Monks, wherever monks take to arguing and quarreling and fall into a dispute, stabbing each other with piercing words, I am uneasy even about directing my attention there, let alone about going there. I conclude about them: ‘Surely, those venerable ones have abandoned three things and cultivated three things.’
What are the three things they have abandoned? Thoughts of renunciation, thoughts of benevolence, and thoughts of non-harming: these are the three things they have abandoned. What are the three things they have cultivated? Sensual thoughts, thoughts of ill will, and thoughts of harming: these are the three things they have cultivated. …
Monks, wherever monks are dwelling in concord, harmoniously, without disputes, blending like milk and water, viewing each other with eyes of affection, I am at ease about going there, let alone about directing my attention there. I conclude: ‘Surely, those venerable ones have abandoned three things and cultivated three other things.’
What are the three things they have abandoned? Sensual thoughts, thoughts of ill will, and thoughts of harming; these are the three things they have abandoned. What are the three things they have cultivated? Thoughts of renunciation, thoughts of benevolence, and thoughts of non-harming. These are the three things they have cultivated. Wherever monks are dwelling in concord, I conclude: ‘Surely, those venerable ones have abandoned these three things and cultivated these three other things.’ (AN 3:124, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)
Thoughts of renunciation, benevolence, and non-harming — these three categories of thought make up the second component of the Buddha’s Eight-fold Path, called Right Intention or Right Resolve. This is the primary way that we can actively set ourselves in the direction of growing self-knowledge and compassion.
What do “thoughts of sensuality” mean to us today? The category is broad but would include indulging in pornography, obsessing over food, watching violent entertainments — anything that makes us want more of it without providing any satisfaction. Renunciation is simply turning away from these preoccupations. There is agitation in sensuality and there’s peace in renunciation. Through practice, we look inward for quieter satisfactions and walk away from the glitzy and enticing but ultimately disappointing temptations. We can understand this distinction better by considering how our heart feels after either indulging in external pleasures or turning inward.
Thoughts of ill-will are familiar to us. They include resentment, jealousy, anger, blaming, and all the related aggressive mental qualities. Our minds can boil over with these thoughts, and they don’t help us or anyone else. Some part of our ego enjoys them, but we end up feeling drained and unsatisfied, unless we act on these thoughts, in which case we’re probably going to feel even worse. The absence of thoughts of ill-will is a mental state we can call benevolence, an attitude of gentle kindness towards ourselves and other beings.
Lastly, thoughts of harming — ouch! This is an extension of thoughts of ill-will, where we want to punish or wreak vengeance on other beings. Non-harming is a quieter, almost neutral state in which we understand that all beings desire (and deserve) to be left alone or treated kindly.
All of these feelings, the positive and the negative, have their origin in our minds. The primary tool available to us to replace the unwholesome thoughts with their wholesome counterparts is to pay attention to, and take responsibility for, our thoughts. If our thoughts go to the unwholesome, we can find ways to turn them around, through either physically removing unhelpful stimuli or simply turning that great ball of energy, our minds, in a different direction.