Intentions behind one’s actions

The Right meditation is inseparable from the Right view. That means that even if a person doesn’t have the Right view, their meditation should be concerned about getting it. To put it simply – it comes down to developing the self-transparency (or self-honesty) concerning skilful as skilful (kusala) and unskilful as unskilful (akusala). The Buddha defined the Right view in those very terms – knowing “good as good”, and “bad as bad”. The person with the Right view knows for oneself, beyond any doubt, kusala as kusala and akusala as akusala. By seeing it – he recognizes it. He doesn’t need to hold or adopt any other external criteria. The clarity of his vision pertains to here and now, internally. Thus, for someone who hasn’t achieved that yet, that’s where the meditation should start. Obtaining of the Right criteria and then meditating through it. Keeping it “composed” is the definition of the Right samadhi.

The problem is that this kind of instruction is very non-specific. People today usually need something more proliferated and palpable. They require meditation “methods”. An average man today wants a “recipe”, a prescription of “steps”. He needs to know what exactly he should do, that would then automatically result in his liberation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. If we look at the Suttas, whenever the Buddha was talking about meditation it was to bring the fulfilment of knowledge and wisdom. Yet, if a person has none of the latter to begin with, then the fulfilment cannot arise nor be fabricated mechanically. Very often the Buddha’s reply on how to meditate would be in instructing people in recognizing and avoiding the unskilful, and cultivating (bhavana) of the skilful. Discerning the nature of kusala and akusala has the potential of taking the mind above both. Freeing it from action (kamma) and it’s results (vipaka), since they are bound to the domain of skilful and unskilful. And that’s exactly why performing (doing or acting) of the specific steps, cannot take one beyond the nature of kamma. Understanding it however, might.

Furthermore, methods and techniques usually don’t amount to more than management of the problem of suffering. Management of something cannot actually uproot that very thing. So, instead of that, a person will be better of in trying to discern what kind of attitude towards meditation can be sustained throughout the day. An attitude that wouldn’t need any particular favorable environment or special conditions to be applied in. Regardless of whether one is sitting in a full lotus posture, or just walking down the street. One needs to find that kind of composure that one can maintain in both circumstances.  The way to do this is if the composure is established upon the general mindfulness.  Not the particular observation and adherence to the prescribed steps of a “meditation” technique, that results in one being absorbed in it. Absorption is the opposite of general mindfulness.

Every jhana for example is fully founded upon the basis of the unshakeable mindfulness as number of Suttas often mention. So, even if a person wants to do his meditation in a “formal” manner, such as sit for an hour few times a day, that is fine. As long as it is not done for the purpose of developing some sort of “experience of absoption” out of it. Like trying to watch one’s breath hoping for some novelty energy release. The point of meditation is to remain present as much as possible. Present or mindful of whatever is already there (feelings, perceptions, intentions). Not interfere with it, or deny it, or try to replace it. Just discerning the enduring presence of the arisen experience. Emotionally, perceptually and intentionally. That kind of composure can then be “spread out” over one’s entire day, even when a person is not sitting down to meditate.

And this should not be too hard to grasp (though that doesn’t mean it will be easy to accept). The whole point of the practice of Dhamma and meditation is nothing other than understanding of the nature of things. The understanding that arises on account of mindful discerning of whatever is arisen and enduring in our experience. And it’s that  understanding of the unskilful that frees the mind from it. If a person wants to be truly free once and for all, the only way to do so is through the knowledge and mindfulness.


Thus, if one wants to practice in a manner that pertains to this final goal of freedom, he needs to become very mindful and honest about intentionality behind any actions. Simple actions, more complex ones, careless or important, big or small – actions of any kind done by body, speech or mind. One will need to attend to them mindfully until the motivation and intentions behind is fully seen. That is because it is the intention that defines wholesome action as wholesome and unwholesome as unwholesome. The “reason” for one’s action so to speak. That’s where skilfulness of an action is rooted at.  That’s also the real “reason”, the one deep inside that one might not be willing to admit to oneself. If a person is able to reach the full transparency of one’s intentional actions and its roots, that person is a step closer in discerning what makes kusala as kusala and akusala as akusala. That person is a step closer to the beginning of the Right criteria or view.

So, if one needs to meditate, one needs to be concerned with one’s actions and choices. (Which is also why sila or virtue comes before the Dhamma).  In such manner any motivation for one’s intentions behind doing this or that will reveal and not taken at its face value. Through this persistent self-questioning one can also see whether an action that is about to be, is rooted in an unskilful motive. Like sensuality, ill will, vanity or distraction for example. Furthermore, one would need to abandon only that. The unwholesome. One doesn’t need to cancel the entire arisen experience and behaviour. That would be a form of overdoing it, and not using mindfulness as a criteria of discernment. “Is what I am about to do rooted in greed? Lust? How about ill-will and annoyance or anger?” Or “am I acting out of a desire for distraction and forgetfulness? Am I willingly giving in to acts and desires that would delude me further and mask the unskilful basis of those very actions?” Such questioning about the personal and inner dimension of one’s daily experiences and actions will have to result in being mindful. This is a definition of (proper) vipassana or investigation, since that’s exactly what’s being done. Self investigating the motivation behind any actions. And it is obvious to see how this kind of attitude and mindful practice would result in discerning “good as good, bad as bad”. How it would not be dependent on any external authority or belief. Instead be a direct, visible, universal criteria seen personally for oneself.

It’s important to note it is not necessary that one becomes neurotic or obsessed (though it might happen) about it. Always having to actually ask oneself “what am I doing?” before every action. What’s important is the attitude of such questioning. The “answer” is already implied within it. One already knows why one is acting. Whether one is aware of it or not, that’s a different matter. Of course, until that attitude is developed and refined, a person will have to endure possible loss of (superficial) confidence and choice paralysis. That’s because the implications of one’s smallest actions are becoming more revealed. A person starts to feel responsible even for things that are not in his control.

So through this kind of “revealing” of the roots of one’s actions, one is simultaneously becoming less and less able to ignore one’s true intentions. One will not be able to turn a blind eye towards acting good while the real motivation underneath it isn’t necessarily so. That’s why this attitude is “self-transparent”. Whatever is on the surface, one simultaneously sees beneath it as well.

Consequently, one will be able to also see if something is genuinely not rooted in greed, aversion or delusion. In such case even if the whole world comes to tell him that that’s still “bad”, his discernment would remain unshaken. As mentioned above, that’s because good and bad are defined by the intention behind them. Not by the common tradition, views and opinions, duty and culture, but by whether greed, aversion and delusion underlies them.

It should be clear by now that the self-honesty or transparency is not an optional thing (or just one of different ways leading to the same goal). It’s an absolute pre-requisite for any chance of getting the Right view and knowing how to practice the Dhamma. If a person still has difficulties in abandoning own dependence upon a particular “method” of practice, they can still take up this practice of self-questioning  all the time, as a “method”. Although not ideal, it will still result in seeing through the motivation and emotional need for any methods in the first place. (Needing “something to do”.) By seeing the subtle motivation under any action, one will automatically feel responsible for one’s choices. No matter how “justified” those might seem externally. The weight on it is always on oneself, and that’s something that one cannot ignore any further.

It is also then when the full weight of the Buddha’s “beings are owners of one’s actions” saying, is truly felt.


by Ajahn Nyanamoli Thero