Right Intention is the second factor in the Noble Eightfold Path, and can even be more important than sitting zazen for several hours a day.
Right intention is the application of mind needed to live and respond to the true nature of reality, seen by deep contemplation and experiential wisdom.
Our intentions are governed by our views; when we have wrong views, we have wrong intentions and produce unwholesome actions.
The Buddha gives three expressions of Right Intention:
- Intention of Renunciation
- Intention of Good Will
- Intention of Harmlessness
The three intentions are opposed to Wrong Intentions:
- Intention governed by Desire – the intention of Renunciation counters the intention of Desire
- Intention governed by Ill Will – the intention of Good Will counters the intention of Ill Will
- Intention governed by Harmfulness – the intention of Harmlessness counters the intention of Harmfulness
Intention of Renunciation
Since desire is the root of all suffering, being free from desire is the key to happiness and true fulfillment. Desire is not wrong in it of itself; one can desire to have certain life experiences, aspirations, and so forth. These are fine as long as we are not caught up in them.
Where desire becomes a precursor to suffering is when our minds grasp for things that we imagine will bring us happiness. For instance, wealth, recognition, power, social influence, a person, even status in a monastery.
The truth is that all objects of desire are impermanent.
We should be aware that it is not helpful to practise renunciation of desires through a sheer act of will. This often leads to a destructive cycle of repression of desire, and then guilt when the mind once again gives into the grip of desire.
True renunciation is not about forcing ourselves to give up our inward desires, it is about understanding them deeply and eventually they dissolve and fall away gradually without any struggle.
“Strong attachment brings much suffering; little attachment brings little suffering; no attachment brings no suffering.” — Bhikkhu Bodhi
Intention of Good Will
Typically, there are two ways to handle ill will that are unskillful. One way is to give in to it, and the other way is to repress it.
The first approach is dangerous because while releasing anger, it can damage relationships and create enemies. The second approach, repression, is simply turning the anger inward, which becomes self-contempt and depression. Anger towards others often finds its seed in oneself.
The Buddha presents the quality of metta to counteract ill will, translated as “loving kindness”, a kind of genuine and selfless concern for the well-being of others.
It is different from sensual or romantic love, which can involve a certain degree of craving and attachment to the other person (to the exclusion of others), is at times dependent on the pleasure that person gives us, and is not entirely independent of ego reference.
Loving-kindness, on the other hand, extends to all beings.
The way to cultivate this is the meditation of loving-kindness, which first develops loving-kindness to oneself.
Once metta is cultivated towards oneself, we can try extending it to our friends and family, to our colleagues, to our barista and store clerk, to strangers, to those who are different from us economically, racially, politically.
Intention of Harmlessness
The complement to loving-kindness is compassion, which is needed for harmlessness. Compassion allows us to go a step further from loving-kindness: it allows us to wish for all sentient beings to be free from suffering.
It is the ability to see that we all want to be free from suffering, that the other is no different from yourself.
It is helpful first to contemplate obvious afflictions of suffering, such as sickness, old age, and death. Then contemplate on less obvious forms of suffering such as those who may have acquired wealth, prestige, or fame through immoral means, and how that may gnaw at their conscience deeply within.
Finally, we can contemplate on the endless birth and death we are all subject to, driven by greed, hate, and delusion. None of us are exempt, but all of us can practice and cultivate compassion.
May we all practise whole-heartedly with the intentions of Renunciation, Good Will, and Harmlessness.
In closing, here is a parable of Two Wolves:
A grandfather is talking with his grandson and he says there are two wolves inside of us which are always at war with each other.
One of them is a good wolf which represents things like kindness, bravery and love. The other is a bad wolf, which represents things like greed, hatred and fear.
The grandson stops and thinks about it for a second then he looks up at his grandfather and says, “Grandfather, which one wins?”
The grandfather quietly replies, “The one you feed”.
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Right Intention Reference Source: Bhikku Bodhi, “The Noble Eightfold Path – Way to the End of Suffering”, p. 29-42