Lecture Twelve: Action 12.5

12.5 Intentions and their basis

Intentions are note free-floating or spontaneously generated phenomena. Intentions are conditioned and depend on something else to arise. But instead of positing a unified and underpinning subject as the ground of intentionality, the Buddha distinguishes several conative attitudes that give rise to different forms of intentionality and thus of action and agency. In a standard account, recurrent across the discourses (e.g., AN 3.34), the Buddha distinguishes between two groups, each composed of three bases for action. On the one hand, we have greed (roughly synonymous for desire or lust for what is pleasant), aversion (the attitude of pushing back or get rid of what is unpleasant), and ignorance (the attempt at non-seeing or seeking distraction), while on the other hand, non-greed, non-aversion, and non-ignorance.

An intention is a drive aimed at bringing about a change, and this change results from the action that is performed. However, to bring about a change, it is necessary to acknowledge a certain state of affairs as present, judge it, and envisage an alternative state of affairs that the ensuing action aims to realize. The bases for action provide basic schemes for judging what is present and then envisioning what to do with it. This scheme integrates all the five aggregates we discussed above. Actions and intentions fit in the aggregate of co-actions (actions depend on conditions, they are co-acted). But their bases require consciousness and recognition (perception) of what is present, which in turn require a functioning sentient body living in a world of conscious experience. In this context, the hedonic feeling associated with experience is what determines the basic judgment about what is present.

Desire, aversion, and ignorance all anticipate a pleasant feeling as the result of the intentions they support. Desire directly aims at actualizing pleasant feelings. Aversion indirectly aims at the pleasant feeling that depends on the removal of an unpleasant feeling. Ignorance indirectly aims at the pleasant feeling that arises from the ability of ignoring what is neutral, and engage rather in what is desirable, or at least get rid of what is undesirable.

However, they also always engender a present unpleasant feeling at the time they elicit intention for something else. The very fact of desiring something pleasant entails that this pleasantness is currently felt as absent, and so desire entails the belief that something pleasant and desirable is lacking. Lacking a good is always experienced unpleasantly, and this experience is more intense in proportion to the intensity of the desire. The more one desires something, the more one feels the pain of not having what one desires. This unpleasantness is the primary fuel of desire itself. Similarly, the very fact of nurturing aversion for some currently present state one wants to get rid of entails that one must experience that content as unpleasant. Aversion magnifies the currently present unpleasant feelings and uses this as its own fuel for propelling actions aimed at removing those feelings via the removal of the contents associated with them. The stronger the aversion, the stronger the experience of currently present unpleasant feelings is amplified. Ignorance too has its own way of generating an unpleasant experience in the present, since it creates the need to filter out and ignoring all those contents that do not seem to be directly relevant for the pursuit of pleasure (desire) or the removal of unpleasantness (aversion). Since most contents in one’s experience will be felt as neutral, most contents will have to be filtered out. Ignorance creates a pressure for sustaining a sort of tunnel vision focused only on what can generate pleasure or avoid pain, engendering a constant effort of ignoring the great majority of other contents of experience. This pressure and effort are themselves experienced unpleasantly, and it is because of this unpleasantness that the work of ignorance receives urgency and support.

Desire, aversion, and ignorance (directly or indirectly) seek the actualization of future pleasant feelings, but they engender the experience of unpleasant feelings in the present. Worse than this, they are structurally unable to obtain what they aim to obtain. Not only actions based on desire, but also aversion and ignorance might simply fail to obtain the contents they wish to experience, but even when they formally succeed in obtaining that, their result is not a pleasant feeling. This is due to the very structure of intentionality.

Any content of intentionality is experienced as absent when the intention is elicited. Hence, the (direct or indirect) pleasantness associated with a certain content at the moment when the intention is elicited is nothing but an anticipation of pleasantness due to the basis of action (desire, aversion, ignorance). The pleasant feeling is currently absent, but it is promised by the basis as the (future) result of seeking a certain content. This means that the intended content itself is interpreted as being capable of bringing about pleasure because it is taken up by a certain basis of action and thus colored with its expectations. However, when the action is achieved and fulfilled, the expectation ceases, and hence the main motivation for interpreting that content as pleasant ceases as well. The content will then remain open to natural fluctuations in the feeling tones it might engender, but the specific pleasantness that was expected vanishes, since that pleasantness was never really inherent in the content, but only in the expectation that the basis of action induced towards that content. That envisaged pleasantness was always just that; something imagined, a fancy. The cessation of a pleasant feeling is always something unpleasant, hence the achievement of any action based on desire, aversion and ignorance entails an unpleasant feeling as its result (due to the cessation of the pleasantness associated with the expectation of fulfilling the action once that action is fulfilled). Not only does this threefold basis generate unpleasant feelings in the present, but even when the actions it supports are fully accomplished, the feeling associated with that result turns out to be unpleasant too.

Desire, aversion, and ignorance constitute the default basis for actions. However, they work by creating an unpleasant feeling in the present, and they result in another unpleasant feeling (even when they formally succeed in what they aim to obtain). One might wonder, then, how it is possible for living beings to remain locked in these bases for action without realizing their inherent unpleasantness. The solution is quite simple, and it is due to the perspective one takes, or rather to the transparency of the whole process.

If one does not realize what the structure of action is, it is hard to see that desire, aversion, and ignorance naturally create an unpleasant feeling in the present and use it as fuel for propelling action. Without realizing the presence of this unpleasant feeling, the whole of experience remains focused on the expectation of the intended pleasant content. However, when the achievement of the intended action produces its inevitable unpleasant feeling, this unpleasant feeling is experienced as the presence of more fuel to push action further, repeat it, and strengthen it. In other words, the threefold basis creates a feedback loop based on unpleasantness. On the one hand, it sustains the expectation of getting a pleasant feeling, while on the other hand it actually generates unpleasant feelings that fuel the whole process. As the unpleasantness of desire, aversion, and ignorance remains transparent to one engaged with them (mostly due to the tunnel vision created by these attitudes), the unpleasantness of their results is also misinterpreted as simply the presence of more fuel for reinforcing the same attitudes further. One does not experience the achievement of what one desired as directly unpleasant, but rather feels the unpleasantness of having achieved one’s desire as a motive for desiring even more, or something else.

Realizing that the mechanism of desire, aversion, and ignorance is fueled by unpleasant feelings shows how non-desire, non-aversion, and non-ignorance can provide an escape.[1] The principle at the core of this insight is again quite simple. Feelings are an interpretation of certain contents of experience. Feelings are not inherently attached to contents as intrinsic qualities. They arise out of the way contents are experienced and understood. Experience and its contents are dynamic, they unfold and change. Feelings often arise as an interpretation of how these changes in experience affect one’s situation. The cessation of a painful feeling is usually experienced pleasantly, even if the content that is currently present might otherwise be neutral. The cessation of a pleasant feelings is usually experienced as painful, even if it might otherwise be experienced as pleasant or neutral. Any movement from neutral to more pleasant is itself pleasant, while any movement from neutral towards slightly painful is itself painful. This entails that any reduction of unpleasant feelings will be experienced as a relief and this relief will be interpreted (felt) as pleasant. This insight opens a new perspective for seeking happiness, since it envisages not only specific positive contents as potential sources for pleasant feelings, but also encompasses the absence of unpleasant feelings as a potential reservoir for generating pleasure born from relief.

As an alternative to the threefold basis of desire, aversion, and ignorance, the Buddha thus introduces another threefold basis for action, which is constituted by non-desire, non-aversion, and non-ignorance. This is still a basis for action in the sense that it provides the grounds for intentions to arise and be carried over. However, it functions in a way that leads to a progressive reduction of the currently default tendencies of desire, aversion, and ignorance. The key point here is to fully understand how a seemingly negative state like non-desire can produce anything positive like pleasantness.

As mentioned, the ordinary threefold basis both provides a criterion to determine the reasons why certain contents should be intentionally pursued or not, and it anticipates the currently absent feeling that should be actualized as result of action. The alternative threefold basis fulfills both these functions, but in a different way. The criteria for deciding which contents to pursue or not remains based on feelings of pleasures or neutrality as preferable to feelings of pain. However, this pleasure is interpreted as resulting from a relief from currently present unpleasant feelings. The anticipation concerns the fact that the future absence of currently present unpleasant feelings will be experienced as pleasant. Instead of anticipating something that is currently absent (a future pleasant feeling), the alternative threefold basis anticipates the absence of something that is currently present (a currently enduring unpleasant feeling) and interprets that absence as pleasant because of the relief it engenders. Moreover, the present unpleasant feeling is discerned within the standard threefold basis of desire, aversion, and ignorance, hence the anticipation of the absence of the current unpleasant feelings is perceived as the cessation of this threefold basis itself. Relief is entailed in the very perspective of not having to desire anything (in contrast with the habitual condition of being constantly pushed by craving for this or that), or the perspective of not having to get rid or counter anything (against the habitual irritability for anything that appears unpleasant), or the perspective of not having to filter out what is neutral in order to focus and hunt potential sources of pleasure (against the habitual deliberate effort of ignoring anything that is not directly perceived as pleasant or unpleasant).

This alternative threefold basis (non-desire, non-aversion, non-ignorance) thus orients actions towards the actualization of relief from the workings of the standard threefold basis (desire, aversion, ignorance). In this way, the alternative threefold basis takes a step back from a direct engagement with particular contents (which are the main direct target of the standard threefold basis) and instead focuses on the way intentionality works, namely, it directly engages the habitual intentional patterns that shape one’s habitual reactivity towards experience in general. The goal of action is no longer to actualize this or that content, but rather to actualize a lessening (at least) of the force of desire, aversion, and ignorance.[2]

The alternative threefold basis advocated by the Buddha entails a radical change of perspective and priorities. The working itself of intentionality comes to the fore and it is no longer assumed to be running automatically in the background of one’s experience. Since desire, aversion, and ignorance become the direct target of this new form of intentionality, the main thrust of this approach relies on finding out ways of disempowering the habits and attitudes based on desire, aversion, and ignorance. These habits are ultimately the basis of intentional actions, but in their simplest form they can be conceived as ways of channeling and shaping attention, which in turn result in different perceptions. Attention can be understood as direct manifestation of the work of consciousness, which brings a certain content to the fore of one’s experience. Attention (as consciousness) is conditioned by the structure of intentionality. When desire, aversion, and ignorance shape intentionality, contents become object of attention because of those characteristics that are attributed to them and that are interpreted as able to satisfy the attitudes of desire, aversion, and ignorance. Desire directs attention towards the pleasant characteristics of a certain object, aversion towards the unpleasant characteristics, ignorance turns away attention from the neutral characteristics. Hence, attention shapes perception.

A certain object is seen to be beautiful because it is an object of desire. It might seem that one desires something because that object is inherently beautiful. However, beauty is valuable only insofar as it is accompanied by pleasant feelings, since desire seeks pleasant feelings and understands beauty to be an occasion upon which experiences them or even a source of them. Beauty is desirable only because of the pleasantness that it is imputed to it. This imputation, however, could not take place outside of a basis of desire, since if one does not seek pleasure, then beauty is not necessarily a relevant characteristic to pay attention to. The same applies to aversion and ignorance.

The upshot is that, in its most fundamental expression, intentionality results in movements of attention and these movements shape how one perceives the contents of experience. Due to the standard threefold basis, perception is thus entirely shaped by the assumptions engrained in desire, aversion, and ignorance. One literally perceives what one’s desire, aversion, and ignorance want them to perceive. The alternative threefold basis recommended by the Buddha seeks new ways of using attention that can disempower the standard threefold basis, and which will lead to a different way of perceiving what would be otherwise considered to be the same contents of experience. In practice, acting on the basis of non-desire, non-aversion, and non-ignorance means using attention in such a way as to promote perceptions that will lessen currently established patterns of desire, aversion, and ignorance. Clearly, this is not reducible to simply breaking certain habitual patterns (even if refraining and restraint might be part of this strategy), but actively encourage other alternative patterns that result in a lessening of unpleasant feelings generated by the standard threefold basis.

The discourses present multiple illustrations of how this process unfolds. On some occasions, the Buddha stresses the role of cultivating specific perceptions aimed at countering the ordinary threefold basis. For instance, deliberately seeing the ‘repulsive in the non-repulsive’ is a way of countering desire, while deliberately seeing the ‘non-repulsive in the repulsive’ is a way of countering aversion (e.g., AN 7.49). This working with perceptions is coupled with the cultivation of ‘boundless thoughts,’ usually encompassed by the standard fourfold practice of the ‘divine dwellings.’ Among the four divine dwellings, two (friendliness, mettā, and compassion, karuṇā) are directly aimed at countering aversion, although they all work more or less indirectly against the three ordinary bases. The reason for focusing this practice on the countering of aversion first relates to the appreciation of how desire for enjoyment arises as a strategy for coping with vicious circle created by unpleasantness and the further unpleasantness that arises out of aversion to unpleasantness (SN 36.6). For present purposes it is not necessary to get into the practical details of how these practices are carried out.[3] We shall consider some of the most salient points in the next Lecture.

We began this exploration of the Buddha’s teaching on ‘non-self’ by drawing attention to its practical nature. The ‘self’ is something that is done, and is enacted for the sake of mastering uncertainty (anicca), which is experienced as painful. But this attempt is ultimately doomed to fail, since what is uncertain cannot be fully mastered. Now we can see that any attempt at mastering uncertainty is based on forms of desire, aversion, and ignorance. This means that the self emerges as a necessary byproduct of these intentional structures. But realizing the problems inherent in this approach, it is also possible to practice for the sake of relinquishing it, by abandoning desire, aversion, and ignorance for their opposite, namely, non-desire, non-aversion, and non-ignorance. This alternative threefold basis for action opens up the possibility of finding relief in the cessation of that particular form of painfulness and inflammation created by the structure of desire, aversion, and ignorance. As a result, the enaction of the self will also cease or its meaning be radically transformed. Instead of being a non-lucid dream or nightmare in which one is constantly struggling against the uncertainty of their own condition, it is possible to wake up and regard selfhood as a mask, as the character of a tragedy, but knowing that the mask is just that and that freedom lies in the ability of putting it down.


  1. The focus of the present discussion is on the soteriological dimensions of the early Buddhist theory of action. For a discussion of how this theory can be interpreted from the point of view of today’s Western philosophy category (especially in relation to virtue ethics vs. deontic ethics), see Charles Fink, ‘The Cultivation of Virtue in Buddhist Ethics’ (2013).
  2. For further discussion of how this account of intentionality entails a reassessment of ordinary conceptions of happiness and how they relate to the problem of defining a good life, see Charles Fink, ‘Better to Be a Renunciant: Buddhism, Happiness, and the Good Life,’ Journal of Philosophy of Life 3, no. 2 (2013): 127-144.
  3. About friendliness, see Andrea Sangiacomo, An Introduction to Friendliness (mettā). Emotional Intelligence and Freedom in the Pāli Discourses of the Buddha (2022); about the malleability of perception, see Rob Burbea, Seeing that Frees: Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising (2014), chapter 19.

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

The Tragedy of the Self by Andrea Sangiacomo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.