Wise Intention

Last Sunday in the beautiful AVA gallery space, our Sangha gathered once again for refuge, recollection, and reconnection. The church bells rang outside while inside, our community’s bell rang in responsive solidarity and drew us once again into the shared silence of our practice. It was February 14th, Valentine’s Day, and coincidentally, Tibetan New Year’s – a good day for resetting the intentions of our hearts towards loving kindness and compassion.

Wise Intention is the second path factor of the Eightfold Path, which is the 4th Noble Truth, the Truth which is to be cultivated. Often in the Suttas, the Buddha speaks of the heart or mind that “inclines, slopes, slants and leans” towards freedom. This leaning of the increasingly liberated heart towards wisdom and kindness is due to the power of Wise Intention fueled by the Wise Effort of Wise Mindfulness and Wise Concentration as well as by Wise Intention’s synergistic relationship with Wise Speech, Wise Action and Wise Livelihood. In the hologram that is the Eightfold Path, good intentions, in relationship with the other path factors, do not “pave the way to hell”, but instead mobilize us on the path to freedom.

The Dalai Lama, when asked how he stays calm in threatening situations, affirmed this understanding of intention’s power with his answer: “My sincere motivation is my protection.”

“Neuroscience tells us that setting an intention ‘primes’ our nervous system to be on the lookout for whatever will support what we intend…” In his book THE MINDFUL BRAIN, Daniel Siegel talks about the effect paying ‘attention to intention’ has on our brain and thus our experience of our surroundings. He writes, “Intentions create an integrated state of priming, a gearing up of our neural system to be in the mode of that specific intention: we can be readying to receive, to sense, to focus, to behave in a certain manner.” This suggests that when we pay attention to the intention “[…] we are more likely to notice the [relevant] actions, opportunities, people, and things…” (James Baraz in AWAKENING JOY).

In Buddhist teachings, there are three categories of Unwise Intentions: greed, hatred and cruelty or harming. The three categories of Wise Intention are: Non-greed, non-hatred, and non-cruelty. We could frame these in a more positive light as renunciation and generosity; good will and friendliness; and compassion and kindness. These are the intentions we are encouraged to cultivate. An important aspect of cultivating them is to notice in our direct experience when they are and are not present – to notice with interest and without reactive judgment – so that clarity and honesty can guide the body and mind on its path to freedom. This is the role of mindfulness.

Another way to cultivate Wise Intention is through the concentrative meditation practices of Metta (loving friendliness) and Karuna (compassion). Through the silent repetition of phrases in the quiet, reflective mind, we plant the habit seeds of future action. In Buddhist teachings, there are three ways we act in the world: through thought speech and action. The three are deeply related and influence one another in often surprisingly habituated ways. Each kind of action is preceded by intention. Intention leads to action; action leads to habit; habit leads to disposition or inclination. Inclination, of course, colors intention and so on. Whispering Metta and Karuna as words and ideas into the soft heart can began to give new shape to this process.

The Tibetan New Year is held to be a particularly auspicious day for hanging prayer flags. Prayer flags are both metaphors for and expressions of intentions. The Tibetan prayer flags we see in photos of India and Nepal and those we can purchase locally have words in Sanskrit printed on them expressing loving kindness, compassion, and peace –essentially wishes for well-being in the world. When the prayers are hung they can blow freely into the wind and cover the world. Unlike the prayers in a theistic tradition, these prayers are supplications to power higher than the human heart, but understood as potential forces in supplanting the intentions of greed, hatred and cruelty – internally (in those with the wisdom to hang them) and externally (to those hearts in the far reaches of the wind).

Last Sunday we gave the flags a place in our sitting group and added to their printed messages an infusion of our own words/thoughts/intentions of compassion. We ended our practice reciting aloud together the following words of compassion — towards specific individuals in our lives, to groups of people in the world, to ourselves, to all beings who are suffering:

I know your (my) pain
I care about your pain
May you be free from suffering

May you feel cared for and supported
May you be comforted and healed
May you be surrounded by kindness

Peace and best wishes,


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