In the Milindapanha, Nagasena points out to king Milinda that doing evil knowingly accrues lesser demerit than doing evil unknowingly. Does the Buddha make the same statement anywhere in the Suttas?

The king asked: "Venerable Nagasena, for whom is the greater demerit, one who knowingly does evil, or one who does evil unknowingly?"

The elder replied: "Indeed, your majesty, for him who does evil not knowing is the greater demerit."

"In that case, venerable Nagasena, would we doubly punish one who is our prince or king's chief minister who not knowing does evil?"

"What do you think, your majesty, who would get burned more, one who knowing picks up a hot iron ball, ablaze and glowing, or one who not knowing picks it up?"

"Indeed, venerable sir, he who not knowing picks it up would get burned more."

"Indeed, your majesty, in the same way the greater demerit is for him who does evil not knowing."

"You are clever, venerable Nagasena."

Milindapanha - Access to Insight

My interpretation of this is not about unintended action vs intended action as one of the answers suggests. Instead I see it as comparing intended action with the view that the action is unwholesome vs intended action with the view that the action is wholesome. It's not about intending harm vs not intending harm, instead it's about intending harm knowing that causing harm is bad vs intending harm not knowing that causing harm is bad.

  • Can you add a reference (e.g. add a hyperlink, or say which chapter number you are talking about) or a quote from the Milinda Panha? – ChrisW Aug 26 '15 at 13:15
  • Also do you only want an answer from the Suttas: what about from the Dhammapada for example, or the Vinaya? – ChrisW Aug 26 '15 at 13:20
  • @ChrisW added a reference and a quote. I guess any source attributed to the Buddha is acceptable. – user5770 Aug 26 '15 at 13:26
  • 1
    Ahhh I see. The one doing evil at least "knows" or sees that they are doing evil, they know they can turn the other way and go in higher directions - they are awakened to the fact of the "evil". But the person who does evil not knowing, is still unawakened, half asleep - they are blind. Coyote – user5802 Aug 26 '15 at 20:22

The source is Miln III,7,8 [84].

The other day, I happened to read a discussion of this passage in "Development in the Early Buddhist Concept of Kamma/Karma" by James Paul McDermott (page 113-114).

Based on what I have read, I do not believe that there is any specific quote in the Suttas / Vinaya that specifically supports this passage. The Suttas (AN 6.63) equate kamma with volition / intention and as McDermott explains, this was developed in the Abhidhamma (particularly the Kathāvatthu), further developed in Milindapañha and even further developed in the Abhidharmakośa. Of course, the commentaries developed the concept of kamma to a new level again (this was beyond the scope of McDermott's book).

One has to be careful with interpreting this parable of getting burned by the hot iron. The point is that a unskillful act done with wrong view will generate more weighty kamma... somebody who knows that the unskillful act is wrong will have less volition / intention when performing the unskillful act as compared to another person who sees absolutely nothing wrong with the unskillful act (i.e. accompanied by wrong view).

@Jayarava, I have admired some of your writings / posts. Thanks for prompting me to look deeper at this passage (I love to learn). Here is the passage in Pāḷi:

Rājā āha ‘‘bhante nāgasena, yo jānanto pāpakammaṃ karoti, yo ajānanto pāpakammaṃ karoti, kassa bahutaraṃ apuñña’’nti? Thero āha ‘‘yo kho, mahārāja, ajānanto pāpakammaṃ karoti, tassa bahutaraṃ apuñña’’nti. ‘‘Tena hi, bhante nāgasena, yo amhākaṃ rājaputto vā rājamahāmatto vā ajānanto pāpakammaṃ karoti, taṃ mayaṃ diguṇaṃ daṇḍemā’’ti? ‘‘Taṃ kiṃ maññasi, mahārāja, tattaṃ ayoguḷaṃ ādittaṃ sampajjalitaṃ sajotibhūtaṃ eko jānanto gaṇheyya, eko ajānanto gaṇheyya, katamo [kassa (ka.)] balavataraṃ ḍayheyyā’’ti. ‘‘Yo kho, bhante, ajānanto gaṇheyya, so [tassa (pī. ka.)] balavataraṃ ḍayheyyā’’ti. ‘‘Evameva kho, mahārāja, yo ajānanto pāpakammaṃ karoti, tassa bahutaraṃ apuñña’’nti.

I believe that the key word is "ajānanto". In the translation above, it is rendered as "unknowingly". T.W. Rhys Davids translates this as "inadvertently". Bhikkhu Pesala translates this as "unconsciously". PED uses translations such as "unaware" and "unsuspecting".

I do not think "ajānanto" is equivalent to "ignorance" (delusion / moha). "Ajānanto" seems to be closer to "unwise attention", not seeing things as they truly are. For this reason, I think wrong view is a better handling, even though "micchādiṭṭhi" is not used in the text. @Jayarava, your knowledge of Pāḷi is far superior to mine, so I would be very willing to be corrected.

Oops, I just read your answer below, so let me add more...

I am an Abhidhamma teacher and this certainly colours my world view :-) Let me put an Abhidhamma spin on this to see if it helps. The Milindapañha was written after the Abhidhamma, so it is possible that in this passage, Nāgasena is attempting to clarify a doubt from the Abhidhamma.

Kamma comes from intention. The ethical quality of the kamma created comes from the roots (attachment / aversion / delusion for unwholesome, non-attachment / non-aversion / understanding for wholesome).

I do not believe that this passage from the Milindapañha is talking about the ethical quality of the kamma created.

I do believe that this passage from the Milindapañha is talking about the weightiness / intensity of the kamma created... and this is a different issue. The weightiness / intensity of the kamma created is a question of strength of volition.

In the case of unwholesome kamma-creating mental states, the strength of volition can depend on pleasant / neutral feeling (pleasant feeling contributes to stronger volition), prompted / spontaneous (spontaneous contributes to stronger volition) and associated / disassociated with wrong view (associated with wrong view contributes to stronger volition). I believe that this passage from the Milindapañha is talking about the third factor; "associated / disassociated with wrong view".

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  • indeed. also someone who doesn't know that their actions are wrong will continue to keep doing the same in the future whereas someone who knowingly makes a mistake is much more likely to change how they act in the future. – user5770 Aug 26 '15 at 14:31
  • For example on the subject of not making a habit of it, there's this quote from a monk, who claims that he would tell a lie in order to save a life (but also not "whenever it is convenient" and only "in extreme cases"). – ChrisW Aug 26 '15 at 14:38
  • I think the lesser demerit in the second case may have more to do with the fact that the person is significantly more likely to change their future behavior knowing that what they are doing is unwholesome instead of having to do with less volition/intention. Many criminals believe that their actions are justified, for example Al Capone apparently saw himself as a public benefactor instead of a criminal. This ability people have to rationalize away their actions is where the danger lies (papañca). – user5770 Aug 26 '15 at 16:15
  • The impact of wrong view on the weightiness of unwholesome kamma produced (or alternatively the impact of understanding on the weightiness of wholesome kamma produced) is a bit different topic than habits. A few minutes ago, I submitted a long answer regarding habits to a question, "Are good deeds superficial". – RobM Aug 26 '15 at 16:20
  • @RobM Is it talking about wrong view? It's perfectly straight forward to say "micchādiṭṭhi" in Pāḷi. Do you know of other passages where ajānanto is used to mean micchādiṭṭhi that might back up this assertion? An unwholesome deed performed with understanding (that it is unwholesome) ought to produce the weightier karma than a deed performed without that understanding (since the intention is not to cause harm), but here the text is saying the opposite of that! – Jayarava Aug 26 '15 at 18:57

Ven. Pesala's translation has a footnote to clarify the meaning:

"All wrong-doing is rooted in ignorance, so one who does wrong knowingly will feel remorse and correct himself sooner than one who is deluded (Editor’s Note)."

So based on his note, "knowingly" here means knowing that the unwholesome deed does create unwholesome results.

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  • What is Pesala's authority for this interpretation? – Jayarava Aug 27 '15 at 9:14
  • "authority" might not be the word to use. But insight from a venerable monk who has written many books on Buddhism (ref: softerviews.org/AIM/pesala.html ) is worth paying attention to.. – santa100 Aug 27 '15 at 13:32
  • I judge all scholarship on it's merits, not on the reputation of its author. Plenty of rubbish books are published about Buddhism! And I certainly do not venerate bhikkhus as a matter of course. In my experience bhikkhus, with one or two notable exceptions (e.g. Anālayo) make poor scholars as their work is almost inevitably tainted by strong confirmation bias. They are far too committed to the articles of Buddhist faith to be objective. So my question stands. What is his authority for this interpretation? – Jayarava Aug 28 '15 at 8:29
  • Again, I don't think "authority" is the word to use since there're many interpretations for the story. But if you insist on using this word, then what is YOUR authority to this interpretation, and more specifically, why do people have to listen to yours instead of Ven. Pesala's? – santa100 Aug 28 '15 at 16:01
  • AuthorityI have not offered an interpretation so I'm sure I don't know what you mean. – Jayarava Aug 29 '15 at 8:33

With regard to karma one of the most cited Pāli passages is:

Cetanāhaṃ bhakkhave kammaṃ vadāmi - AN 6.63

Intention, monks, is what I call action.

In other words, only intentional actions are karma. On the other hand Jains considered that all actions whatever were karmic. They developed the idea that inactivity was the best religious practice, taking it as far as starving themselves to death.

This passage from Miln seems to contradict this important principle. It is very curious. I will have to give this a good deal more thought.

And I think it's fair to say that just because someone can come up with the plausible reading of this text by changing the meaning of the words somewhat, doesn't mean that this is what was intended. A more sound procedure is to exhaust the possibilities of the text itself, then look for a traditional commentary, before starting to make ad hoc assumptions that simply fit a desired interpretation. One always has to allow that the text simply does not make sense.


In checking the Pāḷi passage (Miln 84) (in the Burmese 6th council Ed.) I had to translate it anyway, So I'll include my translation for reference. If there are any supplementary questions about the translation, leave a comment, and I'll edit this answer to try to explain.

The question on doing evil knowingly or unknowingly.

Rājā āha "bhante nāgasena, yo jānanto pāpakammaṃ karoti, yo ajānanto pāpakammaṃ karoti, kassa bahutaraṃ apuññan" ti?
The King said, "Bhante Nāgasena, he who does an evil action (pāpakamma) knowingly (jānanto), he who does an evil action unknowingly (ajānanto); which has the greater demerit (apuñña)."

Thero āha "yo kho, mahārāja, ajānanto pāpakammaṃ karoti, tassa bahutaraṃ apuññan" ti.
The Elder said, "Majesty, he who does an evil action unknowingly, he has the greater demerit"

"Tena hi, bhante nāgasena, yo amhākaṃ rājaputto vā rājamahāmatto vā ajānanto pāpakammaṃ karoti, taṃ mayaṃ diguṇaṃ daṇḍemā" ti?
"By this [reasoning], Bhante Nāgasena, should we punish our royal son or royal minister twofold (diguṇa) for doing an evil action unknowingly?"

"Taṃ kiṃ maññasi, mahārāja, tattaṃ ayoguḷaṃ ādittaṃ sampajjalitaṃ sajotibhūtaṃ eko jānanto gaṇheyya, eko ajānanto gaṇheyya, katamo balavataraṃ ḍayheyyā" ti.
"What do you think, Majesty, if someone were to knowingly grasp a glowing iron ball, aflame, burning, or to unknowingly grasp it, who would receive the worse burn?"

Yo kho, bhante, ajānanto gaṇheyya, so [tassa] balavataraṃ ḍayheyyā" ti.
"Bhante, the one who grasped it unknowingly, he would receive the worst burn."

"Evameva kho, mahārāja, yo ajānanto pāpakammaṃ karoti, tassa bahutaraṃ apuññan" ti.
"Just so, Majesty. he who does an evil action unknowingly, makes the most demerit."

"Kallosi, bhante nāgasenā" ti.
"You are skilled, Bhante Nāgasena".

There is a lot here to digest. If Nāgasena is correct, why does Milinda say he should punish members of the royal court twofold (diguṇa)? I don't see the logic of this.

Does the analogy even work? Is it true that grasping a burning iron ball on purpose would mean one would be burned less? Who would grasp a burning hot iron ball on purpose anyway?

This is one of the most bizarre pieces of Pāḷi prose I've ever looked at!

I don't see how one can separate intention and understanding. Jānanto is just a very broad word for "knowing". So we must interpret yo ajānanto pāpakammaṃ karoti as "does an evil action without knowing that he does evil" and yo jānanto pāpakammaṃ karoti "does an evil action knowing that he does evil". The one who acts with knowing clearly must incur the greater consequences, but this text reverses the natural order. On face value it simply does not make sense.

It has been suggested by @RobM that this passage is referring not to the ethical quality of the action (and therefore of the vipāka it will generate), but to weightiness of the kamma. In fact I do not see any meaningful separation of these, since it is the ethical quality of an action that determines how weighty it is. Furthermore the passage itself is talking about who accrues the most apuñña or demerit. How can one separate puñña/apuñña from the "ethical quality of the action that generates it? An action generates puñña/apuñña in precise proportion to the kusala/akusala of the intention (cetanā) behind it. What's more the passage does not contain any word implying weightiness (garu, garutara, garutā etc). So although @RobM has produced a reading that is consistent with his understanding (and therefore pleasing), it is unrelated to the words he is attempting to interpret. This is an unsound exegetical methodology.

The exegetical strategy of all those answers so far which claim to understand this passage (which I do not) is that the words jānanto/ajānanto mean something other than what they mean. Either ajānanto means micchādiṭṭhi or it means garutā (weightiness) or something else that makes the passage make simple sense. In order to establish such a reading the person proposing it would need to show that this esoteric substitution was a regular feature of either the Milindapañha or the Pāḷi literature as a whole. One of the attractions of the Pāḷi literature is that on the whole it is quite straightforward. Metaphors and similes are occasionally reified by later tradition, but they stand out in the texts. So, on the face of it, an esoteric reading, where the text says one thing but means another would require some strong evidential support in the form of many quotations of similar substitutions. I don't see any evidence to date. So far I have not understood this text, but I don't believe that anyone else has either. "Don't know" must always be a possible, if unsatisfactory solution to any problem. And if one does not know then there is no shame in saying so. To over-ride unknowing and superimpose something familiar on a text to force it into a familiar pattern is not a good practice. At best it is a form of self-deception.

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  • There is no contradiction. Let's consider killing someone as an example. (1) There is the case where someone kills another accidentally (intention to kill is absent). (2) There is the case where someone kills another (intention to kill is present) believing that killing is not evil/unwholesome. (3) There is the case where someone kills another (intention to kill is present) believing that killing is evil/unwholesome. This passage from Miln has nothing to do with (1), it's only comparing (2) and (3) but the word "unknowing" that the translator has chosen makes this somewhat ambiguous. – user5770 Aug 26 '15 at 17:44
  • Whereas "Cetanāhaṃ bhakkhave kammaṃ vadāmi" is concerned with (1) vs (2)/(3). – user5770 Aug 26 '15 at 17:52
  • does evil unknowingly sounds like (1) to me. The word is ajānanto a present participle from √jñā which must mean exactly "unknowingly" - or perhaps "without understanding". So the problem is certainly not with the translation. Nor can the Pāḷi be interpreted in the way you suggest. – Jayarava Aug 26 '15 at 18:24
  • doesn't "without understanding" support my interpretation? as in acting intentionally but without understanding the immorality of the action? – user5770 Aug 26 '15 at 18:29
  • I've edited my answer at the end to respond to this. – Jayarava Aug 26 '15 at 19:07

See Dhammapada 5.69:

So long as evil deed has yet to ripen, the fool mistakes it for honey. But [only] when that deed ripens, the fool comes to grief.

-- the implied contrast here is that the wise recognizes his own misconduct as misconduct before it ripens and "drops the iron ball" before it burns.

My commentary: the wise may not know, and can make mistakes - but he understands the limits of his knowledge and acts cautiously, in little steps, verifying his theory from received feedback and adjusting his model accordingly. The fool is assured of his (incorrect) knowledge and is attached to it. He does not actively look out for feedback and does not adjust his understanding and action. The fool is attached to his incorrect understanding.

This is how the fool is setup for suffering: because of his attachment to incorrect understanding which mismatches the reality and provides an incorrect basis for decision-making. The wise adjusts his model all the time to better match the reality, even as reality changes:

Imagine two Roombas (robotic vacuum cleaners), both with incorrect map of the house. One Roomba updates its internal map as it goes around and bumps into things. Another Roomba keeps going based on a wrong map. Which Roomba will clean the house better and which will likely get stuck? "For whom is the greater demerit?"

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People at large think that not knowing is an excuse and lightens the effects of wrongs. Causing killing by "accident" or thought it would not matter? How about this?

The teaching does not talk about the whole vipaka (by of kamma) but of direct suffering from an action. Of course doing bad knowingly is a heavier bad kamma, good householder. "Knowing" the danger of stealing (in frames of orginary expectations) , one does not get easy caught in this existance, but the effect, kammic, is heavier. So good to devide it, and that suffering is caused by not knowing (ignorance, avijja), is present in 50 % of the Suttas, and core teaching.

Maybe the reflection as support helps good householder to understand the matter better: Unwholesome done knowingly and unknowingly.

Ignoring this, knowingly, is sure not so hot assumed, without knowing (yet) sure painful, when touched.

(Note: this is not given for trade, exchange, stacks that binds to the world, either knowingly or unknowingly, but for liberation from this wheel)

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Here is the previous section

  1. The king said: 'Which, Nâgasena, is there more of, merit or demerit?'


    'But why?'

    'He who does wrong, O king, comes to feel remorse, and acknowledges his evil-doing. So demerit does not increase. But he who does well feels no remorse, and feeling no remorse gladness will spring up within him, and joy will arise to him thus gladdened, and so rejoicing all his frame will be at peace, and being thus at peace he will experience a blissful feeling of content, and in that bliss his heart will be at rest, and he whose heart is thus at rest knows things as they really are 1. For that reason merit increases. A man, for example, though his hands and feet are cut off, if he gave to the Blessed One merely a handful of lotuses, would not enter purgatory for ninety-one Kalpas. That is why I said, O king, that there is more merit than demerit.'

    'Very good, Nâgasena!'

I think that confirms Andrei's explanation -- i.e. that the context is that when you know you've done evil then you feel remorse and stop doing it.

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