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Advanced teaching: "Intentions do matter"
October 3rd, 2013

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Advanced teaching: "Intentions do matter"

The "virtuous life" in Buddhism is broken down into "right speech", "right action" and "right livelihood".

It might at times seem that this is separate from "right intention" since they are listed as distinct spokes of the eightfold path.
I previously mentioned that "right intention" could not be separate from action (, no more than buddha-nature could be separate from "right effort" ( I regularly explain that a right intention has to be 'embodied', 'manifested', 'acted upon'…

Thanissaro bhikkhu presented the same creative union between intention and action, as follows:

« Right speech, explained in negative terms, means avoiding four types of harmful speech: lies (words spoken with the intent of misrepresenting the truth); divisive speech (spoken with the intent of creating rifts between people); harsh speech (spoken with the intent of hurting another person's feelings); and idle chatter (spoken with no purposeful intent at all).

Notice the focus on 'intent': this is where the practice of right speech intersects with the training of the mind. Before you speak, you focus on why you want to speak. »

So intention and action go together, intention and physical manifestation, intention and matter…

Moreover, according to the doctrine of karma, intentions are also the cause of rebirth, the cause of 'us' taking form.
Intentions constitute a root manifestation of 'ignorance', because intentions reflect predefined goals rather than simple appropriate responses to what's needed here&now.

My tagline, « intentions do matter », is thus more than a call to act on "right intention" (because of the role it plays in Buddhism, as a spoke of the path). It is also a "right view", that one has to realise in order to get a key to the cessation of ignorance: intentions should be dropped! Freedom is found in Wisdom, i.e. in an "appropriate response to the context at hand", not in predefined choices, preferences, prejudiced answers.

The difficulty with "intentions do matter" is that some people easily use the wholesomeness of one  intention as a cop-out.
So it may be time to explain why my tagline uses a plural.

Regularly, it seems acceptable to issue some divisive speech  because the intention is (assumed to be) right… Regularly, it seems acceptable to lie  because the intention is (assumed to be) right… "Expedient means" might be called to the rescue if one has to justify some words…

"Right mindfulness" is not optional on the eightfold path: building a narrative about some wholesome intention, when your intention is actually different, is not good enough to dispense with "right speech". This is only good enough to protect your ego in its claim of purity.

This is precisely why  "right speech" is listed explicitly in the eightfold path, as a way to assess  the reality of your "right intention".
This is a tool to check, by consistency between overlapping demands, whether you're deluding yourself about your intentions or not: if your supposed "right intention" doesn't manifest in accordance to "right speech", it is time to enquire into your intention (not just assume you 'know' your intention is wholesome)!

An enquiry doesn't presume the answer. Maybe your intention is wholesome indeed… but then, breaching "right speech" might still suggest you're not looking hard enough to find a better manifestation of your primary intention —which suggests a secondary negligent intention, a settling for "good enough" to save one's effort, not so wholesome…

Intentions are an 'aggregate' (khandha);  they don't come isolated, separate. You might have a wholesome intention alongside a not-so-wholesome intention, alongside an unwholesome craving, etc.

You cannot hide behind one wholesome intention to justify breaching "right speech" due to another intention! "Expedient means" do exist, the Buddha himself used harsh words at times, but did he then come up with a narrative about a wholesome intention in order to hide (to himself and/or others) some ego-driven righteousness? I don't think the suttas support such an hypothesis.

Until enlightenment (and even after, due to karmic residue), at any point in time, your mind perpetuates and carries multiple intentions.

On which intentions do you act?

Are you sure they are the same as the one —usually single— intention used to 'justify' the act?

Intentions do matter… even those behind the choice of a justification rather than another!

#Buddhism   #Dharma  
image: © Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo (
h/t +Manu Duf