This post is Part 2 in a series about on Wholesome Intentions, based on this full article by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.
Of course, the first question regarding intention is, for what?
All the great wisdom traditions of the world, and all the great moral philosophers, have grappled with this question. What should we want?
There are many ways to approach this question. Some try to answer it in terms of discerning the will or desires of their sense of a Divine influence, of God. Others through resort to certain ideals or abstractions. And others through reliance on some kind of authority, such as a priestly class or a scripture.
In the case of the Buddha – and also some moral philosophers – he approached this question pragmatically, in terms of what leads to more or less suffering, to more or less benefit or harm to oneself and others. Intentions are good if they lead to good results, and bad if they lead to bad results.
This approach has numerous advantages. It is down to earth. It draws upon our own observation of what happens, rather than relying upon the viewpoints of others. It provides a ready test for the worth of an intention: what did it lead to, what actually happened? And it keeps turning us back to ourselves, toward how we can be ever more skillful.
The best available record of the actual teachings of the Buddha – what is called the Pali Canon after the language in which they were first written – is chock full of page 4 encouragement and practical guidance for many kinds of intentions leading to good results.
For example, in one sutta – a talk or discourse of the Buddha – he is offering a merchant guidelines for an ethical business, and in another he is advising a monk on the subtlest imaginable inclinations of mind in profoundly realized states of consciousness. In one of my favorite suttas, the Buddha tells his seven-year-old son, Rahula, that knowing how to act in life is actually very simple: before you do something, consider if it will lead to benefit or harm, and if it will be beneficial, go ahead; then, while you are doing things, keep considering if they are beneficial or not, and if they are, it’s alright to continue them.
In this context of diversity and individuality of wholesome intentions, the Buddha singled out three in particular. They are contained in what is called Right Intention, which is one of the parts of the Eightfold Path; that Path is the last of the Four Noble Truths, and it describes the way leading to the end of suffering.
By the way, Right (or Wise) Intention is sometimes translated as “Right Resolve,” which conveys the determination, firmness of aim, heartfelt conviction, and persistence that are central to right intention. Let’s see what those three intentions were, that the Buddha thought were so important that they deserved such emphasis.
Intention of Harmlessness
This is a broad aim of not causing pain, loss, or destruction to any living thing. At a minimum, this is a sweeping resolution to avoid any whit of harm to another human being. The implications are far-reaching, since most of us participate daily in activities whose requirements or ripples may involve harm to others (e.g., use of fossil fuels that warms the planet, purchasing goods manufactured in oppressive conditions).
Further, in American culture there is a strong tradition of rugged individualism in which as long as you are not egregiously forceful or deceitful, “let the buyer beware” on the other side of daily transactions. But if your aim is preventing any harm, then the other person’s free consent does not remove your responsibility.
Taking it a step further, to many, harmlessness means not killing bothersome insects, rodents, etc. Even as you feel the mosquito sticking its needle into your neck. And to many, harmlessness means eating a vegetarian diet (and perhaps forgoing milk products, since cows need to have calves to keep their milk production flowing, and half of those calves are male, who will eventually be slaughtered for food).
Nonetheless, we need to realize that there is no way to avoid all harms to other beings that flow inexorably through our life. If we are to eat, we must kill plants, and billions of bacteria die each day as we pass wastes out of our bodies. If we get hired for a job, that means another person will not be.
But what we can do is to have a sincere aspiration toward harmlessness, and to reduce our harms to an absolute minimum. And that makes all the difference in the world.
Intention of Non-Ill Will
Here we give up angry, punishing reactions toward others, animals, plants, and things. If such attitudes arise, we resolve not to feed them, and to cut them off as fast as we can.
The Buddha placed great stress on the importance of releasing ill will. In the extreme, he said that even when we are being grossly mistreated by others, we should practice good will toward them, and wish them the best.
To be sure, that does not mean turning a blind eye toward injustice and mistreatment – of ourselves as well as others – nor does it mean turning our back on skillful actions of protection, advocacy, and betterment. It is perfectly appropriate to defend yourself, assert yourself, pursue your own interests – and to do all that on behalf of others, too – as long as all that is done in the spirit of wisdom and good will. This stance is seen pointedly and poignantly in the Dalai Lama’s reference to “ . . . my friends, the enemy Chinese.”
Of course, in daily life, practicing with ill will is often extremely difficult – especially when we feel we’ve been truly wronged. For help, please see the handout, “21 Ways to Turn Ill Will to Good Will.” As a summary, those ways are listed here:
1. Be mindful of the priming.
2. Practice non-contention.
3 Inspect the underlying trigger.
4. Be careful about attributing intent to others.
5. Put what happened in perspective.
6. Cultivate lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.
7. Practice generosity.
8. Investigate ill will.
9. Regard ill will as an affliction.
10. Settle into awareness of ill will, but don’t be identified with it.
11. Accept the wound.
12. Do not cling to what you want.
13. Let go of the view that things are supposed to be a certain way.
14. Release the sense of self.
15. ” . . . ill will is suppressed by the first jhana based on lovingkindness and eradicated by the path of nonreturning.”
16. Resolve to meet mistreatment with lovingkindness.
17. Cultivate positive emotion.
19. Have faith that they will inherit their own karmas one day.
20. Realize that some people will not get the lesson.
Intention of Renunciation
Renunciation is founded on a disenchantment with the world and with experience, based on right view. You see through all the possibilities of experience: you see their ephemeral, insubstantial, empty qualities, no matter how alluring or seemingly gratifying. You see the suffering embedded in the experience, the “trap,” as the Buddha put it. And you see the happiness, peace, and love available in not chasing after pleasure or resisting pain.
Based on this clear seeing, you align yourself with the wisdom perspective and with the innate, prior, always already existing wakeful, pure, peaceful, and radiant awareness within yourself. In so doing, you renounce worldly things and worldly pleasures. If they pass through your awareness – a sunset, a child’s smile, chocolate pudding, Beethoven’s 9th – fine; just don’t cling to them as they disappear as all experiences do.
Renunciation is NOT asceticism, or privation for privation’s sake. It is a joyous union with the path of happiness that happens to include a relinquishing, casting off, abandoning, walking away from any seeking at all of worldly gratifications.
At its heart, renunciation is simple: we just let go. Ajahn Chah: “If you let go a little, you will have a little happiness. If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of happiness. If you let go completely, you will be completely happy.”
Other Good Intentions
Besides the three fundamental intentions above, what other aims or values would really serve you, and others? How about:
• Feeling more relaxed and calm
• Deepening your well-being and capacity to contribute to others
• Working through something that’s been bothering you
• Giving up an addiction or other unwholesome behavior
• Coming to terms – and to peace – with a difficult life situation, such as a major illness page 7 Or you could shoot for the stars and focus on a primary purpose in life. Such as liberation, awakening, Nirvana, enlightenment. Or abiding in love – all the time.