Tomorrow we fly to India. Today it seems appropriate to think about intention.
One of the interesting aspects of Tibetan prayer practice is the way it is organized. The first step in the prayer is called “forming of intention,” the second step is the prayer itself and the third is the dedication of the merit of the prayer. The forming of the intention as “pre-prayer” is not unique to Tibetan Buddhism, for example in Islamic prayer there is a statement, “I vow to recite a certain number of prayers.” Even if it is not unique, it is still distinctive in the way that it has guided Tibetan practice—distinct not in conception but as a clear emphasis. Tsering has stressed this many times to me in our conversation—telling me, the forming of intention is very powerful.
Clarity of intention is part of Samadhi (meditation). There are many things aimed at in meditation, but the Buddha encourages his followers to develop the power of “single-pointed thought.” Often our thoughts are scattered, distracted and we end up chasing each new passing thought in a way that keep us from attending carefully to anything.
Attaining single-pointed thought, as I understand, requires the help of two other parts of meditation—“mindfulness” and “right effort.” It is not through sheer will that we can direct the mind to focus itself—if it were then single pointed thought would just be a matter of “straining hard” as if we could say over and over again, “I will not allow this distraction. I will not . . .” Our thoughts will wander—when they do we need to notice and be mindful and say, “I will let this pass and return to my meditation.” Right effort is also involved so that when we do notice a turning away, we also say, “I will cultivate good thoughts, especially the thought of x (whatever we are trying to focus on).”
Why do our minds wander? St. Teresa of Avila, has some interesting thoughts on this—but I will save that for another day. It suffices to note that they do in fact wander and that if we want to focus, it will require developing new habits and using mindfulness and effort to re-direct our straying thoughts.
Putting these same ideas into a Christian framework—one possible Christian analogue to the Buddhist practice of single pointed thought is purity of heart. Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Loving God with all of one’s heart and mind, requires a focus—seeing all things in God. This kind of seeing is an “integrative” practice, taking the stray thoughts and seeing them in the light of God’s purposes and plans. If there is a thought that distracts from this, then compunction and sorrow over it may help us to turn away from it and turn purely to God. Consider this passage from the rule of St. Benedict—
it is not in saying a great deal that we shall be heard (Matt 6:7), but in purity of heart and in tears of compunction. Our prayer, therefore, ought to be short and pure. (Chapter 20).
Kierkegaard writes a famous reflection entitled, “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.” The title can be suggestive of how Buddhist ideas of single-pointed thought might connect with the Christian idea of purity of heart. Kierkegaard’s reflection is on a passage from the book of James. James warns against being of a double mind (the Greek is actually dipsuchos—which we might call two lives or two souls). The opposite of a pure mind, then is a double mind. One mind directed to God and the other to “God knows what.” The Buddha teaches that one of the great obstacles to clarity, even THE obstacle, is our “ego.” This ego needs silencing if we are to attain single-pointed thought. Similarly in Christian prayer, coming before God requires a kind of silent, humble reverence.
And so, as I prepare to travel and to form my intention for the trip, I know that there will be 1,001 things that I see and many potential distractions—but as a person trying to learn from Buddhist practice I will try to see them all from the point of view of wisdom and compassion. As a person trying to follow Jesus, I will look for a purity of vision that will allow for the seeing of God’s work.
Chapter 20: On Reverence in Prayer (From the Rule of St. Benedict)
When we wish to suggest our wants to persons of high station, we do not presume to do so except with humility and reverence.
How much the more, then, are complete humility and pure devotion necessary in supplication of the Lord who is God of the universe!
And let us be assured that it is not in saying a great deal that we shall be heard (Matt 6:7), but in purity of heart and in tears of compunction.
Our prayer, therefore, ought to be short and pure, unless it happens to be prolonged by an inspiration of divine grace.
In community, however, let prayer be very short, and when the Superior gives the signal let all rise together.