Tag Archives: wisdom

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.


Knowledge vs. wisdom


As I continue to study the Diamond Sutra, I encounter references to “wisdom” quite often in the commentary. Of course this makes a lot of sense if you know that the Diamond Sutra is also called “The Perfection of Wisdom.” This sutra is the pithy condensed version, by most accounts — we also have the “Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines” and even longer versions, about two dozen in all, according to the Buddhist scholar Red Pine. The Diamond Sutra is complete in only 300 lines.

At the excellent blog thinkBuddha, author Will Buckingham recently considered the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. He was mulling over a politician’s lament that kids nowadays do not know some of the important dates and events in their national history.

Given the innumerability of the objects of knowledge, establishing if there are things that are worth knowing for everyone, and establishing what these things are is a difficult process … Nevertheless, just for the time being, I want to leave this question to the educationalists and policy makers, and to ask another question, a question that I think is often overlooked: the question of what exactly we do with the things that we deem worth knowing.

Here, I think, things become more interesting, because this question forces us to deal with the ethics of our relationship with those things that we know, or that we claim to know. Because it seems to me to be more important, in the long run, that we should treat each other well, than that we should know any particular facts about battles, commandments or laws of nature. [Source]

In other words, all that knowledge in your head, or my head (and they are the same thing, are they not?), is not good for anything at all unless we use it for good.

There’s a line in the Temple Rules of the Kwan Um School of Zen that often floats up into my thinking:

If a snake drinks water, the water becomes venom. If a cow drinks water, the water becomes milk.


Building up, and then tearing down


As I continue reading professor Paul Williams’s excellent academic study of Mahayana Buddhism (see my earlier post about this), I find myself developing a clearer understanding of the short list of essential ideas in Zen Buddhism. At least, it’s a short list of ideas that fit directly into the practice of a beginner such as I.

This involves a kind of stripping away, but first, an acquisition.

Western people learn about Buddhism in a vast number of different ways. Depending on one’s situation and time and location, one might collect a very vast number of ideas about Buddhism. It’s one thing if you are going to the same Dharma center time after time and hearing a teacher or teachers from one single tradition. It’s quite another thing if you are working alone, reading books and surfing on the Internet.

Even if you are hearing the teachings from a consistent tradition, you are probably reading some additional material from time to time. I do this just out of curiosity, as well as in attempts to better understand what I have heard in the Dharma room.

In Zen, there is a kind of cut-to-the-chase, no-nonsense tradition. I can refer only to this, because I have not had long exposure to any other tradition. But I get a sense that even though other traditions may seem, on their face, more complicated, we will hear a lot of repetition no matter which tradition we are hearing from. These repeated ideas — truths — are the same across all the traditions of Buddhism.

You can see them in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. You don’t need to read 84,000 sutras to see them.

Attaining them, however, does not occur the first time we see them or hear them. This is the simplest truth of all.


How to speak, how to listen


I learn a lot about Right Speech from our dharma teacher. In conversation with him, it feels just like a conversation with anyone. I mean, it’s not an official interview, and I don’t feel like I am a student seated at my teacher’s feet. We’re just talking. Later, though, I often realize what gifts he has given in that conversation. Here’s an example:

I said I was considering doing a one- or two-week retreat. He said I should think about doing a one-month retreat. A month seems very long, I said. Very, very long!

A week is not long at all, he said. A week goes past very quickly.

The idea of sitting for 30 days scares me, I said.

The first time I tried a three-week retreat, I left on the next-to-last day, he said.

That made me forget all about myself. I became interested in his experience and what had happened. He didn’t offer any details. He just said he couldn’t take it anymore. Not even one more day. He just had to get out of there. He wrote a note to the folks in charge and said he had to leave immediately. They asked no questions, just let him go.

A year later, he went back to the same place and sat a full three-week retreat, he added.

That was all. We started talking about something else then.

It’s almost as if he handed me the ingredients to make a cake. I was asking for a cake, I guess, even if I didn’t realize it. Please tell me what I should do. Well, here’s some flour, sugar, eggs. Now let’s talk about a bakery I know … Later I realize I’m holding these ingredients. I still don’t know how to make a cake, but I have everything I need.


A ripe persimmon and empty hands


Sometimes two things that I saw in two different places, at two different times, just keep popping up together in my head. It’s like they decided to dance together, and they continually come back to show me.

The first one comes from a blog called Just 1 Foot in Yellow:

A few posts back I wrote about an eloquent saying I had come across:

“Open your hand and let the dead wood drop”

I still love that metaphor. Not chucking the wood, not chopping it up into pieces; just opening my hand and letting it drop to the ground, right where I am standing.

Here’s the other one, from a blog called Wild Fox Zen:

Roshi liked to say that spiritual maturity was like the persimmon, hanging unassumingly on a tree, and when finally becoming very ripe and soft, so ripe the stem itself dissolves and the persimmon falls to the ground, SPLAT!

Roshi would then lean back his head and laugh, often alone. “So we’re practicing to go splat?” I wondered to myself.

I think if you read both of the posts, they might dance together in your mind too.