I ask this question because I assumed the importance of motivation being paramount in determining the virtue/non-virtue of karmic action was widely shared among all traditions. Anyway, I'd like to know if this assumption is correct from practitioners of other traditions.

So how important is motivation in determining whether a particular action is virtuous or non-virtuous?

Are there any actions where motivation is not important? Are there any actions where it is the only thing that is important? Something in between?


There are two presentations:

  1. The general presentation, and
  2. The particular presentation.

In general, we say that a non-virtue is a non-virtue regardless of one's intentions. For instance, we say that killing is a non-virtue regardless of one's motivation, regardless of consequences, etc. This is why, in the great and middle-length Lam rims, Je Tsongkhapa simply explains how important the motivation is in determining, not whether an action is virtuous, but whether an action is heavy.

However, the general presentation does not stand in debate. Therefore, by digging a little, you find presentations that contradict the general statement.

The Lam rim gives the general presentation. It says that there are two types of non-virtue:

  1. Deeds wrong by nature, or 'natural misdeeds' (rang bzhin gyi kha na ma tho ba)
  2. Deeds wrong by prohibition, or 'proscribed misdeeds' (bcas pa'i kha na ma tho ba)

An example of natural misdeed is killing. An example of proscribed misdeed is for a monk to eat after mid-day.

According to the Lam rim, a natural misdeed is a non-virtue regardless of perception, attitude, affliction, and conclusion. However, a non-virtue can be more or less heavy, depending on (1) perception, (2) attitude, (3) affliction, and (4) conclusion. For instance, Killing unintentionally... or under duress... is not as heavy as killing willingly, intentionally. However, in any case it is a non-virtue. Here, with respect to perception, Je Tsongkhapa says:

In some cases, there may be a specific motivation. For example, someone may plan to kill only someone called Devadatta, and he or she then commits murder. However, if this person mistakes Yajnadatta for Devadatta and kills him instead, there is no [completeplete infraction with all its aspects fullfilled.]

This is the general presentation. It is given in the context of practices common with beings of small capacities. In the context of bodhisattva practices, however, things are different.

In the Book of Kadam, Atisha says:

As for someone like you, Drom, who has secured a firm ground, who does not even care to take birth in cyclic existence, who focuses exclusively on other’s welfare, you can engage in the seven nonvirtues by relating them to [the application of] skillful means. Those are [only] similitudes of nonvirtue.

And in the footnote, it says:

Here the text is alluding to an important aspect of the bodhisattva ethics, according to which highly evolved bodhisattvas can creatively engage in the seven nonvirtuous actions—the three bodily acts of killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct and the four verbal deeds of telling lies, divisive speech, harsh speech, and frivolous speech— on the basis of the principle of skillful means. In fact, if the situation demands a deliberate violation of the ethics of restraint from any of these seven nonvirtuous acts, such as when the well-being of a large number of other sentient beings is involved, refraining from the act is actually a transgression of the bodhisattvas vows. For a detailed discussion of this important aspect o f the bodhisattva ethics, especially with reference to their key scriptural sources in the Mahayana sutras, see Mark Tatz s Asangds Chapter on Ethics with the Commentary ofTsong-Kha-Pa, pp. 211-17.

The meaning is that a non-virtue conjoined with the wisdom of emptiness and bodhicitta is a similitude of non-virtue. It looks like a non-virtuous actions but it is not. One has to keep in mind that such do not occur prior to the Mahayana path of seeing. A non-virtue in the continuum of anyone but a bodhisattva on any of the ten grounds is a non-virtue regardless of one's intention.

See the topic: How does upaya (skillful means) feature in Tibetan Buddhism?


Intention is indeed the most important element of karma.

From Dhammapada 1:

On one occasion, Thera Cakkhupala came to pay homage to the Buddha at the Jetavana monastery. One night, while pacing up and down in meditation, the thera accidentally stepped on some insects. In the morning, some bhikkhus visiting the thera found the dead insects. They thought ill of the thera and reported the matter to the Buddha. The Buddha asked them whether they had seen the thera killing the insects. When they answered in the negative, the Buddha said, "Just as you had not seen him killing, so also he had not seen those living insects. Besides, as the thera had already attained arahatship he could have no intention of killing and so was quite innocent." On being asked why Cakkhupala was blind although he was an arahat, the Buddha told the following story:

Cakkhupala was a physician in one of his past existences. Once, he had deliberately made a woman patient blind. That woman had promised him to become his slave, together with her children, if her eyes were completely cured. Fearing that she and her children would have to become slaves, she lied to the physician. She told him that her eyes were getting worse when, in fact, they were perfectly cured. The physician knew she was deceiving him, so in revenge, he gave her another ointment, which made her totally blind. As a result of this evil deed the physician lost his eyesight many times in his later existences.

Then the Buddha spoke in verse as follows:
Verse 1: All mental phenomena have mind as their forerunner; they have mind as their chief; they are mind-made. If one speaks or acts with an evil mind, 'dukkha' follows him just as the wheel follows the hoofprint of the ox that draws the cart.

Also showing the importance of intention is Dhammapada 124:

At Rajagaha there was once a rich man's daughter who had attained Sotapatti Fruition as a young girl. One day, Kukkutamitta, a hunter, came into town in a cart to sell venison. Seeing Kukkutamitta the hunter, the rich young lady fell in love with him immediately; she followed him, married him and lived with him in a small village. As a result of that marriage, seven sons were born to them and in course of time, all the sons got married. One day, the Buddha surveyed the world early in the morning with his supernormal power and found that the hunter, his seven sons and their wives were due for attainment of Sotapatti Fruition. So, the Buddha went to the place where the hunter had set his trap in the forest. He put his footprint close to the trap and seated himself under the shade of a bush, not far from the trap.

When the hunter came, he saw no animal in the trap; he saw the footprint and surmised that someone must have come before him and let cut the animal. So, when he saw the Buddha under the shade of the bush, he took him for the man who had freed the animal from his trap and flew into a rage. He took out his bow and arrow to shoot at the Buddha, but as he drew his bow, he became immobilized and remained fixed in that position like a statue. His sons followed and found their father; they also saw the Buddha at some distance and thought he must be the enemy of their father. All of them took out their bows and arrows to shoot at the Buddha, but they also became immobilized and remained fixed in their respective postures. When the hunter and his sons failed to return, the hunter's wife followed them into the forest, with her seven daughters-in-law. Seeing her husband and all her sons with their arrows aimed at the Buddha, she raised both her hands and shout: "Do not kill my father."

When her husband heard her words, he thought, "This must be my father-in-law", and her sons thought, "This must be our grandfather"; and thoughts of loving-kindness came into them. Then the lady said to them, ''Put away your bows and arrows and pay obeisance to my father". The Buddha realized that, by this time, the minds of the hunter and his son; had softened and so he willed that they should be able to move and to put away their bows and arrows. After putting away their bows and arrows, they paid obeisance to the Buddha and the Buddha expounded the Dhamma to them. In the end, the hunter, his seven sons and seven daughters-in-law, all fifteen of them, attained Sotapatti Fruition.

Then the Buddha returned to the monastery and told Thera Ananda and other bhikkhus about the hunter Kukkutamitta and his family attaining Sotapatti Fruition in the early part of the morning. The bhikkhus then asked the Buddha, "Venerable Sir, is the wife of the hunter who is a sotapanna, also not guilty of taking life, if she has been getting things like nets, bows and arrows for her husband when he goes out hunting?" To this question the Buddha answered, "Bhikkhus, the sotapannas do not kill, they do not wish others to get killed. The wife of the hunter was only obeying her husband in getting things for him. Just as the hand that has no wound is not affected by poison, so also, because she has no intention to do evil she is not doing any evil."

Then the Buddha spoke in verse as follows:
Verse 124: If there is no wound on the hand, one may handle poison; poison does not affect one who has no wound; there can be no evil for one who has no evil intention.

  • Are you speaking from point of view of Theravada? Does Theravada accept that killing a sentient being with a completely pure and perfect intention is a similitude of non-virtue? – Yeshe Tenley Apr 30 '18 at 13:29
  • 3
    @YesheTenley Yes, that's Theravada. No, Theravada doesn't accept intentionally killing a being (see also Can Buddhism give any justification for military violence?). In the first story, Thera Cakkhupala was blind and had no intention at all of killing, and he stepped on them accidentally. And in the second story, the wife herself wasn't killing at all (Theravada does allow people to e.g. buy meat as long as they don't ask someone to kill the animal for their sake). – ChrisW Apr 30 '18 at 15:11

I know I have acted in ways that were bourne of nothing but good intent, yet caused great suffering in those close to me.

I do not feel guilty about that, but I do feel sad. Intent is crucial, but ignorance can live underneath, leading us to act in ways that seem reasonable, but actually cause harm.

In the end, what is it you want? Do you want to look after your own karmic legacy, or do you want to reduce the suffering of those around you?

If the latter, then intent is very important, but the actual consequences matter too.

There was a case where the Buddha taught an insight practice to some monks. He came back a few days later and they had committed suicide. He undoubtedly learned from this! So, in terms of consequences, none of us are immune from 'unexpected' ones. Yet we can continue to learn, and find ways to increase the effectiveness of our actions in bringing about increased wellbeing in those around us.

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