Dharma Wheel symbol Buddha and Bill
The Dharma &
The Twelve Steps
gold pyramid in gold circle

Right Intention

Right Intention (Pali: samma sankappa; Sanskrit: samyak samkalpa) is traditionally listed as the third element of the Noble Eightfold Path. It is also known as "Right Thought," "Right Thinking," "Right Aspiration," and "Right Resolve." When it is called "Right Thought", the word "thought" is meant in the same sense as in the old adage, "It is the thought that counts." But this may seem to make the principle of Right Intention or Right Thought a very easy one to follow — one may at first have the impression that all one has to do is to have correct intentions and what we do without conscious intention can be ignored. But that is not the case! Remember, there is another saying that one finds in Christian cultures — "the road to hell is paved with good intentions!" If we suddenly do something out of anger, jealousy, or lust or some other emotion, we may not be consciously aware of the thought behind that action, but there was such a thought and that thought was truly our intention. So the element of Right Thought or Right Intention in the Eightfold Noble Path directs us in part to diminish our habitual tendencies to have such thoughts. As will be explained below, this can be done by practicing Right Mindfulness and by developing counter-habits.

Of course, Right Intention is not just about ridding ourselves of bad intentions. According to the Buddha, there are three kinds of right intentions. The Saccavibhanga Sutta, the Magga-vibhanga Sutta, and the Maha-satipatthana Sutta are three different early Buddhist scriptures written in Pali. In each of them, Shariputra, one of the historical Buddha's foremost disciples, says of Right Intention:1

"What is Right Thought? Thought of renunciation, thought of goodwill, thought of not harming — this is called Right Thought."

The intention of renunciation does not necessarily mean that we intend to give away all of our worldly possessions and become a monk or a nun—though that path is open in most Buddhist sects today. Rather, it means renouncing our cravings for worldly phenomena and releasing ourselves from our attachments to them. Worldly phenomena hear includes material things such as property, money, etc. Renouncing our craving to them and releasing ourselves from our attachments to them means freeing ourselves from the psychological dependencies we have on them. Worldly phenomena also includes the consumption of addictive drugs and alcohol. In the case of addictive drugs, renunciation means, for everyone, total abstinence from such drugs except for certain medical purposes. In the case of alcohol, renunciation definitely means total abstinence. (One exception here in the case of alcohol would be where an alcoholic is being treated at a clinic for extreme physical dependency on alcohol and is being gradually weaned from alcohol by being given smaller and smaller doses at prescribed times by a nurse each day until that phase of treatment is concluded.)

Renunciation here is perfectly in line with the Second and Third Noble Truths:2

  • "There is the Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering (duhkha): Suffering (duhkha) results from certain causes—it is craving, which produces renewal of being, is accompanied by relish and lust, relishing this and that; in other words, craving for sensual pleasure, craving for being, craving for nonbeing.
  • "There is the Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering (duhkha): It is the remainderless fading and ceasing, the giving up, relinquishment, letting go, and rejecting of that craving.

In the Dhammapada, a Buddhist scripture originally written in Pali, the sayings of Buddha include the following:

"You are to be numbered among the priesthood though you know little of philosophy—if your actions accord with the Dharma, and you have renounced desire, hatred, and delusion, if your mind is imbued with genuine wisdom, and you cling to nothing in this world or the next."
—Dhammapada 1.203
"The fool busies himself thinking: 'These are my sons, this wealth is mine.' But he does not even belong to himself, so what can be said of sons and wealth?"
—Dhammapada 5.34
"The man who gathers flowers (of sensual pleasure), whose mind is distracted, and who is insatiate in desires, the Destroyer [Death] brings under his sway."
—Dhammapada 4.55
"Even a rain of gold could not satisfy your desires—for the smallest taste of enjoyment leads to the suffering of more desire. A truly wise person understands this."
—Dhammapada 14.86

What the Buddha says about the renunciation of material wealth is essentially no different then what Jesus said:

"Do not store up for yourselves treaures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
The New Testament, Matthew 6.19-6.21.

The Dhammapada also contains sayings of the Buddha in regard to "goodwill" and "not harming":

"The evildoer may appear to be good before the harmful act matures. But when the deed has ripened [i.e., when the fruit of its karmic seeds have ripened], then the wicked are revealed. The good may appear to be evil before the good act matures. But when the deed has ripened, then the good are revealed."
—Dhammapada 9.4-9.57
"Whoever harms the harmless or oppresses the innocent and just is like a fool tossing dust into the wind—his wrongdoing will fly back in his face."
—Dhammapada 9.108
"Hatreds never cease through hatred in this world; through love alone they cease. This is an eternal law."
—Dhammapada 1.59

When we say, "It's the thought that counts," we have some realization that an intention is a thought. It follows that motivation also involves thought since we usually do not intend to do something that we do not feel motivated to do. Ringu Tulku, in his book Daring Steps: Traversing the Path of the Buddha, writes:10

"Here [in regard to 'Right Thought'], it is most important to comprehend the predominant influence of thought. Whatever actions we do, right or wrong, are preceded and initiated by a thought. Many people will not agree with this and claim that their emotions, like anger for instance, will come up more closely, we will find this to be a misperception. For anger to arise, first there has to be the concept of something being unpleasant. This process will usually happen so fast that it goes unnoticed. It does not mean, though, that there is no initial thought giving rise to our anger. But since we are so used to it, that thought happens too quickly to be recognized. Everything that follows from this initial thought, all our positive and negative emotions, and even all the positive and negative deeds that we do, are habits we have acquired over time.

"What kind of person we become is just a matter of habitual tendencies. The more we get into a particular habit, such as being prone to anger, jealousy, and so forth, and so forth, the more we will turn into a person with this particular character. But for this same reason we are also able to change. Bad and good habits are equally changeable. The more we cultivate good habits, the more we will weaken the negative ones, and the other way around. This is the central point to be understood. In this context, Shantideva said, 'If one is habituated, there is nothing that will not come easier.' The more we familiarize ourselves with something, the more it will become our second nature. This is true of positive and negative tendencies alike.

"So it is very important to understand that thought is the master of every action we take. If we have thoughts characterized by kindness, compassion, love, or joy, our actions will have a corresponding quality. Our thoughts, in turn, are not arbitrary. They are habits that can be changed. This change has to be brought about actively. It will not happen by itself. For instance, if we would like to be a joyful person, we have to grow into this aptitude. We have to adopt the habit of being joyful. When we are very depressed and narrow, we cannot expect to become joyful just by wishfully thinking, "Now I am very sad, but something will happen." As if joy might fall from the sky. Buddhism says we have to do it ourselves. Then something then something will happen...

"So our habits will not change unless we change them ourselves. In this context, our thoughts are the main objective, since they are the starting point for all our actions. Our thoughts determine whether we act in a right or wrong way, as what kind of person we become. As soon as we have the right thoughts, our actions cannot go amiss. In the beginning, the attempt to reform our habits of thought will not prove so easy. We may have the impression that there is no progress at all. Yet there will be progress, as is illustrated by the meditation method that a great master gave to one of his disciples. He made the disciple get two bowls and two heaps of black and white pebbles. The master then told him to put a white pebble into one of the bowls whenever a good thought came to his mind and to put a black pebble into the other bowl for every negative thought that arose. During the first few months, the black pebbles piled up, while the white ones were very scarce. Then slowly, the picture changed. The black pebbles got less and less, and the white ones increased, until finally the bowl for the black pebbles remained empty. This shows the way to reform ourselves and cultivate our motivation. We should try to be as aware as possible. It does not mean that we should feel guilty each time we have a negative thought. Simply by being aware and by continuously exercising this awareness, our negative thoughts will gradually decrease and make way for more and more good ones."

Note that in the last paragraph quoted, Ringu Tulku makes the point that in order to change our habits of thinking for the better, we must cultivate awareness of our thoughts. Here, in italics for emphasis, is a repeat of the last three sentences of that paragraph:

"This shows the way to reform ourselves and cultivate our motivation. We should try to be as aware as possible. It does not mean that we should feel guilty each time we have a negative thought. Simply by being aware and by continuously exercising this awareness, our negative thoughts will gradually decrease and make way for more and more good ones."

Being aware of our thoughts moment to moment is of course a practice of Right Mindfulness as described in this site's page, Right Mindfulness & Right Concentration.

Right Intention (Right Thought) is of course also connected with Right View, Right Speech, and Right Action. Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, writes:11

"When Right View is solid in us, we have Right Thinking (samyak samkalpa). We need Right View at the foundation of our thinking. And if we train ourselves in Right Thinking, our Right View will improve. Thinking is the speech of our mind. Right Thinking makes our speech clear and beneficial. Because thinking often leads to action, Right Thinking is needed to take us down the path of Right Action."

He recommends four practices to cultivate "Right Thinking" and eliminate wrong intentions:12

"There are four practices related to Right Thinking:

"(1) 'Are you sure?' — there is a " If there is f there is a rope in your path and and you perceive it as a snake, fear-based thinking will follow. The more erroneous your perception, the more incorrect your thinking will be. Please write the words 'Are you sure?' on a large piece of paper and hang it where you will see it often. Ask yourself this question again and again. Wrong perceptions cause incorrect thinking and unnecessary suffering.

"(2) 'What am I doing?' — Sometimes I ask one of my students, 'What are you doing?' to help him release his thinking about the past or the future and return to the present moment. I ask the question to help him to be — right here, right now. That alone would demonstrate his true presence.

"Asking yourself, What am I doing? will help you overcome the habit of wanting to complete things quickly. Smile to yourself and say, Washing this dish is the most important job in my life. When you ask, What am I doing, reflect deeply on the question. If your thoughts are carrying you away, you need mindfulness to intervene. When you are really there, washing the dishes can be a deep and enjoyable experience. But if you wash them while thinking about other things, you are wasting your time, and probably not washing the dishes well either. If you are not there, even if you wash 84,000 dishes, your work will be without merit...

"(3) 'Hello, habit energy' — We tend to stick to our habits, even the ones that cause us to suffer. Workaholism is one example. In the past, our ancestors may have had to work nearly all the time to put food on the table. But today, our way of working is rather compulsive and prevents us from laving real contact with life. We think about our work all the time and don't even have time to breathe. We need to find moments to contemplate the cherry blossoms and drink our tea in mindfulness. Our way of acting depends on our way of thinking, and our way of thinking depends on our habit energies. When we recognize this, we only need to say, 'Hello, habit energy,' and make good friends with our habitual patterns of thinking and acting. When we can accept these ingrained thoughts and not feel guilty about them, they will lose much of their power over us. Right Thinking leads to Right Action. "(4) Bodhichitta. — Our 'mind of love' is the deep wish to cultivate understanding in ourselves in order to bring happiness to many being. It is the motivating force for the practice of mindful living. With bodhichitta at the foundation of our thinking, everything we do or say will help others be liberated. Right Thinking also gives rise to Right Diligence."

I find Thich Nhat Hanh's advice here under '(3)' regarding not feeling guilty about our habitual patterns of thinking and acting to be very valuable. And also the notion that problems with practicing right mindfulness have a lot to do with old habits. I wish I had known about this back in 1969 when I was first living in San Francisco and practicing Zen Buddhism. I was learning about Right Mindfulness and how important it was to practice Right Mindfulness in daily living as well as while doing breathing meditation. I also was 21 years old, a long way from my hometown in Iowa, and I had to wash dishes in a restaurant to have money for rent and food. I had been a college student for the past three years, living at my parents' home or in a dormitory, and I wasn't used to working hard for a living. My biggest problem was washing the dishes during the lunch and dinner hours at the restaurant (about two hours for lunch and two hours for dinner) when the customers were coming and going so fast that we would run out of dishes and silverware if I didn't keep washing them fast enough. I also had to be careful that they were all absolutely spotless when I was finished with each one. Not only did this work tax my physical stamina, but the biggest problem was just keeping my mind focused on doing the dishes. When I was criticized for not working fast enough, I took it doubly hard — not only was I at risk of being fired, I felt guilty about not being mindful. The biggest problem here was that the more I tried to force myself to be perfectly mindful, the more stressed out and unmindful I would become. And of course my practice of meditation was damaged by this in a way that could not be done by the usual thoughts and concerns that I was trying to repress in this way. When we have problems like this, it is best to consult an authentic teacher of Buddhist meditation to resolve them. But it is always important to be patient with ourselves when we cultivate Right Thought. The Buddha himself gave such advice. In the Dhammapada, the Buddha is quoted as saying:13

"By degrees, little by little, from time to time, a wise person should remove his own impurities, as a smith removes the dross from silver."

Thich Nhat Hanh gives another tip from the Buddha:14

"The Buddha offered many ways to help us to transform troublesome thoughts. One way, he said, is to replace an unwholesome thought with a wholesome one by 'changing the peg,' just as a carpenter replaces a rotten peg by hammering in a new one. If we are constantly assailed by unwholesome patterns of thought, we need to learn how to change the peg and replace those patterns with unwholesome thoughts. The Buddha also likened unwholesome thinking to wearing a dead snake around your neck. The easiest way, he said, to keep unwholesome thoughts from arising is to live in a wholesome community that practices mindful living. With the help and presence of Dharma sisters and brothers, it is easy to sustain Right Thinking. Dwelling in a good environment is preventive medicine."

The fourth of the four practices that Thich Nhat Hanh prescribes for Right Thinking is that of bodhichitta. In all of the schools of Mahayana Buddhism, which includes the schools of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism among others, it is taught that the foremost intention for practicing the ways of the Eightfold Path is to eventually alleviate the suffering of all living beings. The ideal practitioner is the bodhisattava, one who is reborn in this world of samsara after each of his own lifetimes in order to aid others on the path to Nirvana until all sentient beings have become completely enlightened.

In his book, The Quintessence of the Animate and the Inanimate: A Discourse on the Holy Dharma, Lama Lodö, a teacher of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, gives a simple but effective way to meditate on compassion:15

"The meditation consists of sitting down and thinking about all living beings. Consider their misery and generate within yourself compassion and a concern to both alleviate their misery and establish them in a state of perfect happiness. It is a mental practice. What you are aiming for is a sincere development of this feeling in your mind. With meditation and prayer it is the mental quality that is important. If you are sincerely thinking about obtaining perfect enlightenment for the sake of helping living beings, then this thought will automatically arise even when you are sleeping. This way it develops day and night and each day it is stronger than the day before."

I have found that principles of Alcoholics Alcoholics Anonymous and its Twelve Step Program of Recovery from Alcoholism work right along with what the Buddha calls Right Intention or Right Thought. As we have seen, the practice of Right Intention/Right Thought directly addresses our habits. The abusive drinking of alcohol is certainly a bad habit to begin with. And the AA teaches us that we must not only address that particular bad habit—in Steps Four through Seven of the Twelve Steps, we deal with all of our character defects, which is to say all of our habitual patterns of bad behavior:

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. Humbly asked him to remove all of our shortcomings.

But how do we translate "God" into a Mahayana Buddhist context? We will address this question later in the context of Steps Four through Seven of the Twelve Steps of AA.


1 See:

2Translation from Sherab Chodzin Kohn, "The Life of the Buddha" in Entering the Stream: An Introduction to the Buddha and His Teachings (ed. by Samuel Bercholz and Sherab Chodzin Kohn, c. 1993), p. 19.

3Translation from dGe'-dun Chos-'phel (translator, Pali-into-Tibetan) and Dharma Publishing Staff (translators, Tibetan-into-English), Dhammapada: Translation of Dharma Verses with the Tibetan Text (c. 1985), p. 11. See also Narada Thera (translator, editor), The Dhammapada: Pali Text and Translation with Stories in Brief and Notes, 4th Edition (1993), p. 21.

4dGe'-dun Chos-'phel (translator, Pali-into-Tibetan) and Dharma Publishing Staff (translators, Tibetan-into-English), op. cit., p. 33. See also Narada Thera, op. cit., p. 63.

5Narada Thera, op. cit., p. 52. See also dGe'-dun Chos-'phel (translator, Pali-into-Tibetan) and Dharma Publishing Staff (translators, Tibetan-into-English), op. cit., p. 27.

6dGe'-dun Chos-'phel (translator, Pali-into-Tibetan) and Dharma Publishing Staff (translators, Tibetan-into-English), op. cit., p. 97. See also Narada Thera, op. cit., p. 167.

7dGe'-dun Chos-'phel (translator, Pali-into-Tibetan) and Dharma Publishing Staff (translators, Tibetan-into-English), op. cit., pp. 63-64. See also Narada Thera, op. cit., p. 113.

8dGe'-dun Chos-'phel (translator, Pali-into-Tibetan) and Dharma Publishing Staff (translators, Tibetan-into-English), op. cit., p. 67. See also Narada Thera, op. cit., p. 118.

9Narada Thera, op. cit., p. 8. See also dGe'-dun Chos-'phel (translator, Pali-into-Tibetan) and Dharma Publishing Staff (translators, Tibetan-into-English), op. cit., p. 5.

10Ringu Tulku, Daring Steps: Traversing the Path of the Buddha (c. 2010), pp. 40-42.

11Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching (c. 1998), p. 59.

12Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching (c. 1998), pp. 60-62.

13Dhammapada 18.5. Translation from Narada Thera, op. cit., p. 199. See also dGe'-dun Chos-'phel (translator, Pali-into-Tibetan) and Dharma Publishing Staff (translators, Tibetan-into-English), op. cit., p. 123.

14Thich Nhat Hanh, op. cit., pp. 62-63.

15Lama Lodö, The Quintessence of the Animate and the Inanimate: A Discourse on the Holy Dharma (c. 1985), p. 71.

San Francisco, California: KDK Publications, c.


On the Web