Details of Kamma – Intention, Who Is Affected, Kamma Patha

We discuss several factors that determine the strength of a kamma, including intention, who is affected, and how a kamma becomes a kamma patha.

July 24, 2022; revised December 14, 2022

Cetanā in Kamma Is Different from Cetanā Cetasika
1. In the “Nibbedhika Sutta (AN 6.63)“, the Buddha declared, “cetanāhaṁ, bhikkhave, kammaṁ vadāmi.” Thus, what determines the type of kammā is the cetanā or the “intention.”
  • Did the Buddha refer to the cetanā cetasika in the above verse? No, because the cetanā cetasika in is in EVERY citta. I introduced cetasika in “Cetasika (Mental Factors)” and have discussed some aspects of them in the “Citta and Cetasika” section.
  • It is not necessary to review those posts. The point here is that the cetanā cetasika is in ANY citta, including vipāka citta. Therefore, not all citta arise with an “intention of getting something done.”
  • For example, vipāka citta only brings in an ārammaṇa. In such cases, we see, hear, taste, smell, touch something, or recall a past event. There is no “intention” of doing something with such vipāka cittās.
Intention Leads to Kamma Generation

2. We can see the following from that key verse in #1 above. Cetanā, in that verse, is connected to the kamma generation!

  • The meaning becomes more apparent with the following verse in the sutta: “Cetayitvā kammaṁ karoti—kāyena vācāya manasā,” meaning “After making an intention, one takes action (kamma)by way of body, speech, and mind.”
  • Thus, one acts with intention ONLY AFTER an ārammaṇa comes to mind first. One decides how to respond to a sensory input that just came in as a kamma vipāka. The intention depends on the type of action one chooses to take.
  • For example, upon seeing an enemy, one may decide to say something harsh to that person.

3. Note that we are not talking about neutral actions like walking to the kitchen to get a glass of water. In Buddha Dhamma, the discussions are about how we do puñña/kusala kamma or apuñña/akusala kamma that can lead to good or bad vipāka in the future.

  • Thus, the “intention” involves puñña/kusala kamma or apuñña/akusala kamma. Based on that, we can see that the critical point is whether “good cetasika,” like compassion, or “bad cetasika,” like greed or anger, arises in mind.
  •  Cetanā cetasika combines the cumulative effect of many cetasika that come into play. “The “intention” comes from the types of cetasika “incorporated by the cetanā cetasika” based on one’s gati.
Connection to Gati/Anusaya

4. The “intention” in committing an akusala kammā is one of the dasa akusala. That intention arises BECAUSE OF one’s gati. A particular set of cetasika will arise automatically according to one’s gati (pronounced “gathi.”) Of course, gati is closely related to one’s anusaya.

  • When committing an akusala kammā, a set of four universal cetasika always comes into play. Those are moha (ignorance), Ahirika (shamelessness),  Anottapa (fearlessness in the wrong), and uddhacca (restlessness or agitation.)
  • Other “akusala cetasika,” like lobha, diṭṭhivicikicca, etc., may also be present depending on the situation and the person committing the act; see “Cetasika – Connection to Gati.” 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.
  • When committing an akusala/apuñña kamma, the intention is to do one (or more) of the dasa akusala. Thus cetanā cetasika is not the “intention.” The “intention” depends on how the cetanā cetasika incorporates one’s gati/anusaya when it “prepares” a citta in response to ārammaṇa.
  • Kusala/puñña kammā work the same way. Here the “intention” is to commit one or more kusala/puñña kammā, and here a set of moral (or sobhana) cetasika come into play.

5. From #4, it may appear that we don’t have control over the response to an ārammaṇa. But #4 only describes the initial “automatic response” to an ārammaṇa with mano saṅkhāra.

  • However, we can change that automatic response when generating vaci and kāya saṅkhāra. If we are mindful, we can catch ourselves starting to engage in a bad kamma and stop it. See “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra.”
  • Suppose we instead keep generating bad vaci and kāya saṅkhāra (by going along with bad gati/anusaya). In that case, we will strengthen that bad kamma by strengthening our expectation, i.e., “kamma viññāṇa” that arose based on that ārammaṇa.
Connection to Kamma Vinnana and Rebirth

6. In the Cetanā Sutta (SN 12.38),” we get further clarification on how this “intention” relates to our “future expectations” that manifest as “kamma viññāṇa.”  

Yañca, bhikkhave, ceteti yañca pakappeti yañca anuseti, ārammaṇametaṁ hoti viññāṇassa ṭhitiyā. 
Ārammaṇe sati patiṭṭhā viññāṇassa hoti.
Tasmiṁ patiṭṭhite viññāṇe virūḷhe āyatiṁ punabbhavābhinibbatti hoti.”


Bhikkhus,  what you intend or plan, and what you have underlying tendencies (anusaya) for, become a support for the kamma viññāṇa.
When one focuses on an ārammaṇa (with an expectation/intention), kamma viññāṇa becomes established.
When that viññāṇa is established and grows, that can bring rebirth into a new state of existence in the future.”

  • That is what I mentioned in #1 above. For an intention/expectation to arise, an ārammaṇa must first bring in sensory input. For greedy anticipation for a particular food to occur, one must either taste that food or the memory of consuming that food must come to mind first.
  • Then we start thinking, speaking, and acting about how to get more of it to eat. The more we do, the more that “kamma viññāṇa” will grow (“saṅkhāra paccaya viññāṇa” in Paṭicca Samuppāda.)
  • Growing the “kamma viññāṇa” is the same as “growing the strength of the kamma.” Such saṅkhāra are abhisaṅkhāra!
  • That is how we accumulate kamma with intention (cetanā.)
Strength of Kamma
7. There are two key factors to be remembered in evaluating how to assess the relative strength of a kamma:
  1. Which of the dasa akusala is the intention? For example, it could be taking a life, stealing, or harsh speech. As we see, the relative strengths decrease in that order. Who is affected is not involved in this step. The “cetanā” in “cetanāhaṁ, bhikkhave, kammaṁ vadāmi”, is just which dasa akusala is in one’s mind.
  2. Then the strength of the kammā vipāka will also depend on the “level of consciousness” or “status” of the living beings affected by that kammā. For example, killing a human will bring stronger kamma vipāka than killing an animal.
Some Examples

8. In the case of a person killing a bunch of people with a bomb, his intention (cetanā) is 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 got killed. By some coincidence, if the bomb killed a parent of the killer, then he would have done an ānantariya pāpa kammā. If an Arahant died, the same. If a Sōtapanna died, it would not be a ānantariya kammā but still be equivalent to killing thousands of ordinary humans.
  • So, it is essential to understand that “cetanā” is which of dasa akusala are in one’s mind while committing a kammā. It could be more than one. In the case of the bomber, there is micchā diṭṭhi and likely greed also, in addition to “pānātipātā.”
  • One can analyze various situations with the two steps in #7 above.

9. Let us consider some prominent examples from the Tipiṭaka.

  • Ascetic Siddhartha had to endure such hardships for six years to attain the Buddhahood because he had said some insulting things regarding the Buddha Kassapa in his previous life. At that time, Siddhartha was a wealthy person named 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 monk.”
  • That kamma forced ascetic Siddhartha to undergo such hardships before attaining Buddhahood. That is a clear example that one DOES NOT NEED TO KNOW that one is insulting a Buddha to accumulate the corresponding kamma vipāka.
  • Eleven more such kamma vipāka brought adverse effects to the Buddha Gotama even after attaining Buddhahood. Three of those were for bad kammā committed against Pacceka Buddhas. It is not possible to recognize a Pacceka Buddha as such because they appear when a Sammā Sambuddha (like Buddha Gotama) is not present, and they cannot teach Dhamma to others.
  • Therefore, NOT KNOWING the status of the person (to whom the wrongful act was directed) is not an excuse. These are not rules made up by the Buddha, and the Buddha himself was not immune from those laws. Kammic laws are Nature’s laws, just like laws of gravity. A Buddha discovers them, not make those laws.
  • Kamma/kamma vipāka is a complex subject. Let us consider one more aspect of a “completed kamma” or “kamma patha.”
Kamma and Kamma Patha

10. A given akusala kamma takes four stages to be “completed.”

  • For example, in the case of taking a life, the following are the four steps:
    (i) one must think that it is alive,
    (ii)  making a plan to kill that being intentionally
    (iii) executing the plan to kill
    (iv) a living being ends up dead.
  • Upon completing all five steps, that kamma becomes a “kamma with maximum strength” or a kamma patha. 
  •  As the number of completed steps keeps increasing, the severity of the vipāka will increase. When all are complete, a kamma becomes a kammā patha, and the kammā vipāka will be the strongest possible.
  • When we walk on grass, we may unintentionally kill many small insects. But since the “intention” is not there, none of the five factors will come to play. If someone hits a toy snake intending to kill, only the last factor will not be fulfilled.

11. Let us consider another example of the four steps that constitute a kamma patha involving lying/deceiving (musāvāda.)

  • (i) there must be a person(s) to be deceived,
    (ii) one plans to deceive that person(s),
    (iii) carries out the deception,
    (iv) that person (and possibly others not even intended) suffer due to that deception.
  • I have been trying to find a Tipiṭaka reference for these “five factors.” Please comment in the discussion forum if you know.
  • If all factors are completed, the “kammic energy” will be optimized, and it becomes a “janaka kamma,” possibly leading to rebirth in a bad realm. If only some factors are completed, such a kamma can bring vipāka during a lifetime.
Dasa Akusala Expand to Forty

12. In Buddha Dhamma, it is always one’s intention that matters. Based on that, each dasa akusala expands to 40. For example, the following four are inclusive in pāṇātipātā:

  1. Taking life by oneself
  2. Getting someone else to kill
  3. Helping another to kill
  4. Praising a killing by another
  • There are ten suttā in the Kamma­patha­vagga of the Aṅguttara Nikāya that lists those “four divisions” for each of the dasa akusala, AN 4.264 through AN 4.273. The first sutta is “Killing Living Creatures (AN 4.264).” You can click the “next” arrow at the bottom of the webpage to get to all ten suttā.
  • In another example, regarding micchā diṭṭhi, the following also count. Propagating micchā diṭṭhi to others, encouraging others to cultivate micchā diṭṭhi (say, for instance, that the rebirth process is not valid), or praising such practices.
  • That is how ten dasa akusala expand to forty.
  • As one starts avoiding more and more of these forty actions, one will start feeling the early stages of Nibbāna or “nivana,” i.e., cooling down the mind.
Complexity of Life

13. Buddha has taught us how to understand why different living beings are born that way and why people are born with wide-ranging health, wealth, beauty, etc.

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