Having read multiple sources about karma, there appear to be different interpretations. Some suggest that physical volitional acts bear the seeds of karma while others such as this one, suggest that karma is borne by thoughts.

This is extremely confusing especially for someone new to the concepts since there doesn't appear to be an authoritative answer or reply.

If there are "unwholesome" (since i don't know what are wholesome or unwholesome aside from causing direct harm with no ill intentions) thoughts, is this considered thought crime in Buddhism?

3 Answers 3


It is the intention that has the karmic effect in this life or future ones. This is made clear in the Abhidhamma, and by the Buddha

There are three unwholesome roots. Which three?

  1. Greed
  2. Hatred
  3. Delusion

There are three wholesome roots. Which three?

  1. Non greed
  2. Non hatred
  3. Non delusion

For example: A blind monk, without intentions of any of the six intentions listed above, killed a bug when he was walking. And he was a thera. The fellow monks noted he squashed a bug, and were displeased with it because it is against the first precept to kill and to harm another living being. That is one of the ten unwholesome actions:

"Here someone is a killer of living beings: he is murderous, bloody-handed, given to blows and violence, and merciless to all living beings." -The Buddha (Saleyyaka Sutta)

Later the Buddha became aware of what has happened. He told the monks that Cakkhupala's actions of squashing the bug will bear no karmic potency since he had no intention to kill it.

Here is an excerpt of the story:

"One day, Venerable Cakkhupala who was blind came to pay homage to the Buddha at the Jetavana monastery. While he was pacing up and down in meditation, he accidentally stepped on some insects. In the morning, some bhikkhus visiting him found the dead insects. They thought ill of him and reported the matter to the Buddha. When questioned by the Buddha whether they had seen Cakkhupala killing the insects, they answered in the negative. The Buddha then admonished them, 'Just as you had not seen him killing, so also he had not seen those living insects. Besides, being an Arahant he had no intention of killing, and was not guilty of committing an unwholesome act.' On being asked why Cakkhupala was blind, the Buddha revealed the following story to explain the nature of kammic effects."

This is the Dhammapada Story that gives an explanation to the first verse of the Dhammapada:

"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." The Buddha, Dhammapada verse 1

The Dhammapada Stories for the explanation of the Dhp. verses

  • 1
    There seems to be a major gray area there. What about negligence? Reckless endangerment?
    – Davor
    Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 9:24
  • @Davor Negligence would come under delusion. It is an unwholesome action.
    – Buddho
    Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 11:15
  • OK...what about ignorance? The cases where a being truly did not know that his actions were causing harm to other beings. For example I didn't used to know that eating eggs (which I was always told were unfertilized, and hence could not involve taking another life) fed into the egg industry's mass killing of hundreds of millions of male baby chicks each year. Now I do know that. Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 15:17
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    @JeffWright you will not be getting bad karmic potency for eating the eggs. You will, however, be recieve bad karma if uou had greed, hatred, Delusion. An example of having greed while eating would be if you wanted more eggs for yourself, hoarding all the eggs, without at least offering to share first. If could have been out of hate if you had a sibling who really liked eggs, and you ate a lot of them since you knew it would cause suffering to he/she, and you did it because you were trying to get back at them for something they have done to you.
    – user5380
    Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 18:13
  • @JeffWright delusion would be feeling restless agitation accompanied by indifference; which, includes anxiety and nervousness. And then the other type of delusion consciousness would be associated with doubt and uncertainty, accompanied by indifference. All this is according to the Abhidhamma's classifications of consciousness. There are 8 greed consciousness, 2 hatred consciousness, and 2 delusion consciousness.
    – user5380
    Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 18:45

It is not physical actions that create seeds for karma. It is volition that creates seeds for karma.

When volition arises, thoughts arise. When thoughts arise, physical actions can arise.

Thus, all physical actions are volitional. All thoughts are volitional.

Physical volitional acts arise because thoughts arise. Thus physical volitional acts can bear the seeds of karma. Thoughts arise because of volition. Thus thoughts can bear the seeds of karma.

Unwholesome thoughts create bad karma, thus it can be said that unwholesome thoughts are considered thought crime.

Nonetheless, an aspirant striving to attain liberation, should not see unwholesome thoughts as "thought crime" and neither unwholesome actions as "crime". Unwholesome thoughts should remain "unwholesome thoughts", without touching our hearts and giving rise to aversion or negative emotions. Unwholesome actions should remain "unwholesome actions", without touching our hearts and giving rise to aversion or negative emotions.

  • Although I haven't read the Buddha's writings. I find you reasoning speculative, since there is not a one-to-one mapping between thought and (voluntary) action. (particularly the first part of your answer)... (following not a comment on your post) Pure intentions -> pure karma. Don't act on emotion, but act on reason.
    – Danielson
    Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 14:43
  • You are correct in saying there is no one-to-one mapping between thought and action. In simplistic terms, we can assume volition->thought->action but this is not correct. Correct is volition->thought and volition->action. It's the volition that is the cause of the physical action. The volition which is the cause of the physical action can arise because of a thought or it can arise just from contact with a sense organ.
    – beginner
    Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 16:03
  • @beginner - Thanks. What do you mean exactly by volition? Do you have examples?
    – Motivated
    Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 17:57
  • By volition I mean will or desire or intent. If you want to move your hand, your desire to move your hand arises before you move your hand. If you want to think about something, your desire to think about something arises before you think. The desires that come to fruition leave an imprint on your karma and form a "mass of karmic potential". It is because of this "mass of karmic potential" that your consciousness, your birth and your suffering arise. You should meditate and experience this yourself.
    – beginner
    Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 18:42

Karma means action and refers to actions of your body, speech, and mind. The effects of karma are related to your intentions in these actions of body, speech and mind. Regarding your question:

"If there are "unwholesome" (since i don't know what are wholesome or unwholesome aside from causing direct harm with no ill intentions) thoughts, is this considered thought crime in Buddhism?"

We don't have control over what thoughts arise in our minds. We only have control over what we do with a thought once it's arisen. Do we act on that thought? Or discard it as unwholesome if we recognize it as being connected to greed/desire, hate/anger, or ignorance/delusion? Do we dwell on it? Or move on?

Here is how the Buddha explained it in Dvedhavitakka Sutta: Two Sorts of Thinking:

The Blessed One said, "Monks, before my self-awakening, when I was still just an unawakened Bodhisatta, the thought occurred to me: 'Why don't I keep dividing my thinking into two sorts?' So I made thinking imbued with sensuality, thinking imbued with ill will, & thinking imbued with harmfulness one sort, and thinking imbued with renunciation, thinking imbued with non-ill will, & thinking imbued with harmlessness another sort.

"And as I remained thus heedful, ardent, & resolute, thinking imbued with sensuality arose in me. I discerned that 'Thinking imbued with sensuality has arisen in me; and that leads to my own affliction or to the affliction of others or to the affliction of both. It obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, & does not lead to Unbinding.'

"As I noticed that it leads to my own affliction, it subsided. As I noticed that it leads to the affliction of others... to the affliction of both... it obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, & does not lead to Unbinding, it subsided. Whenever thinking imbued with sensuality had arisen, I simply abandoned it, dispelled it, wiped it out of existence.

The sutta goes on to describe the process of similarly abandoning thoughts of ill will and harmfulness in the same way for the same reasons, that it "leads to my own affliction or to the affliction of others or to the affliction of both. It obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, & does not lead to Unbinding.".

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    Thanks. If i am angry however with no ill intention, how is that viewed or understood?
    – Motivated
    Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 17:59
  • 1
    Anger is part of hate. Thoughts of anger/hate should be abandoned asap to lessen the detrimental effects. Anger is not a separate thing from hate. Good article on anger here.
    – Robin111
    Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 18:26

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