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.
Intention in the Pali Suttas and Abhidharma
Ethics and Buddhism
Although canonical Buddhist philosophy does not offer systematic, meta-ethical argumentation in a manner that might be familiar to readers of Western ethical theories, Buddhism has long been deeply concerned with ethical questions, offering detailed articulations of human flourishing, elaborate moral psychologies, taxonomies of virtues, rules for moral conduct, and instructions on spiritual technologies for ethical self-cultivation. The ethical underpinnings of the Buddhist project manifest differently across Buddhist traditions, although teachings such as the Buddha’s diagnosis of the suffering endemic to the human condition and the way to resolve it in the four noble truths, the workings of karma (literally “action” in Sanskrit) and its effects in shaping the world that a being experiences, and the moral-psychological structure of experience together provide a shared set of foundational principles. How these foundational principles are enacted within the ethical teachings and contemplative practices of different Buddhist traditions varies. Among the early Buddhist schools that emerged in the first few centuries after the lifetime of the Buddha, a distinctive ethical focus is its elaboration of the moral psychology of monitoring and purifying unwholesome qualities of feeling and thinking as an essential task on the path of liberation. With the emergence of Mahāyāna (Sanskrit: “Great Vehicle”) Buddhism around the 1st century bce, the ethical lodestone shifts to the cultivation of bodhicitta (Sanskrit: “awakening mind”)—the radically altruistic intention to achieve enlightenment in order to benefit sentient beings—as well as advancing the figure of the bodhisattva (Sanskrit: “awakening being”) as moral exemplar. Vajrayāna (Sanskrit: “Indestructible Vehicle”) Buddhism upholds the basic ethical view of the Mahāyāna while activating them within a contemplative scheme characterized by elaborate tantric rituals, which are said to conduce to a more expeditious realization and are supported by additional sets of ethical commitments. In addition to exegeses of these traditional Buddhist ethical commitments and the practices that support them, much of the scholarship on Buddhist ethics in the 21st century is concerned with constructing systematic interpretations of traditional Buddhist ethics, applying traditional Buddhist ethics to contemporary moral problems, expanding the scope of Buddhist ethical reflection to articulate activist stances on social justice issues, and interpreting the recent secularization of Buddhist practice in evidence-based contemplative science protocols.