Rick Hanson PhD
Mar 26, 2014
Of course, the first question regarding intention is, for what?
All the great wisdom traditions of the world, and all the great moral philosophers, have grappled with this question. What should we want?
There are many ways to approach this question. Some try to answer it in terms of discerning the will or desires of their sense of a Divine influence, of God. Others through resort to certain ideals or abstractions. And others through reliance on some kind of authority, such as a priestly class or a scripture.
In the case of the Buddha – and also some moral philosophers – he approached this question pragmatically, in terms of what leads to more or less suffering, to more or less benefit or harm to oneself and others. Intentions are good if they lead to good results, and bad if they lead to bad results.
This approach has numerous advantages. It is down to earth. It draws upon our own observation of what happens, rather than relying upon the viewpoints of others. It provides a ready test for the worth of an intention: what did it lead to, what actually happened? And it keeps turning us back to ourselves, toward how we can be ever more skillful.
The best available record of the actual teachings of the Buddha – what is called the Pali Canon after the language in which they were first written – is chock full of encouragement and practical guidance for many kinds of intentions leading to good results.
For example, in one sutta – a talk or discourse of the Buddha – he is offering a merchant guidelines for an ethical business, and in another he is advising a monk on the subtlest imaginable inclinations of mind in profoundly realized states of consciousness. In one of my favorite suttas, the Buddha tells his seven-year-old son, Rahula, that knowing how to act in life is actually very simple: before you do something, consider if it will lead to benefit or harm, and if it will be beneficial, go ahead; then, while you are doing things, keep considering if they are beneficial or not, and if they are, it’s alright to continue them.
In this context of diversity and individuality of wholesome intentions, the Buddha singled out three in particular. They are contained in what is called Right Intention, which is one of the parts of the Eightfold Path; that Path is the last of the Four Noble Truths, and it describes the way leading to the end of suffering.
By the way, Right (or Wise) Intention is sometimes translated as “Right Resolve,” which conveys the determination, firmness of aim, heartfelt conviction, and persistence that are central to right intention. Let’s see what those three intentions were, that the Buddha thought were so important that they deserved such emphasis.