Spiritual Intention

by Dennis Bradford

in spiritual well-being

What are the kinds of spiritual intention that motivate practices such as meditation?  How should we think about them?

The Buddhist tradition provides an interesting classification. The Indian scholar Atisa (982-1054) suggests a division of practitioners into three classes depending upon their motivation. Since the main factor that contributes to morally significant karman is the intentions of our acts, such a classification seems typically Buddhist.

The first type of spiritual intention that motivates practitioners is samsara itself, which is the conditioned cycle of birth and death. This is the lowest type for Atisa.

The second type of spiritual intention is nirvana, which is unconditioned freedom from samsara. Those who free themselves from suffering are known as “arhats.”

The third and highest type of spiritual intention for Atisa is those who are motivated by an ultimate vision of attaining Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. This is the great or supreme path known as “the Mahayana.”

Paul Williams argues that it is this third kind of spiritual intention or motivation that makes a practitioner a follower of Mahayana (rather than “robes, rules, or philosophy”) [Paul Williams with Anthony Tribe, Buddhist Thought:  A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition (N.Y.: Routledge, 200), p. 101 ff.].

If so, then a practitioner with the third kind of spiritual intention would have a tendency to look down upon those with either of the other two kinds. This explains the well-known fact that those who think they are following the Supreme Path of the Mahayana do tend to look down on those they consider to be following the Inferior Path of Hinayana (as well as those of the first type who are just seeking worldly gain). This tendency would be especially pronounced if it’s true that “Mayayana may in part represent a rather austere, almost ascetic, ‘revivalist movement’” [Buddhist Thought, p. 107.].

Not being a scholar myself, I simply don’t know how historically accurate Williams’s thesis is. However, it does strike me as plausible.

It also strikes me as unfortunate. The reason is simple: we simply don’t know very much about motivation, either our own or of others. Haven’t you yourself sometimes acted in a way that caused you to wonder, “Why did I do that?” If we are not always even sure about our own motivations, it’s foolish to be evaluating the motivations of others because they are likely to be even more obscure.

Karma aside, the behavior of those with the first type of spiritual intention may be exactly the same as those with either the second or third types of spiritual intention.

Nobody, whether sage or not, knows what to do to live well or act optimifically. Furthermore, and even worse, nobody has any rational belief about what to do to live well or act optimifically.

The reason for this is simple: the consequences of our actions are relevant to their moral evaluations. It is impossible either to know or to have rational belief about all the consequences of an action. Therefore, it is impossible either to know or to have rational belief about the rightness or wrongness of an action.

That’s the real justification for relying on intentions for evaluations in the first place. Since we don’t apprehend them, relying on consequences for evaluations is hopeless.

Another way to put this point is in terms of thinking about the future consequences of behaviors, i.e., planning. The truth about planning is simple: it doesn’t work.

Richard Farson: “Planning is built upon the flawed idea that it is possible to predict the future. Yet the future almost always takes us by surprise. Since there is simply no good way to predict future events, there is no sure way to plan for them” [Management of the Absurd (N.Y.: Simon & Schuster [Touchstone], 1996), p. 122.].

However, even though it doesn’t work in terms of responding to future events, as a way to examine the present more closely, planning can be useful. Another way to say this is that, except in the guise of the present, future events never occur.

Practicing is doing. Whatever the spiritual intention of a practitioner happens to be, practitioners practice. Obviously, although we are able to observe the behavior of others, we are unable to observe their intentions.

This is why Williams must be correct when he imagines visiting practitioners in classical India: “I am sure that a great Mahayana thinker like Nagarjuna or Santideva would not have appeared any different from their non-Mahayana brethren. Their public behaviour would not have been different” [Buddhist Thought, pp. 102-3.].

What is really important is only that they are practicing and the quality of that practicing. What real difference does it make why they are practicing?

It reminds me of the famous parable of the burning house from The Lotus Sutra. It makes no real difference how the father gets his children out of the burning house or which toys he uses to entice them out: what really matters is that he gets them out.

Those with the lowest, first kind of spiritual intention may only be motivated by egocentric gains. So? Perhaps they want decreased emotional instability, less stress, less anxiety, lower blood pressure, lower blood lipid levels, or increased ability to overcome addictions. The beauty of zazen and other spiritual practices is that they burn up egocentricity! Desire for egocentric gains will automatically diminish with more and more proper practicing.

Those with the second kind of spiritual intention simply manifest the primary reason (as far as I can tell) why most people begin a spiritual practice, namely, they want lasting relief from suffering. That’s an excellent motive! Whether they intend it or not, if they do achieve a breakthrough and keep practicing so that eventually all their behaviors are affected by it, they will automatically be providing others with an example of how to live well. What more could they be doing for others?

Some of those with the third kind of spiritual intention may genuinely be motivated by a nonegocentric desire to free others from suffering and, so, benefit all sentient beings (and not just themselves). On the other hand, I’m skeptical. I sometimes find myself in bad faith with myself and I suspect that others are like me in that respect. I have a tendency to pretend that I’m less egocentric than I really am. How could anyone have a genuinely nonegocentric desire to benefit all sentient beings without already having had an infused breakthrough that burned away all his or her egocentricity?

Finally, let’s return to the most important motivation, namely, yours! It doesn’t really matter what kind it is. So, if you don’t know what kind it is, that’s not a problem. If you do know which kind of spiritual intention you have and it’s not the highest, that’s also not a problem.

What matters is whether or not you are regularly practicing and the quality of that practicing.

If you are practicing every day and concentrating on practicing well, good for you! Keep up the good work.

If you aren’t, what are you waiting for? Living well won’t unexpectedly fall on you like a sudden snow squall. If you want to improve the quality of life, get busy letting go.


As always, if you know someone who might benefit from this reading this, please pass it along.

Recommended post: The Buddha’s Footsteps.

Recommended reading : My The Three Things the Rest of Us Should Know about Zen Training, my The Meditative Approach to Philosophy, and Paul Williams with Anthony Tribe, Buddhist Thought:  A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition.


Be Sociable, Share!


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

BigTuna October 16, 2012 at 9:31 am

I never thought of spiritual intention in the categories you have described. I would have to agree that I find it difficult to believe that anyone is 100% motivated by the nonegocentric desire to help other people (category three). I think people in category one are just confused since there really is nothing to gain from a spiritual practice. As you point out the motivations for category one will eventually burn away. My motivation comes primarily from category two (I think). I agree that you can’t really help anyone spiritually unless your first help yourself, and by helping yourself you are setting an example that may help other people. I’m not sure how you even would help other people spiritually (unless the person your helping was open to having a practice and showed a genuine interest). I found so far that most people don’t really want any help or advice. They would prefer to keep doing the same things they have always done and trying to be helpful just annoys them. It is hard to accept but each person only can help themselves. You really can’t do anything for someone else.

Leave a Comment


Previous post:

Next post: