Kamma of unintentional actions


Hi Robert!

No worries. I too have an engineering background and I know how tempting it is to name and classify everything until it all fits into neat little boxes with labels on them :smiley: I wasn’t really aiming my reply at you, just wanted to give a friendly warning to everyone not to overthink things.

It’s important to understand kamma (or anything really) on a conceptual level but we should always keep in mind that at best we can construct a very rough model of how things really work. From your reply it seems that this point is pretty clear to you, so do what you feel you need to do, as long as it brings you closer to peace, not confusion.

Best wishes,


Hi, dhammarak. That sutta answers my question with precision. I guess I was thinking exactly like that Upali guy…

Thank you!


I also wanted to add that I’ve found it helpful to read a lot of suttas without focusing too much on the details (which do seem pretty confusing and contradictory at times) and then, based on the whole, feel, not think out, a certain concept like the law of kamma.

The first model we get might not be ideal, but it’s also not that constricted by our different thought patterns and existing ideas. After that we can hash out the missing details and plug up any holes without getting too lost. And of course when you read the same suttas again after 2 or 3 months you constantly discover new things and understand a lot more of the text.

So always interpret a confusing passage or even sutta based on the whole, not the other way around.


I’d just like to thank everyone for such an illuminating and pleasant discussion!

It does help me understand that ambiguity in the idea of kamma, whether it is purely psychological or whether it has a"metaphysical" component. I wouldn’t use the word “metaphyscal” here, but that’s only because I find it convenient to reserve it for cases of things that are inherently unknowable, like God or the soul. Even if kamma is an objective law of the Universe (“metaphysical” in your sense), it still may be knowable potentially, it just would not be fully knowable by introspection.

The issue is, I think the same as that which was fundamental to Jung, the idea of synchronicity. These days, it seems as if the term is used to mean that the universe organizes itself to present you with meaningful things; but this was not Jung’s intention. He saw the drive of the human mind to create meaning out of things.

In this way, it is similar to the idea expressed by Hume that we notice things that support our views and overlook things that contradict them.

However Jung disagreed with the reductionist tendency of earlier empiricists such as Hume or for that mater Freud (Jung explicitly identified himself as an empiricist) who tended to dismiss such things as “mere coincidence”. Jung agreed that it was coincidence, just not “mere”. In fact the human mind’s search for meaning, and ability to find meaning in a meaningless world, is one of the most important faculties we possess. It is from this sense of being part of a meaningful world that we get our energy, our inspiration, and our higher ethics.

So, if we look at the teaching on kamma, on one level it makes sense purely as a psycho-ethical principle: do bad, feel bad; do good, feel good. But it does sometimes feel as if the Universe is doing something else, conspiring to deliver kammic retribution and such. I guess, following Jung, that we could treat such things as meaningful coincidences. Not to be dismissed, but nor to be elevated into some metaphysical principle. In reality, our minds seek meaning out of chaos, and if that meaning is healthy and productive, it’s a good meaning. That doesn’t mean it’s right or wrong, any more than being inspired or moved by a song or a novel is right or wrong. It affects us, and that’s all we can say.


Dear Bhante, dear Raivo,

many thanks to you too for the valuable clarifications, suggestions and support! This discussion has really helped me!

With much mettaa,


Yes, and the important point here, it seems to me, is the overall philosophy that each of these sets of principles is embedded into. The overall philosophy gives direction to the kind of ethics that are important.

For Buddhism the overall context is awakening, or at least a movement towards awakening. In this system it is the ethics of the ten wholesome courses of action that is foundational, because this is the ethical foundation that makes awakening ultimately possible. Vegetarianism can certainly be incorporated into this system of ethics, and it aligns nicely with the other ethical principles of the path. But I do not think it is a matter of fundamental importance in the sense that awakening is impossible without vegetarianism. By way of comparison, awakening may indeed be impossible for someone who is a habitual liar.

So my point here is that Buddhist ethics should not be regarded as a complete system. And we can add to the basic Buddhist principles whatever additional ethical principles we deem useful in our lives. My point is also that it is important to distinguish between the ethics that are crucial for awakening and the ethics that more related to individual conscience.


Sadhu. This is really helpful, Ajahn Brahmali, and reminds me of the sutta re: the handful of leaves. A direct, clear, and very helpful teaching re: an issue that has been around for me for years.
Thanks very much.


Hi, Robert,
You wouldn’t happen to have a link for that talk, would you? I’d very much like to listen if it has been recorded.




I have managed to track down one sutta reference re: unintentional action, but it is a later text, not an EBT.
Milindapanha 84. Wikipedia dates this text from about 100 BCE, explaining it as ‘a dialogue in which the Indo-Greek king Menander I (Pali Milinda)… poses questions on Buddhism to the sage Nāgasena.’

The king asked: “Venerable Nagasena, for whom is the greater demerit, one who knowingly does evil, or one who does evil unknowingly?”

The elder replied: “Indeed, your majesty, for him who does evil not knowing is the greater demerit.”

“In that case, venerable Nagasena, would we doubly punish one who is our prince or king’s chief minister who not knowing does evil?”

“What do you think, your majesty, who would get burned more, one who knowing picks up a hot iron ball, ablaze and glowing, or one who not knowing picks it up?”

“Indeed, venerable sir, he who not knowing picks it up would get burned more.”

“Indeed, your majesty, in the same way the greater demerit is for him who does evil not knowing.”

“You are clever, venerable Nagasena.”


We have this text in SuttaCentral, by the way:

The question here is subtly different, which becomes clear if you look at the simile. In each case, a person picks up the hot iron knowingly, in the sense that they know that they are picking something up; but one of them does not know that it is hot.

So I think what this passage is saying is not that the action is unintentional: in both cases, they intend to do the action. It is about whether you recognize that the action is wrong. It seems to me that Nāgasena’s point here is that if you do wrong and you know that you are doing wrong, at least you have right view, and that means you may well make a different choice in the future. Whereas if you do wrong and don’t even know that it’s wrong, you haven’t even got basic right vuew and in the future you’ll continue to do wrong.

This relates to something that said from time to time, that the most ignorant of all the spiritual teachers are the ones who cannot even distinguish between good and bad.


OK, thank you Bhante, and point taken – yet even with unintentional actions there is intent in the bigger picture.

When I drive my car or fly in a plane or ride in a bus, I know there is a high likelihood of bugs being squashed or critters being hit. I don’t have an intention to kill, but I am reasonably certain that it will happen.

So I am not intentionally picking up a lone hot coal. What I am doing with intention is picking up a basket that I am reasonably certain contains, among other things, a hot coal.

So then are we back to the lump of salt simile? I.e. we want to make sure the basket we intentionally pick up that we know contains a hot coal is also packed with cooler items?

P.S. REALLY appreciating the opportunity to discuss these questions that I’ve had for over a decade!


Hi Claralynn!

If you live in a house, you can be certain that bugs were killed during the building of it. If you wear clothes, there is a strong possibility that during the whole manufacturing chain someone suffered. Even if you are a vegetarian, there is also a high likelihood that bugs and rodents were killed during the production of your food. As you can see, there is no end to thinking like that.

Of course we should minimize the negative impacts of our actions as best we can but at some point we just have to accept that there is no way to live in samsara without causing suffering.

The best thing we can do, is to become more mindful, more peaceful and happier people, then our negative impact on other beings tends to decrease all by itself. And that is very hard to do when we constantly worry about all the possible unintended consequences of our actions.

With metta,


Hi Claralynn,

the Dhamma talk has indeed been recorded - a ton of thanks and mettaa to the Dhammaloka Admin and all volunteers! Being located in Germany myself, I very much rely on the online talks (live and recorded). The recordings are a true blessing and very valuable to so many who want to learn the Dhamma. :smile:

The last Friday Night Talk by Bhante Sujato is available on the BSWA youtube channel:

On the main page of the BSWA youtube channel you usually find the Dhamma talks. You can scroll back to older talks via the slider below the main screen.

They also usually maintained an BSWA Sutta channel:

and an BSWA meditation channel:

When I want to follow a live-session, I usually go to the livestream web-page:

Friday night talks are on from
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this is 12:30 - 13:00 and 13:00 - 14:00 - Central European Time (including DST)
and 13:30 - 14:00 and 14:00 - 15:00 - Central European Time (summer time)

DST = Daylight Savings Time

On livestream I also follow the ongoing Perth live-sessions of this Early Buddhism Course - for the course dates please see the PDF with the course outline…
Sundays 12:30 - 14:00 (1. session) and 16:30 - 18:30 (2. session) - Perth time
this is 05:30 - 07:00 and 09:30 - 11:30 - Central European Time (including DST)
or 06:30 - 08:00 and 10:30 - 12:30 - Central European Time (summer time)

In the slider below the main screen (which will usually read “OFFLINE”, unless an online session is being broadcasted) you find most video recordings in a chronological order. (If a course should be on, but you still get “OFFLINE” try to refresh your browser.)
In that slider you also find the recording of this Sundays “Kamma & Rebirth wkshop 2, session 1”. It seems that session 2 of this workshop was not recorded (maybe by accident - well - its all work done by volunteers and I feel deep gratitude for all the good work they are already doing!).

(I guess you know already most of this, but I tried to expand my reply a bit, so that it can also be used by others. Let me know if you have any trouble with the links…)

Thanks again to Dhammaloka and with much mettaa and anjali,

Live streaming through Discourse

We can distinguish between the ethical and the existential. At an ethical level, we make whatever choices we can to minimize the harm and maximise the good we do. On the existential level, we understand that life in samsara will always entail suffering. Think of the story where the Bodhisatta saw the plough churning up the soil, and the birds coming down and eating all the worms. We do what we can, but it is never enough, hence enlightenment!

The good news is that practicing harmlessness is part of the path to awakening, so they are not, or should not, be conflicting goals.


I had thought about this post yesterday evening, but did not post it yet… Now after posting it, I just saw that in the meantime some of this has already been taken up and discussed in other “dicussion topics”… For anyone who is still interested, just read the main points in bold letters…

Dear Banthe,
many thanks for sharing this sharp observation.
I was not really so clear on this point.

My main inquiry is: Would it be possible, if during the course of the workshop you could highlight, which ethics in your opinion are essential for awakening.

What follows are some thoughts on how to bring our different perspectives on the discussion together, but a lot has now been covered in other “discussion topics”…

Thinking about your comment and the overall discussion, I realize that there are at least four perspectives on the topic, which played a role:

  1. (personal) Ethics from a viewpoint of a student of the Dhamma, who just wants to know how to find peace with the unavoidable harm that we indirectly cause other beings, just by being alive ourselves.
  2. Ethics from the viewpoint of the Early Buddhist Teachings
  3. Ethics from a wider viewpoint of philosophy in general (traditional and modern)
  4. The viewpoint on Buddhist ethics as an integral part in a balanced practice.

“Trying to find meaning in a meaningless world” (as Bhante Sujato mentioned), I guess I had tried to make all these different perspectives match (…or in other words erase condradictions between those). I guess, I had doubts and questions, because I sensed a dis-congruence of theses viewpoints (in the way I had understood them at the time).

I interpret your comment in such a way, that you first of all suggest to look at the precepts in a direct fashion (as one would do with any ‘law’). Going back to the basics, is a wellcome reminder! However, the doubt about the precepts was already part of the initial question: the question focussed on how to deal with the unavoidable harming of other beings, which constitutes an indirect infringement of the first precept. Admittedly, I understand Claralynns original question as being motivated by compassion for these harmed beings, which is a more noble standpoint, than just wanting to know if one can ‘condone’ that these beings are being harmed and still get away with it, i.e. still get enlightened, but to me this is a related line of argumentation. (‘to condone’ is a little bit too harsh here)

Looking at the examples you mention - vegetarianism and a habitual liar - I would discern them in the following way: For a layperson, I would think that the first precept mainly focusses on intentional harming of any being (with your own hands). To cause a being harm as a secondary effect within in a complex network of consequences, brought about by an act which has mostly wholesome intentions (such as maintaining your body to be able to practice the Dhamma), constitutes a ‘secondary infringement’ of the precept. The basic color of the intention would still be very wholesome. Since the Suttas describe laypersons who became stream-enterers and even arahats, the EBT position seems to be close to this.

Then again, your example of an habitual liar implies repeatedly and intentionally breaking the fourth precept. This would be a ‘first order infringement’, with the basic color of the intention being clearly unwholesome…

I would be very intersted to learn if your approach would be different.

However, apart from this discussion involving the thinking mind, I would also stress Raivo’s suggestion to “feel” one’s way through such issues when it comes to ones practice. When sitting in meditation then even as a beginner, I sometimes know that my mind was not calming down, because I did something unwholesome. Then again, if I cared for others, having had a mind with wholesome intention, I can usually also feel that wholesome quality in the meditation.
Sometimes, I am quite sad about the damage I cause and the way our planet is going down the drain, but I can also enjoy having done a little act of kindness, an act of caring, … of compassion, a shared smile, a kind word, …

So I would think, for ones practice it is very important no to drift off into denial as Bhante Sujato states:

on the other hand one should also not focus on the unwholesome side in an unbalanced way (see the story with homicidal monks after practicing body contemplation in an unbalanced way), but also to actively look for and enjoy the serenity that shines through all these abundant little acts (by others or ourselves) with wholsome qualities in our daily lifes… So if this is really dragging us down, then my two pence worth of advise would be to allow ourselfes to enjoy the path more.

If the world is really without meaning as Bhante Sujato says, then it is completely up to us to define the meaning for ourselves. As such, no meaning that we give the world is better than another: belief in a God, belief in materialism, the Jaina belief, belief in the Dhamma, … It may only be, that certain ‘meanings’ do not yield the expected results, put simply, it may be that they do not work as expected. What a blessing it is then, as Bhante Bramahli points out, that the Buddha passed on the Dhamma to us, which actually works, which keeps its promise, where meaning is given to things in such a way that the Dhamma - if correctly understood - leads to liberation. (I have no intention to judge any of these paths, I only have the feeling that the Dhamma works best for me…)

With much mettaa,


Dear Robert,

Yes, the idea of first order and second order infringement of the precepts seems about right to me. If an ethical issue really is a hindrance on the path, you can usually feel it, as you suggest. And it seems to me that second order ethical problems will generally have much less emotional impact than first order issues.

With metta.


Hi bhantes,
when I think of kamma, I consider it in terms of energy, action. So in physics, action and reaction are always equal and opposite. So any act gives energy outward, intentionally or unintentionally, and so that’s why I think even unintentional acts should produce result/reactive energy, which I call the result of kamma. So some time ago, i gave the example that if I hurt someone unintentionally, and she punches me in the face, as a result of my unintended action. Ie because of my action, even unintentionally, an reactive energy related to that comes back to me. And I called that kamma, and asked why that wasn’t considered as kamma. But it seems that when both bhantes replied my or other’s questions, you seem to use the word kamma to refer only to rebirth producing kamma, past or future rebirth. Is it correct? Also in AN6.63, when the Buddha talks about the diversity of kamma, he also really only refers to kamma in terms of rebirth. Is it what you mean when you talk about the result of kamma, as in only refers to the result in past lives/future rebirth?

Bhikkhu Bodhi gave this reference in AN6.63
The Chinese parallel, MĀ 111, at T I 600a23–24, says: “How does one understand kamma? There are two kinds of kamma: intention and the kamma created when one has intended.

So can I understand as intention gives the direction for the actions to focus its momentum? And when it is unintentional, we just follow our old past kammic energy (as “kamma created when one has intended”) or the energy of our environment at the time, so it loses its directional focusing force to give definite effect in a particular direction? Please correct my logic here. Assuming you agree with my line of reasoning above, is it more accurate to say that unintentional actions give unclear or can’t be linearly specified result (while intentional gives clearly related result), as opposed to saying that unintentional actions producing no rebirth related kamma?

Where I get stuck with this idea of unintentional actions produce no kamma is first of all, as how I started this message, it seems just scientific inaccurate to say that acting with energy produces no result, just because it’s unintentional. Energy must go somewhere, no? Secondly, it’s the fact that it’s obviously untrue, unless you only refer to rebirth related result. I say that because in some countries, if one kills somebody unintentionally, one still has to go to prison. And that seems to be clear enough cause and effect. And we know that in many day to day encounters as well. Like I said, if I hurt someone through my actions, unintentionally, there still seems to be result seemingly directly related to my specific action. So how can one says that unintentional actions give no kammic result at all? Thirdly then, why does the result of kamma only refers to rebirth? I mean assuming that’s what you mean. I mean rebirth is just a station in the process of kammic energy flowing, right? Why doesn’t the result of kamma in this very life also referred to as kamma?

And lastly, I am uncomfortable with the implication that when we talk about unintentional acts don’t produce, it’s as if in that case it’s ok. It implies that no further effort is needed. I mean, there are quite a few rules in the patimokkha that it’s an offence, even when there’s no intention – such as receiving money, or the ones relating to food. And maybe one would say that it’s because of convention. But somehow I feel that we are encouraged to help each other to be awakened to truth and to discourage lax attitude in attentiveness and care, which I previously referred to as a form of moha, because to me it’s similar to sloth and torper ( I mean similar in the kind of lack of application of energy). And thank you Ajahn Brahmali for pointing out the shades of grey in terms of kamma. That’s very insightful. And I do want to again clarify, is this kind of lax attitude in attentiveness., or this attitude of “if it’s unintentional then no need to confess before it’s just a matter of convention to keep up with the form of the Vinaya” unwholesome? How does it relate to kamma as we have been discussing above?
I hope I will get less confused by the end of this! Until then thanks for bearing with me. Thank you for your help.
Big Metta


Hi Shirley!

I’m sure the Bhantes will respond as well but in the meantime I will also attempt to clarify some things for you.

The Buddha said that the fruits of our kamma can ripen in three “places” - in this life (referred to in the suttas as here and now), in our next life or in one of our lives after that. So clearly kamma doesn’t only mean rebirth producing actions. Rebirth producing kamma is often singled out because the aim of the buddhist path is to end rebirth and consequently suffering.

Secondly, allthough it is true that we perform all kinds of actions (release all kinds of energy, create all kinds of potentials) and experience all kinds of phenomena, when the Buddha talked about kamma, he only referred to our ethical actions, that is actions by mind, speech and body that have some kind of ethical consideration (good/bad) behind them.

The way I understand this, is that kamma either is intention (a mental action) or the subsequent (mental, verbal or physical) action we perform out of that intention. We intend to harm and then because of that we express our intention through some harmful action.

So while our unintentional actions do have results, deep down we don’t consider those actions as OUR actions and therefore don’t feel the need to get punished for them (for example when we review our life after death with a bit more clarity of mind).

So please don’t think I’m saying that we should go out causing harm to others through our heedlessness. Making sure we live our life as harmlessly as possible is in itself good kamma. All I am saying, is that feeling guilty about the results of your unintentional actions is not that helpful and it could be considered as ill-will towards yourself, which is bad kamma.

Actually, feeling guilty about our intentional actions is not that helpful either. In both cases, we should first acknowledge our action and notice that the result wasn’t pleasant or peaceful and then forgive ourselves and try to do our best to avoid such an action in the future. So the old AFL code by Ajahn Brahm - Acknowledge, Forgive, Learn.

With metta.


It would also be good if the Bhantes elaborated on the meaning of “intentional” in a buddhist context. While we can do what we want, we can’t want what we want, so where do we draw the line?

If we abandon personality view at stream-entry, could any of our subsequent actions be considered as intentional? It seems to me that after that point we would just be automatically acting out of old habits (which had actually always been the case). Or do we forget the insight after taking up another existance until we re-experience it and therefore consider our actions intentional again?

Or is intention just a name we give to a part of an automatic non-self process that makes the mind move?

May you all be happy and well!


Dear Bhante,
many thanks again for your answer. Now, while going through the reading material for the next workshop, I found your Sutta Class on MN41 - Saaleyyaka Sutta

where you did address similar questions as we discussed here. (I post the corresponding link here, because maybe it is of interest to others following this course. I found the talk a nice complement to our discussion here.)

Thanks so much again and with much mettaa,