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On Right Intention

The second factor in the Noble Eightfold Path is usually expressed as Right Thought, but a more effective translation from the original Pali might be Right Intention or Right Motivation.

Pali translates only with difficulty and one reason is that these ideas existed 2,000 years before English became a literary language. As there is almost no cultural overlap, English equivalents are hard to find and the words that we use have connotations within a Western cultural context that tend to confuse and obscure the original meaning. That’s why Theravada Buddhists learn Pali and study original Pali texts.

Deeper understanding sets the mind moving toward goals seen through the new vision of Right Understanding. Right intention is the application of the mind toward these goals.

The Buddha explains that Right Intentions are threefold: intentions of Renunciation; intentions of Good Will; and intentions of Harmlessness.

These three Right Intentions are the opposite of the Wrong Intentions of Desire, Ill-will, and Harmfulness. Just as thought is the forerunner of action, so Right Thought is the forerunner of Right Action. Similarly, suffering will be the result of Wrong Thought or Wrong Intention.

The Buddha has told us (Majjhima Nikaya 19) that while meditating prior to enlightenment, he found his thoughts could be divided into two opposite classes. Whenever he noticed thoughts of desire, ill-will, and harmfulness arising, he replaced them with thoughts of renunciation, good will, and harmlessness. He understood that the former thoughts lead to harm for oneself and others and obstruct the path to wisdom. Hence, he developed the wisdom to eliminate the obstruction and open the path. 

One may claim to be a Buddhist and even espouse Right Understanding but that does not automatically mean one will put it into practice. To know the good is not to do it. Such a would-be Buddhist can still have enmity for others and speak slanderously about them. “All one’s book learning will not change harmfulness into loving-kindness.” Only actual application and practice can bring this about. As the learned Burmese monk Ledi Sayadaw observes: “This means hard work on oneself which may be painful emotionally but then the result of accomplishing just a little here is that one becomes a ‘solid’ Buddhist.” 

The Buddha, at the time of his enlightenment, saw that everything contains its opposite. He saw the duality in nature. In a moment of insight, he realized that everything can be replaced by its opposite; that intentions of good will and harmlessness offer the antidote to aversion, ill-will, and suffering, He saw that thoughts of anger, hostility, and resentfulness lead to cruelty, aggression, and destruction. And he saw that replacing intentions of harmfulness with intentions of harmlessness open the path to wisdom. The Buddha once said that his teachings are contrary to the way of the world. The way of the world is one of unenlightened desire, of seeking happiness by seeking the objects of desire, while imagining that the attainment of these objects will bring fulfillment and happiness.

The Buddha taught the exact opposite of this: unfulfilled desire is the root of unhappiness and dissatisfaction and the way to get rid of such suffering is to get rid of the craving or desire—to pull out the root of unwholesome desire through renunciation. The Buddha goes against the stream. He flows the opposite way, breaking free from craving and finding happiness in a lack of desire.

The mind is in the habit of grasping. We have to break this habit and teach it to let go. If we examine the root of desire and see the unhappiness it leads to, we should, eventually, with effort and practice, learn to resist and abandon desire. If we learn that freedom from the hold of attachment is the key to happiness, then, one by one, we should be able to bring unwholesome desires under control and ultimately rise above the level of such bondage. 

This does not mean we should all run off to a monastery and abandon the householder life. It means that each according to the level of his understanding and the power of his will should strive as best he can to eradicate the root of craving and rise above the suffering that it causes. It becomes a very personal and individual thing, and you make progress only in accordance with the level of your understanding. Another reason why it is personal is no one can make the effort for you; you must understand it and do it yourself.

It is one thing to know you have to let go of attachment, but quite another to do it. The mind meets a powerful inner resistance. It seems impossible to overcome this resistance through an act of the will. This is sometimes called the problem of how to break the shackles of desire. Simply repressing our desires doesn’t work, because it only drives them below the surface to rise again at some other opportunity.

One device the Buddha taught is to subject desire to analytical investigation and observation. Instead of unrealistically imagining the gratification of desire and the pleasure and happiness it would bring, we look realistically at the desire and the unhappiness that eventually follows in its wake. If we explore the roots and motives of our mental actions and see that they do not lead to the expected results, sooner or later we become wise to the truth of the matter and alter our behavior accordingly.

“When desire is scrutinized close up, we find it is constantly shadowed by dukkhaDukkha means suffering. When you stop to think of it, the moment a desire arises, we sense a lack of fulfillment, an emptiness, a strain of discontent. Wanting is just another form of pain we would be better off without. When desire is not fulfilled, there is frustration, disappointment, sometimes despair.

Even fulfilled desire does not guarantee happiness. What if it does not last? What if we lose the object of desire? What happens when the gratification is over with? What will fill this void? This is called grasping. Sometimes we hang on too hard and become the cause of our own unhappiness. We must realize that the fulfillment of desire is impermanent, that nothing lasts, whether it be sensual pleasure or wealth or fame or power. The pursuit of such pleasures brings pain, and the pain of separation from the desired object increases in intensity in proportion to the degree of attachment.

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