When we inadvertently hurt someone, in order to justify that our intentions were pure we often tell ourselves that we didn’t do anything wrong and that our motivation is all that matters. While in some cases this may be true, we are often misled by false assumptions, and in an attempt at kindness or helpfulness, we cause unintentional harm.
In Buddhism, we call this wrong view. Wrong view, or ideas and intents that are directed by a false sense of truth, namely ideas rooted in belief versus truth rooted in fact, is among the teachings in the commentary on the Guhyagarbha Tantra by Longchenpa (1308–63) (defined as actions and thoughts that keep us bound in suffering and ignorance and that result from ignorance and doubt), and is seen as one of the root causes of self-inflicted suffering. It is a seemingly simple concept: right view leads to freedom, yet how much of our daily thinking is directed by belief and projection versus a factual perception of what is actually taking place within us and around us? Taking the time to sit back and reflect to what extent our lives are directed by wrong view will reveal the truth about our intentions.
As a child, I was raised in a conflicted home. My father was an abuser who came and went on a whim and my mother was a devoted charismatic (just shy of snake handling). I was often exposed to sights and behaviors that I found traumatic, at best. I was expected to speak in tongues, be healed through the laying on of hands, and be a shining example of manhood for my father, when I was all of seven years old. The situation created little more than fear and self-doubt, and I was a very insecure child.
On one such occasion, I was at a signs of the spirit revival. Children and adults alike were prayed over in the hopes that we would begin to speak in tongues or manifest, in some fashion, the power of god. I was terrified. As the adults surrounded me I began to cry, and told them that I was afraid. This lapse in my courage was seen as demonic oppression, and I was immediately subjected to an exorcism ritual.
Shouts and prayers of encouragement turned into shouts and prayers to “free this young man from Satan’s grip!” Hands were on my chest and back, hands were on my head, and I felt tugged and pushed in every direction. I fell down in a huddle and tried to withdraw. I hated god, and I hated this place.
Years of this type of strange and bewildering behavior created distaste for anything religious, and I turned into an angry and defiant young man. However, regardless of all that happened, I know that my mother had good intentions. Unfortunately, because her intentions were directed by wrong view, they resulted in harm instead of benefit.
Much as in this story, but maybe not in such a drastic fashion, we justify ourselves. Our intentions are good! We stomp our feet in defiance of criticism, shaking our heads in distaste that our help and encouragement are not taken up with open arms and acted upon like they were the word of an almighty god.
As my Buddhist practice began to flourish, I noticed that I often did harmful things, thinking them well intentioned. I was caught off guard by how tightly I grasped at cherished beliefs and allowed them to direct my actions. It was often the case that I would refuse to look at or engage any theme that might contradict these cherished beliefs. In so doing, I created a cycle of ignorance and suffering: what Buddhists call “samsara.”
What I was forced to confront in myself, and what I hope this article will help to shed light on, is the gray area between good intentions and wrong view. The truth is that if we are acting under false assumptions, our intentions cannot be wholly pure.
This may seem judgmental, and intention is certainly necessary—indeed is a must—for progress on any path. What we have to uncover in ourselves, however, is whether our intention is being directed by beliefs, or by true compassion.
Compassion doesn’t see a need to reassure a belief. It is the abandonment of a fixed ego in pursuit of being of benefit in every situation simply for the sake of helping. Beliefs, although at times helpful, can be simply a rigid sense of self-aggrandizement. They build our notions of a fixed ego and can lead us to act in ways that are unhelpful, and often, harmful.
So, the next time we reassure ourselves that our intentions were good, instead, we could stop to consider whether we were directed by what we believe or by what was truly best for the person, regardless of what we believe. Compassion has no faith, no rigidity, no ego. It is a state of being that is forged in the fires of willing sacrifice for those around us. With this as the basis of our intentions, we quickly become aware that right view isn’t so hard after all.
Ty Phillips is a former bouncer turned pacifist and Buddhist, the co-founder of The Tattooed Buddha, and a freelance author who writes for Patheos, The Good Men Project, Lion’s Roar, Rebelle, BeliefNet, and The Petoskey News Review. He is a long-term Buddhist and a lineage holder, as well as a father to three amazing girls and a tiny dog named Fuzz.