Zen Wisdom 186

What if the mind is active but neither speech nor actions manifest? In this case one must distinguish between precepts and karma. The Hinayana tradition says that precepts are broken only when acts and speech are involved. Hinayana takes the perspective of ordinary sentient beings. When we speak or act we influence others, perhaps conspicuously. On the other hand, if only the mind moves, the influence is much lighter and much less conspicuous. Thinking about stealign is not a crime. You have to follow through with actions to break the law. Therefore the Hinayana tradition does not consider bad thoughts as breaking precepts.

Mahayana recognizes the mind as the most important component, so the mind alone can break the precepts. That is to say, intention is paramount. Furthermore, bad thoughts can create bad karma, but the karma created is much lighter than that created by speech or action.

Remember, also, that you are ordinarily thinking constantly. Some thoughts are good, some bad, some neutral. They all create light karma. If you focus only on the bad thoughts and condemn yourself for them, then you are doing yourself an injustice. You are thinking good thoughts throughout the day, too, and these create good karma. So there is a balance. For instance, right now all of you are here listening to and trying to understand Buddhadharma. This is good. You are creating good karma. Hopefully, during the course of our lives we will think more good thoughts than bad.

Even if you take the Hinayana approach, that evil thoughts do not break precepts, be aware that when one has too many evil thoughts that continue and continue, eventually they may lead to questionable speech and action. It is better to deal with evil thoughts right from the start and try to maintain a mind of purity.