Buddha on Good and Bad Karma (quotes and explanation)

People find one of my web projects for the term ‘buddha quotes on karma’. Unfortunately we don’t really know what the Buddha said. Lots of ‘Buddha quotes’ pages online share quotes attributed to Buddha rather indiscriminately. What I mean by that is that these online sources take each sutra attributed to the Buddha literally on that. But for Mahayana Sutras there really isn’t much reason to assume that the historical Buddha had anything to do with it.

So, when I made my Buddha quotes on karma page, I decided to limit myself to the Pali Canon. But that brings up another issue: the Pali Canon is really hard to quote from. What I mean is: the language is convoluted and not concentrated in a way that makes a nice quote usually. These quotes really need translation into normal language. But that’s clearly no longer a Buddha quote. So that’s what this post is: an elaboration of two of those Buddha quotes:

Monks, these four types of karma have been directly realized, verified, & made known by me. Which four? There is karma that is dark with dark result. There is karma that is bright with bright result. There is karma that is dark & bright with dark & bright result. There is karma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result, leading to the ending of karma.

Anguttara Nikaya,AN 4.235, PTS: A ii 235,Ariyamagga Sutta: The Noble Path,translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

This quote shows two things: first ‘bad karma’ isn’t such a strange concept to original Buddhism as many modern Western Buddhists claim.

Second, it’s about the effect of actions (and thoughts and words). Those who’ve thought about karma a bit, often come up with this question: how about actions that have a bad motivation, but a good effect. Say a celebrity sponsors some good cause, mainly to beef up their own reputation… The effect is still mainly good, one would say: that cause gets both money and attention. And that attention is bound to bring in more money. So where’s the negative effect? Well, I think the negative effect is in the cynicism people feel towards this sort of thing. We become good cause jaded.

So this is an example of ‘There is karma that is dark & bright with dark & bright result.’ This quote plainly says that there IS no such thing as karma that is good, but doesn’t have a good effect. Cause and effect are, in Buddhism, clearly linked. And in most cases of course the cause is mixed. Both motive and method of action is usually not perfect, so the effect is likely to be mixed as well.

Another Buddha quote with the same message:

So, Ananda, there is karma that is incapable (of good result) and appears incapable (of good result); there is karma that is incapable (of good result) and appears capable (of good result); there is karma that is capable (of good result) and appears capable (of good result); there is karma that is capable (of good result) and appears incapable (of good result).

Majjhima Nikaya 136: The Great Exposition of Kamma (Mahakammavibhanga Sutta)

More on karma:

14 thoughts on “Buddha on Good and Bad Karma (quotes and explanation)”

  1. Richard: I’m not sure you can say karma is just about action. Intent is also involved. Note the example above about the celebrity. Though his/her actions are good and lead to some good results, the intention or motivation is selfish, and this also generates some negative effects.

    What I find particularly painful are actions from loving intentions that lead to hurtful effects. In the past couple of years, I’ve been working through my emotionally abusive past. This involves things like over-controlling parents or smothering parents or manipulative parents who truly want to help their children succeed and guide them to a happy life but undermine their children’s self-esteem and oppress them in the process. The motivations are selfish, but the parents aren’t usually aware of that. They truly believe they’re being unselfish, even sacrificial.

    After getting over years of built-up anger, I recognized that my parents behaved the way they behaved because that’s what they experienced themselves. The karma, in this case, is familial, stretching through generations. They were truly unaware (or largely unaware) of what they were doing and why.

    I’ve started to recognize the same kind of destructive behavior patterns that have happened beyond my awareness. When I find myself hurting others and only later realizing that I did and why I did it, I remember how I was on the receiving end of this kind of behavior for years. The best I’ve been able to do is take full responsibility for having hurt someone else, regardless of my not being aware of it at the time, and try to become more aware going forward.

    It’s really hard for me to be too “forgiving” about hurtful results even when the motivation was to do good. I can’t hold those who hurt me unintentionally for so many years to higher standards than I hold myself. I’ve found that there’s a kind of cleansing when you just face the stark truth of this: “I hurt someone, and even though I didn’t mean it, I did and that was wrong. Here’s why I did it and here’s what I need to be aware of.” I’ve found that doing this has actually helped change my behavior. It does feel crappy for a while, but those feelings eventually run through you. I like to think I’m modifying some of that bad familial karma. I don’t know if I am, but I like to think so. 🙂


    1. Yes, I agree. Intent is important — powerful.

      I have never met anyone who hasn’t been wounded and scared. And, it seems, we aren’t responsible for a significant number of them. At my age, I see that I am responsible for most of mine. Ignorance is awful.
      However after we have been here a couple of decades our main protectors and healers are us. That is we, I believe, are responsible for our own protection and healing.

      However help is available. Healing happens, A healing power is at work. We may observe it.

  2. You’re both right. Karma literally means action. But in Buddhist thought that doesn’t just mean what we do, but also what we say and think.

    The main point in karma is the idea that the actions of one individual are somehow forever linked together and keep producing results (hence eternal reincarnations). Unless, that is, one finds the way out: Nirvana.

  3. First time here. Interesting material. So you’re saying that the first quote and the second quote are implying the same truth?

  4. It’s not just in Buddhist thought but in Christian thought also.
    Action includes speech and thought. There’s the sayings of Jesus like “It’s not what goes in to a man’s mouth that defiles him but what comes out” and ” Whoever looks at a woman with lust in his heart has already commited adultery”. Something like that.

    1. Action Speech Thought Its not words Its a state of being
      probing finding the path a yellow brick road to the ever turning spiral Enjoy the ride fellow travelers !!

  5. If I may.
    Our model asserts that behavior is an orchestration of the neuromuscular metabolism.

    Many motives for behavior are tangled up in our intuition.
    In our model, Intuition encapsulates a continuum of abstraction, from the autonomic orchestration at the outside to the deliberate or mostly abstract orchestration on the inside.
    Karma seems to be organized along that path.
    Blinking to wet dry eyes is good in appearance and good in effect. Blinking during an invasive ophthalmic procedure appears bad and has a bad effect.
    Breathing rapidly while running appears good and has a good effect. Breathing rapidly while worrying about tomorrow appears bad and has a bad effect.
    As we move inwardly towards the most abstract of our intuition we have a Divine gift to help us find our bliss.
    We refer to it as ambivalence. The accepted definition of ambivalence is quite unhelpful – “the polarization of feelings”.
    This definition leads to into complications and many bad effects couched in good intentions. This definition is erroneous and so we learn much erroneous behavior by our corrupted relationship with our ambivalence.

    Our model redefines ambivalence as “concurrent feelings of like and dislike”. This definition is enlightened, thank you Lord, because it leads us innocently into complexity. The Karma of past lives must become enlightened. Ambivalence is a gift from God the provides us with the capacity needed for greater spiritual growth, by allowing us to bind attributes of our likes to attributes of our dislikes. It is our dislikes that shield us from all of the effects of “indifference” – good effects and bad effects.
    Our model asserts that ambivalence is our guide and meditation and payer our arbiter.


  6. Does being curious about someone’s dishonestly, and acting on the curiousity, results in snooping cause bad Karma. Or allowing Karma to takes it’s course a better choice?

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