Motivation is not Intention (or is it?)

For a long time now I have been wondering about this question and once again a post on this forum has come up that seems to contradict my long held understanding of an essential (for me) point of dhamma. This is not the first time that I have heard this view, and I have heard it from illustrious mendicants as well as lay Buddhists. In fact I seem to be in the minority with my understanding.

The view that I have a problem with is that our kamma depends on the motivation behind our kamma. If the reason for doing something is good, then the kamma is good.

For me this view seems to forgive all manner of unskilful behaviour.

The latest example from this forum had someone stealing his drunk brothers car keys to stop him from driving. The claim was that the stealing of the keys was good kamma because it stopped a greater harm, which (sort of) sounds reasonable on the surface of it.

When I was first introduced to Buddhism many years ago I had a discussion about kamma with a forest monk who was ordained by, and lived for several years with Ajahn Chah. This monk explained to me the difference between ‘motivation’ and ‘intention’. This is in the context of kamma and the Buddha’s statement from AN6.63 which says:

“Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, and intellect. - Thanissaro translation


It is choice that I call deeds. For after making a choice one acts by way of body, speech, and mind. - @Sujato translation

So we have this idea of intention being kamma. Now the monk who taught me defined:

a) ‘motivation’ as the reason for acting


b) ‘intention’ as the plan of action we make

This simple teaching cleared up so many things in my life because I no longer needed to worry about my motivations and instead I just concentrate on my intentions (plan of action). Up until then, I was so caught up with my motivations that ethical skill in the intentions was left to the side.

I’ve got an example that hopefully everyone can understand and will show the difference and why it is important not to confuse intention with motivation when it comes to kamma.

The scenario is the war on terror. George W Bush had a great motivation (reason) for the war on terror - as it was stated at the time, he wished to eradicate terrorism. So that’s great, a wonderful goal. But his plan of action to get what he wanted was to kill people by sending the military to bomb Iraq, that was his intention, that was his kamma. No matter that his motivation to end terrorism was good, his plan of action was not, or at least some elements of the plan were not - maybe the plan had some good elements along with the killing, torturing etc.

This way of seeing makes things much easier for me, because I can always break down my plan of action in any given scenario and see if I’m going to break one of my precepts in the course of the plan. Sometimes this happens very fast, such as when I start a shower and then an insect flies into the stream of water and I need to act fast to help the insect, but practice means that generally I can now assess my plans as they are constructed and review them as they are being carried out in the light of my precepts.

So who is correct? My teacher all those years ago, or those who suggest that the quality of kamma is dependant on your reason for doing the deed?


@stu From the early discourses, at least from my perspective, one’s intention that will result in either bad deeds or good deeds depends on whether that intention is driven by lust, anger, and/or confusion (this set of roots is for bad deeds); or if it is driven by non-lust, non-anger, and/or non-confusion (this set of roots is for good deeds). If something bad happens that is outside of your control (without lust, anger, and confusion), then that action cannot bring bad deeds to you.

The Buddha and the perfected ones are naturally without lust, anger, and confusion, so they can’t make bad deeds. Good deeds that they do also don’t accumulate and bring them to future lives since they are completely unattached.

From what I can see, some of the things that people do when they think that they have good intentions may actually be driven by confusion.


I always understood the intention behind kamma to be a non-vebal mental state that underlies and fuels thoughts, speech and action.

The way I understand it, actions that get their energy from the wish to create happiness are good kamma. Actions that get their energy from the wish to create suffering are bad kamma.

In this way, intention is something that the mind knows; you can know whether your heart is in the right place when you do something.

I would put this in contrast to a rationale or rationalization, which is the story or justification for why you did something. Something can always be justified after the fact, but this is just the story we tell ourselves and others to make sense of things.

Even if I convince myself and others that I’m in the right, it’s still bad kamma if I act on the desire to harm other beings, and vice versa.


I’ve understood it to be mixed Kamma (as a result of your example). So we get black (bad kamma) and white(good kamma) from both aspects preceding the ‘action’, as well as from the action itself

Plus adding in the action of stealing (or whatever you want to label the action as). So we end up with lots of lovely shades of grey

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Yes. Good point. avijjā conditions saṅkhāra

That’s interesting. In the translation from Bhante @sujato we have ‘choice’ rather than’intention’ which sounds maybe more than a non verbal mental state?

Very nicely put. It reminds me of a quote I heard once (but can’t remember the source), that suggested: ”we are rationalising beings, not rational beings". I think that if we run on autopilot without mindfulness and clear comprehension then maybe we are always in this state.


I agree. Most activities seem to have a plan of action that involves both ethical and non-ethical actions. Being aware that there is this mix present in difficult choices is important. And also knowing that there is a fourth way (neither bright not dark - or all the colours of the rainbow :rainbow:) is important too.

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I guess in my own mind, I (sometimes) see the connection between which mental state I am acting from, and to what degree the resulting action makes me happy or not.

For example in metta meditation, it’s very clear that thinking thoughts based on the wish for beings’ happiness creates good feelings.

Since good kamma should create happiness, I make the inference that this is what intention/choice in the suttas is referring to.


It might also be important to keep in mind that the question of motivation/intention was within the debate with the Jains and the question of vegetarianism.

For the Jains ahimsa & non-harming was probably the most fundamental doctrine. So strict vegetarianism (and practically constant fasting) was a way to avoid bad kamma, because no matter how you’re involved with meat-eating you’re bound to suffer for it in samsara.

Food-gathering was an essential part of livelihood for ascetics and a consequence of the Buddha’s philosophy was that Bhuddhist monastics could eat meat.


Why not both?

Though not in quite the way you describe the differences. Rather, with regards to time. In the present&future, we have choices/intentions that are bright/dark/in-between. Then, with regards to the past, in the suttas there are many instances (sorry I don’t have them at hand) of the importance of reflection/review over past actions and the results they produced. This is a wisdom activity imo, not making excuses or rationalizing but trying to work out cause and effect, the actual results of actions.

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5. dibbena cakkhunā

dibbena cakkhunā
(by means of) divine eye,
visuddhena atikkanta-mānusakena
(which is) purified (and) surpassing-human's,
satte passati cavamāne upapajjamāne
beings (he) sees passing-away (and) re-appearing.
hīne paṇīte
inferior (&) superior,
suvaṇṇe dubbaṇṇe,
beautiful (&) ugly,
sugate duggate
fortunate (&) unfortunate
(in)-accordance-(to their)-kamma-result,
satte pajānāti –
(those) beings (he) understands.
‘ime vata, bhonto, sattā
these ****, ******, beings,
kāya-duc-caritena samannāgatā
bodily-bad-conduct (they) possess,
vacī-duc-caritena samannāgatā
verbal-bad-conduct (they) possess,
mano-duc-caritena samannāgatā
mental-bad-conduct (they) possess,
ariyānaṃ upavādakā
noble-ones (they) revile,
wrong-views (they hold),
te kāyassa bhedā
(when) their bodies break-up
paraṃ maraṇā
after death,
apāyaṃ dug-gatiṃ vinipātaṃ nirayaṃ
(in the) plane-of-deprivation, (the) bad-destination, (the) lower realms, (in) hell
(they have) reappeared.
Ime vā pana, bhonto, sattā
{but} these ** ****, ******, beings
kāya-su-caritena samannāgatā
bodily-good-conduct (they) possess,
vacī-su-caritena samannāgatā
verbal-good-conduct (they) possess,
mano-su-caritena samannāgatā
mental-good-conduct (they) possess,
ariyānaṃ an-upavādakā
noble-ones (they) don't-revile,
right-views (they hold),
te kāyassa bhedā
(when) their bodies break-up
paraṃ maraṇā
after death,
Su-gatiṃ saggaṃ lokaṃ
(in the) good-destinations, (in the) heavenly world
(they have) reappeared.'
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Motivation is a seed of karma too, intention is a bigger seed, the action goes way bigger according to its impact.
Actually in abhidhamma there are detailed explanations for karma.
In one seconds there’s thousands to millions thoughts appear and dissapear right away, every thought has its own karma, the seeds. But if you do not nurtured the seeds, the fruit wont come out.
So it’s not every seeds you plant will be fruitful. They need right nurtured and conditions to be fruitful.
And there’s also unavoidable fruits from direct big seed you plant, which one is catagorized etc.

Now as you’re in the right path, what we need to understand is only these:

  • To plant a great seed, one must be a great farmer first. As long as you still so full of yourself, your good intention might cause harm to others.
  • To go beyond karma, everything you do, you’re not doing it for yourself but for others around you, you do it joyfully as if any fruit that only good for you if it’s towards your liberation.
  • To train yourself beyond whichever bad karma fruits hit you, it won’t be able to harm you anymore.



I still use “intention” for cetanā, but I use “choice” for sankhara.


To me, the key teaching regarding kamma is ‘kammanirodho nibbanam’. I understand it as the cessation of the will to live and survive as a being, clinging to delusions, personalities and theories. With Awakening, all self-identification will come to an end and there is nothing more to be done - nothing to protect, maintain, defend, sustain, nurture, prove, justify etc.

But, it is very easy to fall into the pit of nihilistic thought and equate it with nibbana, and then live a life of stagnation and inactivity. It’s also very easy to think that one is already beyond all the silly and divisive thrashing of the world and think that anything can be done without considering the consequences, and pursue hedonism. This is the natural line of reasoning if one thinks that this life is all there is. But this view is just pernicious in the eye of the Dhamma and sages who developed samadhi and attained the iddhi which allows them to recollect past lives. Eternalistic views also can lead to callousness and justification of ‘righteous violence’. I think that attachment to theories regarding God, Brahman are, in fact, the greatest form of ego-clinging - very powerful and very hard to uproot once their seeds are planted in the mind.

So, I just see it as: intention or will is that which keeps the cycle of birth, misery and death spinning and spinning and spinning…


It seems to me the interesting question is what exactly cetanā/intention means. Is it the short-term intention:
"I intend to kill this mosquito"
Or the long-term intention/motivation:
"I am doing this action to save this person from getting sick."
My guess was that it is the former, but it would be useful to have that clarified.

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I’m wondering if this approach may lead the practitioner to a situation where they start to think that the “end justifies the means”? To what extent can we understand the full ramifications of our actions? And how do we test alternative scenarios - i.e. what could’ve happened differently had there been some slight alternation to what we had done?

I guess (with regard to the definitions of motivation and intention above) we can always split a plan-of-action (intention) into smaller steps to see if there is any point where we are breaking precepts, thereby exposing good intentions (with good results) and bad intentions (with bad results). At the level of reasons-for-doing-something (motivation) it is hard to see the harm (or good) that one is doing because the underlying plan is hidden.

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Thank you Bhante. Very illuminating already, but this may take me some time to fully assimilate.


To me it doesn’t seem to be clear-cut in any way. What is meant to me is a combination of the mood at the time of planning, the envisioned result, the intent to affect myself and others, and the result as well.

After all an act is sandwiched between the precognition and the evaluation of it afterwards. Especially with regret and grave carelessness I look back and think what I can do better/different next time.

The three times of before-while-after also find formulaic expression in MN 61

Also, Rahula, after you have done an action with the body, you should reflect …: ‘Did this action … lead to my own affliction, or to the affliction of others, or to the affliction of both? Was it an unwholesome bodily action with painful consequences, with painful results?


Yes. Very good. I guess we are playing statistics here when we are asked to reflect and alter our behaviour. We can’t know for sure what will happen, but we can know what has happened previously, and this helps us to stack the odds in favour of ending up in a calmer place, which in turn aids further (better?) reflection and progression on the path.


Care- ful reflection is always good but it doesn’t always work. We can think things through and still get it wrong.

This is an imperfect world and we are imperfect people. You can’t make a mirror by polishing a brick - try as you may.

We wake up when we get out of the way. Let go now - be kind now - it’s not a matter of time.