Kamma of unintentional actions


Dear Shirley,

Raivo already gave quite a comprehensive reply, so I just wanted to bring a few relevant quotes from some of the Bhantes replies to your attention and add a discussion of your example. (My appologies if you saw the quoted posts yourself in the meantime):

I agree with you that everything we do has a consequence, but kamma, is determined by the ethical dimension of the action as Raivo said, even though trying to work out the inner workings of kamma may be limited by the concepts we have at our disposition:

So, if you took all sensible precautions (looked that nobody was close by that could get hurt) and afterwards grab your bag from the overhead compartment and while taking it down hit your ellbow on someones nose, then that action has consequences, but not kammic ones. Maybe the person saw that you were reaching for the overhead compartment. Then, they became impatient and thought that they too should get up and get their stuff sorted. So they manouvered themselves in an unfortunate position. Where could then be your “fault” in this situation. It could still be of course, that the person goes into denial of their own unthoughtful action and yell at you or punch you in the face (though in my experience ususally both sides just utter an embarrased “Sorry! Are you ok?” in such a situation). Then being punched in the face is the fruit (vipaaka) of having been born into the human realm with lots of fellow beeings that are lost in greed, hatred and delusion(*). It is also clearly a consequence to your action, albeit not an ethical one. Also, your feeling of guilt about having hurt the other person will be small, apart from the usual desire to try to avoid such a mishap in the furture. There may also be compassion for the other persons pain.
On the other hand, if you are talking about negligence or even gross negligence (so that you wittingly did not even take the minimum required precautions and hence condoned the harm and damage to others), then of course you are making the kamma of having been neglectful. Negligence is for example also punished by penal consequences in German law. Still, the kamma you are making by negligence it is not the kamma of intentionally banging your ellbow into someones face and you will not feel as guilty as if you had done that in a spur of rage:

So, I did not understand the Bhantes in a way that such unintenional actions have no consequence at all, but the kammic implications for you depend on the stat of your mind, when you did the action. Of course, if greed, hatred or delusion were dominant in the mind, then the kamma is unwholesome. And I agree with you that delusion can express itself as wrong view or negligence.

Maybe also have a look at the Sutta Talk on MN 41 by Bhante Brahmali, which I posted above.

As Raivo pointed out, usually the Bhantes and also Ajahn Brahm seem to try to teach the Dhamma in such a way, that the typical guilt trips are avoided (typical in western culture, where many people who start on the spiritual path have the tendency to overreact). This still means that you have to make an effort to avoid such problems in the future, but the emphasis is on learning and not on blaming.

Regarding your example about food or receiving money by monastics. There is the description of one occasion in the Suttas, when queen Mallikaa (king Pasenadi’s spiritual mother) (? hope I got her name right ?) wanted to go to a festivity fully dressed with garments and jewlery. However, in a spur of the moment, she decided to visit the Buddha instead. Since she thought it was inappropriate to wear her jewlery in front of the monks, she took it off and put it in a bag. After the Buddhas talk she was so inspired that she just forgot the bag with the extremley precious jewlery which was later found by Ananda. He then asked the Buddha what to do. He did not want to touch the jewlery because he thought he would commit an offence, but the Buddha said, that it was ok for him to take the jewlery in order to return it to the queen. So, if a monk finds money in the meditation hall, they can put it away, so that the owner can later retrieve it. Also, if someone would place money in a monks bag without the monk knowing (e.g. when the bag was unattended), this would not be an offence on behalf of the monk. Of course the monk would then have to ask, who the owner of the money is. The money could then be given to the treasurer and if nobody reclaims it after some time, it could be used as a donation for the whole monestary (I guess). The important part here is, I think, that the monk does not knowingly accepts money for his own comfort.

With much mettaa,

(*) Ajahn Brahm said the following a few times. "When we are reborn into the human realm, we sign a contract which includes in small print: ‘Here you can die at any time for any reason or no reason at all.’ "
That a person dies is first of all the kammic fruit (vipaaka) of having been born in the first place. That a person, for example, dies in an accident is the kammic fruit of having been reborn with a fragile human body. However, the rest of the web of conditions that lead up to the accident and ultimately to death of the person may simply have been bad luck (unless it was intention or avoidable negligence on behalf of the some participent in the accident).
Being born as a human being implies that we have senses with limited range and precision. Moreover, even though our senses are already quite limited, there is no way we can be mindful of the full stream of information of all senses at the same time. Hence, we can always only have an incomplete picture of the world around us and we are limited by our bodys with respect to the possible responses. That is the reason why we say that some events are accidents. Things just come together in such a way that it is impossible for an average human being to avoid harming effects.
I think Ajahn Brahm said once that even an Arahant cannot be mindful of all information from all senses at the same time! So even though an Arahant will be deeply rooted in yoniso manasikara (i.e. thorough or wise attention) in every action, he can still end up in a mishap.
Also, consider the example where the Buddha tought the monks the contemplation of the body and the monks ended up commiting suicide (or asking the game keeper to kill them…). I am sure, we would all agree that the Buddha taught that meditation practice with the best of intentions. Also, this meditation is very beneficial if practiced correctly. According to the story, the Buddha then went on a retreat, where he obviously had no idea about what the monks were doing with his teaching. When he returned and found out that the number of monks was quite depleted, he simply adjusted and tought another practice. So even the Buddha could not forsee everything and even he could be misunderstood. (If he could have made himself fully understood to everone whom he met, then they all should have become fully enlightened after hearing one teaching.)


*Thanks for pointing out the small print Robert, I had a feeling there was something I hadn’t noticed! nicola
ps liked the rest of your logic also


Dear Shirley,

Raivo and Robert have already replied to most of your questions, and I just want to add a few points.

Exactly, these are conventional rules, and they do not imply that doing that action is bad kamma in itself. (Although it could be bad kamma to break the rule, if it is your intention to deliberately do so.)

Yes, lack of attentiveness and care is sometimes an outcome of delusion and as such the kamma you create will be greyish. But even if you take the best of care you will not be able to attend to all things around you. In other words, sometimes accidents will happen, including the hurting of others, even if your mindfulness is absolutely sharp and there is no delusion. In such cases there is no bad kamma, or even grey kamma, but just the unfortunate result of human life being inherently painful, at least some of the time.

With metta.


Dear Brahmali,

Exactly, these are conventional rules, and they do not imply that doing that action is bad kamma in itself. (Although it could be bad kamma to break the rule, if it is your intention to deliberately do so.)

1.If somebody breaks it intentionally … what can be the motivation and why is it bad kamma?

2.Can you please explain the term , strength of actions" - bad,grey and good actions in Buddhism? how can we know the strength of them?

3.Is fantasising has a kammic potentional or we we have to act out things to have a kammic consequence?

Thank you!

With metta.


Dear Samma,

(1) One might intentionally break the monastic rules for a number of reasons, but it would almost always be based on defilements. When you become a monastic you are agreeing to abide by the rule of conduct for monastics. By not doing so you are not fulfilling your obligations. The reasons why one might break the rules include stubbornness or conceit (your sense of self gets in the way), desire or anger (you are not able to restrain yourself), delusion (you convince yourself it’s ok). No doubt one could add to this list, but because the motivation is almost invariably bad, the kamma must be bad too.

(2) Take generosity: it is rarely completely pure. We often give expecting the other person to remember the act or at least appreciate us. If this doesn’t happen, it is common for people to get upset. Or perhaps we give hoping for a positive kammic result. Or we might give because we are just following the Buddhist tradition, and there might be some peer pressure. In all of these case there is a bit of desire bound up with the giving and so it is not pure. This sort of giving is a light shade of grey and it leads to results that are a light shade of grey, such as rebirth as a human or one of the lower heavenly realms.

Another example might be getting angry with someone because they don’t do as they’re told and so you shout at them. In this case you may be partly motivated by wanting to help the person, but a big part of the motivation is the anger. This sort of act would probably be a dark shade of grey, and on its own would lead to results that have a dark shade of grey, perhaps rebirth as an animal.

The point is that most of our actions are complex in this sense; they tend to be different shades of grey. It is rare that we do acts that are entirely bad (such as killing someone because we hate them or sadistically hurting another person), but it is equally rare that we do acts that are entirely good, such as giving with an entirely pure heart, which can really only happen after samādhi.

You know the shade of grey by knowing the quality of your mind. This takes a lot of self-knowledge, which realistically can only be gained through meditation. In the meantime, you just do your best. It is important not to set the bar too high, otherwise you will lose heart.

(3) If you act it out it is much worse, but fantasising is also best avoided. How do you feel if you fantasise about killing someone? If you notice that you feel less positive or bright than normal, you know the kamma is not good. One of the essential things on the Buddhist path is to gradually change the way we think. But again, please don’t set the bar too high, or you will just get very frustrated and perhaps even give up.

With metta.


Dear Ajahn

I’ve always been confused about the distinction between motivation and intention. The confusion is getting a tiny tiny bit, slightly clearer, for which I’m very grateful! My apologies for asking what may be such an obvious question, but could you please write a little more about the distinction between these two and how (and if) knowing about this kind of thing might be of use on the Path?

Many thanks.


Dear Bhantes and all

I just want to say how grateful I am for this forum and the Kamma and Rebirth course and these kinds of threads… Thank you so much!

It’s nice to see that there’s always something to be learned in this Dhamma! 20 odd years of practice…and I didn’t realise how my notion of kamma, despite the fact that I thought I reflected on it in a ‘cause and effect’ sense, was so coloured by deep seated notions of fatalism tied up with guilt and a sense of self seeking punishment or agrandizement!!

The quite specific sense in which kamma is presented by both Ajahns in the course, was to me, a rather free-ing sort of thing to listen to. A sort of relief. Because, it meant the responsibility for what I do with what I’ve got now, is in my own hands.

I mean, that whole, ‘one is the heir of one’s kamma’…used to only ever frighten the dickens out of me cos of the fact that on some level I was viewing it with some sort of fatalism… But actually, you’ve made me see that this means that I can actively work in a wholesome way…take responsibility for my salvation. That feels kind of huge for me.

Despite the fact that the negative tendencies can be overwhelmingly difficult to deal with, I feel that there is a genuine hope. ‘Hope’ in the sense of, there’s a small chance of gradually doing something about it. And latching on to that view is like latching onto a life line.

I never really ‘got’ Ajahn Brahm’s story about the two bakers baking cakes…one with good ingredients and one with bad. A really simple story…one would think I’d have gotten it! But no…! I feel like, on a reflective level anyway, I finally get it! Hooray for this small victory along the way!! :slight_smile:

I’m going to continue to listen/try and attend the course because I deliberately want to brainwash myself into feeling more empowered and thus energise and motivate and inspire myself to keep practicing in the right direction…I’ll try and take all the help I can get!! Thank you very much.

With much gratitude to all.


Dear Kay,

Your intention is what you are aiming at. Say you want to give to charity and then decide to do so: your intention is then to make such a gift. Or say you decide to keep the five precepts. Your intention is to keep the five precepts.

Motivation is the reason why you are doing these things. For instance, why are you giving to charity? Is it just because it feels good to give? If so, that’s a very pure motivation, since it’s based on compassion for other people or just the positive spiritual feeling that you know is a result of giving. However, if you give because you want your peers to see what a wonderful person you are, then the motivation includes quite a bit of desire. The giving is still likely to be good, but less so than if the motivation is more pure.

Generally, the Buddha distinguished between six sorts of motivation: greed, hatred and delusion, and their opposites, non-greed, non-hatred and non-delusion. These are the forces that make us act and that colour our intentions.

With metta.


Dear Bhante

The above statement reminds me of something similiar you said recently at the last workshop. About how, if you feel angry, that is not the same as actively cultivating angry feelings. I think it was something like this that you said.

I find this very very interesting and have been reflecting on this a lot lately…I must say with a feeling of massive relief!!! The amount of guilt I can easily conjure up to compound simple emotions that arise has been, to put it mildly, a significant difficulty…over the years!

It seems then, that the mental aspect of kamma, which is so key, is something that is charged with a degree of awareness or consciousness - regardless of whether it stems from ignorance or not; it seems then that mental kamma, must, be a very active thing? Please tell me if I’ve gone and got the wrong end of the stick here…

Actually, now I’m remember that phrase: ‘actions of body, speech and mind’…actions of mind…and kamma being defined as action. I think perhaps I’ve got the right end of the stick; what do you reckon Bhante? Have I understood your statements?

I hope so 'cos it really, really takes the pressure off when one feels grumpy!! And somehow then the grumpy-ness doesn’t seem to last so long… Actually…perhaps, that in itself (that the grump-ness goes quicker) is an indicator that I’m on to something useful… Regardless, I’m looking forward to hearing what you will say, Bhante.

Wow! These little details are potentially mind blowing!!

With metta


Dear Ajahn Brahmali

Thank you very much. This makes it much clearer.

If I may ask a follow up question: From what you have said, it appears that intention is the primary kamma making aspect and motivation is sort of a secondary aspect; perhaps motivation is an aspect that influences the subtleties of the final results of the kamma. Would this be accurate?

Thank you.


Hi Kay!

I’m not sure if I totally understood what you were saying but I just wanted to add my two cents.

As buddhists, we know that getting angry for example is harmful to both us and others around us. And knowing that, it’s pretty easy to get angry about getting angry, thinking: “I shouldn’t be doing this. This is bad kamma. I’m going to pay for this etc.”

If we really look at what’s going on, getting angry or feeling guilty about our negative states of mind really solves nothing and often even makes things worse. The reason negative states come up in us, isn’t because we are bad beings who want to create havoc in the world, but because we are used to respond like that to situations not to our liking.

Since we have been reinforcing those unbeneficial habits for decades and probably even lifetimes (basically out of not knowing and not seeing), it’s totally impossible to break them with the snap of a finger and start acting differently just because we know we should. We can be sure there will be times when our mindfulness will be low and we fall back into our unwholesome habits again. I think we should just accept that and forgive ourselves when that happens.

Now as buddhists we should also find out what greed, hatred and delusion are fed by and what has to exist in us in order for those unskillful states to pop up in our mind. And then we should systematically undermine those qualities in us and destroy the foundation for the unskillful states. Basically we should develop the Noble Eightfold Path as best we can.

Then we can just be glad that we are slowly becoming a better person and also know that there’s really not much more we could be doing - there’s no use in beating ourselves up just because we’ve made such a mess of ourselves in the past out of stupidity. Now we know better, now we are making a better future for us.

Again, not sure if this corresponds to what you were saying but I just felt like sharing these thoughts. :smiley:

With metta,


Hi Kay, hi Raivo,

thanks to both of you for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I can very well relate to the subject you, Kay, were writing about. I guess, to varying degrees, we are all experiencing this problem.

Reading your post - while I am not sure I fully understood all details of your question - I was thinking along similar lines as Raivo and I try to work with my mind on this issue in pretty much the same way as he described it:
When I watch myself (practicing wise attention, or yoniso mansaikara, in the subway or so) I try to see the Non-Self nature of the five Khandas (form, feeling, perception, mental formations, consciousness) and there I frequently have to deal with stupid (or unwholesome) emotions and thoughts that pop-up in my mind. When this happens, I try to see that these mental formations are Non-Self. I try to see these like pieces of wood that are being thrown into a lake. The wood will make waves in the lake and after submerging, it will pop-up again. There is no point being angry, that there are waves. There is no point trying to even out the waves by wiping our hands through the water. There is also no point being angry that the wood pops up. Trying to pop them on the head angrily, just makes them pop up again somewhere else. This is just the nature of water.
Likewise, lots of stupid thoughts, emotions, and other ways of dealing with problems have been thrown into the lake of my mind for years. Sure, they will pop-up here and there and there will be waves. That is just the nature of this mind.
I just started trying to experiment with sense restraint as an aspect of wise attention, though I am not sure yet how to practice that in the right way. My idea is, that I am not inviting so many unwholesome pieces of wood being thrown into my mind and if some nevertheless plunge into the lake, I just try to let them be. (This would correspond to Raivo’s mentioning of the noble eigthfold path, i.e. Right Intention, which is an inclination to seclusion & renunciation - foremost mental seclusion & renunciation).

All similies have their limitations, but this is close to what I wanted to say. Also, I am myself just starting to try to deal with these things.

With much mettaa,


Hi Robert, just wanted to comment a bit on sense restraint.

It’s been my personal experience that actually actively restraining or repressing my senses while living among hundreds of daily temptations doesn’t work. It may seem to be effective for a couple of weeks but then everything comes back with a vengeance. Part of it seems to be just tiring myself out and part of it the ever louder whispers of Mara, saying “You’ve been so good, don’t you think you deserve a little treat?” :smiley: And then when I break I really tend to binge. It’s like an endless yo-yo diet.

What really seems to make a lasting difference, is countering the automatic positive aspects of an experience with possible negative aspects and vice versa.

So when I see an attractive woman or even certain beautiful parts of a not so attractive woman, I find that I have absolutely no control over my eye fixing it’s attention on that beautiful form. Then I remind myself that that beautiful body won’t last like that for more than ten or twenty years and that there’s a lot of freedom to be lost if I were to pursue that sense pleasure. Thinking of over-the-top similies like trading the ability to walk for a beautiful ice sculpture also helps put things into perspective for me.

This reprogramming of my natural urges is pretty slow but it also seems to be the only thing that works in the long term. I guess experiencing a jhana might blow a lot of sense desires away at one fell swoop but that’s just a theory at the moment.

In the suttas where the gradual training is mentioned, I do get the impression that one should just not pay attention to sense objects conducive to covetousness and grief but what I’m wondering is if those sentences are just headers for the above described process and sense restraint isn’t really something you do but something that happens. Hopefully the Bhantes can comment on this.

With metta,


Hi Raivo,

thanks so much for sharing your experiences! Actually, again I am trying very similar things! :slight_smile: I got a fair share of my inspiration from reading in Bhikkhu Anaalayo’s “Perspectives on Satipatthaana”. There are many good quotes, similies and explanations based on the Early Buddhist Texts, but then again trying to work out the details of the practice and cultivate it is not so easy. So, some advice from the Bhantes would be very welcome.

I also experiment with ‘asubha practice’ to counter sensual desire. I had some problems meditating after forcing me through long periods of sitting on a retreat. Obviously, I had developed ill-will towards the meditation. Unfortunately, that ill-will got quite strong and remained after the retreat. Then I changed my formal practice to only do mettaa meditation (which helped a lot to overcome the ill-will). However, then my sensual desire seemed to get much stronger. Or maybe I just became more aware of it. Anyways, I would see for example details of some womans hair like a snapshot of an image taken of some female deva’s hair in heaven. :slight_smile: (pretty much how you describe it) …and I was a bit upset about that…
So now I always try to stay with some part of the attention rooted in the body. This already takes care of some of the desire to go out there and experience it all. If sensual desire is nevertheless on the rise, then I focus on my skeleton, or on my intestines, or the contents of my intestines, or any other of the ‘anatomical parts’. Or I imagine how my ‘body decays’, or I imagine my body on the cellular level. Or I imagine to see the skeletons of the other people. Or I try to analyze that I am just looking at head hair, body hair, teeth, nails or skin. (…basically I am just experimenting still…)
In any case, like you I also find, that the asubha practice works in that sensual desire is reduced for the time my attention moves away from the aspect of beauty to those other aspects. Also, I usuallay focus on my skeleton when I do the mettaa practice, so I am not repelled by the image of a skeleton (it often has a nice glow), but I also have no unwholesome sensual desire invested in it.
It feels a bit awkward that I cannot interact with the same kindness with all beings at the moment, because sometimes, I am too busy dealing with arising unwholesome mind states (*). Sometimes I feel like I am being a bit unfriendly if I do this practice, because usually I enjoy interacting kindly and joyfully with others, for example exchanging a kind smile (if the opportunity arises naturally). So its a bit stupid, but I guess, this just shows how much I stand at the beginning of the path and how much I still have to learn… and I agree that this “reprogramming of the natural urges”, as you put it, does seem to take its time. Then again, without trying to find a way it would never change.

My sincere thanks again for this discussion and with much mettaa,

ADDED 2015-03-23: (reformulated some sentences in this post to better reflect my position)

  • Actually, as I am going throug this post, it appears to me that my interaction with others is always conditioned. So sometimes purity of the heart arises and the interaction is purer and sometimes any defilement (not just sensual desire) may arise depending on the conditions and then the interaction is less pure. In any case my initial ‘sadness’ about not always beeing able to interact with all beings in a totally pure way at all times is foolish. This is just the way interactions will be as long as the mind has not been purified.


Hi guys, don’t you feel that that kind of restrain can lead to self hatred and bitterness?
With metta, Alona.


Hi Lola,

so far that was not the case. I think, for me with that particular set of defilements, it is important to balance the practice of the four Brahmavihaaras and the asubha practice. I would skip the asubha practice, if I knew a better way to deal with some of the unskillfull responses of my mind. Anyways, the practice is also in the Buddha’s repertoire (according to the EBT), so there very likely is a healthy way to cultivate it.

So far the practice works in that it is actually quite nice to have some part of my attention rooted in the body (I use a region in the lower abdomen which I know as Dan Tian from some Qi Gong practice I have done in the past). Also, as I said, I try to do the practice in a way that I am not going over board in the direction of ill-will and hatred. In one Sutta the Buddha compares analyzing the anatomical parts of the body with investigating a bag full of grains or beans that has openings on both ends. Grains or beans are usually neither particularly attractive nor repulsive. Hence, the Buddha obviously envisaged an equanimous approach.
Also, thanks to the mettaa practice I can give attention of a higher quality to more people, than I was able to do before. I guess over time the combination of both practices will help me to have a more healthy and balanced interaction with all people. (I can hopefully tell you in a few years… :slight_smile: )

With much mettaa,


Dear all,

Thank you for this wonderful discussion and sharing of experiences. Similarly, I have gone through some of the experiences above. From my experience, when I wasn’t mindful, restraining can lead to suppressing. It’s the the negativity (fault-finding) that leads to ill effects. I noticed that when I told myself “I shouldn’t be feeling or thinking this way” it actually fed it more (anger eating demon simile) making it stronger and stronger. But when I told myself it is okay, this is natural of having the senses and having a body (with it’s hormones, etc.), and then remind myself that I have the option to not pursue the feelings, then it subsides. I also tell myself not to feel guilty about feeling such things. No one is at fault.

Tools that can be used for sensual lust or fantasies:
-ensure you are well rested and healthy (tiredness results in low mindfulness/awareness) :expressionless:
-complications of a relationship and the eventual conflict as a result :tired_face:
-old age, sickness, death (do you really want to add more problems to already what you have?) :disappointed:
-compassion (towards yourself and the other person, 'cos both of you are going through the same thing) :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:
-that sensual lust is an addiction one should be weaned from :grimacing:
-remind yourself that you are practicing to be an ariya:smile:
-love for the dhamma and where it could lead you :heart_eyes:


May all beings be free,


Dear Kay,

I think it is probably better to say that every intention comes with a motivation, and you cannot have an intention unless it is motivated by something. You could say that your intention is “coloured” by your motivation, and the sort of kamma you are making will depend on that colour. In other words, intention and motivation are just different aspects of a single state of mind. In fact when Buddhists use the expression intention they tend to mean just this: intention together with the motivation that colours it.

With metta.


Dear Raivo,

I think you are onto something very important here. In my reading of the suttas sense restraint is more about wisdom than will power. Will power, as you suggest, can only be maintained for so long, and it is a bit painful at the same time. Wisdom is seeing things clearly and as such the mind just turns away by itself, and very little will power is required. Please have a look at MN19. It seems to me that this sutta is saying precisely that wisdom is the way to overcome the defilements. AN2:11-13 too are interesting in this regard.

With metta.

How to practice Sense Restraint? (guarding the sense doors)

Hi Lola!

Yes, every time I’ve tried cutting out all (or really most) sense pleasures at once, I’ve become very irritable and I’ve given it up in a matter of weeks. It is just because of those experiences, I decided to take the approch described above in my two last posts - dont tackle the unwholesome kamma head on, but work on it’s causes.

It’s getting harder and harder to have greedy thoughts about material stuff, when I feel it has less and less value. It’s getting harder and harder to have angry thoughts towards other people and myself when I know more and more that it doesn’t solve anything and only feeds the process. Not that sure about delusion, but I guess that really is the part I’m working on…

I’ve also seen from personal experience that the earlier I catch my unwholesome mental proliferation, the easier it is to move the train of thought in a wholesome direction. There’s less and less need to supress anything and things mostly just fall away after I acknowledge their presence (I know you, Mara! :stuck_out_tongue:).

With metta,