Updated: May 24
The Intention for Non-Harm and Non-Ill Will
The Buddha’s path to happiness and freedom from suffering begins with ethical conduct. Without the intention and effort to transform the unwholesome habit patterns of speech and behavior that reside in our hearts and minds, the practice can’t develop. An analogy for this is that you’re in a boat and want to get somewhere, but it’s tied to the dock by a rope. No matter how much you paddle and paddle, you will not get anywhere. Being tied to the dock is analogous to our speech and actions being governed by unwholesome habit patterns.
So, it makes perfect sense that an initial and important step in bringing our practice to our relationships is for us to be consciously aware of our speech and actions--particularly watching out for any intention to harm or to have ill will toward someone. Harming doesn’t simply mean physical harm, which is the most basic and foundational aspect of non-harming. It includes speech as well, which, as we know, has the potential to be very harmful. We make the intention to be aware when thoughts of harm enter our mind and make an effort not to act on them. The other part of the practice is to be aware of how these thoughts and actions make us feel if we carry them out. We pay close attention to how tight and closed our hearts are, and to how we feel cut off from others and life when we are in the grips of the intention to harm.
Ill will is different from harming. You can think of it as the intention behind the harming, or simply the wish that another have some sort of difficulty, challenge or suffering in their lives. So, it’s more of an inner, mental activity than the outward speech and action of harming. We bring the intention to be aware of these types of thoughts when they enter our mind, make an effort to not feed them, and then let them go. This is where we use the mindfulness aspect of our practice. We remember to pay attention in this way.
Refraining from ill will and harming is a basic way to bring our practice to relationships--including with ourselves. Our kindness toward others must start with ourselves. It need not stop there, though. We can develop the practice so that our speech and actions protect, support and uplift the people in our lives. Refraining from talking badly about another can instead become letting people know the good qualities we see in them. Refraining from wishing that someone doesn't get the job they are applying for can become offering them your favorite piece of clothing to wear to the interview, because you know they are in need of something to wear.
We can read the above and get a sense of how obvious this is and feel that we already do this. Is this really so? We need to be radically honest with ourselves and look to see if there are areas in relationships, including with ourselves, that we can bring a more wholehearted effort to. Because, without letting go of harming and ill will in our relationships and replacing them with their opposites, our relationships are bound to be a source of unhappiness in our lives. When we apply this aspect of the Buddha’s teachings to our relationships, our actions have the capacity to be a source of great joy. The bottom line is that we feel good when we are treating others well, and we feel terrible when we are treating them poorly. In the end, what we experience is in our control. We are the architects of our happiness or suffering.