A psychological view of karma – part 3: Mental states

As we saw in A psychological view of karma (part 2), karma – which literally means ‘action’, but refers specifically to an intention or mental action – influences our life by creating mental tendencies that will affect the way we experience our life in the future. For example, if I act out of greed,  in the future I will experience life scarcer and more difficult to satisfy my needs than if I had acted out of generosity.

These mental predispositions, which are the psychic residues of our past deeds, will generate more wholesome or unwholesome mental states in our minds. This will directly influence how much suffering or happiness we will experience in our life.

Kuśala and akuśala consciousness 

One of the main types of Buddhist literature, the Abhidharma, classifies types of karma according to the quality of consciousness that we have when we are doing something and also when we are reaping the result. This quality of consciousness can be kuśala (wholesome) or akuśala (unwholesome). Kuśala means that the action is skilful or wholesome, leading to healthy mental states; while akuśala means that the action is unwholesome, ripening in pain and harm to oneself (Harvey, 2013).

Kuśala or akuśala actions are also linked to certain intentions. Greed, hatred and delusion are what make an intention or an action akuśala, while generous impulses, loving-kindness and wisdom is what makes an intention or an action kuśala (Harvey, 2013).

In the Abhidharma, we read that unwholesome or akuśala consciousness is a mental state qualified inherently as ‘unhealthy, morally blameworthy and productive of painful results’; while wholesome or kuśala consciousness is a mental state qualified inherently as ‘healthy, morally blameless, and productive of pleasant results’ (Bodhi, 2000:31).

Suffering and happiness as a result of karma

The connection between kuśala and akuśala consciousness and the karma we reap is thus quite clear. In this very simple way, the Dhammapada (Buddharakkhita’s translation) expresses the connection between the quality of our mind and karma:

‘If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts, suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

(…) If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts, happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.’

The quality of being conducive to suffering or to happiness denotes the use of a psychological criterion for understanding the ultimate nature or ethical quality of the actions or kamma.

This means that if I commit many acts out of greed, even though I can get a transitory feeling of satisfaction in the following moment, deep down I am getting trapped in a treadmill of self-delusion in which my life will be ruled by my attachments. The more attachments, the more greed I will have, and the more frustration can get into my life if I don’t get what I want. Suffering, therefore, will be the ‘never-departing shadow’ that will follow my life in the future. Suffering will be my karma.

The same happens in the opposite way. The kuśala quality of sati (mindfulness) arises when we cultivate wholesome mental states. The more actions we do with a wholesome consciousness, the more happiness we will create for the future. Doing acts of mindfulness in our daily-life, therefore, will activate positive courses of karma that will take us away from suffering and unwholesome states.

If you’d like to generate more kuśala or wholesome ‘actions’ in your life, a perfect place to start is doing our free 42-day self-development program by World Peace Initiative.

See you on the path!


Harvey, P., An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Photo credits: Unsplash





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