Intending to Intend

I was listening to a talk by a Dhamma friend about intention this week, which opened up to me what a complex issue it could be. The road to hell is paved with good intentions as the saying goes, and as a child I was told that this saying pointed to our inability to understand the true motivation behind our intentions, and thus whether they really were good intentions or not or what the outcome of them would be. My post last week about how many of our actions are driven by trying to fill a fundamental feeling of insufficiency was on my mind, and it occurred to me that all of our intentions could, and perhaps mostly do, come a cropper because we don’t fully understand why we choose to do certain things and to avoid doing others.

But I could also see that there was something of a paradox within it because even though we largely make intentions blindly, we still have to try to make skilful intentions to develop in our practice- there is no way to reach enlightenment without making an intention towards it. Is there a way somehow to tame our out of control and unconscious intentions that allows them to finally bear some fruit I wondered? And if so, what was it?

Working with intention can on some level seem to be like a pretty straightforward thing to do but in practice it can be utterly frustrating. I’m sure most of us know the feeling of setting ourselves a really clear intention to do something in a particular way, or to pay more attention to this thing in meditation, or to be more mindful when we are doing something, only to find that we fall at the first hurdle. Every time we sit on the cushion we start with the intention of following the breath and to always come back to it when our attention drifts, but we often find ourselves hearing the bell at the end of meditation and suddenly realising ‘oh, I had intended to stay with the breath this time!’ We do of course learn something from these repeated failures, like patience for example, and resilience from having to keep dealing with our disappointments all the time, but this isn’t the ultimate aim of these kinds of meditation exercises, we are still ultimately not getting it quite right.

The word intention in English has connotations of predetermining and pre-planning about it, and we often ‘make an intention’ as a way to enhance the likelihood that things turn out the way that we wanted them to – in other words as we intended. But our experience of trying to set an intention can often be that when we get to the moment that we need it, it has somehow vanished. One thing that is useful to understand from the Buddhist model of intention is that while the effects of our previous intentions do certainly have an impact on that moment, the place where intention  is actually realised is squarely in the present moment [1]. We can plan to have an intention, but when the moment comes if the intention isn’t there then the action that goes with it isn’t there either.

We often take this kind of present moment intention to mean making skilful choices as a situation is unfolding in front of us, such as not reacting to something that makes us angry or letting go of a train of thought in meditation; and to some extent these are the kind of fundamental intentional actions that any kind of practice relies on us taking.

But in the early Buddhist texts the meaning of the word intention has a lot more layers  than this ordinary understanding of it.

Intention is commonly stated to be equivalent to kamma ( karma in Sanskrit) which is defined both as intentional action, and the results of intentional action. So the results of our kamma are the results of our intentions, which isn’t difficult to see the connections between.

A bit more tricky to understand is the place of intention in the five khandhas, where it is sometimes used as a translation of the term sankhara. Both the word and concept of sankharas is pretty hard to unpack, but within the many ways of translating it there is a recurrent theme of fabrications (as in created things) and of intention, so we can put this together to understand that our fabrications are in fact intentional and that is conveyed by the translation that Bhikkhu Bodhi uses for sankharas – volitional formations.

What is it that we are fabricating though? According to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, everything:

“The Buddha’s teachings on sankhara, fabrication, point to this fact. He defines fabrication as intentional acts. There is an element of intention in all your experience. Everything you sense, whether in the physical world or the mental world, has an element of intention. That’s what makes it an experience. Without that intention you wouldn’t experience anything.” [2]

Now this can be a pretty difficult statement to get your head round, that everything we experience is in essence an act of intention. It is certainly a distressing idea to contemplate when we are in pain or suffering that we have somehow intended for this to happen, and it can be a misuse of the theory of karma that in some cultures supports cold-heartedness and indifference to other people’s misfortune and suffering. This is the result of their actions, they say, that’s not our fault, why should we help them when they did this to themselves? This wasn’t an attitude supported by the Buddha, yes what we experience is down to our own actions, but he advocated compassion to others by recognising that we too make the same mistakes and suffer the same pains and hardships.

Why we wouldn’t experience anything if we could stop our intentions is particularly hard to fathom, so let’s pop it to the side for now. The question of intention here is the key thing, how are we to understand that we ‘intend’ to fabricate our experience when it never feels like that? Doesn’t experience just seem to happen to us?

Within the suttas we find that the Buddha attributes intention to all of the six sense media – sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, and thoughts – indicating again that our experience of them is in some way fabricated. [3] This isn’t too outlandish an idea to comprehend though, most Buddhist practitioners have some understanding that the way we experience the world is not as it really is, and that the aim of practice is to uncover the deceptions we have perpetrated on ourselves. Yet Thanissaro Bhikkhu says that this idea that there is a reality that we will find once we get rid of the pesky fabrications, concepts and preconceived notions we have overlaid on top of it isn’t the case. He says that the Buddha never talked about a reality of  ‘things as they are’:

“He said, “things as they’ve come to be”: how they’ve come into being. That’s a process of fabrication. It’s not the case that fabrications lie on top of pristine things as they are. Fabrication is how those things have come into being in the first place.” [4]

But naturally we might then ask what exactly happens if we stop fabricating if there is no ‘reality’ underneath it? This is the kind of question that the Buddha encouraged us to not expend too many brain cells over because it cannot be answered by thinking about it. So again that leads us back to the question of what is it that we are fabricating though? The main answer seems to be the  information that is coming to us through our senses. This makes sense within our modern understanding of perception; we never really see the world as it is but merely receive a composite picture that our mind has created from the raw sensory data, but that model of perception doesn’t include intentionality whereas the Buddha’s model does. He doesn’t seem to be concerned with the nuts and bolts of how a visual image, or any other sensory experience, is created by our mind; he is more focussed on how we label what we see in that picture and the stories that we create about what we can see, and the same applies for the other sense media. This is the part that he deems to be intentional, and this is the crux of the delusion that we are working so hard to overcome in our practices.

Why are we intentionally fabricating our experiences though? Well, one reason is out of habit, and if you are open to the idea of previous lives then this becomes a habit of many aeons of existences – which is clearly a hard nut to crack, hence why practice takes such a long time to bear fruit. The reason we may have developed this habit though is because, as the Buddha said, every intention we have aims at happiness. [2] At the heart of our all of our actions are attempts at happiness, pleasure, or wellbeing in some shape or form.

This was a statement of the Buddha’s that I was unfamiliar with, but when I considered the role of the feeling of insufficiency I wrote about last week, I could understand that the attempt to find something to take away that feeling of lack could be understood as trying to find some kind of happiness by taking away the discomfort of feeling incomplete

When we think about it in this way it gives a really stark indication of how far from the mark most of our intentions are of getting us the happiness that we want. When we look at the trouble in the world, it is clear that we have been getting this very wrong.

And I think this is a way that we can understand why our apparently intentional actions have brought us so many things that not only do we not want but we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemies either. It is a bit like the old Disney cartoon Fantasia, where Mickey Mouse is a wizard’s apprentice and he uses a spell from his master’s spell book to bring a broom to life that sets about doing the cleaning chores that he didn’t want to do. Initially Mickey is delighted as the bewitched broom does all the hard work for him, but soon things go off plan as for some reason that Mickey doesn’t understand the broom spontaneously duplicates, then it duplicates again, and again, until he has hundreds of brooms charging about and no way to stop them. Like Mickey, we can often get initially good results from our actions but without knowing either how we got those results or what the consequences of them are going to be.

You may be familiar with the idea in Buddhism that the aim of practice is to end karma, because it is karma that perpetuates continued births in the Samsaric realm. But if karma is intention then that means another way to understand this is that the aim of practice is to end intention, another confusing idea. [5] I don’t think the end of intention means that we are to become like beach bound jelly fish, just lying comatose like amorphous blobs as the world happens around us, it isn’t that kind of ordinary worldly intention that is being referred to here. The intention that I think is being referred to here that we are to end is the one that fabricates the khandhas with the aim of bringing us some kind of perceived happiness.

If the aim of our fabrications is ultimately happiness though, then why are we to end them? Isn’t the aim of the Buddhist path the ending of suffering after all? This comes back to that fundamental delusion we have, we endlessly put our money on the wrong horse when it comes to achieving real lasting happiness and always end up suffering. We go  looking for happiness in things that can only disappoint us in the end because they change and we cannot keep them.

Our weak, wispy egos, which too are subject to the same endless change, infiltrate the workings of our minds and so we intentionally fabricate a world view where it is possible for things to always turn out the way we want them to and for as long as we want them to last – and it would all go to plan if it wasn’t for all these other people who come along and spoil things, if only we could just get them to go away then everything would be perfect. But they can’t go away, they’re part of the furniture, and we can’t have things the way we want them because the world simply doesn’t work that way – those are not the rules of this universe. The reason the ego is the cause of this is because the only way that it can maintain its deceptive veneer of solidity is to fasten itself onto something outside of itself, so it needs the rest of the world to appear to be solid too.

In some ways perhaps we can understand the intentional fabrication that we insert into every moment as the creation of a self or a ‘person’ to whom everything is happening. When thought about in this way then it does make sense that we can stop having intentions but still continue to live and function in the world, because all we’ve stopped doing is making everything about a sense of self that isn’t really there anyway. We stop having experiences not because we have lost all sensory perception and consciousness, but simply because experiences happen to a ‘person’, if there is no person then there is no-one to have an experience.

There is an irony within all of this because the means to end intention is to set an intention to end intention, but just because the problem is also the solution it doesn’t mean that this is unsurmountable. Thanissaro Bhikkhu feels that we just need to develop a very particular intention that can create the conditions that will allow the rest of the intentions to eventually come to a stop. He sees the role of developing concentration as being the crucial intention that we have to take, because he considers the definition of concentration as the ability to stay with one intention and not be distracted. [5] While this ability works on the level of  allowing us to investigate  our intentions,  he feels it will also allow us to develop the jhana meditation states which are key to us seeing through the whole system of fabrications. He explains it like this:

“Exactly what non-fashioning involves is… one perceives the fabricated and willed nature of even one’s refined state of jhāna, and becomes so dispassionate toward the whole process that one “neither fabricates nor wills for the sake of becoming or un-becoming.”” [6]

So by achieving the jhana states and then realising that they are mere intentional fabrications we start to understand the full extent to which our intentional fabrications create our physical and mental experiences, so the allure of our fabricated ‘reality’ starts to wane because we find more and more instances of where ‘reality’ is just another creation of our intentional fabrications.

Jhana practice isn’t a sure thing by any means so don’t be too upset if it isn’t something you have much experience in.  Many jhana practitioners unfortunately fail to get the full benefit from it simply because they fail to see that their experiences are fabricated. They get so taken in by the physical bliss of the early jhanas, the coolness of fourth jhana, or the otherworldliness of the immaterial jhanas that they treat them as reality and won’t let them go, instead of treating them as manufactured states of mind. I see it in some ways as being like running 26 miles of a marathon but then not bothering with the final 385 yards that would take you to the finish line, you do all that work and then get nothing to show for it.

Understanding the mazy twists and turns of our true intentions are hard enough at the best of times, such as was I nice to that person because it is the right thing to do or was I just avoiding a confrontation? Adding intentional fabrication on top of it has the potential to become utterly bewildering, which runs the risk of becoming unworkable. Is there a simple way through it? Thanissaro Bhikkhu, fortunately, feels that there is. Going back to what he says about developing concentration, he recommends that all we need to do is to pick one good intention and learn how to not be distracted from it, such as watching the breath.

This isn’t the kind of ego driven and ego making intention that we are used to working with, in fact it seems quite an indirect,   if not thoroughly obtuse, approach to take, but perhaps that is how some of the magic happens – our minds can’t interfere too much in the process because the end seems so very distant to the means.

By setting our mind onto one, harmless intention like watching the breath, we get to train our ability to stay with that intention, but we also get to observe the distractions that come up and we start to understand that they are also intentions. [7] This gives us a very direct experience of just what it is that our mind is fabricating, because we see the thoughts, ideas, and feelings that come up in the context of them being fabrications, and intentional ones at that. Little by little we then start to deduce the what and the why of these intentions, and once we understand them, we can start to let them go.

It might seem like a bit of an abstraction to go from ‘all of our experience is intentionally fabricated’ to ‘the solution is just to watch the breath’, but even the Buddha said that he used this practice to reach enlightenment so we have to assume that there is something in it when not only he, but many others achieved the same outcome from using it. Most practitioners are doing it anyway, so what could be a simpler solution than to just carry on doing what we already do, but perhaps with an extra bit of resolve to stay with that just one intention of watching the breath?

Image by truthseeker08 from Pixabay


1.       Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2006) Meditations 3: Dhamma Talks. Sticking With an Intention. Accessed 14 May 2021

2.      Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2006) Meditations 3: Dhamma Talks. Investing in Your Happiness. Accessed 14 May 2021

3.      Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2010) The Five Aggregates: A Study Guide. Accessed 14 May 2021

4.      Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2021) Meditations 3: Dhamma Talks. Things As They’ve Come to Be. Accessed 14 May 2021

5.      Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2006) Meditations 3: Dhamma Talks. The Karma That Ends Karma. Accessed 14 May 2021

6.      Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2011) Wings to Awakening: Part III. Accessed 14 May 2021

7.      Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2006) Meditations 3: Dhamma Talks. The Story Behind Impatience. Accessed 14 May 2021

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