Karma of Negligence

Firstly my respects to Venerables Sujato and Brahmali and many thanks to everyone who has made this series possible.

It has been made very clear to me that karma is intentional action. I was wondering whether the Buddha ever talked about karma in reference to a failure to act, for example, in the context of a duty-bound relationship, or where failure to act may foreseeably lead to harm?

This has been puzzling me because in civil law countries like France, there is a duty, for example, for a strong swimmer to rescue a drowning child. In common law countries like Australia (except NT) there is no such general duty because it would impose on people’s freedom. Would pushing someone into a lake be karmically different to watching them drown without helping?

I know the discussion on Claralynn’s post (karma of unintentional actions) indicated that karma may not be useful as a complete ethical system but any thoughts would be appreciated.

1 Like

I seems that the suttas almost always use the same stock phrasing when talking about wholesome and unwholesome actions. I don’t remember any occasions where the Buddha talked about kamma in that way but maybe the venerable monks can point out some EBT where he does.

I guess if we think of kamma as intention, it really doesn’t matter if we act out of harmful intention or don’t act out of harmful intention, in any case it’s the harmful intention that makes the kamma bad kamma.

So pushing someone into a lake with the intention to kill them would be much worse than pushing someone into a lake for “fun”. Similarly, watching someone drown without helping because you want them to die would be much worse than watching someone drown without helping because you can’t swim. All those cases would be karmically different.


Very interesting question Jacqueline.

For clarification: could you possibly explain 1. what is the difference between a civil law country and common law country; 2. how these differences would come to be; 3. whether you consider either of these models to be pertinent to society at the time of the Buddha?

My interest stems from understanding how different responsibilities conveyed to us as young and impressionable citizens conditions our thinking and actions as we grow up.


This is a classical ethical problem, but I wasn’t aware that the law was so different!

But to answer your question, yes, sometimes non-doing can be regarded as intentional action.

A very clear example is given in the introduction (nidāna) of the Patimokkha, where it is describes how the monks are to behave while the Patimokkha is recited.

Tuṇhībhāvena kho panāyasmante parisuddhāti vedissāmi. Yathā kho pana pac­ce­ka­puṭṭhassa veyyākaraṇaṃ hoti, evamevaṃ
evarūpāya parisāya yāvatatiyaṃ anussāvitaṃ hoti. Yo pana bhikkhu yāvatatiyaṃ anussāviyamāne saramāno santiṃ āpattiṃ nāvikareyya, sam­pajā­na­musā­vādassa hoti.

By remaining silent the venerables make known their purity. Just like one would answer when questioned individually, in the same way in this kind of assembly one is informed three times. If a monk, when informed up to the third time, does not declare an offence they remember, this is a deliberate lie.

So here it is very explicit: not speaking is a deliberate lie.


Sadhu Bhante that is extremely helpful.

I am not an expert but there are a few differences: civil law is code-based, whereas common law relies more heavily on judgments from previous cases. In practice, the differences don’t tend to be so large. Civil law systems developed from Roman law, which had a pre-existing code, whereas common law systems developed from the customary practices of Saxon law. The development of the vinaya can be compared to the case-by-case development of common law. Maybe there’s some link there to the customs of Magadha. Besides the references to law and social order in suttas like the Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta, the Aggañña Sutta, or even the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, and in the vinaya, I don’t think the Buddha has been recorded as discussing secular law in any depth.

I did think of one other thing. Kings at the time of the compilation of the suttas made use of corporal punishment. One of the main functions of the harsh punishments in ancient times was deterrence; now we have policing and a higher rate of incarceration, the deterrence value of punishment isn’t as important. In the Devaduta Sutta, King Yama talks about the harsh punishments that criminals face in this life as a warning for punishment in the hereafter. This suggests a link between hell & worldly punishment in popular imagination, even if its conceptual usefulness is limited to its deterrence value.

To add to Bhante’s example of Paatimokkha, I read a sutta yesterday talking about right speech gave the example that if a judge asked you if you witnessed some action, and you remained silent even though you did witness the action then that’s considered “lying”.

Indeed. And, one would presume, to the Sakyans.

No, but there are enough scattered references to glean some interesting insights.

Interesting point; isn’t there a story about Ashoka and some kind of constructed hell-imitation? Such things are found today, as a kind of gruesome theme park in Buddhist countries; maybe in the old days the links between hell and secular punishment were more than just literary or imaginative.

This is so interesting Jacqueline, thank you, looks like I’ve got a bit of extra homework to do!

Could I ask: what’s your opinion of
(a) AN 3.36 - three divine messangers - do you think that ‘heedlessness’ is the same as negligence? (not sure what the Pali words are & whether they are synonomous)
(b) AN 3.100 - salt simile - the dilution effect is readily understood, however do you consider there is any evidence of double standards in the society of the day ie one law for the rich and one for the poor?


Dear Nicola,

(1) I think one of interesting things about AN3:36 is that Yāma is not actually judging you; he is just reminding you of what you have done. Presumably, then, you judge yourself. This is very similar to what seems to happen during near death experiences, when people have life reviews. You remember what you have done, and you then judge yourself as a consequence. We send ourselves to the destination we think we deserve!

(2) I would say the evidence is quite clearly. This sort of discrimination seems to be written into the fabric of existence!

With metta.