The unminded mind
leads to suffering
from mindless words and actions.
A common question is whether there is karma created through the power of thought alone. For example, if one nurses malicious thoughts against another, is it alright? Does such fantasising create any negative karma? Let us first define what we mean by ‘karma’. In general use, it refers to the natural law of moral cause and effect, whereby unwholesome deeds create results of suffering for the doer eventually, while wholesome ones create pleasant results. The unwholesome refers to that which arises from defilements such as greed, hatred and delusion, while the wholesome include virtues such as their opposites – generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom. At first glance, it seems that the workings of karma are action and result oriented but this is not exactly so. Before the Buddha realised and shared on the reality of karma, it was often held that the quality of the karma created depended on physical actions. The Buddha rebutted this by teaching so in the Nibbedhika Sutta – ‘Intention (volition; cetana), monks, is karma, I say. Having willed, one acts through body, speech and mind.’ This is to say, karma is not the action per se, but what un/unwholesomeness through which the action arises. A simple way to remember the priority of intention is the saying that ‘It’s the thought (intention) that counts (more than the action)!’
Good and evil spring from our intentions, which crystallise into our thoughts, words and deeds. Even if some hypocritical good appears to arise from bad intentions, there is nevertheless bad (negative) karma created; even if some harm result from good intentions, there is nevertheless good (positive) karma created. However, there should be remorse for any ‘accidental’ damage done. If one is unrepentant and continually makes similar mistakes, there is clearly the intention to ignore one’s responsibility – which creates bad karma! The saying that ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’ refers to the idea of some doing bad things wilfully or out of ignorance for what assumed would be good results. This is more of a mixed path of good and evil. The path to a better rebirth has to be paved with good intentions (and actions)! In the sutta quote above, it is interesting to note that it is possible to act through the mind via one’s will, and that this creates karma. What we purposely entertain mentally can bear karmic results. The ill intentions we keep thriving does create some negative karma, even if they are not acted upon; if they are already played out in the mind. On a more cautionary note, the more repeatedly they are played out, the more likely it is that they might eventually be played out in word and deed too.
There are differences in the gravity of the karma created in terms of thoughts, words and deeds. For the same mattter, say, of hurting another, to actually do it creates more intense karma than to just talk about doing it, while talking about doing it (e.g. threatening) creates more intense karma than to just think of doing it. In other words, it is bad to think of being evil, worse to speak of being evil, and worst to do evil. However, if one repeatedly thinks of being evil without acting it out, the cumulative negative karma created can be quite substantial too. Part of Right Effort on the Noble Eightfold Path is to diligently cease present evil thoughts and prevent new ones from arising, to perpetuate present good thoughts and to give rise to new ones. It is best to nip evil in the bud, to not let it blossom even in the mind. For different matters in terms of thoughts, words and deeds, the sequence of karmic gravity would differ. For example, it is bad to steal a cent (at the deed level), worse to slander another (at the speech level), and even worse to plot a murder (at the thought level). A sound safeguard against creation of negative karma is to stick to mindful observation of the Five Precepts of not killing, stealing, having sexual misconduct, lying (or slandering, having harsh speech and idle talk), or taking intoxicants (which impairs mindfulness).
True observation of the precepts in thought,
leads to their instant observation
in speech and deed too.
The Old & Young Monks Who Killed & Saved Ants
Is Ignorance Really Bliss?