Given that there are 'intentions' (cetanā) which lead (if they're not neutral) to either wholesome fruits or unwholesome fruits -- then is the same also true for 'purpose' (sankappa), i.e.:

  • Are there wholesome, unwholesome, and neutral purposes?
  • Which purpose could be 'wholesome' (if there is a purpose that fits that description)?
  • What is the difference between a 'wholesome' and 'unwholesome' purpose?
  • How could a wholesome purpose look like?


  • 'Purpose': objective, agenda, goal, target (outwardly, 'more or less', 'near and far', 'time and place').
  • 'Intention': state of ceto in action (inwardly)


  • If your purpose is to accumulate (material things, a state of becoming): is it possible to maintain wholesome intentions?

    For example: you like to have a monastery be built, you like to have a medi-community to grow, to be maintained.

  • If your intention is wholesome, is it possible to strive after a non beneficial purpose?

  • If your purpose is to let go (of material things, states of becoming): is it possible to maintain unwholesome intentions?

    For example, you have buliding material and you are willing to let go of it, you have time and you are willing to let go of it.

  • If your intention is unwholesome, is it possible to strive after a beneficial purpose?


4 Answers 4


It seems I don't know, don't understand, or don't agree with your definitions (of cetanā and sankappa).

You start by assuming that there is wholesome and unwholesome cetanā: and then you ask whether there is wholesome and unwholesome sankappa.

Firstly so far as I know there is definitely wholesome and unwholesome sankappa. I say that because Right Resolve (samma sankappo) is the second of the eight path factors in the Noble Eightfold Path:

The definition

"And what is right resolve? Being resolved on renunciation, on freedom from ill-will, on harmlessness: This is called right resolve."

And the Maha-cattarisaka Sutta defines "wrong resolve" as the opposite of this: "Being resolved on sensuality, on ill will, on harmfulness".

The "Right Resolve" page referenced above also quotes six other suttas.

And I think that "right" and "wrong" resolve can be understood as "wholesome" and "unwholesome".

Secondly, I don't know whether there is such a thing as wholesome cetanā.

I say that because Karma is intention (cetanā), good actions lead to good rebirths, bad actions lead to bad rebirths, however I thought the goal (or a goal) was for there to be no more becoming at all: to stop karma, which I think means stopping cetanā.

I admit that there are fruits (phala) defined, but still.

Don't the suttas on the subject of cetanā suggest that it's best to have no cetanā at all?

  • Cetana Sutta: An Act of Will (AN 11.2)

    For a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue, there is no need for an act of will, 'May freedom from remorse arise in me.' It is in the nature of things that freedom from remorse arises in a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue.


  • Cetana Sutta: Intention (SN 12.38)


    But when one doesn't intend, arrange, or obsess [about anything], there is no support for the stationing of consciousness. There being no support, there is no landing of consciousness. When that consciousness doesn't land & grow, there is no production of renewed becoming in the future. When there is no production of renewed becoming in the future, there is no future birth, aging & death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, or despair. Such is the cessation of this entire mass of suffering & stress.

  • Cetana Sutta — Intention (SN 27.7)

    "Monks, any desire-passion with regard to intentions involving forms [or any of the 6 sense-objects] is a defilement of the mind.

Note that the definitions of Right Resolve involve negatives or absences:

  • Renunciation (i.e. non-covetousness, non-desire, non-attachment, non-sensuality)
  • Freedom from ill-will
  • Harmlessness (i.e. non-injury)

I think that fits with it being right to have an absence of intention. And so does the goal, of being 'unbound' and apada (and similar 'negatives').

There are (as well as these 'absences' or 'negatives') also a couple of 'positives' -- quoted from the "Right Resolve" reference above:

  • "abundant, exalted, measureless in loving-kindness, without hostility or ill-will"
  • "one who practices for both his own benefit and that of others is, for that reason, to be praised"

Perhaps (I guess) these are "binding" resolves rather than "unbinding" resolves, and (perhaps) these have corresponding wholesome cetanā, and perhaps these are why later ("Mahayana") schools began to emphasize the Bodhisattva way.

There are texts (e.g. Dharma talks) which talk about kusala and akusala-cetana but I don't know of a sutta in the Pali canon which says that cetana is wholesome.

Thirdly, you ask whether a monastery can be built, or whether you can grow a medi-community, with wholesome intention?

I think the answer is "yes"; because:

  • The Buddha (for example) grew or accumulated such (or was instrumental in their growth, or allowed them to be accumulated), and I suppose that his intention and/or resolve was wholesome
  • Right resolve includes non-covetousness, but I think that doesn't not have to preclude there being a community: because "practice for self and others" is also part of "Right Resolve"; and for example because of e.g. the Upaddha Sutta (and kalyanamittata etc.)
  • Maybe the concept of upaya (i.e. teaching aids) allows the accumulation of such things or states
  • Maybe it's a matter of balancing or alternating between conventional and ultimate, between action and meditation, between "right resolve" and "not intending".

The wholesomeness and unwholesomeness and neutrality is decided by what you would perceive when you experience or feel the result. This is the differentiation between them.

Generally aversion are painful when doing and so is when you get the result.

Generally clining based acts are pleasant when doing and also when you get the result.

Generally neutral sensations are when they are neither the above but still with the root of ignorance.

The motivation associated with the purpose decides what is the result. This also has some sensation associated with it. This can be used decide what is wholesome or not when the volition is formed as detached observer as sometimes these minds spontaneously arise. (All 121 Citta has sensation associated hence any through arising is Dukkha - Dukkha Dukkha, Viparinama Dukkha, Sankhara Dukkha - whatever the sensation.) There are 7 roots which are Ahetuka (only enlighten person experiences this), Loba, Dosa, Moha, (unwholesome) Aloba, Adosa, Amoha (wholesome). When minds rooted in the above arise the Dukkha (painful experience, pleasant experience - unsatisfactoriness of change is pleasent experience, neutral experience - fabricated existance) or sensation associated with the roots are there also and you experience unsatisfactoriness in a subtle way. The sensation can be used to identify what the volition behind a purpose when the classification of the roots are not clear cut.

Though the action is same this might be might be motivated by different intentions or purposes in which case the results and wholesomeness will differ based on the motivation and what roots are present. Hence the Dukkha when volition forms and the Dukkha when the results do manifest will also differ accordingly, but distinction is from the Dukkha you experience or type of sensations. E.g. the purpose of a surgeon cutting a person is motivated to save the life but in the case of a robber it might be greed and aversion to kill and rob, but the action is same but the purpose is different. Also you maybe donating something to a allied country motivated block import of the same from another country hence indirectly economically sabotage another country, in which case you seemingly doing good but the purpose is not. With the volition you experience the sensation associated the root and many more times amplified when you experience the fruit.

Intention, action and result decides the karmic formation. Sometimes good intention may not result in positive outcome nevertheless the though does bear fruit perhaps not as weighty as a rebirth linking Karma. If you have the intention but not follow though you still have a weak Karma. If you have intention and follow through and the desired result happens then this is a more intense Karma. Whatever the case motivation decide the feeling associated resulting experience and also see it when the volition forms. The taste of the fruit you take and plant will have the same taste and the fruits the tree would bear. Intention is the initial fruit from which you take the seed to plant.


According to Mahayana (Yogacara) Abhidharma, cetana is connected with traces and dispositions (samskara) left by previous actions and experiences. (What follows is my understanding based on my study and practice. Not official but I did spend some time contemplating this stuff, and I think I've got some insights) Like you said, cetana can be kusala or akusala (healthy or unhealthy). It is like having healthy habits or unhealthy habits. Our habits define our directionality of mind and our tendency to act or react. The concept of cetana is part of the model in which everything happens by itself, there is no person who intends - instead, if your habit is e.g. to indulge in negative thoughts, your attention will keep getting drawn to imperfections - even if there are many other potential objects. Cetana is impersonal and automatic.

Sankappa (samkalpa) or aspiration is part of a different model. It is what you want, you're trying to achieve with your behavior, what you're going after. So samkalpa is a lot more personal, it is not happening by itself, it is what you are driving at. Now, sometimes (actually a lot of time for the untrained people), we don't actually act with a clear purpose in mind. Oftentimes we simply let our traces and dispositions drive us. We act out our opinions, preferences, aversions, desires etc. without thinking of consequences that much, and not even having a clear goal of what we're trying to achieve. So what Buddha meant with his "samyak-samkalpa" (I'm using Sanskrit spelling here) is acting with a constructive purpose in mind, trying to make things better - not just puking out our predispositions.

By now you should have an idea that cetana and samkalpa are kinda different in one sense and kinda two sides of the same thing in another sense. In one sense, cetana is how your tend to act "unconsciously", whether you're paying attention or not - whereas samkalpa is what you think are trying to achieve "consciously". In the second sense, samkalpa is really just a manifestation of cetana at a higher organizational level. In yet another sense, both are manifestations of samskara (imprints, traces).

All models have limits though - this becomes apparent when you try to connect these two models (impersonal and personal) together: can we say that healthy predispositions always manifest as wholesome aspirations and vice versa? Not so much!

One example is when we force ourselves to act against our (bad) habits. Should we say that in this case our cetana is unhealthy but our samkalpa is wholesome? Or should we say that in fact some positive change of cetana has already happened, although at this point it is only a partial/superficial change? Another example, is when we have wholesome aspiration (e.g. to attain Nirvana) out of an unhealthy cetana (e.g. aversion of the world). Should we consider an unhealthy cetana as healthy when it drives a wholesome aspiration?

From Mahayana perspective, this is an example of Emptiness kicking in - this makes it clear that cetana and samkalpa are not truly existent entities that are strictly in one state at a time. They are merely simplified designations for a large number of samskaras responding to various stimuli. Things only look concrete when you look at them from the distance. Once you step in closer, they split into multiple components that work by their own rules.

So does it mean cetana and samkalpa could be kusala or akusala independently of one another and there is nothing useful we can learn about them? Luckily, that is not so bad. The general rule we can extract from this, is that our mind exhibits the quality of inertia: Having an aspiration for something does not automatically mean we have changed deep inside. Sometimes we may ourselves not realize the hidden agenda behind our action, which can come from unhealthy predispositions and be in fact unwholesome, egoistic etc. We have to apply right view, right effort etc. over a long time in order to overcome the inertia and have dharma become our second nature. As one of my teachers explained, the transformation is complete when our acts are spontaneously wholesome without any effort needed from our side.

For a teacher on the path, this inertia can be used as upaya - motivating the student by taking advantage of their illusions/attachments/aversions. For a student on the path, this inertia can manifest as a form of hypocrisy - when the student is superficially a Buddhist but in essence is still full of grasping, negativity, conceit, us/them thinking etc.

To get to your examples:

If your purpose (samkalpa, aspiration) is to accumulate (material things, a state of becoming): is it possible to maintain wholesome intentions (cetana, habitual tendencies)?

Yes. The purpose/aspiration "to accumulate" is not necessarily unwholesome. It could be wholesome (kusala) at mundane level but not conducive to liberation (sasava, not anasava). A householder aspiring to accumulate wealth to provide for well-being of the family and community is a wholesome aspiration, just not a liberating one. So one can totally be a good householder aspiring to accumulate things while maintaining healthy cetana.

Now, if you are asking if one's aspiration "to accumulate" could be a compatible with the Path (anasava) - the answer is, provisionally yes and ultimately no. On the initial stages, the task of the practitioner is exactly "to accumulate". To accumulate what? Merit (good karma) and knowledge (of the basic teaching). This is why such stage is called The Path Of Accumulation. However if one gets stuck on this stage for too long, it can turn into Spiritual Materialism, when we accumulate goodness and knowledge as a way to feed our ego - instead of deconstructing it.

Buddha recommended the right aspiration (samyak-samkalpa) to be the aspiration towards progressive improvement, which on initial stages is identical with accumulation of mundane wholesome qualities but on the advanced stages becomes distinct as we get to stalking our ego/attachments, practice non-abiding (baselessness) etc.

For example: you like to have a monastery be built, you like to have a medi-community to grow, to be maintained.

Dreaming about monastery sounds like a typical case of spiritual materialism. Instead, someone should focus on non-abiding (baselessness) - which includes letting go of the raft. Once the first bhumi has been achieved, and there is no longer aspiration to attain Nirvana, one can build monastery etc. and it won't longer be an obstacle.

If your intention (cetana, habitual tendency) is wholesome, is it possible to strive after a non beneficial purpose (samkalpa, aspiration)?

Yes. There are two cases here. One is like I said, you could be mistaken about your intentions (predispositions). You could think you're a Buddhist while in fact being a regular sloppy person who just happens to know a lot about Buddhism or a regular grumpy person etc. Second case, your predispositions could be healthy but because of the change in your environment you could be forced to act with unwholesome aspiration in mind. This depends on the supporting condition of ignorance. An example of this is a well-brought up child of a good family who gets into a bad company. The natural instincts (cetana) of such child are still good but the environment provides negative motivation, which effects the wrong view, which drives unwholesome aspiration.

If your intention (cetana, habitual tendency) is unwholesome, is it possible to strive after a beneficial purpose (samkalpa, aspiration)?

Yes, like I said, because of the inertia you may have habitual tendencies (cetana) that go contrary to your aspirations. You can have unhealthy predispositions (cetana) while aspiring towards a more healthy vision.

If your purpose (samkalpa, aspiration) is to let go (of material things, states of becoming): is it possible to maintain unwholesome intentions (cetana, habitual tendencies)? For example, you have building material and you are willing to let go of it, you have time and you are willing to let go of it.

It's not like our goal is to let go of everything for the sake of letting go. Then the poorest person would be the Buddha - this sounds like the extreme path of renunciation, not the Middle Path. In Buddhism our goal is Unbinding, which is about not getting stuck - not about avoidance/isolation.

  • Two questions, if I may: one is, perhaps I don't understand the paragraph with "upaya" and "taking advantage of their illusions" (maybe that's obviously true by definition for as long as the student isn't "trackless", but it might be clearer with some example[s]); and your mentioning "bhumi" and "path of accumulation", Google finds Wikipedia as the first reference for those words, but you could optionally cite a reference other than Wikipedia for those terms/doctrines.
    – ChrisW
    Jan 14, 2016 at 16:37
  • 1
    Good questions. I'm hesitant to expand the answer further as it's already gotten too long - but briefly, an obvious example of upaya would be that episode in Life of Milarepa when he wants to become a sorcerer to revenge his uncle and meets a Buddhism teacher who promises to make him just that, while in fact teaching him Dharma. There can be much more subtle examples of the same basic principle as you can imagine. For the second one, added a link to wikipedia.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Jan 14, 2016 at 16:47

How should we understand the saying ..."for a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue, there is no need for an act of will"

Is it not right to say that a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue the person's act of will is one with Dhamma.

I think the answer lies within "Ayacana Sutta: The Request", but I'm in the dark and don't yet understand why the Blessed one only surveyed the world with the eye of an Awakened one after request by Brahma Sahampati to teach the Dhamma.


  • Hello and welcome to Buddhism SE. Could you add a reference to the sutta you mention and preferable explain why you think the answers lies in this sutta. Thank you.
    – user2424
    Dec 27, 2016 at 15:09
  • Hi Lanka, I was responding to the Sutta ChrisW quoted above.
    – user10552
    Dec 28, 2016 at 14:25
  • Cetana Sutta: An Act of Will (AN 11.2) For a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue, there is no need for an act of will, 'May freedom from remorse arise in me.' It is in the nature of things that freedom from remorse arises in a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue.
    – user10552
    Dec 28, 2016 at 14:26
  • In Ayacana Sutta we read that the Blessed One, although inclined to no action when self-awakened, he consent to teach the Dhamma out of compassion for beings.
    – user10552
    Dec 28, 2016 at 14:37
  • accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn06/sn06.001.than.html
    – user10552
    Dec 28, 2016 at 14:38

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