2. The Three Refuges
3. The Four Noble Truths
The Eightfold Path:
4. Right Understanding
All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage
- The Dhammapada
Right intent, right resolve, right intention, right thoughts.
When doing the background reading and the reflection that I’ve been doing for all these posts, but specifically for this one, I came to the realisation that this is what it is for me. This second part of the Eightfold Path is at the moment of my typing this, the most important part of Buddhism. And yet, until this series of posts, I could barely tell you what Right Intent meant. I thought it was just the intent to follow the path.
It’s more complicated than that.
Right Intent. It’s not just the intent about where I want my life to go, it is the intent behind every action I take.
Intent follows understanding, and then in turn guides further understanding, but there is no point having all the insight that I gain through understanding if I don’t put it into my actions.
I won’t talk too long about Karma in this post: my karma comes from the fact that every action I take has consequences, and every thing that happens to me has causes. Sometimes I have no way of foreseeing what these consequences will be, and the best-intentioned action in the world could bring a wave of negative consequences just by circumstances I wasn’t aware of. It’s never as simple as ‘if I eat my roommate’s food, tomorrow I will twist my ankle,’ I think of karma as being the maelstrom of atmospheric movement and pressure gradients, in which I am just a certain kind of butterfly. I can improve my karma through skilful action, but I cannot avoid bad things happening to me. And every unwise thing I did in the past? I have to accept the consequences of those, too.
The next three steps will include guidelines about what actions themselves are skilful, but it all comes down to intention. It doesn’t matter how many wounded puppies I save; if I’m doing it to make a mature dogskin coat, then it won’t do me any good.
With that in mind, then, there are three aspects of Right Intention that the Buddha laid out for us:
The intention of renunciation
Counter to: the wrong intention of sensuality
Remember: all suffering comes from attachment. If I want to be free of suffering I need to be free of unwise clinging to things in my life that will move beyond my reach.
This is the Middle Way, remember, so I’m not talking about self-deprivation, nor of aversion, but the intention to not blindly give into desire without consideration. Sometimes these compulsions are harder to resist than others, of course. Sometimes I find myself indulging before I even thought about it. Sometimes fighting compulsions is all consuming, and all I can do is watch how strong that fight can get.
The intention of loving kindness
Counter to: the wrong intention of aversion
To extend to all beings the love a mother has for her child.
Remember: all living beings suffer. Every person I encounter in my life, everyone whose life touches mine, carries a sometimes impossible-seeming burden of suffering with them. The cause of their pain doesn’t seem very important when I know that they suffer for it.
This has been the most useful, most life-changing part of Practice for me. The recognition that everyone suffers, the compassion that inspires in us, and the deep, almost surprisingly sudden, good will that generates with me. Because you suffer, and I would free you from that if I can. I want you to be happy.
I don’t know if I can fully explain how liberating it is for me, personally, to turn my heart to – for example – that woman who shoved me on the subway, and to find compassion for her, and honestly, deeply in my heart, wish she has a nice day.
I know what you’re thinking, because that gets used for passive – aggression all the time. That gritted, sarcastic “Have a nice day, you utter bastard.” But it doesn’t have to be that way and that’s not what I mean – I mean taking a moment out of my reactionary rage, and recognise the humanity and suffering of the person whose life just touched me.
My last cat, Jasper, had arthritis in his back legs. At the front end he want a loud, affectionate, spoiled old cat. From the waist back he was a tightly wound knot of concentrated pain. He couldn’t reach his hips to clean himself, so his fur became matted and dirty, and human had to sit him down with a brush and comb out those knots. This was a painful process for him, and he’s frequently freak out, hiss and scratch at the person trying to help him, distracted by the pain. There’s no judging him for it; he was suffering.
We all do it; we lash out when we’re hurting. To turn around and recognise the suffering behind it, and to replace the reactionary anger with compassion, that takes work.
Loving Kindness – metta- permeates every part of Practice, and always forms a part of my daily meditation, starting with myself. Because this isn’t a Practice of self sacrifice and flagellation, buut of liberation, and of recognition of the suffering of all beings – including this one here.
This is how I practice metta, as part of my meditation.
First with myself:
May I be happy.
May I be healthy
May I be peaceful
May I be safe
The with someone who has been dear to me recently, someone for whom love is easy to find:
May [name] be happy
May [name] be healthy
May [name] be peaceful
May [name] be safe
If I have been struggling with freeing myself of ill will, I may also dedicate some metta towards the subject of that ill will, as part of the process of liberating myself from that.
Then I expand my heart outwards.
May all beings be happy
May all beings be healthy
May all beings be peaceful
May all beings be safe
The intention of harmlessness
Counter to: the wrong intention of cruelty
Oh, but this is hard for me. And that’s something no one likes to admit.
Four years ago I would have scoffed at the implication I was cruel, or spiteful. I was so caught up I my own delusions that I thought I was some great social martyr of goodness. Sure, I sometimes lashed out, but those people deserved it.
Has it really been only three and a half years since I became a Buddhist? My LiveJournal Archive says so, anyway.
I get caught up a lot in self pity, and the delusion that I’m some innocent victim the world (or certain parts of it) is out to get. I start to tell myself stories, to make someone out to be a bad person, and use my anger and hurt as an excuse to lash out of them.
See above re: Jasper. Lashing out at people is a natural, compulsive reaction, but it is not rational, and it doesn’t do anything to ease the situation – except maybe to get the person to stop hurting me, but I’m not talking about that, I’m talking about revenge, which is never a pretty action.
Harmlessness isn’t passive. It requires active sympathy and willingness to be there for others. It requires the courage to reach out and stop someone on a careening path to bad consequences. It requires constant mindfulness of thought, action and speech, and it’s taking more work than I’d like to admit, to pull myself out of the hindrance of ill will, and turn that into compassion for all living things.
Intent is all important in Buddhist Practice, but fortunately, what counts as skilful actions have be codified in the next three parts of the Eightfold Path.
Right Intention Links
In the Dharma (viet.net)
About.com (no, really)
191 Right Intention
224 Right Intention
Next: Right Speech.
This post can also be found at Thagomizer.net. Feel free to join in the conversation wherever you feel most comfortable.