Right Intention: Thinking Wisdom


The second element of the Noble Eightfold Path is sometimes called Right Thinking, or Right Thought. Bhikkhu Bodhi translates it as Right Intention, which is also widely used. In his excellent text about the Noble Eightfold Path, Bhikkhu Bodhi notes that Right Intention appears near the top of the list, just after Right View — but both of these are also developed further at the end.

The eight factors of the path fall into three groups:

  • Moral discipline (Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood)
  • Concentration (Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration)
  • Wisdom (Right View and Right Intention)

As discussed in yesterday’s post, wisdom is attained only at (or near) the end of the journey on this path, not at the beginning — but Right View and Right Intention are always listed as numbers 1 and 2 because an initial attainment of both of these is necessary if we are to attain the other six (and ultimately, wisdom).

Right Intention comprises three types of intention:

  • Renunciation
  • Good will
  • Harmlessness (which I think of as “do no harm”)

There is a corresponding wrong intention for each one of those:

  • Desire (craving or greed)
  • Ill will
  • Causing harm

The wrong intention is counteracted by the corresponding right intention. By using these three pairs as mental tools, we can assess our intentions before we speak or act on them.

Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:

The Buddha discovered this twofold division of thought in the period prior to his Enlightenment … While he was striving for deliverance, meditating in the forest, he found that his thoughts could be distributed into two different classes. In one he put thoughts of desire, ill will, and harmfulness, in the other thoughts of renunciation, good will, and harmlessness. Whenever he noticed thoughts of the first kind arise in him, he understood that those thoughts lead to harm for oneself and others, obstruct wisdom, and lead away from Nibbana [Nirvana].

One of the most important parts of practicing Buddhism, as I see it, is to become aware of our thinking. I don’t want my impulses to lead me around like a cow with a ring through her nose. Our actions and our words have consequences, which may be good or bad. Our actions and our words originate in thoughts and intentions.

If we can learn to look at those intentions before we speak or act on them, and measure those intentions against the three pairs provided here, we can ascertain whether they are right or wrong. By paying attention to intentions, we can stop ourselves before we speak wrongly or act wrongly.

Intention of Renunciation

Renunciation here does not mean selling all your worldly goods and going away to live as a hermit. Bhikkhu Bodhi says that if a person

measures achievement in terms of gain and status, [he or she] will aspire to nothing but gain and status, using whatever means he can to acquire them. When such pursuits become widespread, the result is suffering, the tremendous suffering of individuals, social groups, and nations out to gain wealth, position, and power without regard for consequences. The cause for the endless competition, conflict, injustice, and oppression does not lie outside the mind. These are all just manifestations of intentions, outcroppings of thoughts driven by greed, by hatred, by delusion. [Italics added.]

Bhikkhu Bodhi says that if we go back to the Four Noble Truths, we can see that the intention of renunciation is closely tied to reducing or ending our own suffering, our own dukkha. The other two right intentions are aimed at ending the suffering of others.

Intention of Good Will

To cultivate good will — and combat ill will — Buddhist practitioners work to cultivate loving-kindness (the Pali word for this is metta; the Sanskrit word is maitri). A clear distinction is made between this and compassion, which is discussed in the next section, below. (Learn more about metta.)

Bhikkhu Bodhi defines loving-kindness this way:

An intense feeling of selfless love for other beings radiating outwards as a heartfelt concern for their well-being and happiness. Metta is not just sentimental good will, nor is it a conscientious response to a moral imperative or divine command. It must become a deep inner feeling, characterized by spontaneous warmth rather than by a sense of obligation.

There is a specific practice we can do to develop and enlarge this deep inner feeling — the meditation on loving-kindness. Bhikkhu Bodhi discusses this meditation briefly in his text.

Intention of Doing No Harm

To cultivate this intention, Buddhist practitioners work to cultivate compassion. This can help us eliminate hateful thoughts toward others — even the most despicable people.

We can still condemn the evil actions of such people, and not excuse their actions or ignore them. We can still protect ourselves against harm. But ideally we will not attempt to cheat anyone, to deprive anyone, even for the benefit of those we love.

Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:

Whereas loving-kindness has the characteristic of wishing for the happiness and welfare of others, compassion has the characteristic of wishing that others be free from suffering, a wish to be extended without limits to all living beings. Like metta, compassion arises by entering into the subjectivity of others, by sharing their interiority in a deep and total way. It springs up by considering that all beings, like ourselves, wish to be free from suffering, yet despite their wishes continue to be harassed by pain, fear, sorrow, and other forms of dukkha.

The meditation practice for developing compassion has some similarities to the metta practice, but it focuses explicitly on the suffering of others.

At the core of these practices to develop loving-kindness and compassion toward others is the Buddhist ideal of non-duality. Bhikkhu Bodhi discusses this somewhat later in his text:

Our minds divide everything up into the dualities of “I” and “not I,” what is “mine” and what is “not mine.” Then, trapped in these dichotomies, we fall victim to the defilements they breed, the urges to grasp and destroy, and finally to the suffering that inevitably follows.

The way to attain Right Intention (or Right Thinking) is to practice. The contemplations are designed to train the mind — to “tame” it, as the old texts say — and through that training, we can eliminate suffering for ourselves and for others. Thich Nhat Hanh talks about “watering the good seeds” in the storage place of our mind. If the ‘bad seeds” sprout, we pull them out like harmful weeds.

Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:

The unwholesome thought is like a rotten peg lodged in the mind; the wholesome thought is like a new peg suitable to replace it. The actual contemplation functions as the hammer used to drive out the old peg with the new one. The work of driving in the new peg is practice — practicing again and again, as often as is necessary to reach success. The Buddha gives us his assurance that the victory can be achieved. He says that whatever one reflects upon frequently becomes the inclination of the mind.

I want my mind to incline toward the good — what is good for others is also good for me.


The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Published by Access to Insight, 16 June 2011.


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