It is no
denying fact that the Buddha for the first time in history of thought has laid stress on
the importance of intention or volition (cetanaa) in performing an act ethically. Cetanaa
"refers only to the self-centred, goal-directed and result-oriented volitional
disposition which impels the worldly individual (puthujjana)." Ethical good (kusala) or bad (akusala),
merit (pu~n~na) or demerit (paapa) leading to their perspective ethical
consequences will be depended on the level and quality of intention (cetanaa) of
the ethical agent. If the intention of performing an act is present in high level, the
result (vipaka) definitely bears the corresponding high level. If it is absent, the
result is lessened in quality of bearing fruit or may not bear any fruit. Similarly, if
the quality of intention is ethically good, the acts having good intended intention bear
wholesome consequence; while the acts having evil intended will, bear unwholesome
consequence. This interpretation, however, should not be confused with the statement that
the Buddhas theory of kamma is of utilitarian type in the sense that it lays
stress on the consequence. It should be noted here that Buddhist ethics can be considered
as cetanaa-utilitarianism, which emphasizes the agents intention (cetanaa)
over the consequence of actions performed by him.
The famous definition of kamma attributed to the
Buddha is read as: "Cetanaha"m bhikkhave kamma"m vadaami; cetayitvaa
kamma"m karoti kaayena vaacaaya manasaa," literally
means "Monks, intention or determinate thought,
I say, is kamma. When intention is manifested, one acts by physical deed, speech or
thought." This definition is reflected in
the first twin-verse of the Dhammapada, where it runs: "Mind is the
fore-runner of all mental states [and deeds] (dhammaa). All mental states [and
deeds] have mind as the command chief as well as their maker. If one acts or speaks with
an evil mind, dukkha follows him just as the wheel follows the hoof-print of the ox
that draws the cart . . . Similarly, if one acts or speaks with a good mind, happiness
follows him like a shadow that never leaves him." These
two statements are of the same emphasis that the taming and understanding the mind or
intentional motive is necessary to the ethical agent if moral practice and mental training
are to be cultivated in order to attain higher spirituality or perfect enlightenment. It
is, however, of great controversy in giving interpretation to the above-mentioned
definition. Before proceeding to analysis of the relation between kamma and cetanaa,
it will be worthwhile to look at the interpretation given by scholars then to turn briefly
to a consideration of their use in the context appeared.
Most of the Pali scholars are inclined to define "kamma
as exclusively cetanaa" (kammaha"m cetana"m vadaami).
McDermott, thus, writes: "In contrast to the Sarvaastivaadin opinion on this point,
the P li schools consider all kamma to be cetanaa. Mental acts are pure
intentional impulse. Acts of body and voice are intentional impulses which put the body
and voice in motion, and not simply the actions ensuant upon volition." He further points out the common translation of kamma
as cetanaa that, "the Buddhist understanding of kamma is what usually
translated as volition, namely cetanaa."
Poussin is perhaps the first thinker, who interprets kamma as exclusively cetanaa:
"Karma is volition and voluntary action,"
and "Karma is twofold: (1) volition (cetanaa), or
mental or spiritual action (maanasa), and (2) what is born from volition, what is
done by volition." His reductive
interpretation of kamma into cetanaa is seen clearly when he writes:
"Buddhism, on the contrary, teaches that there is no Karman without consciousness and
even premeditation." In another passage,
he does so when stressing the importance of the concept of cetanaa coined by the
Buddha: "we must consider this definition, Karman is volition, and bodily or
verbal action which follows volition, as one of the steps in the history of the
Indian thought." Halbfass is appeared to
identify kamma with cetanaa though he considers correctly the former is
primary while the latter secondary in nature: "a notion of agency which defines the
act as rooted in, or even as essentially identical with, volition and decision (cetanaa)
and interprets its vocal or physical implementation as a secondary phenomenon." The discussion of Krishan, in this regard, is found
precisely similar, "The Buddha for the first time propounded that moral karma
is essentially mental in its nature." Karunaratna
is, in his scholarly article on cetanaa in the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, of the view that cetanaa and kamma
are synonymous in denoting the idea of moral action in Buddhism. Thus he writes: "The
all too brief definition states expressly, precisely and concisely that cetanaa and
kamma are equivalent, and therefore, interchangeable as terms denoting the
essential meaning of moral action," or
"Thus, cetanaa becomes one with kamma creating consequences which serve
to feed the further intensification of the self-centred activity of the will." On the basis of this equation, he concludes
that the path leading to the cessation of kamma is identical with the path leading
to the cessation of cetanaa and saaakhaaraa. Von
Glasenapp, in this regard, strongly claims that ". . . the Buddha and the other sages
have declared that not the action itself, but exclusively the intention, the
conscious willing of the person acting (cetanaa), are of decisive
significance." Unlike Nyanatiloka and others, Payutto carefully defines kamma
as cetanaa-kamma, rather than exclusively cetanaa, when he writes:
"Etymologically speaking, kamma means work or action.
But in the context of Dhamma we define it more specifically as actions based on
intention (cetanaa) or deeds willfully done. Actions that are
free of intention are not considered to be kamma in the Buddhas
teaching." In his well-known book, the
Buddha and His Teaching, Narada has already stated this interpretation earlier:
(1) The Paali term kamma, literally means action or
doing. Any kind of intentional action whether mental, verbal or physical is regarded as kamma.
It covers all that is included in the phrase, though, word and deed. Generally
speaking, all good and bad actions constitute kamma. (2) In its ultimate sense, kamma
means all moral and immoral volition. Involuntary, unintentional or unconscious actions,
though technically deed, do not constitute kamma, because volition, the most
important factor in determining kamma, is absent.
While partially agreeing with the first part of his
definition, that kamma is any intentional action whether mental, verbal or
physical, I do not think the second part of his definition is tenable. For him, any action
without intention does not bear its fruit. Such an interpretation proves somewhat
unsatisfactory in analysis of kamma as mere cetanaa. The reduction of kamma
into exclusive cetanaa can not be accepted because the Buddha does not deny the
existence of unintentional actions (acetanaa-kammaa) rather than he stresses the
important role of cetanaa in directing and determining human ethical actions.
Moreover, it should be noted here that "not only the intentional stimulus, but the
action itself is also significant from the Buddhist point of view."
Thus, the interpretation of kamma as mere cetanaa
by modern scholars is unsatisfactory. This interpretation is in fact rooted from the
commentary literature, especially in the Visuddhimagga and the Dhammasa"nga.nii
A.t.thakathaa of the great Pali commentator, Buddhaghosa. It is relevant here to take
note on his analysis on the Buddhas statement. Quoting the Buddha (Cetanaaha"m
bhikkhave kamma"m vadaami), Buddhaghosa identifies kamma as exclusively cetanaa. He inserts that "kamma means
consciousness or intention of the good and the bad, merit and demerit." This finds support in the Atthasaalinii,
where kamma is defined as cetanaa and the mental states associated with it. He however comes very close to the point, when he
claims intention is the source of physical deed, verbal deed and mental deed . . . mind is
the door of mental action." In this
direction, it is believed that Harivarmans interpretation of the same is more
relevant to the statement of the Buddha, and therefore agreeable. For instance, in his Satyasiddhi'saastra, he appears to claim that kamma is not only cetanaa
but the action manifested from it as well. This logically follows that action
manifested from intention would include physical, verbal and mental deeds, and those
actions unassociated with or not originated from intention including unintentionally
physical, verbal and mental deeds. On the same page, he stresses the importance of the
mind, when he writes, "ethical qualities, good and evil, are controlled by the
agents mind," or "without the
presence of the mind, ethical good and evil is impossible."
He points further out that "actions whether ethical good or bad depends
on the state of the mind." He sees that
unintentional action certainly produces its fruition, though it is ethically lessened,
when he stresses that "the non-intentional kamma is not great sin." This gets support from scriptural passage, where it
is stated "he [Naa.taputta] acted unintentionally (asa~ncetanikam) and hence
it is not a great sin or crime."
Amongst the modern scholars, Poussin, as I believe,
rightly points out that the Buddhist definition of kamma as intention
together with the action, which follows upon it, to be one of the steps in
the history of Indian thought. The emphasis in
Buddhist theory of kamma on goal-oriented intentional motive behind the action is
to bring out the forceful importance of ethical orientation, and this in turn gives rise
to deed-direction and tendencies, which affect or determine the future states and
conditions of the ethical agent. What should be noted here is that by declaring "cetanaaha"m
bhikkhave kamma"m vadaami," the Buddha fundamentally lays great stress on
the importance of intention (cetanaa) behind the action as a major factor in
producing an ethical act leading to moral consequence, good or bad. Having stressed the
decisiveness of intention in determining the tendency and the fruition of an act, the
Buddha does not, in this context, deny the existence of the other three kinds of kamma,
namely unintentional acts of body (acetanaa-kaaya-kamma), unintentional acts of
speech (acetanaa-vacii-kamma), and unintentional acts of mind (acetanaa-mano-kamma).
Because from three main modes of kamma, viz., bodily act, verbal act and mental
act, we can divide them into two sub-modes of actions, namely intentional actions and
unintentional actions. Of the first group, there are intentional bodily action,
intentional verbal action and intentional mental action, which bears greatly ethical
result, good or bad. Belonging to the second, there are unintentional bodily action,
unintentional verbal action and unintentional mental action, which bear lessened or
minimized ethical result. The Buddha does not reduce all kammas to cetanaa-kamma,
as the scholars did. The emphasis on the role of cetanaa no doubt is the
Buddhas contribution to not only the theory of kamma but also to the ethical
tendencies as well its understanding leading to the specific ethical effects. Chen
states that the stress on cetanaa was a significant point added by the Buddha to
the prevailing views concerning karma. McDermott
impressively writes, "What is unique with Gotama and his followers is the importance
which he places on the role of intention. Only in Buddhism could the intentional impulse (cetanaa)
be defined as kamma."
It is here of significance to observe that the
Buddhas statement "cetanaaha"m bhikkhave kamma"m vadaami"
does not amount to the statement that "kamma is exclusively cetanaa"
(kammaha"m cetanaa"m vadaami), because kamma is of twofold
category to which cetanaa or cetanaa-kamma as a variety of this
twofold category belongs, and the other being acetanaa-kamma. The logical
distinction between the subject, kamma, and the predicate, cetanaa, should
not confuse the reader that they are mutually identical. Employing the term
analytic statement and synthetic statement coined by Kant, we can accordingly
put the Buddhas statement in this way: (1) cetanaa is kamma; this is
of the form of analytic proposition, like that of 'Si"m'sapaa is a tree.
Here cetanaa is a variety of kamma, and (2) kamma is purely cetanaa;
it has the form of synthetic proposition, like that of This tree is a
'Si"m'sapaa. Here the Buddhas analytic statement "cetanaa is kamma"
does not amount to the synthetic statement as misinterpreted by scholars that "kamma
is exclusively cetanaa." In the context of the Buddhas statement, the
analytic proposition is meant that the subject cetanaa is contained
in the predicate kamma. This statement does not discuss something new instead of
repeating that cetanaa is a kind, the most important kind, of kamma. The
repetition here, however, makes significance that is more ethical to agents will in
performance of any action.
Furthermore, given the logically faultless inference form
a=b to b=a we cannot proceed from the statement, cetanaa is
kamma to the statement kamma is exclusively cetanaa,
for the first is logically true while the second false. This wrong identification is sound
similar to the statement everything is identical with something mistakenly
identified with something is identical with everything, for the concept
everything is a greater category whereas the concept something
smaller, which should be contained in the former instead of being identified with the
former. The same holds true with kamma and cetanaa.
Moreover, one should pay attention not only to the first
part of the Buddhas statement "cetanaaha"m bhikkhave kamma"m
vadaami," but also to the second part of the statement following the first "cetayitvaa
kamma"m karoti kaayena vaacaaya manasaa," which
makes the context more ethical clearly. Here the Buddha does confirm not only that
intention (cetanaa) is a special kind of kamma in moral judgment, tendency
and ethical performance, but also link it with the bodily action (kaayakamma),
verbal action (vaciikamma), and mental action (manokamma) to make
significantly the role of intention. According to the most popular threefold
classification of kamma made by the
Buddha into acts of body (kaayakamma), acts of speech (vaciikamma), and acts
of mind (manokamma), each of these acts produces consequences: "All kamma
whether good or evil bears consequence. There is no kamma, no matter how small,
which is void of consequence." However,
among these three kinds of kamma, mental kind is the most important, as it is
stated in the following passage: "Listen, of these three kamma classified by
me, I say that mental kamma (manokamma) has the heaviest consequences for
the committing of evil deeds, for the existence of evil deeds, not action s of the body or
speech." It is clear that, according to
McFarlane, "the emphasis on the psychology of intentions in traditional ethical
teaching and spiritual practice should not lead to the undermining of physical behaviour
and actual consequences." He further explains that "It would be incorrect to say
that the intention or will to perform an unwholesome act, which was not actually carried
out, would produce the same effect as the actual performance of such an act."
In reality, there are actions, which are not sprung from
intention or devoid of motive proved, harmful or beneficial to the ethical agent as well
as to others. Both the doer and the recipient are to experience its fruition, more or less
suffered or pleasant through unwitting actions performed. Take an example the case of
being shot death by mistake. The deceased, who has no intention or willing to be died, is
certainly suffered as a result of wrong identification or mistake by unintentional agent.
The unintentional shooter without motive of killing anyone is responsible for his
carelessly ethical action, say wrong shooting, being produced in the court and then to be
put in prison. Because of being in the prison, he may loose his job or stopped his
habitual work unwittingly. An encounter example can be seen in the case of a person who
keeps away scraps of food without any intention to give it to anyone.
But then a hungry dog comes by and has a delicious meal out of it. His scraps
of food were helpful and beneficial to the life of the dog. When the time to come for that
unintentionally helpful kamma to mature, he will enjoy its fruit, even ethically
lessened comparatively to that of intention feeding the dog, say being helped by someone
incidentally, as it has been happened in the real.
This idea would be clear with the help of the following
analysis. Actual murder with evil intention no doubt has greater effect; with no evil
intention still has effect, though ethically minor; and even the mere thought of murder
unaccompanied by any performance is ethically wrong, from the Buddhist standpoint. That is
to say, mental action unaccompanied with outward performance and that the performance of
the physical deeds, either accompanied with intention or not, is considered to produce specific
kammic effects, at least on two respects, namely on the planning-doer himself and on
the recipient. So far as the part of the ethical agent is concerned, even the
mere intention, whether wholesome or unwholesome, will give some effect, say
disturbing the peacefulness of the mind of the planning-doer, who plans to make his
intention possible. With respect to the recipient, let us say for instance, the
destructive intention may either give rise to the feeling of being disturbed by
intentional violence of the planning-doer, or even he is facing death due to being killed
unintentionally by the evil-doer, respectively. In the Buddhas statement, there is
obviously intention (cetanaa). On the other hand, there is crucially also
what is born from intention, namely bodily action (kaayakamma), vocal
action (vaciikamma) and mental action (manokamma). If kamma were
merely cetanaa there should be no other actions named bodily action (kaayakamma),
vocal action (vaciikamma) and mental action (manokamma). In fact, these actions obviously exist. The
reducing identification of kamma as exclusive cetanaa is, therefore,
In the teachings of the Buddha, the relationship between
the levels of intention and performance of that intention should be suitably acknowledged.
As the motive force or guiding manager, intention is conductive to performing an act after
having conscious choice of objects of preference by the nature of an awareness-mind. Where
there is intention, there may be tendency to make it possible. Similarly, where there is
an increase of intensity of mental activity or intention to an unbearable level, the
tendency of performance of something would be transformed into external activities,
namely, either bodily action (kaayakamma), vocal action (vaciikamma) or
mental action (manokamma). In other words, not every intention will lead to the
actual performance. Depending on the levels of intentional motive, some dynamically become
physical or verbal activities while some remains mental activities only. In the case of
being mental activities, the effect of the intention on both the planing-doer and the
recipient is ethically lessened or minimized, whereas
with regard to intention having transformed into outward performance, the effect is
ethically serious. Take the initial thought of destroying life and the
actual act of destroying life as an example. The intentional thought, I want
to kill A is unwholesome thought in nature. This may produce some unfortunate
result, if the intentional doer is not remorseful or till in hoping so doing. In the case
of someone wishing to kill A with the plan of murder, the effect of being unfortunate here
and hereafter is more serious. If the murder is actually happened after having evilly
willed with careful planning and acting, the effect becomes most serious comparatively
with the first two cases.
Thus, in the Buddhas teaching generally and in the
context of the Buddhas statement particularly, kamma can not be exclusively
identified with cetanaa because if it were so, the effect of wishing to
perform something and the actual performance of that something is one
and the same thing. Then there should be no
enlightenment at all because no one is absolutely pure and perfect in his
intention-history; or one may have at least once thought of unwholesome deed. Similarly, there should be no need of moral
practice and spiritual training for enlightenment, for the mere wishing of becoming
enlightened would be enough to make it possible. These
statements are found irrational, just because intentional thought of doing something
unwholesome is exclusively mistakenly identified with the sin of performance
that act, and in the same manner, wishing to be enlightened with
enlightenment or moral practice and mental development for attaining that
In the Nikaaya, we do find passages supporting the idea
that not only intention is responsible for determining kamma-vipaaka, the
action, physical or vocal, as well: "If one does not think (ceteti), nor
arrange (pakappeti), but dwell on (anuseti) [something], this become a cause
for the persistence of consciousness . . . [And] in the future birth and death, sorrow,
lamentation, suffering, grief and tribulation arise." This
is so because, one is responsible for his ignorance, as
McDermott comments "although a misdeed done in ignorance is not as serious in its
effects as a deed done intentionally, it is nonetheless not without efforts of its own,
for man is culpable for his continued ignorance."
 EB. IV. s.v. cetanaa: 86b.
 A. III, 415.
 This render is first used by E.M. Hare in his GS. III. 294.
 Here quoted are different translations made by scholars. Payutto
translates this as "Bhikkhu! Intention, I say, is kamma. Having willed, we
create kamma through body, speech and mind." Payutto (1993): 6. Narada renders
it as "I declare, O Bhikkhus, that volition (cetanaa) is kamma. Having willed
one acts by body, speech and thought." (196). McDermott also renders it similarly
"I say, monks, that cetanaa is kamma; having intended (cetayitvaa),
one does a deed by body, word or thought." (1984: 26). McFarlane renders cetanaa as
choice translating the sentence as "It is choice or intention that I call karmađ mental
workđ for having chosen, a man acts by body, speech and mind." (1994: 27).
 Manopubba"ngamaa dhammaa/ manose.t.thaa manomayaa/ manasaa
ce padu.t.thena/ bhaasati vaa karoti vaa/ tato na"m dukkhamanveti/ cakka"mva
vahato pada"m. (Dhp. 1). Translation is adopted with modification from Tin
 McDermott (1984): 12-3. For argument on this point, see Poussin
 McDermott (1984): 26.
 Poussin (1982): 57. This book was first published in 1917.
 Poussin (1982): 68.
 Poussin (1982): 67.
 Poussin (1982): 70.
 Halbfass (1998): 214-5.
 Krishan (1997): 62, 209.
 EB. IV. s.v. cetanaa: 86-97.
 EB. IV. s.v. cetanaa: 89a.
 EB. IV. s.v. cetanaa: 91a.
 EB. IV. s.v. cetanaa: 92b.
 Von Glasenapp (1963): 29. Emphasis added.
 BD. s.v karma: 91-4.
 Payutto (1993): 6.
 Narada (1973): 195. Numbering added.
 McDermott (1984): 28.
 DhsA. 88.
 kamma naama kusalaakusalacetanaa. Visuddhimagga, p. 614.
This sentence literally means kamma is the name of moral and immoral intention or
 Asl. p. 88.
 cetanaa kaayakamma"m naama . . . cetanaa vaacikamma naama
. . . cetanaa manokamma"m . . .citta"m manokammadvaaram naama, p. 96.
 Satyasiddhi'saastra 3. 100.
 pu.nya"m paapa"m sarva"m cittaadhaaniiam.
 na cittavyatirikta"m pu.nyam paapam astiiti.
 karma.na"m cittabalaat pu.nya paapa vibhaaga.h.
 asa~ncentanika"m karma na mahaasaavadyam.
Satyasiddhi'saastra. 2. 84.
 Quoted in Krishan (1997): 64.
 Quoted from McDermott (1984): 29. Emphasis added.
 Chen (1968): 32f.
 McDermott (1984): 29.
 A. III, 415.
 See, for example, this division at A. III. 415; M.
 J. IV. 390.
 M. I. 373.
 McFarlane (1994): 27.
 This is adopted from Indasara (1988): 18-9. I however disagree with
him when he contradictorily says that the mistake in the example is only a kind of kattaka-kamma
bearing no fruit.
 Mental action (manokamma) is identified with cetanaa in
some specific context. See, for example, the sentence "manasaa ce padu.t.thena"
of twin-verse 1-2 of the Dhammapada. Cf. Tin (1990): 1 n.2.
 This is different from the spiritual state of enlightenment of an
Arahat or the Buddha.
 Karunaratna is however of diverse point of view, when he give an
interpretation on the passage of Budhaghosa as quoted below: "for instance the mere
harboring of criminal intent to kill amounts to kamma, and that by ill-will, not by
actual life-taking" (Manodvaare pana cadhakacetanaaya uppannamattaaya eva
kammapathabhedo hoti, so va kho vyaapaadavasena na paa.naatipaatavasena. Asl., p. 90).
Here he does not differentiate the mental act ill-will with the bodily action
manifested from ill-will, namely killing, in terms of life-taking. These two acts, in
fact, can not be considered identical equally ethical wrong, and therefore their level of
criminal can not be identified as the same. EB. IV. 94b.
 This argument is derived from the passage where the Buddha
criticizes past-action determination (pubbekatahetuvaada) along with theistic
determination (issaranimmaanahetuvaada) and accidentalism (ahetu-apaccayavaada)
as immoral theories. A. I. 137; M. II. 214-222; Cf. Vbh. 367.
 This argument is derived from the passage where the Buddha
addresses to the householders who want to gain longevity, status, happiness, rank and
rebirth in heaven must observe the practice leading to the same. A mere wish or prayer
will not work. A. III. 47.
 S. II. 65. Translation quoted in McDermott (1984): 28.
 Dhp. 1-2, 161.
 McDermott (1984): 28.
(The references to the Pali texts and their translations
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