The Meaning of Intention

Before there can be a result (karma), there is an action. Before action, there is one’s will. And before one’s will, there is one’s intention.

By the time this piece goes up, Pesach (Passover) will be nearly over, but nonetheless, I think there are few more perfect times in the year for talking about intention than this. More familiarly, you might know that Pesach is the time of year in the Jewish calendar where people commemorate the Exodus story, remember oppressed people around the world, and celebrate freedom. But in my experience, Pesach is also about something more subtle: it is about asking questions and teaching/reminding others to never stop asking questions. Many Jewish sages have written, time and time again, that one of the most important parts of being Jewish, or even being human, is learning.

Before intention, there must be knowledge. Still before knowledge, there must be learning. And it is learning which helps us have the capacity for both right understanding and right thought.

The Pali/Sanskrit word for “intention,” cetanā, derives from two words meaning “to think” or “thinking,” and it can also just mean “mind.” But it also carries some less static meanings. Two of these, “intention” and “volition”, are arguably the most commonly known among both scholars and Buddhist practitioners alike. In most schools and lineages of Buddhist teaching, cetanā is thought to be the most important element in the creation of karma, because it is what determines the ethics of the action tied to it. (This can be traced back to the Abhidhamma Pitaka, the final portion of the Theravada scriptures.) In some Buddhist schools, cetanā is thought not to even be a factor in the actions and thoughts of buddhas and arhats, because they have already transcended ignorance, and therefore do not accrue karma. But for those trying to reach enlightenment, cetanā is a vital thing to investigate.

A person’s intention does not have to be followed by an action in order to create karma, however. By simply entertaining the possibility of doing something (provided enough mental force is behind the thought), it is possible to create karma. The ten courses of unwholesome action, as outlined in the Pali Digha Nikaya, include three mental courses of action, which are greed, ill will, and wrong view. In the Nyingma (“ancient” school) lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, wrong view was further broken down into four false views, which are: seeing moral impurity as purity (this can translate, basically, as taking something that is not truly essential to one’s being, and interpreting it as essential); regarding selflessness (referring to either actions or the state of being anatta) as the self or part of the self; seeing suffering as happiness; and seeing impermanence as being permanent.

An interesting thing to note about the Nyingma lineage’s breakdown of what wrong view means is that most of these thoughts are things that we would immediately classify as being mistakes or accidents. This is somewhat contrary to the earlier Vinaya (Theravada monastic code) and Mahayana lineages, which teach that actions and thoughts done without full intention do not create karma. This raises a very relevant question: when does one know if a thought has crossed the line between a mistake and intention?

I believe the answer is this: we don’t, unless we never stop asking questions, and never stop trying to learn.

In Hebrew, the word for intention is kavanah. This word comes from the root כ.ו.נ (kaf, vav, nun), which, like cetanā, carries several meanings: “to intend,” “to establish,” “to constitute” and “to adjust” being only a few.  On the first night of Pesach, it is customary to lay the foundation for lifelong learning by asking four questions to children attending the traditional gathering, or seder. These questions are prefaced with an overarching theme: why is this night so different from all the others? By teaching children to ask about the meaning of things, and to feel free to interpret the answers in their own way, the hope is that they will not stop learning and growing as they become adults.

This asking of the Four Questions is only one step on the path to understanding kavanah; the next is internalizing the knowledge that the Questions are an essential part of the seder. In the Talmud, it is written that even if the seder is attended by two scholars who have studied the Torah and the laws all their lives, that they must pair up and read the questions to one another (Talmud, Pesachim 116a). This helps people recognize that, even after a lifetime of studying a subject or living a way of life, people can still miss, misinterpret, or get things completely wrong. When people can recognize the fallibility of those whom are said to have the most knowledge, going through the time-honored motions of the Pesach seder several dozen times throughout their lives doesn’t seem as mundane as it could be. And this active appreciation creates a sense of intention and meaning that permeates the entire night.

Though the Pesach seder is considered a mitzvah (commandment) in Jewish life, the wisdom is that even mandatory things must be done with intention rather than mechanical programming, because without intention, they have no meaning. And the only way to cultivate truly ethical intention is by being consciously aware of the things one does.

Awareness is what separates a mistake from intention. But what if a person has sufficient potential to be aware of something, and yet they remain ignorant? Returning to the four false views of the Nyingma lineage: those mistakes seem innocent enough. Almost all of those things are, at first glance, things that a person has no control over. But investigating some examples of how holding onto those false views may affect what we say, how we see other people, and how other people feel about and react to our thoughts in the real world, will reveal the immense amount of pain we can cause others by not taking the time to ask questions.

What those examples are is, of course, for you dear reader, to seek.

Intention can and does make it possible for people to consciously choose whether to act. But there is also such a thing as unconscious intention. These unconscious forms of cetanā may be more accurately referred to as “volition,” or as Sri Lankan Buddhist scholar David J. Kalupahana puts it, “the spring of action…[which] generates disposition.” These days, we have several words for this phenomenon. A couple that may be familiar are “programming” and “conditioning.” One other study on the generation of karma, which deeply examines Theravada scriptures and how they carried over into Zen Buddhist teachings about meditation, argues that cetanā is a psychic phenomenon which pulls a person toward certain views and actions. This definition creates space to interrogate a lot more of the unconscious aspects of intention, and ways to overcome unwholesome mental action.

And in doing so, it places the responsibility squarely on our shoulders.

Meditation is one way that some schools use for reprogramming thoughts and finding a way out of programmed ignorance. In Rinzai Zen, active, conscious meditation on koans (these can be riddles, stories, or dialogues) in order to experience a certain degree of doubt and frustration is done in order to become enlightened. This is most often done in the context of a monastery, with a teacher assigning koans and guiding students through the process.

Another form of meditation takes us back to Tibet. The central focus of the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism is an evolving meditation practice that regards one’s own experience as being the key to enlightenment. Chögyam Trungpa, holder of the Kagyu lineage until his passing in 1987, wrote about the purpose of meditation in the Kagyu tradition in his 1973 book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, saying that “…in true meditation, there is no ambition to stir up thoughts, nor is there ambition to suppress them. They are just allowed to occur spontaneously and become an expression of basic sanity.”

Through this quiet expression, practitioners of Kagyu meditation work to renounce their attachment to potentially harmful volition’s. Though this form of meditation is not quite as abstract as the Zen koans, it can be seen as another way of creating doubt about the right-mindedness of one’s upbringing and socialization. And creating doubt is, you guessed it, a way to create and ask meaningful, intentional questions.

At the seder table on the first night of Pesach, after asking questions, eating strange food combinations meant to symbolize past pain and present blessings, and visiting with people over a meal, the final blessing comes. A special cup of wine is filled for the prophet Elijah, and an invitation extended to him to come in. In some Jewish traditions, it is said that when humankind has learned how to treat one another well and end conflict, he will come and join. And year after year, the question is asked: what more must we learn? What more can we do?

This year, as I sat with some good friends at the table, I thought about the kavanah, the intention behind those questions and many others. What will we need to renounce in order to end conflict? What things about the ways in which we are raised do we need to revisit and re-experience in order to support others meaningfully?

Kagya meditation does not encourage conscious re-direction of thoughts and intention. This may influence it negatively. Rather, the practitioner is encouraged to simply let these thoughts and feelings flow as they will, at their own pace. Instead of trying to wrest control from a past version of themselves, the practitioner observes and follows the patterns in their minds. In this way, the ego can be transcended, and the whole within and outside of the self can be seen for what it truly is.

Perhaps this is a way in which the Four Questions and Elijah’s “price of admission” can be approached as well. Perhaps letting go of conscious intention, in favor of examining unconscious volition, is another way to answering those questions when Elijah’s door is closed each year.

Meditation and questioning will not erase past mistakes, nor will they delete the ways we have been programmed to behave throughout our lives. But they can help us confront them, and further, be kind to our former selves. By exercising kavanah in the Pesach seder, people can make the questions they ask matter, and learn many different ways of seeing a single answer. Likewise, by cultivating cetanā in meditation and daily life, we become able to renounce wrong thought and walk a fully conscious path as we engage with the world, and the people, around us.


Bhikkhu Bodhi, A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma: The Abhidhammattha Sangaha (Pariyatti, 2012).

Gyurme Dorje, “The Guhyagarbhatantra and its XIVth Century Commentary Phyogs-bcu mun-sel.” (PhD thesis, University of London, 1987), 1431.

Rupert Gethin. The Foundations of Buddhism (London: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Lynken Ghose, “‘Karma’ and the Possibility of Purification: An Ethical and Psychological Analysis of the Doctrine of ‘Karma’ in Buddhism.” The Journal of Religious Ethics 35, no. 2 (2007): 265.

Rita M. Gross, “The Three-Yāna Journey in Tibetan Vajrayāna Buddhism”. Buddhist-Christian Studies 7 (1987): 90.

Chögyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (Shambhala Publications, 1973).