The three “sub-divisions” of Right Intention (the second step in the Buddha’s 8-fold path) are:
– Intention of renunciation
– Intention of good will
– Intention of harmlessness
The second and third seem closely related and fairly obvious. But what about renunciation? What does that mean in the context of modern lay life? Why is it important?
This is part of the path that goes against the tide of normal human response. We want what we want when we want it. Why would we not try to get what we want? There is a lovely and relevant story from the Pali canon. It can be found in the “Shorter Discourse in Gosinga”, MN31 (this translation by Ven. Nanamoli and Ven. Bodhi):
[The Buddha says] “I hope, Anuruddha, that you are all living in concord, with mutual appreciation, without disputing, blending like milk and water, viewing each other with kindly eyes.”
[Annuruddha replies] “Surely, venerable sir, we are living in concord, with mutual appreciation, without disputing, blending like milk and water, viewing each other with kindly eyes.”
“But, Annuruddha, how do you live thus?”
“Venerable sir, as to that I think thus: ‘It is a gain for me, it is a great gain for me, that I am living with such companions in the holy life.’ I maintain bodily acts of loving-kindness towards those venerable ones both openly and privately; I maintain verbal acts of loving-kindness towards them both openly and privately. I consider: ‘Why should I not set aside what I wish to do and do what these venerable ones wish to do?’ Then I set aside what I wish to do and do what these venerable ones wish to do. We are different in body, venerable sir, but one in mind.”
The sutta goes on to describe in detail how the monks defer to each other, how they divide duties among themselves and gently help each other do whatever is needed. The phrase “Why should I not set aside what I wish to do and do what these venerable ones wish to do?” has stuck in my mind for a long time as a useful question to ask myself. It has resonance (for me) with some words from a Quaker friend: “We do what love requires.”
The intention of renunciation starts with setting aside our own desires as the sole or main imperative for action. When we open the focus of our caring to include those around us, often we can see that there are other needs that we could fulfil, and some of those needs are more pressing than our own plans.
It does help if we feel that we have a lot in common with our companions, that we share a goal in life. In that context, we may be willing to set aside many of our own passing desires. This is one advantage of choosing companions that bring out the best in us, people who have an attitude of caring for others. We do know people like this. Do we respect them? Do we seek them out? Do we follow their example?