Making sure your intentions are aligned with your true values is one of the best ways to live the life you want. Therefore, says the renowned Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein, right intention is the key to the Buddha’s eightfold path.
I will never forget my astonishment when I heard the Tibetan teacher Nyshul Khen Rinpoche say, “Everything depends on intention”. I thought: “Of course! Nothing happens without intention. It’s so crucial! “
Wise intention is one of the steps in the Buddha’s eightfold path, and it could be the most important.
Smart intentions keep our lives going in the right direction. Whenever I want to drive north to Seattle from my Bay Area home, I keep checking to see if the sun is setting on my left to make sure I’m going in the right direction. The practice of wise intention is like looking at the sun: it is a way of making sure that our actions and our lives are going in the direction we want.
A wise intention is the foundation for wise effort, for wholesome and positive action. The instructions for wise exertion require us to continually evaluate our actions, choosing those that lead to less suffering and avoiding those that lead to more suffering. This can be easily ascertained by examining whether the action is being driven by wholesome or unwholesome intentions. Hence, there must be clarity of our intentions in order to inform wise efforts.
Here is an example of the importance of wise intention.
The date was September 12, 2001, the day after the World Trade Center in New York City was destroyed. It was Wednesday, the day of my regular class at the Spirit Rock Insight Meditation Center.
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Much more people than usual filled the room. People told stories of connections they had with people who had been in the buildings or with family and friends who lived in New York. Others talked about where they were when they heard the news and how they had felt at that moment. The atmosphere was calm and sober, and I remember it being a grace to be allowed to talk about anger in a community with common values.
At the end of the course, I suggested that we recite these Buddhist rules that express our intentions as practitioners:
I undertake not to harm living beings.
I undertake to refrain from anything that is not given voluntarily.
I make a commitment to speak without being abusive or exploitative.
I undertake to refrain from exploitative or abusive sexuality.
I undertake to refrain from intoxicating my mind into reckless behavior.
The experience of working together to reaffirm our dedication to wise and kind behavior was like a calming balm for our frightened minds. I felt comforted and I believe others did too. It seemed to restore some faith and confidence in the future to be surrounded by people who trust the Buddha’s teaching that “hate never ends in hate. Not hating ends hate. That is the eternal law. “
I think this experience supports the deep centrality of wise intention. Here is another example.
My friends Dwayne and Sara expressed their marriage vows in this way in their own version of Buddhist precepts. They said to each other:
Because I love you, I promise I will never harm you.
Because I love you, I promise you that I will never take anything you don’t want to give me.
Because I love you, I will only speak truthfully and kindly to you.
Because I love you, I will treat your body with love.
Because I love you, I will keep my mind free from confusion so that I only act out of wisdom.
Dwayne and Sara are now in their second decade of marriage, and they take these vows every morning. Affirming their intentions as to how they will be together sets a signal in their minds so that they can discern a thoughtless word or action before it manifests itself. They are very happy.
Although I have argued for the primacy of wise intention, every aspect of the Eightfold Path is equally crucial. This is because every part of the path is an integral part of every other.
Traditional eightfold path lists are numbered one through eight, and therefore appear to have a beginning and an end. Clever understanding and wise intention are often high on the list and are described as the trigger for engaging in committed practice. These lists then continue with the three aspects of ethical training – acting wisely, speaking, and livelihood – and ending with the mental discipline cultivated through wise effort, mindfulness, and focus. Other lists start with ethics, continue with mind training, and end with the wisdom components that manifest as kindness and compassion.
Although the traditional lists describe these trainings as steps on a path, they seem more like dots on a circle to me, as each of the eight aspects is deeply reflected in and supported by every other aspect.
In a sermon that the Buddha preached to his son Rahula, he called for consideration before, during, and after each act, whether it was potentially abusive or exploitative, or whether it was sincere and benevolent. This requires sufficient clarity of mind through wise mindfulness and concentration to discern negative intentions and sufficient wise effort to exercise self-control. Shrewd understanding gives a deep insight into the legacy of loss we share with other living beings, and wise intention expresses our ever-increasing determination to respond with compassion to all life.
In this way, all eight aspects of the path work together to help us live healthy and awakened lives, with wise intent the guide who will point us in the right direction and get us back on track when we stray from the path.
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