The Road to Hell

Most of us know the saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We also know that the Buddha proclaimed kamma is intention, and when our consequences of our actions ripe and are reaped by us we basically reap the fruit of our own intentions. So, if we only think about cheating on our partner, we will still be punished by the Universe for it.

This is why I had this question: what if we do something unethical having wholesome intentions or something ethical having wholesome intentions? For example, when we steal a kilogram of apples from an apple plantation to feed a hungry person, kill someone to protect other people, or save a Thai girl from poverty and hunger by paying her for sex. Sure, one can argue that we cause suffering with our actions, but kamma is intention, so how come we are punished or rewarded for intentions that either do not exist or are wholly unconscious?

I think it is very possible that thinking along these lines was one of the sources of the Theravadin Abhidhamma with its minute classification of mental states. I also am not personally interested in the Abhidhamma or anything that can possibly lead to Abhidhamma-like results. This is why I would like to ask you not to answer these questions of mine with personal speculation but rather give a link to a discourse by the Buddha on the matter or something closely related to this topic.

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Terrible thought-experiments involving the Nazis and how negative karma is accrued on an individual level for the holocaust came to mind immediately.

Setting that aside, there has to be a point at which you are doing something so bad you are merely trying to convince yourself there is nothing wrong with it. Perhaps you can have unwholesome intentions while also either ignoring that you have them or convincing yourself that they are wholesome.

Four guys are trying to rape a girl, you are trying to protect her and hit one of them. He dies. Your intention was to protect the girl, not cause him pain, you may not even think about it at all. You son falls down from a chair, you try to catch him and push someone into fire. You make an honest mistake at your job as an air traffic controller and hundreds of people die as a result. You want to have sex with a girl and pay her, with that money she is able to buy food for her kids. Do you have any bad or good kamma as a result of these actions?

So I am not aware of my own intentions? Are they intentions, then?

So if I have an opportunity to try and stop killing of Jews and Auschwitz with military means it is more wholesome to not act on it? Would it not be more unwholesome to not act at all? Would it not be at least as wrong as shooting at the guards? What are my unwholesome intentions in that case?

I know, pondering on the exact working of kamma is highly unadvisable, but it would be great to know its broader principles, and I think that my examples are still falling into this category.

Hello Vstakan, this is a good question, and important to understand this topic.

First, i would like to address the fact that the Universe can not punish us, this is not what kamma is.

The Kamma vipaka is the manifestation of previews acts, kamma phala, just that, there is no being or thing punishing or rewarding.

As a response to your question, this is called mixed intentions or mixed acts. Think of them as separate acts and you will see that the response is clear.

If I help someone now, this is a positive kamma.
If I hit someone later, this is a negative kamma.

If I hit someone to help them, is the same. Two separate acts with two separate results.

If we have Right View we will not pay for illicit sex, steal, kill or basically break the 5 precepts creating negative kamma.

If there is no intention, there are no results, this is the very first verse of the Dhammapada.

Sure, I know, it was just a figure of speech.

The Buddha repeated time and time again that kamma equals intention (cf. the story around the first verse of the Dhammapada). So how can I have negative kamma if I kill a rapist protecting a woman if my intention was wholesome, namely to protect her? Will I not have negative kamma as an air traffic controller if hudnreds of people die because of my non-malicious mistake? Will I not have positive kamma if a prostitute feeds her kids with my money? Will I have negative kamma as a drug dealer or a poor peasanrt growing drugs because there is no other way to feed my family in my village in the Golden Triangle?

"Punna, there are four kinds of kamma proclaimed by me after realization myself with direct knowledge. What are the four? There is dark kamma with dark ripening, there is bright kamma with bright ripening, there is dark-and-bright kamma with dark-and-bright ripening, and there is kamma that is not dark and not bright with neither-dark-nor-bright ripening that conduces to the exhaustion of kamma.>


Excellent, sadhu! Thanks a lot!

I thought it might have been, but someone else could read it and get confused, not everyone is clear about that and I find it useful to avoid this kind of figurative speech, specially since kamma (actually karma) is also used in other traditions and people really get mixed up with so many variations.

Again, this are 2 separate acts (at least). One of protection, one of killing. Each with its own results.

Why do we have to do something?

Bhante Brahmali has a beautiful explanation about this with a bus filled with people that is about to fall down and everyone will die. We have the option of killing one person and saving everyone. We might think that it is justified, but why are we even involved in this situation? If we do nothing, there is no kamma, if we act there will be kamma. Some positive for saving lives, some negative for killing. (It is in a video somewhere).

There is a story in the suttas, maybe Jataka, where a woman is married to a man and one of her duties is to clean the cages of the animals her husband kills. She is not interested in this, but is forced to do this tasks, her mind is concentrated in the Dhamma and even Awakens eventually, even while she is somehow participating in the killing of animals, which is against the Noble Eightfold Path. She was not making the decision of being a killer, she was forced in the situation.

Intention, intention, intention. The key to understanding kamma.

This is exactly my point. If she was able to kill animals and reach the Enlightenment, then it means I, you or anyone can kill people without creating bad kamma, right?

I think that this is wrong, unfortunately. We are never doing nothing, we are always doing something. If I am in that situation, I will still be doing something, for example sitting still and waiting for everyone to die. It is an action since it is a result of my conscious decision to do just that: sit still. Since it is my conscious decision, there is an intent behind it, therefore kamma is generated. If Ven. Brahmali’s logic would be correct, then there would be no kamma generated when we don’t give any food to a starving person begging us about it just because we would be doing nothing. The question is what kind of kamma is generated if we sit still in such a bus.

If there is no intention, correct.

We actually kill beings all the time, we do this just by going to the bathroom, walking in a grass field, receiving a flu shot or almost any other vaccine or medical treatment. There is no intention in killing, harming, stealing or anything negative.

But if you decide to kill, steal, cheat, lie and so on, there is intention.

There are many cases in which the Buddha is mistreated and he just ignores the situation. In one occasion someone asked him to leave his garden, he thought the Buddha was just a vagabond. He agreed and left, he could have said ‘I am the Buddha you fool man!’, but no, that is fine.

He was very clear about this in so many occasions and teachings.

Then don’t do that, don’t wait for everyone to die. There comes Right View, can you do something? But something skillful, killing is not skillful. If you can’t do something skillful, then there is nothing you can do. It is not your conscious decision not to be able to do something, it is within your limitations.

If this was as you said, no one could ever reach Awakening because there is always someone being killed, robed or suffering in someway. And today more than ever we know this, right now we are not all running to protect slaves, animals, minorities and so on. Will that prevent us from doing the practice? No, it should not.

This is not the same case, because in order to give food to this person we don’t have to harm another being. The response to this is: if we actively deny the food, if we can give him this food and say “no, I just don’t want to”, that is negative kamma, but right now we are not giving food to millions of starving people. Are we generating negative kamma?

In the analogy we are not in the bus, but if it where the case, the same analysis applies, can we do something? (skillful that is).


I don’t get it. So, in the bus example inaction does not generate kamma at all, and in the example witgh the starving person it does generate some kamma. Under which conditions does inaction generate kamma then and what is the scriptural support for this? Considering that in both examples you would make conscious decisions not to act based upon intentions, whatever they would be.

First, kamma is action, which is based on intention (cetanā). It is the intention that determines the wholesomeness and unwholesomeness of the action, as well as one’s resultant fruit (kamma-vipāka).

Volition (cetanā), O monks, is what I call action (cetanāhaṃ bhikkhave kammaṃ vadāmi), for through volition one performs the action by body, speech or mind… There is karma (action), O monks, that ripens in hell… Karma that ripens in the animal world… Karma that ripens in the world of men… Karma that ripens in the heavenly world… Threefold, however, is the fruit of karma: ripening during the life-time (diṭṭha-dhamma-vedanīya-kamma), ripening in the next birth (upapajja- vedanīya-kamma), ripening in later births (aparāpariya- vedanīya kamma)…
AN 6.63

It is important to understand and distinguish that…

  • Whether one does an action that is deemed ethical by societal standards—or even though the action may benefit someone else—if the intention of that action is rooted in greed (lobha), hate (dosa) or delusion (moha); that action will be unwholesome and the fruits (for the doer) will also be unwholesome.

  • If someone does an action that might inadvertently result in something negative, but the intention was based in greedlessness (alobha), hatelessness (adosa) or non-delusion (amoha); then the action was wholesome and the fruits (for the doer) will be wholesome (or neutral).

In the passage below…

Puṇṇa, there are four kinds of action proclaimed by me after realising them for myself with direct knowledge. What are the four? There is dark action with dark result; there is bright action with bright result; there is dark-and-bright action with dark-and-bright result; and there is action that is neither dark nor bright with neither-dark-nor-bright result, action that leads to the destruction of action.
MN 57

Notice that there is no dark action that results in bright ripening or dark-and-bright ripening. Dark kamma only results in dark ripening.

Now it is important to distinguish between what is:

  1. Socially right
  2. Morally right
  3. Knowing one is committing an action that is socially wrong, the action will usually be morally wrong as well—the volition might be rooted in greed, hate or delusion, and therefore will also be morally wrong.

So I can fantasize as much as I could possibly want about cheating on my wife or killing people or stealing money without generating any bad kamma if I don’t act on these desires? Is there any textual support for this (sorrz for being such an annoying bookworm, I just don’t want to go out on a limb here)?

You are misunderstanding both situations.
I the bus there is inaction, real inaction, I can’t do anything because killing is not a valid action.
In the starving person I am denying the food, I can do something but I refuse to do it There is action.

Right now there is a starving (actually millions) person and I can’t do anything, therefore I am doing nothing based on the impossibility of doing it. At least directly, one could argue that talking about the Dhamma and meditating is my way of helping them.

This is not what I said, inaction does not generate kamma, you need intention and then do something by mind, body or speech.

Ajahn Brahm says that sometimes people ask him to go and do something and he says that he can’t because is is: doing nothing.

That is action, he is consciously doing nothing that day. Which is different to say I can’t do anything.

This is very different from what I am saying. But I explained it already in this post.

This is exactly the point. In the case of the bus one can say that while I could kill someone to save lives, this is not a valid action, therefore, not doing it is not an action, it remains inaction.

Lets say that in order to safe this people I had to drink all the water of the ocean. I can’t do this, therefore, I will not even try. Am I not drinking the water of the ocean? No, this is not an action, I am not actively not saving this people, I just know it is beyond my possibilities. Same as killing.


I am not sure where you are getting this from, maybe you misunderstood something.

There are 3 ways of creating kamma: mind, speech and body.

This actions that you describe do create negative kamma.

Don’t worry, your questions are very good, this topic is quiet confusing for many people. I don’t have the citations at hand, I am bad for that, but I am sure other members can provide them. I will try to find them too, and if you do a search for the word kamma in SC, you will be amazed! It is a beautiful topic.


Okay, define inaction please.

Yes, so you are sitting still because you have seen that you are having the choice how to act, analyzed the situation, realized that there is no wholesome way to act and decided to sit still, right? Would you agree that the decision not to act in any other manner is an action by the mind? Do you think that this decision is not based on any intention, e.g. intention to act in the least unwholesome way?

This is beyond any form of reason. Furthermore, it would also be quite detrimental, for one, because of the bodily actions, but even worse, because of the wrong views/delusion.

  1. It goes against the 3rd precept—see below (although this would need further investagation into the Commentaries/Suttas/Vinaya, it would not be surprising that having sex with prostitutes would fall under sexual misconduct in regards to the 3rd precept).

(2) a woman who is prohibited by convention, that is, close relatives forbidden under family tradition, nuns and other women vowed to observe celibacy as a spiritual discipline, and those forbidden as partners under the law of the land
— Bhikkhu Bodhi, Going for Refuge and Taking the Precepts

  1. It would be kamma deeply rooted in greed/lust (lobha/rāga).

  2. But worst of all, you would be doing an unwholesome kamma—with the wrong view and delusion that the action is wholesome—based on the belief that paying for a prostitue to have sex with her “might save her and her child from poverty”.

I don’t know if it was just an example or that the belief is one you hold, but it would be good for you to look over this. At the very least, solely not holding the delusion/wrong view that this would be a wholesome action would make things hundred times less worse.


Not doing anything is still kamma; it’s still a choice and an action.

The example you gave is from a popular philosophical thought experiment called the the Trolley Problem.

The woman wasn’t killing, she was cleaning the cages of animals that had been killed.

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I see what you mean.

Did you see my analogy with the ocean?

I don’t decide to sit still, this is like thinking that I am doing nothing to prevent earthquakes because I am not drilling a hole to reach the plaques that cause them. It is beyond my capacities.

Killing is not an option as much as stopping an asteroid coming to earth is not an option for me.

As long as you think that killing is an option, you will think that not killing is an action too.

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