Nangpa and Intention

WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO: Buddhists in Bhutan and the Himalayas normally call themselves Nangpa (ནང་པ་) or insiders. They trace the origin of their existence to the mind and find the meaning of life in the inner state of the mind. Buddhism is considered as an art of mental training, a science of the mind, and a programme for the development of the inner spirit. Because we all seek happiness and happiness is a state of the mind, the focus of the Buddhist pursuit of happiness is placed on the mind within. Āryadeva, a second century Buddhist master, illustrates this distinctive emphasis on the inner mind with an interesting comparison.

“Buddhists, Jains and Brahmins practice their religions with their mind, eyes and ears respectively. For this reason I advocate Buddhism.”

Consonant with Āryadeva’s claim nearly 2,000 years ago, the Buddhist teachings even today mainly deal with three things: understanding the ordinary state of the mind, following the ways and methods of transforming it into a better one, and attaining the fully transformed enlightened spirit of the Buddha.

At the core of the Buddhist focus on the inner mind is sampa (བསམ་པ་), which can be rendered as intention or thought. The significance of sampa can be fully appreciated only by understanding its central role in Buddhist ethics. While other religious and secular systems have moral theories where a God figure, scripture, ruler, authority, contract or convention defines what is right or wrong and good or bad, the Buddhists use the underlying state of the mind or intention as the primary factor, which determines the moral quality of an action.

If the intention is negative, maligned by greed, attachment, hatred, confusion, jealousy, arrogance, etc, the actions which follow are considered non-virtuous. On the contrary, if the intention is free from these negative emotions but endowed with positive qualities such as composure, clarity, compassion and wisdom, the actions which follow are considered virtuous and good. Thus, we have the popular verse:

བསམ་པ་བཟང་ན་ས་དང་ལམ་ཡང་བཟང། །བསམ་པ་ངན་ན་ས་དང་ལམ་ཡང་ངན།།

If the intention is good, all the paths and stages are good.

If the intention is bad, all the paths and stages are bad.

This verse is attributed to the Tibetan saint-scholar Tsongkhapa although his poem contains a slightly different version.

Intention is also identified by the Buddha as the root karma or action, which gives rise to our existential experiences. In Aguttaranikāya III/415, the Buddha is recorded to have said:

O monks! Karma, I declare, is intention. Having intended, one acts with the body, speech and mind.

Subsequent Buddhist masters such as Vasubandhu and Candrakīrti elaborated this theory of intention as the primary form of action or karma.

Thus, intention, as the main moral and existential force in determining the value of our actions and the consequent cycle of rebirth, has the central role in Buddhist ethics. To the Buddhists, it is of immense importance to have the right sampa or intention when one begins a new project or activity. As we begin the New Year, Buddhist masters would earnestly advise us that we evaluate the state of our mind and kick off the New Year with the best of intentions to make every moment of the year beneficial and rewarding to both oneself and others.

Dr Karma Phuntsho is the President of the Loden Foundation, director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’ Cultural Documentation and author The History of Bhutan.

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