Does Buddhism believe that karma (action) without intention is forming merit/demerit? Doesn't the term "karma" have merit/demerit built in as an intrinsic quality?


3 Answers 3


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

Also from Cetana Sutta (SN 12.38) below, we see that intention (cetana) provides a landing point for the continuation of karmic consciousness.

[the Blessed One said,] "What one intends, what one arranges, and what one obsesses about: This is a support for the stationing of consciousness. There being a support, there is a landing [or: an establishing] of consciousness. When that consciousness lands and grows, there is the production of renewed becoming in the future. When there is the production of renewed becoming in the future, there is future birth, aging & death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. Such is the origination of this entire mass of suffering & stress.
Cetana Sutta (SN 12.38)

The story of blind elder monk Cakkhupala from Dhammapada 1 shows the importance of intention. It also shows that unintended action has no consequence.

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."

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.
Dhammapada 1

Also the story of the hunter's wife from Dhammapada 124 shows the importance of intention. It also shows that unintended action has no consequence.

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."

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.
Dhammapada 124

So, intention is kamma. You can see in this question that buying frozen meat from the supermarket does not incur the kamma of killing, because there was no intention or action to kill.

But does this mean that intention without acting upon the intention can result in kamma?

When a warrior strives & exerts himself in battle, his mind is already seized, debased, & misdirected by the thought: 'May these beings be struck down or slaughtered or annihilated or destroyed. May they not exist.' If others then strike him down & slay him while he is thus striving & exerting himself in battle, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the hell called the realm of those slain in battle.
Yodhajiva Sutta

Here, the warrior has the intention. But when he strives and exerts himself based on the intention, then the fruit of the kamma reaches its peak.

Despite this, intentional thoughts are also intentional kamma that can result in suffering.

After doing an intentional kamma by way of body, speech and mind (whose result is) to be felt as pleasure, he feels pleasure; after doing an intentional kamma by way of body, speech and mind (whose result is) to be felt as pain, he feels pain; after doing an intentional kamma by way of body, speech and mind (whose result is) to be felt as neither-pain-nor-pleasure, he feels neither-pain-nor-pleasure.
Mahakammavibhanga Sutta

  • where you state according to the Mahakammavibhanga Sutta, "After doing an intentional deed to be experienced as pleasant...one feels pleasure." This seems quite vague. Does it imply that all intention with pleasant outcomes have pleasant outcomes? This seems wrong in all cases, but has some narrow truth.
    – blue_ego
    Nov 5, 2021 at 18:35
  • where you state according to Bhumija Sutta: how can body in and of itself be intentional? body is of constituents, no? are intentions not psychological at their core?
    – blue_ego
    Nov 5, 2021 at 18:40
  • another translation of the same discourse coming from dhammatalks.org states it as such: "Having intentionally done—with body, with speech, or with mind—an action that is to be felt as pain, one experiences pain. this way of saying seems more general...
    – blue_ego
    Nov 5, 2021 at 19:57
  • @lilredindy I removed Bhumija Sutta to reduce confusion and changed the Mahakammavibhanga Sutta to the Thanissaro translation to be clearer. Basically intentional kamma by way of thoughts, words and physical actions, will produce kammic results. It has to be intentional.
    – ruben2020
    Nov 6, 2021 at 6:25

Good Lilredindy may have point out a very important convention in regard of actions done by one not freed from cravings and done by one how has gone beyond. For the fist the usual word used is 'kamma', while 'kiriya' is usually used to denote actions without being based on intention which are no more related to Greed, Aversion, Not-knowing.

It's not wrong assumed if saying 'Kamma is(requires) intention', or 'without in-tension there would be no kamma'. Yet, even an Arahat still holds on the Noble-kamma, the actions based on the Noble path, yet without personal consequences anymore.

One still focusing on desired effect might have difficulties to be clear about intent, confusing it with purpose (gain of certain objection).


It seems like according to the wiki, Buddhist karma is action driven by intention. Then the wiki goes on to refer to The Nibbedhika Sutta:

Intention (cetana) I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect.

This seems to say intentions are a form of karma, but not that all karmas are intentional. If intentions are psychological in nature, then it follows that mental activity is a form of karma as well. To say karma must be intentional may be a misinterpretation. Perhaps intention is getting at the root cause of karma (action).

Action done without knowing seems to have consequences. Perhaps in the way of a domino effect.

According to the same source, the term kriya may refer to activity whereas karma may refer to intentional activity. Thus the etymology - historical usage - of the word may be in question.

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