This is a third attempt at formulating a question. This question and this question have been asked, but not formulated in a way that conveyed the question.

So now, in a third attempt, the formulation shall be: what is volition?

EDIT: The answers still do satisfy the question in the mind, although they are answers to the question on 'paper'. Apologies for the lack of skill in phrasing the question. Let us see if the following clears up what is being asked:

Imagine life as a series of moments; one moment after another in a line infinitely long. Imagine that there is a decision that must be made, to chose A or B, both equally likely to be chosen (for whatever reason, such as lack of understanding which is the right choice). This decision is present only in a single moment within the infinite series of moments. What is that single moment of choice? What is that single moment made of, what substance, what phenomena? Who/What is doing the choosing? Why A over B, or B over A, if both are equally likely?

  • 2
    Good question! Some questions do not have particular, satisfying answers. Questions are tools. How can we truly understand how a shovel moves dirt? We can never fully know, because it would require knowing everything. Your quest--ion seems like that. Keep up the good work!
    – user2341
    May 2, 2017 at 11:56
  • Decision (choice) is a pause or break from the ever-ongoing stream of choiceless activity. This doing is done willingly apart from reflexive behavior like sneezing
    – blue_ego
    Jul 28, 2022 at 2:23

8 Answers 8


What is Volition?

‘It is volition, bikkhus, that I call kamma. For having willed, one acts by body, speech, or mind.’ – Buddha

Kamma is not fate. It literally means action, that is volitional action. A deed done deliberately through body, speech or mind. Every volitional action (except that of a Buddha or of an Arahant) is called Kamma. Kamma-formations (sa"nkhaara-cetanaa, 'karmic volition') constitutes both good and evil. In Karmic Volition (kusala Akusala Centanaa), good gets good, evil gets evil. Like attracts like. It is natural law that every action produces a certain effect.

Kamma denotes volition (cetanaa) and the other accompanying mental states found in any particular moral or immoral type of consciousness. Mind is the forerunner of all good and bad mental states. Cetanaa or volition is the most important of all mental states. It is this volition that constitutes Kamma, for the Buddha says - 'I declare that cetanaa (volition) is Kamma'. Mind precedes all actions and serves as the principal element both in performing and in assessing deeds. It is mind that rules and shapes action. Words and deeds are also produced by mind.

Volitional thought when occurring as kamma leading to rebirth on the sensuous plane, feeds and conditions sensuous existence. When occurring as kamma leading to rebirth on the fine-material or immaterial plane, it feeds and conditions the corresponding existence.

There are six classes of volitions (cetanaa): will directed to forms (ruupa-cetanaa), to sounds, odors, tastes, bodily impressions, and to mental objects. The `group of Mental Formations' (sankhaara-khandha) is a collective term for numerous functions or aspects of mental activity which, in addition to feeling and perception, are present in every single moment of consciousness. All such volitional constructs were conditioned by ignorance of the reality behind appearance. It is this ignorance that keeps us from making skillful decisions.

How the word functions in the "thought world" of the Dhamma?

When contact is there, these three things are born: feeling, perception and volition (vedana, sañña, and cetana). These three things are born dependent on contact. Therefore, when there is consciousness, all these factors arise: attention, contact, volition, perception and feeling, with a combination of the four great elements. Mentality (nama) consists of: feeling, perception, volition, contact, and attention – the same factors. Viññanam paccaya nama-rupam – dependent on consciousness, mentality and materiality arise.

The Buddha says ‘Bikkhus, I do not say that there is a termination of volitional kamma that has been done and accumulated as long as one has not experienced its results.’ Therefore, he stresses, that if you fear and detest suffering, do not commit evil deeds openly or secretly. From what we perceive we create sankhara (mental formations). If the mental factor was directed to a certain matter, on that occasion there is volitional activity, and this is called sankhara.

Sankhāra means either 'that which has been put together' or 'that which puts together'. To better understand the different ways that Sankhāra is described you could read ‘Anicca Vata Sankhara’ by Bhikkhu Bodhi. In the passive sense it refers to any compound form in the universe, a human being, or a thought. All these are sankhāras. All such things are impermanent, arising and passing away. Sankhāra is used in this first sense to describe the mental conditioning that gives any individual human being his or her unique character and make-up at any given time. In the active sense (sankhāra-kkandha) it refers to the form-creating faculty of mind (volition) that propels human beings along the process of becoming by means of actions of body and speech (kamma).

What is that single moment of choice?

The single moment is an intention (volitional effort) - a ‘Sankhāra’. So this single moment of choice – intention - needs to be skillful. An intention occurs according to what we perceive. Intentions occur about sounds, smells, tastes, and contacts that are recognized. When a mind’s thoughts are perceived, intentions occur according to those thoughts. All these intentions that are formed in various ways are Sanskhāra Upādānaskandha. The usual case is that the world is created within ownself as a result of ignorance. The consciousness created within ownself as volitional actions (sankhārā), proceeds on in search of worldly comforts sunk in the darkness of ignorance.

What is that single moment made of, what substance, what phenomena?

For an intention (volitional effort) to occur, feeling and perception should be in the mix. This is called contact. There are six kinds of contact. Contact of eye is the coming together and meeting of: eye, form and consciousness of eye. When we close our eyes, there is no contact of the eye, as consciousness of eye is not there at that moment to cognize a form. When there is the meeting of the three factors for contact of eye, then feeling, perception & intention (volitional effort) arises. The same is true for contact with the other five faculties: ear, nose, tongue, body and mind.

Who/What is doing the choosing?

There is no doer. This is dependent arising (paṭicca-samuppāda), the law of cause and effect, whereby everything that exists arises due to specific conditions. As for what is doing the choosing…. Buddha said: "cētanāhan bikkhavē kamman wadāmi" ('O' monks, I declare that the volitions are kamma). The arising of volition (cetanaa) is the result of mental factors. They may be wholesome or unwholesome intentions. Mental factors are not permanent, they constantly change. They are the result of desire.

For instance if our consciousness is with the physical food we consume, we have a desire for food. We derive pleasure from what we eat. We have a passion for what we eat. Thus our mind is attached to the food. When our mind is attached, consciousness arises and grows. It grows like a tree. Therefore the cause for the growth of consciousness is passion, delight or pleasure and craving. When consciousness arises, mentality-materiality (nama rupa) is established. It is a reaction in our body - contact and feelings have arisen automatically. There are six factors that manifest itself. The four elements that constitute our body - the material phenomena (rupa); contact (phassa), feeling (vedanaa), perception (sannaa), volition (cetanaa) and attentiveness (manasikara). This is Kamma in the making.

Why A over B, or B over A, if both are equally likely?

Your actions are the results of choices that come and go. You can change yourself through changes in your actions. Like the porridge in the story of Goldilocks, you have all kinds of choices, but what you want is the one that’s just right. You always shape your life by the choices you make in what you say and do. If you’re not convinced of the importance of your actions, your actions are careless. The usual culprits are distractions, either internal or external. The internal ones are other thoughts, other intentions. Usually we are not in charge of our thoughts and act impulsively. It is our cravings and our ignorance / Avijja (Avidya) that determine what those choices we make. A lot of them are buried in subconscious parts of your awareness. We shape our life by the choices we make in what we say and do.

The aggregate of volitional activities (sankharakkhandha) is a burden. Life demands that we satisfy our daily needs and desires and for that satisfaction we decide on A over B, or B over A. This choice gets encouragement from our volition prompted by desire.


Volition is an act of will or decision to act. The volition may be produced from both ignorance (not-knowing) & wisdom.

There are three kinds of actions born of volition: (i) thoughts; (ii) speech; (iii) physical movement. All actions start with a thought (mental action), which is why the Dhammapada states:

1. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

2. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow

It is crucial to distinguish between: (i) feelings, moods & drives; and (ii) thoughts.

Feelings (of pleasure & pain), moods & drives occur for a number of reasons: (i) having a nervous system that feels pleasure & pain; (ii) having in-born natural instinctual drives; and (iii) having conditioned drives or 'habits'. In short, 'nature & nurture'.

Thoughts & volition arise as a reaction to feelings, moods & drives. Buddhism teaches to have mindfulness & wisdom when feelings, moods & drives arise in order to not allow thought & volition to create suffering from those feelings, moods & drives. If the mind does not act upon feelings, moods & drives, particularly the moods & drives will start to lessen due to not being fed/nourished.

Bhikkhus, sensual thoughts arise with a source, not without a source; thought of ill will arises with a source, not without a source; thought of harming arises with a source, not without a source. And how is this so?

In dependence on the sensuality element there arises sensual perception; in dependence on the sensual perception there arises sensual intention; in dependence on the sensual intention/volition there arises sensual desire; in dependence on the sensual desire there arises sensual passion; in dependence on the sensual passion there arises a sensual quest.

In dependence on the ill will element there arises perception of ill will...

In dependence on the cruelty element there arises perception of harming...

In dependence on the renunciation element there arises perception of renunciation...

In dependence on the non-ill will element there arises perception of non-ill will...

In dependence on the harmlessness element there arises perception of harmlessness. In dependence on the perception of harmlessness there arises intention/volition of harmlessness; in dependence on intention of harmlessness there arises desire for harmlessness; in dependence on desire for harmlessness there arises passion for harmlessness; in dependence on passion for harmlessness there arises a quest for harmlessness.

SN 14.12


Whether choose A or B is depend upon volition, volition is, you have your choice whether choosing A or B. when lack of understating which one has to choose; possibly you may choose wrong without knowing it is harmful. But when you choose right that is "conscience" (sense of right and wrong).

Volition (will power, desire, incline, volition, inclination, intent, readiness) are you have chosen A or B even conscience or without lack of understanding. And conscience will come from inside of you with your soul.
That makes a choice.

Everyone's experience would vary because all aren't the same but on the way to Nirvana then we would choose A or B with a conscience.

My own experience as you asked in your prior question was if your friends offer marijuana my friends also offer me drinks but when I consume it, I felt desperate that I'm intoxicated. It depends upon our mind and our soul whether choose A or B for the rest of our life.


I think that "volition" is what Buddhists call "intention", especially in the context of "Right Intention" (and wrong intention).

This might be circular (therefore unsatisfactory) definition, i.e. "volition is intention"; but a benefit of that definition is that you can find a lot written about it, for example, RIGHT INTENTION (Samma Sankappa) by Bhikkhu Bodhi.

Intention follows view:

And how is right view the forerunner? One discerns wrong resolve as wrong resolve, and right resolve as right resolve.

Related terms include vitakka and chanda.

To answer previous questions (e.g. "how do you develop intention where there was previously no intention?"), I think that "view is the forerunner" implies it's by developing a (new) view. For example if you previously viewed, "that is desirable", but then develop a new view (a new understanding, a new perception) that "that is unsatisfactory", then a consequence of the new view might be new intention.

See also e.g. this answer (on the subject of "free will") which I think implies that "what is volition?" as an abstract question matters less than actual decisions and their consequences.


What is Volition?

Volition is movement. It gives birth to time and space, in which it moves in.

It's what turns and churns the wheel of samsara. Creating karma.

Volition is what operates when delusion is present.


Because that's what happens when there is no realisation of anicca, anatta, and dukkha.

When delusion is present.You don't see things as being inherently empty. Then "I am" is born.

Volition itself is not self.

What is that single moment of choice?

It's a moment that was conditioned/influenced by past choices. Choice doesn't arise singularly on its own. Every choice we made arose conditioned by something else. We pick A over B or vice versa because of past conditioning. Even when it's neutral, it's neutral because of something else.

What is that single moment made of, what substance, what phenomena?

It's as empty as the last moment and the next moment to come. There is no substance. It's an empty phenomenon. The only thing giving it substance or meaning is volition.

Who/What is doing the choosing?

It's not about who or what is doing the choosing, it's about how the choosing is being done.

For someone who is not enlightened, volition does the choosing.

For someone who is enlightened, volition does not do the choosing. So Who or what does the choosing for an enlightened being? As long as we are asking that question we are still standing at the wrong vantage point. We are still under the assumption that there is a "being behind our eyes" operating. When really no one gets enlightened. And if no one gets enlightened then who is doing the choosing? Well the answer is the choosing chooses itself. Experiences experience themselves. Consciousness is conscious of itself. Phenomenon happens to itself. All without us. The biggest illusion is thinking we're part of the picture. Nature follows its own rules. You don't need volition to do things. Try lifting your arm without willing to... see...lol. I think NIKE sums it up well: Just Do It. You don't need volition to make decisions either. So it's not about who or what does the choosing but HOW the choosing is being done.

  • 1
    I like your tag: I think NIKE sums it up well.Just Do It. :) However, who is writing that (your) answer? The answer answering the answer itself?? ;)- Jan 10, 2017 at 12:04
  • What do you mean by " empty phenomenon" do you mean "noumenon" if not then there seems to be some contradiction how can there be empty manifestation?
    – user10552
    Jan 10, 2017 at 19:04
  • @ Bhumishu 米殊 Conceptually,Akasha is sitting and writing an answer. But who/what is Akasha?Is Akasha the hands writing,is Akasha the thoughts being written unto a piece of paper, is Akasha the physical body sitting down.If Akasha is the physical body..which part can you find Akasha? Is it the eyes,or the hair,or nails,which one is Akasha. If you break down the process where is Akasha?
    – Akasha
    Jan 12, 2017 at 2:23
  • @ Bhumishu 米殊There is no self-involved in the process of writing down a thought. Writing writes and thoughts think,body moves,consciousness is conscious.It is their nature.What we call self is a collection of processes that is constantly changing.If that is self then which one is it.Is it the self one second ago or the self one second to come.Which one is the real Akasha.Both Akasha and the thoughts being written are changing. But because delusion is present,volition is present. And volition think it generates everything when it itself is generated by delusion.
    – Akasha
    Jan 12, 2017 at 2:23
  • @user10552.Yes it’s more a noumenon.But also empty as in it’s not self as we tend to want to own experiences.
    – Akasha
    Jan 12, 2017 at 2:50

what is volition?

Simply put it it is the intention to act. The intention gives arise to fabrications / conditioning which manifests them self later as Karmic results.

What is that single moment of choice?

Now or the present moment is the single moment or choice and you cannot change the past or time travel to do something in the future.

What is that single moment made of, what substance, what phenomena?

This single moment is made of contact. As every mind state arises due to contact. The substance of the moment is that you make the mental examination is this stimuli arising from contact favorable, unfavorable or neutral and reacting with sensations or it being present if favorable evaluation, unpleasant if it is an unfavorable evaluation and neutral if it is a neutral evasion. Pleasant feeling leads to craving and clinging and unpleasantness lead to aversion and neutral feeling leads to delusion. This keeps creates future contact and experiences which are entirely unsatisfactory.

Who/What is doing the choosing?

The person experiencing the contact makes a choice. Due to past habits we we tend to make our choices reactively. The objective is the make the choice such that what when future contact and experiences manifest themselves these would be pleasant.

Why A over B, or B over A, if both are equally likely?

What is most likely is you habitual or reflexive reaction. With much effort you can change this to one would be conducive for the future.

Say someone spills a drink on you. You think the person is careless and you beat him up. Beating someone up will give bad results. The person could immediately retaliate. If the previous would be your natural response if you make a choice to compose yourself then will not happen but the mental intention will carry some Karma. With more practice you take a step beyond there even the invention to assault the person does not arise you do not create any Karma.


What is volition?

Volition is the result of the 'stubborn-ed' "Self". Yes, Buddhist teaching is "non-self". But before you are enlightened, after you become one of the "sentient beings" (眾生), you have a "self" - literally speaking. This is from the mechanism of the 7th vijnana, an interplay with other faculties. While you can use this to attain Buddha-hood, Bodhisattva vowed to save all sentients with this; it will get you trapped in the Samsara as well.


Further Elaboration:

Here are the words related to "volition":

  • 執 clinging, grasping, holding-onto
  • 念 thinking, minding (it's hard to translation, the character is formed by the "heart" (心) at the bottom; the "now" (今) at the top, thus this is an abstract word like saying "citta (heart) now", ie, at this moment the mind/heart dwelt.
  • 願 wishing, willing

I learnt from this forum that there are a lot of issues related to whether there is volition when if it is "not-Self". This is my first time to participate in English discussion on Buddhism. For some reasons and for some people that they discard Mahayana and Chinese Sutras simply they are Mahayana and Chinese, I have to declare that my opinion is based on what I learnt thus it's Mahayana and from Chinese Sutras. I would say that volition should never be an issue to exist hand-in-hand with "not-Self", it could be resulted from mis-understanding Buddha's teaching when reading the - most likely English translated - Sutras. I discovered a contradictory translation initially when compared Chinese with the English Sutra in posts here and here. This still needs to elaborate and cross-check to ensure.

In short, "I" exists even it is "not-Self". This "I" is created by all the 8 vijnanas when they are "polluted", thus this "I" is not-true but it does exist (Something can still exist even it is not true, right? All the people and events in the movies but the movie is just a movie, not true; likewise a lie can be told and heard but it's a lie; someone can act in accordance to the lie if he/she doesn't know it's a lie). That's why the Dharma always uses the metaphor of dreaming (in samsara) and awaken (enlightenment) to describe the Path to Liberation.

Now since we can allow this "I" exists, there this "I" is the master of all when living in this world, "I" is the doer and "I" make the choice of what to do for "I" is the subjectivity to "animate" all the phenomena that's lack of the "Self", ie, "not-Self". As we talk about "not-Self" thus impermanent, inconstant, subject to change; this subjectivity is interacting with to achieve the "changes", else nothing will change/ (or we don't know since an observer is required to report), then "not-Self" will be permanent/ (or we don't know since an observer is required to report), right?

Therefore volition is "I" it's intention/choice/preference/insisting, ie, will.

What is that single moment of choice? ... Why A over B, or B over A, if both are equally likely?

When a thought arises, it's making the judgement: "choice". Buddha said that there are 84000 (means many many) thoughts in a single breathe, some you are aware, some you are not. This "I"'s existence is fed by these thoughts 念. When a particular moment required a choice, first of all, it is conditioned by Karma. That is the force, tendency that's accumulated in previous lives. For instance, you naturally like A dislike B, because the past Karma the memories stored in your consciousness/subconsciousness/collective consciousness/group consciousness related to A and B dictated. Most of the time, when someone are not acting with awareness/mindfulness, they will be taken by the Karma. Like in fact B is good for you but you will choose A, following your Karma/ habit (執, holding onto biased view without awareness). When "I" is in awareness, then you can choose consciously (念, awareness at the moment).

However, this is not the ultimate, since "I" is the result of "pollution", thus your judgement is "colored", these "colors" are from the 5 aggregrations and the 6th vijnana and the subjectivity (that's needed to make sense of what perceived, like the pole to lift up the earth for Archimedes) of the 7th vijnana, since the 7th vijnana is the house of "I". In fact, as we learnt in the Dharma, "not-Self" is the ultimate truth. Therefore with all these "mal-functions" of the vijnanas we created the world (samsara) and thinking there is an "I" existed, like someone in a dream. That's why the Buddha called these, the 5 aggregations and 6th vijnana, are the thieves.

But don't "despise" or be afraid of this "I", the Bodhisattva made the vow from the volition of "I", and you make wishes by it too. Until someone reached Buddha-hood, this "not-Self" state cannot be achieved. Therefore Buddha is all-knowing since there is none of the "pollutions" or "colors lens" in all the faculties/vijnanas, in fact a Buddha doesn't use any of the vijnanas to perceive but still perceive. These vijnanas are names only, a tool for the practitioner. Therefore in the Lankavatara Sutra or Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment it is said that using the illusory "I" to cultivate for reaching the ultimate truth/ liberation. It seems contradictory but Buddha has explaint why and how does it work, it's too complex to elaborate here. But remembered that Form is Empty, Empty is Form from the Heart Sutra, you may get more understanding out of it. Like placebo will have effect on illness, illusion could be "consolidated" to something "real", ie, thoughts can become things, therefore things are in fact thoughts, ie, illusions. Modern physics is coming closer and closer to see this, atom, electron, neutrino... observed further then matters are in fact "not solid" but just vibration... empty. A lucid account has been given in the Surangama Sutra, about how the world was created, from "emptiness" to "full of things", how the Four Greats (attributes, not really the fire water wind earth we used in common language) work, etc.

Could you expand on "it will get you trapped in the Samsara as well"? What will trap? How will it trap?

Now it's easy to see that "I" is the answer. But we can't get rid of it, literally speaking.

I hope these clumsy words help. Don't take into the words, but into the thoughts inspired by these words.

  • thank you. Could you expand on "it will get you trapped in the Samsara as well"? What will trap? How will it trap?
    – Anton
    Jan 5, 2017 at 18:36
  • @Andrey apologize for the late reply. i will put my answer to the elaboration section. Jan 10, 2017 at 8:19

You have hit upon a Vexing Question. The solution is to change the focus of your attention to something non-vexing.

I was told about the idea of Character, Story, Texture by Bart Marshall and Deborah Westmoreland. (Perhaps it came from Richard Rose originally.)
- Character means the person in the role of 'you'.
- Story means thoughts and ideas that you tell yourself and others.
- Texture is the experience you are having at the moment, "how things are".

Story keeps us stuck, abandon it. I was told: "decline to answer questions that bring up Story." This gets you unstuck. Character is simply the intersection of what and when, how you respond, choose, etc. Observe, but be unattached to it: "Oh, look what he is doing this time!" Texture is experience. "Why would we want Texture to flatline?"

With these three ideas / tools, your question will resolve itself eventually. It does not have a direct answer.

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