12 November 2010

Action and Intention

IN THIS POST I'M REVISITING an old favourite of mine. I mention one of the phrases in this sutta - cetanāhaṃ, bhikkhave, kammaṃ vadāmi - on a regular basis. I've even done a commentary on it. Here I translate the section of the Discourse on Piercing - Nibbedhika Sutta (AN 6.63 PTS A iii.414) - that contains the phrase and this sheds further light on the idea it is expressing. It came up recently on Elisa Freschi's blog sanscrite cogitare, sanscrite loqui in the comments on a post called 'Desire, cognition and action', looking at the role of intention and cognition in actions. The role of intention in actions naturally brought to mind the Buddha's equation of cetanā and kamma.

The Nibbedhika Sutta consists of an introduction and then several sections with the same form. It concerns correctly identifying certain things, their cause, their distinctiveness, their result, their cessation, and the way to make them cease. Clearly this format is an expansion on that used in the ariyasacca or truths of the nobles ones (dukkha, samudaya, nirodha, magga). The 'things' are: sensuous pleasure (kāma), sensations (vedanā), apperceptions (saññā), influxes (āsavā), action (kamma), disappointment (dukkha).

Translation [1]

Action should be known, the basis (nidāna-sambhava) for action should be known, the distinctiveness (vemattatā) of action should be known, the result (vipāka) of actions should be known, the cessation (nirodha) of action should be known, the way to bring about cessation of action (kamma-nirodha-gāminī paṭipada) should be understood. This was said, but why? I call action ‘intention’. Having thought/intended one acts, with body, speech, or mind.

And what is the basis for actions? Contact [between sense faculty and sense object] is the basis for actions.

And what is the distinctiveness of actions? There is the action to be experienced (vedanīyaṃ) in hell (niraya); the action to be experienced as an animal (tiracchānayoni); the action to be experienced in the domain of hungry ghosts (pettivisaya); the action to be experienced in the human realm (manussaloka); and the action to be experienced in the god realm (devaloka).

And what is the result of action? I say there are three kinds of result: to be experienced in this world (diṭṭhe-dhamme); in the next rebirth (upapajje); or in subsequent rebirths (aparāpariya). [2]

And how does action cease? It ceases with the cessation of contact. With the noble Eightfold-path (ariyo aṭṭḥaṅgiko maggo) being the way to bring about the cessation of action: perfect-vision, perfect intention, perfect speech, perfect action [3], perfect livelihood, perfect effort, perfect mindfulness, perfect concentration. [4]

Because of this a Noble Disciple knows action, its basis, its distinctiveness, its result, its cessation, and the way to bring about that cessation. He knows this piercing spiritual path for the cessation of action.

This is what was said, and why it was said.
A few comments. Firstly we have the sequence: contact > intention > action. This is descriptive not prescriptive; an outline of the process, rather than concrete definition. It highlights the aspects of our responses to the world which are important for the Buddhist project/object. [5] The important thing is that action is a response. As I said in my earlier commentary the underlying root of cetanā:
"...concerns what catches our attention on the one hand, and what we move towards on the other; or, what is on our minds, and what motivates us (emotions are what 'set us in motion')" - Ethics and Intention.
As humans we are flooded with sensory impressions, some of which gain our attention, some of which we respond to unconsciously. Broadly speaking we are either drawn towards or away from stimulus, and actions are how these tendencies play out in the mind, speech and body. The text presents the outcomes of actions in terms of various realms of rebirth: hell, animal, hungry-ghost, human, god. If we are uncomfortable with these as literal destinations - and let's face it, most of us Westerners are - we can perhaps see these as metaphors for moods in which our mental life takes place. [6] Either way the result is general, not specific - this important point is often lost sight of in discussion of karma, especially when people are looking for reasons that specific bad things happen to people. All you can really say is that kamma has meant a human rebirth - the details are not covered, though of course any rebirth in saṃsāra is by definition disappointing. There is no answer to the question "why me?"; one can only think in terms of "now what?"

The text's answer to "now what?" is to invoke the eight-fold path, i.e. having defined the problem in general terms it offers a generic solution. Still, the specific insight contained in the equation of kamma and cetanā is an interesting one to reflect on.


  1. Pāli text from CST.
  2. c.f. Vism xix.14: "Thus there are four kinds of kamma: to be experienced in this world, to be experience on rebirth, to be experienced in some subsequent rebirth, and kamma which doesn’t ripen [because it is inhibited by a more potent kamma]." Tattha catubbidhaṃ kammaṃ – diṭṭhadhammavedanīyaṃ, upapajjavedanīyaṃ, aparāpariyavedanīyaṃ, ahosikammanti. See also PED s.v. ahosi-kamma.
  3. i.e. action (kamma) ceases through acting perfectly (sammākammanta) - this kind of tautology does not seem to bother the author of the Pāli.
  4. sammādiṭṭhi, sammāsaṅkappa, sammāvācā, sammākammanta, sammājīva, sammāvāyāma, sammāsati, sammāsamādhi. I follow Sangharakshita in translating the word samma (S. saṃyak) as perfect. I think 'right' reflects a bygone era, and if it ever conveyed the right impression it now seems a bit bloodless. I wrote about this word in Philological Odds and Ends III.
  5. Project/Object was a term coined by Frank Zappa for his oeuvre when considering all it's various manifestations (including recording, live performances, interviews, writing, and film) considered as a whole. From our point of view it includes all the positive things that Buddhists do.
  6. C.f. Trungpa and Freemantle. The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Shambala, 1975. (esp. p.5-10); and Sangharakshita. A Guide to the Buddhist Path. Windhorse, 1990. (esp. 'The Six Realms." p.81 ff.).
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