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Monday, October 31, 2005

The Intentions of Karma

Often we get too caught up in trying to figure out our karma. This can be like "chasing the wind" as the Native Americans say and draw us up into the realms of the "hungry ghosts" rather then the realm of peace and tranquility.

I found a book online about the basics tenets and ethics of Buddhism that I found interesting. Especially the brief introduction to karma. Isn't it intriguing that the seemingly simplest books are the one's that often teach us the most?

It is titled, "Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction" by Damien Keown.

Here is the section right out of the book I found most enlightening:

Karmic actions are moral actions, and the Buddha defined karma by reference to moral choices and the acts consequent upon them. He stated, "It is intention (cetana), O monks, that I call karma; having willed one's actions through body, speech, or mind."

This makes more sense to me then the ignorant western view of karma being that of good and bad, black and white actions. Karma (to me) is more of a concept of shades of grey and varying degrees.

Let's say you have to lie to keep someone alive. Would that be good, negative or even neutral karma (thus no real effect)?? It seems to me that it would be neutral at the very least but maybe even good. Here again it is the intention behind your actions that seems to be most important. Would not the good intention of wanting to save a life be more important then the intention to mislead?

What do you think?

-Peace to all beings-

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Monica said...

As long as your intentions were true, i.e. not being selfish if the person who might die was someone you loved, or if you were just trying to alieve that person's fear of death...

"James" said...


Yes, excellent points.

FindingBuddha said...

The lying part is, to my understanding, always a bad karma. We can choose not to say anything rather than to lie.

The Buddha himself did that,right? He only said what was true and what wa good for the audience. Even if something was true but not beneficial, he did not say. If something was beneficial but not true, he did not say.

So what you would hear from the Buddha were = true + beneficial.

But to what extend is a karma bad if the intention is good? I would say less. As you say earlier, it all started with the intention.



Maggs said...

Jeez, i'm gong with neutral...

"James" said...


I think that in some cases lying is not always bad or at least benign. Such as in saving the life of someone (through lying) who might be unjustly killed.

In this regard there is the parable of the burning house from the Lotus Sutra.

"The parabole of the burning house is a famous allegory for the practice of 'skillful means' (upaya-kaushalya) which is one of the important abilities of bodhisattvas and buddhas.

It involves adapting the dharma to the interests and proclivities of individual listeners, tell them things that will attract them to the practice of Buddhism.

The question posed in the dialogue concerns whether such tactics should be considered underhanded or dishonest. The answer, not surprisingly, is no: The means used are for the good of the beings, and benefit them greatly in the long run.

Moreover, with beings who are thoroughly enmeshed in the concerns of the world it is necessary to draw their attention away from mundane pleasures toward the dharma, which can lead to lasting happiness."

The summary of this parable is that of a burning house with children still inside. The father ran out and was yelling at the children inside to come out.

They didn't come out initially because they didn't understand what was going on and what the word, "inferno" meant. Nor that they risked being killed. They simply did not understand the risk.

Thus, the father yelled to them to come out of the burning house by saying there were all kinds of toys outside for them to play with. The children ran out and of course saw that there were no toys to play with but ox carts instead. However, the father had saved their life.

The father was using skillful means in order to cause his children to come out of the burning house, and because he gave them the gift of life.

The Tathagata (the Buddha) also is the father of the world, who has attained the supreme understanding of great skillful means, who is concerned for the well-being of others. He appears in this triple world, which is like a burning house blazing with the whole mass of suffering and despair. In this triple world, which is like a burning house, they enjoy themselves and run here and there. Even though they are afflicted by a great deal of suffering...

Therefore, Shariputra, the Tathagata, who is just like that strong-armed man...speaks of three vehicles: the hearers' vehicle, the solitary realizers' vehicle, and the bodhisattvas' vehicle...

So the Tathagata is not a liar when he uses skillful means, first holding out the prospect of three vehicles and then leading beings to final nirvana by means of a single great vehicle."

SOURCE: Saddharma-pundarika-sutra, ch. 3; tr. John Strong, "The Experience of Buddhism," pp.135-137.


Neutral at least I would say but I think the good out weighs the bad in the end. This does NOT mean that we can go around, however, lying our asses off. Only in certain cases can it be a positive thing and those cases are up to us to figure out as they arise.

Ali said...

I have learned that even when we omit truth to spare a moment of awkwardness, we are indeed lying.
What I'm really here to say is that I'm becoming interested in buddhism and I look forward to reading your blog and thinking along with you on your journey.

"James" said...


I agree that a lie out of awkwardness is indeed a solid lie. However, I am talking about a lie that would save a life that would otherwise be unjustly destroyed.

Anyway, I'm glad to have you in the Sangha here on my little Buddhist space. :)

auspiciousgreen said...

first up, i'd like to let you know how much enjoyment i have found in following this blog. i think you are doing great things with this space.

on this particular matter it is hard to say. My personal approach to buddhism is that we shouldn't follow Buddha's doctrine word for word, but rather the spirit.

So in response to findingbuddha, i would say, a lie to save life is not against buddha's teaching. we all know that rationality is a major tenet of buddhist teachings. it isn't rational to follow every word of the buddha. in different times certain principles will overlap and cause a muddy grey area.

Lying to save somebodies life is an act of neutral/if not good karma. it is an act of compassion, and I don't think buddha ever taught not to be compassionate. the very nature of this reality is that things conflict and are necessarily paradoxical. from a rational point of view, from the spirit of buddha's teachings, we should always try and be compassionate to our brothers and sisters.

"James" said...

Auspicious Green:

Thank-you for your very kind words regarding this sangha. Welcome.

I agree that we should not take the Buddha's words literally.

The Buddha himself said:

"Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe simply because it has been handed down for many generations. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is written in Holy Scriptures. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of Teachers, elders or wise men. Believe only after careful observation and analysis, when you find that it agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all. Then accept it and live up to it."

- The Buddha on Belief - from the Kalama Sutta

FindingBuddha said...


Good point on your example/story of the child.

I have 3 kids and sometimes that kind of "tricks" is what I have to do almost daily. Yet I keep 5 precepts (or try to). It has never occurred to me that I am lieing to my kids.

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