I’d like to dive into the idea of living an intentional life. First, what exactly is the difference between an intentional life and an unintentional one? In Buddhist lingo, an unintentional existence can be considered living karmically. This means that we are subject to our habits, our past conditioning, and the circumstances in which we exist. There may be a vague sense of seeking happiness or pleasure, but we have not deeply examined this “sense.”
Intentional living can take on various meanings, too. There can be an intention to become as rich and powerful as possible, or there can be an intention to free all beings from suffering. Each direction can add clarity to our lives, yet I’ll argue that deeply questioning or witnessing our experience in this world makes it very difficult to pursue the former.
The Framework for Living an Intentional Life
Buddhism has taken many forms throughout history—today it is often considered a philosophy, a religion, a soteriological method, or even a trendy fashion. Some consider it all or none of these. The Bodhisattva Precepts, a set of moral codes used in Mahayana Buddhism to advance a practitioner along the path to attaining Buddhahood for the benefit of all beings, stem from a long tradition of providing a framework of living intentionally.
The Path of the Precepts of the Three Treasures
- I take refuge in the Buddha
- I take refuge in the Dharma
- I take refuge in the Sangha
The Three Purifying Precepts
- I vow to avoid all harmful actions
- I vow to act beneficially in all things
- I vow to live for the benefit of all sentient beings
The Ten Prohibitory Precepts
- A Disciple of the Buddha does not kill: I am aware of the preciousness of each existence
- A Disciple of the Buddha does not take what is not given: I am aware of the independence of each thing
- A Disciple of the Buddha is not involved in sexual misconduct: I am aware of my actions
- A Disciple of the Buddha does not lie: I am aware of the effect of my speech
- A Disciple of the Buddha does not delude others: I am aware of the effect of my conduct
- A Disciple of the Buddha does not slander others: I am aware that each person is seed of Buddhahood
- A Disciple of the Buddha does not praise self: I am aware of the interdependence of all things
- A Disciple of the Buddha is not possessive of others, of wealth, or of the Teaching: I am aware of the truth of the Dharma
- A Disciple of the Buddha does not harbor ill-will: I am aware of the consequences of anger and hatred
- A Disciple of the Buddha does not abuse the Three Treasures: I am aware that Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha include all things
Shedding Light on Our Actions
For those of us brought up with the Ten Commandments, the Buddhist precepts can feel like a list of do’s and don’ts. However, that is not really their intention. Instead, they are supposed to shed light on our actions. What is the state of mind that exists when a precept is broken?
According to my teacher, the precepts are about our relationship with ourselves and the world:
“When we maintain the precepts and the spirit of the precepts in how we walk, how we sit, how we eat, how we talk, and how we relate to one another and to our environment, their constant presence brings light to our lives. The precepts transform us and bring us real freedom. Therefore, far from being a list of rules that restrict or deaden our lives, the true precepts are life-giving, each one expressing our true nature—and that’s their real meaning.”
Living an Intentional Life Means Living in the Present Moment
A Buddhist does not ask what is right or wrong, but “What am I to do in this moment?” Therefore, even killing cannot be considered right or wrong—it must be seen in the context of what is asked for in a given moment. There is a legend that says in a previous lifetime Buddha killed someone who was about to commit a mass murder. If he had been stuck in the idea of “Thou shalt not kill,” or any other limiting belief, he would not have been free to act appropriately in the situation. The precepts, therefore, are more a guideline for figuring out how to live than a set of rules that tell us exactly how to live.
The Dynamic Process of Living Intentionally
I decided that before I would ask to formally receive the precepts from my teacher—which formally marks an entrance into the Buddhist community—I would hold them in my daily life to see how they resonated with and for me. Over time, while I found the vows and framework helpful, I found that they felt rather removed from me and seemed abstract. After several conversations with my teachers, and continued examination of my own practice, what I found most effective in living an intentional life was developing my own vows in the context of the greater Bodhisattva vows. These vows, which I recite daily, are constantly evolving. Sometimes, I add one or remove one. Sometimes, I change the wording to evoke a stronger resonance within my day. While I was living in a Buddhist monastery, I would silently recite these vows during our morning prostrations. This seemed to have the effect of shifting the vows from abstract ideas to an embodiment that I could carry with me throughout the day. This will continue to be a dynamic process as my life evolves and my practice deepens.
Intentional Living versus Controlled Living
I’d like to take a step back. I went down the Buddhist path, yet I really want to focus more generally on intentional living, regardless of faith or background. There is a thin line between intentional living and controlled living. I feel that a controlled life falls more in line with the example I previously gave, that of seeking power and money. Any idea of control is always perceived control, because the world is wholly unpredictable and constantly changing. We know this, yet we continue to seek control—over our emotions, our bodies, our relationships, our financial situation, etc. Yet, this is also one of our greatest sources of misery. We suffer when our perfectly laid plans don’t work out, when we are surprised by our partner leaving us, when we lose our job, etc.
An intentional life doesn’t hold onto ideas like “I need to be a millionaire,” “I need to look a certain way,” or “I will own a big house and have three kids with my beautiful partner.” It is much more fundamental: vowing to live compassionately, to live connected to all other beings, to keep the awareness on the breath, the body, and other phenomena. Intentionality can infuse all of our actions, it can allow us to remain centered and directed despite ever-changing circumstances. Or, more elegantly stated: The light of intention always shines through the weeds of karma.
Questions to Contemplate
Do you live an intentional life? What are your intentions? Can you articulate them and share them with others? Do you have hidden intentions that may not actually benefit you or others? Ask yourself these things.
Keith is a Hridaya Yoga teacher currently teaching at Agama Yoga in Thailand. You can read more from him on his blog.