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"Chethanaham bikkawe kamman wadami".

Dear Bikkhus, I introduce thought as karma. It is after having thought that we engage in action physically, verbally and mentally. ( Nibbedhika sutraya)

My question is simple. Does thought or intention alone become karma? Or does it need to have certain characteristics (Sorry if this word is inappropriate) for it to become Karma? If intention alone is karma whether we engage in action in though, word or deed what is the point of good deed?

Can we just "think" that we are helping the poor and have good karma? Can we "think" that we are giving dhana to monks and have good karma?

In the context of good karma, can we just have good intentions and thoughts of good deeds and get the same karma that we get from physically engaging in such activities?

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    The weight of kamma will vary depending on various accompanying factors like thought alone, thought accompanied by action, the severity of the results of the action, etc. See Ven. Nanamoli's "Discourse on Right View" for a detailed analysis: accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nanamoli/wheel377.html – santa100 Feb 19 '16 at 4:38
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Thought is what decides Karma. Same action with different motivation or volition can be bad or good depending on the motivation or volition. That is volition is what becomes Karma.

If you follow though with your intentions then this can lead to rebirth linking Karma. If you don't it will be weaker Karma.

If you have the volition but not the means to follow through then it will be a weak Karma as discussed above.

Volition bears fruit based on the root and level of mental lethargy or whether you or someone else has to prompt or motivate you to do something. If you have the thoughts but not the desire to do it then the root are missing or very weak hence there is unlikely to be Karmic results. If there is lethargy but there is genuine desire, the roots weak but present hence will have diminished Karmic results. More than the thoughts, imagination of doing something, visualisation of doing something, what counts is motivation or volition or desire to do the thing, though such thoughts could lead to desire or motivation or volition to act. As discussed above all factors may not align to successfully follow through nevertheless karma is created but at different intensities of potential results.

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My question is simple. Does thought or intention alone become karma?

As you implied, in the sutras, karma is defined as volition manifested through body, speech and mind. Karma can be thought as volitional action where "action" is any manifestation of "yourself", either externally visible (e.g. movements, words) or not (e.g. thoughts). Also, it seems that, at least from Buddhaghosa's lens, the volition and the action are not synonyms, but occur simultaneously (and there's no karma [fruits] without volition).

So a volitional thought is karma; is action. But, say, a different action than a physical movement, which is also different action from a utterance.

Or does it need to have certain characteristics (Sorry if this word is inappropriate) for it to become Karma?

It needs volition to be karma, to be a [morally/karmically significant] action.

If intention alone is karma whether we engage in action in though, word or deed what is the point of good deed? Can we just "think" that we are helping the poor and have good karma? Can we "think" that we are giving dhana to monks and have good karma?

A volitional thought of helping someone is a karma of thinking of helping someone; it's fruits are those produced by the thinking of helping someone.

On the other hand, a [series of] volitional action[s] with a disposition of helping someone has as fruits those produced by all the actions that, performed with the disposition to help, helped someone.

The fruits are different, as the actions are different.

Furthermore, it's not the appearance of an action that qualifies the karma (or if some expectations were fulfilled or not, e.g., if someone was helped or not), but whether the karma/volition is rooted in (non)ignorance, (non)hatred, (non)greed.

In the context of good karma, can we just have good intentions and thoughts of good deeds and get the same karma that we get from physically engaging in such activities?

No. Another way of thinking of karma results is the aggregates: your body, consciousness, perceptions, mental faculties, etc. One point of view would be to see "who you are" as the result of your past deeds. In this sense, "you" are the product of your actions (of body, speech and mind).

Conventionally, if you are a person who "frequently thinks of helping people", then you end up becoming such person: "one who frequently thinks of helping people" -- you are not a person who engages in helping people, as helping people is not an activity you've been engaging at; thus, you should expect distinct karmic outcomes.

From my understanding, (and glossing over) how much commitment, time, energy is devoted to some performance, how much it demands from your mental and physical faculties (how much it reconfigures them, or how much it reenforces habits), then that much is the transformation that one suffers [the transformation of becoming], and so, as far as volition is involved, that much fruit is expected to ripen.

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As far as I understand, the better translation for "cetana" in English is "intention", and not "thought". That is an important difference in English which may not be so clear for someone from Sri Lanka (although I thought it must also be a clear difference in Pali and that Sri Lankan language should probably be much closer to Pali than English). But I am not really sure about this.

So that is where I think the misunderstanding could come from. You can think about doing something without actually intending to do it. But only if you intend to do it (and of course that also involves thinking) you will actually do it (or at least make some initial movements to do it, or build up the inclination to follow through with it at some point). And so I think that is the reason why the Buddha taught that

"Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect." AN 6.63

It could be interesting to find the reason why the Sri Lankan quotes of the Nibbedika Sutta here put "thought" in the translation, and if they have maybe come to a differently adopted meaning of "cetana" over time. Or if the usual English translations of cetana with "intention" are missing out somehow on the "thought" aspect. But it seems to me that it would be actually impossible to have an intention without thought. Or so I think.

  • I don't know whether the OP nor the translation are from Sri Lanka. – ChrisW Feb 23 '16 at 0:11
  • Oh, I thought somehow that this kind of spelling with many 'h's and 'w's was something I had seen from Sri Lankan sources sometimes, and thought actually it could also be direct Sri Lankan language, but I am actually not sure about it, and might have been a totally wrong assumption. Thanks for pointing out. – Anonymous Ape Feb 23 '16 at 1:02
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That's the wrong attitude. Whether it's good karma or bad karma it's still karma. A buddha leaves no footprints. Some people also throw around the term "middle-way". Same thing. Buddhism is not about doing good. When you see those things it's really just a beginner's trick to create enough balance to progress.

Thought doesn't come into it because true selfless action is void of thought.

  • So you think one could reach anything without actions? The Buddha did not taught such and that Buddhism is not about doing good, is sure a news. But maybe we need to be more advanced to understand that. Many people act thoughtless, of cause. But I would doubt if that could be called even on the way, Mr/Mrs Cameron. – Samana Johann Feb 22 '16 at 19:16
  • A pure mind is unborn. Unborn of thought, and therefore unborn of good/bad. Of course there are thoughts, but you are not them. Good/bad, happy/unhappy, they're all just thoughts or ideas. There are 2 sides of the coin for everything, but that coin isn't real. It's just an idea. An idea that differs depending on what perspective you want to take. Normal life is when you are one side of the coin or the other. Nirvana is when you are outside of the coin, merely looking at it. This is no different than your mind right now. – Cameron Feb 23 '16 at 0:40
  • But as we know, the pure mind is unknown to a ordinary run-a-mill-person and to dream about having a pure mind is as less as what the Buddha taught as perceptions of nibbana, but simply the path to it and this path is paved by good actions/intentions and this is called Buddhism. To call this idea or that of some perceptions Buddhism is merely useless for everybody. Do you think that either the questioner nor you have gone beyond good and bad while still living next a refrigerator and hold on 1001 things? – Samana Johann Feb 23 '16 at 0:50
  • One might sit Aeon next to it when thinking everything is fine, Mr/Mrs Cameron. Its not the time to give up the boot, which is of cause not the aim but needed to cross the further offshore. And there than it is proper to say there is no good or bad and take Buddhism aside. – Samana Johann Feb 23 '16 at 0:55
  • It's really not that hard. You can sit here and hear a dog barking outside without even such a thought of what it actually is. It arises in pure mind which is no different than your mind right now. Once you get your foot in the door by realising it's nothing special THEN you can start to dwell in it more and more until it takes over completely. Good deeds have nothing to do with it. – Cameron Feb 23 '16 at 1:19
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. It is after having thought that we engage in action physically, verbally and mentally. ( Nibbedhika sutraya)

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Kamma is defined as "action" or as "intentional action" or "a deed done deliberately", not "thought".

So in no way an intention become kamma?

I think that "intention" can become kamma, but maybe not "intention alone" (or maybe I didn't understand what you were asking when you wrote, "intention alone").

Intentions have consequences (e.g. if I intend to do something and then I do it -- then "doing it" is a consequence of "the intention", not to mention a proof of the intention, and the "doing" has further consequences).

Also thoughts are themselves consequences (e.g. if I do something unwise and as a consequence have confused thoughts; or, do something benevolent and as a consequence have a better memory).

In your OP you seemed to be hypothesizing a thought without any consequence (e.g. "intention alone without engaging in action") ... and I think that, "no, kamma is defined as action".

I think that kamma in Buddhism is complicated:

  • It may ripen soon or (much) later
  • It's not the only thing that affects e.g. birth
  • Being able to see kamma is a supernatural power

Given that things happen as a result of "conditions", I think of kamma as a "condition" of things happening.

I don't have a precise explanation of karma so I didn't want to say much about it. I think that one important thing to know about karma is that Buddhism is down on (i.e. it argues against) the two extremes of "eternalism" and "nihilism" ... one example of "nihilism" might be the belief that actions have no consequences (and maybe that therefore nothing matters) ... whereas Buddhism teaches that such nihilism is wrong view and that (on the contrary) actions (and intentions) matter and have consequences.

If you look at the second factor of the eightfold way ("Right Intention") part of the definition is,

Cultivating skillful ways of thought

[He thinks,] 'May these beings be free from animosity, free from oppression, free from trouble, and may they look after themselves with ease!' He has right view and is not warped in the way he sees things: 'There is what is given, what is offered, what is sacrificed. There are fruits & results of good & bad actions. There is this world & the next world. There is mother & father.

... where "good and bad actions" links to the description of kamma.


Perhaps I really didn't understand your question though. E.g. you wrote...

If intention alone is karma whether we engage in action in though, word or deed what is the point of good deed? Can we just "think" that we are helping the poor and have good karma?

It's not clear to me what you mean: how can you think you're doing something without actually doing it?

I thought it might be a partial answer to your question though: to say that 'kamma' and 'intention' aren't synonyms. Maybe kamma is a consequence of intention, e.g. as described in the first verse of the dhammapada ... but a hypothetical "intention without consequence", if there even is such a thing, doesn't sound to me like the conventional meaning of the word kamma.

Maybe the intended meaning of your question was a thought experiment, though, i.e. a way to ask whether the very intention changes anything apart from (or as well as) whatever mundane effect the generous action has? In that case the answer might be yes: e.g. an intention to be kind might be related to your view (e.g. self-view). Whether the intention is a consequence of view, or whether intention has as its consequence an alteration of your view, is harder to say ... to resolve that (logical) difficulty it's easier to say that they (intention and view) arise together, are conditions of each other.

  • So in no way an intention become kamma? – Heisenberg Feb 20 '16 at 9:43
  • I edited the answer to try to address your comment. – ChrisW Feb 20 '16 at 10:54
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Lanka Feb 23 '16 at 12:12
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Yes, we just thinking is kamma, too. It is called "manokamma".

In abhidhamma, concentration meditation and insight meditation, are just manokamma. The practitioner has word, deed, and mind to develop thinking, especially wisdom-mind-factor. The practitioner can not develop meditation by word or deed.

My english is terrible, therefore I can not understand the other questions, so I will answer just what I understood.

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Thoughts alone become Karma whether they are followed by actions & words or not. Lets see why....


As you already know mind is capable of generating Karma just like the body. When a body does something it is not Body's thought, it is just the execution of thoughts that turns into actions. Same theory applies to the words.

As thoughts are followed by the actions feelings are followed By thoughts. Thoughts are the execution of mind's activities. Just like actions & words are the executions of mind's activities.

As Lord Buddha taught there are three types of thoughts...

1:-Thoughts that create "Attachment"

2:-Thoughts that create "Collision"

3:-Thoughts that are "Neutral"

Above 1 & 2 create Karma but the 3rd does not because it is neutral and therefore unable to create attachments,collisions or deceiving thoughts.

So if any thought that can be taken into the categories 1 & 2 obviously create Karma.


Can thoughts of doing good alone Create Karma?

Yes, If you want a good Example look at the very famous "Meththa Meditation" (also known as - Loving Kindness Meditation). Even the thoughts of doing a good thing create good Karma. And one must be aware that this is a two way street, meaning thinking of bad creates bad karma too.

This is a very important concept only found in Buddhism. Even though there are few other religions that use the word Karma they do not have a full definition on how exactly karma should be defined.

So my friend you should know....

The minute you start thinking or planing some good deed it create good karma.

The minute you plan bad it creates bad karma.

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    All fine aside of the "As Lord Buddha taught there are three types of thoughts..." Which falls out of the context of the rest. Thought is usually a sankhara come into being by touch and this or that will. There are indifferent thoughts, constructions one does not erect till an end, just staying confuse. Not sure if the idea of neutral thought is good, since just a thought of an awakened mind would not cause kamma or without the roots lobha, dosa, moha. But are they generally without of moha, this indifferent thought? – Samana Johann Feb 23 '16 at 0:58
  • When Upasaka (Atma forgot the name, sorry, maybe once again) looks at this table, he will see that even this generally called "neutral" things have impact not to speak of those rooted in not knowing. – Samana Johann Feb 23 '16 at 1:03
  • Bhante, it is nice to see you again. By three types of thoughts i meant a simple general categorization of all thoughts (Thoughts that get attached, Thoughts that collide, Thoughts that are born from wrong perceptions {Loba,Dosa,Moha} ). I did not intended to imply Neutral thoughts are good. I completely agree with the comment of yours. What i meant was that generally Neutral thoughts are not as much effective in generating Karma compared to Loba & Dosa. My point of reference is "Samadhi Meditation", In it thoughts are Neutral and therefore does not create Karma....... @SamanaJohann – Theravada Feb 24 '16 at 22:33
  • ....Because Neutral thoughts are not coming from the bad roots (Loba Dosa Moha). @SamanaJohann – Theravada Feb 24 '16 at 22:38
  • This is only My understanding. Please correct me if i'm wrong. @SamanaJohann – Theravada Feb 24 '16 at 22:39

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