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?