According to one of many sources, the definition of intention is described as Right intention is the intention and resolve to give up the causes of suffering, to give up ill-will and to adopt harmlessness. It contrasts with wrong intention, which involves craving for worldly things (wealth, sex, power) and the wish to harm.

What is unclear is whether intention is an act or thought that precedes or follows rational thought?

My understanding is that intention plays a critical role in one karma. If my thought is the result of anger however i do not have intent to harm is that not the result of rational thought?

If i do act irrationally, to save or protect a life, is that not intention without thought?


To add to ChrisW's question on clarification, when i say that if my thought is of anger e.g. how this person would disappear or no longer be around, but this is not followed by action because rationally i do not wish to cause harm.

The second example of irrational thought is that when caught in the spur of the moment, i may say or do things however this is to protect a child.

  • I hope I understood the question in the second paragraph, i.e. "precedes or follows?"; but I don't think I understood the last two paragraphs. I don't know, maybe adding a for-example would help to illustrate the last two paragraphs.
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 10, 2015 at 11:23
  • @ChrisW - Apologies. I have now added examples. Hopefully that provides further context. Let me know if it still unclear and i will endeavor to update it further.
    – Motivated
    Commented May 11, 2015 at 7:38

4 Answers 4


Lets take 2 examples where the action are the same:

  1. A surgeon takes a knife and cuts through a person's stomach to save his life
  2. A robber takes a knife and cuts through a person's stomach kill him and take his belongings

In both cases the action is the same but what differs is the intentions. Hence it is the intention that counts.

Now lets take another example.

A baby squirrel falls into the sea and is washed away. The mother squirrel dips her tail into the sea and runs to the shaking off water with the intention of drying water of the whole sea.

The intention is good but irrational. Regardless of rationality the Karmic effects would nevertheless good as the intention is good.

  • Sirinath Salpitiko - Thanks. What about thoughts? Thoughts come and go and from what i have gathered so far is that one has no control over them. So what happens when you have a thought that is unpleasant or brings to surface bad memories?
    – Motivated
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 18:18
  • I have covered thoughts in many of my other answers. Perhaps you can scan through them. Commented May 14, 2015 at 10:51

Dependant origination(DO): depending on contact feeling arise, depending on feeling craving arise, ..craving..clinging, ..clinging..becoming, ..becoming.. there is birth. etc..

From contact until the point of birth there is no kamma (to be precise it's becoming).

Birth of what?

Birth of another thought, of a person committing an action good or bad.

Feeling of anger leads to birth of angry thoughts. If the thought is hold onto and contact (bringing to mind of that thought), then feelings arise again( it may again be anger or sympathy depending on the thought) and the whole chain of DO repeats.

Through mindfulness of feeling we let it ceased before it goes to craving(or aversion).

When there is craving we let it go before it becomes clinging. When there is clinging we let it go before it progresses to becoming. When becoming, we let it go before the birth of another thought or action.

Intention comes after becoming and when mindfulness is strong there is some space to reflect before the birth of acting. That's how I understand DO to operate.

  • @Samadhi - Isn't it the thoughts that lead to the emotions and not the other way around?
    – Motivated
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 17:55
  • It always starts with contact followed by feelings, but most don't see it because it went that fast and they are aware only of the thoughts, which then generate further feelings. Suppose there is someone you hate/love when you see him/her which comes first thoughts or feelings. There are times when we like or hate a particular viewpoint then it is mental object (thought) which is the object, the mind contacts. Then feeling arise from contacting that viewpoint..
    – Samadhi
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 19:06
  • Enlightened beings hold no view as views are a conditioning from the past which will lead to discord.
    – Samadhi
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 19:17

When you think rationally, you may not have the intention to harm others. But in a moment of anger when you are not thinking rationally, you might suddenly have the intention followed by the action to cause harm.

Harm caused by anger to one who is angry is described in the Kodhana Sutta, that I quote here:

An angry person is ugly & sleeps poorly.
Gaining a profit, he turns it into a loss,
having done damage with word & deed.
A person overwhelmed with anger
    destroys his wealth.
Maddened with anger,
    he destroys his status.
Relatives, friends, & colleagues avoid him.
    Anger brings loss.
    Anger inflames the mind.
He doesn't realize
that his danger is born from within.
    An angry person doesn't know his own benefit.
    An angry person doesn't see the Dhamma.
A man conquered by anger is in a mass of darkness.
He takes pleasure in bad deeds as if they were good,
but later, when his anger is gone,
he suffers as if burned with fire.
He is spoiled, blotted out,
like fire enveloped in smoke.

When anger spreads,
when a man becomes angry,
he has no shame, no fear of evil,
is not respectful in speech.
For a person overcome with anger,
nothing gives light.

"According to one of many sources, the definition of intention is described as 'Right intention [...]"

Notice that the source you link to is not defining "intention" (aka "volition" from pali cetanā, or the related "volitional formations", "kamma formations" or "formations" from pali saṅkhāra), the psychological aspect of the mind associated to kamma, but "Right Intention" (also translated as "right thought", "right aspiration", "right resolve" from pali sammā sankappa) which describes instructions to develop oneself in the path, not an element of the psychological framework.

"If my thought is the result of anger however i do not have intent to harm is that not the result of rational thought?"

Just to contextualize:

[The Buddha:] "What do you think, Rahula: What is a mirror for?"

[Rahula:] "For reflection, sir."

[The Buddha:] "In the same way, Rahula, bodily acts, verbal acts, and mental acts are to be done with repeated reflection.

"Whenever you want to perform a bodily act, you should reflect on it: 'This bodily act I want to perform — would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful bodily act, with painful consequences, painful results?' [...]

"If, on reflection, you know that it is leading to self-affliction, to affliction of others, or both... you should give it up. But if on reflection you know that it is not... you may continue with it."

-- MN 61

If we understand a thought as an (volitional) act of angry thinking with intention to harm, and upon seeing the danger in such thinking, one abandons the intention to harm, you could call this reflection a "rational thought". Afterwards, while still angry, if one has another thought, a non-harming thought, this is another act of thinking with another intention behind it.

I guess you could say this second intention is the "result of a rational thought", but only to the extent you're explaning that this previous reflection influenced it.

But to the extent that "result" means a much closer relationship, I think it would risk hiding important details:

"Intention [cetanā], I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect.

"And what is the cause by which kamma comes into play? Contact is the cause by which kamma comes into play.

-- AN 6.63

"And what, bhikkhus, is dependent origination? With ignorance as condition, volitional formations [saṅkhārā] come to be; [...]

-- SN 12.2

"If i do act irrationally, to save or protect a life, is that not intention without thought?"

If one acts "irrationally to save a life", I'd say he is acting conscious and deliberately, not irrationally: that's his intention after all, "to save" (*). If he saves "by accident", then I'd say it was an unreflected, unaware act (with regards to that specific outcome, at least), with no intention to save, but with intention to, say, obtain something else (which, by accident, resulted in saving).

From my understanding of Theravada point of view, (and grossly speaking) intention is always behind an (bodily, verbal, mental) act. Intentions, however, are subject to be reshaped by one's own will.

Finally, intentions may be succeeded by careful reflection, or not. They may be shaped by previous introspection, just by deep habits, etc. or any combination of it.

(*) He may be "irrational" in his method, not in absense of intention or thought.

  • Do you mean to say that intention is both thought and act? So if i have a thought of anger however this is not followed through with an act, what does this refer to? If i am angry or unhappy however have not ill intent with thought or act, what does this refer to?
    – Motivated
    Commented May 11, 2015 at 7:34
  • No [to the first question], but a thought is an act -- and a body action, or verbalization is another act. Theravada understands the sutta above as it says: kamma is done through body, speech and mind. One's thought of anger not followed by any bodily action to harm, is still an act of thought of anger, and it is kamma. Of course, thinking about doing harm is karmically different than bodily doing harm. But both of these (thinking and doing) are considered harmful -- both make you subject to experience the result of these kamma.
    – user382
    Commented May 11, 2015 at 13:35
  • If you are (feel?) angry or unhappy with no intent to harm, I don't see how this would refer to an act or intention. But if you think angry and unhappy thoughts, these are considered acts. The angry and unhappy feelings might be better explained by the chain of vijñāna, contact, vedanā, sañña, ....
    – user382
    Commented May 11, 2015 at 13:43
  • If thought is an act and if act is linked to karmic accountability, i fail to see how you can avoid it. Every literature i have read so far suggests that thoughts come and go. You can't stop it and avoid it. All you can do is be the observer. Not to participate in unhealthy thoughts be it anger, sadness, etc.
    – Motivated
    Commented May 11, 2015 at 18:08
  • My understanding is that acts originated in a mind with delusion, greed or ill will are "bound to samsara" and are seeds for kamma fruits. But Thoughts and any other action from an emancipated mind are distinct in this regard. So im not suggesting thoughts are something to get rid of, as the ultimate goal, nor that thoughts are "bad" by their own nature
    – user382
    Commented May 11, 2015 at 18:20

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