Intention is vital, but on its own, it’s also rather worthless.

From July 24th to the 26th, I attended a virtual workshop held by the San Francisco Zen Center called “Radical Dharma: Embodying Race, Love, and Liberation” with angel Kyodo williams and Fu Schroeder. During the final session on the 26th, a black participant expressed, in rather explicit and direct terms, frustration with the way many attendees placed emphasis on their intention rather than impact or results.

Intention matters, but not as an intellectual exercise. In the week after the workshop, I found clarification in Realizing Genjokoan by Zen priest Shohaku Okumura, where Okumura highlights a few stories about Zen Master Magu. He notes that in these stories we see that Magu emphasized practice and function (as in work or actions functioning as expressions of Dharma) rather than intellectual understanding.1

In Western culture, or the vast swaths of the world where Europeans gained dominance, there is a heavy emphasis on intellectual understanding. In 1637, French philosopher René Descartes expressed the words “Cogito, ergo sum,” often translated into English as “I think, therefore I am.” Long before that, Orthodox Judaism and Christianity prioritized adherence to creed over practice. Modern electoral politics involves ceaseless arguments over what we think, prefer, and believe.

To be clear, this way of thinking, so to speak, is not exclusive to people considered white. By the end of the 20th century, most of us have grown up somewhere where Europeans have gained dominance in some way. Okumura grew up in a post-War Japan whose education system had become heavily influenced by the West. As a teenager, he was disillusioned with the cultural obsession with money and became fixated on finding the meaning of life. He felt, in order to live, he needed to know why life was worth living. Zen practice freed him from this paralysis of thinking. He related to this passage from “Genjokoan” by Eihei Dogen, the 13th-century priest who brought Soto Zen to Japan:

“Therefore, if there are fish that would swim or birds that would fly only after investigating the entire ocean or sky, they would find neither path nor place.”

He found that rather than there being an objective meaning of life, meaning is created in our lives as we find our own place and path and begin to do something. 2

Okumura offers us several great examples of how little thinking actually matters. Consider when Galileo realized the sun, moon, and stars do not revolve around the earth:

“From a certain perspective, Galileo’s discoveries were indeed a great accomplishment, yet in reality, the earth has been orbiting the sun since its birth forty-six billion years ago, regardless of what Galileo or anyone else has ever said or thought; human thought has existed only a fraction as long as the earth and sun. Although we usually place great importance on what we think, our thinking cannot change the vast reality of all beings.” 3

We may place great importance on our intention, but our intention alone has little impact on the vast reality of all beings.

That said, taking action without positive intentions can easily result in harmful actions. Positive intentions may not inherently lead to positive actions, but we do great harm when we act carelessly or maliciously.

Those of us who take up the Bodhisattva Vows clearly can’t set our intentions aside. We live by vow. So it’s vital for us to remember that intention and action are not-two. We live out our intentions in our actions, moment by moment. So when we ask ourselves what do we actually intend, we must also ask ourselves what are we actually doing?

Since it’s impossible for us to see our lives from an outside vantage point, we cannot know the impact our actions have. Fortunately, as Bodhisattvas, we do not carry a distinction between subject and object. The people we are witnessing are not outside us. The injustice we are witnessing is not impacting others, it’s impacting us.

That means other people serve as our own eyes and ears. When others cry out for justice, they’re not telling us what to do, we’re telling ourselves. Someone else doesn’t need help, we need help. And when we need help, we don’t want someone standing around thinking nice thoughts with a positive intention. We want their help.

This is why we make the effort to listen deeply, to see clearly, and to keep our hearts open. As Dogen says in the “Maka Hannya Haramitsu,” clear seeing is itself wisdom. We stay receptive so that life can tell us what needs doing, and we act accordingly. As for how or what we think about what life has to tell us? Well, we can let those thoughts go.

  1. Shohaku Okumura, Realizing Genjokoan, p. 188 ↩︎

  2. ibid, p. 172 - 174 ↩︎

  3. ibid, p. 163 ↩︎

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