The Noble Eightfold Path: Right Intentions

The Noble Eightfold Path: Right Intentions


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D/


“And what is right intention? It is the release of chasing after of fleeting pleasures, the release of the intention of malice, the release of the intention of doing harm.” – Buddha


“Developing wholesome intentions begins a natural process of building a foundation of ethics, and mindfulness is the tool that helps you see what you need to work on, what you need to let go of, and to act responsibly instead of reacting harshly or foolishly.” – Dana Nourie


The Buddha’s path to enlightenment, the Noble Eightfold Path consists of “Right View, Right Intentions, Right Speech, Right Actions, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.” – Buddha. In a previous post

The first component of the Noble Eightfold Path, “Right View” was discussed. It is intimately tied together with “Right Intentions” as there can be no “Right Intentions” without first seeing existence clearly and with discernment. Only, then can “Right Intentions” be established. In fact, “Right View” provides the thought processes necessary to set future directions, “Right Intentions”. This an instance of how all of the components of the Noble Eightfold Path are interconnected and depend upon one another.


Intentions are the drivers of actions. They involve thoughtful directions to produce wholesome outcomes. The simplest way to look at “Right Intentions” is as the aspiration to create greater happiness, wisdom, and well-being, and relieve suffering in ourselves and others. This is where “Right View” comes in and provides the wisdom to discern which aspirations are likely to produce wholesome outcomes. We may start the day with the intent to help others in need and discern that donating an hour of our time to volunteer work at a homeless shelter would likely produce greater happiness, wisdom, and well-being, and relieve suffering. This is right intention at work, derived from “Right View” and producing “Right Actions.” It is critical that the intention is wholesome. The same action, donating time, might be motivated by a desire to appear kind and generous to others, to obtain a tax deduction, or to impress a romantic interest who also volunteers. All of these are intentions governed by desires and are not part of the path. So, the action is important but only to the extent that it is motivated by a “Right Intentions.”


The Buddha taught that there were three kinds of “Right Intentions”: the intention of renunciation, the intention of good will, and the intention of harmlessness. The intention of renunciation is to eliminate attachments to the desires which normally drive our actions. This does not mean that we don’t aspire to acquire things, satisfy needs, or experience pleasures. Rather, it mandates the release of attachment to the desire. We still like to eat a good meal, well prepared and tasty. Experiencing this is simply experiencing what is. The need to eat is a healthy part of maintaining well-being and enjoyment of the sensory pleasure of eating is a healthy experience, provided that the goal (intention) is not to acquire these experiences and pursue them in search of happiness. When we are driven by seeking sensory pleasure, we will experience momentary happiness, but inevitably it will lead to suffering as the happiness cannot be maintained. The pleasure of fine dining quickly dissipates and we feel unfulfilled until we can have another fine dining experience, which again leads to unsatisfactoriness, suffering. The intention of renunciation derives from understanding that the intention to find satisfaction by fulfilling desires is not the way to create greater happiness, wisdom, and well-being, but a way to increase suffering. So, we renounce the drive to fulfill the desire and become unattached. This will free us from the endless cycle of desire and suffering.


The intention of good will is also an intention toward loving kindness. It is a deep inner good will to all living beings including the self. This is not sensual love or love given in expectation of a return or a gain. It is not limited to certain people or even certain species. It is not contingent on particular behaviors, attitudes, or likeability. It is rather a pure kindness and wish for well-being of all. It is a recognition of suffering in self and others and deep compassion for that suffering and the intention to work for its relief. The intention of good will derives from understanding that all sentient beings suffer, but that the suffering can be eliminated. It expresses a deep compassion and understanding of this suffering and it energizes actions to relieve the suffering in self in others.


The intention of harmlessness is a broad intention to not cause pain, loss, or destruction to any sentient being, humans and non-human animals included. This can be quite difficult to accomplish as our actions can have rippling consequences that somewhere down the chain of causation produce harm. We can’t always know or discern what might happen, so the intention is critical. In donating time to work at a homeless shelter we may drive our car to the shelter. The exhaust contributes carbon to the atmosphere, contributing to global warming, harming all sentient beings. During the drive a squirrel might dash in front of the car and get struck. The discernment is difficult and “Right View” is critical to the intention of harmlessness.


A little thought regarding the implications of the intention of harmlessness will lead to perhaps adopting a vegetarian diet, as eating flesh creates harm to sentient beings. But, even a vegetarian diet creates harm. In growing vegetables, many sentient beings such as rodents, reptiles, and birds are inevitably destroyed. Additionally, cooking the vegetables releases carbon into the atmosphere. So, it is important to understand that we can never be completely harmless while we’re alive. The important point is to set the intention to do the least harm possible while still maintaining our health, doing good, and making a living.


It should be clear from all of this that “Right Intention” is a critical driver for actions along the Eightfold Path. Without intentions of renunciation, good will, and harmlessness we are rudderless. The “Right Intentions” are our moral compass. As such, they are key to wholesome living and progress on the path.


So, set “Right Intentions” and move forward on the Eightfold Path.


“The largest pool of untapped resources in the world today is humans’ good intentions that don’t translate into action.” ~ Lloyd Nimetz
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

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