“Like throwing loaded dice”: Right Intention, the root of skillful action

The second limb of the Noble Eightfold Path, and the all-important hinge from View (limb 1) into Action (limbs 3-5), is Right Intention, sammā-saṅkappa.

(Here’s the talks from the first part of this series, on Right View.)

And what, bhikkhus, is right intention? Intention of renunciation, intention of non-ill will, intention of harmlessness: this is called right intention.

SN 45.8: Analysis [of the Eightfold Path], tr. Bodhi

The formal breakdown of the second limb, Right Intention, is these 3 cardinal orientations:

  1. Renunciation (nekkhamma), which we can think of as referring to material wealth and the comforts that wealth provides, as well as psychological attachments like identities, social position, and other forms of power. Its positive qualities are generosity, giving, contentment, simplicity.
  2. Non-ill will or non-hatred (abyāpāda), which will mean some amount of emotional and trauma healing. Its positive qualities are kindness, friendliness, patience, tolerance, love.
    [Sujato translates this second aspect as “good will”, which is less clunky. He also translates the whole limb as Right Thought, which has both merits and challenges in interpretation.]
  3. Harmlessness (avihiṃsā), often translated from the Sanskrit ahiṃsā as nonviolence. Not taking life. Its positive qualities are protecting life, restraint of violence, and education and unlearning about unconscious violence we and others carry and act upon.

In an interesting discourse, (SN 14.12, “With a Cause”) the Buddha describes the cause of each of these intentions (and their opposites) arising, using the suffix “-element” (dhatu), as in “the element of renunciation.” This adds complexity to our usual assumption that intention is this thing that we possess as an individual quality. I get to make my own choices, right? As usual, the answer here is “Yes, and…”

As usual the implication is of a more radical selflessness (anattā) than we usually talk about with this limb. So we won’t for a while. 😉 But we’ll get there.

The heart of Right Intention, of course, is that in order to change our lives for the better we have to want to. Make good choices, people. Intention is the root of ethics, which means actions, and as we chant every week, you’re the owner of your actions (even if there’s — ontologically speaking — no “you” or “yours”). So let’s begin.

Right Intention starts with letting go

We’re starting our investigation of Right Intention with these 3 aspects. Here’s the first talk in the series, where I frame Right Intention in relation to the previous step, Right View.

Meditation: the body like a riverbed, shaped by time and flow. (7.30.19)

Talk: The first part of Right Intention is renunciation. Letting go. Especially in the material realm. But what is renunciation for us now, as laypeople under apocalyptic capitalism? (7.30.19)

“You must change your life”

In this talk, I mention the last line of the famous Rilke poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” Here’s that poem:

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

(trans. Stephen Mitchell; from poets.org)

“Hope is a thing with feathers”

I also mentioned this line, which is from this Emily Dickinson poem, and is also the seed of the title of this book by Max Porter, which I was thinking of and couldn’t remember the name.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me

(from poets.org)

Letting go: is it willful or autonomic?

Meditation: Setting into the body as the place of both sensing-feeling and “thinking”. The “thinking body”. (8.6.19)

Talk: Renunciation as letting go. How do we let go? Do we do it intentionally, like a discipline? But diets don’t work. Self-repression and restraint are difficult to stabilize. Faith and view help. But what about letting go as maturing, growing out of things? Letting go as the autonomic deactivation of the nervous system when the need for a certain thing decreases naturally. An extended example about my teenage fixation on Doctor Who to the point of it being a seed of my running away from home. Oy. But true. (8.6.19)

Renunciation as recovery

One more week on renunciation as the first aspect of Right Intention. I’ve been glossing renunciation as autonomic letting go, and that sounds a lot like trauma healing, of course. So: Renunciation is the maturation of the healing process.

When we no longer crave something, it’s because we no longer need the self-protection it seemed to offer us. No longer needing to be protected against something is to be healed of the trauma it caused us — the residue of the times in the past when it actually harmed us.

Healing trauma means ending whatever painful thing I’m doing in the present that has its roots in the past. This is true for the collective as much as it is for individuals.

The intention toward renunciation, then, is the intention to let go of — to mature out of, to integrate and move on from — symptoms of ancient wounding that are finally available for release.

(A nice FB thread unfolded here where I talked with friends Mushim and Karuna about the dialectic of will and “teeth-gritting” in renunciation, and about translation and cultural challenges (Christianity, specifically) implicated.)

Meditation: Arrival, and the core meditative practice “connect & sustain.”

Talk: Renunciation as healing, especially from addictive-type patterns, therefore renunciation as recovery. (8.13.19)

[Edit note: in the talk, I had a brain fart and named the 3 aspects of Right Intention wrong (I said non-greed instead of non-harming). Oops. So I went into the previous week’s talk, pulled the correct sentence out, and inserted it over the mistake. Boy do I wish I could do that so easily with all my mistakes. Even though we all know that time travel doesn’t work like that.]

“Freed from hatred and ill-will”

Meditation: Mettā and the cultivation of non-hatred. (8.13.19)

Talk: The second aspect of Right Intention is to exorcise the ancient demon of hatred from our hearts. I talk about the relationship of the 3 Intentions to the 5 Hindrances, and the differences between these intentions and their near enemies, in this case, how anger and rage (at injustice, for instance) may be skillful, but hatred cannot. How hatred is generally impersonal, directed at groups rather than specific individuals in specific situations, and born of sustained harm over time, which is to say, trauma. Hatred comes from trauma. (8.20.19)

Coming soon…

“Heir to my actions, born of my actions”

After we look at these foundations a bit, we’ll look deeper at the Buddha’s ideas around how intention shapes the future. Here’s a text (AN 10.217, “Intentional”) that lays that out, in compelling and challenging ways. Everything we do, consciously or unconsciously, we will experience the results of.

The unconscious part is where we’ll really dig into some of the old problems around intentionality and kamma, like whether we experience the results of things we didn’t actually do, and how we experience the results of things we didn’t mean to do but did because of social conditioning, ancestral or systemic trauma, or the mystery of what past lives led to this one.

Here’s how the sutta starts:

Mendicants, I don’t say that intentional deeds that have been performed and accumulated are eliminated without being experienced. And that may be in the present life, or in the next life, or in some subsequent period. And I don’t say that suffering is ended without experiencing intentional deeds that have been performed and accumulated.

AN 10.217, “Intentional”, tr. Sujato

It gets dense immediately, so read the whole discourse a few times slowly, and see if you can feel into what’s being said here. It’s about rebirth, but more simply about the process of liberation, and what has to healed in order for freedom to arise, and what needs to be felt in order to be healed.

More on that soon, and we’ll discuss this material as it unfolds in the Facebook Group: In It To End It. Come join the conversation there if you’re on that platform.

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