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date: 05 December 2023

Intention in the Pali Suttas and Abhidharmalocked

Intention in the Pali Suttas and Abhidharmalocked

  • Karin MeyersKarin MeyersBuddhist Studies, Mangalam Research Center


In common usage, “intention” refers to the mental determination, purpose, or plan to engage in an action or to bring about a particular result through action. In contemporary Anglo-American philosophy, it often refers to the mental representation of that determination, purpose, or plan and, in phenomenology, to the “aboutness” of consciousness, or the characteristic of having an object in mind. There is no Pali or Sanskrit Buddhist term that corresponds precisely with this range of meanings, but two terms come close and are often translated as “intention,” namely, saṅkappa (saṅkalpa in Sanskrit) and cetanā (the same in Pali and Sanskrit).

Generally speaking, saṅkappa (also translated as “resolve” or “thought”) refers to a thought that informs goal-oriented action and cetanā (also translated as “volition”) to an impulse toward an object or goal. Although Buddhist commentators commonly individuate cetanās in respect to specific actions with first-person thoughts (e.g., “I will give alms to the monk”), cetanā is more conative in nature, and saṅkappa, more cognitive. Saṅkappa and cetanā can thus be distinguished as something like “purposive thought” and “purposive impulse,” respectively.

Despite a significant degree of semantic overlap, the two terms tend to be used in different contexts. Saṅkappa is the preferred term for intention in relation to the practice of the path and occurs more frequently in the Pali suttas than cetanā. Cetanā is closely connected to moral action or karma and more basic to consciousness than saṅkappa. It figures more prominently in Buddhist psychology (in both the Pali and Sanskrit Abhidharma traditions), where it is understood to be present in every moment of consciousness (citta) and exert a strong influence over other mental factors and is also at the center of scholastic debates regarding the nature and dynamics of karma.

Contrary to what some scholars have suggested, the Buddhist emphasis on intention as essential or even equal to karma does not amount to a conviction in free will (or an argument against it), nor does it imply an intentionalist ethics (the view that the moral quality of an action or moral responsibility is determined exclusively or even primarily by the agent’s intention). Whereas Western philosophers often focus on intentions as reasons for action and their role in voluntary action, Buddhists focus on intentions (in the case of both saṅkappa and cetanā) as causal factors or conditions that play critical roles in the performance of an action and, in the case of cetanā, generate a karmic result. In sum, rather than viewing intentions in terms of an agent’s sovereign will, autonomy, or rational choice to act, Buddhists view them in terms of complex causal processes (including other mental factors, habits, precepts, social relationships, communal practices) that issue in action and shape experience in this and future lives.


  • Buddhism

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