Karma: it’s not just intention


Woman walking down a city street

The other day I wrote about how karma isn’t the mystical and external “cosmic force” that many people think it to be — a force that impersonally metes out rewards and punishments. In a crude form this amounts to thinking things like this: if you do good things the sun will shine on your picnic, and if you do bad things it’ll rain.

Instead, karma (according to the Buddha) is to do with the ethical status of our intentions and how those naturally lead to our becoming more mired in suffering or freed from it.

Karma is psychology: do this, and you’ll feel that. Karma is about how your mind changes and becomes happier when you’re less selfish and more generous, less angry and more loving.

The word karma is basically another term for Buddhist ethics.

See also:

But the idea that karma is intention can be misused. I’ve seen lots of people, bull-in-a-china-shop-style, hurt others and then say that they didn’t do anything unskillful because they didn’t have any intention to cause harm. Heck, I’ve done it myself. But that attitude represents a narrow take on karma (and ethics), and it doesn’t take into account the subtlety of the Buddha’s teaching. Bulls should either not visit china shops, or be very careful if they do.

Let’s look at a an example of how we might play the “I can’t have done anything unskillful because I didn’t have bad intentions” game. This one probably doesn’t apply to you directly, but it’s an illustration of the principle at work.

In this video Shoshana Roberts was filmed walking silently down the street by a friend with a hidden camera. Roberts was catcalled over 100 times in ten hours. That’s just the verbal interactions, not the whistles or stares. She was followed by one man who stalked her for five minutes, often staring intensely at her from the side and demanding to know what she thought of him. Some turned critical or aggressive when they didn’t get a flirtatious response in return: “Someone’s acknowledging you for being beautiful — you should say thank you more.”

Now, I’m pretty sure most, if not all, of the men who catcalled Roberts thought they had good intentions. They probably felt they were complimenting her. But the experience of having your appearance — to be crude, your ass — commented on (“I just saw a thousand dollars!”) over and over again can be distressing. Needless to say, being followed by a stranger can be very threatening.

I’d imagine (or hope) that there aren’t many people reading this blog who do anything as crude as cat-call strangers, but I’m sure  in your own life you do things that cause distress to others. We become aware of these most often in regard to the people we live with. We might forget to tidy up after ourselves or not express appreciation. We don’t mean to do these things of course — but that’s the very point: if we’re interested in living ethically then we need to become more conscious of our deeper motivations. Becoming aware of how our actions affect others is how we discover unskillful motivations that we haven’t yet brought into consciousness

We need to be aware of not just what we think are our intentions, but to dig deeper. This is something the Buddha himself stressed:

Having done a verbal action, you should reflect on it: ‘This verbal action I have done — did it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Was it an unskillful verbal action, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it led to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it was an unskillful verbal action with painful consequences, painful results, then you should confess it, reveal it, lay it open to the Teacher or to a knowledgeable companion in the holy life. Having confessed it… you should exercise restraint in the future.

Because the thing is, it’s not always easy to know our own intentions. It’s easy for us to fool ourselves. But if you know that many women don’t like being given random “compliments” on the street, then when you continue to do so it’s no longer about them, it’s about you. Your intention is revealed as not being about complimenting another person in order to do them a favor, but about expressing your (unwanted) attraction. It becomes about control: I want your smile, so I catcall; if you don’t give me what I want I’ll get nasty. It becomes about you imposing your will on another person — which is why the women involved in that video have received death and rape threats for having made it.

We can’t avoid causing harm or hurting people. The Buddha pointed out that sometimes we have say things that will cause distress. But he set a high bar for this: we have to consider, before we say such a thing: are our words true, are they expressed kindly, are they intended to help the other person, are they crafted in such a way that they’ll lead to harmony, and are they expressed at the right time (a requirement that implies a good knowledge of the other person’s state of receptivity)?

People were upset with the Buddha all the time! But it’s a noble effort to work on reducing the amount of pain we cause.

There’s a kind of brutal honesty required in looking for our real intentions. We really need to acknowledge the harm we’re doing, and if it doesn’t seem at first that we have any intention to harm, we need to look deeper. When we’re habitually causing distress or harm to others, then there’s some attitude there that needs to be brought to light.

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23 Comments. Leave new

  • Dear Bodhipaksa, I would like to thank you. I have been away from the Dharma for many years and only recently found my way back. I stumbled across your website and continue to be amazed by the wealth of information it contains. Thank you, and whoever else contributed to putting together this precious information. I also really enjoy reading your blog and the questions people pose to you and your replies. I really enjoy your humour and your deeply insightful comments including your techno-geek metaphors which you use to explain the teachings of the Buddha. You’re very effective at explaining the Dharma in today’s language and I think this is a precious skill. I get a glimpse of your own practice in all of this and I am delighted and inspired by it. May you continue to be inspired by the Dharma and may you continue to be of support to many beings on their path. With lots of gratitude.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Donatella. It’s lovely that you took the time to comment, and I’m delighted that you find this site useful.

  • Please notify me of follow up comments via email. Thank you!

    • There should be a little check-box that enables notifications to be sent when follow-up comments have been made, Donatella. If you’ve checked that then you’re set. (You can turn them off again anytime you want.)

  • This is so appropriate. I wish to confess something. Yesterday, our son-in-law was playing with a remote control helicopter in the living room. The device is configured to shoot plastic discs. He had been trying for quite a while to shoot one at me. When he finally succeeded, he got me right in the face.

    I was angry. I had the TV remote in my hand and threw it at the helicopter knocking it down and causing slight damage.

    Immediately I felt remorse and anger now directed at myself. I had enough presence of mind to keep my mouth shut. After an hour or so, I had calmed down enough to think about what had happened. I realized that there had been a second there between the anger and the thought of throwing the remote that I could have stopped. I also realized that I needed to apologize. So I waited until everyone happened to be together and apologized, offering to pay for a new helicopter.

    Immediately the atmosphere of the house changed. It had been quite tense. Now it was as if a balloon had popped or something had let go.

    While I had no intention of causing the rest of the house to be tense, once I reflected on what I had done, I realized that it was unskillful and there was something I could do to correct it. This is the point I am getting from your article and quotation. Though you have said it much better than I ever could.

    Thank you.


  • Does karma need a context? Is it possible to avoid situations where karma would be relevant?

  • I mean, I remember reading about the social context that Buddha came out of, where society was becoming more advanced and as a result people were becoming more isolated and alienated from each other. So would it make less sense in a more primitive context? This might seem trivial but it would help me understand it in my life…

    • I don’t think that the situation we’re in makes a huge difference, although I’m not clear what’s behind your question.

  • I guess I was thinking that you can only be responsible to the extent that you’re educated enough to be responsible a certain situation…

    • I’m not sure education is an important factor. It’s more a question of connecting actions and consequences, which comes from the ability to observe, and doesn’t require a lot of “book-larnin,” so to speak. Two things do strike me as being important, though.

      This first is that because we’re “naturally” inclined to respond to certain problems aggressively, I think most people need repeated exposure to the idea that there are non-violent, compassionate solutions to problems before they can begin to let go of old patterns of behavior. That kind of culture is more likely to arise and be sustained when there’s a certain level of stability of culture. That could correspond to an educated, urban environment, but it could just as easily be found in a more tribal, village-based culture where the wisdom of elders is routinely listened to.

      The other (and this is a related point) is just that the more people are involved in a struggle for basic needs, the less they’re able to focus on emotional satisfaction. It’s not a coincidence that the Axial Age arose in the wake of the invention of iron tools, which created unprecedented wealth (better forest clearing, more efficient plowing, improved transportation creating trade networks), and a leisured class who were able to think about what the purpose of life is.

      Urbanization also brought problems. As well as (and even because of) the unprecedented wealth that was being created, there were unprecedented struggles for the control of that wealth, with the arising of competing kingdoms, standing armies, and deadlier weaponry, such as the iron-tipped arrow. But in a way that contrast (life being both better and worse than it had ever been) just intensified the need to look at human psychology and to understand why violence arose. Hence the Buddha’s quest, and hence the Dharma!

  • Thanks, Bodhipaksa, that’s interesting!

  • I really enjoyed the article and although I’m not quite sure that I understood one of the questions asked in the comments, I did enjoy the anthropological based response. Interesting. Thank you Bodhipaksa.

  • After reading quite a bit about karma, I concluded that if I had no negative karma whatsoever, I would not experience any suffering and pain since there won’t be any negative cause and effect in progress.

    So my questions is when, for example, I leave the house and the cold air starts making my ear feel chilly and uncomfortable. Is that the result of karma or is it the way the mind labels it as unpleasant experience? Or is the mind labeling the result of negative karma after all?

    • Unfortunately there’s a lot of “information” about karma out there that conflicts with what the Buddha taught, including information written by Buddhists. According to the Buddha, not everything we experience is the result of karma, and not all suffering we experience is the result of karma. The commentarial tradition in the few centuries following the Buddha suggested that there were several “layers” of conditionality in operation, of which karma is just one. The physical world of chemistry and physics is the most basic level, for example. The biological level is another. Some suffering results from the intersection of those two levels of conditionality, as in your example of going outdoors on a cold day. Karma is the level of conditionality that’s to do with ethical choices we make that shape our character. So if you’ve practiced being mindful and being emotionally resilient, then you’ll still experience the pain in your ears, but you won’t experience the extra suffering that comes from grumbling, or playing the victim, or telling yourself that you “can’t stand it.”

  • What you just explained does make sense to me. I’m sure the buddha himself experienced what we would call unpleasant sensations such as heat or cold but his mind probably didn’t grasp the sensation as negative, thus, mentally not experiencing any suffering so to say. It all comes down to how the mind analyzes and perceives it. After all, having a body means that it does get exposed to certain conditions. That’s just the way life is when it interacts with its environment.

    I’m just trying to determine which experiences are actually karma related and which are not. The idea of karma has had a tremendous effect on me in noticing a negative experience and letting go without any or much frustration. It is just that sometimes I wonder if certain experiences are even related to karma such as the discomfort from cold air. I suppose at times it could be but for most part I think not.

    Do you know if any books or detailed articles on karma that I could read which explain the true working of karma just as the buddha taught it ?

    • The Buddha certainly suffered. He found being around noisy monks to be very unpleasant, he really didn’t like it when people misquoted him or misrepresented his teachings, he didn’t like the pain involved in getting old, and on at least one occasion he experienced excruciating pain from a wound.

      The best book on karma I know of is “Exploring Karma and Rebirth” by Nagapriya. He does a great job of sorting through what the Buddha taught, and it’s always clear what’s an original teaching and what’s his own opinion.

  • Dear Bodhipaksa,
    I wanted to thank you so much for the book you recommended on karma. It was an eye opener. I had all these thoughts in my head that just didn’t quite align with what I had read in other books/articles. No other books were able to provide a satisfying answer. Now all the pieces seem to be falling in place.

    Do you know of any other good books? Maybe on emptiness or any difficult to understand concepts?

    Also, do you believe the books written by current Dalai Lama to be an accurate representation of what the buddha thought?

    • Hi, Sam.

      I’m glad you found the book useful. There’s a real need to go back and look afresh at what the early teachings say, separating them from the layers upon layer of commentary and interpretation. I don’t know of too many books that come into that category, unfortunately. Bhikkhu Sujato has a free book online called “A History of Mindfulness,” which is rather long but interesting. Bhikkhu Analayo’s book, “Perspectives on Satipatthana” looks good, although I’ve only glanced at it. Both these books dig through the Satipatthana Sutta in order to find what its core teachings are, something that’s possible because there are multiple versions of the sutta, with various degrees of elaboration, the Pali version being the most messed-around-with one. Alexander Wynne’s “The Origins of Buddhist Meditation” is well worth a read. It’s scholarly, but short. There’s a reall need for a book like Nagapriya’s, but on the topic of non-self, or emptiness.

  • Dear Bodhipaksa,
    I keep reading that being born in human realm is very rare and it requires a vast amount of merit. What I find interesting is that when you look at history, you can’t help noticing how certain individuals have managed to cause so much harm and destruction to others. It makes me wonder how can someone be born and cause so much suffering when positive karma was the cause of their birth in this realm in the first place? It seems so ironic to me.
    Is there any explanation in any Buddhist text?

    • I don’t think you can take teachings like the rarity of human birth as anything but poetic, Sam. Trying to make logical sense of them doesn’t really work, since they’re really an appeal to the emotions.

  • Amazing. We forget about the DEEPER intention. As a Buddhist, I have to remind myself of this, that my intentions are not always as good as I tell myself. Such a great article, came here through a google search, found exactly what I needed. Bless you. Great blog.

    • Thank you. Yes, our intentions are not always the self-serving versions that we like to tell ourselves!


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