A woman with Right View knows that when invited to a wedding – regardless of whether she knows the bride – she will not wear an extravagant and glamorous dress that would distract everyone from the bride. Therefore, she dresses smartly, but simply. She has Right Intention; to demure in the presence of the star of the day so that all eyes are on the bride rather than her.
However, if our lady example was a self-centered, publicity whore of a bitch – someone with Wrong View – her intentions would likely be very different. Rather than choosing to dress smartly, she dresses lavishly, becoming a distraction during the ceremony. Instead of wearing Liz Claiborne, she dons a gown by Adrian. Instead of dressing like Miss Gooch, she dresses like Lady Gaga. She has Wrong Intention.
Intention is the forerunner of all action; everything we say or do begins with a thought that arises from an intention. As the Dhammapada verse I have permanently posted on this blog so eloquently states, all phenomenon come from the heart, and it is in our hearts that our intentions are formed.
“When wrong views prevail, the outcome is wrong intention giving rise to unwholesome actions. Thus one who denies the moral efficacy of action and measures achievement in terms of gain and status will aspire to nothing but gain and status, using whatever means he can to acquire them. When such pursuits become widespread, the result is suffering, the tremendous suffering of individuals, social groups, and nations out to gain wealth, position, and power without regard for consequences. The cause for the endless competition, conflict, injustice, and oppression does not lie outside the mind. These are all just manifestations of intentions, outcroppings of thoughts driven by greed, by hatred, by delusion.”
Hmm, sounds a lot like the current state of affairs in the world. But I digress.
It all sounds simple enough: keep good intentions in mind and my actions will be skillful and yield good results, right? So why is there the well-known saying from popular lore that the road to hell is paved with good intentions? Shouldn’t our good intentions be leading us along a path to heaven rather than hell?
“One is that not all good intentions are especially skillful. Even though they mean well, they can be misguided and inappropriate for the occasion, thus resulting in pain and regret. A second reason is that we often misunderstand the quality of our own intentions. We may mistake a mixed intention for a good one, for instance, and thus get disappointed when it gives mixed results. A third reason is that we easily misread the way intentions yield their results — as when the painful results of a bad intention in the past obscure the results of a good intention in the present, and yet we blame our present intention for the pain.”
Both Bhikkhu Bodhi and Thanissaro Bhikkhu emphasize the importance of having Right View as one’s base, because as long as we’re developing the right view of things, we’ll be able to become more skillful with our intentions. That skillfulness is developed through the recognition that our intentions can be classified into three general categories: those arising from greed, those arising from harboring ill will, and those leading to harming others. The Buddha recognized there were three ways to counter each of these unskillful intentions, and that is through renunciation, good will, and harmlessness.
My greedy desire for sex could lead me to venture into a bathhouse for an evening of carnal fun, but because I am developing the right view of things, I am aware of the consequences of such diversion, an awareness that comes through a deep understanding of the Four Noble Truths. So I renounce the activity of going to a bathhouse, which counteracts the unskillful desire. Note that I am not renouncing sex; rather, I am renouncing the greedy desire to engage in, um, well, you get the picture.
Because I am developing Right View, I understand that harboring a desire for Fred Phelps to spontaneously burst into flame is not what would be called a very skillful intention. As much as I might enjoy such an event, harboring ill will distracts my mind and will lead to other unskillful actions that will yield bad results. Instead, I work at developing good will toward the Rev. Phelps, desiring that he will one day see the truth of his anger and delusion and find peace and equanimity. Sometimes reacting with a quip made famous by Pee Wee Herman is a good enough start.
And when the desire to retaliate against someone for some perceived harm he or she has done to me, I seek to have the self-awareness to stop myself and develop the presence of mind to not harm another person or creature because I feel that I’ve been wronged or harmed in some way. After all, I must be aware that sometimes shit that happens to me is a consequence not of my present actions, but a result of some shit that I did long ago. None of us can escape kamma.
As Thanissaro Bhikkhu says: “We start learning denial at an early age — ‘It wasn't my fault,’ … — and then internalize the process, as a way of preserving our self-image, to the point where it becomes our second nature to turn a blind eye to the impact of our mistakes.”
This is easily overcome with the awareness that you can’t think two opposing thoughts at the same time. And because intention arises from thought first before being turned into action, unwholesome thoughts can be easily eradicated by recognizing them for what they are and thinking the opposite: No, I will not lust after this; no, I will not desire harm to befall this person; no, I will not retaliate against this person. From there we can cultivate the next level of Right Intention by directing our thoughts to positive directions of what we will do rather than what we will not do: Yes, I will renounce this action or belief; yes, I will seek to have good will toward others and engage in activity that nurtures good will; yes, I will be harmless and encourage others to be harmless, and engage in activity that will benefit others.
I strongly recommend you read Bhikkhu Bodhi’s section on Right Intention and how to develop the skills of renunciation, good will, and harmlessness.
Coming up later, the factors contributing to sila, or virtue, found in Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood.
I'm a content director for a television company, guiding content on Web sites. I'm an avid listener of Frank Zappa and a practicing Buddhist who follows the Theravada vehicle. I'm an insatiable traveler who calls Chicago home.