MN120, Determinations in the dhamma

This sutta suggests that making a determination to attain Nibbana will result in it.

I thought I read another sutta stating that making such determinations doesn’t work.

Any thoughts?

The key message of the MN120 in regards to the role of intention and determination in the process of rebirth is summarised in the following:

So taṃ cittaṃ dahati,
taṃ cittaṃ adhiṭṭhāti,
taṃ cittaṃ bhāveti.
Tassa te saṅkhārā ca
vihārā ca
evaṃ bhāvitā
evaṃ bahulīkatā
tatrupapattiyā saṃvattanti.

Which may be simplified as:

By bearing it in the mind
by directing thoughts to it,
by developing that thought,
thus one intends and thus one abides,
further thus one develops and one prioritizes
by this way such and such (way of )existence eventuates.

(Pali experts please correct me if I made any wrong sense of the words here!!)

I see the above as a beautiful summary of the process which makes actions effective across liferimes, hence the big picture of kamma amidst de dependent origination of rebirth.

Now, the end of kamma is as well the end of suffering, and the way to it is the eightfold path. And we know that it is a possibility that rebirth in sublime states may preceed the fruition of arahantship as the development of the path takes place - i.e. this being the case of anagamis.

I think this is what the Buddha was probably talking about in the discourse we find recorded in MN120.

If ones intend towards the path, in a skilled way, the acts involved turn effective towards that goal. This means that by intending towards the third and fourth enobbling tasks having the target constantly refined by the first two enobbling tasks the knowledge and vision of liberation is eventually eventuated, while at the same time actions remain effective in terms of shaping rebirth(s) up to the cessation of it altogether.

This is what we find in AN4.237:

“And what is kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result, leading to the ending of kamma?
Right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.
This is called kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result, leading to the ending of kamma.

Interestingly, we find this interesting passage below in the sutta just after - possibly indicating that the seven awakening factors are, at least from this specific perspective, analogous to the cultivation/development of the eightfold path!

Bhikkhus, what are neither dark nor bright actions with neither dark nor bright results which conduces to the destruction of actions?
Here, bhikkhus, a certain one develops the awakening factors of mindfulness, investigation of the Teaching, effort, joy, delight, concentration and equanimity.

Does it make sense to you?

P.S.: An interesting read on this topic is found in this link:


Rebirth (Bhava) is the result of Thanha. (Kama, Bhava, Vibhava)
Then there should be Upathdana as well. (taking object as I, me and myself)
The way I understand determination to attain Nibbana is considered Chanda hence not qualify as Thanha or Upathdana.
However there are some Buddhist take Nibbna as another consciousness. I am not sure what the destination of those people.

Maybe you’re thinking of SN 22.101?

Bhikkhus, when a bhikkhu does not dwell devoted to development, even though such a wish as this might arise in him: ‘Oh, that my mind might be liberated from the taints by nonclinging!’ yet his mind is not liberated from the taints by nonclinging. For what reason? It should be said: because of nondevelopment. Because of not developing what? Because of not developing the four establishments of mindfulness … the four right strivings … the four bases for spiritual power … the five spiritual faculties … the five powers … the seven factors of enlightenment … the Noble Eightfold Path.

To me, MN 120, that you cited, describes a much stronger mental factor than the iccha described in the sutta I cited here. Iccha seems in this case to be more of an idle wish, while the saṅ­khā­ra of MN 120 seems to be much stronger and more intentional, leading to taking action.


I am not sure if @Mat is trying to tackle the subject first from the framework of MN120. If that is the case, the misunderstanding Nibbana for a alternative state of consciousness could be addressed by examining what the MN120 presents as a synonym for it.

And the way I read this sutta tells me that Nibbana could be as well framed as the non-origination of existence (na katthaci upapajjatī) through:

  • the ending of defilements (āsavānaṃ khayā),
  • the entering and abiding in this very life in that undefiled release of the heart (anāsava cetovimutti) and emancipation through insight (paññāvimutti)

All this consisting of a personal and direct understanding and realization by oneself of the Dhamma through his own power (diṭṭheva dhamme sayaṃ abhiññā sacchikatvā).

All this being too long for us to keep in mind and/or use in conversations about the Dhamma, the usage of a single term - nibbana, nirodha or something else - is likely to persist as both a source of inspiration but nonetheless potential basis for confusion and misunderstandings!


Willed activities - aka saṅ­khā­ra - are clearly presented in the MN120 as the by-product of a very serious convergence of specific factors of gradual determination:

bearing in mind > directed thinking > cultivation/development of thoughts > intending > abiding > development of actions > prioritization of actions

The beauty of it is that when I take this approach I can see that whatever I have achieved or failed to achieve in my life so far was greatly related to the presence or absence of these factors of determination in my mind and heart.

Of course, I am here talking about things achievable within the reach and realm of the possibilities and thus I can only blame not having become an astronaut myself (as originally dreamt) to the lack of technological development humankind finds itself at the moment of this present existence! :stuck_out_tongue_closed_eyes:


MN143 and MN97 and this sutta suggests Nibbana may be made easier by having guided meditation or making a strong determination (adhitthana). I will reply to everyone but just busy looking after my baby boy who is down with a fever.

With metta

Hi Mat,

A couple of differences that I notice:

  • MN 120 is a discourse addressed to the bhikkhus, while MN 97 and MN 143 are given to householders.

  • MN 120, which is the only one of the three that seems to be referencing strong determination, prefaces each section by specifying that the hypothetical bhikkhu possesses faith, virtue, learning, generosity, and wisdom. It seems to imply that these qualities give the determination its power. The other suttas don’t mention these qualities, nor do they seem to explicitly mention a strong determination.

  • MN 143 does seem to be a kind of guided meditation leading Anathapindika toward Nibbana; MN 97 does not seem to be leading in that direction, but only to a favorable rebirth. Maybe you include this sutta due to the Buddha’s questioning of why Sariputta didn’t take Dhanañjani further, probably implying to stream entry?

Another strong determination leading to Nibbana that comes to mind, from AN 2.5 and other places, seems to include both the determination and the persistent energy that follows on that determination:

You, too, monks, should relentlessly exert yourselves, [thinking,] ‘Gladly would we let the flesh & blood in our bodies dry up, leaving just the skin, tendons, & bones, but if we have not attained what can be reached through human firmness, human persistence, human striving, there will be no relaxing our persistence.’ You, too, in no long time will reach & remain in the supreme goal of the holy life for which clansmen rightly go forth from home into homelessness, knowing & realizing it for yourselves in the here & now.

I hope your young son feels better soon, my friend.

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MN 120 seems to say bhikkhus make determinations to be reborn as householders:

‘Bhikkhus, here a bhikkhu is endowed with faith, virtues, learning, generosity and wisdom. It occurs to the bhikkhu, “O! May I be born with the high warriors at the breakup of the body, after death.” He bears it in the mind, directs thoughts to it, develops that thought. Those intentions and that abiding, developed and made much, conduces to be born there. This is the path and method to be born there.

‘Again, bhikkhus, the bhikkhu is endowed with faith, virtues, learning, generosity and wisdom. It occurs to the bhikkhu, “O! May I be born with the high brahmins, … high middle class, at the breakup of the body, after death.”


There is a common misconception that you do not need desire on the path, that you actually need to get rid of desire. In reality, the path is based on desire. You will have no success without desire:

“Brahman, the holy life is lived under the Blessed One with the aim of abandoning desire.”

“Is there a path, is there a practice, for the abandoning of that desire?”

“Yes, there is a path, there is a practice, for the abandoning of that desire.”

“What is the path, the practice, for the abandoning of that desire?”

“Brahman, there is the case where a monk develops the base of power endowed with concentration founded on desire & the fabrications of exertion. He develops the base of power endowed with concentration founded on persistence… concentration founded on intent… concentration founded on discrimination & the fabrications of exertion. This, Brahman, is the path, this is the practice for the abandoning of that desire.”

“If that’s so, Master Ananda, then it’s an endless path, and not one with an end, for it’s impossible that one could abandon desire by means of desire.”

Continuation here:

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Perhaps for those bhikkhus of very modest ambitions…

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A human birth is the best rebirth of them all. If the bhikkhu manages to get reborn as a human, then it’s even better to be reborn in a bhramin or warrior family. In what other family should a virtuous bhikkhu desire to be reborn if not bhramin or warrior ?

And the point of the sutta seems to be the power of intention on the deathbed and the importance of virtue, mentioned in other suttas as well. Those are given just as examples to make a point.

Indeed. Human ‘rebirth’ is to not be a “fool” but to live a “righteous” life, as described below:

Sooner, I say, would that blind turtle, coming to the surface once every hundred years, insert its neck into that yoke with a single hole than the fool who has gone once to the nether world would regain the human state. For what reason? Because here, bhikkhus, there is no conduct guided by the Dhamma, no righteous conduct, no wholesome activity, no meritorious activity. Here there prevails mutual devouring, the devouring of the weak. For what reason? Because, bhikkhus, they have not seen the Four Noble Truths. What four? The noble truth of suffering … the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering

SN 56.47


Bhikkhus, a god, a human or any other good state would not be evident from actions born of greed, hate and delusion. Yet, bhikkhus, from actions born of greed, hate and delusion a hellish being, an animal birth a ghostly birth or some other bad state would be evident.

AN 6.39

Does the brahmin that seeks wealth by devouring the poor by unrighteous offerings & sacrifices attain the human state?

Wealth, O brahmin, is a brahmin’s aim, his quest is for knowledge, his mainstay is his sacred texts, his desire is for sacrifices and his ideal is the Brahma-world.

AN 6.52

Does the warrior that kills in battle attain the human state?

When a warrior strives & exerts himself in battle, his mind is already seized, debased, & misdirected by the thought: ‘May these beings be struck down or slaughtered or annihilated or destroyed. May they not exist.’ If others then strike him down & slay him while he is thus striving & exerting himself in battle, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the hell called the realm of those slain in battle. But if he holds such a view as this: ‘When a warrior strives & exerts himself in battle, if others then strike him down & slay him while he is striving & exerting himself in battle, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the company of devas slain in battle,’ that is his wrong view. Now, there are two destinations for a person with wrong view, I tell you: either hell or the animal womb."

SN 42.3


Perhaps for those bhikkhus of very modest ambitions…

Unusual passage, which, at least to me, makes the sutta rather questionable. :seedling:

That’s what happens when you read just a passage of a sutta and not read it in full.

The sutta in full continues with every real of existence. The idea of the sutta is clearly to stress the importance and the possibility of rebirth by intention. That is why it enumerates all planes of existence in order to make a point.

For me, the idea of rebirth by intention is contrary to the laws of kamma. It is akin to asserting a convicted murderer can avoid the hell of imprisonment by intention. Kamma-vipaka do not work like that. it is unlikely those that rejoice, enjoy & delight in vices (such as drugs, alcohol, gambling, womanizing, pornography, etc) can at their deathbed determine a favourable destination using intention. :penguin:

That is why the sutta states that only one with virtue can have rebirth by intention.

Why would one with virtue want to be a Brahman performing animal sacrifices & extorting unrighteous donations from common people or want to be a warrior that must engage in war when required?

We are back to were we started.

I think the examples I provided form AN 6.52 & SN 42.3, which you did not refute, shows MN 120 is questionable.

Are there other suttas (EBTs) where the Buddha supposedly taught a man or woman leaves the household life in order to cultivate the intention to return to the household life? Thanks

I know this happens in Thailand. Uneducated boys enter monasticism to obtain a free education and then return to the household life better off than before. But did this happen in the Buddha’s time?


Maybe this is the case where someone in the lowest caste can wish for a better rebirth.

Of the factors that condition rebirth, craving and kamma play a part. If a person goes into immaterial jhana all the time they maybe reborn in those planes due to the (good) kamma created by attaining those jhana but also by developing a craving (when outside the jhana) for those jhana. The Buddha’s teachers (Alarakalam and Uddakarama putta) were supposed to be examples of this. Most of us only see and cast aspirations on this (kama) world. If we have adequate good kamma to be reborn a human being (general wholesome behaviour) our intensional determinations may also be realised in the same plane.

Aren’t we reading too much into the sutta here?

Why not understand it as the Buddha saying if a given bhikkhu truly really wish - seriously bearing this wish in mind, directing thoughts to it, developing that wish, and moreover intending and abiding on that wish, further thus developing and prioritizing his choices and actions in line with that wish - any (way of ) existence can indeed be eventuated/caused ??

If we read this way then we can acknowledge the equation sankhara = cetana = kamma, as per AN6.63:

Cetanāhaṃ, bhikkhave, kammaṃ vadāmi. Cetayitvā kammaṃ karoti—kāyena vācāya manasā.
Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, and intellect.

Thus I see a clear link to what is present in AN4.237 found at the conclusion of the teaching recorded as MN120.

Thus I suggest the interpretation that what we find in the MN120 is the record of a very skillful and complete Dhamma Talk by the Buddha - which had as topic the power of determinations and a beautiful reminder of what are the determinations that matter for those aiming at Nibbana! :slight_smile: