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Motivation and Karma

Karma is a Sanskrit word (kamma in Pali) that means “action.” The law of karma refers to the law of cause and effect: that every volitional act brings about a certain result.

Action has 3 parts:

  • preparation, which includes the motivation and the intention;

  • actual action;

  • completion of the action.

If we act motivated by greed, hatred, or delusion, we are planting the seed of suffering; when our acts are motivated by generosity, love, or wisdom, then we are creating the karmic conditions for abundance and happiness.


We tend not to pay attention to this conditioning factor of our experience, thinking instead that once an experience has passed it is gone without residue or result. That would be like dropping a stone in water without creating any ripples. Each mind state and the motivation before the action that we experience further conditions and strengthens it.

The Buddha used the term karma specifically referring to volition or will, the intention or motive behind an action. He said that karma is volition, because it is the motivation behind the action that determines the karmic fruit.

Inherent in each intention in the mind is an energy powerful enough to bring about subsequent results. When we understand that karma is based on volition, we can see the enormous responsibility we have to become conscious of the intentions that precede our actions. If we are unaware of the motives in our minds, when unskillful volitions arise we may unmindfully act on them and thus create the conditions for future suffering.

The point is to get clear what your motivation is – the layers of your motivation. Not in order to beat yourself up over every time you put your own needs first, but in order to be realistic. Realistic enough to take care of yourself and avoid overwork, for instance. Realistic enough to give that dollar to that beggar this time around.


There is a lot going on in the world. 2020 has been a difficult year. What is the motivation behind all the actions people commit these days: Injustice? Ignorance? Anger? Disbelief? Compassion? Love? Will fighting help? What kind of action needed?

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