Karma and Unintentional Harm

Manopubbagamā dhammā, manoseṭṭhā manomayā
Manasā ce paduṭṭhena, bhāsati vā karoti vā
Tato na dukkhamanveti, cakka ’va vahato pada.

Mind is the forerunner of (all evil) states.
Mind is chief; and they are mind-made.
If one speaks or acts with a corrupt mind,
Suffering follows as the wheel follows the hoof of the ox.
~ Dhammapada

The Elder Cakkhupāla

A monk named Cakkhupāla chose during his Rain Retreat (the three month between the July full moon and the October full moon where monks perform extra practices) that he would not lie down during the entire retreat. During that time, he contracted an eye infection and was diagnosed by a doctor to lie down and rest. Determined to hold to his vow, he refused and eventually the infection took his sight away around the same time that he also became Arahant (enlightened).

The other monks were confused about Cakkhupāla’s enlightenment, because as he walked blindly, he would often unintentionally trample insects and small creatures. Surely an Arahant would not harm any life. The Buddha explained that the monk’s actions were unintentional and that his actions were innocent and blameless, therefore not defiling his enlightened mind.

Khamma Mechanics

When I listen to new dhamma followers discuss how khamma works, I hear many misconceptions of khammic mechanics.

First we should understand that Khamma (or Karma, kharma, and kamma) has various definitions depending on what faith and tradition we are talking to. Khamma does not mean the same in Hinduism, Janism or in many new-age philosophies. Khamma in Buddhism means “volitional action.” The choices we make create the conditions of our future.

There is a difference between giving inaccurate information than telling a falsehood. While there may be the need to make corrections and appeasements to inaccuracy all of the actions and words are made in good faith. That is very unlike a deception where the effects of a lie cut directly to creating conditions within our lives and our character that effect us and our lives profoundly.

This example carries through to all volitional actions. As in Cakkhupāla’s situation, it is very different to accidently or unintentionally kill an insect compared to someone else who just squishes them for fun or out of fear.

But are there khammic ramifications for unintentional acts? If we do not know that throwing our garbage in the sewer will eventually harm the environment, do we escape earning bad khamma?

It is important that khamma has to do mostly with our character and dukkha. An unintentional act may bring about bad results, but not necessarily bring about detriment harm to our spiritual growth. We must honestly investigate ourselves and see if there is any part of ourselves within our unmindful actions that is volitionally apathetic or wishing for unwholesome or uncompassionate actions to occur.

If we were to watch a coworker trip and fall because we absent-mindedly left a hammer on the ground instead of putting it away, we must investigate our response. If we are truly innocent in our unmindful action and feel compassionate towards our coworker, then there is probably no or very little khamma. However, if we found pleasure or satisfaction in the unmindful act (e.g. he is someone who you are jealous of or dislike), then we can assume that you have indulged in an unwholesome energy from the situation and we can safely assume that you would incur some future khammic condition.

Note: not all khamma is negative khamma. The more we are mindful and compassionate, we can also develop positive khamma.

Khamma Retribution

So if we gather some negative (or dark khamma) can we determine what the punishment will be? Can we ever really say that bad things that happen to us can be attributed to a single previous negative khammic act?

Khamma creates conditions. It is not so direct as to say, “push this button and you can be assured that a big shoe will come out and kick you in the pants.” Imagine khamma more like the seasons. As the sun moves farther from the planet, and the Earth’s access shifts from northern and southern hemisphere the weather conditions change and that creates all sort of new challenges and opportunities.

In the winter, we would need to ensure that we make the right choices to survive and not freeze to death. In the summer, we must prepare not to dehydrate and burn our skin. Acting wisely, we can take any adversity and challenging condition and make it an opportunity for wholesome growth and development of mindfulness and compassion.

The same is true with the conditions of our lives. If we have made many unwholesome decisions and twisted our character into something very negative, we always have the choice to navigate towards more wholesome practices and develop ourselves.

For example, let us return to the original example of a lie. A lie creates a constant need to maintain deception. Our character starts to believe that a lie is useful and deception acceptable. Eventually, we will become distrusted by others and we will distrust everyone. A fundamental lack of faith becomes the world around you.

Nevertheless, it is always possible to decide to commit to a life of truth-telling. While it may take more energy and work than those who have never developed a reputation for lying, it is possible that one day you can develop a sense of trust and faith between you and the community.

Khamma works exactly the same way. It creates the conditions within our environment and character our volitional actions created.

If one speaks or acts with a corrupt mind,
Suffering follows as the wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Categories: Buddha, Dharma, Ethics, Four Noble Truths, Kharma, Lifestyle, Mahayana, Meditation, New Age, Noble Eightfold Path, Philosophy, Theravada, Tibet, Virajana


Joshua Hudson is a license clinical social worker with post graduate certificates in mental health. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, he has worked as an healthcare advocate for the Department of Veteran Affairs, Director of Psychological Health for the Air Force, in-patient counselor for inpatient adolescents, child and family therapist; and currently is a Prevention Interventionist for the Air Force creating programs to reduce interpersonal and self-directed violence (e.g. Sexual assault, suicide, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, etc.) in the military


If you like Applied Buddhism, then why not sign up and subscribe!

One Comment on “Karma and Unintentional Harm”

  1. Elroy Light
    September 12, 2011 at 7:27 pm #

    Undeniably believe that which you stated. Your favorite justification seemed to be on the web the simplest thing to be aware of. I say to you, I definitely get irked while people think about worries that they just don’t know about. You managed to hit the nail upon the top and defined out the whole thing without having side effect , people could take a signal. Will probably be back to get more. Thanks

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: