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The Power of Intention

The subject today is “The Power of Intention”. This was a subject suggested to me for discussion. I, of course, immediately thought of the old trope, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. That expression can be considered from a couple of stand points – Either that we wanted to accomplish something meritorious but failed to act or that we did that something and the result was a negative or harmful consequence. Neither seems to incorporate the positive aspects of intention. So, I was left scratching my head figuratively.


Several dictionaries had a similar definition of “intention”. Very simply – a course of action one proposes to follow. There are a lot of other words that attempt to define intention such as stimulus, invitation, motivation, arousal, determination, desire, aspiration or inclination – quite a potpourri. But one thing I noticed is that without some form of action intention has no power.


At this point I was feeling a little confused and I decided to see if Dogen had anything to say on the subject, most particularly in relation to our Zen practice. And right there in the “Shobogenzo” was fascicle 41 – “On Expressing One’s True Nature by Expressing One’s Intent” or the Japanese title “Sesshin Sesshō”. Now, the term sesshin can be translated either as ‘expressing one’s intent’ or as ‘expressing one’s mind’. The literal translation is “touching the heart-mind”. Touching the heart-mind right here today. Sesshō was a title given to a regent who was named to act on behalf of either a child Emperor before his coming of age or a reigning empress . Dogen uses the term Sesshō specifically to indicate actively expressing one’s spiritual intention to help all sentient beings reach the Other Shore. Dogen frequently invented words or gave words a different meaning – in the case of Sesshō he seems to be indicating an intent to help guide sentient beings – something a regent would do. And in this case translating an aspiration into action.


Or as Dogen puts it – “To express one’s intention is to express one’s True Nature” and he goes further by identifying one’s True Nature as one’s Buddha Nature. It is all of a piece with no separation. Dogen uses a koan to exemplify this Buddha Nature:


Once when Meditation Master Shinzan Sōmitsu was out on a walk with Great Master Tōzan Ryokai, the latter pointed to a nearby temple and said, “Within that temple, there is one who is expressing his True Nature by expressing his intention.”

Shinzan, his elder brother in the Sangha, asked, “And who is

that one?”


Tōzan replied, “With your asking this one question, my elder brother in the Sangha, that one has forthwith succeeded in completely

passing away into death.”


His elder brother Shinzan then asked, “Then who is it that is

expressing his intention and expressing his True Nature?”

Tōzan replied, “He has revived from within death.”


What Dogen is intimating is that expressing intent involves a complete letting go of our false ego, of dropping off of self, of body and mind – dying to self-centeredness and thus expressing our Buddha Nature. And this intent is about putting the awakening of all sentient beings above one’s personal awakening. Or the first of the four vows – creations are numberless. I vow to free them. (to be continued)


In gassho, Zochi


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