The Insufficiency of Intention

“It’s the thought that counts.”

These words have a certain ring of truth to them, don’t they? On the other hand, a friend once related to me a story of how she put a lot of thought into choosing a gift for her daughter which, while perfect in every other way, happened also to be of a particular color that was rather abhorrent to the little girl. But it wasn’t just a dislike of a color. The real issue was that the little girl felt unheard.  She felt unknown – by her own mother nonetheless! Didn’t her mother know that she didn’t care for that color? I can relate, actually. As a young adult beginning to walk a path of vegetarianism, I was presented one Christmas with a beautiful leather jacket. It was quite expensive, too, which meant that accepting it with a smile and then never wearing it again seemed like a woefully inappropriate thing to do. And all the while we were having the discussion as to why I could not accept it, I just couldn’t help thinking of all the times meat had been foisted upon me at the family dinner table, or the times that I was argued with over the fact that the animal was already dead so why don’t I just eat it. Yes, it’s the thought that counts – until such time as thoughtlessness begins to outweigh the thought involved!

“Intention is all that matters.”

A few years ago, while helping to chaperone a group of high school juniors and seniors on a tour of historically black colleges and universities, I had the pleasure of having dinner with an African-American coworker in a nice little Cajun restaurant in New Orleans. It was just the two of us sharing a table apart from all the kids, and we were talking rather openly about family, culture, heritage, and so forth, when I asked her whether she knew what part of Africa her family might have come from. I know… Boom! At the time, though, I didn’t understand why the question gave her such pause. Of course, the term microagression is now well known to me. It didn’t matter that my question was a well-intended one related to her heritage. It didn’t matter that I was intending my question to reflect my interest in who she was as a person. My intention didn’t keep her from looking mortified. Anyway, my coworker responded very politely, but I will never forget the very practical lesson that I received that day that intention is definitely NOT all that matters.

Only Mahakasyapa understood the Buddha's wordless 'Flower Sermon'

Right intention (or aspiration or thought, depending upon the translation) is the second step on Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. So, yes, it really is a very big deal, at least for Buddhists. But it’s not the only deal. Before we can formulate appropriate intention, we must have right understanding (or view) – step one. From there follow right speech, action, and livelihood of the self that exists in relationship. And from there proceed the right effort, mindfulness, and concentration of the self sitting in meditation.

But what is this right understanding (or view) that starts us off on the right foot (pun intended)? In fact, it can be understood to encompass pretty much the entirety of the Buddha’s teachings. Says Bhikkhu Bodhi (1994) in his introduction to The Discourse on Right View which appears in the Majjhima Nikaya:
[R]ight view constitutes the correct understanding of the central teachings of the Buddha, the teachings which confer upon the Buddha's doctrine its own unique and distinctive stamp. Though the practice of right mindfulness has rightly been extolled as the crest jewel of the Buddha's teaching, it cannot be stressed strongly enough that the practice of mindfulness, or any other approach to meditation, only becomes an effective instrument of liberation to the extent that it is founded upon and guided by right view.

Practically speaking, however, we don’t set about perfecting right understanding before moving on to the other steps. In fact, we can’t. The teachings are two deep and too profound to grasp without the experience of meditation. Thus, we begin to understand a little bit, and perhaps we begin to meditate. We meditate, and then we bring our speech and action into greater accord with our understanding, however imperfect our speech and action may be, and however imperfect our understanding may be. Our understanding deepens, and perhaps we change our livelihood. We change our livelihood, and perhaps our meditation becomes deeper and more settled after we do. And then our understanding deepens as well. In other words, the sequence of steps in the path is more of a web, with each step impacting every other step as your "walk" along the path proceeds.

My home city of St. Louis is wrestling again with the karma of racial injustice. A white police officer has been acquitted of murdering a black suspect (again) under circumstances that are viewed by many as being rife with inequity, from the original alleged act of murder, to the acquittal, to the treatment of those who have protested the judgement out in the streets. And, yes, for the sake of the story that I’m telling here, I must also mention that there were some windows broken later in the evening after at least a couple of those protests.

It came to my attention this morning that a spiritual teacher who happens to be in town wants to hold a group meditation in the vicinity of where some of the vandalism occurred following those peaceful protests. The intention, of course, is to bring a peaceful practice to a place of unrest. Now do you see how all of this is coming together?

As a Buddhist who has for some years now stood with and marched with those demonstrating on behalf of racial justice in St. Louis, as someone who has learned a lot since committing that microaggression that I just told you about, as someone who has kept my eyes and ears open for news, history, opinion, video, commentary, etc. arising out of the Black experience of racial injustice in this city and in this country, I must say that some questions arose in my mind:

Is a public display of silent meditation held in a place where a public demonstration just took place making a statement of peace and solidarity with the oppressed, or does it instead merely advocate for quietude in the face of brutal injustice?

Is there a value judgement inherent in the choice to hold the meditation in the gentrified space where some window-breaking occurred as opposed to the place where the injustice actually occurred, whether that be at the courthouse from which the verdict was delivered, the police station(s) from which the squelching of the protest(s) flowed forth, or the site where the killing itself took place?

What does it say to African-Americans who are outraged at this verdict when a group of largely white, privileged individuals attempt (or appear to attempt) to “save” a community with their spiritual practice, swooping in and seemingly offering up a salve before first really understanding the nature of the wound?

Will it be perceived by African-Americans as just another group of white people shutting out the very real experiences of suffering all around them and communicating in a subtle or not so subtle way that those who respond to suffering as they have could perhaps use a little guidance or improvement, rather than the assistance that they request in dismantling the systems that oppress them?

Some will say that the answers to all of these questions are of no consequence at all as long as the intention behind the action is a pure one. Some will no doubt have such faith in the pure goodness of silent meditation and the all-encompassing nature of the Buddha’s teachings that they will conclude that knowing the nature of this particular suffering, knowing the experience of these particular people, and knowing the history of race relations in this particular city is of no consequence whatsoever. After all, doesn't meditation automatically equate with peace? Well, I think that would be a mistake to presume. For a public meditation is public speech and action, and it therefore requires that the audience for that speech and action be taken into consideration. The Buddha tailored his message in order to accommodate the experiences and understandings of different individuals at different times and under different circumstances. Occasionally noble silence was the result, but only occasionally.

I do hope that whatever meditation might take place is viewed by and experienced by all in the best possible light and with the most open of hearts. I hope that the purity of intention does shine through to all who may witness what transpires. Yes, I’m all too aware of the insufficiency of intention, but I hope that it proves unfailing in this case, even if it may not always be so.


Majjhima Nikaya. The Discourse on Right View: The Sammaditthi Sutta and its Commentary, translated from the Pali by Bhikkhu √Ďanamoli, edited and Revised by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013,


Copyright 2017 by Mark Robert Frank


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