An interpretation of The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path: Aspect Two, Right Intention (part 3/10)

This is the second in a ten part series on my interpretation of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path…. or ‘eight things you should do to realise enlightenment’.

The Noble Eightfold Path: Aspect Two, Right Intention

Right intention means to cultivate the positive intentions of renunciation, kindness and compassion and to try and not be carried away by thoughts of craving, ill-will and cruelty. The former are seen as leading to happiness for self and others, the later to further suffering for self and others.

It is important to note that overcoming negative thoughts is not a matter of repression. When thoughts of craving, ill-will and cruelty arise, one should accept that they have arisen, watch them, and reflect on them, but without being carried away by them. Such thoughts are part of you, after all, and through studying these negative emotions, you are effectively studying yourself. Through doing this, you are learning more about the nature of self and the nature of the suffering of ordinary mundane existence. Eventually, although in the early stages of practice this may be a matter of faith or simple intellectual grasping, you will realise that such negative thoughts never lead to anything good, rather they just lead to more suffering. Once this realisation becomes bedded in such negative intentions will lose their grip.

In Buddhist philosophy the above six positive and negative intentions are conceived of as pairs of intentions which cannot exist simultaneously (Sangharakshita 1968), and so cultivating the positive aspect of the intention should help to reduce any tendencies towards being carried away by the corresponding negative aspect. Thus developing renunciation can help overcome craving, developing kindness can help overcome thoughts of ill-will and developing compassion can overcome thoughts of cruelty.

Overcoming craving and cultivating renunciation

Overcoming craving, or wanting, is seen as essential in Buddhism because craving is regarded as the root of all suffering. Craving itself is suffering because craving implies that you are lacking something. It is this sense of lack that then starts off what Buddhists call the karmic cycle of the wheel of becoming which was described in detail under noble truths one and two in the previous section.

The Buddhist solution to overcoming such craving is wisdom and renunciation. The wisdom part comes in stage one of the path, in realising how unsatisfactory our ordinary mundane lives are, while renunciation involves letting go of our desires for the things of this world, which follows on logically from the insight that happiness based on satisfying craving for mundane things is unsatisfactory because such happiness is impermanent.

As Andrea Fella (2010) rightly points out ‘renunciation has a bad rap’. This is because the whole of our culture is based around its opposite, satisfying desire. To break through this cultural norm, Fella suggests that you ‘play’ with the experience of wanting in relation to the experience of having your wants satisfied. Think about this for a moment: How long do you spend thinking ‘I want the weekend to come’, and how long is the weekend? How much time do you spend thinking ‘hmm I fancy that to eat’, and how much time do you actually spend eating the things you have spent so long craving for? Quite often you will find that the time spent wanting and the suffering that accompanies that wanting is greater than the satisfaction gained from having the want satisfied. If this is the case, then surely renunciation of wanting, putting the wants in their place, refusing to be carried away by them, is a sensible strategy to increase happiness in the longer term.

Now reflect on this further, what is being suggested here is that renunciation involves giving up your wanting, your craving, and your thoughts of ‘I must have this or that’. This is different to giving up the actual things you have or the people you want. In its softest manifestation, renunciation does not necessarily mean never consuming those things or seeing those people again, it simply means reducing your attachment to them by being mindful and trying to focus on what it is you are doing now, rather than craving for a future state that you want. You know the kind of thing… ‘I’m hungry I’m really looking forward to a McDonald’s, ‘I can’t wait to see my girlfriend tonight’, ‘I wish this work-day would end’. So at its softest level of interpretation, this practice can mean eating as much as you want, having as much sex as you want, but when you’re not eating and not having sex, focus on whatever else it is that you are doing.

Of course this will only take you so far into your spiritual practice, and eventually you will have to literally start ‘renouncing things’. To this end, Sangharakshita (1968) suggests that when reflecting on our practice we should ask from time to time ‘what have I actually given up’. How far you take this practice is really down to you. I would suggest that what you need to give up should arise out of reflection. It might be something as obvious as cigarettes or junk food, but it might be something more subtle such as laying-in for too long at the weekends. You simply need to reflect, through mindfulness on what harmful ‘addictions’ you have in your daily and weekly routines and let these go.

This giving up should not be looked upon as sacrifice, but rather as part of a spiritual maturation. As one’s spiritual insight matures, material things lose their sheen, in a similar way that toys become less appealing to children as they mature into adults.

Avoiding thoughts of ill-will and harm and developing kindness and compassion

I am putting these four intentions together because, to my mind, thoughts of harm merge into thoughts of ill-will and compassion grows out of kindness.

Avoiding ill-will means avoiding getting caught up in thoughts of aversion, or dwelling on what you don’t like about particular things or people. Thoughts of harm involve wishing that other beings suffering increases, for example wishing that they experience pain, fear or sorrow.

The Corresponding antidotes to ill-will and harm are to cultivate kindness and compassion, which should be genuine, heart-felt, unconditional and universal, in other words, generalised kindness and compassion towards all beings, rather than the kind of kindness you would associate with friends and family.

Feelings of aversion, or dislike, are actually quite widespread in our society. The most obvious examples lie in prejudice of any kind: Thoughts such as ‘I don’t like travellers, homosexuals, Somalis, or whatever other group the dislikers have probably never even spoken to, are the most overt, but thoughts of aversion can also be subtler. If you practice mindfulness you might become uncomfortably aware of just how much subtle aversion and corresponding not-so subtle actions manifest themselves in your day to day life. To give an example of how innocuous this feeling of aversion can be: Imagine you are going for a meal and you know that someone you don’t like very much is going to be there… you walk into the restaurant and consciously sit furthest away from them… you are acting out of the intention of aversion, an intention that may have actually been in your mind for hours before hand.

Residing in ill-will also involves dwelling in feelings of loathing, bitterness and anger. Feelings such as ‘they hurt me’; ‘they went shopping but forgot to buy the olives I needed for this recipe…. I am so angry with them’; or even ‘they forgot to do this, they are so useless’.

Thankfully, overt thoughts of hatred and harm towards others are relatively rare in our society, although they do exist with some groups being on the receiving end of hatred more than others. More common are the subtler, day to day, hidden feelings that involve wishing that others come to harm. I would argue that any thoughts of prejudice are automatically harmful as they include within them the intention of excluding others and differential treatment automatically. Also thoughts such as ‘prison is too good for him, he should be publicly humiliated, tortured or hung’ or ‘he’s incompetent I’m glad he got the sack.’ Quite often, if we are honest with ourselves, such thoughts gloat on people suffering quite independently from the sanctions that are sometimes deemed necessary for certain actions.

The antidote to residing in thoughts of ill-will and harm is to cultivate the practice of kindness and compassion towards others.

As with Renunciation, the first step to developing kindness is to try and develop a sense of empathy with others around the human condition and realise the simple wisdom that we are all in this together. We all suffer in similar ways: We all want, and we all suffer the deep sense of incompleteness that comes from wanting, and we all exist in a mundane reality in which both failure to get what we want and actually getting what we want lead to suffering. Even in most of those cases where people have wronged you in some way, it is not really their intention to harm you; they are just acting out of their own suffering, a condition which they share with you. Given this, it is rather silly to dwell in negative emotions towards others.

Another contemplative activity is to reflect on what happens to you if you harbour negative emotions towards others. Dwelling in such emotions is not in itself pleasant, and when we act out of hatred, anger or aversion, this typically results in further suffering, feelings of shame and embarrassment for example. Ryu Cope (2006) suggests that instead we develop an attitude of just letting go of such negative emotions towards others. He uses an example of his working with a pathological liar, pointing out that he knows that she lies all the time, and has developed strategies to deal with this. A coping strategy is necessary, but there is nothing is to be gained by getting annoyed with her every time she lies, rather it is better to just let the negative emotions go, and not dwell on them.

Beyond reflecting on how silly it is to reside in feelings of ill-will, we can also take steps to actively cultivate kindness and compassion. Compassion consists of an overwhelming feeling for the spiritual well-being of another, and walking the Buddhist path should involve a sincere attempt to cultivate love for all living beings. Kindness and Compassion are widely regarded as the most important spiritual qualities within Buddhism and The Buddha himself stated that if one has compassion, then everything else will follow.

Two final points to mention about cultivating right intention in general: Firstly, this aspect of the path is more than just an intellectual pursuit, and Sangarakshita (1968) talks of this aspect of the path as being about transforming the whole of your emotional life which implies that right intention infuses the whole of your being, your body, heart and mind, rather than just what is above the eyebrows.

Secondly, developing the right intentions of renunciation, kindness and compassion needs to be genuine. Renunciation should not be done in a gung-ho ‘look at me folks I just sold all my stuff and now I own nothing’ kind of way, and developing kindness isn’t about going out and doing showy events to raise money for charity. Both modes of thinking and acting run the risk of being ego-boosting, whereas developing genuine right intention is likely to be subtler. The chances are that most people will not even notice that you are actually transforming on a day-to-day basis, only after years will this be apparent.

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 Notes 

[i] The terms right intention, right purpose, right aspiration, right will or right emotion are sometimes deemed preferable to right thought

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