Good intentions

The Four Great Bodhisattva Vows, Rinzai Zen version

If you are a connoisseur of proverbial wisdom, you know which road is paved with good intentions. And if you’ve ever bestowed a well-intentioned gift, only to find it unwanted and unappreciated, you may be forgiven for suspecting that good intentions, especially those that ignore actual conditions and circumstances, may be as unavailing as last year’s New Year’s resolutions.

In the popular imagination, Zen is sometimes viewed as a philosophy of “going with the flow.” Rather than impose our narrow intentions on things as they are, we should relax and let events unfold of their own accord. Such a view is not without a basis in Zen teachings. No less an authority than Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, in his classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, asserts that “the true purpose” of Zen is “to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes.” But in the foundational teachings of the Buddhist tradition, of which Zen is a late flowering, the issue of intentionality plays a pivotal role. “The thought becomes an intention,” the Buddha is reported to have said, “the intention manifests as an action, the action develops into habit, and habit hardens into character. Therefore watch closely the thought and let it spring from concern for all beings.” Far from being extraneous or antithetical, intentions and their manifestation in action, habit, and character lie close to the heart of Zen practice.

As the foregoing statement suggests, awareness of intentions can begin with awareness of our thoughts, even as they are arising. In the language of Zen, this practice is known as “mindfulness of the mind in the mind.” With practice, we can learn to monitor our thoughts and patterns of thought, and we can watch how readily our thoughts turn into conscious intentions. In similar fashion, when we are engaged in such routine activities as taking a shower or getting dressed in the morning, we can note how even our most habitual action is preceded by an intention, conscious or otherwise. By becoming aware of such subtle intentions, we develop the capability to recognize our more consequential intentions and their impact on our lives.

Beyond awareness training of this kind, we can also explore traditional practices designed to support good intentions and foster wholesome qualities of heart and mind. Prominent among those qualities are what is known as the Four Immeasurable Minds (brahminviharas): loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Typically, the traditional practices begin with the intention to cultivate a particular quality in oneself. In metta, or loving-kindness meditation, for example, we initiate the exercise with such sentences as “May I be filled with loving-kindness. / May I be well.” As the meditation proceeds, we widen the circle to include a loved one, an acquaintance, a stranger, an enemy, and all living beings. Like similar exercises for cultivating compassion, equanimity, and gratitude, the objectives are, first, to articulate our intention and, second, to cultivate the desired quality itself. These active, daily practices can also serve as a form of mindfulness training, insofar as they reveal how remote our mental state might be, at any given moment, from the one desired. We may wish to be filled with loving-kindness, but in our present state, we may feel anything but loving.

In concert with these practical measures, there is the deeper practice of taking vows. The Zen tradition embraces a wide variety of vows, which may be taken both by monastics and lay practitioners. Some are limited in scope and pertain specifically to the conduct of everyday life: “Waking up, I know I have twenty-four new hours. / I vow to live mindfully, and to view all things with the eyes of compassion.” But at their most profound, Zen vows are both open-ended and life-altering. They chart a challenging course for serious practitioners. Best-known among such formulations are the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows, two of which read: Shu jo mu hen sei gan do (“Sentient beings are numberless; we vow to save them all”) and Bo non mu jin sei gan dan (“Delusions are inexhaustible; we vow to extinguish them all”). To those grand—and self-contradictory–assertions, the cynical observer might retort, “Good luck with that.” But it is in the nature of such vows to formulate not concrete, finite goals but unattainable objectives, acknowledging at once the nobility of those objectives and the impossibility of fulfilling them in one lifetime. A declaration of our best intentions, the Great Vows are a confession of our highest values and an affirmation of our shared humanity. And, in the words of Zen teacher Shohaku Okumura Roshi, they are also “a manifestation of the foundation of our being.” To return to the “reality of life in the midst of this reality,” writes Okumura in his book Living by Vow, “is our practice. This practice is based on vow.”


The true purpose: Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Weatherhill, 1970), 33.

The thought becomes an intention . . . : Guy Armstrong quotes this passage, which has been attributed to the Buddha, in his book Emptiness (Wisdom, 2017), Kindle edition, 122.  “I doubt it was he who said it,” Armstrong notes, “but I think he would agree.”

A manifestation : Shohaku Okumura Roshi, Living by Vow (Wisdom, 2012), 51.





Shortly after her fifth birthday, my granddaughter and I had one of our quiet conversations. We talked about her preschool activities, her best friends, her latest drawings. When we had exhausted those subjects, she paused for a bit, sat back regally in my leather chair, and made a request:

“Grandpa, tell me about the Buddha.”

Her request took me by surprise. During my tenure at Alfred University, I often taught an Honors course entitled The Art of Meditation, in which I introduced undergraduates to the basics of Buddhist meditation. Since retiring, I have given informal talks on the Four Noble Truths, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, and other aspects of the Buddhist tradition to classes and audiences large and small. But until then, I had not attempted to expound Buddhist teachings to a very young child, let alone my granddaughter. What should I tell her? What should I not tell her? What did I wish for her to remember? Continue Reading »

203. The absolute moment

One Sunday morning, a lifetime ago, I sat with my family in the First Methodist Church in Clinton, Iowa. The pew was hard, as if designed to punish us for our sins. Our black-frocked minister was well into his latest long-winded sermon, but I wasn’t listening. My attention was riveted on the elderly man in the pew ahead of me.

On the nape of his leathery neck, deep creases had etched an elongated “X.” Whenever he bowed his head, the creases would recede. When he looked up again, they would re-emerge. As the service continued, these marks of age and experience exhibited various degrees of depth and prominence. During the responsive readings, they nearly vanished. During the singing of the Doxology, which he probably knew by heart, they stood out boldly, like furrows in a freshly plowed field. Continue Reading »

Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi

In his e-book Suffering and Possibility, the Zen teacher Norman Fischer discloses what he calls “the great and beautiful secret” of meditative practice. Elementary in nature but far-reaching in significance, the realization to which he refers has the capacity to transform both our outlook and our experience of everyday life.

Fischer’s general subject is the human condition, of which human suffering, broadly defined, is an inescapable part. Like other teachers in the Zen tradition, Fischer distinguishes between necessary and unnecessary suffering. The former arises from external conditions over which we have little or no control: war, famine, disease, aging, natural disasters, and the like. The latter is created by our own minds, specifically by our conditioned and often unskillful responses to the troubles we incur. Yet, whether human suffering, known as dukkha in Buddhist teachings, be deemed necessary or self-inflicted, it is an integral and unavoidable aspect of human experience.

Continue Reading »

Matthew Arnold

In his sonnet “To a Friend” (1849), the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold offers “special thanks” to the tragic dramatist Sophocles, whose “even-balanced soul . . . / Business could not make dull, nor Passion wild.” The “mellow glory of the Attic stage,” the author of Antigone and Oedipus Rex “saw life steadily, and saw it whole.”

To see life steadily, which is to say, to remain continuously present for the present moment, is a fundamental aim of Zen practice. Toward that end, a  variety of means are available to the serious practitioner, most prominently sitting meditation, conscious breathing, and mindful attention to everyday life. With proper instruction and sufficient diligence, all of these methods can eventually be mastered. Being fully present can become a dominant mental habit, replacing older habits of inattention and distraction.

Seeing life whole is another matter. What, exactly, Arnold meant by that phrase is open to question, but whatever else his words might imply, they suggest a balanced and comprehensive vision of the human condition. Such a vision would, as Zen teachers put it, “include everything”: illness as well as health, sorrow as well as joy, death as well as life. To attain to so equable and inclusive a view is a noble objective, but many practical obstacles stand in the way. Three in particular come to mind. Continue Reading »

Roshi Joan Halifax

Altruism. Empathy. Integrity. Respect. Those abstract words enjoy an exalted status in contemporary discourse, perhaps because the qualities they designate often seem in short supply.  Those who embody them earn our admiration, both for their courage and their moral example. In many spiritual traditions, Zen included, the manifestation of such qualities is both an aim and a fruit of dedicated practice.

Yet even the noblest human qualities have their shadow sides. Practiced unskillfully, they can harm both the practitioner and those whom he or she purports to serve. In her new book Standing at the Edge (Flatiron Books, 2018), Roshi Joan Halifax, founder and Abbot of the Upaya Zen Center, takes a hard look at five such qualities, examining their nature, their agency in the world, and their capacity to relieve human suffering. At the same time, she acknowledges the emotional damage that even such commendable qualities as empathy and compassion, practiced without sufficient knowledge or wisdom, can inflict on oneself or others. As a longtime caregiver for the dying, a volunteer in maximum-security prisons, and the director of clinics and service projects in Tibet and elsewhere, Halifax knows whereof she speaks. Grounded in her practical experience and her scholarly training in the social sciences, her book is at once a manual for caregivers and an illuminating collection of cautionary tales, detailing the hazards and the fulfillments attendant to a life of selfless service. Continue Reading »

Jane Hirshfield 2009

Shizen ichimi, an old Zen saying asserts: “Poetry and Zen are one.” And in the poems of Jane Hirshfield (b. 1953), a leading American poet and longtime Zen practitioner, that adage is borne out in concrete images and recurrent themes. Such is the case in this elegant poem, which hangs on a wall in our home:

                        A CEDARY FRAGRANCE

                       Even now,

                       decades after,

                       I wash my face with cold water –


                       Not for discipline,

                       nor memory,

                       nor the icy, awakening slap,


                       but to practice


                        to make the unwanted wanted.

 In these lines Hirshfield examines a daily ritual: splashing cold water on her face in the early-morning hours. In so doing, she also articulates several core principles of Zen practice. Continue Reading »