What is Intention in Kamma?

This is an old post; revised February 21, 2018

1. Here is an email that I received in early September, 2015 (I am just showing the relevant part of the email):

“You mention several times that one should be very careful not to offend anyone as one could insult a Sōtapanna and gather a big amount of bad Kamma. Kamma it is created based on ones mind. Act and speak with a pure mind and no bad Kamma will arise. Act and speak with an evil mind and bad Kamma will arise.
Offending a Sōtapanna is no more an evil act than offending an ant if your mind state is the same, thus if one does not know that a human being is enlightened it will not result in a different Kamma.
What makes offending an enlightened being so much worse is the fact that it requires a very perverted mind state to act evil towards some like that. I like to compare it with being angry at kittens : – )
 I had the feeling that you might have a misunderstanding regarding this topic.  It sounded as if you can ‘accidentally’ gather bad Kamma, which is not correct in my opinion”.
  • In the above comment, emphasize in bold is mine to indicate each key point. I think what is meant by that first statement is that having adverse thoughts is the bad thing and it does not matter to whom it was directed.
  • The second point is that if one doesn’t know the status of the person (or being) it was directed to, then one must not be responsible for the kammā.

2. I am sure many others had similar thoughts on this or somewhat related issues, so I wanted to share the reply with everyone. By the way, we have a new discussion forum (since December 2017) to discuss such questions; see, “Forum“.

  • Figuring out how kammā works (with certainty) can be done by only a Buddha. This is one of those things that are discernible only to a Buddha. But as I have pointed out before, we can figure out some general trends that are compatible with the laws that the Buddha has clearly stated; see, “What is Kamma? – Is Everything Determined by Kamma?“. Here we analyze in a bit more depth.
3.  There are two key factors to be remembered in evaluating how to assess a kammā vipāka:
  1. Which of the dasa akusalais the intention? For example, it could be taking a life, stealing, or harsh speech. Who is affected is not involved in this step. The “cetana” in “cetana ham bhikkhave kamman vadami”, is just which dasa akusala is in one’s mind; that is all.
  2. Then the strength of the kammā vipākais based on the “level of consciousness” or “qualities” of the living beings affected by that kammā. For example, killing a human will bring stronger kamma vipaka than killing an animal.

That is the clearest way to analyze any given situation.

4. For example, in the recent discourse on Tilakkhana, I discussed the case of a person killing a bunch of people with a bomb; see Discourse 2 in “Three Marks of Existence – English Discourses“.

  • His intention (cetanā) was to kill. Thus the dasa akusala involved is “pānatipāta”, that of taking a life.
  • Now to the second step. He may not even know who was killed. By some coincidence if a parent of the killer was killed by the bomb, then he would have done an ānantariya pāpa kammā. If an Arahant was killed, the same. If a Sōtapanna was killed, then it would not be a ānantariya kammā, but still equivalent to killing thousands of normal humans.
  • So, it is important to understand that “cetana” is which of dasa sakusala are in one’s mind when a kammā is committed. It could be more than one. In the case of the bomber, there is miccā ditthi, and likely greed also, in addition to “pānātipātā”.
  • One can analyze various situations with the above two steps.
5. We know that there are five ānantariya kammā, which are so grave that one will be subjected to their vipāka in the very next life in the niraya (lowest realm): Killing one’s mother, Killing one’s father, Killing an Arahant, and injuring a Buddha (it is not possible for anyone to take the life of a Buddha), and causing schism in the Sangha (which really means trying to propagate a wrong version of the Buddha Dhamma).
  • Since killing a normal human is not an ānantariya kammā, it is clear that the “strength of the kammā” depends on who is being killed.
  • Kamma vipāka for committing any other offense, is similar. Hurting an Arahant would be million -fold grave compared to hurting a normal human. Thus, logically, hurting an Anāgāmi, a Sakadagami, a Sōtapanna would have corresponding levels of consequences.
  • The “value of a life” depends on the “mental status” of that lifeform. Any life is not the same. This is why it is not possible to compare the life of an animal with that of a human; even among animals there are huge variations, and we can easily see that a gorilla or a dog is “more sentient” than a worm.
  • However, we must keep in mind that we all had been born a lowly worm; so even though we need to keep in mind that there is a variation, we should never take the life of ANY sentient being intentionally (unnecessarily).

6. Regarding the issue of “how would one know” the status of the living being who is affected by one’s actions, the “nature” would know.

  • This point of “we are all inter-connected” is now proven by quantum mechanics: “Quantum Entanglement – We Are All Connected“.
  • This is a key factor in understanding kammā/vipāka, and is my next project. I believe that quantum mechanics can show this at an even deeper level.

7. Let us consider some prominent examples from the Tipitaka.

  • It is clearly stated that the reason  ascetic Siddhartha had to strive for 6 years and undergo such hardships to attain the Buddhahood is that he had said some insulting things regarding the Buddha Kassapa in a previous life. At that time, Siddhartha was a wealthy person by the name Jotipala, and had a friend called Gatikara who listened to desanas from Buddha Kassapa and became an Anāgāmi. Gatikara tried to persuade Jotipala to go and listen to Buddha Kassapa, but Jotipala kept refusing, saying “I do not want to go and listen to the bald-headed monk”.
  • That was the kammā that forced ascetic Siddhartha to undergo such hardships before attaining the Buddhahood. This is a very clear example that one DOES NOT NEED TO KNOW that one is insulting a Buddha to accumulate the corresponding kammā vipāka.
  • In fact, there are 11 more such kammā vipāka that brought about adverse effects to the Buddha Gotama even after attaining the Buddhahood. Three of those were for bad kammā committed against Pacceka Buddhas. It is especially not possible to recognize a Pacceka Buddha as such, because they appear during times when a Samma Sambuddha (like Buddha Gotama) is not present, and they cannot teach Dhamma to others.
  • Therefore, NOT KNOWING the status of the person (or the being) against whom the wrong act was done DOES NOT come into play. These are not rules made up by the Buddha; Buddha himself was not immune from those laws. Kammic laws are natural laws, just like laws of gravity; a Buddha just discovers them.
8. So, I hope the questions of the reader were addressed in the above. Another important thing to realize is that any akusala kammā involves just one or more of the ten defilements (dasa akusala). That is all. And the severity of the kammā vipāka depends on the “status of the victim” and not knowing that status is not an excuse. We will discuss this in a bit more detail below.
9. To do that, let us look at the “intention” part a bit more carefully. First let us see the key factors involved in committing an akusala kammā.
  • Any akusala kammā results from INTENDING TO DO one or more of the dasa akusala.
  • A given akusala kammā has several stages (each has a different number of steps). For example, in the case of taking a life, the following are the four steps: there must be a living being, one must know that it is alive and one must have the intention to kill that being, one plans and carries out the necessary actions to kill, and finally the living being ends up dead. If all necessary steps are completed, then it is called a kammā patha.
  •  As the number of completed steps keep increasing, the severity of the vipāka will increase; when all are complete and a kammā patha is done, the kammā vipāka will be strongest possible.
9.  Let us take as example the case of killing a human being. Now we have to combine the two effects in #3 above in order to assess the strength of the kammā vipāka.
  • The human being in question could be a normal human or a Noble person, say an Arahant. There is no way for the killer to know whether the victim is an Arahant. Thus the resulting kammā vipāka could be quite different depending on the “status of the victim” and the killer may even not know the severity of the crime committed.
  • Now, suppose the killer went through the first four steps, but the victim survived. Now the killer will not face an ānantariya kammā because he/she merely injured an Arahant even though the intention was to kill. Still, the strength of the kammā vipāka will be much higher compared to injuring a normal human.
  • Kamma vipāka are based on natural laws. Their enforcement is automatic. Just like gravity operates regardless of the person involved, so do kammā vipāka.
10. Therefore, the above analysis can be used in any given case to get an idea of the strength of the kammā vipāka for a given offense. To summarize:
  • The “intention” is one (or more ) of the dasa akusala.
  • The weight of kammā depends on the “mental status” of the victim, REGARDLESS of whether the person committing the kammā knew about that “mental status”.
  • The weight of the kammā also depends on how many of the necessary steps were actually completed. Just having an intention is not enough to yield the full impact.
11. To further clarify the mechanisms, let us consider another example. Suppose person X detects a person moving around in X’s house at night. Thinking it is an intruder, and INTENDING TO KILL the intruder, X shoots and kills ” the intruder”. And then X finds out that it is X’s own father.
  • The intention was to kill (one of the dasa akusala), and the victim turned out to be X’s own father. Thus even though X did not intend to kill his father, X has now acquired an ānantariya kammā.
12. In another twist, let us say that X was on the roof of his house repairing it, and he threw something heavy from the roof without realizing that his father was right below the roof on the ground. And the father got hit and was killed.
  • Here, there was no intention of killing a living being. Thus even though the action resulted in the father’s death, not even an akusala kammā was committed let alone an ānantariya kammā.
13. This is why we have to be careful in analyzing some cases.
  • When we encounter someone anywhere, just by looking at him/her, we cannot say whether he/she is a Noble person or not.
  • But we can definitely see the difference between an animal and a human being. A human life has much more worth than any animal life; it is extremely difficult get a “human bhava“.
  • Even among the animals, we can see that some animals are “more sentient” than others, even though there are no clear guidelines.
  • However, one definitely does not need to worry about “accidental killings” of insects, for example, who may get crushed under one’s feet as one walks around.

14. Going back to another statement in the comment of the reader: “..What makes offending an enlightened being so much worse is the fact that it requires a very perverted mind state to act evil towards someone like that”.

  • The problem is that most times we do not know whether a given person is a Sōtapanna or not. And most people may not have even heard “who a Sōtapanna is”.
  • Yet, the consequences will be the same whether one knew or not.
 15.  In the following I am going to discuss the “intention” issue in a bit more depth for the benefit of those who like to dig deeper.
  • The Buddha said, “cetana ham Bhikkave kamman vadami“. Thus, what determines the type of kammā is the cetana. So, we need to look at the cetana cetasika carefully.
  • Cetana is translated sometimes as “intention” and other times as “volition”. It is hard to distinguish the difference between the two; volition seems to incorporate “more personal attributes” and thus may be better. But neither is really a correct translation for cetana.
  • As I point out below, cetana is not “intention” in the sense that it is not the cetana cetasika that determines the nature of a citta. Cetana combines the cumulative effect of many cetasika that come into play. This is why sometimes it is best to keep the Pali terms and understand their meanings.
16. I have introduced cetasika in “Cetasika (Mental Factors)“, and have discussed some aspects of them in the “Citta and Cetasika” section.
  •  Thus cetana, which is one of the seven universal cetasika, is in each and every citta, even though we do not “intend to do something” with all citta. As briefly pointed in  “Cetasika (Mental Factors)“, cetana is the cetasika that “puts together the relevant cetasika into a given citta“. This is also discussed in “Citta and Cetasika – How Vinnana (Consciousness) Arises“.
  • The “intention” is one of the dasa akusala in the case of an akusala kammā. That intention arises BECAUSE OF one’s gathi with certain set of cetasika being dominant.
  • For akusala kammā, moha (ignorance) and three other cetasika, Ahirika (shamelessness),  Anottapa (fearlessness in wrong), and uddhacca (restlessness or agitation)  are always there, because they are the “four universals” for any akusala citta.
  • But the presence of other “akusala cetasika” like lobha, ditthivicikicca, etc depends on the situation and the person committing the act; see, “Cetasika – Connection to Gathi“. For example, one may lie about something because of greed (lobha); another person may tell the same lie because of hate (dosa); the consequences are worse for the latter.
  • Intention is to commit one (or more) of the dasa akusala. Thus cetana is not “intention” per se; it is deeper. It also depends on how that determination came about. When the Buddha said, “cetana ham Bhikkave kamman vadami“, that is what he meant: How that particular intention came about depends on the set of relevant bad cetasika.
  • For kusala kammā is works the same way. Here the “intention” is to commit one or more kusala kammā, and here a set of moral (or sobhana) cetasika come into play.

17. Thus we can keep digging deeper to get a more deeper understanding. But please do not get discouraged if you do not understand all the details. It takes time, as I know by experience.

  • The more one thinks about a concept, one realizes that there could be multiple ways to look at it. That does not lead to confusion, but to more clarity. This is the power of pure Dhamma.
  • There are many things to contemplate on this issue, even without getting into Abhidhamma. This is what real “bhavana” is, especially leading to the Sōtapanna stage.

This issue is being discussed at the discussion forum at, “Adding Kamma vs. Receiving Vipaka” and “Clarification of definition – “Anantariya”“.

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