Dhamma: The word for ‘intention’ in the Dhamma is cetana. It is ubiquitous in the teaching. Understanding it correctly is integral. In this short essay, I shall try to explore its meaning.


Let me begin with consciousness [vinnana]. Vinnana is the existential determination determining all experience. No one can know how it came to be incorporated in matter. Characteristically, the Buddha does not speak about its origination because it is irrelevant. He taught a fistful of things relevant to the present problem: arising of dukkha. Thus, the standpoint to understanding vinnana and everything in the teaching is this element, dukkha.

Vinnana is not substance. A sample of it cannot be extracted and examined. That is, no one can be conscious of consciousness. How then are we to understand it?

To be conscious, is to be conscious of something even of ‘nothingness’ and ‘neither-perception-nor-non-perception’ in advanced states of meditation.

In everyday experience this ‘something’ is intention. We intend to see, hear, smell, taste, touch, act, imagine and think. For example, we normally think and ponder before speaking. That is, speech is intentional. But feeling and perceiving are not intentions. They lead to intentions.

How about breathing? While breathing in and out is a body process independent of intention, meditation on air going in and out is intention. We may regard these instances of arising of intention in consciousness as basic.

Before proceeding, we must consider another thing about consciousness in the ordinary person. The all-inclusive feature of consciousness is awareness of ‘self’. It is always the case that ‘I am’ intending. In other words, the ‘self’ and consciousness are one.


Consciousness is a thus a duality: in-oneself and in-the-external-world-of-things. On account of this, the self interprets big and small, good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant, ugly and beautiful and so on though there is no duality.

A flower is a flower – neither beautiful nor not-beautiful. If no one sees it, it is as it is – a flower. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ does not inhere in a thing. Only the arhant who has deleted the artefact of ‘self’ in consciousness tells ‘the seen in the seen, the heard in the heard, the sensed in the sensed, the cognized in the cognized.’

This is experience of things as they actually are. There is no intention [as in an ordinary man] in consciousness.

The Buddha says, ‘Tell, then, where do earth, water, fire and air no footing find? Where likewise the long and short, small and big, and fair and foul? Where is it that name and matter do without remainder cease? And the answer is this: The consciousness that makes no showing, nor has to do with finiteness, claiming no being apart from all: There it is that earth, water…do without remainder cease’.

We cannot conceive this disappearance of consciousness. But we can understand duality of consciousness in another way. ‘Cetana, properly speaking is ‘intentional intention’ – i.e. ”will’ or ‘volition’ – but the word intention, in its looser meaning is the best translation for cetana.

All consciousness is intentional, teleological. In unreflective consciousness we are ‘directed’ upon objects, we ‘intend’ them; and reflection reveals this to be an immanent process characteristic of all experience, though infinitely varied in form.

To be conscious of something is no empty having that something in consciousness. Each phenomenon has its own intentional structure, which analysis shows to be an ever-widening system of individually revealed components.

The intentional structure of a perception must conform to a certain type, if any physical object is to be perceived as there! And if the same object be intuited in other modes, if it be imagined or remembered or copied, all its intentional forms recur though modified in character…Judgment, valuation, pursuit are experiences compounded of an intentional stream.


Intentions may be regarded basically as the relation between the actual and the possible…The set of relations between the actual aspect and all the alternative aspects is the same, no matter which one of the various aspects should happen to be actual…There is now exercise of preference (with the pleasant preferred to the unpleasant), this is volition in its simplest form…We must also consider the difference of emphasis or ‘weight’ possessed by the various aspects…some stand out more prominently than the others…this is attention [manasikara] in its simplest terms: it may be described as ‘direction of emphasis’…Every voluntary or reflexive intention is perpetually revocable.

Every involuntary or immediate intention is modifiable… An inclination is an active seeking of a still only possible state of affairs.’ [Nanavira Thera]

An intention is essentially negative. It denies the existence of a positive but in the very act of denying, asserts its existence. The intention ‘to kill’ denies the intention ‘not to kill’ but asserts that the intention ‘not to kill’ exists.

There is now voluntary or informed exercise of preference. This is the basis of the division of kamma [action] as unskilful [akusala] and skilful [kusala].

The intention ‘to kill’ is the native intention of the built-in intentions of greed, hate and delusion [kilesa] in consciousness of the ordinary man. Any action is regarded unskilful as it reinforces the built-in intentions.

The intention ‘not to kill’ is intention to abstain. It is skilful, as it does not produce arising of action. This is the definition of kusala. That is, actions based on kilesa are intentions that produce arising of action, which is dukkha, because it perpetuates kilesa. It ripens in re-becoming. [Mahacattarisaka Sutta].

Skilful and unskilful intentions

Intentions or actions of the ordinary man arise in the self. He is prone to both unskilful and skilful intentions. One who has heard and learnt Dhamma has the advantage to make an informed choice of intentions. But from wrong view he may intend the unskilful assuming it skilful.

The tendency to greed, aversion and wrong view is likely when akusala and kusala are regarded unwholesome and wholesome, as demerit and merit. It can lead to intentions of collecting whereas the aim in practising Dhamma is to abandon. ‘The purpose of understanding [panna], is direct knowledge [abhinna]; its purpose is full understanding [parinna]; its purpose is abandoning.’ [Mahavedalla Sutta].

Accordingly, intentions of the arhant are neither akusala nor kusala. Unlike in the ordinary man, they are void of craving [tanha]. Why is that? The dualities imposed by the kilesa are extinct in vinnana of the arahat.

Intention does not imply craving or arhantta would be impossible. ‘Craving is a gratuitous parasite on the intentional structure.’ [Nanavira Thera].


There are simplistic ways to understand intention. But in whatever way understood, there should be no conflict with the fundamental aim of the Dhamma, namely to abandon, not acquire.

This is the core understanding I want to communicate and intend by this essay.