Intentions

Lately, as I wander round the birthplace of our nation, and look at the sites once inhabited by those who first bought the Christian Gospel to these shores I have been reading a book by a Buddhist nun. Tenzin Palmo is an Englishwoman, one of the first Western women to be ordained as a Buddhist nun, who spent 12 years in seclusion, living in a cave in the Himalayas. She has authored many books, and Reflections on a Mountain Lake is a collection of her retreat addresses. It is a wise and profound book aimed at giving practical advice on living a Buddhist life in the circumstances in which one might find oneself. As long term readers of this blog know, I have a longstanding interest in Buddhism, fostered by the various members of my family who have chosen that particular spiritual path; but the value of Reflections on a Mountain Lake has been the light it casts on my own Christian walk.

I was greatly helped by Tenzin Palmo's explanation of the doctrine of karma. I hope I'm not putting words in her mouth, but how I now understand it is this:

Every action we take has consequences for our life which extend for years, even decades into the future. So I sit in the library of the University of Canterbury in October 1972. I am meant to be studying but I am distracted by the very beautiful girl from my English class who keeps looking my way and then glancing quickly away when I catch her eye. There is growing between us that sort of tentative, hesitant, exciting knowing which signals that if I was to approach her she might not necessarily reject me. So, late one afternoon while she was away at dinner, and before I left for home, I placed a note on her desk. As a direct consequence of that small action she is seated, 42 years later, eight feet away from me in the caravan in which I am writing this, and one of our three children is seated even closer. Or years after this, I am offered a job by the bishop of another diocese. Neither I nor Clemency want the role. But it is an important position in the church, and I am told that only I (Me! Wow!) can do it. Then, just before Christmas, without properly consulting Clemency I ring the bishop and accept it. The next few years turn out to be a time of difficulty for several members of our little family, with painful consequences which have continued, even to the present day. So these small choices made have led to pathways which we are still following, decades later.

Our whole life, the situation we are living right now, is a direct result of the myriad actions we have taken in our past. Our future as it develops will be a factor of the actions we are taking now. This is karma. There is no way of knowing the effect our actions are going to have on us down the line. Some of our actions will do us good; that is they will move us closer to that great goal which is the intended end of our presence here on this planet. Some of our actions will do us harm; that is they will hinder our growth into the being we are intended to be. At first glance, it might seem that whether our actions will harm or help is all rather arbitrary and just comes down to the luck of the draw. But actually this is not so. What will ultimately decide how our actions play out in our lives is the intentions with which we make the choice to do them.

We can have wholesome or unwholesome intentions. The difference between these can be discerned according to three broad parameters:
1. Is our intention loving or hateful? That is, do we intend benefit or harm to ourselves or others?
2. Is our intention generous or greedy? That is, are we wishing to give to others and enrich them or are we adding to the stockpile of things (pleasures, experiences, objects, power, security, relationships) which we imagine (almost certainly erroneously) will lead to our happiness?
3. Are we acting in wisdom or delusion? Do we really understand ourselves, the world, and our relationship to both these things?

I know I have greatly simplified this, but when our intentions are wholesome - that is, loving, generous and/or wise - they will tend to enhance us and move us further towards our destiny. When our actions are unwholesome -that is, hateful, greedy and/or deluded - they will restrict and damage us and hinder our deep progress. The wages of sin is death, says St. Paul. Yes, precisely. Of course our intentions can be largely unconscious to us, which is why wisdom is perhaps the most important parameter of these three. And of course our lives will be shaped by the intentions of others and by many other factors outside of our own control; but whether the various catastrophes, inevitable as a consequence of having sentience, build us up or destroy us will depend on our attitude to them. And our attitude will be defined, by and large, by our intentions. In the Eastern paradigm the playing out of our intentions extends far beyond our present life, having an influence on the way we will live our next life and the many lives which will follow it. In the Judaeo Christian paradigm, while we might not necessarily subscribe to the idea that we will live more than one life, we agree that our choices and the actions which flow from them will have eternal consequences.

I have found the idea of wholesome and unwholesome intention a useful tool for thinking about my own actions down over the years and about the consequences of those actions. I have also been thinking about tomorrow, Christmas day. I think of the intentions of Mary saying "yes" to the angel Gabriel. I think about the intentions of Jesus to resolutely and fearlessly proclaim the good news of the Kingdom. I think about the intentions of those he faced, and how, despite the great evil inflicted by the powers that be, Jesus' wholesome intentions, and Mary's, prevailed and forwarded the purposes of God.

And as I go back to Oihi tomorrow morning, I will reflect on Marsden's intentions. And Ruatara's. And those of Kendal and Hall and King. And of how mixed they all were, but of how the presence of a thousand diverse people on the beach tomorrow is a sign, to me at least, that they were predominantly wholesome. Good karma. Good news.

Comments

Alden Smith said…
A profound posting Kelvin. I enjoyed reading this. The Dalai Lama said, "My religion is loving kindness". The world needs more of these Christ like intentions.

I like your reference to Wisdom. We have a bottomless pit of knowledge and technology such that can land a rover on Mars, but what we sorely lack is Wisdom. We need to seek Wisdom with the best of intentions.