose. Additionally, when we really go to the roots of physics, we have to admit that we almost do not understand anything about the universe. (We calculate velocities and accelerations in space, but we know very little about what space itself is, why it behaves the way it does, nor why it exists. All visible matter in the universe can be traced back to be primarily empty space and energy, but nobody knows what exactly this energy is or why it is, we just know some properties of it.) Still we use these empirical laws successfully to describe certain aspects of reality and infer valuable conclusions from them.

In this way, the reference to the physical laws just helped me to accept that there may be different views on Karma within Buddhism, which are all part of right view (*). However, their propper application requires to have an idea of which relationships they capture and what cases each one applies to (**)… And I guess, that this is exactly what this course and the discussion we are having right now are about.

Thanks again for your patience and for this worthwhile discussion! May you too be happy and well,
Robert

P.S.: Sorry for my long posts. I am a not an English native speaker and sometimes I just dont know if it is ambiguous or clear, if I try to keep it short. So, when I have the time, I try to make it clear.

(*) For me it is quite an important insight that apparently all the things we think about, all the concepts are without any true foundation. This just seems to be an unwritten law, maybe just the nature of this mind. The mind just seems to be satisfied if there is a more or less consistent net of concepts, so that these can reinforce each other. But really, they are all just hanging in the middle of thin air. It is just like with all the material things that we are so familiar with, that we take for granted, they are all made up of mostly empty space and energy. Yet we have almost no clue about the nature of space nor the nature of energy (just look at the dark matter and dark energy discussions, or look at discussions about string theory). Whenever we probe deep enough into it, any concept just seems to dissolve into nothing. (Well, I thought I already knew that, but I just learned that I was not aware of it.) Maybe that is why the Buddha said that it is fruitless to ask how Karma works or where the Buddha goes after the death of the body, because in the end such a discussion leads no where - as you very skillfully noted.

(**) with applying the different views on Karma I do not mean that I want to predict all workings of Karma. However, I think it is still usefull for me to know for exmaple under what circumstances my actions by body, speach and mind produce Karma, because this right understanding (right view) shapes my intention to become right intention… Also, I was always pretty much put off, when someone said that sickness inevitably is a consequence of bad karmic actions in a past life… I actually do think that there possibly are cases, where someone might be having a sickness due to Karma. For example, someone after being distracted from practice by sensual desires in one life, might wish upon the breakup of the body to do better in the next life. Maybe that person had witnessed the hard striving and commitment of a sick person during that life and so the wrong view was aroused in him, that a sickness will help him become a more committed practitioner in the next life. So the stream of consciousness is pulled (consciously or unconsciously) to a fetus where it is obvious that a certain desease will develop. Of course this is very simplistic and it is not clear at all, whether the mind has the capability to know about the health of a fetus in the inbetween state (let alone knowing about the development of the health throughout the life to come), but it is at least one ‘explanation’ where not a bad act resulted in a punishment, but where a wrong view just led to choosing a sick body. Alternatively, of course, it could also just be bad luck that the fetus had a desease …